As Long As We’re Defining Terms….

One of the biggest problems Americans face in our (diminishing) attempts to debate policy in a civil and productive manner is that Americans often use the same words to mean different things–that is, when we aren’t simply using them as insulting labels devoid of discernible content (“libs” “socialists” “Nazis,” etc.)

Sunday, I considered the definition of infrastructure. Today, I’d really like to “poke a bear” and broaden the definition of what should count as religion.

As a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe recently noted, true believers are everywhere. They certainly aren’t confined to churches, synagogues and mosques; 
increasingly, the passions of faith are being expressed through politics and culture wars.

A Gallup poll last month  reported church membership at 47 percent. “For the first time ever, only a minority of American adults are affiliated with a church.” Jeff Jacoby, the columnist penning the cited column, bemoaned this statistic. He expressed his concern that the continuing disappearance of religion from American life is a negative occurrence.

I’m not so sure. Although there is, as Jacoby notes, a positive correlation between church attendance (note, attendance–not membership or religious belief) and physical, mental, and social health, more careful research studies attribute that correlation to the social support that comes from such gatherings of generally kindred folks–and many people get similar socialization from other, more secular groups.

Where Jacoby is right, however, is in the worrisome transfer of “religious” passion to politics.

A very different effect of religion’s disappearance is already all too visible: The unwavering faith and passion of true belief is increasingly being channeled not into religious observance but into identity politics and the culture wars.
“Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations,” remarks Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in The Atlantic. “This is what religion without religion looks like.”

On issue after issue, Americans increasingly treat political disagreement as blasphemy and dissenters as apostates. From climate change to immigration, from face masks to guns, debates take on the fervor of crusades, and true believers portray the stakes as all-or-nothing — a choice between salvation or damnation.
At its most extreme, this “religion without religion” is giving rise to dangerous political cults.

Jacoby says that “Religion without religion” is aggressive, intolerant, and scary. What he fails to acknowledge is that the same can be said for fundamentalist religions and their true believers.

Perhaps what we need is recognition that any belief system that is intransigent, intolerant and determined to impose itself on those holding differing values and beliefs merits being described as a religion.

To be fair, there is a truth buried in the hysteria of today’s culture warriors. In order for inhabitants of a country to function as at least a semi-coherent polity, a majority of citizens need to  share what sociologists call a “civic religion.” In the increasingly diverse United States, the only workable content of such a civic religion would seem to be devotion to the principles and aspirations of the country’s constituent documents: the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

 Of course, the same folks who “cherry pick” their biblical readings are also noticeably selective in their reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

And it would help if more Americans actually knew what was in those documents.

 

Uniquely Anglo-Saxon…

The dictionary definition of “Anglo-Saxon” is “relating to or denoting the Germanic inhabitants of England from their arrival in the 5th century up to the Norman Conquest.”

The term evidently means something rather different to White nationalist Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar. As Talking Points Memo explains their recent “policy proposal,”

A new “policy platform” document sprinkled with nativist and white supremacist language emerged Friday from a newly launched far-right caucus linked to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ). The group is, according to the document, pushing for “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and new infrastructure that “befits the progeny of European architecture.”

The new caucus they are forming, called the “America First Caucus,” is intended “to follow in President Trump’s footsteps,” which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. But just in case following Trump isn’t explicit enough, the so-called “policies” advocated by the document leave little room for doubt.

It begins by describing the United States as a country “strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” Historically, Anglo-Saxon traditions were the result of interactions between incoming Germanic tribes with indigenous British groups. Over time, the two populations melded, creating a primarily Anglo-Saxon culture and language. Use of the term Anglo-Saxon today is associated with the establishment of England and the early adoption of Christianity.

The caucus supports a “pause” in immigration and decries immigrants who– the statement says– are “imported en-masse” and then “fail to contribute positively to the country.” (Evidently, only White Christians can “contribute positively.”)

In case there is any confusion over the identity of the immigrants being targeted by this language, the platform makes its White nationalism crystal clear. It opposes birthright citizenship and claims that immigrants who came to the United States before 1965 “were more educated, earned higher wages, and did not have an expansive welfare state to fall back on when they could not make it in America and thus did not stay in the country at the expense of the native-born.”

The caucus calls for roads, bridges and buildings that uphold “the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture, whereby public infrastructure must be utilitarian as well as stunningly, classically beautiful, befitting a world power and source of freedom.”

Pardon me while I upchuck…

Tellingly, the caucus also says it will fight against an education system that “has worked to actively undermine pride in America’s great history and is actively hostile to the civic and cultural assimilation necessary for a strong nation.” In other words, they will fight to retain mythology over accuracy.

Congressional supporters of this exercise belong in Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” In addition to Greene and Gosar, Louis Gohmert has signed on, which should signal the intellectual integrity of this effort–as I’ve previously noted, my favorite description of Gohmert is “the dumbest animal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse.” Another sterling character who has indicated support for the Caucus is Matt Gaetz, who  evidently took time away from defending himself against charges of  sexual and other improprieties by tweeting Friday that he was “proud” to join the caucus.

