Brave New World

The past few decades have seen massive social changes, and even the most superficial scan of the current state of affairs leads to the inexorable conclusion that we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I don’t think there’s a sufficient appreciation of the economic side of that change. Think, for example, of the imminent phenomenon of self-driving cars, and the ongoing collapse of brick-and-mortar retailing.

Self-driving vehicles will eliminate the jobs of five million people nationwide. These are people who make their living driving taxis, buses, vans, trucks and e-hailing vehicles; according to a Harvard labor economist, those jobs represent 3% of the national workforce, and most of them are held by men without college degrees, a demographic that has already been hit hard by the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.

Then there’s the cratering of traditional retailing.  More and more Americans shop on line, and one result is the proliferation of empty storefronts in the nation’s malls. Those empty shops signal the loss of thousands of clerking and sales positions. Warehouse work and online “customer service” jobs are unlikely to replace them all.

As I have written previously, international trade is not the culprit;  automation is what is relentlessly driving job losses, and automation isn’t confined to robots in coal mines or on the factory floor. We no longer hire people to pump our gas; a single secretary handles jobs that used to require three or four; automated check-outs are everywhere from the drug store to the parking garage. In many cases, these innovations create new jobs— requiring new and more demanding skills—but in many cases, they don’t.

And then there’s climate change. The deniers can stick their fingers in their ears and chant “la la la I can’t hear you” all they want, but ice keeps melting, weather keeps getting more unpredictable, oceans keep warming and rising, hurricanes get more powerful…and barring an unlikely concerted effort, by the end of this century large areas of the planet will become unlivable. One result will be mass migration on an unprecedented scale.

How will we cope with that when we can’t even resettle a comparatively small number of Syrian refugees?

One of the reason people are climate change deniers is the fact that the worst consequences are still some decades off, and they can pretend those consequences aren’t real. The economic threats posed by mass joblessness will be felt a lot sooner. And we are already encountering entirely new challenges posed by the acceleration of technology. One of my students wrote his research paper on –I kid you not–the legal liabilities of artificial intelligence. (It was an A+ paper, too.)

The paper considered the uses (and misuses) of ‘personal assistants” like Siri and Google Assistant. Legitimate concerns go well beyond identification theft through hacking.  If someone tells his personal assistant he intends to do something illegal, does the device (or its programmer) have a responsibility to remind him it’s illegal? To call the cops?  What if you tell your assistant you plan to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, and it obediently gives you directions to the nearest bridge? What if a crime is committed at your home and the police want to confiscate your personal assistant to determine who was interacting with it and at what time–is the assistant to be treated like the books of a business (discoverable) or is it entitled to protection against self-incrimination?

You may think this is all too fanciful, but Amazon has argued that First Amendment Free Speech rights should be extended to its Alexa assistant in certain circumstances, and a court has ruled that the way Google ranks search results is entitled to First Amendment protection.

Bottom line: humans on this planet are entering a twilight zone in which familiar work is disappearing, new technologies are forcing us to confront unfamiliar questions, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is becoming gargantuan–and all of this is happening in an environment that is drastically changing, both climatically and socially.

It really isn’t a good time to be governed by a clueless buffoon and a Congress filled with third-rate intellects and corrupt panderers.


Your Answers?

This is the time of year that professors both love and hate–the semester is coming to an end, and most of us are very ready for that, but it is also when lengthy research papers are due and final exams given.  Those papers and exams must be graded  (and unfortunately, those grades must often be defended to students convinced that their efforts entitled them to higher marks).

I give students in my law and policy classes a take-home final. That’s partly to make up for a pretty brutal midterm, and partly to see whether the materials and concepts we’ve covered have caused them to think critically about the enterprise of government and the elements of good policy. Has the class helped them fashion a coherent philosophy of governance? Has it given them an appreciation of the complexities involved and skills required?

Here are the questions I have given them this semester; they were to choose one and write an essay responding to that choice. How would you answer them? (I won’t grade readers’ answers…promise!)                                                       

  1. Earth has been destroyed in World War III. You and a few thousand others—representing a cross-section of Earth’s races, cultures and religions—are the only survivors. You have escaped to an earthlike planet, and are preparing to establish a new society. You want to avoid the errors of the Earth governments that preceded you. What institutional choices do you make and why? Your essay should include: The type/structure of government you would create; the powers it will have; the limits on its powers, and how those limits will be enforced; how government officials will be chosen and policies enacted; and the social and political values you intend to privilege.

