Control of the Senate will be decided by 1.5% of the population

The Senate is a profoundly undemocratic institution. Because representation is apportioned by state, people in California (pop: 38.3 million) has the same number of representatives as Wyoming (pop: 582,658). California has one Senator for every 19.5 million people, while Wyoming has one for every 291,329 people. This leads to all sorts of distortions, since the mostly conservative, rural middle states have a stronger influence on policy than metropolitan areas. Dylan Matthews calculates that you can get a majority in the Senate using only senators representing 17.82% of the population. Adam Liptak writes that the political implication of this bias: 

Beyond influencing government spending, these shifts generally benefit conservative causes and hurt liberal ones. When small states block or shape legislation backed by senators representing a majority of Americans, most of the senators on the winning side tend to be Republicans, because Republicans disproportionately live in small states and Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

The upcoming midterm election gives us a great example of how profoundly undemocratic the Senate is. Assuming the Republicans hold the seats they have, they can gain a majority by picking up Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Those six states represent 3.7% of the U.S. population.  But not everyone votes. I pulled up the 2010 Census data (Table 4C) and ran some calculations. Let’s assume that turnout is the same and that these states still have roughly the same share of the population. If that’s true, the Senate will be be decided by 4.8% of voters, 2% of the U.S. Voting Eligible Population (VEP)* and 1.5% of the total population of the United States. Democracy.

Here’s my calculations:


* Citizens over 18.


Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

This is your brain on money: Why America’s rich think differently than the rest of us

Consider the following recent headlines:

The Internet is replete with apologias for the rich. They are thinly sourced and even less well thought. The goal is simple: to justify the unjustifiable chasm between the rich and poor, globally and within our nation. But the irony is that, rather than being better than the rest of us, in many ways the rich are worse.

Paul Piff and his co-authors, who have done extended research on the behaviors of the wealthy, find that lower class individuals are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than upper class individuals. In another study, they find individuals with expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers and pedestrians. Further, in laboratory experiments, wealthy participants were more likely to take valued goods, cheat, lie and endorse such behavior. These studies have support from other sources. For instance, the wealthy actually donate less to charity as a share of their income than the middle class. Their giving is more dependent on the economic climate than the middle class. It is unsurprising that Christ warned, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The rich tend to behave badly, but their bad behaviors are often socially accepted; a behavior that would be seen as inappropriate by a poor person is seen as a minor offense by the rich. (See: casual drug use.) The reason is simple: in a society that worships wealth, those with wealth are worshipped as well. A young economist wrote in 1844,

“The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers… I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the realbrain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless?”

Economist Chris Dillow cites research by Cameron Anderson and Sebastien Brion, showing that overconfident individuals are seen by others as more competent. He argues that, “overconfident people are more likely to be promoted. And this could have positive feedback effects. Higher status will itself breed even more overconfidence. (E.g. “I got the job so I must be good.”) And if bosses employ like-minded subordinates, the result could be entire layers of management which are both over-confident and engaged in groupthink.”

This effect is reinforced further by the “just-world” bias, which leads us to believe that the rich and powerful deserve their positions. In a famous study, Melvin Lerner found that when students were informed that another student had randomly won a prize, they attributed positive characteristics to the student who had won. Studies have also shownthat people attribute negative characteristics to victims — from Kent State students shot by the National Guard, to young black men shot by police, to low-wage workers.

A more recent study by Justus Heuer, Christoph Merkle and Martin Weber finds rather the same thing: Investors are fooled into believing risk-taking is based in skill, rather than chance. Like the students in the experiment, investors believe managers who are simply reaping returns from risky bets are, in fact, oracles. Another study by Arvid Hoffmann and Thomas Post finds that “the higher the returns in a previous period are, the more investors agree with a statement claiming that their recent performance accurately reflects their investment skills (and vice versa).” Research by Charles O’Reilly and others finds that narcissistic CEOs are better paid than other CEOs. Another study finds that employees that spend more time grooming make more than workers who do not. (The effect is particularly strong for men of color.) All of this should leave us skeptical of the idea, promoted by many free-market fundamentalists, that compensation is set by objective market factors. As Christopher Lasch notes, “Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.”

Many defenders of the rich argue that the rich are special and therefore merit special treatment. (Charles Murray has gone as far as to argue that the rich should preach their virtues to the poor.) Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy have individually earned their place in society. But this is unlikely. Numerous studies find that financiers are vastly overpaid, and hedge fund managers, even the best, rarely beat the market. CEOs are also vastly overpaid, and largely benefit from a shift in tax policy that allows rent-seeking to flourish.

A famous economist once wrote,

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

The economist was not Marx, but Adam Smith.

In “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that wealth can persist for 10 or more generations. But biases, like the self-serving bias and optimism bias, lead the wealthy to attribute to themselves what is actually caused by factors beyond their control. Lucky people are seen as skillful, and are constantly worshiped for their success. Eventually they begin to believe what others say, leading to a narcissistic personality — or as Paul Piff says, “characteristics we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

There’s an apocryphal story in which F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “The rich are different from you and me,” and Ernest Hemingway retorts,“Yes, they have more money.” In his story, “Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald writes of the wealthy: “They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

All humans all delusional. It is only the rich who have that delusion fostered. All humans are, to some extent, assholes. But only rich people can get away with it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Why the GOP hates U.S. history: Inconvenient truths that freak out American conservatives

Conservative hero Ben Carson is worried about American teenagers joining ISIS. But it’s not because of “radical Islam.” It’s because of new high school history standards.

