The Age of Vandalism?

Random thoughts prompted by a seemingly interminable election campaign:

  • When I ran for Congress in 1980, women candidates were still rare. One of the “truisms” I encountered about the differences between male and female candidates was “Men run for office to be someone; women run in order to do something.” As with all sexist constructions, it isn’t a “one size fits all” observation, but it certainly is an accurate description of Clinton and Trump. Clinton has issued reams of carefully constructed and highly detailed policy positions; Trump talks only about himself–and from all appearances, has not the foggiest notion of what governing entails or what the constitution permits. The question, of course, is whether a celebrity-obsessed culture wants leadership or entertainment–no matter how dangerous or damaging that entertainment may be.
  • I share in the depressing point of view offered by a reader of Talking Points Memo:”Win or lose, on November 8, Donald Trump will have garnered some 60 million votes. Sixty million Americans will have gone to the polls and voted for him — clear-eyed or self-deluded people, making that choice enthusiastically or resignedly, very much because of what he represents or in spite of it. 60 million people will have voted to entrust themselves and the people they love not simply to a vulgarian narcissist who desperately needs medical help, but also to someone who is so arrogantly and defiantly ignorant that he thinks Supreme Court justices investigate crimes, that federal judges sign bills, that he would have the power to replace leadership in the armed services with officers who have publicly supported him, that the Constitution has (at least) 12 articles, that the United States could use nuclear weapons tactically without initiating nuclear war, that we could have new libel laws that wouldn’t gut the Bill of Rights, etc. Win or lose, Trump has already exposed something about us that we need to grapple with. All of us.”
  • I’ve never understood vandalism. Theft is comprehensible; people want something and take it. But destruction just for the sake of destruction has always been unfathomable to me. I mention this because, more and more, participants in America’s political system have come to resemble vandals–intent on mayhem rather than reconstruction, unwilling to participate in the hard work of productive reform. Whether it’s the members of Congress’ “lunatic caucus” or the thugs acting out at Trump rallies, or the racists relieved that “political correctness” no longer restrains them from spewing their hate, these are people simply venting their rage, trying to bring down “the system,” with no concern about the social or fiscal costs and no apparent concern for what comes after the destruction.

I’m very depressed. The Trump campaign has uncovered and threatens to normalize an America of which I was previously–blissfully–unaware.

Forty-nine more days…..

States’ Rights and Wrongs

Indiana’s embarrassing Governor recently appealed a federal court ruling that he lacked authority to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana. From all reports, the appeal’s oral argument did not go well for the state.

A major reason for Pence’s loss in the District Court–and his probable loss at the appellate level–is that immigration is a federal issue over which states lack authority.

The notion that federal law should govern areas of national concern seems to rankle Donald Trump’s chosen running mate, and his annoyance isn’t limited to matters of immigration. In comments defending North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law, Pence recently insisted that the states “and the people” should be able to decide who gets rights.

The reason the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states was to ensure that a majority of people in a state could not use their local government to deprive their fellow citizens of the fundamental rights all Americans should enjoy.

There are areas in which the debate over local versus federal control are legitimate, but In the context of civil rights and civil liberties, “state’s rights” was and is a dog whistle meaning: we should get to pick on disfavored people if we want to, and the federal government shouldn’t be able to interfere.”State’s rights” was the (flimsy) cover used by defenders of segregation and Jim Crow.

What if we were to take that states’ rights “logic” to its ultimate conclusion?

What if the federal government couldn’t make states treat women or African-Americans equally? If I’m a woman living in, say, New York, and New York does choose to protect me, do I take a risk driving through, say, Alabama or Indiana, states that don’t protect women’s equality? If I am an African-American supplier doing business with national companies, do I hire a lawyer to tell me which states I can enter to visit with my customers, confident that I can find a hotel room or a restaurant that will serve me?

Shouldn’t Americans expect their fundamental rights to be respected in all of the states of the union?

There are certainly areas of the law that are local in nature. It would be nonsense to have a national zoning law. Certain criminal statutes are better enforced at the state or local level.  There are others. But in a country where people move freely and frequently, where commerce and transportation and communication are national, the notion that states should be able to legislate different levels of basic citizen rights is not just impractical and unworkable, not just unfair and inequitable–it’s profoundly  stupid.

Of course, for people who want to normalize discriminatory behaviors–what Hillary Clinton quite accurately called deplorable behaviors–the notion that the Supremacy Clause and/or the Bill of Rights might legally prevent them from doing so evidently pisses them off.

Pence refused to call even David Duke “deplorable.” I for one am pretty happy that my right to equal treatment under the law isn’t his or the Indiana General Assembly’s to decide.

