Sunday, September 25, 2011

What do Conservative and Liberal Mean in the U.S. Today? (or, Is the U.S. Structured like an Aristocratic System?)

What do conservative and liberal mean in the U.S. today? It depends on whether you are talking about capital or small “C” and “L”. Small letters refer to ideas, capitals refer to ideologies. Still unclear? Let’s go back to the French Revolution, which wasn’t just a trivial civil war 220 years ago. It is the tipping point for Western society, where we first got a taste of democracy. We typically tell ourselves that Athens was the origination of democracy in the West, and one can make a reasonable case for that, although modern democracy took a more extensive form. The change that occurred was profound on many levels, and represented the culmination of several revolutions: religious, scientific, industrial, and clearly political. The “liberals” of the time wanted something astounding and dramatic—political, religious and economic control away from the aristocracy and into the hands of the people. They got this for a little while, until the Empires conquered Napoleon, and Europe lived under the rule of aristocracy for another century.

Classically, “conservative” and “liberal” (small letters) meant those who wanted to “conserve” the traditions of the Church and the aristocracy, versus the liberals who wanted popular control of these institutions. Over time, these meanings have changed, since what we consider “traditions” have themselves changed. Today, most of who we call Liberals and Conservatives are both classical liberals, since both groups derive fundamental political, economic and religious assumptions about The Good Society from French Revolution ideals (think about the term “liberal arts education”). These early debates about how a country filled with distinct individuals should “do” this new society shaped our views about private property, rule of law, and the social contract. Both Conservatives and Liberals (capital C and L) typically agree on these fundamentals.

So what does conservative mean today, and what does liberal mean? In terms of parties, our culture associates Republicans with conservatism, and Democrats with liberalism, however, to a large degree the terms have lost much of their original meaning due to a divergence in political and economic logic in our society. Understanding the complexity of our system requires that we create a 4-quadrant graph, with the Y-direction being politics, and the X-direction being economics (see Graph 1, which I have modified from Political Compass, clarifying the labels, and putting myself on the graph). The dichotomy for both politics and economics is liberty vs. social oversight. For example, we associate a high level of political oversight with conservatism, in the sense that the government (i.e., society, since our government is, to some degree, "by the people") has greater control over our social lives—sexuality, reproductive rights, drug laws, morality, etc. This dichotomy is intuitive for our culture.

However, it is economics where our definitions become reversed. Specifically, economic conservatism refers again to greater social oversight—consider the government involvement needed for any kind of socialist state, with large-scale redistribution of wealth, and public control over the means of production. Intuitively, in our culture, we would call this “liberalism”, and it is “classic” liberalism, since it takes control of the means of production out of the hands of a powerful few and into the hands of the society as a whole. However, on this graph, the more social oversight required is technically “conservative.” In this framework, the economic “liberal” would represent most capitalists, granting liberty to individuals to do whatever they want from a production and consumption perspective—i.e., keeping business profits, while we as consumers can buy whatever we want. Culturally, we associate capitalism with Conservatism and socialism with Liberalism, and while technically this is reversed from our graph, it is part of the unique construction of U.S. social life.

So, to review, U.S. Conservatives today, Republicans, according to our graph, are politically conservative, but economically liberal. But here’s the surprise—as you can see from the graph, Democrats, the U.S. Liberals, are mostly in the same quadrant of the graph, just closer to the center. From a philosophical perspective, it is only minority parties that are in other quadrants. Socialists face this same divergence between economic and political ideas, but in the reverse direction—they tend to prefer conservative economics, but liberal politics. Two groups have a “purity” of conservatism vs. liberalism: Communists and Libertarians, both in opposite directions. Historically, Communists (more specifically, Stalinists) desired conservative economics, wanting government oversight over the economy, and political conservatism, wanting tight control over citizen social life (contemporary Communists typically do not share this purity of vision, tending towards the same quadrant as the Socialists). Libertarians desire the opposite—economic and personal liberty, envisioning a Hobbes-style society where each person is responsible completely for herself, and government’s job is primarily to protect us from foreign invaders.

What does this mean? The two surprises to most U.S. readers is that conservatism and liberalism are not U.S. Conservatism and Liberalism, and that in U.S. politics, both party Conservatives and Liberals are roughly after the same goals when it comes to the larger philosophy of politics and economics. Specifically, Democrats are by no means Socialists, although clearly they trend closer than Republicans. U.S. politics itself has become mired in something that looks very much like the ancient monarchy, which had centralized political control, fundamentally ruled by plutocracy—ruled by the wealthy. Further, economically speaking, the same pattern exists—the economy is not in the hands of the masses, but has been concentrated in the hands of the same cluster that is in charge of the political structure. This generates the third surprise—that the upper right quadrant is the quadrant of the middle ages monarchy, with conservative politics, since social behavior was tightly controlled, but at the same time, an economic system that had no oversight of the masses. Technically, peasants could work their way out of debt-bondage to the noble, on whose land they worked, but practically speaking, this almost never happened because the system was rigged against him. All of the money the peasant earned went to the wealthy land-owner, and the blood-line of aristocracy controlled the government. Neither land, business, wealth, nor politics had popular-level oversight, but was in the hands of whomever could consolidate it and keep it, and government policy affirmed that right, facilitating the process of the wealthy becoming wealthier, and the wealthy becoming more politically powerful. The former has analogies to the neoliberalism found in many Republicans today, and the latter looks like the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations the ability donate as much as they like to political campaigns.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