American’s right wing, you see, is terrified of history because it is always sentimentalizing it. Many of its arguments rely on a feeling of nostalgia for “good old days,” that appeals almost exclusively to aging whites. That means that a more accurate history, one that considers groups that are traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor — don’t necessarily sit that well. Their stories, the stories of the downtrodden, crush the false narrative that many conservatives like to imagine — that of a idyllic past marred by the New Deal, women’s liberation and civil rights.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a school board recently tried to limit the historical curriculum to only events that would, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Needless to say, much of American history — the Great Depression, the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese-Americans — would, under those parameters, need to obfuscated. The Republic National Committee, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the new Advanced Placement U.S. History standards ”radically revisionist.” But conservatives may want to take the plank out of their own eye before examining the speck in their neighbors. Here are the most important distortions of history the right has promoted recently.

Before Welfare, Everything Was Awesome 

Example: Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argues, “Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions.”

The Problem: As with most conservative revisionism, the idea is that before nasty programs like welfare, the poor did just fine, because private charity aided them. Many conservatives will argue that the War on Poverty has done nothing to reduce poverty and instead we should rely on private charity. But the War on Poverty has actually done much to eliminate poverty and private charity could never fill that chasm that would open up if federal poverty programs were eliminated. So how did we get rid of poverty before government? The answer is that there never was a mythical time without government.

As Mike Konczal writes,

“There has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century.”

Later, Congress established a pension system for civil war veterans that consumed about 25 percent of all government spending. Rather than “welfare queens” being a post New-Deal development, some 40 states had programs to support single mothers in 1920. In fact, far from being an invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and liberals, social insurance programs are staple in civil society. Frederik Pedersen finds that back in the 10th through 12th centuries, Iceland had an extensive social welfare program. Rome, too, had a system of public support designed to aid poor children.

Elizabeth Bruenig notes that the purely voluntary Church-based social insurance many Christians adore never existed. Conservatives ignore the fact that the church was often acting in accord with the state, “You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.” Islamic public assistance was also a hybrid church-state institution. The idea that there has ever been a successful purely voluntary public assistance program is a conservative myth invented to justify dismantling anti-poverty programs in the name of a utopian fantasy.

Basically everything about slavery 

Example: Recently convicted felon and conservative columnist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “The End of Racism,” provides some great examples of rewriting race. D’Souza says of slavery, “No free workers enjoyed a comparable social security system from birth until death.” Later, he writes, “Masters … encouraged the family unit which basically remained intact.” He concludes, “In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The Problem: Conservatives in the U.S. have a race problem, specifically that many of them believe that blacks are “primarily responsible for their own success or failure” and that government programs only get in the way. And conservative politicians tend to racialize welfare programs to decrease support for them. To believe that black Americans would have been better off without government intervention, you have to pretend history doesn’t matter.

As Marx notes, people, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” There simply is little mobility for black Americans today because the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and housing segregation still weighs heavily. A recent study finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Further, white people in these counties harbor more racial resentment.

That’s because when slavery permeated society — the legal structure, culture, science — nothing was left untouched by racism and racial hierarchy. The conservative “I built this myself” mentality denies that most wealth is passed from generation to generation, and so is privilege. Erasing the memory of racial hierarchy allows conservatives and Americans to pretend that individual effort, rather than structural racism, is keeping black people down.

So what was slavery really like? Jennifer Hallam writes, “Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.” Rather than being “relatively mild,” slavery relied on brutality and violence, the horrors of which are described in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

And, of course, racism and racial hierarchy didn’t end when slavery was formally abolished, but rather continued through local policies, terrorism and violence. This violence was often orchestrated at the highest levels of government. Consider, for example, the FBI’s attempts to discredit MLK or the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

In his response to Phil Robertson’s sentimentalism about the Jim Crow era last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates cites Freddie Moore:

“The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche. Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.”

And racial violence didn’t end in the ’30s, but continued until through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and, well, two months ago.

U.S. foreign policy

Example: Conservative foreign policy is dictated by a small coterie of conquistadors. These people are called “neo-conservatives.” Some people claim neoconservatives have no uniting vision; in fact, the basis of neo-conservativism is a belief that imperial violence can spread democracy. To maintain this myth, the long history of imperialism must be re-written. Thus the official RNC statement on the AP controversy laments that “the [AP] Framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) …” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including American involvement in WWII, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.”

