The Left must be wiser

Or…how I learned to let go of Merrick Garland

I wanted Merrick Garland to be on the Supreme Court. I thought the refusal of Senate Republicans to give him a hearing was childish and short-sighted. I thought it set a dangerous precedent. We are seeing the fruits of that to some extent now in the actions of Senate Democrats, many of whom seem to be leaning towards retributive obstruction. Many of my friends on the Left are rallying around the idea. Part of me even feels good thinking about that idea.

Then I start thinking about D2: The Mighty Ducks. Yes, the silly hockey movie featuring Joshua Jackson as a plucky underdog and Emilio Estevez as the star-struck coach of Team USA. Indeed, a Disney movie has something to teach the Left about responding to opponents who just won’t play fair.

I have visions of Democrats pounding their chests at how good it feels to give Republicans what’s coming to them, along with the sad realization that they haven’t achieved anything at all.

Coach Bombay: Did y’all enjoy that?

Team Left: Yeah!

Coach Bombay: Ok, well so did they. Because they’re still three points up, and we’re one period away from defeat.

That’s exactly how I see things playing out if the Left pursues a path of vengeance against the Right. It will feel awesome. We’ll make popcorn, then laugh as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell rip their hair out trying to get anything done. President Trump will make some ill-advised decisions, and we’ll get to say “I told you so”! Maybe we’ll even pick up a Senate seat, but I wouldn’t count on it. Then, after we’re done high fiving one another, we’ll realize something; we lost again. We. Lost. Again.

Here’s the thing. The Left is losing right now where it actually matters. Sure, Hillary won the popular vote, but Trump still won the White House. The Senate belongs to the Republicans, and the 2018 elections do not favor Democrat’s chances at getting it back.

Keeping the Supreme Court at a 5-4 split is the best case scenario right now, with three left-leaning judges in their waning years on the court.

I’m not even going to talk about the House.

And so, I’m afraid we just have to let go of the Merrick Garland ordeal. As an Auburn fan, I understand how much it sucks to get screwed out of a victory (Google “2004 Auburn Football” and “BCS”). But it’s done. The Right won that round, even if they kinda-sorta-definitely cheated to do it. If the Left does the same, we will still end up with a Trump appointee to the Supreme Court, and further, it will damage our credibility with the moderate American. Worst of all, we will further reinforce a terrible precedent that we didn’t start. Make no mistake; we will take the blame for it. Dissent by total obstruction got us where we are now. Do we really want to continue down that course?

Here’s the thing. Neil Gorsuch is probably the best offer we are going to get from this administration. I vehemently disagree with his personal stances on women’s rights, labor, corporate participation in campaign funding, and a whole host of other issues. However, I also think he is a fair-minded judge, especially if he meant this:

“I respect, too, the fact that in our legal order it is for Congress and not the courts to write new laws. It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people’s representatives. A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge…” Neil Gorsuch, as quoted in the Denver Post

I’ve read one or two of Judge Gorsuch’s decisions, and he seems to make rational, compelling arguments.  I have to admit that I agreed with him about the 13-year old burping case that ran in the Washington Post (BTW – WTF?). My point is, we could do a lot worse. To me, this is not a hill worth dying on.

Beyond the Supreme Court, I think the Left needs to return to their greatest strength: Wisdom. My dear friend Google defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” The Left has those things, if only we can stay out of our own way. Statistically, we are well-educated. Our membership has a wealth and diversity of life experience. At our best, we have used good judgment, even when it cost us political points. The Civil Rights Act cost Democrats the South, but it was the right decision. Passing the Affordable Care Act (an admittedly flawed bill) probably cost us the House and the Senate. It still helped millions of Americans get health care they needed and, by that measure, it was the right thing to do. Democrats led the way on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the GI Bill, The Peace Corp, Americorps, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Freedom of Information Act, The Voting Rights Act, Public Universities, and Public Broadcasting. We accomplish incredible feats when we trust wisdom over political expediency. I think we should trust our fellow Americans to recognize that.

