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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Wealth inequality--causes and consequences

 According to Wikipedia, five states and at least four cities have taken steps to consider reparations for black Americans on the grounds that their relatively lower levels of wealth are due to slavery, segregation, and discriminatory economic policies.  Measured in the aggregate--which is how nearly everything having to do with race is measured nowadays--the wealth gap is indeed very large.  The Brookings Institution reports that median black wealth was $44,890 in 2022, compared to $62,000 for "non-white Hispanic" households, $285,000 for white households, and $536,000 for Asian households.  Many would argue, presumably, that black Americans have a greater claim to reparations than Hispanics--who certainly have suffered from discrimination--because most of them descend from slaves and their families have been in the United States for so much longer.  Using different statistics, I would like to suggest that the use of median values (or for that matter of mean values, which I have not seen) presents a very  misleading picture of the distribution of poverty and the problem of inequality in the United States.  Those problems are very real, but evidence suggests that they do not have a primarily racial cause and cannot have a primarily racial solution.

According to this table which I found online, the poorest ten percent of households in 2020 had negative or nearly zero net worth.  the poorest 40 percent had $100,000 or less of net worth, and the poorer half of our households had $200,000 or less in net worth.  I now want to refer you to Figure 3 on this page maintained by the Federal Reserve, which shows the racial share of these portions of our nation's households.  The graph I am using is the lower left one of the four graphs in that figure.  It is relatively small and I have to estimate values to some extent, but nothing I say will be wildly off.  Bear with me. After working with this graph for about an hour, I realize that it doesn't tell me exactly what I would like to know: the racial distribution of households in the lowest 10 percent of the population, the lowest 20 percent, etc.  Instead it shows the distribution in discrete percentiles, from the first to the 100th, of the income distribution.  I wish I could find the data I really was looking for, but I can't.  Still, the discrete points on this one will tell us a lot.

Let's begin with the 10 percent of households that are either in debt or have no or almost no net worth.  In the tenth percentile, about 45 percent of those households are white--the portion shown in blue on the graph.  About 33 percent of them are black,  about 18 percent of them are Hispanic, and about 4 percent ar Asian.  The bottom 10 percent households totaled about 12.9 million households or 33 million people.  If we assumed that the figures for the tenth percentile were valid for the whole poorest one-tenth of households in the country,  we would put the number of white Americans living in those net worth-less households was 14.9 million, compared to 11 million black people, 5.9 million Hispanics, and about 520,000 Asians.  Looking at the graph, however, it is clear that the percentage and thus the number of white households in the lowest five percentiles was significantly higher than in the 10th. (The poorest several percentiles owe many thousands of dollars each.) Thus, it seems clear that of the bottom 10 percent of the wealth distribution, more than half of them are white.

Let's do the same exercise for the 64 million households in the bottom half of the wealth distribution, 80 percent of whom own $100,000 or less and another 10 percent between $100,000 and $200,000.  Looking at the graph, you can see that the white share of households reaches 50 percent around the 17th or 18th percentile and grows to over 70 percent by the 50th.  I can't do a real calculation of the exact number of white, black and Hispanic households in the lower half of the population, but it looks as if about 60 percent of them are white, with perhaps 21 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic.   Interestingly enough, at the 50th percentile the shares of black and Hispanic households approximate 15 percent, which according to the graph to the right is also quite close to their total share of households. That means that the lower half of the income distribution includes 38.6 million white households, 13.5 million black households, and 10.3 million Hispanic households.  That translates to about 98 .5 million white people, 34.5 million black people, and 26 million Hispanics.

Now it seems to me there are at least two ways of looking at the inequality problem in our society.  Going back to the beginning of this post, we find that the median net worth of black, white and Hispanic households in the United States are $285,000, $44,890, and $62,000.  That sounds like being white is an enormous disadvantage and being black is a crippling disability.  The principle reason for those disparities, however, is the overwhelming dominance of white households in the upper reaches of the income distribution.  If we focus on the people who really need help--the lowest decile with negative or zero net worth, and the next 40 deciles with very little--we find that more than half of them turn out to be white.  That raises some very important historical questions.