The Problem: Imperial violence cannot spread democracy. America’s foreign policy history is littered with failed attempts to impose our ideas on others — often with the ulterior motive of stealing resources. As Mark Twain writes, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Among the other examples of horrifying and cynical use of American power conservatives may wish to avoid:

  • Reagan supporting the Contras, a fascist junta: Much of Reagan’s presidency is now hagiography, rather than history. Because of this, it’s often hard to remember how awful the group that Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” truly was. Truth is, the Nicaraguan Contras were known for their brutality. And where did Reagan get the money to support the brutes? Why, by selling weapons to Iran. Yes, the Iran that George W. Bush later called a member of the Axis of Evil. The International Court of Justice ruled against the U.S. for violating another country’s sovereignty and laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, but the U.S. ignored the decision.
  • Chemical weapons: Before the U.S. joined forces with Assad to fight ISIS, he was public enemy number one for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilian populations. But the U.S. has used chemical weapons on a range and scale that Assad could hardly even fathom. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dumped between 12 and 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. At least 1 million Vietnamese had defects or disabilities caused by U.S. chemical attacks. And those chemical weapons we judged Saddam Hussein so harshly for using? The U.S. not only knew the attacks were coming, we gave Hussein intelligence on strategic sites to attack.
  • Screwing up democracy: Sure, America supports democracy — unless that democracy will do something to hurt business interests. Among acts that qualify: nationalizing oil fieldsraising minimum wages and boosting literacy. In place, we installed brutal, murderous dictators — but only ones that would push through economic “reforms” and play ball when we needed.
  • Prolonging the Vietnam War: Richard Nixon intentionally sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s chances of winning the Presidency. In the wake of the failure, the war continued for two long and bloody years, made more horrifying by Nixon’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia.

Then there’s the support of genocidal maniacs like SuhartoMontt and Khan. And that’s just the last half century!


English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines conservatism as “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

There was a time when conservatism was a philosophy concerned primarily with wrestling with and understanding tradition and the limits of human reason and ability. However, these days conservatism is reactionary — it has been imbued with racism, conspiratorial thinking and a hyper-individualistic capitalism. Instead of questioning the limits of reason, it has jettisoned it. In its place remains free market dogmabad Biblical interpretation and a sentimentalized past. In place of reason and argument, most conservatives rely on fantasy and reminiscence. Allowing conservatives to redefine the past will be incredibly harmful.

As George Orwell notes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

This article originally appeared on Salon. 

Inequality benefits the rich and hurts the poor

For a long time, the right has argued that we shouldn’t worry about inequality because the true concern is the reduction of poverty. Conservatives also maintained that higher levels of inequality were unimportant because “a rising tide would lift all boats,” and high levels of inequality propelled the economy forward. New research by Roy van der Weide and Branko Milanovic decimates these myths. They find that inequality doesn’t fuel growth for the whole economy, but rather, just the rich.

Before we get to the research of van der Weide and Milanovic, it’s important to understand how mainstream thought on inequality and growth has changed recently. For a long time, mainstream economists didn’t spend much time worrying about distribution. Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared, “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”

Once rampant inequality did become an increasingly mainstream concern, Martin Feldstein insisted that the question is “not inequality but poverty.” Economists believed that redistribution slowed down economic growth, and that attempts to reduce inequality would, as a result, only worsen poverty. The reasoning had at least two strands of thought: First, since the poor tend to consume most of their income, it was good for the rich to have more wealth to invest in the future — inequality would increase savings. Second, inequality provided incentives for individuals to work harder to take home more of the pie.

There is now a burgeoning literature showing that these assumptions aren’t true, and that inequality actually reduces growth. That’s because the reasons for accepting inequality were actually backwards. Instead of motivating the rich to invest, higher inequality meant that the poor took on more and more debt, destabilizing the economy. Without enough poor and middle-class families consuming their products, businesses had fewer customers, and less revenue. Further, instead of providing the poor and middle class an incentive to better their lives, higher inequality gave the rich a reason to pull up the ladder, leaving the poor behind. Instead of working harder, the rich sit back on their wealth. The poor and middle class, disenchanted by lack of opportunity, have less money to invest in their own education (and are therefore are increasingly burdened by debt). Inequality thereby reduces growth by reducing both demand and upward mobility.

So Milanovic and van der Weide decided to investigate how inequality affects growth across the income spectrum. They used a state-level survey conducted once every decade to estimate annualized income growth at different income percentiles. What the researchers find is that the old story of “trickle down” economics have no support in the data – instead, inequality boosts growth only for the rich.

The charts below show income growth across different percentiles. Each line shows annualized growth over a decade with the horizontal axis defining growth by quintile. The first chart shows that during the relatively equal period of the 1960 to 1970 (red), when inequality was lower, growth was strong and equally distributed (it actually slightly favored the poor). During the 1980-to-2000 period (blue and green) growth favored the rich; however, their gains weren’t enough to make up for the massive losses to the poor and middle class. Finally, in the period between 2000-to-2010, growth for everyone was abysmal in the wake of a massive financial crisis (see the purple line of the final chart). 

As Milanovic tells Salon, “You know it used to be that the U.S. growth was pro-poor, in the sense, that the growth rates among the poor were higher than amongst the rich. Now it’s the opposite.”

Inline image 2

When the authors dug deeper and looked at individual states, they find that, “inequality is negatively associated… with subsequent real growth for the population located below the 25th percentile, and positively with growth for the population belonging to the top decile.” In simple language: Inequality benefits the rich and harms the poor. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats — just the luxury yachts.

Using the data the authors have developed, we can discover what growth would look like in a more equitable society. The chart below shows annual income growth between 1960 and 2010 by percentile in red. The chart is sloped upward, meaning that the income of the richest grew by 1.8 percent each year, while the growth of the poorest grew by .7 percent each year. However, if inequality was reduced by one standard deviation (the difference between Connecticut and South Carolina) across the country, income growth for the poor would more than double, to 1.6 percent each year (blue line).