City Council Forums--Indianapolis, via Indianapolis League of Women Voters

The Indianapolis League of Women's Voters facilitated two city-council candidate forums. I attended and took notes on both--below is a report. I tried to limit my personal commentary, although I cannot guarantee accuracy of these notes.

City-Council Forum, 9/8/11-Marquette Manor:

Jose Evans, D; Susan Blair, R; Angela Mansfield, D; Sam Goldstein, L; Anthony Simons, R; Len Farber, D; Ryan Vaugn, R; Kostas Poulakidas, D

Goldstein—Rep & Dem spend money on sports that can’t pay for crime, sidewalks, public health. The only party that reps small govt
Simons: “want to make sure everybody’s views are heard”
Farber: “not your regular candidate”; biomed researcher, PhD in pharm; “scientists always look at the whole picture” “I believe in neighborhoods”
Vaughn: crime, infrastructure, alleviate tax burden
Poulakidas: Family heritage, personal contact with audience member

Working with neighborhood issues vs. abandoned houses

  1. Blair-ID houses that are abandoned; homeowners/neighbors should know and “rectify it”
  2. Mansfield-ppl aren’t taking care of property—call MAC/Health Hosp
  3. Goldstein, Simons—partner with NA to resolve problem
  4. Farber—open communication with neighborhoods and between councilors; deal with all stakeholders—bank, NA, neighbors
  5. Poulakidas “interesting question…starbucks everywhere…level abandoned houses to make a pocket park…. Play with my kids in these local parks…work with at large candidates”—introduced connection with at-large-candidates in audience
  6. Evans-personally collecting data and giving that to code enforcement

Audience Q—does council have gun control regulation and how can it be addressed

  1. Mansfield—ridiculous new law that allows guns in public meetings and public parks; we should advocate gen assemb for “home rule”
  2. Goldstein—illegal guns vs. legal guns; ppl who carry illegal guns won’t care about the laws anyway;
  3. Farber-old westerns all had guns, civilization came with the sheriff; guns are the responsibility of police
  4. Vaughn—CC can’t control guns, but can regulate “discharge” of guns
  5. Poul—CCC are bridge between govt and “us”—we can work with gov office; supports “home rule” (Mansfield)
  6. Blair—would support gun amnesty; “supports 2nd amendment”

Transportation—how do you envision public transportation in Indianapolis

  1. Goldstein—some cities spend billions and they run empty. We really need improved highways
  2. Simons—cost-benefit analysis. Supports looking at everything on the table.
  3. Farber—“problems do not stop at political boundaries”. “benefits of a booming economy accrue to all” “we have to think regionally and work with surrounding counties because it will benefit all of us.” Funding—public/private partnerships. Bring this to the public for approval
  4. Vaughn—it’s going to referendum, so what I believe doesn’t matter. It’s a public decision. Funded by sales tax
  5. Poul—70% of indygo riders are PT dependent—without the busses they can’t get to work. Cut routes mean workers can be late and get fired, hurting those communities even more.
  6. Evans—Govt Magazine—of the top 25 cities, we are 25th for transportation. What is the ridership, how will we pay for it?
  7. Blair—the most cost effective is light rail and bus; decided through referendum

Many cultural organizations are struggling. Your position on funding libraries, arts, etc, and would you support referendum.

  1. Farber-“a city without the arts are barely a city”; public libraries provide internet to those who can’t afford them.
  2. Vaughn—strongly favors referendum for large capital projects.
  3. Poul—concerned as economic development attorney when elected official say we can either raise taxes or cut services. There is a 3rd option, which is to invest so that revenue can be raised without taxes. Increasing quality of neighborhoods and value goes up, so revenue goes up without “raising taxes”
  4. Blair—referendum is GA, not council. Too much waste in govt, and we look to govt to solve too many of our problem. We pay enough taxes. We need to look for efficiencies.
  5. Mansfield—we have to first determine our priorities. I would not fund sports so much, redirect those to libraries, therefore don’t need referendums. That can be confusing and time-consuming, like CA, which has propositions for everything.
  6. Goldstein—arts should fund themselves

Personal/political philosophy of function of local government.

