Category Archives: Random Blogging

From Your Mouth…

My grandmother used to have a favorite response to rosy predictions: “From your mouth to God’s ears.” In other words, “I sure hope so, but whether God is listening remains to be seen.”

That was my reaction to a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times.In a very real way, Brooks column–titled “The American Renaissance Has Begun “–  put flesh on President Biden’s frequent assertion that “America is back.”

He began the analysis by harkening back to the post-World War Two period, when West Germany and Japan emerged from widespread devastation to experience “miraculous” economic growth, while Britain, with its institutions more intact, entered a period of slow economic growth.

Brooks cited a 1982 book by Mancur Olson, which offered an explanation:

“The Rise and Decline of Nations,” Olson concluded that Germany and Japan enjoyed explosive growth precisely because their old arrangements had been disrupted. The devastation itself, and the forces of American occupation and reconstruction, dislodged the interest groups that had held back innovation. The old patterns that stifled experimentation were swept away. The disruption opened space for something new.

Brooks hypothesizes that the pandemic may have ushered in similar disruption, and he bolsters that argument with a number of data points: the 4.4 million new businesses that were started in 2020 represent a modern record.  The 38 percent of workers who took some additional training during 2020 was a substantial increase from the 14 percent who did so in 2019. U.S. start-ups raised $69 billion dollars, which was a 41 percent increase over the previous record, set in 2018. Productivity is up. Perennially low savings rates increased.

After decades in which consumption took preference over savings, Americans socked away trillions of dollars in 2020, reducing their debt burdens to lows not seen since 1980 and putting themselves in a position to spend lavishly as things open up.

Brooks says these and other data points are signs of three major shifts–growing worker power, a “rebalancing” of population between urban and suburban America, and a similar rebalancing of work and domestic life. I think the latter two predictions are “iffy”–it remains to be seen how many businesses will institutionalize remote work and how, and those decisions will affect workers’ need–and willingness–to relocate and commute.

If population dispersal does occur, our political polarization might ease; Brooks quotes a professor of urban studies who predicts such movement and as a result, forecasts a decline in the economic and cultural gaps between coastal cities and inland communities.

It remains to be seen whether these predicted population movements and changes in the culture of work will materialize, but the shift of power from employers to workers is clearly underway, and just as clearly overdue.

Power has begun shifting from employers to workers. In March, U.S. manufacturing, for example, expanded at the fastest pace in nearly four decades. Companies are desperate for new workers. Between April 2020 and March 2021, the number of unemployed people per opening plummeted to 1.2 from 5.

Workers are in the driver’s seat, for now, and they know it. The “quit rate” — the number of workers who quit their jobs because they are confident they can get a better one — is at the highest in two decades. Employers are raising wages and benefits to try to lure workers back.

This is a “rebalancing” that matters. Unions were formed originally to counter the disproportionate power of employers. Over time, in some industries, unions then became dominant–more powerful than employers. Over the past decades, however, as technology and gig work and successful corporate lobbying eviscerated union power, employers once again gained the upper hand–and a number happily exploited both their regained advantage and their workforces.

The operation of supply and demand, referenced by Brooks, is returning a measure of power to workers. (The recent Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare will also help with that “rebalancing.” Employers’ positions were substantially strengthened by America’s insistence on tying health insurance to employment –workers with pre-existing conditions were effectively precluded from quitting and losing their coverage.)

The next few years will tell the economic story. But we also need to recognize that America  won’t truly be “back,” let alone “better,” unless we repair our infrastructure–physical and social–and protect our democracy.

If there’s a God, I hope she’s listening…..

 

 

Investigating Rural Rage

Over the past several years, it has become impossible to ignore America’s urban/rural divide. The causes of that divide are subject to debate, and the focus of a good deal of research. Back in 2018, Robert Wuthnow–a noted scholar– published a book based upon eight years of interviews with rural folks across the country. It was titled The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, and Wuthnow was interviewed about his findings by Sean Illing of Vox.

it made for fascinating, albeit depressing, reading.

The interviews were conducted between 2006 and 2014, and included people in every state in the country. The research team limited its focus to small towns with fewer than 25,000 people and excluded those close to suburbs or cities in recognition of data showing that suburban and exurban cultures differ from those of more isolated small towns.

