Tag Archives: Democracy

Rubio Will Likely Be The Republican Nominee

Barring a massive strategic blunder, Marco Rubio is well-positioned to become the Republican nominee for President in 2016. The Florida senator is the ideal candidate to expand the Reagan coalition while holding on to the conservative base and he can take shots at Clinton that would sound hypocritical coming from Bush. While his power as a candidate has yet to emerge in the polls, a misstep by Bush will send him straight to the top.

Right now the Republican party is deeply fractured, and its coalition, at least at the presidential level, is weak. Republicans have failed to win the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 elections, and when they were successful, it was largely because of George W. Bush’s modest success with Latinos. The problem Republicans face going into 2016 is that the rise of the nativist Tea Party makes it difficult for them to woo Latino voters without losing their base. Rubio offers them such a bridge candidate.

Before exploring why Rubio could act as a bridge between conservatives and Latinos, it’s important to explode a key myth — that Republicans simply can’t win Latino voters; as I’ve noted before, there are indications that they can.. The problem is that appeals to Latino voters will often alienate the more nativist Tea Party portions of the Republican base. Thus, the GOP needs to find a candidate that can perform well enough to neutralize the Latino vote but also ensure that the conservative base turns out to vote.

According to data from a recent Economist/Yougov poll, while no Republican candidate has a net favorability with Latinos, Rubio dramatically outperforms Bush. The split among conservatives is perhaps even starker: Rubio holds a 37 percent net favorability and Bush holding a 15 percent net favorability.

Republicans will also want to make inroads with the poor, the middle class and youth. Here again, Rubio has a distinct advantage, polling strongly with young people and the middle class (those making between $40,000 and $100,000). Among those making less than $40,000, Bush and Rubio are at a dead heat. (Scott Walker polls significantly better than both in this category, however.)

It could be that as Rubio becomes more well known, he’ll become less popular. This has clearly happened to Bush, who has seen his net favorability drop from negative 5.9 points in February 4, 2013, when 42 percent of respondents said that had “not heard enough” to judge him, to negative 16.2 points on April 21, 2015, with only 16.8 percent of respondents saying they had “not heard enough.” But even this argument doesn’t sink Rubio. In the same Yougov poll, Rubio’s “do not know enough” score is only 4 points higher than Bush among Latinos, 6 points higher among young voters (18-29) and 8 points higher with the middle class. Even assuming all of these “don’t knows” dislike Rubio (unlikely) his net favorability would still be higher than Bush’s.

As the chart below from Sam Wang shows, as a Republican becomes more well-known, he also becomes less popular. Bush fits perfectly on the trend, while Rubio is slightly above it and Walker is slightly below it. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll, completed before Rubio announced his candidacy, 56 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves supporting Rubio, with only 26 percent saying they couldn’t. Only Scott Walker, with 53 percent and 17 percent respectively, had better numbers, and Jeb Bush pulled in a squalid 49 percent in favor, 42 percent against.

Republicans consider who their nominee will be must also consider how they are going to run against Clinton. It’s likely that they will prefer three major criticisms: First, that she’s dynastic; second, that she’s too old (an argument with sexist undertones, to be certain, but it may still resonate with voters); and third, that her Washington-insider status should disqualify her. Each of these arguments will be muted in the case of a Bush nomination, but could be much more persuasive coming from Rubio — the son of a immigrant father and a working class mother with strong Tea Party connections. He’s young and he’s targeted much of his rhetoric towards benefitting the middle class (no matter their dubious merit).

To test whether Rubio might be a better foil to Clinton, we can look at the Real Clear Politics General Election Match-Ups. The current average suggests that in a head-to-head election with Clinton, Rubio would lose by 7.5 points. The three most recent polls show Clinton up by 14 points, 2 points and 4 points respectively. In all three, Rubio loses. However, his margin is still lower than Bush, who loses by 8.9 points on average, and 17 points, 7 points and 4 points respectively. Walker loses by 8.6 points on average (22 points, 5 points and 6 points, respectively).

The most recent polls, taken from March and April, are shown below, where each bar corresponds to Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in a hypothetical matchup:

The other conceivable option on the table is Scott Walker, who does poll well with blue-collar Americans. The problem is that his strategy for winning the White House relies entirely on maintaining the old Republican coalition, which won’t be appealing to party elites. Recently, for example, he signaled opposition to immigration reform, which isn’t surprising given his vision of the party’s future, but will ultimately doom him as a candidate. Without making inroads into the Latino vote, Republicans will never take back the White House.

The arguments against Rubio, meanwhile, are melting away. Worried about his embarrassing SOTU response? Witness his energetic and moving announcement speech. Worried he won’t get the support of big backers? Sheldon Adelson may back his campaign. The failure of immigration reform in 2013? No support among party elites? Rubio just got kind comments from Brooks and Douthat. Stagnant wages and stunted upward mobility? Marco Rubio said it best in his announcement:

My candidacy might seem improbable to some watching from abroad. In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful. But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.

Indeed, Rubio’s biggest problem seems to be that his impressive qualities show up everywhere but in the polls: Real Clear Politics still puts him below Walker and Bush. However, Rubio offers a perfect embodiment of the Republican vision of the American Dream. He’s offering a vision that may can win enough Latinos, working-class white, youth and Republican regulars to credibly threaten Hillary. He’ll likely be the Republican candidate.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

How To Create a More Progressive America

Barring a dramatic scandal or an unforeseen event, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic party nominee for president. While many on the left have complained about her close ties to banks and her past unwillingness to tackle inequality, such complaints are unlikely to be solved by any challenger. Progressives should instead begin creating the infrastructure to shift American politics in a more progressive direction — and do so while supporting Clinton in 2016.