  1. Farber—people can exist in vacuums and it’s not a very good life. People come to cities because of the amenities we associate with cities—arts, small business, etc. it is the function of government to pool resources for the public good that the private sector cannot or will not do.
  2. Vaughn—take the least amount of tax dollars to provide the core of public needs. Most money should be on crime.
  3. Poul—to make the lives of everyday people a little simpler and better. I saved businesses and taxpayers $8.5M a year by eliminating useless fees under Bayh.
  4. Evans—ramble about his family—purpose of local govt is so families can live their dream
  5. Blair-use tax $ efficiently. Govt is too large. Govt exists b/c services that private sector cannot/will not do.
  6. Mansfield—provide adequate services and infrastructure to create safety and livability. Not a fan of privatization, mostly which lines ppls pockets, like the parking meter deal. City sold off utilities—that $$ is now going out of state, whereas it should be staying here.
  7. Goldstein—perhaps library; public safety; publicly funding sports isn’t a good idea
  8. Simons—strong fiscal conservative; will look at every single budget with fine-tooth comb and make sure we can afford it. Quoted Reagan—govt is not the solution, it’s the problem. We shouldn’t waste money

What would you do to make Indianapolis a more environmentally sustainable city.

  1. Vaughn—Ballard is first to create a sustainability office. Planted 50K trees over last 4 years. Many infrastructure projects are designed to improve sewage system. EPA cost Indpls lots of $$ by deeming it environmentally unsafe.
  2. Poul-promote ability to enjoy the environment, like pocket parks; think creatively as they pertain to all issues.
  3. Blair—trees provide oxygen and clean air. We have been planting tree. Local oil company was diluting oil with acid and putting into sewers—my organization helped stop that.
  4. Mansfield—curbside recycling. Build sidewalks to encourage ppl to walk to parks, businesses.
  5. Goldstein-Sewers keep backing up into ppls homes when it rains b/c of combined system. State and Fed govt need to be involved in helping fix this. That’s the biggest nonsustainability issues
  6. Simons—bike lanes; incentives for businesses (rebates); sidewalks
  7. Farber—pocket parks, trees, curbside recycling; indoor environment—smoking ban in all public places

Closing remarks

  1. Poul-govt is important. IBJ will be publishing article I wrote on these issues. “work hard and do good things”. Toxicity in DC is spilling to local level. We need to work together. CCC is “public service”, working with people, doing the tasks in front of us.
  2. Evans: Has led an opposition to get rid of a bad situation. With democratic council and mayor will have greater leverage to take care of my district.
  3. Blair: I’ve won many awards for public service, and sit on many boards. I understand housing code.
  4. Mansfield: My top 3 things—comprehensive smoke-free ordinance; sidewalks; curbside recycling
  5. Goldstein: bring a firm philosophy of small, less intrusive, more tolerant government. Will allow citizens to be responsible for our own well-being and not govt dependent. I am not beholden to special interest groups—I am funding my own campaign as a small business owner.
  6. Simons: A lot of energy and passion. Will hold regular town-hall forums. Keep district safe and strong. Sidewalks on Michigan
  7. Farber: Come with a different background and a different level of analysis. Come from grass-roots. Dem party didn’t ask me to run, but neighbors did. Parking meter shenanigans…
  8. Vaughn: Govern for the next generation of families. Recognizes Les Duvall in audience who is a former Senator.

At large candidate forum, 9/24/11, library, Indy League of Women Voters

Adamson-D, Barth-D, Hickman-D, Levin-L, Kalscheur -R , Malone-R, Rivera-R, Robinson-D

Barth-pub trans is critical; indyconnect needs supported; multi-modal pub trans approach; expand indigo, biking/walking, light rail; user fees, fed support, hopefully Gen Assemb
*Hickman-pub trans allows low income people to get to jobs, so needs greater funding
Kalscheur-$2B funding to expand funding
Levin-funding for pub trans has to be funded privately, not public for people who won’t use it. Can tax Marijuana to get transportation funding
*Malone-Indygo is inconvenient; spent first 23 years reliant on Indygo for transportation b/c no car in household. Hasn’t yet resolved this issue—needs to be expanded, but where is the support?
Rivera-Indy income is $500M, so where to come up with $2B? Technology is moving so fast, that trains may not be the best option
Robinson—Indyconnect; if Noblesville will benefit, they should help support it.
*Adamson—embarassment that 13th largest city is 100th; no transport means ppl can’t spend, therefore inhibits economic growth; “hub and spokes” model currently isn’t great—should connect local areas better

Abandoned Housing
Hickman-No house should be razed without neighborhood support. Can we rehab the house and put people in there. Sexual assault in field that was a razed apartment.
Kalscheur-10K houses deemed inhospitable; we have received funding to raze 2k of those; need to determine which ones we can rehab vs raze;
Levin—can we get the homeless into the abandoned houses; make the razed house fields into gardens; fields cost city money to cut the grass
Malone—Neighborhood stabilization fund for demolition of Keystone Towers; houses that are abandoned are uninhabitable;