Inline image 1

This has important political implications. First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. Inequality benefits the rich immensely. Second, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats has been so utterly disproved it should be embarrassing to state in public. Yet reformicons like Michael Strain continue to repeat the mantra, “ Growth Beats Inequality.” That is false, Between 1960 and 2010, GDP increased by an annualized rate of 3.2 percent (a total of  378 percent) but incomes for the poorest 5 percent increased by only .7 percent a year. However, if we had reduced our gini coefficient (the standard measure of inequality) by only 9 percent, to the level of Japan, we could have doubled income growth for the poorest Americans.

Inline image 4

There is also hope, however. The growth rate of the 1960-to-70s was rapid and equitable. Compared with growth rates from the massively unequal 1990-to-2010 period, everyone was better off. So there is some reason to believe the rich could support more equitable policies. But the rich won’t be so easy to persuade – in a massively unequal society, even modest economic growth still benefits economic elites. Don’t worry about growth, worry about inequality.

A version of this article originally appeared on Salon. 

It’s a fact: inequality slows growth

My latest in Salon cites new research on the inequality and growth debate. Toward the end to the piece, I discuss the political implications of the findings:

First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. 

On Twitter, @richisglorious objects:


Initially, I was tempted to respond simply that this is a slightly pedantic point – my argument is that even if the wealthy accept the proposition that inequality reduces growth overall, they may still oppose redistribution for other reasons.

As I thought about the question though, I realized the sentence is true: inequality reduces growth. To see why, simply imagine a perfectly unequal society where one person controls all income and everyone else has nothing. There will be no economic growth. Imagine a slightly less unequal society, where ten people control nearly all the income, and everyone else struggle to survive. Again, no growth. The question then, is not whether inequality reduces growth, it’s at what point inequality reduces growth.*

The evidence I summarize in my essay strongly suggests we might be at the point. Other research suggests this as well. But let us not re-litigate this and instead make an important distinction between good inequality and bad inequality.

In my interview with Branko Milanovic, we discussed this distinction. He tells me:

These two extremes [absolute inequality and absolute equality] are clearly not good. We know that the optimum must be at some point in-between. Now, we don’t know what it is. Is this the Gini of “X” or “Y”? We have no idea, but we have in mind a certain “good” range simply by observing things empirically or, sort of, heuristically looking at the world. We see that there are countries that do well economically and socially and what type of inequality they have. Moreover, we have now studies, and I’m quite encouraged by them, which  for the first time try to empirically ascertain what percentage of overall inequality is caused by so called bad inequality. And that leads us to the issue of “deserved” and “undeserved” inequality and social mobility.

The bad or undeserved inequality would be the one that arises from the factors over which you have no control: what was the income level of your parents, whether you were born male or female, what is your race, and things like that. Actually, these studies do show that, in some countries, a large chunk of inequality is due to these factors. Thus we can rank countries by their bad and good inequalities. The good inequality, calculated as the residual between overall and bad inequality, is inequality we effort, work, luck and so on.**

The studies to which he refers can be found here and here. They find, after studying Europe and the United States, that inequality which stems from factors beyond an individual’s control (father’s education/race) are correlated with lower growth. Their study of 23 U.S. states over a two decade periods finds, “Inequality is good for growth when that comes from differences in the returns to effort, while it is harmful for growth when that comes from differences in opportunity.” They also find a strong correlation between changes in total inequality and inequality of opportunity.

Inequality and Opportunity

I believe that there are persuasive reasons to believe that the much of the exploding income inequality in the U.S. is due not to the good inequality, but bad inequality. As inequality increases, the opportunities for rent-seeking through the political system, education system and labor market become greater.

It is also worth noting that good inequality quickly become bad inequality unless mitigated (see: Walton family). Call it the The First Law of Inequality: inequality tends to perpetuate itself unless acted upon by an outside force. Estate taxes and capital gains taxes can limit such rent-seeking.

To summarize: in a state of perfect inequality, there will be no growth. In the state of perfect equality there will be little growth. At some point, inequality will become high enough to choke off growth, mainly by reducing demand and opportunity. Most of the research here is being done by economists who aren’t as cocky as Reinhart/Rogoff and therefore uncomfortable declaring a cut-off point. Instead, we’ll have to use Potter Stewart’s maxim: “I know it when I see it.” I think we see it.


* We might have a similar thought experiment with perfect equality, in which no one is motivated to work since they earn the same amount as everyone else. Even if we assume that Amour-propre provides some incentive, we can assume growth would be slower.

** The full interview will be available next week on the Demos Policyshop blog.

Does it matter that Americans can’t name the Fed Chair?