 

 

 

 

Calvin and ALICE

In 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country, in which I examined the religious roots of ostensibly secular policy preferences—things like climate change, foreign policy and economic systems. It was when researching that book that I came to appreciate the longstanding effect of Calvinism on American attitudes toward income inequality.

As I wrote in that book, the theological precept that arguably had the greatest effect on colonial economic activity was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which held that God had decided the ultimate fate of each person at the moment of creation. Predestination included the belief that the faithful discharge of one’s calling—the diligence with which a person worked– was evidence of the depth and sincerity of that person’s faith. Predestination, especially when coupled with the doctrine of original sin, convinced believers that the suffering of the poor must be intended by God as a spur to their repentance.

In other words, the poor were poor for a reason, and helping them escape poverty might actually thwart God’s will.

The belief that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective wasn’t universal, but it was widespread–and   that suspicion of poverty, that belief that poor people are somehow lacking in moral fiber or responsible for their own condition, has profoundly influenced American culture. Understanding that attitude about poverty is central to any effort to understand today’s arguments about income inequality.

Of course, there are cultural attitudes, and then there are facts.

The facts are that, aside from children, the elderly and the disabled, poverty in the United States is experienced primarily by those we call the working poor. Most poor people in the U.S. work forty or more hours a week; they simply don’t make enough money to live.

Let’s look at my own state of Indiana. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to the United Way, ALICE families are those with income above federal poverty levels, but below what it actually costs to live in their communities. In Indiana, 36% of all households live below the ALICE threshold. About 14% are below the poverty level.

To put that another way, there are 908,000 households in Indiana that cannot make ends meet. I want to emphasize: these are families and individuals with jobs, and most of them don’t qualify for social services or income supports.

The United Way’s ALICE report calculates the cost of living for each county, and takes differences in cost of living into account when it identifies ALICE families. In Marion County, where I live, a single individual living needs $18, 396 a year, or 9.20 an hour, to survive; a family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler needs $51, 972, or 25.99 an hour.

In Indiana, 68% of jobs pay less than $20/hour, and three-quarters of those pay less than $15/hour.

If you are interested in learning more about ALICE families and their demographics, I encourage you to go to the website of the Indiana Association of United Ways and access the entire report. It’s an eye-opener.

Most of us, hearing those numbers, say to ourselves: if over a third of Indiana households can’t make ends meet, there must be programs to help them bridge the gap, right?

Wrong.

In fact, the number of households receiving government aid—what most of us call welfare—totaled about 9,000 families in 2014—and emergency payments from local welfare offices like the Township Trustees actually declined by 13%. Just to sum up: the total gap between sufficiency and actual income—that is, the amount of money that would be needed every year to bring all Hoosier households up to the ALICE threshold—was $34.2 billion in 2014. Those households earned $15.8 billion. They received $15.1 billion in combined charity and government assistance. That left a gap of $3.3 billion dollars. It would take 3.3 billion dollars of additional wages or government welfare or charitable support to bring Indiana families up to subsistence.

The numbers are staggering, but they only tell part of the story. The human costs of poverty and inequality to both individuals and society are immense, but we seem to accept those costs; certainly, Americans have not demonstrated the political will to address the issue. It’s easier to attribute poverty to those “lazy” people who refuse to pull themselves up by their (nonexistent) bootstraps than to identify and reform the systemic inequities that make it difficult or impossible for many hardworking people to achieve self-sufficiency.

It’s undoubtedly unfair of me, but I blame Calvin….

 

Happy Constitution Day

September 17th is Constitution Day–an appropriate time to consider how well Americans understand that important document.

Diana Owen is a widely respected professor at Georgetown University. She recently fielded a survey intended to measure public agreement with the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Questions were posed in “everyday” terms and did not identify their sources.

A press release from the Center for Civic Education, reporting on the research, was titled “Survey Reveals Americans Do Not Know Much About the Constitution, But Support Its Basic Ideas.”

I guess that support should comfort us, although the widespread ignorance of our most basic legal framework sure doesn’t.

Today, the Center for Civic Education, in cooperation with Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University, released the results of a Constitution Day survey that found that only 14 percent of Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The survey indicated that although Americans might not be well-informed about these documents, there is widespread agreement on many of the basic ideas they contain that transcends party affiliation, political ideology and demographics. Survey items include basic ideas in the documents without identifying their sources.