To understand why progressives should push Hillary, rather than run against her, it’s important to understand some important lessons from political science. First, long periods of liberal control tend to make voters more conservative (and vice-versa). As Larry Bartels recently noted, James Stimson’s Policy Mood indicator shows that Americans are “more conservative than at any point since 1952.” (Shown in the graph below.)

 This graph demonstrates how policy mood tends to move in the opposite direction as the sitting President, becoming more liberal under Bush/Reagan and more conservative under Obama. It’s not inevitable that Americans will choose a Republican; arguments that Americans simply won’t put another Democrat in the office after two years of unified party rule are based on only a few data points.

(And it bears repeating, of course, that Al Gore won the popular vote after two Clinton terms in 2000.)

In the case of Obama, an unabashedly progressive President, Americans may well seek a slightly more moderate candidate. With Obama’s presidency domestically defined by healthcare, it’s likely voters won’t want more spending in that area; however, there could be interest in higher spending on childcare or education, two areas that Clinton has built her political career around.

In a recent Economist/YouGov Poll, about 40 percent of independents said Hillary Clinton was too liberal, and only 13 percent said “not liberal enough.”

However, Hillary benefits from having the highest net favorability among Democratic respondents, and all respondents, in fact. (Net favorability is the total favorable minus total unfavorable, the smaller bars for Webb, O’Malley and Sanders, shown below, come from their relative obscurity.)

The graphs above show two things: One, progressivism faces roadblocks in the immediate future, as the country angles for moderation after what is perceived as an emphatically liberal Obama administration; and, two, Hillary Clinton, like it or not, is in the best position of any Democratic candidate to mobilize the progressive base. This is where it becomes important to recognize that the best chance for a progressive agenda lies not in challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but in making sure she gets the White House, and then holding her accountable once there.

In modern politics, parties have far more power than politicians. As the parties have become increasingly polarized, and their constituencies increasingly divided by class, it’s harder for middle-class or working-class voters to justify a Republican vote. The vast chasms between the two parties are so deep now that the difference between the leftmost Republican who could win the presidency and the rightmost Democrat is still large. I’ve illustrated before the massive differences in results between Republicans and Democrats in terms of promoting economic growthreducing inequality and reducing racial disparities. It’s more important to get a Democrat in office than nitpick over ideology.

Most importantly, a large portion of what Presidents do goes entirely under the radar. I’venoted before the extensive political science literature showing how Presidents affect policy by staffing bureaucratic positions, enforcing regulations and appointing judges. Many important policy choices elide journalists and many small changes, such as executive orders go unnoticed but have dramatic impacts. Further, Presidents have someinfluence over whether monetary policy focuses on boosting employment or reining in inflation. Together, these policies have dramatic impacts on growth and inequality.

All of this means that progressives should focus on ensuring a candidate that will listen to their interests wins the Presidency, rather than the perfect candidate. There’s a good case for Hillary being that candidate. Clinton has a higher favorability rating than any serious Republican contender (only Bush, Rubio and Walker have a chance of winning the nomination) and she has a dramatically high recognition rate. She’s won support across the party elites, from both the liberal and conservative wings. Given the current playing field, the only credible challenge to Hillary would likely come from someone to her right, and likely one that couldn’t win an election.

This calculus means progressives need to make sure Hillary addresses our concerns. Already, Hillary has indicated a possible move to the left, criticizing overpaid CEOs and hedge fund managers in a recent Iowa visit. But it will take sustained pressure to ensure Clinton pursues a progressive agenda once in office. For that progressives need to learn from their enemy: the Koch brothers.

In 1980, David Koch ran for President on the libertarian ticket and won a mere 1.1 percent of the vote. Chastened by his loss, he and his brother realized that the way to shift policy would be to create a libertarian infrastructure aimed at pushing Republicans to the right. Certainly, there are other factors maintaining right-wing ideology: Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge, Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution, and the brutal political savvy of Mitch McConnell. However, the massive network of think-tanks, foundations, universities, fellowships that the Koch’s finance, in addition to a sophisticated polling and market research apparatus, all keep Republican politicians in line.

Progressives can’t replicate the strategy, but they can create structures that will ensure that politicians are incentivized to pursue progressive policies. That will involve focusing on three areas that will bring about a more progressive America:

1) Voter turnout

The importance of voter turnout for a progressive American cannot be understated. The chart below, created with data from Vincent Mahler shows the relationship between voter turnout and redistribution. The relationship is powerful, and as I’ve extensively documented, cross-national studies and studies within the states find that higher turnout lead to more progressive policies.

To boost turnout, progressives should invest in get-out-the-vote operations and same-day registration. In addition, stricter enforcement of motor-voter requirements could increase the number of registered voters by 18 million.

2) Labor mobilization 

For a long time, the mainstream left has taken unions for granted. Unions were seen as parochial, narrowly interested in advancing their own interests. In reality, unions provided an important check on the Democratic party, making sure it didn’t move too far to the right. Unions partially filled this role by boosting turnout. In a study with Patricia Davis, Director of the Office of Global Programs at the Department of State, Radcliff shows that their election day mobilizations push candidates and parties by increasing turnout and organizing workers, unions hold parties that benefit the working class and middle class to the left.

However, unions are currently besieged by right-to-work laws being instituted across the country, which dramatically reduce union density, and as a result, union influence. All the while, national Democrats have largely remained silent.

One of the criticisms of the idea that unions increase turnout is that the causation is actually reversed: That it isn’t a matter of union membership making people more likely to vote, but rather that people who vote are more likely to join unions in the first place. However, political economists Daniel Stegmueller and Michael Becher find that even after controlling for this effect, joining a union will increase an individual’s chance of voting by 10 percentage points. Ryan Lamare, an Assistant Professor of Labor and Employment Relations, studied the effects of unions in Los Angeles County and foundthat unions boosted turnout, particularly among Latinos.

