All posts by Sheila

It’s The Culture….

The other day, I was at the IKEA loading dock. I’d bought two porch chairs, and was wrestling their fairly large and heavy boxes into my car. A gentleman, probably in his late 50s, was walking by, and stopped to help me. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me: he saw a woman struggling with something heavy and stopped to lend a hand.

I thanked him profusely, but on the way home, all I could think of was how utterly impossible it is to picture Donald Trump ever noticing that someone was struggling and offering help. (Yes, I know I’m obsessed with our insane and dangerous President…)

If there’s a moral to this non-story, it is that nice people make life better for everyone–that thinking of ourselves as part of a community of inter-dependent members who help each other out– rather than as isolated and besieged individuals– creates a supportive culture that really does “lift all boats.”

And that–strangely enough–brings me to public policy. (Pretty much everything these days brings me to public policy….)

As I was doing research for my most recent book, I looked especially at the way social safety nets around the world are constructed, and then at proposed reforms of the U.S. “system.” (I put system in quotes, because it’s a stretch to call America’s inadequate, costly patchwork of social programs a system.) I concluded that there are two major problems with our begrudging approach to a social safety net.

First, and most obviously, America’s welfare programs are inadequate, purposely demeaning and poorly functioning. There are major gaps in coverage, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements–the critiques are plentiful and easily available.

The second problem is far less obvious. Most of the programs in America’s social welfare system are designed in a way that divides, rather than unites, Americans.

Think about the difference between public attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, on the one hand, and TANF and similar programs on the other. Social Security and Medicare are universal programs–everyone who lives long enough will benefit from them. Then think of the resentment frequently voiced about more targeted welfare programs: the government is taxing me to support “those people.”

When a tax-supported program or service benefits everyone, it tends to bring people together rather than dividing them.( I’ve never heard anyone protest that they don’t want the streets fixed or the garbage collected because “those people will benefit from a service paid for by my tax dollars.”)

One of the most compelling arguments for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that it would be universal.  There are many other virtues to a UBI, as Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center has noted: the structure avoids creating poverty traps; it would raise worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it would decouple benefits from a particular employer or local jurisdiction; and It would simplify and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency. But it is because a UBI is universal that it is so appealing at a time when Americans are so divided.

Programs that treat all similarly-situated members of a community or polity the same tend over time to support a more cohesive culture; they avoid contributing to racial and socio-economic resentments.

UBIs and/or similarly universal programs won’t turn self-centered and emotionally crippled individuals like Trump into nice people who stop to offer help to strangers. But such policies would go a long way to easing–rather than exacerbating– unnecessary and unhelpful social tensions and divisions.

Americans have always had trouble balancing between too much “I” and too much “we.” Social supports that are universal enable a mean between those extremes: providing individuals with membership in a common polity–the “we”–and liberating them to follow their own life goals–the “I.”

A girl can dream…

How Children Become American

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a column in the Washington Post addressing the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.

Public schools are an essential tool for creating citizens–whether those citizens are “home grown” or new arrivals–and I certainly agreed with the points being made.

The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.

As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,”said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.

As the column notes, when millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerns about “culture change” prompted public school systems to emphasizing teaching about the Constitution, American history, and the obligations of citizens in a democracy.

Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.

How times have changed!

As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.

Students in many states take no civics classes. Worse, as American schools have abandoned civics, American  lawmakers have largely abandoned any commitment to public education– funding vouchers and other privatization efforts.

And it matters.

Americans increasingly access different news sites and blogs, read different books (when they read at all), patronize different entertainment options, profess different religions–the life experiences we share have diminished pretty dramatically. Public schools are one of the last remaining “street corners,” where children from different backgrounds learn together. (Given residential segregation, even public school classrooms are less inclusive of difference than is optimal, but public schools beat most other venues.)

State voucher programs disproportionately send children to religious schools, where attendees share a particular religious background. There are no requirements that such schools teach civics, and no way to know whether or how they teach what it means to be an American.

If the knowledge displayed by my undergraduate students is representative, they don’t teach anything about the Constitution and embarrassingly little about the country’s history, good or bad.

The cited article argues that the schools can and should produce informed American citizens. Obviously, I agree–this is a drum I’ve been beating for a very long time.

But first, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education. Among other things, that means funding public schools and their teachers adequately. It means terminating the voucher programs that siphon money from those public schools, and doing much more to regulate and monitor charter schools (which are public schools.)

As Benjamin Barber has written, America’s public schools are constitutive of the public.

They are essential.

David Duke, Donald Trump And America

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, David Duke– the most prominent current member of the KKK–was running for Senate from Louisiana, and he made no bones about the similarity between his worldview and Donald Trump’s.

As Time Magazine reported at the time,

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is running for Senate in Louisiana, and he says Donald Trump’s popularity is helping him in the race.

“I love it,” Duke told the LA Times. “The fact that Donald Trump’s doing so well, it proves that I’m winning. I am winning.”