Some of the survey’s key findings:

  •  Only 14 percent of Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and 22 percent indicate that they know very little or nothing about them. Furthermore, 64 percent say they know some things about these documents. Overall, 86 percent of respondents are aware that they are not well-informed regarding the foundational documents.
  • Although 86 percent of respondents are not well-informed about these documents, the vast majority support the basic ideas and goals of American government in the Declaration of Independence. For example, a large majority (92 percent) believe it is a responsibility of government to ensure political equality and 86 percent believe it is a responsibility of government to further the right to the pursuit of happiness by providing equal educational opportunities for all students.
  • Large majorities of Americans support the establishment of justice (78 percent) and promotion of the general welfare (75 percent), which are among the six purposes of government set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution, even when party affiliation, political ideology and demographics are taken into account.
  • More than 80 percent of Americans support elements of the Constitution and its amendments that protect the rights to freedom of belief and expression; the protections of due process of law for the rights to life, liberty and property; and political equality.
  • Significant majorities of Americans think that government is doing a good job protecting such rights as freedom of belief and expression.

I suspect that much of the support for these broad principles, however heartfelt, is superficial; for example, virtually all Americans support “liberty,” but different constituencies have very different definitions of what genuine liberty looks like. (Is it the “liberty” to refuse to bake cakes for gay couples?)

A majority of respondents (78 percent) agreed that a main purpose of government should be to promote the welfare of all citizens, although only 30 percent think that government is doing a good job of that. (Unsurprisingly, Republicans (35 percent) were more inclined than Democrats (29 percent) and Independents (26 percent) to feel that the government’s promotion of the general welfare is adequate.) A majority recognized that the benefits and burdens of society–employment opportunities, educational opportunities and income and taxation– are not distributed fairly (60 percent).

Interestingly, nearly half of all respondents also recognized that Americans are not treated equally under the law today.

Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, stated, “The good news is that the social contract is largely intact as reflected by substantial agreement among the people about the central purposes government should serve despite what appears in daily media reports to be a high level of polarization and unwillingness of opposing parties to enter into civil dialogue, negotiation and compromise….

“It is encouraging to note that the survey revealed that the greater respondents’ knowledge of the Constitution, the greater the acceptance of its basic ideas. This clearly points to the need to implement effective programs in schools and universities as well as programs for adults that educate people about the principles and values embedded in our founding documents. (emphasis added)

The unanswered–perhaps unanswerable–question is: if knowledge of the Constitution diminishes further, will we lose our already questionable ability to function as a cohesive society?

Happy Constitution Day…..

A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Dishonesty Go Down….

Evidently, you can’t even trust research from Harvard. At least, not all of it.

A number of media outlets have reported that in the 1960s,

prominent Harvard nutritionists published two reviews in a top medical journal downplaying the role of sugar in coronary heart disease. Newly unearthed documents reveal what they didn’t say: A sugar industry trade group initiated and paid for the studies, examined drafts, and laid out a clear objective to protect sugar’s reputation in the public eye.

The consequences of this deception are several, and they are all deeply disturbing.

First–and most obvious–is the misdirection of subsequent research and government efforts to improve heart health. Thanks largely to the reputation of Harvard and its research faculty, the publications sent other medical researchers down different paths, and retarded accurate evaluation of the role sugar plays in heart disease.

The trade group solicited Hegsted, a professor of nutrition at Harvard’s public health school, to write a literature review aimed at countering early research linking sucrose to coronary heart disease. The group paid the equivalent of $48,000 in 2016 dollars to Hegsted and colleague Dr. Robert McGandy, though the researchers never publicly disclosed that funding source, Kearns found.

Hegsted and Stare tore apart studies that implicated sugar and concluded that there was only one dietary modification — changing fat and cholesterol intake — that could prevent coronary heart disease. Their reviews were published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which back then did not require researchers to disclose conflicts of interest.

These, and similar, research reports led to the belief that fat, not sugar, was the culprit, and Americans went on a low-and-no fat binge. What was particularly pernicious about the hundreds of new products designed to meet the goal of lowering fat content was the food industry’s preferred method of making low-fat offerings taste good: the addition of sugar. Lots of sugar.

The health consequences of this dishonesty–however grave– are ultimately less troubling than the damage done to academic credibility.

We live in an era where significant numbers of people reject scientific facts that conflict with their preferred worldviews. News of academic corruption provides them with “evidence” that science is a scam and scholarship–especially scholarship that debunks their beliefs– is ideologically tainted.

Even the best, most rigorous research studies are only as good as the hypotheses tested and the methodologies employed. Some will inevitably prove to be flawed, no matter how honestly conducted. That’s unfortunate enough, but when industry can “buy” favorable results, it further undermines the credibility of all research results.

The discovery of the sugar industry’s role in twisting nutritional research results joins what we now know about the similar machinations of cigarette companies and fossil fuel industries.

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style, examining the causes and effects of our mounting levels of social distrust. I wish I could say that time has made the book and its conclusions obsolete–but I can’t.

It’s understandable–but deeply disturbing– that so many Americans no longer trust science, business, government or each other.  Without trust, social capital erodes, suspicion replaces collaboration, and societies disintegrate.