So what should the Left do now, if not stand in absolute opposition to our friends on the Right. I’m not an experienced hand when it comes to political strategy, but I have a few ideas. They aren’t that original. I learned and/or adapted most of them from people older and more knowledgeable than me. That being said, here are my suggestions for a wiser Left in the Trump era.

1) Build a bipartisan coalition against the most radical aspects of the Trump administration.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham are already expressing grave concerns about the direction of the President’s foreign and defense policies. We need to work with them on this. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski oppose Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education. We need to work on education policy with them. I’m not convinced Paul Ryan is comfortable working with the Trump Administration on key issues like healthcare or economics. We need to hear him out and try to find an acceptable middle ground, even if the resulting policy has his name on it. Moderate to Liberal voters are not stupid. They understand intelligent compromises. We need to trust that.

2) Pick the right battles with Trump administration.

Under normal circumstances, I’d be outraged if Democrats failed to act against even the least controversial of Trump’s actions. Ten years ago, I protested almost everything George W. Bush did (I never thought I’d miss him, but I do. Read this and tell me you don’t respect “W” just a little bit more). However, these are not normal circumstances. We have to stop taking the bait on every cringe-worthy Tweet and offensive remark. Steve Bannon, a self-avowed Alt-Right Nationalist, has been given a principal position on the National Security Council. The leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Intelligence community have seemingly less influence on the President than a man who reportedly said “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  That’s happening. There are things about this administration that scare the crap out of the President’s own party. In keeping with Suggestion #1, we need to work with people on the Right in these cases.

3) Focus on local elections, especially in the red states.

I live in Alabama, y’all, so I am well-acquainted with the art of losing elections all the damn time. In previous Presidential elections, it has given me the freedom to vote my conscience, knowing with certainty that it will have no impact on the result. That kind of thinking has to change. In my home state, Republicans had a hysterically scandalous 2016. Our Republican governor was nearly impeached by his own party over an alleged affair with his political adviser  (they attended the inauguration together, BTW), our Republican Chief Justice was removed from the bench (again!) for failing to comply with federal law, and our Republican Speaker of the House went to jail for virtually every form of financial corruption imaginable. I wish I was making this stuff up.

If the Democratic Party can’t make progress in Alabama under these conditions, we are in more trouble than I thought. We need to campaign in earnest to win every election we can. Alabama’s Democratic leadership has issues aplenty, but there are many young Democrats who are not a part of that. You probably have friends and neighbors who respect you and might just vote for a Democrat if it were you. We won’t know if we don’t try. If we’re going to shrink the divide between elitist coast dwellers and blue collar America, we’re eventually going to have to start winning in places like my beloved South. It’s time to get off our asses and do something about it.

4) Make better arguments

For all our education, we members of the Left are not great at winning arguments with the Right. Sure, we can make long-winded, accurate, well-crafted statements (guilty as charged), but we don’t change minds. We get accolades from people that already agree with us, feel awesome, and go on with our lives thinking we’ve achieved something. Instead, we need to engage with people who disagree with us and learn what they actually care about. We need to educate our friends about things like poverty without waving our smug opinions in their faces. We have to learn to be right without being stuck-up about it. That’s going to take practice and a whole lot of feeling stupid to do. That’s all the more reason to do it. If you aren’t spending time with someone who disagrees with you, make an effort to do so. If you change your mind about a few issues, all the better. The first step to changing minds is being open to changing your own. If you aren’t willing to do that, you’re no better than Ann Coulter.

Bonus: Here’s a book to read if you aren’t well versed in the art of the argument.

5) Stop being offended and focus on things that actually matter.

I’m not saying that people don’t say hurtful, insensitive things. They do. I’m not saying feelings are unimportant. They are. But we are going to have a hard time shaping a meaningful political discourse if all we do is get mad whenever someone offends somebody. Bill Maher is right about this. So is the ever-vulgar Jonathan Pie. Instead of demanding apologies for politically incorrect statements with no meaningful consequences, save your anger for actions with real consequences: the Flint water crisis, Keystone XL, systematic poverty, spacial segregation. These issues are worth getting angry and righteously indignant about. These are the issues we can win on.