Duke also told the LA Times that Trump’s proposed policies, like building a wall along the border with Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the country, show the country is open to a white power message. “He’s talking about it in a visceral way,” Duke said. “Donald Trump is talking implicitly. I’m talking explicitly.”

The article also referenced an earlier report, linking Trump’s candidacy to a shadowy “think tank” providing pseudo-intellectual justifications for white supremacy.

The men eased past the picketers and police barricades, through a security-studded lobby and up to the eighth floor of a federal building named for Ronald Reagan. Inside an airy rotunda, guests in jackets and ties mingled over pork sliders and seafood tacos served by black waiters in tuxedos. There were celebratory speeches during dinner, crème brûlée for dessert. Apart from the racial epithets wafting around the room, the Saturday-night banquet seemed more like a wedding reception than a meeting of white nationalists.

The event was sponsored by the National Policy Institute (NPI), a tiny think tank based in Arlington, Va., dedicated to the advancement of “people of European descent.” NPI publishes pseudoscientific tracts with titles like “Race Differences in Intelligence,” runs a blog called Radix Journal (sample post: “My Hate Group Is Different Than Your Hate Group”) and holds conferences on topics like immigration and identity politics. This time it had gathered a group of 150 sympathizers in downtown Washington to discuss what the rise of Donald Trump has meant for the far right.

The article went on to consider the implications of Trump’s emergence as a hero to white nationalists, attracting fans like Richard Spencer, president of NPI.

For the first time since George Wallace in 1968, far-right activists in the U.S. are migrating toward mainstream electoral politics, stepping out of the shadows to attend rallies, offer endorsements and serve as volunteers. “It’s bound to happen,” Spencer says of white nationalists’ running for office one day. “Not as conservatives but as Trump Republicans.”

In the two and a half years since Trump’s Electoral College victory, a number of researchers have investigated the rise of white nationalism and its relationship to Trumpism.

The link is to Journalists’ Resource, which has compiled several such studies, and introduced that compilation with the following paragraphs:

As with any issue, Journalist’s Resource encourages reporters to look to academic research as a necessary tool in covering critical and complex topics such as right-wing domestic terrorism, the mainstreaming of white supremacy and their consequences. Research will help newsrooms ground their coverage and ask more probing questions.

Below, we’ve gathered and summarized a sampling of published studies and working papers that examine white supremacy and far-right organizations from multiple angles, including their online strategies for spreading propaganda and recruiting new members. Because this is an area of research that will continue to grow, we’ll update this collection periodically.

The studies provide insight into the targets of these groups (despite the rhetoric devoted to immigrant communities and poor economic conditions, violent White Supremacist organizations still predominantly mobilize against their traditional targets–blacks and Jews).

The studies also trace the spread of hate, conspiracy theories and aggression through cyberspace.

They find that racist organizations carefully plan out their communication to achieve three primary goals: to strengthen the group by increasing the commitment of existing members and recruiting new ones, to disseminate racist propaganda, and to create a sense of transnational identity.

America has always had hate groups and bigoted individuals. What we haven’t had is a  President–no matter how personally racist some have been– willing to publicly encourage them.

I’ll repeat what I have previously said: the 2020 election isn’t about policy. It’s about who we are and what kind of country we inhabit.

We can argue about policy once we have cleaned out the real “infestation.”

 

 

Those Tax Cuts: Take Two

Reactions to the Trump/GOP tax bill have mostly focused on the domestic consequences of that fiscal abomination: the steeply rising deficits and national debt; the “no show”  economic boost; the unconscionable further enrichment of the already obscenely rich; and Mitch McConnell’s stated intent to address that newly massive national debt by cutting programs that benefit the poor and elderly, notably Medicare and Social Security.

What hasn’t been widely reported is what Paul Krugman calls “foreign aid.”

Donald Trump often complains that the media don’t give him credit for his achievements. And I can think of at least one case where that’s true. As far I can tell, almost nobody is reporting that he has presided over a huge — but hidden — increase in foreign aid, the money America gives to foreigners. In fact, the hidden Trump program, currently running at around $40 billion a year, is probably the biggest giveaway to other nations since the Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, the aid isn’t going either to poor countries or to America’s allies. Instead, it’s going to wealthy foreign investors.

The 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act–which, as Krugman reminds us, is the only major legislation Trump can claim thus far– cut taxes on corporations. Significantly. As credible economists predicted, it led to a drastic reduction in tax revenues. Krugman pegs the shortfall at $140 billion just the past year.

Supporters of the bill claimed that the benefits would be passed on to workers in the form of higher wages, and they made a big deal over a flurry of corporate bonus announcements in early 2018. But those bonuses weren’t actually very big, and they didn’t continue.

In fact, at this point it’s clear that the bonus surge, such as it was, was all about tax avoidance: By moving up payments they were going to make anyway, corporations got to deduct the expense at the old, higher tax rate. Now that this option has expired, bonuses have dropped back to their normal level, or even a bit lower.