3) State and local activist infrastructure

Finally the progressive movement needs to invest in an intellectual and advocacy infrastructure. Here, the Kochs aren’t the only people who have used this strategy; evangelicals have successfully ensured that Republicans stay steadfast on the culture war because of their extensive and well-maintained an advocacy structure. The NRA has done similar. Now, the left needs to massively mobilize at the local and state level. Here, progressives face a disadvantage: Conservatives were able to make use of Evangelical churches, gun clubs and politically active chapters like the Tea Party. Progressives have only a few similarly mobilized coalitions; but they can still be potent, as the environmental movement has recently shown.

Historian Erik Loomis recently wrote the obvious: “If progressives push [Hillary Clinton] to the left through consistent organization, she’ll swing left. If she feels more pressure from Republicans, she’ll swing right. This shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out, yet it constantly surprises us how politics actually work in this nation.” He’s correct. The problem is that movement-building is difficult. Waiting for Godot is easy.

This article originally appeared in Salon.

Professionalizing Legislatures Is a Progressive Policy

In recent years, many political scientists have released eye-opening data suggesting that policymakers simply aren’t very responsive to low- and middle-income Americans. There are likely many reasons for this — partially owing to voter participation, partially owing to differences in education and very likely owing to the influence of money over politics. However, one other important factor that generally goes under the radar is legislative professionalism.

A professionalized legislature differs from a citizen legislature in several ways: Professional legislatures generally meet for a more extended period of time and are paid enough that they do not have other careers. Professional legislators have larger staffs, more money to research policy and more time to deliberate and hold hearings. Professionalized legislatures also tend to attract politicians interested in working their way to higher levels of government.

In a recent segment, John Oliver addressed the absurdity of state legislatures — and the concerns about professionalism he raises are important. As I’ve noted elsewhere, income inequality is shaped enormously at the state level. This influence has only increased in recent years, as the federal government has become more gridlocked. In a new study, Elizabeth Rigby and Megan Hatch estimate that If states had adopted more liberal policies, the increase in inequality (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) would have been 60 percent smaller — and the share going to the top 1 percent would have been halved. Inequality at the state level also has implications for representation; Patrick Flavin findsthat inequality of income is one of the most important predictors of inequality of representation. New evidence suggests that differences in legislature structure at the state level have important implications for representation.

In an influential study, Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips examined 39 policies in eight broad issue areas. They calculated the congruence of public opinion and government policy for each issue. Congruence is a measure of how responsive policymakers are to public opinion: a low congruence indicates that legislators aren’t very responsive, a high congruence indicates they are. Congruence ranges from a low of 6 percent on bilingual education to a high of 86 percent on legalizing state lotteries. The researchers also found that while state governments are “generally responsive” to public opinion, they also “effectively translate majority opinion into policy only about half the time. […] This is true even when majority are large and when salience is high.”

How can legislatures be made more responsive? The authors found, “A one standard deviation increase in professionalization increases the marginal effect of opinion by about 28 percent.” In addition, interest groups can work against the public interest, in the case that a strong interest group is opposed to a policy, the size of the majority in favor of the policy would have to be nine percentage points higher than otherwise. The opposite holds true: If an interest group favors a policy that the majority does, it will be more likely to pass. However, the work of Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens suggests that mass-based interest groups have only modest correlation with the views of most Americans and business interest groups have a negative correlation with the views of Americans, so it’s more likely that interest groups will be working against the democratic will.

Cherie Maestas finds that more professionalized legislatures are more responsive to public opinion. She finds that legislatures with the highest pay and opportunity have politicians that are most responsive to citizens. Somewhat unsurprisingly, legislatures that have full-time members with high pay are the ones where politicians are most incentivized and most able to respond to constituents. Political scientist Patrick Flavin has focused his attention on the question of equality of representation. He created an index of how equal legislatures were in responding to constituents across income groups. He tells me that his still-unfinished analysis suggests that professionalized legislatures might have more equal political representation. One reason may be that professional legislatures are less susceptible to organized lobbying interests.

In recent years, many conservatives have fought to weaken legislatures. Ben Boychuk of the right-leaning publication City Journal argues, “Priorities, ladies and gentlemen. Priorities. A Legislature with [only] 95 days to enact laws is one less likely to spend a great deal of time introducing and passing useless legislation.” Given that the economy of California is the eighth largest in the world and its legislature passes laws for nearly 40 million people, this argument is absurd. But conservatives would benefit deeply from a weaker, less organized and less well-funded legislature. Presidential hopefuly Jeb Bushendorsed a 2012 initiative to make the California legislature part-time; the initiative was also supported by Michael Reagan (son of Ronald).

It’s not entirely surprising conservatives support part-time legislatures — they want the rich and powerful to run over everyone else. This is exactly what happens. There is some evidence that professionalizing legislatures increases public spending, but it’s more likely that professionalization is a response to an increasing public sector. Research by Daniel M. Butler and David W. Nickerson suggests that when representatives receive accurate information about their constituents, they tend to vote more in line with the constituents’ preferences. It may be that a professionalized legislature can increase this responsiveness. In contrast, unprofessional legislators are more open to the influence of corporate-backed groups like ALEC. One recent study shows that in more professional legislatures with fewer time constraints, ALEC bills are less likely to be passed.

Although rarely discussed in popular media, legislative professionalism is an important way to promote representation. As inequality and policy is shaped more and more at the state level, the fact that many statehouses do not appear to well represent their constituents is important. Representatives at the state level often reject the will of the majority, and as Rigby and Wright show, this lack of representation disproportionately affects the poor. Although the citizen legislature has a certain appeal, seeming to reflect the democratic ideal, in fact such legislatures are more open to manipulation from professionalized interest groups.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Republicans at a Crossroads: Win Over People Of Color, or Make Sure They Don’t Vote?