2. The First Amendment protects religious liberty. Over the past few years, Americans have engaged in heated public debates about the nature and extent of that liberty. Some people argue that requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes contraception, or requiring businesses like florists or bakers to serve same-sex customers, is a violation of the religious liberty of those whose religions teach that contraception or homosexuality is a sin. Others disagree. What is the proper definition of “religious liberty”—that is, how far should the free exercise of religion extend in America’s diverse religious landscape? What religiously-motivated actions can government legitimately limit, and what are the justifications for those limits?

3. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Without addressing the personal characteristics of either candidate in the November election, and without opining whether America was or was not greater in the past, describe the characteristics, values or other attributes that you believe make a country “great.” In other words, what are the attributes of a great country? How does it behave toward its own citizens and toward other countries? What changes to current American policies or laws do you believe are needed to achieve greatness as you define it?




And I Thought I Was Being Too Negative….

I sometimes feel guilty about the fact that so many of my posts to this blog are dispiriting. Then a friend shared a link to an article in Salon, saying “read it and weep.”

I’m weeping.

The article analyzed recent polling, and found that 96% of those who voted for Donald Trump say they would do so again. Only 85% of Hillary Clinton voters, however, would stick with her.

That’s not because former Clinton supporters would now back Trump; only 2 percent of them say they’d do so, similar to the 1 percent of Trump voters who say they’d switch to Clinton. Instead, they’re more apt to say they’d vote for a third-party candidate or wouldn’t vote.

President Donald Trump is the antithesis of what Hillary Clinton’s voters desired in a candidate. And in many ways Donald Trump’s incompetent, ignorant, reckless, racist, demagogic and cruel behavior in office is worse than even his most concerned and cynical critics had predicted. This outcome should motivate Clinton’s voters to become more engaged and more active, instead of making a decision in a hypothetical election that might actually give Trump a victory in the popular vote.

The findings from this new poll are troubling. But they should not come as a surprise.

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly documented that the American public does not have a sophisticated knowledge on political matters. The average American also does not use a coherent and consistent political ideology to make voting decisions. As Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen demonstrate in their new book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” Americans have identities and values that elites manipulate, which voters in turn use to process information — however incorrectly.

I have read the Bartels and Achen book, and it is hard to argue with their thesis. I also have a young colleague who studies “correct” voting–defined as casting a vote for the candidate whose positions come closest to the positions the voter has identified as important and motivating. (Spoiler alert: a lot of voters don’t vote “correctly.”) As the Salon article puts it,

American voters en masse are not rational actors who seriously consider the available information, develop knowledge and expertise about their specific worries and then make political choices that would maximize their goals.

These matters are further complicated when considering right-wing voters. While Trump may have failed in most of his policy goals, he has succeeded symbolically in terms of his racist and nativist crusade against people of color and Muslims. Given the centrality of racism and white supremacy in today’s Republican Party specifically, and movement conservatism more generally, Trump’s hostility to people of color can be counted as a type of “success” by his racially resentful white voters.

American conservatives and right-leaning independents are also ensconced in an alternative news media universe that rejects empirical reality. A combination of disinformation and outright lies from the right-wing media, in combination with “fake news” circulated online by Russian operatives and others, has conditioned Trump voters and other Republicans to make decisions with no basis in fact. American conservatives do, however, possess a surplus of incorrect information. In that context, their political decisions may actually make sense to them: This is a version of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Republican voters also tend to be have more authoritarian views than the general public. As a type of motivated social cognition, conservatism is typified by deference to authority, groupthink, conformity, social dominance behavior and hostility to new experiences and new information. These attributes combine to make Trump voters less likely to regret supporting him and in some cases — because of a phenomenon known as “information backfire“— to become more recalcitrant when shown that Trump’s policies have failed in practice.

There’s a wealth of social science research confirming these observations.

The 64-thousand-dollar question (as we used to say back when sixty-four thousand dollars was a lot of money) is: what the hell are we going to do about it?


The Walmart Tax

I have written before about the “Walmart tax.”

Walmart generates nearly $500 billion in revenue annually; over the past five years, its yearly profits have averaged $15.5 billion dollars, and the family that owns it has a net worth of $129 billion dollars.

Despite its obvious ability to do so, the company declines to pay its employees a living wage, instead relying upon government programs–taxpayer dollars– to make up the difference between its workers’ paychecks and what they need to make ends meet. In essence, when a Walmart employee must rely on food stamps or other safety-net benefits, taxpayers are paying a portion of that employee’s wages.

Walmart (including its Sam’s Club operation) is currently the largest private employer in the country–and one of the largest recipients of corporate welfare. Walmart employees receive an estimated $6.2 billion dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. Money not paid out in salary goes directly to the shareholders’ bottom line.