Approximately 90 percent of small-town America is White, a demographic factor that explains a great deal (although Wuthnow notes that diversity is growing even in these precincts, as Latinos increasingly settle in them).

Wuthnow argues that the anger being expressed in rural America is less about economic concerns and more about the “perception that Washington is threatening the way of life in small towns.”

And just how, Illing asks him, is Washington accomplishing that?

I’m not sure that Washington is doing anything to harm these communities. To be honest, a lot of it is just scapegoating. And that’s why you see more xenophobia and racism in these communities. There’s a sense that things are going badly, and the impulse is to blame “others.

They believe that Washington really does have power over their lives. They recognize that the federal government controls vast resources, and they feel threatened if they perceive Washington’s interest being directed more toward urban areas than rural areas, or toward immigrants more than non-immigrants, or toward minority populations instead of the traditional white Anglo population.

These attitudes have hardened as small-town America has continued to empty out. These smaller communities have lost population steadily over the last few decades, and Wuthnow’s interviews and the book’s title reflected that reality. As he points out,

It’s not as though these people are desperate to leave but can’t. They value their local community. They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small and closed. Maybe they’re making the best of a bad situation, but they choose to stay.

They recognize themselves as being left behind because, in fact, they are the ones in their family and in their social networks who did stay where they were. Most of the people I spoke to grew up in the small town they currently live in, or some other small town nearby. Often their children have already left, either to college or in search of a better job somewhere else.

In that sense, they believe, quite correctly, that they’re the ones who stayed in these small towns while young people — and really the country as a whole — moved on.

That feeling of being left behind generates resentment–and that resentment is directed toward politicians they don’t like and especially toward people who don’t look or pray the way they do.

Wuthnow also found significant fear of change– expressed as a fear that traditional moral rules were “being wiped out by a government and a culture that doesn’t understand the people who still believe in these things.”

I think the concerns about moral decline often miss the mark. I think a lot of white Americans in these small towns are simply reacting against a country that is becoming more diverse — racially, religiously, and culturally. They just don’t how to deal with it. And that’s why you’re seeing this spike in white nationalism.

Wuthnow cautions against painting rural America with too broad a brush, and of course he’s right. Not all small towns are filled with seething reactionaries, just as not all urban neighborhoods are enclaves of brotherly love. Still, the data about opioid addiction and suicide rates should give pause to the notion that every small town is Mayberry or Green Acres or even Schitt’s Creek.

I missed Wuthnow’s book when it came out. I need to find it, because in the three years since its publication, the anger he studied has gotten more delusional and considerably more dangerous. It’s as if the people Wuthnow interviewed were fireplace tinder, and Trump and his sycophants were the arsonists who lit the match…

 

How To Be Happy

Almost every morning, this blog highlights problems. It’s usually a downer, I know. (I often tell friends that, sometimes, having the ability to vent regularly is all that keeps me from searching for a glass of hemlock.) But every so often, I’m reminded that we really don’t live in a dystopia, and that lots of folks–including yours truly–are pretty happy most of the time.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to be happy when you are a middle-class privileged person with a nice place to live, enough to eat, and perfect grandchildren. But we all know people who manage to be happy despite life circumstances that are anything but comfortable, raising the question: why? Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for happiness–or at least contentment–while others who appear incredibly fortunate, apparently enjoy being miserable?

Are misery and happiness basically genetic, or is there a role for public policy? Several countries seem to think that policy plays a part.

Several years ago, when my husband and I visited Bhutan, I remember being impressed with that country’s Gross National Happiness Index. So much more humane than the economic measures we favor in our “advanced” country! The United Nations also sponsors a Happiness Index (which usually finds Denmark’s citizens to be the world’s happiest). In 2016 the UAE installed a Minister of State for Happiness. In 2019, New Zealand introduced a wellbeing budget to ensure policies consider citizens’ quality of life.

Happiness has also become the focus of academic study. Some time back, the Guardian ran an article on the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is an independent think tank, founded in 2013 to “look at happiness from a scientific perspective”, by analyzing data to figure out why some folks are happier than others and–more importantly– how societies can boost their citizens’ wellbeing.

The article questioned Meik Wiking (the “happiness guru”), who founded the Institute, about the impact of the pandemic on happiness.