Last week’s election has seen many Republicans scoffing at the thesis, put forward by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in 2004, that there was an“Emerging Democratic Majority” that would usher in a long period of Democratic dominance. Ross Douthat, for example, has written of an “Evaporating Democratic Majority.” The subsequent analysis has often focused on low turnout among young voters — an important story, but far from the whole thing. In fact, this election sets the stage for how the Republican Party will react to changing demographics over the next several election cycles. Will they change their policies to appeal to a how America has changed, or will they try to change who gets to vote?

The dramatic age gap in the most recent midterm election has been frequently noted in recent discussions on the midterms. While it is certainly important that only 12 percent of voters in the most recent election were under 30 and 37% were over 60, this doesn’t tell much. About 12% of voters in the 2010 and 2006 elections were under 30 as well, if anything the increasing gap is largely due to the aging of the population (and persistent gaps in youth turnout). However, while the “liberalism” of youth has been widely discussed, there are problems with the narrative, among them, the huge differencesbetween young whites and young people of color (see chart). Much of the liberalism of millennials is not that young whites are more liberal, but simply that there are fewer of them. Even with these caveats, it’s clear that much of the current Republican agenda (particularly opposition to gay marriage) is anathema to young voters, while racial appeals make voters of color who might otherwise support Republicans wary.

 

The question for Republicans is how they will respond to an increasingly diverse population and one that doesn’t support their agenda. One option, and the one that gave them the Senate this year, is massive voter suppression. They will have many more opportunities for such suppression: Before the election, Republican controlled 59 of the 98 state legislative chambers; they now control 67. That means they’ll be able to pass more ALEC-sponsored legislation to reduce reproductive rights, bust unions and cut education and health insurance. It also means that Democrats will find it difficult to win back these chambers in time for the 2020 redistricting. (Redistricting is part — though not all — of the reason for Republican stranglehold over the House.) Republicans will also have leeway to pass even more restrictive voting laws — rolling back same-day registration and early voting, passing voter ID laws and tightening restrictions on convicted felons. All of these laws are proven to shift the electorate toward conservative policies by reducing turnout among people of color, young people and low-income people. Unsurprisingly, the ones already on the books have worked, and the 2014 midtermhad lower turnout than any election since 1942 (before the Voting Rights Act).

As I’ve shown, there is a strong chance that felon disenfranchisement laws affected the outcomes of important Senate races. I also found evidence that voter ID laws (particularly those that required a photo ID) reduced turnout. These findings are support by academic studies on the question. Long story short: It’s almost certain that voter suppression efforts led to an election in which three in ten eligible citizens voted. It’s highly likely that they tilted the playing field toward conservative politicians.

Republicans as a party could likely remain viable for a while with this strategy. They control enough legislatures to effectively gerrymander the congressional map. The Senate favors sparsely populated Conservative states. Democrats are concentrated in urban areas which further solidifies Republican avantages. Republicans would have trouble getting enough voters to win the Presidency, but with control of both bottom chambers, they could still gridlock the political system. Since such gridlock primarily benefits the rich, who are the main constituency of the Republican party, this isn’t much of a problem. Further, research shows that when whites are informed that the country is becoming increasingly diverse, they show a stronger preference for the Republican party. Recentresearch by Felix Danbold and Yuen J. Huo finds the whites informed that they will no longer be the majority in 2050 are less likely to say they support diversity. Political scientist Spencer Piston tells Salon that in his research using the American National Election Studies data, “I find no relationship between age and prejudice against blacks (as measured by a stereotype battery) among whites.” This suggests that voter suppression and coded racial appeals could serve Republicans for a long time.

The other option is for Republicans to tailor their agenda to people of color. While this may seem impossible — given the recent race-baiting by a gargle of Republican candidates — it is not. Spencer Piston recently released research showing that light-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans are more likely to support Republicans than darker-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans. He tells Salon that this held even after controlling for income, nationality and gender. Further, in currently unpublished research, he finds that support for redistribution is not affected by skin tone. This suggests that Republicans could possibly win over some Latino voters with a conservative message, if only they reduced racial resentment. But they won’t.

As I’ve shown, the class bias in our electorate benefits the rich. One study of developed countries finds that in countries with higher turnout, governments redistribute more money. The U.S. has the second lowest rate of turnout among OECD countries, and it also, unsurprisingly, has some of the lowest levels of redistribution. As long as the Republican party serves the interests of the rich, it will work endlessly to suppress low-income voters. Further, it will hold the government in gridlock, which benefits the rich.

At the end of the day, the sad fact is that the more people who vote, the worse it is for the wealthy people who overwhelmingly support Republicans.

There were other factors at play in the Senate race, certainly. The incredible cynicism of modern conservatives — who both actively sabotage government and then complain when it doesn’t works — was important. Americans, constantly told by pundits that a President should lead, appear to be unable to understand that deep structural factors prevent himfrom doing so (a problem on both sides). Further, in many races, the liberal candidateswere simply inept, and those who ran on truly progressive agendas, like Governor Malloy of Connecticut, did well.

However, it cannot be ignored that in recent years, one political party has centered their election agenda around disenfranchising voters. Midterms are historical bad for groups that vote Democratic, but massive voter suppression is the only way to explain the Republican “wave.”  With the aid of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County,states have been able to pass legislation which cause mass disenfranchisement. There will certainly be more. As the country becomes more diverse, the Republican party has a choice: play on racial fears, stoking racial animus or try to broaden its coalition of voters. Right now, it has prefered the former. That isn’t good for democracy.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

How To Take Back Democracy On November 4th

Bold prediction: Rising inequality of income and wealth will be the most important political battleground over the next few decades.