Rivera—urban garden plots are in high demand, not abandoned houses.
Robinson—must first work with neighbors to see what they want done; jobs can be constructed by rehabbing; former prisoners can take those jobs
*Adamson—the 2K houses that have been put on the raze list are NOT the worst—it was a political decision and neighbors were not consulted
Barth-neighborhoods have not had enough attention; rebalance council priorities to focus on supporting neighborhoods; house govt employees near the communities they serve

Police leadership
Kalscheur-make sure they have the tools to get the job done
Levin-indy police is one of best in nation, but have bad press. Root of police problem is alcohol. Putting breathalyzer in every single police car—treat them like they treat us.
Malone-build on what we currently have in place; classes for leadership and training
Rivera-same as malone
*Robinson- has endorsement of FOP; rid position of public safety director and have chief of police; include officers in decision-making process to increase morale
Adamson-housing for rookie officers to get them involved in their communities, putting them into abandoned houses; force is 300 officers short of what it needs to be for a city of this size
Barth-is endorsed by FOP; create program to encourage officers to buy abandoned homes in the communities where they work
Hickman-lowest morale in this police force for a long time; police should be run by the person in charge of it—mayor

Where to invest energy money from Citizens Gas sale
Levin—save since things could get worse; invest what we can, but give preference to saving
Malone-gas sale was a good idea; mayor’s office has very little to do with education, so that’s not an option
Rivera—infrastructure investment is what we said we would do b/c it’s what citizens wanted; Indy has a $1.5B deficit to bring infrastructure up to “fair”; current matching funds available will make that investment money worth more
Robinson—invest in human capital, like education
*Adamson—street investment has shelf-life of 10 years; early childhood education has much longer investment life
Barth—this is a 1-time transfer of money; invest in both infrastructure and human capital—Kennedy’s vision—early childhood education, literacy, crime prevention
Hickman—citizens weren’t asked what this money was to be for, but were told. Part of money should be saved so we can get interest; should also invest in the future in terms of early childhood education
Kelscheur—early education helps kids to read earlier, but by 4th grade, ISTEP scores flatten for early vs regular educated children.

*Malone-getting federal funds from EPA to address it; finding previous owners and holding them responsible is next to impossible; without fed funding, council is limited; redevelopment is ideal but reclamation costs are prohibitive
Rivera-city incentivization to private contractors who want to redevelop it
Adamson—engage with community to find grant possibilities for reclamation
Barth—Fed gov is the primary reclaimer of brownfields; council needs to investigate that for Indy advocacy; nonprofits are already taking action and leveraging funds---we can facilitate those groups
Hickman—expensive, but there is a way to do it, we’re not doing it—why not; pocket parks
Kalscheur—expensive, but the money is there; I have overseen in Perry Township getting brownfield reclamation funds from Feds
*Levin—contamination comes from oil companies—get them to clean up their mess. 1000s of underground tanks contaminating the soil

Public vs Private partnerships—parking meters
Rivera—voted for parking meter deal; brought in top experts in the world; high quality meters and technicians; generate revenue for city infrastructure;
Robinson-supports private/public partnerships; current 50-yr deal is too long; we had the means to do it, but we sold it for 50 years
*Adamson—horrible deal; testified before the council, obtained 81 small business signature petition to oppose it; money is going out of state--$1.6B total, $1.2B is going to Texas—we are getting 0.4B instead of $1.6
Barth—looking through the lens of public policy analysis, rather than doing what we are able and should be doing ourselves, we outsourced it to Texas for 50-years
Hickman—make citizen lives simpler and more comfortable with tax dollars; if the street gets closed for repair, we still have to pay the company for the loss of revenue!!! The TX company proposed the 100 year deal. With the new parking meter deal all we got was higher prices and loss of revenue
Kalscheur—how many administrations did we go through that did nothing; we finally got something done; we can build a parking garage in broad ripple now
*Levin—one of the worst deals the city has ever signed; we can’t audit the TX books—we will give them all the money and give us back whatever they “claim” we get; that is unconscionable
Malone—10 year renewable option to get out of 50-year deal; 100year deal was never proposed; unaudited books is false

Smoking Ban—do you support comprehensive smoke-free ban?
Robinson, Adamson, Barth, Hickman—Yes
*Hickman—2nd hand smoke is #3 killer in the US. We are the largest city with no smoking ban; some companies won’t come here b/c of the lack of a ban
Kalscheur—Never. shouldn’t go into private businesses and tell them what to do
Levin—Never. Don’t want his friends fired b/c that bar shouldn’t have smoking; ppl can choose not to go into bars
*Malone—YES; huge tobacco cities like Louisville and Lexington have bans
Rivera—likes the current policy; doesn’t need govt to protect me from myself