6) Be well-informed, and call out those who are not (especially if you agree with them).

We accuse the Right of getting their news from bad sources. But, we do it too. I cringe every time I see one of my friends post something I know is fake news just to support an opinion I agree with. I cringe even more when I share their posts without thoroughly vetting the information myself. If we want to go after the Right for perpetuating false information, we cannot do the same. Our single greatest argument is that our opinions are informed by facts. We have to be above reproach when it comes to this. We can’t afford not to be.

In closing…

Finally, I’ll leave you with this. I am proudly progressive. I believe the Democratic Party gets it right more often than not. As a more-liberal-than-not-moderate, I don’t agree with every idea that comes from the Left. For me, it isn’t about seeing my team win. It’s about believing in what I think is right. And if you can’t win doing what you think is right, then you don’t deserve to win. There’s a clip from The Newsroom I like to watch whenever I feel complacent about my duties as a citizen. You’ve probably seen it before, but I’d like to share it anyway. Jeff Daniels asks why liberals lose if they are so smart. I think that’s a fair question, and one we need to confront. The stakes are too high not to.

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Black Friday and Consumerism

Something we sociologists are keenly interested is how society determines what  is a “good life”, regardless of whether or not that life is actually beneficial to us.

Property of The Tiny Life

The consumer culture is particularly relevant in the wake of our annual Black Friday shopping spree, when people go to incredible lengths to get the best holiday deals on stuff that, arguably, no one really needs. Black Friday has started earlier and earlier the last few years, to the point that a certain unnamed “big box” retailer actually opened their doors at 8:00 PM on Thanksgiving day. The irony is obvious – on the same day we remember to be thankful for what we have and who we share it with, we can now dash out to get the newest “big thing” that we or our loved ones don’t have.

Why are we so consumption happy, to the point that shopping for new things cuts into traditionally off-limits days such as Thanksgiving? There are a variety of opinions on the matter. Some think that society elites are increasingly promoting consumption in order to promote their own profits. There may be some truth to that, but there is a problem with this argument – people who stand to make a profit traditionally do everything to maximize profit. Something else has to have changed in society to increase the degree to which consumption consumes us (yes, that just happened).

In his classic sociological work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that the rise of the protestant belief in work and profit as a sign of spiritual standing was the key to the explosion of modern capitalism. While the mechanisms of capitalism have been at work as long as people have traded goods and services, it wasn’t until the values of society shifted that accumulating wealth through trade became virtuous activity.

Something similar may be happening with consumerism. While people have always enjoyed having nice things, and producers have always been more than happy to supply nice things, a shift in values in contemporary culture (going back to the 1950’s) has allowed consumerism to become a defining feature of daily life.

So what changed? I would argue that the belief in self-determinism enables our consumer culture. In particular, American society has see a rise in the belief that people are able to create themselves as they see fit. Choice is the virtue of the day, desirable even when our choices have terrible results (for more on that read The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl). If you are unhappy, there is something you can change to make it better, choices you can make to become better and happier.

This belief in choice trickles into our spending habits. For my part, I am prone to believe that owning a new piece of technology will inherently make me more productive. I’m guilty of believing that purchasing the right product will necessarily make my life better. When it doesn’t, I am unhappy again, and the cycle starts over.

This isn’t a novel idea. The Salecl book has a lot to say about it, and there are a host of social theory books that dance around the argument that consumerism is driven by the pressure to “choose a better self.”

So what do you think? Do you consume because you think it will make your life better?

If so, how do we rewire this faulty logic to become more satisfied in our lives?

What’s your consumer vice? Does it actually make your life better?

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Filed under Consumerism, Culture, Economics, Uncategorized

A Technology Dilemma?

From “More Americans Find Technology Stressful”, Mental Health News

Sorry for the long break, my work/school life was pretty busy last week and I didn’t have a lot of time to write. In the meantime, however, I’ve been thinking about technology as it impacts our social existence. I’d like to talk about how we engage with technology and how it changes the way we interact with the world. Most importantly, I’d like to talk about some of the problems that might come with integrating technology into every aspect of our daily lives.