Just take a look at the figures. The share of income accruing to the top 1 percent increased from 9 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2011. The richest 0.1 percent controlled 7 percent of the wealth in 1979 and 22 percent of the wealth in 2012. Meanwhile, there are a number of studies out there showing that the most effective way to reduce this inequality would be higher taxes on income and wealth, but the rich won’t let it happen.

Consider also this: The rise of income inequality and wealth inequality are intimately connected, and causes all sorts of problem over the long term. As Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman write,

Income inequality has a snowballing effect on the wealth distribution: top incomes are being saved at high rates, pushing wealth concentration up; in turn, rising wealth inequality leads to rising capital income concentration,which contributes to further increasing top income and wealth shares.

That is, income is a flow, which quickly becomes a stock. The rich make enough money to save; in contrast middle-class and low-income workers don’t have enough money to live, so they are increasingly burdened by debt. They can’t build up wealth, which means they are deprived of opportunity. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of wealth on the top and debt on the bottom.

In a comedy bit on wealth, Chris Rock claims, “You can’t get rid of wealth.” The empirical research on the question largely supports his assertion. In “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that wealth remains in a family for 10-to-15 generations and notes,

Groups that seem to persist in low or high status, such as the black and the Jewish populations in the United States, are not exceptions to a general rule of higher intergenerational mobility. They are experiencing the same universal rates of slow intergenerational mobility as the rest of the population.

 

But, of course wealth and income inequality weren’t always as bad as they are today. What happened? In a word: cheating. Although many people try to explain rising inequality away by arguing we live in a winner-take-all economy or that inequality is the result of skill-biased technological change, these arguments are bunk. Inequality has been driven by public policy choices that favored the richthe decline of unions and the rise of finance. As the chart below shows, tax rates on both income and inheritance were high during the relatively equal ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and then fell dramatically paving the way for the inequality we see today (Chart Source).

The best way to reduce inequality would be to tax income and wealth. While conservatives often claim that this would reduce economic growth, such claims have very little economic support. For instance, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Stefanie Stantcheva find no correlation between economic growth and tax cuts. Because of this, they find, “the top tax rate could potentially be set as high as 83%.” (Chart Source)

Nobel Prize-winner Peter Diamond argues that the top marginal tax rate could safely breach 73 percent, and indeed, such a rate might even be “optimal.” Another recent studyfinds the top marginal tax rate could be as high as 90 percent. Republicans sometimes claim that inequality is necessary for economic growth; in fact, the evidence suggests rather the opposite is true: High levels of inequality imperil growth.

But, here’s the problem: The same political forces that allowed the 1 percent to take our political system hostage have only worsened in the past decade. As Nick Hanauer notes in a recent Intelligence Squared debate,

At the same time, the percent of — of labor — the percent of GDP devoted to labor has gone from 52 to 42.  So that difference is about a trillion dollars annually.  So that — here’s the thing you have to understand.  That trillion dollars isn’t profit because it needs to be or should be or has to be.  It’s profit because powerful people like me and [Edward Conrad] prefer it to be.  That trillion dollars could very easily be spent on wages. Or — or on discounts for consumers.  This isn’t a consequence of some magical law of economics.  This is a consequence of differentials in power.

Nick hits on a very important point: The rising concentration of economic power hascoincided with a concentration of political power. A recent paper by Adam Bonica and others illustrates that as inequality has increased, the rich have spent more money on the political system:

 

As Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright recently found that the wealthy tend to be more economically conservative than the population at large. But a particularly startling finding is that, “on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.” The wealthy are usingthe political system to turn their income into wealth and then that wealth into more wealth. They’re going to keep doing it, unless we stop them.  One solution is to reduce the massive turnout gap between the rich and poor.

Studies show that states with more low-income turnout have higher minimum wages, more generous child health insurance programs and stricter anti-predatory lending policies. They also have more generous welfare benefits. The fight against inequality will be a long one, but the first step is turning out to vote — the most radical step one can take in our country is actually believing democracy is more than just an idea.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

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:

CensusData1

* Citizens over 18.

 

How to Fight Oligarchy: Lessons From The States

Patrick Flavin is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baylor University. He is also doing pioneering work in the area of policy representation at the state level. You can find a discussion of his work here. I talked with him about his studies and what they tell us about fixing our democracy.

Sean McElwee: What exactly did you do? You have a rank of states by political equality of representation, what does that mean?

Patrick Flavin: All the papers use a pretty similar method. It basically measures how strongly the relationship is between the higher your income is and the likelihood that your ideology will be well-represented by policy. So think of two people and we had a number line from a one to a ten and the state generally passed policy measures that are a six and someone who is at the number line at the six would be well represented, someone with a one would not be well represented. So the table ranks how much income correlates with that. In Mississippi there is a strong relationship between your income and your representation, in North Dakota that relationship is not strong.

S: Does the inequality of a state affect the inequality of representation?

P: Usually states with higher levels of economic inequality also tend to be the most politically unequal. States with a big divide in rich and poor in income also tend to have a bigger divide in political representation. It’s not a one-to-one relationship or a perfect correlation, but it’s a general pattern. For example, Mississippi has a fair amount of really poor people with more liberal preferences, but Mississippi tends to pass very conservative legislation.

S: You had an interesting paper on what constitutes responsiveness. For some people  it’s ideological preferences and for some people it’s how much money is being brought back to the state.

P: The study of political inequality bounces between two measures. The first is opinions or ideology, which we discussed before. The second is interests. We would assume, I would argue rightly, that those at the bottom end of the spectrum would prefer more spending on public assistance and greater public spending. Surveys support that idea. I find that states that have stricter campaign finance laws pass more egalitarian policies on public assistance. That’s another way of measuring representation. There is not an agreed upon way of doing this. Martin Gilens looks at individual policies. We all tend to be finding the same thing, which is that there is unequal representation between the rich and poor.