Adamson—Kennedy has an ambitious plan—Ballard does not; #1 impediment to graduation is poverty; creating a more economically stable climate is the best thing we can do
Barth—it’s not good enough to say “it’s not our job so it goes to the state”—mayor can take a strong stand and exert leadership;
*Hickman—Mayor should be engaged; make sure charter schools are transparent; I taught multiple-handicapped preschool kids; we have lost an entire generation with No Child Left Behind—how many kids dropped out b/c they knew they couldn’t pass the test
Kalscheur—home-school; my kids are home-schooled; my wife knows she can teach her kids better than public schools; every parent should be able to make that choice—wherever they want to send their kids; on-line
Levin—charter schools;
*Malone—Hasn’t seen any plan from Kennedy; city isn’t who deals with education; could look at consolidating all schools in the county—we have 10 public school systems in Marion County and so only half of our tax base is IPS
Rivera—Mayors plan with charters and competition is good; has made traditional schools better by encouraging magnet schools; single-gender education
Robinson—as school board member and administrator; Ballard has ignored education for 3.5 years; kennedy wants to fund early childhood education; Mayor and council is the city executive branch should be strong advocates for education

Changing name of Georgia St. b/c of the Superbowl so visitors won’t be confused
Barth, Hickman, Malone, Robinson—ridiculous
Kalscheur—mountain out of molehill
Levin—has nothing to do with Georgia b/c of the song Georgia on our Minds
*Rivera—who cares, I’m open minded-what is the business evidence to support change?
Adamson—does not support; concerned that this change is to “market” this quadrant—a name change is no way to market anything

Economic Development—growing local business vs. bringing in larger businesses?
*Hickman—if you don’t get kids through schools, companies won’t move here, neither will small businesses survive. You therefore can’t get tax revenue to do any of the above things
Kalscheur—95% of businesses have less than 20 employees. The best thing you can do is have a stable, flat tax base and little red tape.
*Levin—we should legalize MJ—growing and possession; this would create cash flow
Malone—develop comprehensive tax increment finance program; support minority and women-owned businesses; need comprehensive economic development plan for the city
Rivera—code enforcement has streamlined the process of getting permits; keep tax rates low and predictable; be open to ideas and out of the box plans
Adamson—wouldn’t focus on Fortune 500, but 500 of his neighbors; what prohibits development of small businesses? Establish incubator system to develop small businesses; develop chamber of commerce processes that are expensive and prohibitive to businesses—I also have other ideas
Barth—Small businesses create 85% of jobs. Hire economic job specialist that goes into communities to facilitate jobs. As neighborhood association, they canvassed neighborhood businesses and asked—what can we do to help you—unanimously they said “get rid of parking meters”—which they did.

Closing Remarks
Kalscheur—ideas won’t come from top down, but come from the community
Levin—“are you better now than you were 10 years ago. Are the red and blue making you black and blue? If not go for the gold, vote Libertarian”
Rivera—contact me to tell me what you want—gives e-mail and phone; property taxes are now lower by 1/3, budget is balanced, murder is down
Robinson—“ Councilor—what city are you talking about?” looking at Rivera; “Those are debatable statements.” also gave contact information; need Kennedy as mayor; failed to support his critique of Rivera
Adamson—plugged all of the Democrats on the ticket and mayor
Barth—plugged all D’s and Kennedy—vote for us; neighborhoods should be the council’s priority
Hickman—is running in place of J Sanders who couldn’t run again; plugged the entire D team and Kennedy; budget isn’t really balanced, b/c it was shored up by a large sale fund derived from other administrations

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Poverty and Unemployment in Indiana

The Governor continues to defend his economic record in Indiana. In an interview today (9-18) from CBS online, Daniels’ primary claim is the title of the article: “Americans Ought to be Scared.” His belief is that the American Dream will be destroyed if we don’t “change things,” that no longer will we be able to “start with nothing and rise to the top.” I take issue with Daniels on two counts—that his methods will lead us back to the American Dream, and his faulty belief in the likelihood of the American Dream, which hasn’t ever been how the majority of U.S. residents experienced life.

First, Daniels does not seem to be performing at a rate comparable to our neighbors. My analysis of BLS unemployment rates since 2009 indicate that our employment rates have declined at a slightly faster rate than the Midwestern average, generally a good sign (this is the "rate of decline"). Despite this, the unemployment rate itself remains above the national and Midwestern averages (see Table 1), topped only by Kentucky and Michigan.

