Tag Archives: culture

Two Countries, Both American

There’s an important new book by Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, titled The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy.  It paints a depressing  portrait of America and the evaporation of what used to be a healthy middle class.

His assertion: America is no longer a single country. Instead, we are two separate nations, and those nations have dramatically different resources, expectations and fates. As a post to the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking put it,

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

According to Temin, the two sectors have entirely distinct financial systems, residential options and educational opportunities, and their inhabitants have very different experiences when they get sick or interact with the law.

Worst of all, those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today.

A review of the book in the Atlantic was titled “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost Twenty Years with Almost Nothing Going Wrong.”  The reviewer cites Temin’s assertion that racism, abetted by deliberate policy choices, produced these separate nations:

The upper class of FTE workers, who make up just one-fifth of the population, has strategically pushed for policies—such as relatively low minimum wages and business-friendly deregulation—to bolster the economic success of some groups and not others, largely along racial lines. “The choices made in the United States include keeping the low-wage sector quiet by mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement.”…

Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.

The book does offer a way out– suggestions for remedying the hopelessness of those trapped in low-income America.

He offers five proposals that he says might help the country return to more equal footing. Some are fairly clear levers that many before him have recommending pulling: expanding access to and improving public education (particularly early education), repairing infrastructure, investing less in programs like prisons that oppress poor minorities, and increasing funding for those that can help build social capital and increase economic mobility. But other suggestions of his are more ambitious and involve fundamentally changing the cultural beliefs that have been reinforced over generations. Temin advocates doing away with the belief that private agencies can act in the interest of all citizens in the way that public entities can, and should. His final recommendation is to address systemic racism by reviving the spirit of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s and 1970s, when civil-rights legislation helped to desegregate schools and give black Americans more political and economic power.

I agree that changing the culture is imperative; but it is also an incredibly slow and difficult process.

If someone knows how, I hope they’ll share….

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday’s post about the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Baltimore police department contained several suggestions about implementing change. A recent series of articles in the Washington Post pointed to a reform I omitted.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

According to the Post, many police departments have inadequate “early warning” systems, and many have none at all. As a result, “bad apples” are protected, rather than identified, until they do something so egregious that it cannot be covered up.

An early-warning system, of course, is only as good as the data it includes. Some systems, according to the Post, exclude the sort of information one would expect–complaints filed, incidents of excessive force–instead recording things like grooming violations (growing a beard in violation of the rules) or absences. And as one officer noted, recording even relevant data doesn’t do any good if no one is reviewing it and acting on it.

The real problem is a very human one: the deeply-embedded tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us versus them.” The culture of a police department is very similar to that of a military group. Such “bonding” can be an important asset when danger approaches, but it can lead to a counterproductive protectiveness when one of “ours” is accused of improper behavior. When the accusation comes from someone who doesn’t look like “us”–someone who is culturally or socio-economically or racially different–that tribal instinct can overcome good judgment.

As strong as that impulse is, it behooves us to recognize that there are a lot of good guys in blue who play by the rules and require others to do the same.

Back in my City Hall days, I remember a conversation with the then-Chief of Police, about a lawsuit that had just been filed against a member of his force. Far from being defensive, he immediately agreed to investigate the allegations, saying “When we give someone a lethal weapon and the authority to use it, we have an obligation to make sure he is well-trained, emotionally healthy, and wearing a badge for the right reasons.”

Says it all.

Black and Blue

I know I am not the only American who is struggling to come to terms with the events of the past week: the videos of police killing black men whose “crimes” consisted of selling CDs and driving with a broken taillight, the equally horrendous murder of Dallas police by a U.S. Army reservist bent on “killing white people,” and the use of a sophisticated robot to kill, rather than incapacitate or capture, that gunman.

Most reasonable people understand that every group–racial, occupational, whatever–has its bad apples, deranged or bigoted or otherwise damaged individuals. In the case of police, the rogue behaviors displayed by a small percentage of officers makes police work more difficult and more dangerous: for one thing, when people fear and distrust law enforcement, they are unlikely to co-operate and provide helpful information; for another, as we have seen in Dallas (and last year in New York),  shocking evidence of such behaviors can provoke attacks on all police by unstable individuals.

When one of those attacks, or another high-profile crime, is committed by a black person, it reinforces stereotypes of black criminality, making the lives of the vast majority of black citizens more difficult. (Of course, when whites like Dylan Roof massacre churchgoers, his actions do not feed into widespread beliefs that all whites are murderous. The fact that whites are not seen as monolithic and interchangable, while marginalized minorities are treated as if members of those groups (African-Americans, Muslims, etc.) are fungible, is one aspect of what has come to be known as white privilege. The difference is incredibly unfair, but it exists.)