Not only is this greedy and despicable, it is bad business. For one thing, as awareness of this subsidy grows, the numbers of people shopping at Walmart declines. But there are other costs incurred.

One of my graduate students wrote his research paper on corporate philanthropy, and the growth of business practices that recognize a duty to stakeholders other than shareholders: employees, vendors and the general community. As he explained,

The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is an accounting framework that incorporates three dimensions of performance: social, environmental and financial. This differs from traditional reporting frameworks as it includes ecological (or environmental) and social measures that can be difficult to assign appropriate means of measurement. The TBL dimensions may also be referred to as the three P’s: people, planet and profits (Hall, 2011). The TBL further supports the integration of Corporate Responsibility into the fiber of companies as the bottom line is expanded, to include these additional levels of measurement, suggesting “purpose” shares importance with profit.

One company that has seen the benefits of good corporate responsibility through TBL is Costco, specifically the “people” component. Second to the multi-national titan Walmart, Costco is the largest American membership-only warehouse club. Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club (Greenhouse, 2005). Costco’s practices are clearly more expensive, but they have an offsetting cost-containment effect: Turnover is unusually low, at 17% overall and just 6% after one year’s employment. In contrast, turnover at Wal-Mart is 44% a year, close to the industry average (Cascio, 2006).

In the case of Costco, their corporate responsibility and voluntary decision to invest in their people have been a direct contributor to their profits. In return for its generous wages and benefits, Costco gets one of the most loyal and productive workforces in retail, and, not coincidentally, the lowest shrinkage (employee theft) figures in the industry. As a result, Costco generated $21,805 in U.S. operating profit per hourly employee, compared with $11,615 at Sam’s Club. Costco’s stable, productive workforce more than offsets its higher costs (Cascio, 2006).

It appears that “doing well by doing good” is more than a slogan.

I shop at Costco, and avoid Walmart. So do most of my friends. In virtually all cases, the choice is intentional: we want to demonstrate support for businesses that value and properly compensate their employees (and aren’t sucking at the public tit, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity).

Walmart may get my tax dollars, but I’m damned if they’ll get my discretionary dollars too.


And Now A Word From the Fantasy-Based Community

I read Dispatches from the Culture Wars regularly. Ed Brayton is a witty and perceptive commentator with an excellent grasp of America’s constitutional foundations–but his greatest appeal (for me) comes from the fact that he monitors behaviors that I wouldn’t have the stomach to follow. He keeps tabs on the kooks of the far, far right (and sometimes the far, far left)–the “celebrities” of the wacko fringes.

Most of the time, when reading about the pronouncements and delusions of these characters, I take comfort in reminding myself of the limited appeal of whatever brand of crazy a particular figure is peddling.

But this was truly appalling.

Earlier this month, the city of San Antonio (Texas) held a mayoral forum in which candidates talked about the impact of and challenges for non-profit groups in the community.

At one point, current Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked about the “deepest systemic cause of generational poverty.” There’s no simple answer to that, of course, but Taylor’s response wasn’t even close.

“Not even close” is an understatement. Here’s the Mayor’s response.

To me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore, not being in good relationship with their families and their communities, and not being productive members of society. I think that’s the ultimate answer.

As Ed points out, that not only isn’t the “ultimate answer,” it’s an answer that betrays vast ignorance of American economic realities and that displays the sort of breathtakingly smug religious arrogance that you encounter from time to time from people who give religion a very bad name. As Brayton puts it,

Poor people aren’t all poor because they’re “broken” or atheists or in need of a better relationship with their families. (While we’re at it, they’re also not poor because they’re lazy and addicted to welfare checks.)

People are poor, in many cases, because they don’t have opportunities to put their skills to work, they never had access to a quality education, and they live in areas where upward mobility is hard to come by. In some cases, they can work multiple jobs with little sleep and still have a hard time getting out of whatever debt they’re already in. Poverty is tough to overcome. Generational poverty, even tougher.

The vast majority of poor Americans work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that don’t pay a living wage. (Not that it is relevant, but a sizable majority of them identify as Christian, and profess a “relationship” with a “Creator.” Atheists in the U.S. actually tend to be well-educated and financially comfortable–when you aren’t constantly struggling to put food on the table, you have the time and resources to ponder theological questions and consider counter-majoritarian conclusions…But I digress.)

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the pitifully inadequate public and private resources available to them.

There are a lot of things policymakers could do to decrease poverty: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, strengthen unions, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that blames poverty on a lack of productivity and an inadequate “relationship with the Creator.”

The fact that Americans elect people who mouth such inanities (beginning with Donald Trump and definitely including Mayor Ivy Taylor) is evidence of a different kind of poverty.