The inspiration for this post came completely by accident. I was listening to a interview with Derek Webb, one of my favorite musicians, when he started talking about some “tensions” he was experiencing regarding the impact technology has on the way we live our lives. The link is below (to save you some time and banter I’ve started the video at the 1:32 mark):

Derek Webb on Technology

I was quite interested in the idea that technology devices have become miniature “worldviews”, through which we engage with both information and one another. This becomes even more interesting when the technology has no “off switch”, meaning we are constantly responding to what is going on with our smart phones. This has some advantages like being able to respond to crises quickly, keep in touch with a huge network of friends, or work on a project from literally anywhere.

Those advantages can come with some serious implicit demands, however. Consider the following possible expectations that come with technology:

1. If I can respond to a crisis quickly, then I must respond to a crisis quickly.

Sure, responding to things like hurricanes as quickly as possible is almost certainly always a good thing, but what about work? If your boss can e-mail you at 11:30 pm, and you can receive it instantly in bed via smartphone, does that mean you should reply immediately? If your boss knows you received and read the e-mail at 11:31, does that make you feel pressure to “take care of one quick problem”? Problems that are, in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal may seem more pressing than they are simply because technology expands their presence in our lives.

2. If I can stay in touch with many people, then I must know what is going on with many people.

This is my dilemma with Facebook. It seems that there are constant updates in the lives of everyone I know. If I am not constantly checking “the feed” then I won’t know what is going on with someone when I run into them in “real life.” A brief example would be what I call “breakup etiquette.” I think it is mostly understood that, when a person is going through a breakup, people are supposed to be considerate and not talk too much about the relationship around them. Before Facebook, someone would have to tell you about the breakup. Thus, if I ask someone about their girlfriend and they told me they had been broken up for weeks, I wouldn’t be rude for not knowing about it. Now, however, I could know about the breakup the instant it happened, so it might be rude to not know about it (even if I missed the news in my feed of 500+ friends).

 

3. If I can be working at all times, I should be working at all times.

I do a lot of statistics as a sociologist. Thirty years ago, I would not be able to do this from home. I would have to wait until I had access to a massive computer to run my statistics, then wait while the computer chewed on my data. Now, it is totally possible to access and work with data from virtually anywhere, including a smart phone. The same is true of word processing, slide shows, and all kinds of things that people do to be “productive”. But the knowledge that we could be working on something might increase the pressure to get it finished instead of kicking back away from work.

Thinking about it…

These are just a few thoughts about the way advances in technology could be problematic for society and potentially hazardous to our personal lives. So what do you think? Webb suggests that there should be “sacred spaces” where technology does not intrude into our lives, and this is an intriguing idea. We haven’t done a lot of predicting the impact of new technologies before rolling them out. Should we be putting “guard rails” on technology at the society level, before it is “too late”, as Webb suggests?

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The Problem of Wealth Inequality

My first post on the Productivity-Wages Dilemma seemed to create a bit of a stir, and I am fairly satisfied with the start to the blog. With this post, I’d like to talk about another problem related to economics.

First, take a look at this chart.

Source: Edward N. Wolff, Working Paper No. 589: “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007”, Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, pp. 44, March 2010.
Web source: http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_589.pdf

I doubt this will come as a shock to anyone, but there is massive inequality in the distribution of wealth in the United States. Just looking at this handy chart, which is a pretty non-controversial representation of wealth distribution, you can see a few things.

1) The top 1% control more than a third of the wealth in this country (hence the Occupy Movement’s “99%” buzzword).

2) All together, the top 20% control roughly 85% of the country’s wealth.

3) The bottom 40% control a measly 0.2 percent of the country’s wealth.

Is this a problem?