What the pandemic has done is underscore the joy of simple pleasures. The link between happiness and money has been well-documented over the years and while, in general, rich people are happier than poor people, it’s not that money buys happiness but that “being without money” and unable to afford food and shelter causes unhappiness. Once you’ve passed a certain threshold, “if you’re already making good money, and you make £200 extra, you buy a more expensive bottle of wine but it doesn’t matter”….

Covid-19 has also diminished the possibility for social comparisons. “There’s an American saying that ‘A happy man is a man who makes $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband,’ and that concept shows up a lot in the data,” says Wiking. We derive pleasure from being more successful than our neighbours or friends – but become anxious when we’re not. By purging our social media feeds of sparkling shots of Michelin-starred meals and island getaways, the pandemic has reduced angst, envy and fear of missing out.

Genetics clearly plays a role in happiness, as studies of identical twins have demonstrated, and researches have also documented what they call “the natural rhythms of life,” finding a “U curve” in which happiness tends to be highest when we’re young and again when we’re old–or at least, past middle age. Where we live is also important– least-happy countries include war-torn Syria, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

“I don’t think we can go to people in refugee camps and say, ‘Listen guys, happiness is a choice,’” says Wiking. “We need to acknowledge external and genetic conditions and not put the entire responsibility on the individual.”

The happiest 10 countries – the Nordics, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland – are all wealthy, so money matters. But so does policy. Countries with similar GDPs have very different levels of life satisfaction, and some poorer nations, such as Costa Rica, score high.

According to Wiking, a nation’s success at converting “wealth into wellbeing” mostly comes down to its ability to eliminate sources of unhappiness. Denmark’s widespread access to education and healthcare removes anxiety- inducing competitiveness. Wiking says that the Nordic countries are not the happiest in the world – they’re the least unhappy.

What I found when I was doing research for my book God and Country supports Wiking’s thesis. People in countries with strong social safety nets were not only happier than Americans, they were less violent. And of course, if happiness is undermined by comparisons with those who have more than we do, America’s current “gilded age” is a constant “in your face” source of discontent.

Public policies can’t change your DNA. They can’t turn pessimists into optimists or make grief over loss less wrenching. But–as Wiking says–good public policies can make you less unhappy.

And that’s not nothing.

 

Some Things Aren’t Complicated

I often post about the complexity of the issues confronting us these days, but I will readily concede that everything isn’t complicated. In fact, some things turn out to be relatively simple.

Case in point: As the pandemic has eased, thanks to vaccinations, and Americans have begun returning to the restaurants and bars we all missed during our year of isolation, the media has been full of stories detailing the difficulty those establishments are having attracting staff.  Politicians and pundits have “explained” the problem via their respective  biases: Republicans, for example, have insisted that the reluctance to return to these jobs is a result of the unimaginable generosity represented by those $300 unemployment checks.

Several Red states, including Indiana, have rushed to terminate those payments–essentially, calculating that further impoverishing the unemployed will force workers back into the low-wage labor market.

A number of economists have suggested that blaming the problem on unemployment payments, as satisfying as Republicans may find that explanation, is incorrect, and emerging data–that pesky thing we call “evidence”–would seem to confirm that conclusion. A number of media outlets, including the Washington Post have reported that there is even a relatively simple “fix” for the problem: better pay.

The owners of Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor had hit a wall.

For months, the 98-year-old confectionary in Pittsburgh couldn’t find applicants for the open positions it needed to fill ahead of warmer weather and, hopefully, sunnier times for the business after a rough year.

The job posting for scoopers — $7.25 an hour plus tips — did not produce a single application between January and March. So owner Jacob Hanchar decided to more than double the starting wage to $15 an hour, plus tips, “just to see what would happen.”

The shop was suddenly flooded with applications. More than 1,000 piled in over the course of a week.

When a variety of media outlets reported on Klavon’s experience, it prompted a number other business to emulate the tactic–and guess what?! That clever ploy worked for them, too!

As the Post story noted, across the country, businesses haven’t been facing a scarcity of workers — they’ve been facing a scarcity of workers interested in applying for low-wage positions.

The current shortage of workers isn’t solely a function of low wages, of course–the problem isn’t quite that simple. There are a number of other elements exacerbating the problem, as the article pointed out.

Republicans have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits for the shortage; Democrats and most labor economists say the issue is the result of a complicated mix of factors, including many schools having yet to fully reopen, lingering concerns about workplace safety and other ways the workforce has shifted during the pandemic.