S: But you’re the only one who has done this on the state level, which gives us a chance to see what works. What works?

P: One relationship is disclosure laws. There are three ways to regulating campaign finance. The first is ensuring that donors have to disclose who they are donating to. The second is limiting how much donors can give. The third is moving to a public financing system. The only type of policy I found with a strong relationship with my measure was disclosure requirements. I think that’s important because disclosure is something that both parties can agree on. There tends to be more agreement on the question. I also find that states the more strictly regulate lobbying and lobbyist interactions and what type of gifts they can give – those states are more egalitarian in terms of whose opinions get represented. That’s a good thing to learn for the states and possibly bring to the federal level. This policy is especially good in the wake of Citizen’s United, because in the wake of Citizen’s United individual and organizational limits allow individuals to spend independently.

S: Now what policies don’t have a strong correlation? You found, for instance, that more participation for low-income voters doesn’t have a strong effect.

P: Right. That’s depressing but it’s also consistent with what others have found. Places where the poor turn out they don’t seem to have more representation, which is a very troubling finding. The poor don’t get a whole bunch of a boost from voting. There is also research showing that minorities get less of a representational boost from turnouts than whites [Flavin refers here to the research of John Griffin and Brian Newman.]

[Interviewer’s Note: Flavin also points out that other studies find that turnout affects representation. One study specifically examined the low-income turnout, and found policy responsiveness increased with a higher low-income turnout. See this summary.]

S: Could gerrymandering and housing segregation explain the racial gap?

P: That’s probably part of the explanation. You have districts with Democratic candidates winning with 90% of the vote. It can definitely help explain racial inequality, but it can’t help with income inequality.

S: You also have a study that finds the more regulations a state has the more money that is distributed to the poor?

P: Yes. There are six policies I looked at: disclosure, limits on individuals, limits on organizations, whether there are public funds for governors, public funds for legislatures and clean elections. I gave each state a score for each year examined [1962 – 2006]. Then I compared it to what percentage of a state’s budget goes toward public welfare in general and then to cash assistance in particular.

S: To put it baldly, then, if we don’t get money out of politics, it won’t matter as much if poor people vote?

P: If poor people voted at the same rates as rich people, I’d expect they’d be better represented but at an institutional, practical recommendations level, passing laws that limit campaign finance are doable, so I focus on the laws side of things. There is evidence that these laws work.

S: Do you have any thoughts on the DISCLOSE Act?

P: I find that the stringency of disclosure requirements is statistically related to the equality of political representation across the states. Out of possible campaign finance fixes disclosure requirements seem to have the most bipartisan support, though this support is certainly not universal. It is probably the most practical/realistic area to push for reform.

How ordinary Americans can influence policy – no super PAC required

More and more studies are showing that the wealthy and corporations exert disproportionate influence over the U.S. political system. This viewpoint has been well documented by scholars Larry BartelsMartin Gilens and Kay Lehman Schlozman, among others.

Recently, Benjamin Page and Gilens disturbed many Americans with their finding that “average citizens’ preferences have little or no independent impact on policy.” Their data suggest that the wealthy have 15 times the influence of the middle class.

As remarkable as this conclusion is, many of the reporters discussing the study failed to read it carefully and missed other important findings. For example, Page and Gilens found that the preferences of elites actually correlate fairly well to the preferences of the average citizen (with a coefficient of 0.78, with 1.0 indicating exact alignment and –1.0 reflecting inverse correlation), whereas business groups have preferences that are far more divergent (–0.10). Public interest groups, such as unions and the American Association of Retired Persons, correlate slightly better with the interests of the average voter (0.12). However, pro-business groups, whose interests  largely conflict with the average voter’s, have about nine times the influence as typical voters.

In an e-mail, Page noted that the U.S. might get some “democracy by coincidence” — meaning that the preferences of the affluent for the most part align with those of the middle class — but such luck rarely occurs with the preferences of business groups. He also said that while his work with Gilens focuses on the top 10 percent of income earners, the top 1 percent and the top 0.1 percent may have even more influence and more divergent preferences as well. In a paper with Jason Seawright and Larry Bartels, Gilens showed that the top 1 percent have far different preferences and are far more likely to be politically active. This means that reformers must curb the influence of the superwealthy and corporate lobbying (see chart: a higher number indicates strong correlation with the preferences of the middle class and strong influence on policy, a negative number indicates divergence with the preferences of the middle class and weak influence on policy).

Floodgates of money

As disconcerting as these findings are, the problem has been made worse by recent Supreme Court decisions — namely, Citizens United and McCutcheon — that opened the floodgates of money flowing from the superrich to politicians and super PACs (See chart.) If the wealthy and business groups had disproportionate influence from 1981 to 2002, when these studies were conducted, imagine their power now that the system is inundated with money. For instance, in the 2012 election cycle, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave more money to influence elections than the total individual contributions of the residents of 12 states.

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What, then, is to be done?

To fix these oligopolistic trends, we must turn to the states for ideas. Patrick Flavin, an assistant professor of political science at Baylor University, may have some answers on this score. He has been using methods similar (although not entirely comparable) to those used by Gilens, Bartels and Page to test which states are most responsive to the interests of citizens. “One nice thing about federalism is that the 50 states serve as laboratories of democracy,” he said. “So we can examine different laws and institutional arrangements in the states to see what might promote more egalitarian patterns of political representation.” What he finds should give reformers hope: There are policies to strengthen the voice of middle class voters.