There’s a new Pew Survey that tests your “News IQ.” Take it here. The questions are pretty simple* and it’s multiple choice, so most people can probably make informed guesses. Right now only 1% of people got 12/12 right, with most people clustered between 2 and 6. The questions about the minimum wage and ISIS were answered correctly the most, while questions about government spending, poverty and the Fed Chair were less likely to be answered incorrectly. NewsIQ


A few thoughts here. First, remember these numbers every time a Washington insider tells you Hillary is doomed because of some campaign minutia – most people really aren’t paying attention. More importantly, these sorts of quizzes are often used to bludgeon people like myself who work tirelessly to increase voting participation. See for example, here. We’re told the American people are too dumb to vote, and can’t look out for their own preferences. This argument is deeply flawed.The first problem here is that many of the wrong things people believe - about our aging population, benefit fraud, immigration, deficits and government spending – originate from elites. Ideology is the mechanism by which those who control material production control mental production. Because most Americans are not media producers, but consumers, elite opinions are likely to drive politics. This can be reversed, but more often than not it it’s the case. So elites can complain all they want about the fact that Americans don’t understand deficits and monetary policy, but it’s other elites, many who benefit from obfuscation, that perpetuate these falsehoods.

I really don’t worry about the fact that most Americans can’t name Janet Yellen as the federal reserve, because I really don’t think that prevents them from making an informed voting decision. Ultimately, most Americans have fairly defined views on the size of government, social issues, etc. Any confusion is likely the result of elite messaging (i.e. Republicans believe that the government can bring democracy to Iraq but not performing basic tasks like food stamps) rather than the silliness of the American populace. Americans can accurately decide who would better represent their preferences and elect them because they may not know the players, but they know the game.

Take me and sports. I know the rules to baseball. I can explain even rather complicated rules like infield fly and could name the proper time to use most strategies (don’t bunt on the third out, etc.) but I can name literally zero current baseball players. I’m rationally ignorant about the current situation in baseball, but I know quite a bit about the game and could easily become informed if I need to. Most people view politics this way. Why on earth would they follow horse-race politics when they have kids, a job, sports, etc. When it’s time to vote, they’ll likely become informed of what’s happened over the past few months, but before then, why bother? Most pundits ignore this simple fact, so we have to deal with navel gazing every time one of these polls comes out. I’ll write more on this subject in the coming months, but the core fact is that most Americans are aware enough of their policy preferences (though not always interests) to vote.

* I got 11 of 12 right (I slightly overestimated poverty)

Five reasons why democracy hasn’t fixed inequality

One of the most longstanding hopes (on the left) and fears (on the right) about democratic politics is that voters of modest means will use their electoral weight to level the economic playing field. In a market economy, the median voter’s income will invariably be below the national average creating an apparently compelling opportunity for a politics of redistribution. This makes the sustained increase in income inequality in the United States and other developed countries a bit of a puzzle. One common suggestion, offered recently by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, is ignorance. Voters “don’t grasp how deep inequality is.”

But while Americans understanding of economic trends is certainly imperfect, the data suggest that the broad trends are known to the population. Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns, for instance, find that when asked to compare the ratio of the highest paid occupation and the lowest, Americans at the bottom of the income distribution do believe inequality is high and rising. In 1987, Americans as reported that the highest-paid occupation took home 20 times what the lowest paid occupation did – by 2000, they thought the gap had grown to 74 times.

A recent Pew survey finds that 65% of adults agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the past 10 years, only 8% say it has decreased. A Gallup poll from earlier this year suggests that 67% of Americans report that they are either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the income and wealth distribution in the U.S.

If ignorance doesn’t explain inaction, what does? These five factors are the most important culprits:

1) Upward mobility

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

According to research from Carina Engelhardt and Andreas Wagner, around the world people overestimate the level of upward mobility in their society.

They find that redistribution is lower then when actual social mobility is but also lower where perceived mobility is higher. Even if voters perceive the level of inequality correctly, their tendency to overstate the level of mobility can undermine support for redistribution. In another study Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara find that, Americans who believe that American society offers equal opportunity (a mythology) are more likely to oppose redistribution. Using data from 33 democracies, Elvire Guillaud finds that those who believe they have experienced downward mobility in the past decade are  32% more likely to support redistribution. A relatively strong literature now supports this thesis.

2) Inequality undermines solidarity

Enns and Kelly find, rather counterintuitively, that when “inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment.” That is, higher inequality leads to less demand for redistribution. This is perhaps because as society becomes less equal, its members have less in common and find it less congenial to act in solidarity. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner argue that, “the best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

As inequality increases, the winner-take-all economy leads voters try to look out for their own children. The period during which overall inequality has risen has seen a massive increase in more affluent families’ spending on enrichment for their own children.

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

Chris Dillow points to research by Klaus Abbink, David Masclet and Daniel Mirza who find in social science experiments that disadvantaged groups are more likely to sacrifice their wealth to reduce the wealth of the advantaged group when inequality was lower than when it was higher. Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.”

3) Political misrepresentation

Ideological factors can’t tell the whole story. Many Americans support redistributive programs like the minimum wage and support for the idea that hard work leads to success has plummeted in the last decade. A further important reason for the lack of political response to inequality relates to the structure of American political institutions, which fail to translate the desires of less-advantaged Americans for more redistribution into actual policy change. Support for this thesis comes from many corners of the political science field, including Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, andKay Lehman Schlozman. Research by five political scientists finds that status quo bias of America’s often-gridlocked congress serves to entrench inequality.

More simply, lower-income Americans tend to vote at a lower rate. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with lower turnout inequality also have lower income inequality. Elsewhere, Franko finds that states with wider turnout gaps between the rich and poor are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases, have weaker anti-predatory-lending policies and have less generous health insurance programs for children in low-income families. Kim Hill, Jan Leighley and Angela Hilton-Andersson find, “an enduring relationship between the degree of mobilization of lower-class voters and the generosity of welfare benefits.” Worryingly, Frederick Solt finds that, “citizens of states with greater income inequality are less likely to vote and that income inequality increases income bias in the electorate.” That is, as inequality increases, the poor are less likely to turn out, further exacerbating inequality.

