Tag Archives: politics

Markets and Inequality

Those of us who believe in the efficacy of markets (a fundamental tenet of capitalism) must be prepared to accept a certain degree of inequality. Your invention of a better mousetrap will cause my older model to lose market share; your admirable work ethic will earn you a higher wage than my preference for taking long weekends.

Theoretically, in a genuinely capitalist system, the market will reward merit more liberally than it will reward mediocrity.

Of course, a genuinely capitalist system will not be rigged to benefit the powerful and/or well-connected at the expense of others. America has long since morphed from capitalism to corporatism, a system in which lobbyists for powerful interests are able to ensure that government regulations favor their well-heeled clients.

In capitalist systems, the theory is that the promise of greater rewards is an incentive for innovation and diligence; advocates justify the resulting inequalities by pointing out that everyone benefits from the resulting entrepreneurship. A rising tide, we are told, lifts all boats.

When capitalism devolves into corporatism, only the boats of the powerful and well-connected get lifted, and it becomes much more difficult to sustain the pretense of meritocracy.

In capitalist/corporatist systems, rampant inequality poses challenges that ideology cannot satisfactorily address. Social scientists and historians tell us that when the gap between rich and poor widens too much, there are very negative consequences for social and political stability. In order to manage the size of the disparities, most first-world countries today have “mixed” economies; governments socialize the services that markets cannot provide (public safety, environmental protection, healthcare, etc.) and—importantly—recognize the existence of an obligation to citizens who for one reason or another, cannot earn a living wage.

In the United States, we have a number of elected officials—in Congress, certainly, but also in statehouses around the country—who reject the logic of mixed economies, and refuse to recognize the threat that extreme inequality poses to social stability and national cohesion. Paul Ryan’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s brutal (kick ‘em when they’re down) budget proposals, the persistent efforts to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide critical medical care to the needy, are assaults that strike many of us as indefensible—especially since they are almost always accompanied by tax giveaways to the rich.

Those arguing on behalf of these measures insist that their purpose is to defend market economics. Most of them know better; the rhetoric is an effort to divert attention from the fact that government is doing the bidding of powerful, rich and very greedy special interests.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this assault on the poor is the not-so-subtle characterizing of needy Americans as “Other.” “They” are immigrants, living off the sweat of “real” Americans; “they” are lazy people of color. If “they” are female, they’re immoral sluts popping out babies in order to qualify for the public dole. It doesn’t matter that none of these characterizations are remotely factual; the dog-whistle references and dishonest descriptions find a willing audience among people who see themselves as part of an America that is rapidly losing cultural hegemony.

The “Other” is the shiny object that distracts attention from corporatist wheeling and dealing.

If current levels of material inequality are bad for America—and they are—this cynical effort to distract our attention by widening our social divisions is even worse.

Pastoral versus Ideological Church and State

Speaking of religion, as we did yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a column by E.J. Dionne that I read a couple of weeks ago, because I think it has application to what I will (somewhat grandiosely) call the human condition.

Dionne is a Catholic, and he was examining the differences between the approach to that religion of two other Catholics–the Pope, and Steve Bannon.

Bannon believes that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.” He calls for a return of “the church militant” who will “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity,” which threatens to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

What’s the Weather Like on Your World?

I don’t know whether anyone reading this remembers it, but there used to be a popular song titled “Two Different Worlds.” Clearly, Americans are now living in different worlds—albeit not the benign ones referred to in the song. Indeed, we seem to occupy different universes.

Consider:

Franklin (son of Billy) Graham says that there is only one election left to “save America” from godless secularism.

The secularists, he claimed, want to prevent people from praying anywhere other than inside a church, so that “having a service like this in a few years could be illegal.”

A pastor named Bickle has endorsed Ted Cruz, because he is confident that Cruz will “hunt down” Jews who refuse to accept the “grace” of Christ.

Recently, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign proudly announced the endorsement of Mike Bickle, the head of the controversial International House of Prayer and an extremist pastor who believes, among other things, that Oprah Winfrey is a forerunner to the Antichrist. Among Bickle’s more radical views is his prophecy that as the End Times approach, all Jews will be given a chance to accept Jesus, warning that if they do not accept “the grace” of Christ, God will then “raise up a hunter” who will kill two-thirds of them “and the most famous hunter in recent history is a man named Adolf Hitler.”

A certain Rick Wiles, identified as an “End Times Radio Host,” says Obama had Scalia killed.