Flavin has used his metric of political representation to see what state-level policies correlate strongly with high levels of equality of political representation. Below is a table with the raw ratings. A higher number means that a state is more responsive to citizens across the income scale, while a low score means that only the ideological views of the wealthier citizens is represented in policy.

chart
Source: “Lobbying Regulations and Political Equality in the American States,” Patrick Flavin

The table shows that voters are best represented in Montana, Minnesota and Oregon and poorly represented in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. In a working paper available online, Flavin shows that states with stringent lobbying regulations better weigh the interests of citizens across the income spectrum. This shouldn’t be too surprising; lobbying provides benefits for wealthy corporations and not necessarily for taxpayers. Business lobbyists are known not for considering the social, moral or environmental consequences of the policies they pushing for but for promoting the the narrow interests of the groups they represent. For example, most Americans support stronger gun regulations, but the National Rifle Association has ensured that gun regulations across the country remain lax.

No common sense

The big question is what happens when we get money out of politics. Corporations and special interest groups don’t generally donate only to one party: Their goal is not usually to elect ideologically similar candidates but to win the sympathies of legislators to their pet issues. The hope is that once the money influence is removed, policies will align more closely with the preferences of voters. There is also the possibility that cleaner elections will lead to more voter participation by decreasing voter cynicism.

Another of Flavin’s studies measures how policies to get money out of politics affects voter interests. He uses data on state spending priorities from 1962 to 2008. He also rates the states for each year on the basis of six factors: disclosure, limits on individuals, limits on organizations, provision of public funds for governors, provision of public funds for legislatures and clean elections. He finds that states with laws to keep money out of politics dedicate more money to redistributive programs.

Finally, states have experimented with various policies to increase voter turnout, thereby reducing the turnout gap between the rich and poor. Elizabeth Rigby and Melanie J. Springer examined what reforms affected voting inequality at the state level. They find that in states with high registration inequality, the motor voter law (a law that requires states to allow voters to register when applying for or renewing a driver’s license) had a modest effect on decreasing voting inequality and that same-day registration had a strong impact. Sadly, many efforts have been focused on getting out the vote; the far more important reform is boosting registration among lower-income voters. These findings are important because a recent study using 30 years of state-level data by William Franko, Nathan J. Kelly and Christopher Witko found “that where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.” Franko found that states with wider turnout gaps between the rich and poor are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases, have weaker anti-predatory-lending polices and have less generous   health insurance programs for children in low-income families. Policies to increase low-income voter registration could help increase their voice in the political process and lead to policies that benefit them.

These important findings suggest two things. First, there are common-sense ways to get money out of politics and take back our democracy. Second, reformers should work to implement more state-level reforms. In a federal system such as ours, states play an important role in shaping the distribution of income. We need to implement corporate lobbying reform, donor disclosure, public financing of elections and same-day registration. The influence of money in our political system isn’t inescapable, and we should look to the states to find effective measures to curb the power of money. However, as Fredrick Douglass noted, “Power cedes nothing without demand.” Simply knowing what works isn’t enough. We need to put these policies into action.

Originally Published on Al Jazeera

Philanthropy! What is it good for? Almost absolutely nothing

Think of the planet’s best human being. Who are you thinking of? Pope Francis? Your parents? Justin Bieber? According to Business Insider, it’s Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Because he’s planning to donate $1 billion (less than 5 percent of his massive fortune) to charity. While it’s certainly welcome, philanthropy is far more insidious than it appears at first sight. It tends to lead to fawning press coverage, but little in the way of good reform. Worse, it perpetuates the myth that society’s problems can be solved by the rich and powerful.

In the gospels, there is a story of Christ watching as the wealthy deposit large amounts of their money into the church coffers. Then a poor widow gives two mites, an incredibly modest sum. Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” The story is intuitive, because we reward people for their effort; to whom much is given, much is expected.

There’s a very real sense in which it would be hard for Zuckerberg to have done less for the poor. After all, he and his rich Silicon Valley friends regularly use their wealth to lobby for policies that would make them even richer — even if in the guise of social responsibility.

As Chris Rock notes, “behind every great fortune, there is a great crime,” and behind Zuckerberg’s wealth is the relentless monetization of privacy (or, more accurately, the lack thereof). A cynic would be forgiven for wondering if his acts of charity are actually a strategy to placate critics. But, according to Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson, these recent acts of charity should completely silence the critics.

But Carlson’s obsequious flattery is nothing like the unctuous adoration festooned by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in their book,”Philanthrocapitalism” — which bears the Orwellian sub-header, “How the Rich Can Save the World.” The authors write approvingly that, “Today’s Philanthrocapitalists see a world full of big problems that they, and perhaps only they, can and must put right.” Maybe, but there could also be a more insidious motive.


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As H.L. Mencken writes, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.” While some philanthropists support good causes (like Bloomberg’s fight against Big Tobacco), other pet causes are not so humanitarian. While we may applaud the work of Bill Gates, many philanthrocapitalists, like the Adelsons and the Kochs, have decided that their philanthropic venture will be empowering the Ted Cruzes of the world to wreak havoc. Wealth is power, and concentrated wealth is concentrated power. The most benevolent inventions are also the cruelest.

Even when philanthropy is benign, it is inefficient. In every other developed nation (and the U.S. until recently), everyone, including the rich, pays lots of money in taxes and that funds education, healthcare and daycare. In the U.S., the rich pay significantly less, and charities must beg them for money in order to treat the poor. Hospitals and homeless shelters must dedicate time and energy to wooing billionaires for a pittance.

In his book “The Brothers Karamazov,“ Fyodor Dostoyevsky notes this paradox about liberalism, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.” Social democracy, like that practiced by other developed nations, is the solution to the Dostoyevsky problem. Social democracy allows us to love humanity with our taxes and then work on loving each individual person throughout our lives.