It is now a liberal commonplace that slavery, segregation, and discriminatory policies have caused income inequality between the races in the United States.  That would imply that those factors are the reason that about 11 million black Americans live  in households with no assets and 34.5 million black Americans have less than $200,000 in assets (and 80 percent of them have less than $100,000). That interpretation, however, leads us to another question:  why then do 14.9 million white Americans find themselves with negative or 0 net worth, and another 83.6 million have less than $200,000?  Slavery and discrimination cannot be the cause of that.  I can imagine two possible explanations for this.

The first is essentially a riff on the common conservative explanation for minority poverty--that it is a matter of culture.  One could argue that while slavery, segregation, and public policies are what have made black and Hispanic people poor, poor white people must suffer from serious cultural deficiencies.  Actually there is good evidence that poor people of all races now suffer from the same social pathologies. Charles Murray has been attacked for some of his writings about black people, and at times, I think, with good reason--but I was very impressed by his book Coming Apart, which is about poor white people, not poor black people, around metropolitan areas.  He found that in the last decades of the last century their attitudes, values, and ways of living had become increasingly dysfunctional, including breakdowns of family life, drug use, and aversion to work among many young males.  The illegitimacy rate among white people is now higher than the rate among black people when Moynihan wrote his famous report in 1965, and there are more white single parents now than black.  It doesn't make any sense, in my opinion, to racialize these problems.  Millions of blacks and Hispanics are not suffering from them, while millions of white people are.

My preferred explanation for the presence of 50 percent of the population with no or very little net worth, however, is simply the evolution of the American capitalist economy since the 1970s.  This is laid out very clearly in a series of charts at this remarkable web site, showing what has happened to income and wealth distribution in the last 53 years, since 1971.  I am going to reproduce one of its most interesting charts, one which deals specifically with race.

The chart shows, remarkably, that average black income as a percentage of average white income rose from 50 percent in 1948 to about 68 percent in 1971--even though for most of that period at least half of black Americans were living  under legal segregation.  From then until 2018, however, that progress slowed.  So did the progress of the whole lower half of the US population, as other carts in the web site show.  Thanks in particular to very high top-bracket tax rates, the strength of labor unions, and a massive housing boom--which helped everyone by increasing the stock of housing so much--GDP gains went in large measure to the lower deciles of the population.   In the last half century they have gone mostly to the very top.  That--not slavery from 1619 to 1865 or segregation from then until the 1960s--is the reason for the tremendous economic inequality that we all face today.

The insistence that began, I think, with Lyndon Johnson, that poverty is mainly a minority problem and that therefore solutions to it must focus on helping minorities, has not only failed to address our real economic problems, but has also had disastrous political consequences.  The whole lower half of our population is very unhappy, and rightly so, with the state of our economy, the life it offers them, and the shrinking chances of improving their position.  Most minority voters blame discrimination for their lot, apparently, and vote Democratic.  But the white voters in the lower 50 percent can't blame discrimination, and they understand how public policies having nothing to do with race--such as free trade agreements and rollbacks of union rights--have hurt their position.  They apparently blame Democrats more than Republicans for this, perhaps because Democrats still claim to be the party of the working class, without doing very much about its plight.  The whites in the lower half of our wealth distribution now vote heavily Republican--and there are far more of them than there are blacks and Hispanics, as we have seen.  In addition, recent elections and polling show blacks and Hispanics trending Republican.