In a nod to Trump’s election conspiracies, the seven-page document also promotes false claims about election fraud, citing rigged voting machines and manipulated election results.

The caucus pointed at mail-in voting as a prime target — making clear its intentions to advance restrictive voting laws that are already underway in a number of states.

“We will work towards an end to mail-in voting, implementation of national voter ID and substantive investigations into mass voter fraud perpetrated during the 2020 election,” it says.

A report by CBS News connects the none-too-obscure dots.

The focus on “Anglo-Saxon” and European terminology could be read as a veiled analogy for “White.” The term “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” or WASP, has traditionally been used in American culture to denote wealthy White families, typically with British ancestries. The Anglo-Saxons were a group who inhabited England prior to the Norman invasion of 1066.

American white nationalists have also relied heavily on medieval, viking and Anglo-Saxon imagery to justify their prejudice. During the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, some marchers carried banners with Anglo-Saxon runes, iconography that was also used by the Nazis.

They don’t even try to hide what they are…..The people who voted for them must be so proud…

 

Defining Infrastructure

A few days ago, Talking Points Memo ran a story about Republicans’ assault on Biden’s infrastructure bill. That bill is extremely popular, even with the GOP base, so the party’s determination to oppose it had to be something other than “hell no, don’t fill those chuckholes or reinforce the electrical grid…”

According to the story, they’ve chosen to defend their opposition by arguing that the bill improperly defines the term “infrastructure.”

“You look at this bill, the $2 trillion in the bill that, only about 5 to 7 percent of it is actual roads and bridges and ports and things that you and I would say is real infrastructure and that we tried to get passed under the last administration with President Trump,” former Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought said recently on Fox News radio. 

That statistic is particularly misleading, as it doesn’t count even things like rail and water systems — improvements that fall into the traditional infrastructure bucket. 

Republicans charge that expenditures for broadband and green energy, among other provisions of the bill, aren’t infrastructure.

That argument prompted me to look at some of the academic literature. It turns out that there aren’t many publications dealing with the definition of infrastructure, although there’s more than I ever imagined on the economics involved–the returns on investment, the pros and cons of “public-private partnerships,” and various aspects of construction. But there was some, and it was enlightening.

For example, a number of scholars use the term “social overhead capital.” It evidently grew out of  Samuelson’s theory of public goods; Samuelson understood infrastructure to be  investments by the state that are a precondition for the successful development of the private sector– the basic services without which primary, secondary and tertiary types of production activities cannot function.

In other words, infrastructure is a support system, a floor built by government, that allows businesses and individuals to be productive. That certainly includes roads, bridges, and other elements of our transportation requirements. It also includes technology we need in order to communicate–hence broadband–and the need to keep the lights on–hence the electrical grid. It rather obviously includes water and sewers.

But these days, what constitutes that supportive floor has also come to include social infrastructure–services as well as brick and mortar assets. Social infrastructure includes educational institutions, libraries, parks…It definitely includes police and fire protection, courts of law, garbage collection and other municipal services.  In saner countries, it includes healthcare and a menu of social services.

Effective government is a mechanism through which we provide a network of support that allows individual citizens to prosper. That network of support is Infrastructure and it isn’t  something the market can supply. Using government to provide foundational systems and services is simply the process of doing collectively what we cannot do individually. 

In that literature I consulted, there was ample evidence that physical infrastructure is required if business and the economy are to thrive, and a substantial amount of emerging evidence that social infrastructure is equally necessary to support and empower individuals and families.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan would invest $400 billion in the caregiving economy; $137 billion in schools, early learning centers, and community colleges; $111 billion in clean drinking water; and $621 billion in various transportation projects. All of those investments are part of a supportive network that will pay dividends by enabling more Americans to live productive lives.

That supportive network is certainly infrastructure.

 

 

Rich Man,Poor Man…

Let’s talk about welfare.

Usually, when you hear someone railing against “welfare cheats” and/or “encouraging dependency,” the objects of scorn are unwed mothers, people of color and other impoverished populations. The people who express these sentiments resent the use of their “hard-earned” tax dollars to help support people who are clearly unworthy.

There are a number of uncongenial facts that don’t influence those diatribes: the fact that our current social welfare system (if you can dignify it by calling it a “system”) is monumentally inadequate (most people who are struggling to put food on the table don’t qualify); a large percentage of those who do receive benefits are children, the disabled and the elderly; and– triggering my rant this morning– the most dependent and often unworthy beneficiaries are the rich.

A recent essay from Commondreams.org focuses on that last item, and details the ways in which wealthy Americans benefit from a wide array of tax breaks and government subsidies that somehow escape mention when Republicans complain about entitlements for the poor.