4) Interest-group politics

The decline of labor unions has decreased the political importance of poor voters, because unions were an important “get-out-the-vote” machine. A recent study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler finds that the decline in union strength has reduced low-income and middle-income turnout. But labor’s influence (or lack thereof) is also important when the voting is done. Research finds that policy outcomes in the United States are heavily mediated by lobbying between interest groups, so organization matters.

Martin Gilens writes, “Given the fact that most Americans have little independent influence on policy outcomes, interest groups like unions may be the only way to forward their economic interests and preference.” His research indicates that unions regularly lobby in favor of policies broadly supported by Americans across the income spectrum, in contrast to business groups, which lobby in favor of policies only supported by the wealthy.

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

It’s no surprise then that numerous studies have linked the decline in union membership and influence with rising inequality.

5) Racial conflict

A recent study by Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson finds that when white Americans are reminded that the nation is becoming more diverse, they become more conservative. Dog-whistle phrases like “welfare queens” have long driven whites to oppose social safety net programs they disproportionately benefit from. Research from Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam indicates that racial bias among white voters is strongly correlated with hostility toward means-tested social assistance programs. Another study by Steven Beckman and Buhong Zhen finds that blacks are more likely to support redistribution even if their incomes are far above average and that poor whites are more likely to oppose redistribution.

In other words, a massive public education campaign about the extent of income inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve the kind of redistributive policies liberals favor. The real obstacles to policy action on inequality are more deeply ingrained in the structure of American politics, demographics, and interest group coalitions. Insofar as there is a role for better information to play, it likely relates not to inequality but tosocial mobility which remains widely misperceived and is a potent driver of feelings about the justice of economic policy. As John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Stronger unions, more lower income voter turnout and policies to reduce the corrupting influence of money on the political process would all work to reduce inequality. It will take political mobilization, not simply voter education to achieve change. The wonks have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.

There is no American dream for black children

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have once again made the nation consider the durability of racial injustice as a defining factor of the American experience. Black children go to increasingly segregated schools, experience significantly less mobility than whites and are far more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. The American dream has always been defined by upward mobility, but for black Americans, it’s harder to get into the middle class, and a middle-class lifestyle is more precarious.

There are numerous factors that help explain why blacks have lower levels of upward mobility, but a surprisingly unpersuasive one is family structure. Conservatives like to tout the research of Raj Chetty and others who find that, “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the single strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” But this observation comes with a caveat — children in two-parent households fare worse in areas with large numbers of single parents. There is reason to believe the causation is reversed. Rather than single-parent households causing low upward mobility, low upward mobility and rampant poverty lead to single-parenthood.

Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research — Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine — find that single motherhood is largely driven by poverty and inequality, not the other way around. They write,

The combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.

A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “Young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”

Most recently, Bhashkar Mazumder finds that, among those between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. His research finds that the role of two-parent families for mobility is less important than conservatives assert. While living in a two-parent households increases upward mobility for blacks, it has no effect on upward mobility for white children, nor does it affect downward mobility for either race.  If marriage has a significant effect, it is not marriage per se, but rather income and parenting effects that are at work; married people by default have more incomes and more time to spend with children. The solution, then, is paid leave, universal pre-K and government-provided daycare, not wealthy conservatives clutching their pearls and chastising young people for not getting hitched.

So, marriage fails to explain black-white gaps in mobility. What, then, is responsible for the lack of upward mobility among blacks?

1. Housing segregation

Racial segregation explains how it’s so easy for the black middle class to slip back into poverty. As sociologist John R. Logan writes, “The most recent census data show that on average, black and Hispanic households live in neighborhoods with more than one and a half times the poverty rate of neighborhoods where the average non-Hispanic white lives.” This has profound implications for upward mobility.

A 2009 study by Patrick Sharkey finds that, “Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.” Sharkley finds that if black and white children grew up in similar environments, the downward mobility gap would shrink by 25-to-33 percent. As the chart below shows, black children are far more likely to grow up in high poverty disadvantaged neighborhoods, which makes upward mobility difficult. (Source)

2. War on drugs and mass incarceration

The war on drugs disproportionately targets people of color: One in 12 working-age African-American men are incarcerated. While whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession. The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. The effects of incarceration on upward mobility are profound.

Bruce Western finds that, “by age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.” This impact, however, is more profound for blacks. Western finds that incarceration reduces lifetime earnings for whites by 2 percent, but Hispanics and blacks by 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively. All of this means that men who are incarcerated will live a life at the bottom. For men who begin life in the lowest income quintile, only 2 percent of those who are incarcerated will make it into the top fifth, while 15 percent of those who are not incarcerated will.

3. Segregated employment opportunities

In “When Work Disappears,” Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points to the importance of occupational segregation — the fact that African-Americans who are often concentrated in poor urban areas struggle to get jobs in the suburbs or places with a long commute. Only 2.9 percent of white workers rely on public transportation, compared to 8.3 percent of Latino workers and 11.5 percent percent of black workers.