The question before us is: what do we do?

There are practical steps we can take to reduce the likelihood of gratuitous police violence; many police departments are already implementing better training protocols and better psychological screening of applicants, and others–especially in smaller, less professionalized police forces– need to do so. We also need to eliminate systems like the one in Ferguson,where citations for low-level infractions actually funded the police department, incentivizing unnecessary confrontations between citizens and police. (For that matter, we need to stop criminalizing everything from not using your seatbelt to driving with a broken taillight, and let police focus on crimes against person and property.)

As many people have pointed out, when everyone is armed to the teeth, we shouldn’t be surprised by gun  violence. If not for the NRA’s stranglehold on our feckless lawmakers, we might be able to institute some reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.

Those and other measures should certainly be undertaken, but they ignore the elephant in the room.

Racism is certainly nothing new in America, but over the past few years we have seen an upsurge in nativism and bigotry of all sorts. It began with the ubiquity of talk radio–with Rush Limbaugh and his clones, who made money by appealing to the discontents of older white men, assuring them that women and African-Americans and various “others” were taking  jobs and status that was rightfully theirs. Fox News followed the script and amplified the resentments.

It got worse when we elected an African-American President; evidently, the thought of a black man occupying the White House was enough to make previously closeted white supremacists crawl out from under their rocks.

That led to Donald Trump, and his attack on “political correctness”–an attack seen by  legions of angry white guys as permission to discard hard-won norms of civility and respect. In Trump World, it is disdained as “politically correct” to refrain from ridiculing the disabled; “politically correct” not to display crass racism; “politically correct” to refrain from sexualizing or demeaning women.

Ultimately, what keeps police from disregarding the worth of black lives is a culture that genuinely values those lives. What keeps most citizens from breaking the law are social norms that value the rule and role of law. What keeps our diverse and polyglot nation from disintegrating is the conviction that we share an identity as Americans, that there is a “we” that supersedes our various tribal commitments.

Americans will probably never live up to our highest aspirations and principles, but when we discard them, when we celebrate crudity and name-calling and bigotry as “telling it like it is,” we betray those principles and degrade our communal life. Worse, we give damaged people from all groups encouragement to act on their anti-social impulses.

Last week wasn’t a face-off between black and blue. It was a test for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Those “Takers”

For the past three years or so, I’ve had my house cleaned once a month–an indulgence I justify to myself on the grounds that it frees up time I can use to write and teach. The woman who does the cleaning lives on a farm in Johnson County; most months, she brings her two teenagers with her. She has been utterly dependable, and has a key to the house; on “cleaning days,” I generally leave her money on the dining room table and go about my business.

Last Friday, I came home while the “crew” was still here. The teens were working, but their mom was sitting in her car in front of the house. The boy explained that his mother had had a heart attack that Monday.

I was appalled. Why on earth didn’t she postpone? Why was she driving? The son agreed. Looking concerned, he explained that she was worried about losing me (and others) as a client if she wasn’t dependable–and that he and his sister can’t drive.  I went to talk to her–to reassure her that I would have been fine with a postponement, that her health should come first–and I asked her about health insurance. She had Medicaid, she said, but “that doesn’t pay the light bill or put food on the table.” She assured me that she’d “be fine.”

Tell me again about Paul Ryan’s description of the “lazy” poor, and the “substandard” work ethic nurtured by their “culture.” Tell me again about Mitt Romney’s disdain for the 47% of Americans who just want to live off the “makers.” Tell me again about those constant Fox News’ stories about people who “rip off” taxpayers and live high on that generous social safety net we provide.

How many of the self-satisfied assholes who look down their noses at the growing numbers of struggling Americans would get out of their beds three days after a heart attack and go to work?

And how can the richest country in the world justify a system in which that’s necessary?

 

What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

Last night in class, one of my students asked me if I was aware that Topeka, Kansas had decriminalized domestic violence, to save the cost of prosecution.

She wasn’t hallucinating.

Who was it that decried a society in which people know “the cost of everything and the value of nothing?” How insane has criminal justice policy become when we spend upwards of 40 billion dollars every year on a drug war to (ostensibly) prevent people from harming themselves, but we won’t spend money to prosecute people who harm others?

What do these examples say about our cultural norms?  One possibility: our puritan impulses to insure that our neighbors are behaving “morally” drive policies from blue laws to censorship to alcohol and drug prohibition; while a still-lingering sexism convinces us that a man sometimes has to “assert authority” over his wife? (Never mind that men can also be the victims of domestic violence).

Social priorities really come into focus when money is tight.