Poverty and Social Capital

One of the least-recognized consequences of the gap between rich and poor and the growth and perpetuation of the ALICE phenomenon is the effect of poverty on social capital. Social capital is a shorthand term for networks of relationships among people in a society; the ubiquity and strength of those relationships has been shown to be essential to the successful functioning of that society.

In the wake of Trump’s disastrous behavior at the G7 meetings, The New Yorker had a fascinating article about Justin Trudeau and the extent to which Canadian social capital allowed him to (politely but firmly) stand up to America’s Bully-in-Chief. Trudeau made it clear that he and his country would not be intimidated.

Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates. Trudeau, a young man generally thought to lack the great prime-ministerial gravitas of his late father, Pierre, emerged as a statesman and a leader. On Monday, the Canadian Parliament voted its unanimous support for his statements.

So what is it about Canadian national character that allows the country to stand up to bullies?

Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit. What gives them backbone alongside their gift for compromise, allowing them to bend equably and then snap back sharply? …

Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like. Though the United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?

Social capital is generated through civic involvement. Adam Gopnik, who authored this essay, refers to a seminal study by Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame), analyzing differences in governance between north and south Italy.

Putnam discovered that the existence of “intermediate institutions” was crucial: in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.

As most of us learned in U.S. History, the first person to notice the importance of civic engagement to the probity of governing institutions was de Tocqueville, who attributed what he deemed to be laudable American characteristics to widespread participation in the new country’s numerous civic and voluntary organizations.

Civic engagement, however, requires resources–namely time and energy. ALICE families–struggling to put food on the table, balancing the cost of diapers against the due date for the rent, stressed when the ten-year-old car or the twenty-year-old furnace gives up the ghost, or a doctor’s bill must be paid–have neither.

It’s no wonder the voices of the poor are so seldom heard in the halls of our legislatures, or via the ballot box. When simply surviving is the order of the day–when it consumes all of your time and energy–there isn’t anything left over from which to construct social capital.

“Racial Anxiety” And The Social Safety Net

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what aspect of current American political life is most depressing.

Children are taken from their parents at the border. Regulations meant to protect clean air and water are eviscerated. The President’s delusional mental state becomes more obvious–and frightening– each day. Congress does nothing about anything. (Case in point: despite polls showing 90% of Americans want them to protect Net Neutrality, the House refuses even to vote on the issue.) Trump attacks our allies and embraces our enemies….it goes on and on.

Perhaps worst of all, this Administration consistently panders to toxic attitudes that have always been there, but had mostly been banished from polite society. His rhetoric has encouraged the growth of overt racial and religious animus.

Nowhere has that animus been more poisonous than in debates around social welfare programs. The odious “makers versus takers” construct permeates the country’s already punitive approach to social programs, as the Guardian recently reported.

Endless paperwork. Dirty looks on the checkout line whether you are buying Skittles or pricey organic kale. Hours spent in tedious training for non-existent jobs. Urine tests, supervised by creeps. Unclear requirements, mandatory appointments without regard for lack of transportation or childcare, arbitrary deadlines that are undisclosed until you run afoul of them.

And, after all that, the skimpy benefits obtained don’t begin to cover expenses.

These are just a few of the ways the American social safety net aims to deter aid seekers, ensuring that unworthy “takers” don’t get unearned crumbs from the mighty “makers”.

And, as the article goes on to detail, it is about to get worse. Far from moderating efforts by the Administration to cut back most programs for the poor, Republicans in Congress are positively eager to cut the heart out of social programs. Their justifications smack of moral judgment and “deservingness,” and betray a deeply-held conviction that being poor is itself a sign of immorality–or at least prima facie evidence that bad choices must have been made.

In Trump’s America, one of those bad “choices” is having been born black or brown.

A recent study, highlighted by the Washington Post, confirms the racial “anxiety” at the root of efforts to cut social welfare programs.

White Americans are increasingly critical of the country’s social safety net, a new study suggests, thanks in part to a rising tide of racial resentment.

The study, conducted by researchers at two California universities and published Wednesday in the journal Social Forces, finds that opposition to welfare programs has grown among white Americans since 2008, even when controlling for political views and socioeconomic status.

White Americans are more likely to favor welfare cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that minorities are the main beneficiaries of safety net programs, the study says.

(The irony is that these cuts actually hurt more white Americans, who–despite racist memes about welfare– comprise the majority of Medicaid and food-stamp recipients.)

In the reported study, researchers analyzed 10 years of data on attitudes toward race and welfare. Between 2008 and 2012 in particular, they found a rise in opposition to welfare. That opposition rose among all Americans — but it rose far more sharply among whites. White Americans also began scoring higher on racial resentment scales during that period. (I’m sure the fact that we had a black President was coincidental….not.)

In order to confirm the link between racial attitudes and positions on welfare, the researchers investigated further.

White Americans called for deeper cuts to welfare programs after viewing charts that showed they would become a racial minority within 50 years. They also opposed welfare programs more when they were told that people of color benefit most from them.

I keep telling myself that the re-emergence of these attitudes–attitudes of fear and resentment that largely explain support for this morally reprehensible President–are a temporary reaction. Loss of white privilege is threatening to people who grew up believing it was their due–especially if they don’t have much else going for them, but I keep telling myself this ugly time will pass.