An excellent example of occupational segregation is in Silicon Valley, where data released after pressure from advocacy groups like Color of Change suggests that at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google and eBay, only 3 to 4 percent of workers are black or Hispanic. However, a study by Working Partnerships USA finds that, “While Blacks and Latinos make up only 3 to 4 percent of the disclosed companies’  core tech workforce, they are 41 percent of all private security guards in Silicon Valley, 72 percent of all janitorial and building cleaning workers, and 76 percent of all grounds maintenance workers.” (Source)

Much of the problem is social networks. Recent research by Nancy DiTomaso finds that favoritism perpetuates inequality, even in the absence of racial bias. She finds that most employees relied on social networks to obtain a majority of the jobs they held in their lifetime. Because social networks tend to be segregated, this fosters occupational segregation. Miles Corak shows that many children get their first job through their parents, further solidifying the effect of social networks on occupational segregation.

Marianne Bertrand finds that changing the names on résumés to those that are traditionally white or black affects call-backs for jobs. White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview. She also finds that whites with better résumés were 30 percent more likely to get a call-back than whites with worse résumés, but for blacks, more experience only increased call-backs by 9 percent. Another barrier to employment can be social networks.

4. Wealth gaps

Wealth is an important part of a middle-class lifestyle. When a family or individual is struck with illness or the loss of a job, wealth provides support. When a child attends college or is trying to get on his or her feet, a family with wealth can help pay the bills. The large wealth gaps between black families and white families, then, helps explain why black families have such high levels of downward mobility. The recently released Survey of Consumer Finances allows us an opportunity to examine wealth gaps. Matt Bruenig finds that, “The median white family has a net worth of $134,000. The median Hispanic family has a net worth of $14,000. The median black family has a net worth of $11,000.”

Between 2007 and 2010, all racial groups lost large amounts of wealth. However, the effects fell disproportionately on Hispanics and blacks, who saw a 44 percent and 31 percent reduction in wealth, compared to an 11 percent drop for whites. This was due to blacks and Latinos disproportionately receiving subprime loans, both because of outright lending discrimination and housing segregation. A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. They find five main factors responsible for driving the gap, which together explain 66 percent of the growth in inequality. The factors, in order of importance, are number of years of homeownership, household income, unemployment, college education and financial support or inheritance

5. Two-tiered education system

The U.S. increasingly has a two-tiered education system, with students of color trapped in underfunded schools. (Source)  A recent study finds that, “schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students.”

Schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. The average white student attends a school that is 72.5 percent white and 8.3 percent black, while the average black student attends a school that is only 27.6 percent white, but is 48.8 percent black. These schools are underfunded and understaffed. In 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit after 18 public schools had “literature classes without books,” computer classes where students discuss what they would do if they had computers, “classes without regular teachers” and classes without enough seats where students stood in the back.

Mazumder finds that student scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (a comprehensive test taken toward the last few years of high school) can help explain differences in upward mobility between blacks and whites. He also finds that completing 16 years of education is a crucial factor in upward mobility. The fact that AFQT scores help predict upward mobility is often used by those who argue that racial differences in intelligence largely explain differences in upward mobility. However, since the AFQT is taken in high school, a better explanation is that differences in AFQT scores represent the combined impacts of poverty, bad schools, wealth gaps, substandard healthcare and segregated employment opportunities working together to reduce long-term mobility.

The idea that there are biological factors reducing upward mobility for African-Americans is both odious and entirely false. As Nathaniel Hendren told me when discussing his research,

We can absolutely reject that theory. In order to believe that theory, you have to believe that the spacial differences across the U.S. are differences in some kind of transmission of genes. Suppose you move from one area to another and you have a kid. Does your kid pick up the mobility characteristics of the place you go to? Now obviously, your genes don’t change when you move. What we find is that kids start to pick up the mobility characteristics of the place they move to, and they do so in the proportion to the amount of time they end up spending in that place. The majority of the differences across places are casual. If people lived in different places, they would have different outcomes.

This all leads to the saddest conclusion — were it not for poorly conceived policies, we could have more upward mobility in the U.S. While conservatives like to point at cultural factors and throw up their hands, a far more productive solution is to redress our massive public policy problems — like the war on drugs and dropout mill schools — that are proven to reduce upward mobility.

The conservative mind-set is ahistorical — we are told to throw away the legacy of slavery and segregation and expect blacks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, ignoring the structural dynamics keeping them down. Research by Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Matthew Blackwell finds that Southerners who live in counties with higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 express more racial resentment and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. As Marx noted, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”



This article originally appeared on Salon.

Beyond Ferguson: 5 glaring signs that we’re not living in a post-racial society

In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, a recent Pew poll finds that 47 percent of whites believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves,” with regards to the death of Michael Brown, while only 18 percent of African-Americans feel the same. Meanwhile, a similar Pew study found that whites are far less likely to see discrimination in the treatment blacks receive by the education system, the courts and hospitals. Such views are held by many Americans, who believe that “blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Police killings of unarmed blacks are certainly the most visible manifestation of systemic racism, but data show that racism still manifests itself frequently in everyday life.