Those favorable provisions are often hidden in the tax code.The enormous stock market gains that investors have made since the end of 2008–estimated at some 30 trillion– can be held tax-free until the stocks are sold, and can also be passed virtually tax free by the super-rich to their children, who can take their inheritance subject to a so-called stepped-up provision which allows them to erase all the accumulated gains. In many instances, that means without paying a single dollar in taxes. As the author notes, “This massive subsidy for the super-rich, along with gift tax and estate tax loopholes, has allowed families like the Waltons to avoid paying their debt to society.”

Then there are what we euphemistically term “tax expenditures.”

Tax expenditures include mortgage deductions, interest and dividend exclusions, and reduced rates on capital gains. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “the cost of all federal income tax expenditures was higher than Social Security, the combined cost of Medicare and Medicaid, or the cost of either defense or non-defense discretionary spending….These tax expenditures are ‘upside-down,’ providing their largest subsidies to high-income people even though these individuals are least likely to need financial incentives to engage in the activities that tax expenditures are generally designed to promote, such as buying a home, sending a child to college, or saving for retirement.

The total loss of tax revenue from just the mortgage and property tax deductions is nearly double the amount spent on public housing programs.

The Common Dreams article didn’t even mention the corporate subsidies I have so often criticized on this site: the subsidies for fossil fuels, payments to corporate farmers, and numerous, highly favorable tax provisions that allow corporations to evade taxes on huge profits, among many others.

Many of these provisions are defended as necessary to “incentivize” socially-useful activities, although research suggests that (with a few exceptions) there is very little evidence for that assertion, and in the case of those fossil fuel “incentives,” what we are incentivizing might more accurately be called “socially suicidal.”

Speaking of socially desirable activities, most Americans would include raising healthy well-adjusted children in that category. Making that task easier for poor families and/or single parents seems to me to be a better investment in the common good than incentivizing oil companies to locate new fossil fuel deposits.

But of course, poor people and single parents lack the means to hire lobbyists…

 

 

A Doughnut For The Economy?

What makes an economy successful?

Americans are just beginning to realize that widespread inequalities dampen and retard economic vitality, but the more foundational–and to me, at least, more interesting–question is: what does a “successful” economy look like? In the United States, a great proportion of our economic life revolves around “stuff”–the production and consumption of consumer goods. There’s nothing wrong with producing items that people want to buy, but a model that requires constantly increasing consumption has obvious drawbacks, especially when large numbers of workers lack disposable income.

As readers of this blog are aware, one of my sons lives in Amsterdam. He has made me aware of that city’s experiment with a different economic approach. In April of last year–even while the pandemic was raging–Amsterdam became the first city in the world to formally implement what is called “doughnut economics.” Brussels then followed, as did
the Canadian city of Nanaimo.

Scholars advocating for a new approach argue that the current economic system sacrifices both people and environments at a time when everything from shifting weather patterns to rising sea levels is global in scope and unprecedented in nature.

The premise requires us to re-envision what really constitutes economic health–to define it as a system that ensures that “nobody falls short of life’s essentials, from food and water to social equity and political voice, while ensuring humanity does not break down Earth’s life support systems, such as a stable climate and fertile soils.”

The doughnut’s social goals are based upon the Sustainable Development Goals promulgated by the United Nations. These are food security, health, education, income and work (not limited to paid employment), peace and justice, political voice, social equity, gender equality, housing, networks, energy and water.

The nine ecological boundaries are drawn from proposals developed by a group of Earth-system scientists. These are climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading (inefficient or excessive use of fertiliser), freshwater withdrawals, land conversion (removal of habitat), biodiversity loss, air pollution, and ozone layer depletion.

Kate Raworth’s 2017 book “Doughnut Economics” explains the doughnut economy as one based on the premise that “Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.”

Raworth recognizes that “significant GDP growth is very much needed” for low- and middle-income countries to be able to meet the social goals for their citizens.

Using a simple diagram of a doughnut, Raworth suggests that the outer ring represents Earth’s environmental ceiling — a place where the collective use of resources has an adverse impact on the planet. The inner ring represents a series of internationally agreed minimum social standards. The space in between, described as “humanity’s sweet spot,” is the doughnut.

Amsterdam formally adopted the model on April 8, 2020.

The city of Amsterdam has always been a pioneering city. It loves to be a pioneer which is a brilliant attribute because there are many cities that will not lead. They will only follow when they see someone else go,” Raworth said.

“It is not going to work to have three, four, five separate strategies all trying to connect. When they encountered the concept of the doughnut, I know that they said: ‘Aha, this is a concept that sits above and embraces everything that it is that we want to do.’”

Van Doorninck, who’s responsible for spatial development and sustainability in the Dutch capital, said the city’s circular strategy was focused on areas where local government “can really make a difference.”

These areas include food and organic waste streams, consumer goods and the built environment. As a result, the city has targeted a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030, implemented measures to make it easier for residents to consume less (by establishing easily accessible and well-functioning second-hand shops and repair services over the next three years) and pushed for construction companies to build with sustainable materials.

According to the article, a number of cities around the globe are watching, and considering whether to follow suit. It’s a very encouraging effort to marry economic growth with social equity and environmental responsibility.

Fingers crossed…..