The diversity movement in all our major institutions has, I am sure, increased minority representation within those institutions significantly--but it has done little or nothing for the lower half of the population because it is not attacking the real causes of its problems.  In fact, we all stand or fall together, economically, politically, and the world at large.  We desperately need leaders who can return to that simple creed.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Back to Minneapolis

 In December I posted about the controversy over the death of George Floyd and the guilt or innocence of the police officers who were convicted of his murder, drawing in part--but only in part--on two podcasts  by Glenn Loury.  Their position, which I endorsed to some extent, has been sharply critiqued in a long substack post by Radley Balko, an investigative journalist specializing in criminal justice.  This post focused on the issue of whether the knee that Chauvin placed on Floyd's back, shoulder, and neck was part of an approved Minneapolis police technique.  Balko makes a strong case that while recommended procedures included a brief use of such a technique, they did not call for the sustained use that Chauvin made.  

Balko has now published another post on a much more critical question: what the original medical examiner's autopsy report actually said and what we really know about how Floyd died.  This is also a well-documented discussion that argues, in effect, that a great preponderance of evidence--including evidence from other cases--tells us that Floyd died of asphyxiation caused by Chauvin's pressure on his back and/or neck, but which also confirms the original statements of the medical examiner that his autopsy--the only autopsy actually performed--found no physical evidence of asphyxiation.  A prosecutor named Amy Sweasy Tamburino who spoke to Dr. Baker, the medical examiner, after his death, wrote immediately that Baker told her, “The autopsy revealed no physical evidence suggesting that Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation,” and that “if Mr. Floyd had been found dead in his home (or anywhere else) and there were no other contributing factors he would conclude that it was an overdose death.”  He also frankly expressed his worries that what he had found did not match the established "public narrative" in the case--that Chauvin had murdered Floyd.  Balko defends Baker's eventual decision that his death was indeed a homicide, however, on the grounds that evidence not related to the autopsy strongly supports it.

The key to this argument is the statement, confirmed by several experts in the field, that one can die of asphyxiation without having one's airway completely cut off.  One can apparently be breathing, but so shallowly that not enough oxygen gets into the body because of pressure on the diaphragm.  This is among other things another commentary on how the public seizes on the most emotional explanation of events.  Tens of millions of people think Floyd died because of pressure on his neck, but although Balko doesn't say this in so many words, his explanation suggests that pressure on his back, leading to pressure on his diaphragm, killed him.  Balko argues that this is a more plausible explanation of Floyd's death than a fentanyl overdose, because the level of fentanyl in Floyd's body was one that an addict could tolerate and because he was not behaving like someone who had overdosed.  This seems to me a strong argument, and, frankly, a conclusion that a jury should be entitled to reach, but because it falls short of a medical certainty--as Dr. Baker's comments made very clear--the controversy will continue forever.

In their last joint appearance Glenn Loury and John McWhorter repudiated, to varying degrees, some of what they said in the earlier podcasts on the case.  I too now wish that I had been more skeptical about the revisionist argument and I have done my best to make u for that here.  One one point, however, I still disagree with Balko.  He thinks that the public reaction to Floyd's death has done good. I don't.  For me, it is part of another great American tragedy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The end of US foreign policy?

 A well-functioning democracy depends upon a wide area of agreement between the political elite and the average voter.  American democracy functioned very effectively from about 1933 through 1965, and continued to function at least adequately for at least a quarter-century after that.  That applied particularly to foreign policy.  Presidents defined, and the bulk of the public accepted, an enormous, unprecedented role in the world for the United States.  Threatened by the Vietnam War, that consensus re-emerged with somewhat different ground rules in its wake.  During the last quarter century it has completely fallen apart, and the United States may losing the world role that enjoyed for the last two-thirds or so of the twentieth century.

I showed in No End Save Victory how Franklin Roosevelt convinced the American people that they had to prepare for and fight the Second World War.  He saw that war on the horizon by 1937 at the latest and probably a few years earlier, but he discovered that the country was not willing to face up to that possibility.  The fall of France in the spring of 1940 changed everything.  The nation accepted his analysis that a German victory over Great Britain--widely anticipated in the summer of 1940, and a possibility to be reckoned with for at least eighteen months after that--would put the western hemisphere at risk.  The Germans had leapfrogged from Germany into Norway before invading France, and they could use their air power to mount similar operations into Iceland, Greenland, and then Labrador or Newfoundland.  Japan also took advantage of Germany's victory over France and Holland to threaten their Far Eastern possessions, and in September 1940 Germany, Japan and Italy signed an alliance against the United States. In response Congress agreed  to double the size of the Navy by 1944, increase military aircraft production by orders of magnitude, and pass a peacetime draft.  Those measures eventually enabled the United States and its allies to launch decisive offensives against Germany and Japan in the middle of 1944 and end the war a year later.  Meanwhile, Roosevelt also sold Congress and the American people on the idea of the United Nations.

