About a month ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke to first-year law students at Georgetown, where he drew a parallel between gay people, pedophiles, and child abusers. What would he do for an encore?
This morning, the high court heard oral arguments in a Texas case on affirmative action and the use of race in college admissions, and NBC News reported that Scalia “questioned whether some minority students are harmed by the policy because it helped them gain admittance to schools where they might not be able to academically compete.”
At first blush, that sounds pretty racist, so let’s check the official transcript:
“There are – there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well.
“One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too too fast for them.”
If we were to go out of our way to be charitable, I suppose we could emphasize the fact that Scalia prefaced these comments by saying “there are those who contend.” In other words, maybe the far-right justice himself isn’t making such an ugly argument, so much as the justice is referencing an offensive argument from unnamed others?
It is, to be sure, a stretch. At no point did Scalia say he disagrees with “those who contend” that African-American students who struggle at good universities and are better off at “a slower-track school.”
David Plouffe, a former aide to President Obama, highlighted Scalia’s quote this afternoon and asked a pertinent question: “Motivation lacking for 2016?”
As for the case itself, Fisher v. Texas, which has been bouncing around for a long while, MSNBC’s Irin Carmon reported that the dispute stems from a complaint filed by Abigail Fisher, a white woman “who claims she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race, despite the fact that a lower court found she wouldn’t have been admitted regardless of her race.”
And how did oral arguments go? Carmon added:
The liberals worked to poke holes in the argument that Texas cannot put race on the list of holistic factors. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the same point she had made the first time Fisher came to the court, which is that the supposedly “race-neutral” process of admitting the top 10 percent, which isn’t being challenged in this case, isn’t race-neutral at all, because it makes virtue out of a long history of school and housing segregation and discrimination. Justice Elena Kagan didn’t say a word, because she has recused herself, having worked on the case as solicitor general. Justice Sonia Sotomayor fiercely challenged Fisher’s attorneys.
Meanwhile, three of the four most conservative members of the court reiterated that they oppose affirmative action and would overturn the court’s precedent that it is allowed as a last resort to promote educational diversity. Chief Justice John Roberts repeatedly asked when remedies to racial discrimination would no longer be needed. (Judging from his past decisions, he believes the time is now.) Justice Samuel Alito tried to argue that advocates for affirmative action are themselves making racist or condescending judgments.
A decision is expected by June.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 10, 2015
Louisiana state Rep. John Bel Edwards soundly defeated David Vitter in yesterday’s gubernatorial election. Not only that, but in his concession speech, Vitter announced that he won’t seek reelection to the U.S. Senate next year. In other words, David Vitter is finished as a consequential politician, done in mainly by an eight year old prostitution scandal, but also by the immense unpopularity of the sitting Republican governor Bobby Jindal.
The Democratic Party is encouraged to see a flicker of life in the Deep South, although progressives need to keep things in perspective.
From the start of his run, Edwards knew any chance of victory hinged on distinguishing himself from the prevailing image of Democrats among voters. In meetings with small groups in rural parishes, he touted his opposition to abortion and strong support for gun ownership.
The devil is in the details when it comes to opposing abortion and supporting gun ownership. What kinds of bills would be radical enough that Edwards would veto them? Is there a different line than there would be for a Republican governor?
In some ways, it’s already a defeat if Democratic candidates feel that they need to concede the Republican position on these two very important issues in order to get a hearing on other policies. And there’s a price they have to pay when their party is more divided on issues than the Republicans. It waters down the message.
On the other hand, more than anything else, it was the Democrats’ ability to unite around one candidate while the Republicans were slugging it out in a nasty primary that brought them success. “Edwards” is a big name in Louisiana politics, but John Bel Edwards’s clan is not related to former Governor Edwin Edwards. In a pre-election analysis, The Daily Beast‘s Jason Berry did a comprehensive examination of the new Edwards family power in the Bayou State. Here’s part of that:
It also helps Edwards, 49, that his brother, Daniel, 47, is Tangipahoa Parish sheriff—a fourth-generation sheriff in a sprawling family of lawyers, politicians, and law enforcement officials with deep Louisiana roots.
Tangipahoa is a heavily rural civil parish whose seat, the town of Amite (population 4,141) is 82 miles north of New Orleans. Edwards’s law firm is in Amite; he lives in nearby Roseland (population 1,165). For much of the last century, the parish, which is 30 percent African-American, was known as “Bloody Tangipahoa,” with a history of lawlessness that included a gruesome chapter involving the Ku Klux Klan. That stigma changed under Sheriff Frank Edwards, John Bel’s father.
“Frank Edwards was one of the first sheriffs that hired blacks,” says Donald Bell, the African-American pastor of New Life Outreach Ministries in the town of Hammond.
“Frank was balanced. Everybody loved him. John Bel had good training from his daddy. I was close to Frank. He lived and died politics. If Frank told you, ‘Jerry can’t beat John,’ you could bet that Jerry wasn’t gonna beat John. And Frank would give you two, three reasons why. He was a good Catholic guy. They were committed, just like John Bel—he doesn’t miss Mass. John Bel is a people person, down to earth, what you see is what you get.”
According to Pastor Bell, Edwards has always gotten along well with the local NAACP, and he actually won a state House seat that had been drawn up to be held by a black politician. This ability to bridge the racial divide helps explain how he managed to avoid any Democratic challengers in the primary. And, of course, it was his father who paved the way.
With the endorsement of state law enforcement organizations, his strong record at West Point and as an Airborne Ranger, his family’s good reputation for piety and positive race relations, and an opponent who was best known for paying prostitutes to dress him in a diaper, it would probably be a mistake to see this election result as some kind of bellwether for anything.