That said,

The experience of 12 business operators interviewed by The Washington Post who raised their minimum wage in the last year points to another element of the equation: the central role that pay — specifically a $15-an-hour minimum starting wage — plays in attracting workers right now….

Enrique Lopezlira, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on the low-wage workforce, said the stories were a sign, albeit anecdotal, that the market was functioning as it should in the face of excessive demand for workers.

“The more employers improve the quality of the jobs and the more they think of workers as an asset that needs to be maximized, the better they’re going to be able to find and retain workers long term,” he said.

Several individual stories recounted in the Post article bear that out.

Many of the business operators interviewed said that the decision to raise their employees’ starting wage was not motivated primarily by altruism or a desire to do right: It just made good business sense.

They said wage increases would help attract stronger candidates, reduce turnover and elevate company morale and culture — important for customer-facing businesses such as restaurants.

“We’re going to see savings in retention and turnover, which is so expensive,” said Nicole Marquis, the founder and chief executive of HipCityVeg, a group of fast-casual vegan eateries with locations in Philadelphia and D.C. that recently announced a $15 starting wage. “And this is going to help with recruiting, which will help with our culture — and is really what drives profit at the end of the day and creates a long-lasting brand.”

No kidding.

Some things aren’t that complicated…

 

The Masks Have Come Off

I’m not talking about masks against COVID–although the utterly bizarre fight against mandates protecting public health are certainly part of the picture. (I’m a pretty hard-core defender of civil liberties, but I never thought I’d see people arguing that the Bill of Rights gives them the “liberty” to infect and perhaps kill their fellow Americans…)

The mask that has come off of far too many American faces is the mask of sanity.

When we have former military officers promoting coups, millions of Americans agreeing that the country is being run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, members of the U.S. Senate calling legislation to protect voting rights “partisan” and ideologues of every stripe self-righteously pontificating to their chosen “choirs” rather than participating in efforts to right the ship of state–what can we call that, other than insane?

Actually, a comment to this blog by JoAnn recently contained an excellent descriptor: these are “Twilight Zone Americans.” 

We haven’t come very far from 1919, when in the wake of the First World War, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, with its often-quoted–and still painfully relevant– lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

I would argue that today, the “best”–i.e., the sane (these days, the bar is low)–don’t necessarily lack conviction. They are  simply uncertain in the face of complexity and ambiguity.  On issues where they recognize shades of gray; they hesitate to act.

As an article on the subject of ambiguity explained, we need only look at history, recent and otherwise, for examples of catastrophic blunders made as a result of leaders’ inability to deal with contingency and ambiguity. And particularly when people are under stress,  faced with what they see as existential threats, their resistance to ambiguity grows strongest. 

We’ve all known people–some famous, some familial–who have gone from one political extreme to another with equally “passionate intensity.” A distant cousin of mine is a perfect example. In college, he was far Left; in later adulthood, equally far Right–and in both cases,  belligerently and rigidly so. These extreme shifts aren’t evidence that True Believers (at least, the leftwing variety) have been “mugged by reality” and come to their senses, as a popular saying a while back had it. Rather, they are people for whom certainty is critically important–the content of their dogma may change, but their need for purity, their need to be on the right side of a bright line, doesn’t. That need overwhelms recognition of inconsistencies (not to mention patently improbable aspects) of whatever worldview they are wholeheartedly embracing.

In 2016, before the election that gave us the assault on national sanity that was and is Donald Trump, The Atlantic had an article titled “How American Politics Went Insane.” The intervening years have underscored much of the article’s argument, especially this observation:

There no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon.

The article described the then-contemporary political reality as chaos, and it’s hard to argue that much has changed. 

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

 Normalizing chaos ensures that the people’s business cannot be conducted. It’s insane.

Recent reports of state-level political wars–almost all, it must be noted, within the GOP, since the multiplicity of constituencies within the Democratic Party forces Democrats to recognize complexity–are consistent with the described decline, and with the Twilight Zone. Idaho is just one example.

Indiana isn’t all that far behind.

Increasingly, American politics isn’t an argument between partisans who disagree about policy; it isn’t even “warfare without guns” as one popular description has it. It’s a battle between people who still live in the ambiguous and messy real world and the growing number of “passionately intense” Americans who are willing to take up actual arms in defense of demonstrably insane “explanations” of the world.

We live in a scary time.