Unfortunately, broader poverty and inequality measures show a far worse pattern. The first, childhood poverty, is nothing less than shocking—26.3% of Hoosiers under 17 are in poverty. The Midwest average is 20% and the national average is 22%. Indiana rates, like those around the country, have increased, but our rates have increased more than 2x Midwestern rates since Daniels took office in 2005 (see Table 2). In an similar trend, Hoosier elderly poverty rates have increased since Daniels’ tenure, even though both national and Midwestern averages have decreased (see Table 3)! One might ask how rates of unemployment are declining, while poverty rates are increasing? The answer is the same reason why unemployment in the South has trended low, but poverty trends very high—corporate incentivization policies have not been attracting high-paying professional jobs. Rather, the jobs Daniels is attracting are low-paying jobs that cannot sustain a family. The data indicates that Daniels’ privatization agenda continues to fail Hoosiers.

To my second claim, a critique of the “American Dream,” it is a consistent finding in the social sciences that it is incredibly difficult to move out of the socio-economic condition into which you are born. Each class—poor, working, middle, upper—are far more likely to remain where they are than move up or down. The middle class has the most “social mobility.” Specifically, the middle class has the best chance of moving either up or down. On the other hand, around 2/3 of those born into poverty will remain in poverty, and 2/3 of those born into wealth will remain wealthy. Only about 7% of children born into poverty make it to “the top” (specifically, 7% of white males—females and racial minorities are far less likely to move up). Clearly, that means upward mobility can happen—just look at Brittney Spears. However, it also indicates those are extreme and isolated circumstances—not simply a matter of “any” child deciding to work hard and make it. Structural forces create significant barriers that seem to prevent mobility, regardless of internal motivation and aptitude.

Daniels is right about one thing—we should be scared. Not of the capacity of Hoosier families to pull out of troubled times, but of Daniels’ neoliberal agenda of privatizing public goods and attracting low-paying jobs…

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Black/White Inequality in the U.S. Today

Most (White) citizens believe we solved White/Black inequality in the 60s, by passing such sweeping regulations as the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968). All of these were a great first step, and remedied egregious acts of discrimination across the country. The problem, is that by the time these laws were passed, the course of Black citizens in the U.S. was largely set, and the profound inequalities that were found in society by that point could not be remedied by simply making discrimination illegal—not to mention that many of these laws didn’t abruptly end such practices, but were resisted for decades by state governments and local communities. The long-term effects of the original discrimination, and the continued violation of federal anti-discrimination law, are still seen today, measurable by differences between Black-White poverty rates and unconscionably high incarceration of racial minorities.

We are almost 150 years passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which ideally put Black residents in the U.S. on a path to citizenship, together with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (all were measures in the 1860s). However, these Reconstruction Era gains were subverted by state and local resistance, such as the sharecropping system and Jim Crow laws that limited Black economic self-sufficiency and voting rights. To a large degree it should be unsurprising that Blacks in the South failed to make significant economic or political progress as a group, until a century later, which culminated in the violence and chaos of the Civil Rights Movement. A more difficult question is the lack of improvement for the majority of Blacks in the North, since many of these impediments were never part of an institutionalized northern history, particularly in the large industrialized cities. The fact remains that Blacks in the North today remain far poorer and far less politically mobilized than their White counterparts. The “American Dream” narrative, along with our belief in meritocracy, suggests that individuals succeed or fail on their own hard work, or lack thereof. The data indicates otherwise, that group disenfranchisement plays a striking role in perpetuating the inequalities between Blacks and Whites in the U.S. The preceding history sets the stage for these patterns.

There were several large northern migrations of poor farm workers from the South, most of whom were disenfranchised Blacks, motivated to leave their homes by a lack of work and basic civil rights, deplorable living conditions, and lynchings. The motivation to move often came in the form of better opportunities in the growing northern cities where factories promised good jobs. The migration process transitioned U.S. Black demographics from 90% in South in 1900, to 50% by 1970 (see Table 1), and most of the northern migrants lived in large cities. This trend only shifted after the 1973 collapse, when northern cities faced mass unemployment. The migration pattern itself was structured by the need to be located near work, since most of these poor farmers had no transportation, so focused the migrants into urban central cores. Not only proximity to work, but several specific practices led to racial concentration and thus segregation, such as blockbusting, restrictive covenants, redlining and refusal to rent to minorities. Blockbusting was the trend whereby a real estate agent would move a poor black farm family into an urban, white neighborhood, then warn white residents that the “neighborhood is changing” and offer them a home in the growing suburb, access to which is made easy by the rapid construction of urban highway and interstate systems from the 1950s-1970s. Within just a few years, neighborhoods could transition from entirely White to entirely Black. Restrictive covenants were legally enforceable neighborhood documents preventing a homeowner from selling a house to a racial minority. Redlining, while not intentionally racially discriminatory, had racial repercussions, since most of the poor Black southern farmers moved into poor neighborhoods, which were “redlined” by banks and mortgage companies, indicating that they were high risk borrowers, therefore could not get home loans, or were charged high interest.