I hope I’m right.

 

 

Did They Really Have Souls To Sell?

A few days ago, I was on the treadmill watching “Morning Joe,” and heard Presidential historian Jon Meacham, from all indications a deeply religious man, respond to questions about the Trump Administration’s “biblical” defense of separating parents and children in order to deter asylum seekers. Meacham predicted a “day of reckoning” for Evangelical Trump supporters, and put it in stark terms: They sold their souls for a Supreme Court seat, and they’ll have to decide whether it was worth it.

Of course, in order to sell a soul, you first need to have one.

Later that same day, The Washington Post reported that Mike Pence (aka “Mr. Piety”)has turned the Vice-President’s office into “a gateway for lobbyists.”

About twice as many companies and other interests hired lobbyists to contact the vice president’s office in Pence’s first year than in any single year during the tenures of Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Richard B. Cheney, filings show.

Speaking of selling one’s soul….(Since this is Pence, one assumes the sale price reflects an appropriate and substantial discount…)

A couple of observations: first, Sessons’ use of a biblical reference to justify a governmental policy is profoundly anti-American. As several commentators have pointed out, America isn’t a theocracy.  Public policies must be attacked or defended with secular reasoning and argumentation, not appeals to theology.

More generally, however, what Sessions and Pence both exemplify is the cynical use of religion to advance personal and political ends–to justify bigotry, to claim privilege, and to reassure a frightened and angry “base” that its hostility to the “other” is God’s will.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not religious. But I have friends who are genuinely religious people, and there is a huge difference between the devout people I know, who tend to be both humble and kind, and the “faux religious” and “holier than thou” hypocrites who are supporting and excusing the behaviors of this administration.

Meacham may be right when he predicts a day of reckoning. If I had to hazard a guess, however, I’d predict that reckoning will consist only of recognizing the strategic failure of efforts to find religious justifications for Trump’s unholy behaviors.

Somehow, I don’t see the Mike Pences and Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions of this world looking deep inside themselves and reckoning with the truly important questions: have I been a good person? Have I been honest? Kind? Have I read my holy book in its entirety, or have I cherry-picked and “interpreted” it in order to convince myself that God dislikes the same people I do? What is the nature of my obligation to my fellow-man and woman? What is justice? What is mercy?

Do I have a soul? Have I sold it for a mess of pottage?

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..

_____________-

There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.

___________________-

I’m still hoping…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tough Talk, Delusion And Realpolitik

Tough talk and delusionary braggadocio evidently play well with GOP “true believers,” but people who actually know something about diplomacy and international relations can tell the difference between actually accomplishing something and putting on a reality TV show.

In the wake of the hyped summit between Trump and “little rocket man,” the analysis from knowledgable folks of both parties has been pretty devastating.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof summarizes the summit in his very first sentence, writing that  “It sure looks as if President Trump was hoodwinked in Singapore.”

Trump made a huge concession — the suspension of military exercises with South Korea. That’s on top of the broader concession of the summit meeting itself, security guarantees he gave North Korea and the legitimacy that the summit provides his counterpart, Kim Jong-un.

Within North Korea, the “very special bond” that Trump claimed to have formed with Kim will be portrayed this way: Kim forced the American president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades.

And what did our President–the self-proclaimed “deal-maker” who had no need to prepare for delicate international negotiations and who would “feel” how things would go within the first minute or so–get in return?

In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely “reaffirmed” the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

Had Trump prepared for the meeting, perhaps he would have known that the commitment he is trumpeting is recycled pap. For that matter, Kristof notes that Trump achieved much less than North Korea had agreed to during prior negotiations.

The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this.

What is truly scary, as Paul Krugman points out in his own analysis of Trump’s abysmal performance at both the G7 and the meeting in Singapore, is the complicity of the congressional GOP.

As he notes in his introduction, there is no longer a question where Trump’s “loyalties” lie; any reasonable doubts about that were “put to rest by the events of the past few days, when he defended Russia while attacking our closest allies.”

[T]his isn’t a column about Trump. It is, instead, about the people who are enabling his betrayal of America: the inner circle of officials and media personalities who are willing to back him up whatever he says or does, and the wider set of politicians — basically the entire Republican delegation in Congress — who have the power and constitutional obligation to stop what he’s doing, but won’t lift a finger in America’s defense….

Krugman joins the chorus of commentators who have pointed out that Trump’s accusations about trade with Canada have been debunked by his own administration. GOP members of Congress know that he is manufacturing this dispute.

Why are Republican politicians unwilling to discharge their constitutional responsibilities? Relatively few of them, one suspects, actually want a trade war, let alone a breakup of the Western alliance. And many of them, one also suspects, are well aware that a de facto foreign agent sits in the Oval Office. But they are immobilized by a combination of venality and cowardice.

Venality because the GOP prioritizes tax cuts for its donors over the common good; cowardice because the Republican base continues to drink Trump’s Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to disagree with his conclusion.

What all this tells us is that the problem facing America runs much deeper than Trump’s personal awfulness. One of our two major parties appears to be hopelessly, irredeemably corrupt. And unless that party not only loses this year’s election but begins losing on a regular basis, America as we know it is finished.