Posts Tagged ‘inequality’
Last year Elias Isquith asked me to contribute a piece to a forum he did on the State of the Union speech. There was some dispute between the contributors over how they read the speech which was my jumping off point. I’m posting it again before this year’s speech because most of what I had to say is still applicable, even if some of the details have changed.The fact that people have such different readings of this speech isn’t that surprising. It reads to me like it was designed to do just that – let each of us hear what we want to hear. Our normal way of understanding the SOTU is outward. We tend to think of the president seeking to persuade the opposition or independents. But there are two ways we might think of ‘us’ as the target. First, speeches can be used to mobilize one’s own supporters to action. Second, they can be used to demobilize one’s own team. But ultimately, the impact depends on how we react. We can use the good things that were mentioned as a resource, in making demands. Or we can assume that the White House has the issue in hand and therefore we can stand down – at least until we get marching orders. The latter is a losing proposition, regardless of your thoughts about the president’s own motives. I cringe at the barrage of emails about supporting the president’s agenda. We should have our own agenda, and pressure him to support us.
Of course, we all know that the president faces a hostile Republican majority in the House, and an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate which, as a result of Harry Reid’s unwillingness to undo the filibuster, has a great deal of power. Because of the sequester, there will likely be fiscal legislation, and because of Republicans’ fear over losing the Latino vote in perpetuity, immigration legislation will at least get a hearing.
So I thought I’d focus more on some other things, including those the White House has more control over.
Last week, Jesse Myerson caused a major stir with a Rolling Stone piece, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For. It’s a great piece, and we should all be fighting for them.
It’s a new year, but one thing hasn’t changed: The economy still blows. Five years after Wall Street crashed, America’s banker-gamblers have only gotten richer, while huge swaths of the country are still drowning in personal debt, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed – and the new jobs being created are largely low-wage, sub-contracted, part-time grunt work.
Millennials have been especially hard-hit by the downturn, which is probably why so many people in this generation (like myself) regard capitalism with a level of suspicion that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that egalitarian impulse isn’t often accompanied by concrete proposals about how to get out of this catastrophe. Here are a few things we might want to start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.
The piece did two things. First, it drove conservatives absolutely insane, and second, it led to a serious discussion of these policies that previously were largely at the margins of the agenda.
[If you read my piece entitled I’m so outraged at Kim Kardashian for maintaining the 5th Fleet in a human rights violating autocracy, some of this may be familiar.]
One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice. I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses or seeks to justify do not. So Mitt Romney can, as the nominee of the Republican Party, run an entire campaign on policies that are designed to better distribute wealth to the wealthy while ignoring the concerns of large blocs of voters, but it takes him saying that he only cares about half of the voters to really get people outraged.
I think this dynamic is a product of two things. First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms. So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful. Second, and I suspect more importantly, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions. We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way. Thus we see a great deal of arguments over precedents outside the courtroom, where they may well seem misplaced. Similarly, the nonstop efforts to paint people and positions are “extreme” without attending to the merits of the position. Politics is in many ways largely an effort to decide whose positions are considered speakable and whose are not, which is fairly antithetical to both the idea of progress and the ideal of democracy.
Talk about inequality is in the air. Everyone seems to agree it’s a problem, although a lot of people seem to offering the same old policy proposals to address it. It’s almost as if they are simply attaching what they already want to do to the rhetoric of today’s demands. But maybe the problem is that we misunderstand what exactly the problem of inequality is as far as elites are concerned.
On the same day that the President spoke eloquently and fervently about the rising income inequality in the United States, the ever-contractor-friendly Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) increased the maximum amount of contractor compensation that can be charged to government contracts from a mere$763,029 per employee per year to what OFPP apparently considers a much more reasonable $952,308 per employee per year. This increase primarily affects the employees of the largest government contractors—most notably defense and information technology firms. So taxpayers are now on the hook for paying up to nearly $1 million for every one of these contractor executives or employees every year.
The Birmingham superintendent puts it this way. “The Detroit schools need more money. The solution is not to take it from Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills.” And, again, one wonders where else one would take it from if not from where it is.