Harry Truman initially presided over wartime demobilization and focused on domestic affairs, but in 1947 he persuaded the nation to make a costly investment in the future of Europe with aid to Greece and Turkey and the Marshall Plan.  Still, the defense budget fell fairly steadily during his first term.  Events in late 1949 and 1950 transformed the situation.  First, the USSR exploded an atomic bomb. Then North Korea attacked South Korea--a move that the entire world assumed had been directed by Stalin.  (It had in fact been approved by him, although it was Kim Il-Sung's idea.)  Governments in both Western Europe and the United States immediately concluded that Stalin might make a similar attack in Europe at any moment, and the US began mobilizing for a possible new conflict on the scale of the Second World War.  The country accepted that this was necessary, and as the Korean War dragged on, the most numerous dissenters asked whether an immediate atomic attack on the USSR would be best.  The big war did not come, but the same view of the Soviet threat persisted into the early 1960s.  Eisenhower shifted the defense budget away from ground and naval forces and towards a greater reliance on nuclear weapons of all kinds, but also expanded US commitments around the world. In 1960 neither Kennedy nor Nixon questioned any of these assumptions.

The Vietnam War soured visible parts of the Boom generation on intervention around the world, and led in 1973 to the end of the military draft.  I have written here before that I believe that to have been a catastrophe--not for foreign policy reasons, but because the drafted military was a great force for unity among our population and did a remarkable job of training uneducated Americans of all kinds for modern life.  The war also persuaded administrations from Ford through Clinton that ground wars had to be avoided or wound up very quickly.  Yet Reagan apparently had the nation behind him when he revived the rhetoric and some of the strategy of the tensest parts of the Cold War, and he was vindicated, of course, by the collapse of Communism under Bush I.

After the fall of Communism the military downplayed possible war with other great powers and much of the military was significantly downsized--but every President from Bush through Obama endorsed the idea that the United States was now the only superpower and had a unique responsibility to shape events around the world.  Until 2001, foreign policy generally remained a secondary issue.  After 9/11, however, George W. Bush called upon the nation to embark upon a new crusade comparable in scope and duration to the Second World War to defeat terror and eliminate hostile regimes around the world.  Barack Obama toned down the rhetoric but did not abandon his assumptions, temporarily withdrawing all American troops from Iraq but increasing the effort in Afghanistan.  But by the time that Bush left office in the midst of a financial collapse, the public had lost interest in this new mission--and in 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency as the first candidate bluntly to challenge all the assumptions of post-1945 American foreign policy.

Partly because Trump continued to rely on establishment figures in leading national security roles for some time, he did not pull away from major involvements overseas until the very end of his term, when he began, but did not complete, the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  He did however repudiate or  undermine Obama's most important diplomatic initiatives--the Iran nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Cuba.  Trump has now run the Republican party for eight years, however, and House Republicans have now blocked aid to Ukraine, which is fighting for its life as a nation.  The national security establishment still believes in defending free nations against aggression, including both Ukraine and Taiwan (whose status as a nation is less clear), but that establishment, led by the president, has abandoned the hard work of persuading the country that it is right.  Like our journalistic and academic establishments, our foreign policy establishment believes so deeply in its own righteousness that it treats any opposition as the opposition's fault.  