All of these practices created profound segregation in northern U.S. cities. In fact, by comparison, both Asian and Hispanic segregation levels in the US are in approximately the 30%-50% ranges (dissimilarity index; see Denton and Massey, American Apartheid, 1993), Black segregation in the North averages 75%, and in Chicago is an unbelievable 90%. These rates are not getting better as we enter the 2000s, and in fact in many cases are getting worse. My own studies of race in Indianapolis, from the 2000 census, indicate segregation in Center Township of 72%, and Marion County as a whole at 75%, compared with Asian and Hispanic segregation around 50%.

However, the persistence of urban segregation, created by discrimination in the North, is only part of the larger puzzle, and does not directly answer the question of the increasing poverty gap between White and Black. The more intractable problem is that contemporary discrimination is not nearly so much “bias” discrimination that we normally think about, where one person, organization or business intentionally refuses service to racial minorities because of skin color. Today’s discrimination is rooted in class patterns that were solidified by the segregation history. William Julius Wilson calls this the “concentration of poverty”, which he describes in When Work Disappears (1997). The explanation goes back to the fact that most of the migrants from the South to the North were poor farmers, so came with few assets or job skills. They came for the jobs available in the factories in the cities. The migration began to successfully build an early Black middle class in the North. However, within a few decades of migration, industrialization began to slow, and the booming northern cities quickly became the “Rust Belt,” as technology put many laborers out of work, and foreign outsourcing displaced the few remaining factory workers. This, along with the intersection of several economic crises, led to the 1970s collapse of many northern city economies. All workers were affected, but those most vulnerable were those who had little wealth “buffer” to ride out the changes and transition to new kinds of work.

Specifically, one source of economic buffer were those who had the generational benefits of home ownership from long-time community residence—most northern Blacks were recent residents whose families had been poor farmers. A second source of buffering was educational benefits from the GI Bill most of which went to White veterans--by 1973, almost 50% of White veterans had been able to utilize their benefits, compared to only 25% of Black veterans. Much of this can be understood in terms of the greater ability for White veterans to afford to be able to quit their jobs to go back to work, and to subsidize the remainder of their tuition left unpaid by the GI Bill. Both of these buffers, education and home-ownership, were stalwarts of the middle and upper classes, both of whom were able to flee the declining 1970s urban central cores, which many refer to as “White flight,” since most of those urban-to-suburban transitions were by middle class Whites, but middle class Blacks also moved if they were able. Wilson refers to this as “concentration of poverty,” since the only remaining urban residents were those who were financially unable to move, leaving predominantly low-skill, low-asset residents in areas where city governments had decided they could no longer afford to maintain. Thus, many northern cities saw the rapid decline in infrastructure in their urban cores, with a subsequent large-scale declines in education and health, together with rising unemployment, drug use/selling, and violent crime.

All of these changes can be seen as the confluence of both race and class. Originally, race played an overt role, since bias discrimination was legal and rampant. However, as bias discrimination was made illegal during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, class and segregation effects became powerful constraints on equality. Previous racist housing, hiring and voting practices created geographic, economic and skill disenfranchisement, which froze future opportunities for any resident trapped in these poor areas. By the 1970s those primarily found in impoverished central cities were the first and second generation descendants of the poor farm migrants who came north for jobs, only to find those jobs quickly disappear, and few viable opportunities for either work or education. A recent Ohio case highlights the desperation of mothers whose children are in dangerous and substandard schools—Kelley Williams-Bolar was recently found guilty of two felony counts for using her children’s father’s address to get them into a better school. While the question remains whether this case is overtly about race, it is clearly part of the “concentration of poverty” that disproportionately affects Blacks in northern cities. It is also part of the racist legacy of political institutions preferencing middle and upper class families (predominantly White), while allowing the continued devolution of poor neighborhoods (disproportionately Black), even to the extent of imprisoning a parent for trying to create a better life for her children.

The final pieces of this history bring us to the current day, since explanations rooted in slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the collapse of northern city economies take us only to the 1980s. The situation today is partly a continuation of the same patterns of segregation and concentration of poverty post-WWII, patterns that we failed to remedy by more aggressive legislation to increase neighborhood race and class diversity and quality of life. However, the other part of the contemporary explanation of the profound difference between black/white poverty, is that not only have we created new patterns of racial discrimination, but we have exacerbated unfair patterns of generational wealth accumulation typically associated with the “American Dream.” For the latter case, current inheritance laws allow the wealthy to continue to consolidate wealth. In fact, the legal affirmation of inheritance patterns violates our fundamental belief in meritocracy, and is one of our few exceptions to our cultural value that “you get what you earn,” since parents often give significant resources to their children in life, and then everything else in death, regardless of the productivity or laziness of the child. Poor families, by contrast, can offer very little in terms of inheritance, thus leaving children born into poor families with solely their own capacities to survive. These patterns, as documented by Shapiro (Hidden Cost of Being African American, 2004) demonstrate the continued disenfranchisement of poor families, primarily black families, as a result of our cultural desire to keep all wealth “in the family,” even after death. As of 1999, Shapiro found that median White inheritance is around $10,000, while the median Black inheritance is $800. Analysis of recent census data indicates this disparity has grown significantly from 2000-2010, rather than getting better, as we might hope if Whites and Blacks operated on a level-playing field. In fact, the lack of a “buffer” for the poor, disproportionately Black, has created a devastating situation during the recession—while both Black and White median household income has been generally increasing since Pew first began collecting wealth data in 1984, both groups saw wealth declines since 2004, when the percent of Black wealth compared to White wealth plummeted from 10% to 5% (see Table 2).