Although many on the right (and the sycophantic center) long for the good old days of charity, such dreams are exactly that — profoundly unrealistic. Conservatives, who distrust human nature so profoundly most of the time, place far too much weight on human benevolence when it comes to charity. There simply is no way to ease poverty with charity. For one, charitable contributions in 2011 were only about $300 billion, far below the $707 billion that the government spends on income security and healthcare for the poor. Given the relative weakness of the U.S. safety net already, one funded entirely on charity would be abysmal. And $300 billion is all charitable donations; many donations aren’t aimed at helping the poor, but instead religious or cultural endeavors. One study finds that of the $250 billion given to charity in 2005, only about 30 percent went to aid the poor. Often, “charity” is simply a means to evade taxes. The Walton family, for instance, uses complex “charitable” trusts that end up sending more money tax-free to their heirs than charitable causes.

While government programs like food stamps face strict and rigorous oversight from both the government (GAO) and media (Fox News), private charities face little scrutiny. Government welfare programs are, contrary to popular belief, incredibly successful at reliving poverty and have incredibly low rates of fraud. And these programs must represent the will of the people, rather than a small elite. Social democracy is a huge project, and requires large portions of GDP. (U.S. government revenues as a percentage of GDP is 10 percent lower than the OECD average.) Churches, foundations and other private organizations are simply too decentralized and inefficient to ever provide that level of aid.

Philanthropy has moral problems too. It assumes that those who earn money have the right to keep it, and do with it as they please. We may like it if Bill Gates gives away a few billion, but are we not also forced to accept that he would be equally right to not give away his wealth? The philanthrocapitalist ethos assumes that since markets are good, Gates could only have made the money justly. Wealth is equated with virtue.

At my old school, a business professor used to challenge her students by asking, “Who did more good, Bill Gates or Mother Theresa?” We may be inclined to say Gates, but as Slajov Zizek writes, “The catch is that before you can give all this away you have to take it.” He notes correctly that, “According to [philanthrocapitalist] ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World.” Philanthocapitalism assumes the justice of a market distribution and thereby further legitimates the system.

Philanthropy is also profoundly undemocratic. Social programs based in democratic principles work by creating a sense of shared concern for the poor and middle class. We’re all in this together. Like the early church, social democracy is premised on the idea “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Philanthropy assumes a far different relationship between the rich and poor.

Oscar Wilde writes, “Charity [the poor] feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives.” In charity, the rich approach the poor not as equal citizens but rather benefactor and serf. It perpetuates a class society, where the poor and middle class are dependent on the wealthy.

This is the most insidious part of the Davostype conferences (where the rich are surprised to discover inequality exists) and the slavish way Business Insider/Forbes/Fortune treat Gates and Buffet. It is the belief, the disgusting and entirely ill-founded belief, that rich people matter. That we need them. It is they who need us. The rich actually give far less of their already outsize income to charity than the middle class. This shouldn’t surprise us; as G.K. Chesterton noted, “You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man … a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.”

Paul Piff confirmed this with research showing that wealth is corrupting, that the rich are more unethical than the poor (in his words, they are “assholes”). It’s no wonder Paul warned that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Lenin illustrated the concept with a Bible verse from Thessalonians, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” Republicans use the verse to chastise welfare cheats, but it’s worth remembering that the rich exist as parasites in our society, extracting far more for themselves than they could ever put in. It is their silly ideas and pet interests that are preventing true reform, their greed poisoning the atmosphere and their love of finance that caused the financial crisis. Philanthropy is predicated on the idea that we need them. Like an emotionally abusive and rapacious lover, they want us to love them because we are dependent on them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Originally published on Salon.

The Empathy Gap

Discussion is growing of an “empathy gap” rooted in our society’s dramatic increase in inequality. As David Madland argues in Democracy, “Studies across U.S. states, of the United States over time, and across countries all find that societies with a strong middle class and low levels of inequality have greater levels of trust of strangers.” This trust brings about economic advantages. Madland cites one study which found, “a 10 percentage-point increase in trust increases the growth rate of GDP by 0.5 percentage points” over five years.” International studies have confirmed this effect.

This decline in social trust begins a downward spiral. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner note in a fabulous paper for World Politics, “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.”

The lack of social trust caused by inequality makes increasing opportunity harder (as I’ve noted above) which further erodes social trust and increases inequality. Wealthy citizens see themselves as “makers” and the poor as “takers,” while the poor see the rich as selfish. Rothstein and Uslaner continue later, “Unequal societies find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle of inequality, with low trust in others and in government and policies that do little to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and to create a sense of equal opportunity.”

Other research has confirmed this “empathy gap.” Last year, Paul Piff caused quite a stir when he published his finding that upper class individuals were, more likely to break driving laws, take goods from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat and endorse unethical behaviour (this, of course, stands at odd with Charles Murray’s rather naive belief that the rich are rich because of their superior moral scruples). Piff summarizes his conclusions,

While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.

But other developed nations are different. While America abandons (or mocks) its poor, other countries work to establish basic living standards. Switzerland, for instance, will soon vote to establish a guaranteed income of $33,000 a year (roughly twice the U.S. poverty line). Nearly all OECD have higher levels of upward mobility, lower levels of inequality and fare better on indicators of health and well-being than the United States. One of the key factors is a robust safety net, something that is constantly being eroded in America under the guise of “debt reduction.” The EPI finds that the U.S. lags behind other OECD countries in social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and it shows: the U.S. also leads the OECD in poverty.

The U.S.’s drastic inequality creates the “skybox” effect, where the rich and poor rarely brush shoulders, making it harder for the wealthy and middle-class to empathize with the plight of the poor. Programs like food stamps have taken the poor out of the breadlines and hidden them away in the slums. A less empathetic society is bad news for programs that rely on decency to work.

F. Scott Fitzgerald cautioned in The Great Gatsby, “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”