Yes, our eight decades of presumed responsibility for what happens all over the world has led us into terribly destructive, divisive mistakes, and we have often betrayed principles such as national sovereignty that we claimed to stand for.  But it did allow most of the industrialized world to thrive in peace.  It also gave the  nation something it desperately needs: the sense of a common mission to which we can all contribute.  The end of that role will mark the end of an heroic era in US history.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Has wokeness peaked?

 Whenever one uses the term "woke" or "wokeness" in public, some people will argue that those terms are either meaningless or that they are conservative dog whistles--even though plenty of woke people use them.  Before getting to the topic of this post I want to try to define it.

Wokeness in my opinion can be defined both specifically and generally, and I will begin with some key specifics relating to three categories: race, gender (that is, relations between men and women), and gender identity.  The woke position on race holds that racial oppression is a key founding aspect of American life that persists to this day.  Such oppression, it holds, is the only reason why white people have more money and power than black people and Hispanics.  (Certain other minorities are now doing better than white people.)  Apostles of wokeness like Robin DiAngelo argue that white people don't even understand their own contributions to racism and need training on this point.  Wokeness favors large-scale reparations to correct for centuries of oppression.  It also regards the criminal justice system as a conscious strategy to lock up black men.

Regarding gender, wokeness holds that the oppression of women by men is fundamental to our society in the same way, and that it, like racial oppression, relies largely on stereotypes of male and female behavior.  As with race, this view holds that oppression is the only reason for different average outcomes in men's and women's lives, such as the underrepresentation of women at the top of the corporate hierarchy or in STEM.  

And as for gender identity, the woke position is that being a man, a woman, or something different from either one--a "non-binary" identity--is a purely emotional concept, not determined by the body with which one has been born.  Going further, its proponents argue that anyone who rejects the gender normally represented by their body has the right to change their body to match their preferred gender, if necessary, and should be encouraged to do so, even before the ages of 18 or 21.  

Moving to the more general, woke people tend to regard the whole intellectual, social and cultural apparatus of western civilization as an oppressive machine, because it has promoted a different set of ideas about race, the role of the two sexes, and the issue of gender identity.  This tends to discredit any ideas about almost anything that anyone had before about 1968, when the ideas behind wokeness began to break into the mainstream.   And last but hardly least, the woke believe that their views are the only moral views on any issue that they care about, that therefore, that other views and those who hold them are simply oppressors with no right to a public platform to express themselves.  For the record, I am coming to believe that that part of wokeness--its desperate attempt to silence any critics--reveals an unconscious suspicion that the ideas to which its adherents have dedicated their lives might not be true  after all.  Opposing views, in my opinion, do not frighten people who are confident of the truth that much.

Now when I returned to the Boston area in 2012, I was delighted to begin receiving both the New York Times and the Boston Globe on my doorstep every morning--but in the intervening years I have wondered on many days why I bother, since they both have included so much woke content, strongly influenced by the above assumptions, so often.  This peaked, of course, during the racial controversy of 2020, when a long-time New York Times editor lost his job for greenlighting an unwoke op-ed on urban rioting by a United States Senator. Coincidentally I just discussed the influence of wokeness at another major newspaper, the Washington Post, last week.  Today, however, the opinion sections of both my daily papers feature very unwoke articles on two of the three critical topics that I identified above--suggesting to me that their editorial leadership might have realized that the pendulum has swung much too far in one direction and that opposing views now have to be given more weight.

The Globe piece is written by a great favorite of mine, the podcaster Coleman Hughes, who, I believe, is only twenty-seven years old.  He grew up in the very integrated community of Montclair, New Jersey, with a black father and a Puerto Rican mother, and entered Columbia University around 2014 or so.  He was appalled by the wokeness of much of the education he received there, began writing for Quellette, and now is a very successful podcaster to whom I have been listening to for about four years, and which now numbers 173,000 subscribers.  He combines wide-ranging curiosity and a very logical mind with an extraordinarily even emotional keel, and he has introduced me, via his podcast, to many interesting younger people such as Katie Herzog and the twitter sensation Aella,  The Globe piece is adapted from his new book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.  That book is a new manifesto, putting forth both a severe critique of the woke racial view and a powerful alternative one.  Authors such as Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Ta Na-hesi Coates, he argues, claim that race is nothing but a social construct, yet insist upon making it the foundation of their world view and of public policy.  He calls them "neoracists," and I hope that word catches on.  And typically, this child of western civilization recognizes that human beings naturally separate themselves into groups, but also prescribes the antidote which can enable us to live together and thrive. I quote:

"Humans have an inbuilt tribal instinct — a tendency to identify strongly with a group, to aim empathy inward toward its members and suspicion and hatred outward. That tendency appears to be baked into each of us at a biological level. That is our 'hardware.' The question is whether we use our 'software' — cultural ideas, early childhood education, political discourse, art, media, entertainment, and so forth — to amplify our natural tendencies or tamp down on them. The neoracist mindset, wittingly or not, amplifies them."

And here, he quotes two prominent thinkers from the past in support of his view of colorblindness as an ideal:

“'The significant thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin but the texture and quality of his soul,' King said.

"Likewise, on the subject of interracial marriage, King objected to the term itself. 'Properly speaking,' he wrote, 'races do not marry; individuals marry.'

"Another great antiracist, Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, opposed any concept that would subordinate individuals to groups. 'Races have never done anything,' she wrote in her autobiography. 'What seems race achievement is the work of individuals.' Notions like race pride, race consciousness, and even racial solidarity, she argued, are fictions that people accept because they appeal to base instincts."

It's great news that the Penguin Group, one of our largest publishers, has taken The End of Race Politics on, and its also good news that the Globe decided to excerpt it.  That hardly indicates a revolution in the Globe editorial offices.  The same Ideas section includes a column by perhaps its most woke columnist, RenĂ©e Graham, protesting attacks on Representative Cori Bush of Missouri and other black women as racist and sexist.  "For many Republicans," she writes, "this policing is about shaming and silencing Black women. These attacks have less to do with what or how something is said. The perceived offense is when Black women dare to speak at all or bring their full selves into corridors that have historically been spaces dominated by white men."  But I was genuinely surprised to find Hughes's piece in the paper all the same.  The times may be a-changin'.

The New York Times piece that caught my eye today is by an opinion writer, Pamela Paul--although it is very well-researched and well-reported.  "Ad Kids, They Thought They Were Trans," it is entitled. "They No Longer Do."  This is not the first time that Paul or the Times  have questioned the new ideology of gender and its application, but it is by far the most forthright.  Paul distinguishes the "gender dysphoria" that some people have felt from earliest childhood from something newer, which she calls "rapid-onset gender dysphoria."  This reflects the view which I have heard powerfully articulated by both Katie Herzog and Coleman Hughes that social contagion, much of it through social media, is largely responsible for the explosion of gender transitions among young people in the last decade or so.  And many of these young people--including some who have had major surgery to "affirm" their new chosen gender--now feel they had made a mistake.  Several witnesses told her they transitioned because it seemed easier to change their gender than simply to acknowledge that they were gay.  This is a very important point:  because most educated older Americans accept gay people completely, they assume that children and teenagers feel the same way, but self-acceptance for gay ones may still pose big challenges.  Many other kids questioning their gender are suffering from autism or depression.  These are not new ideas, and many parents have reacted skeptically when their teen-agers suddenly announce that they have decided that are living in the wrong body.  What is shocking and well-documented in the article, however, is that the American medical establishment appears largely to have been converted to the idea that teens suffering from gender dysphoria are at risk for suicide and should be encouraged to take medical steps to "affirm" their new view of themselves immediately.  European countries, including the UK, have become more skeptical.  I checked Twitter quickly, and Paul's piece has unleased violent opposition as well as a good deal of praise.  As with the Globe, this is only one piece.   If the New York Times ever found the courage to renounce the 1619 Project I would be far more impressed.  But both of these pieces confirm a place for forthright, systematic unwoke arguments in leading newspapers, and in the crazy world of 2024, that is good news.