The Ann Arbor superintendent ridicules what he describes as “simple-minded solutions [that attempt] to make things equal.”
But of course, the need is not “to make things equal.” He would be correct to call this “simple-minded.” Funding and resources should be equal to the needs that children face. The children of Detroit have greater needs than those of children in Ann Arbor. They should get more than children in Ann Arbor, more than kids in Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham. Calling ethics “simple-minded” is consistent with the tendency to label obvious solutions, that might cost us something, unsophisticated and to favor more diffuse solutions that will cost us nothing and, in any case, will not be implemented….More spending on public education, said [President George H. W. Bush] isn’t “the best answer.” Mr. Bush went on to caution parents of poor children who see money “as a cure” for education problems. “A society that worships money…” said the president, “is a society in peril.”
Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities
For reasons that are somewhat baffling, the coverage of Senator Rand Paul’s plagiarism in speeches and writings got wall-to-wall coverage for some time, although it has now died down. I’m not a fan of Paul, and I don’t think this sort of rampant taking of other people’s words and passing them off as his own is acceptable. Yet I find the whole episode strange. Now that it’s over, I wanted to step back to ruminate on the reaction to this and what it means for the left.
Two claims, largely implicit, have become quite common in Democratic-leaning circles, which are in tension. First, is the idea that libertarians pose an existential threat to the country. Often, libertarian here is used interchangeably for ‘Tea Party,” and while that doesn’t always make sense, it might when it comes to Paul. And while some would make this same claim about the GOP as a whole, libertarians are singled out for particular scorn. Paul, then, is treated as far more threatening that the senior senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.
Now, I’m not sure how I would rate the two senators from Kentucky. I’m sure one could make a case here. But it strikes me that the case is generally presumed, and the differences in terms of whose worse are generally presumed to be really large. This is even more troublesome give that, as minority leader, McConnell likely has a great deal more power in the Senate, regardless of what the comparison might tell us in the abstract. Read the rest of this entry »
There must be a better way [than luck egalitarianism] to conceive of the point of equality. To do so it is helpful to recall how egalitarian political movements have historically conceived of their aims. What have been the inegalitarian systems that they have opposed? Inegalitarianism asserted the justice or necessity of basing the social order on a hierarchy of human beings, ranked according to intrinsic worth. Inequality referred not so much to the distributions of goods as to relations between superior and inferior persons. Those of superior rank were thought entitled to inflict violence on inferiors, to exclude or segregate them from social life, to treat them with contempt, to force them to obey, work without reciprocation, and abandon their own cultures. These are what Iris Young has identified as the faces of oppression: marginalization, status hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and cultural imperialism. Such unequal social relations generate, and were thought to justify, inequalities in the distribution of freedoms, resources, and welfare. This is the core of inegalitarian ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism, caste, class, and eugenics.
Egalitarian political movements oppose such hierarchies.
Elizabeth S. Anderson, What is the Point of Equality? (pdf)
My hope for Independence Day is that we can start with the small step of calling this day Independence Day, not Fourth of July. It strikes me how odd it is to refer to the day by its date. I suspect it’s partly because of its political content – like so much political language, this seems to be an example of “blunt[ing] the too sharply pointed.”
From there, I hope that we can reconnect with the meaning of today and other holidays – like Martin Luther King Day and Labor Day. Perhaps we might also use this day as a chance to think about the ways we have yet to root out royalism / aristocracy in our culture – whether that is the way we treat presidents, senators, celebrities, or the rich. If we get past the fireworks and barbecue, we often just lionize the people at the top of the American Revolution (who did not make the Revolution, they were only a part of it.) It’s also worth remembering that those who made the Revolution were putting principle over their loyalty to the country—those who chose the opposite path were not called patriots, they were called loyalists.
It’s also not just about our country, it’s about each one of us and about people around the globe – who have every right to self-determination that our political ancestors had. Merely using the name Independence Day rather than 4th of July is a small step – thinking and talking about what independence is about today, for all of us, is the key. Read the rest of this entry »