As for the other piece of the contemporary inequality explanation, new patterns of racial discrimination, there are multiple sub-parts. First, we are facing the mass incarceration of young Black men across the U.S. (see Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2011). Much of this can be tied back to Wilson’s concentration of poverty thesis. There are typically no legitimate job opportunities in poor communities, and poor public transportation out of such communities to where jobs are. Even if an individual can get transportation to a suburban fast-food job to fill out an application, employers often engage in hiring discrimination based on the zip code origin. Applicants from poor communities, often high-crime areas where residents have poor access to education, are assumed to similarly have unreliable transportation to work, a greater likelihood to be a criminal, or to have a poor education making him/her unsuitable as an employee. While any of these may or may not be reasonable assumptions, the outcome is the same—no work, even for those residents of poor neighborhoods who take the initiative to apply to jobs in the suburbs.

With no available work, few opportunities exist to feed one’s family, other than illegal work, like drug-selling. Unemployed fathers often discover that intact families are not eligible for welfare benefits, so both mother and father may decide not to marry or live together since the best chance for food security for their children is food stamps. This creates a disadvantageous situation for children in poor, segregated communities, depleting their social and family resources. The current emphasis of national discourse about welfare is to protect the system from “welfare cheats” (a group of mothers whose existence is difficult to prove, and available data indicates they constitute at most 5-10% of welfare recipients). However, the negative consequence of restrictive welfare availability is that it incentivizes families to remain broken, and since the total of welfare benefits is typically 1/3 of the poverty line, it never creates a path towards self-sufficiency.

Further the education and health of children in poor communities is compromised by the massive funding of prisons in the U.S. We are, by far, the world’s largest jailer, surpassing Russia, and almost triple South Africa. Europe, Canada, and Australia all imprison approximately 1/1000 citizens, while we imprison at 8x that rate (as of 2006), much of which is racially skewed. Studies indicate that 96% of drug-related defendants are racial minorities, whereas drug users themselves are 88% white. Drug laws themselves, as well as enforcement patterns, have led many to question whether the “War on Drugs” is actually a “War on Blacks,” given decades of consistent and specific racial effects. The NAACP this year published a report, Misplaced Priorities, which documents the link between the concentration of poverty, poor educational opportunities, and crime, all of which disproportionately affects Black citizens, including a specific study on Indianapolis. Solutions exist for these patterns, such as changing drug laws and sentencing to reflect medical and legal reasonableness, diverting funding from prisons to drug rehabilitation programs (found to be both cheaper and more effective), and funding education for children and job-training for adults, paid for by downsizing prisons so that non-violent offenders can be reincorporated into society, rather than warehoused with violent offenders. While perhaps in inflammatory analogy, it could be argued that while, during slavery, we extracted Black men from their homes and families in Africa to enslave them as workers on sugar and cotton farms, today we extract Black men from their homes and families here in the U.S. to warehouse them, not as productive slaves, but as unproductive prisoners.

Indianapolis itself has been in the midst of tumultuous debates about our public schools. But with data indicating that poverty, segregation, and lack of neighborhood resources (including male role models who are imprisoned rather than allowed to be fathers and mentors) are the predictor for poor performance of students, the resolutions to these issues will not be found by closing schools that fail to pass standardized tests, or by giving those schools to profiteers as a business venture. The problem is with impoverished communities, and unprepared students, not teacher unions, or the public school system itself, although few would disagree that both teachers and schools could always be improved. Further, the problem of impoverished communities is not one of individual laziness or moral incapacity, since history determines much of our life course, especially when the previous and current generations face(d) such profound economic disenfranchisement, not to mention political inequalities. Sociologists are in agreement that the vast majority of poverty is created by institutional and historic disadvantages, and that individual free-will accounts for very little possible upward social mobility (See Table 3). With this as a framework, it is unreasonable to expect poor communities to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and fix themselves. Rather what is needed is a renewed sense of national unity and shared sacrifice that will create a social and economic climate whereby all benefit, not just Whites, and not just the wealthy. While the current generation did not create this pattern of inequality and there is far less bias discrimination than 50 years ago, generational benefit still accrues by those born into middle and upper class families to the profound disadvantage to those children born into an impoverished community, and a rigged system.