Wiles said that the assassins who killed the conservative justice “deliberately left the pillow on his face as a message to everybody else: ‘Don’t mess with us, we can murder a justice and get away with it.’ And I assure you, there’s a lot of frightened officials in Washington today, deep down they know, the regime murdered a justice…. This is the way a dictatorial, fascist, police state regime takes control of a nation.”
It’s reasonable to assume that few people are as disconnected from reality as these and similarly-disturbed folks. I take comfort in the belief that there have always been unstable, frightened and angry people blaming all the world’s ills on some group or other— that we just didn’t hear about them as often before the Internet.
But how rooted in reality are the rest of us?
A recent article from the Washington Post suggests that the Right and Left see each other as very different countries—and that what both see is wildly inaccurate. Republicans think that 46% of the Democratic party is African-American; double the actual percentage of 24. They estimated the percentage of Democratic atheists at 36%–the actual percentage is 9. And they were equally off-base estimating the percentages of union members (44%) and LGBT voters (38%); those actual percentages are 11 and 6, respectively.
For their part, Democrats think that 44% of Republicans earn over 250,000/year, although the actual number is 2%.  They estimate the percentage of Republicans over the age of 65 at 44%; the actual number is 21%. They came closer with their estimates of the percentages of Southerners (44%, actually 36%) and Evangelicals (estimated 44%, actual 43%).
The remainder of the article describes the very different worldviews and reactions of voters listening to President Obama’s State of the Union Speech. It was hard to believe they were listening to the same words.
All of this leads to some pretty sobering questions.
What produces such gaps in the polity’s understanding of the world we inhabit? And more importantly, how do people who occupy such dramatically different worlds live together?

 

A Useful Metaphor

You’d have to be living in a cave to escape all the hype about the new Star Wars movie. I rarely go to movies, but even I felt the need to see this one—if only to hold my own with my grandchildren.

For the record, I thought it was a pretty mediocre movie. I have always thought that Star Wars was space opera with great special effects, rather than inventive science fiction, but I think I understand the appeal of the franchise.

It’s the good guys against The Dark Side.

In real life, the lines are not so simple. Most people are neither saintly or unremittingly evil. (As a friend of mine likes to say, incompetence explains so much more than conspiracy.) In  many situations, determining right and wrong can be complicated. But—probably for that very reason— we humans tend to pine for bright lines, for simple demarcations between “us” and “them”—with “us” being the good guys and “them” the bad guys.

Of course, there really are “bad guys.” Sometimes, those we label “bad” are simply misguided, or mentally incapacitated  (or really, really stupid), but there is no denying that there really are a lot of malevolent people in the world—not to mention the assholes, the self-aggrandizing, self-centered power-seekers who aren’t affirmatively evil, but who don’t care about the harmful consequences of their actions.

These days, in various arenas and more often than we like to admit, the “bad guys” seem to be winning, and winners are attractive. Political psychologists tell us that people like to identify with winners, to climb onto the bandwagon of popular opinion.

In real life, we are challenged to reject the affirming mindlessness of the mob— to refuse to go over to The Dark Side, no matter what the temptations or inducements—and to do so without becoming “bad guys” ourselves.

Draw your own political analogies….

Public Assets, Private Profits, Politics

And the beat goes on.

Over the past several years, Indiana government has entered into a variety of deals in which public assets have generated or guaranteed private profits. The toll road lease probably received the most attention. Daniels’ ill-fated privatization of the welfare application process–and the ensuing lawsuits– was high profile for a time, but his Administration’s thirty-year agreement with Leucadia National Corporation to purchase the output from its Rockport coal gasification plant (coincidentally managed by a long-time political ally) received significantly less coverage.

Locally, of course, we’ve seen a number of dubious transactions, notably the 50-year parking meter contract.

More recently, a politically-connected developer has been given long-term control of the Indiana Dunes. 

The parkland surrounding Indiana’s towering dunes was intended to keep industry away from a geological marvel molded over thousands of years at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

Yet five years after a politically connected developer suggested officials should hire a company to rehabilitate a dilapidated beachfront pavilion at the popular tourist destination, a small construction project has ballooned into a decades-long privatization deal with the state. It includes two beachfront restaurants, a rooftop bar, a glass-walled banquet hall promising “the best view in Indiana” — and there is potential for more development to come.

What’s more, the company ultimately picked to do the job was co-founded by Chuck Williams, the developer who pitched the initial idea. Williams, a regional chairman of the state Republican Party, worked behind the scenes for over a year with the administrations of two GOP governors, shaping and expanding the plans.

There are times when so-called “public-private partnerships” make sense. There are times they don’t. The problem is, these deals increasingly occur without the public vetting required to make that determination.

In the case of the Indiana Dunes, critics characterize the deal as a “usurping” of public land in the name of private development, and charge that the state Department of Natural Resources did not hold public meetings or seek out more competitive bids. Worse still,

Preliminary figures submitted to the DNR by Williams suggest the project will yield a handsome profit. In its first year, the development is expected to turn a $141,000 profit — a figure projected to climb to nearly $500,000 in a decade.

In return, the DNR will get 2 percent of the company’s annual revenues and $18,000 a year in rent for property that state parks Director Dan Bortner describes as having a “million dollar smile.”

The merits or flaws of this particular contract aside, Hoosier citizens need to demand a halt to the steady sell-off of public goods at both the state and local level until a full public debate can be held to consider the rules–and the ethical guidelines– that should govern privatization agreements.

In far too many cases, the risks are socialized and profits privatized–with We the People guaranteeing the revenues of politically-connected cronies.

And we wonder why citizens are cynical….