In America, race determines not just where someone lives and what school he or she attends, it affects the very air we breathe. Although many whites wish to believe we live in a “post-racial” society, race appears not just in overt discrimination but in subtle structural factors. It’s impossible to delineate every way race affects us every day, but a cursory examination of major structural racial problems can give us a feeling for how far we still have to go.

1) Education

Education is an important key to fostering upward mobility and alleviating inequality. However, schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. At the peak of integration, 44 percent of black Southern students attended majority white schools. Today, only 23 percent do. This is particularly worrying because recent research by Rucker C. Johnson finds that school desegregation benefited black students, because it “significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status.”

Researchers have increasingly referred to a rise of “apartheid schools,” which are almost entirely non-white. In 2003, one-sixth of all black students were educated in such “apartheid schools.” These districts are underfunded and understaffed, and frequently referred to as “dropout factories.” So students of color are far less likely than their white peers to attend schools with a full range of advanced courses.

As ProPublica documents, more and more schools are squeezing out of court oversight. The result, according to Sam Reardon and his colleagues, is increased racial segregation.


At the college level, the situation is little better. A recent report by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl finds that college education in America consists of “a dual system of racially separate and unequal institutions despite the growing access of minorities to the postsecondary system.” They find that students of color are less likely to end up in the most selective schools than white students with the same qualifications.

2) Wealth

There is a large racial wealth gap between blacks and whites in America, partially driven by income but exacerbated by racially biased housing policies (which will be examined below). A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. The recession has only exacerbated the gap, with whites losing 11 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010, while blacks lost 31 percent and Hispanics 44 percent.


The housing crash disproportionately affected blacks and Hispanics, who were more likely to receive subprime loans even when compared to whites with similar credit scores. In one instance reported by the New York Timesa loan officer at Wells Fargo said the bank “saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania.” However, even before the recession, disparities inemployment, college education, homeownership and inheritance helped solidify racial wealth gaps. Instead of wealth, more and more Americans, particularly people of color, are burdened with debt.

3) Job Markets

Unemployment is particularly high among African-Americans, the result of both explicit discrimination and occupational segregation.

Occupational segregation, or the delegation of blacks to jobs with low upward mobility and wages, is rife. People of color are primarily affected by practices like just-in-time scheduling, which gives workers little warning before a shift.

Part of the problem is infrastructure and education. People of color are far more likely to rely on public infrastructure, and therefore suffer from cuts to public transportation. Decades of housing segregation have trapped African-Americans in jobless areas with badly understaffed schools. Social networks reinforce the patterns, since most Americans get their jobs through friends and family connections. Outright discrimination plays a role as well: Marianne Bertrand finds that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to receive a call-back than applicants with black-sounding names with the same credentials.

4) Upward Mobility

Possibly the defining American attribute is the dream of upward mobility. Sadly, this tends to be more farce that fact — America lags behind other developed countries in measures of upward mobility. But recent research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, shows that levels of upward mobility vary across the country — and is strongly predicted by income inequality and racial segregation. They write: “Income mobility is significantly lower in areas with large African-American populations.” (Whites in the areas also had lower levels of mobility.)

Specifically, they note the importance of segregation, “areas that are more residentially segregated by race and income have lower levels of mobility.”


A recent Pew Research Center study shows that not only do blacks have lower levels of upward mobility; among those that do make it into the middle class, their children are more likely to slide back into poverty. In what may be the most depressing footnote I’ve ever seen in a chart, Pew notes that there are not enough observations of blacks in the fourth and fifth (read: highest) quintiles of income to make observations about upward mobility.



In a recent study, Bhashkar Mazumber finds that out of all children born between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. He also finds, like Pew, that African-Americans in the middle class are on far more precarious footing than whites: 60 percent of black children born in the top half of the income distribution fell to the bottom half later in life, but only 36 percent of white children born in the top half of the income distribution fell to the bottom half later in life.

Surprisingly, Mazumber finds that “[w]hile these results are provocative, they stand in contrast to other epochs in which blacks have made steady progress in reducing racial differentials.” While we like to believe we are constantly progressing, these data suggest we may be backsliding with regard to mobility and race.

5) The War on Drugs

The socioeconomic realities discussed above cannot be divorced from the war on drugs: It is a war that is primarily fought against people of color in the country. One in 12 working-age African-American men is incarcerated; and while whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession.

The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, around half of federal prisoners’ most serious offense is drug-related. The war on drugs has undermined the legitimacy of law enforcement and eroded their esteem in the eyes of the public. Even before the Ferguson shooting, 70 percent of blacks agreed that, “blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites” when dealing with the police.

Instead of housing those who have committed violent crimes, U.S. prisons are increasingly teeming with nonviolent offenders. Formerly incarcerated people struggle to find work, and are therefore more likely to turn to crime in the future, creating a vicious and counterproductive cycle. A Pew study finds that the costs of incarceration are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages. Even when they are no longer incarcerated, former inmates are often deprived of basic rights, including franchise. Around 13 percent of African-American men have been denied the right to vote.

This is to barely touch on the empirical literature on school punishmentaccess to healthcare, a history of racially biased federal policy and the other deep issues that we face. The most disturbing fact is that in almost all of these areas, we have actually seen previous progress eroded, even while we proclaim ourselves a post-racial society. It’s time to take an honest look at race in America. We probably won’t enjoy it. But we need it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.