I think it is important to know why wealth inequality is a problem if we are going to spend a huge amount of time and effort arguing about it. If the only consequences of wealth inequality are simply that a few people have really really big houses, and most everyone else has a reasonably sized house, then wealth inequality simply becomes an issue of luxury. Beyond being jealous of people that have more, this would not seem to be a huge problem.

However, Richard Wilkinson, a social epidemiologist (someone who studies social determinants of health and disease), points out that wealth inequality is a direct cause of some big society level problems that are worth worrying about. His TED talk on the matter is below (don’t worry, it’s only 17 minutes long).

If you trust Wilkinson’s data, you can draw two basic conclusions

1) Having an overall wealthy country does very little to impact health and well-being in a country.

2) More income inequality in a country has all kinds of impacts on health and wellbeing, such as – Worse Life Expectancy, More Murder, More Obesity, More Mental Illness, and Less Trust

I hope it is easy to agree that income inequality is a problematic phenomenon in the US, if for no other reason than it breaks down trust and erodes the general well-being of individuals living in our society.

Wilkinson points out that there are numerous ways to diminish wealth inequality. Some do it through welfare programs, and some through economic policies that reinforce more even distribution of income before taxes.

How should the US deal with income inequality?

Should we leave it alone? Should we use taxes to redistribute wealth? Should we do something to reduce income inequality before taxes?

These are important issues that sociologists, economists, and the general public as a whole are wrestling with.

So what do you think?

What should the US do (if anything) to address the wealth inequality issue?

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Filed under Economics, Inequality, Work

The Productivity-Wages Dilemma

This is a problem…

Cumulative change in hourly productivity, real average hourly compensation, and median compensation, 1973–2011*

Image

I’ve been stewing over this chart for the last couple of days, racking my brain as to how we can better ensure that workers’ wages reflect their actual output. I am not alone in this endeavor, as Lawrence Mishel, an economist, has an excellent blog post outlining his research on this phenomenon over the last twenty years.

As a sociologist, I am no stranger to the concept of alienation, popularized by Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx). I’m not a huge Marx fan, and generally think his solutions to problems of inequality lacked consideration of the human element. However, I think his summation of the problem of labor and wages still has merit; workers do not get paid for what they make, but instead for the time they spend working. Workers are alienated from their work because they do not directly benefit from what they produce.

I think Mishel’s work on the productivity-wage disconnect is a perfect expression of this problem. When workers are paid for “putting in their forty hours”, it is perfectly logical that, as technology makes work more efficient, those forty hours would be more profitable to employers. However, since the worker is compensated for time, rather than production, it is not surprising that increases in wages lag behind increases in productivity.

Policy-makers have attempted to fix this problem with varying degrees of wealth redistribution, minimum wage increases, and other solutions that do not address the fundamental problem of alienation; workers are paid for their time, not their labor. If we, as a society, are going to fix the gap between productivity and wages, we have to reconnect work to compensation.

How do we do this? I am a sociologist, not an economist, so I do not have a precise answer. I do have an idea for discussion. Instead of compensating time, can we not instead attach production directly to payment? This already happens in some fields. For example, freelance journalists are often paid a rate per story or per word. We could do something similar in other fields.

There are some obvious roadblocks to this. Establishing how much an individual worker’s efforts contribute to a company’s profits will take a lot of work (pun intended). Paying for hours at work is no better, though. I think most wage-workers inherently understand that what they do in an eight hour work day does not capture how much they have accomplished. Paying for productivity is a better deal for everyone. Lazy employees who drag out their tasks will receive less compensation than harder working peers, which will make it easier for employers to put their payroll to its most efficient use. For employees, working quickly and efficiently would be rewarded with more free time, helping people who work hard be able to spend more time with their families, work on personal projects, and invest in social relationships. I don’t have data for this, but those sound like things that increase overall well-being, which is something we definitely need.

Thoughts?

*Note: Data are for compensation of production/nonsupervisory workers in the private sector and productivity of the total economy.

Source: Economic Policy Institute. Analysis from Total Economy Productivity data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Labor Productivity and Costs program, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis National Income and Product Accounts, and Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata.

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October 22, 2012 · 6:27 pm