Job creation? Investments in the business? Nah.

The benefits of the tax cut have gone almost entirely to corporate shareholders, in the form of increased dividends and capital gains from corporations using their windfall to buy back their own stocks.

And a big share of these gains to shareholders has gone to foreigners.

Over all, foreigners own about 35 percent of the equity in corporations subject to U.S. taxes. And as a result, foreign investors have received around 35 percent of the benefitsof the tax cut. As I said, that’s more than $40 billion a year.

Krugman compares Trump’s gift to foreign investors with the amounts we expend on foreign aid.

In 2017, the U.S. spent $51 billion on “international affairs,” but much of that was either the cost of operating embassies or military assistance. The Trump tax break for overseas investors is considerably bigger than the total amount we spend on foreign aid proper.

Now, the U.S. economy is almost inconceivably huge, producing more than $20 trillion worth of goods and services every year. We’re also a country that investors trust to honor its debts, so the tax cut, irresponsible as it is, isn’t causing any immediate fiscal stress.

So Trump’s giveaway to foreign investors isn’t going to make or break us, although it’s probably enough to ensure that the tax cut will be, over all, a net drain on economic growth: Even if the tax cut has some positive effect on the total income generated here (which is doubtful), this will probably be more than offset by the increased share of that income accruing to foreigners rather than U.S. citizens.

Still, even in America, $40 billion here, $40 billion there, and eventually you’re talking about real money. Furthermore, it does seem worth pointing out that even as Trump boasts about taking money away from foreigners, his actual policies are doing exactly the opposite.

I seriously doubt that Trump understands any of this. After all, it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t the foggiest notion how tariffs work (or don’t). Or how government works, for that matter.

We shouldn’t be shocked to discover that the President is an economic ignoramus.

When Someone Tells You Who They Are, Believe Them

In the wake of the horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton (ahem–not Toledo), President Trump robotically read the sort of statement Presidents are supposed to issue in such situations.

When questioned, Trump denied that his rhetoric had anything to do with the increase white nationalist violence, despite the fact that his language was echoed in the “manifesto” posted by the El Paso killer. According to media reports, Trump’s reelection campaign has run 2,199 Facebook ads referring to immigration along the US-Mexico border as an “invasion,” the same word used in the manifesto.

The massacres have re-ignited efforts to pass sensible gun regulations, regulations that are critically needed. They have also highlighted the connection between gun violence and the white supremacy this administration encourages.

The Guardian recently reviewed a book describing that link.

Why does the United States refuse to pass new gun control laws? It’s the question that people around the world keep asking.

According to Dr Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, white supremacy is the key to understanding America’s gun debate. In his new book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, Metzl argues that the intensity and polarization of the US gun debate makes much more sense when understood in the context of whiteness and white privilege.

According to Metzl, white Americans are attempting to defend their status in the racial hierarchy by opposing gun control, healthcare expansion or public school funding. Of course, to sane people, that makes no sense; those are positions that end up injuring white guys as much or more than they hurt people of color.

The majority of America’s gun death victims are white men, and most of them die from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. In all, gun suicide claims the lives of 25,000 Americans each year.

In an interview, Metzl explained the link.

So many aspects of American gun culture are really entwined with whiteness and white privilege.

Carrying a gun in public has been coded as a white privilege. Advertisers have literally used words like “restoring your manly privilege” as a way of selling assault weapons to white men. In colonial America, landowners could carry guns, and they bestowed that right on to poor whites in order to quell uprisings from “Negroes” and Indians. John Brown’s raid was about weapons. Scholars have written about how the Ku Klux Klan was aimed at disarming African Americans. When African Americans started to carry guns in public – think about Malcolm X during the civil rights era – all of a sudden, the second amendment didn’t apply in many white Americans’ minds. When Huey Newton and the Black Panthers tried to arm themselves, everyone suddenly said, “We need gun control.”

When states like Missouri changed their laws to allow open carry of firearms, there were parades of white Americans who would carry big long guns through congested areas of downtown St Louis, who would go into places like Walmart and burrito restaurants carrying their guns, and they were coded as patriots. At the same time, there were all the stories about African American gun owners who would go to Walmart and get tackled and shot.

Who gets to carry a gun in public? Who is coded as a patriot? Who is coded as a threat, or a terrorist or a gangster? What it means to carry a gun or own a gun or buy a gun – those questions are not neutral. We have 200 years of history, or more, defining that in very racial terms.

Metzl noted that the period after a mass shooting is often very telling; if a white man was the shooter, the narrative focuses on the “disordered” individual. When the shooter is black or brown, the disorder is cultural and the narrative is about terrorism or gangs.

Or invasions and “caravans.”

Trump and his voters have told us who they are in no uncertain terms. The 2020 election will tell us how numerous those voters are–and how many of the rest of us are sufficiently concerned to vote.