The Democrats simply had a much better candidate.
They also didn’t have Bobby Jindal hanging around their neck like an anvil. Like all Louisiana Republicans these days, Vitter tried to destroy his opponent by tying him to President Obama, but this tactic was neutralized by Edwards’ efforts to tie Vitter to Jindal. This left Vitter dependent on social issues, like guns and abortion, but there weren’t any meaningful distinctions between the two candidates on those issues, and there wasn’t much question which candidate had the better record for being a good family man.
And, so, we got a result that is surprising but really was foreseeable if you drilled down into the specifics of the race.
As for what happens now, the The Times-Picayune believes that Gov.-Elect Edwards will bring Medicaid expansion to the state and that teachers unions will have more influence. Edwards will try to deliver on a campaign promise to double funding for higher education, but Jindal has left the state’s finances a mess, and he’ll need to work with a legislature dominated by Republicans.
The Democrat has promised to govern from the middle and is expected to appoint Democrats and Republicans alike to cabinet positions. For example, [Republican Lt. Governor Jay] Dardenne is likely on a short list to fill a high-profile position in the Edwards administration.
Edwards may have to govern in a bipartisan manner, not just by choice. The governor-elect has a serious budget crisis on his hands, and will need a two-thirds vote of the GOP-controlled Legislature for many of his proposals to fix Louisiana’s finances.
“I think that the Legislature and executive branch should cooperate fully,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, who is likely to remain atop the state senate in 2016.
But not everyone is excited to see Edwards head up the executive office. The Democrat makes many of the state’s leading business groups nervous. Edwards has not been supportive of the school choice movement, including charter schools and the state voucher program. Business leaders also believe he is more inclined to roll back their tax credits and incentive programs to fix the state’s budget problems than a Republican would be.
Edwards will have to find an enormous amount of money somewhere to shore up the state’s finances. Louisiana is wrestling with a $500 million shortfall in its current budget cycle and a projected $1 billion budget gap in the next fiscal year.
I’m no expert on Louisiana’s legislature, so I don’t know whether Medicaid expansion will get done or not. I do know that Edwards will have four years to rebuild the Democratic Party and that a lot of people will get experience working in his administration.
Above all, I’m just glad to see David Vitter go. I never liked that man.
By: Martin Longman, Web Editor for the Washington Monthly; Ten Miles Square, November 22, 2015
Conservatives have launched a War on Envy. This week, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute lamented “a national shift toward envy” which, he said, would be “toxic for American culture.” Venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently made the same point in much more inflammatory terms: He equated those who criticize rising inequality with Nazis persecuting Jews, a salvo attack that quickly drew censure from those now running KPCB, the VC powerhouse that he once led.
Both conservatives and progressives agree on basic facts: The percentage of Americans who see this country as a land of opportunity, in which hard work leads reliably to material reward, is falling rapidly. This shift brings envy, resentment, cynicism and despair. And these negative emotions undermine our social structure and bring unhappiness.
But that’s where the agreement ends. Conservatives insist the problem is one of perception. They think that if the media would just stop talking about inequality things would get better. They say that if our leaders (read: President Obama) would simply offer up “an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success,” the envy would dissipate and everything would be just fine.
That is not going to work.
It won’t work because the sense that the dream is slipping away, the sense of diminished mobility, of a system that’s increasingly rigged, is not a fantasy that can be dispelled with clever rhetoric. It is the everyday, lived experience of millions of Americans. The only consequence of elites refusing to discuss it will be to confirm that those elites are indeed out of touch with ordinary Americans and their problems. That aloofness is reflected in the appallingly low approval ratings of the current Congress.
Brooks and other influential conservatives fail to acknowledge that the envy they lament, and the loss of opportunity that fuels it, results directly from the policies they have championed over the years. Consider higher education, which is acknowledged by both liberals and conservatives as the single most powerful force for economic mobility. Conservatives have succeeded in slashing taxes at all levels of government, and these cuts have gutted state funding of higher education.
Tuitions have spiked as a result. The soaring cost has put college out of reach for many middle-class families and nearly all of the poor and near poor. In 1971 an American family at the median income level had to pay 13 percent of its annual income to send each child to a public four-year university. That’s tough but it’s doable, with considerable sacrifice, savings, loans, a part time job and so on. Now the cost has more than doubled to 29 percent of income. This puts college out of reach for many, and leads to students graduating with staggering debt burdens. To put it mildly, this much debt does not encourage entrepreneurship.
That’s not the only way that conservative policies have limited upward mobility and destroyed confidence in the American Dream. Conservatives have long championed corporate tax policies that accelerate the harsher aspects of globalization, outsourcing and offshoring. As a result, American workers in many industries have seen their wages stagnate even as productivity has gone up, profits have soared and those who hold stock and options have done exceedingly well. Hard work now means breaking even for most Americans, rather than pulling ahead.
Here’s another example: Conservatives have championed individual tax structures that reduce the share of taxes born by the richest and increase the share born by the rest. Tax law changes such as the reduction in top tax brackets, lowering of capital gains rates and elimination of estate taxes confirm many Americans’ suspicion that the deck is indeed stacked against them.
I built and enjoyed a successful career in business before becoming an advocate for a sustainable economy. One of the things I learned in my career was to look for the true root cause of problems and not waste time attacking symptoms. Another thing I learned was that if what you’re doing isn’t working, stop doing it and try something else.
We are not going to bring optimism back to ordinary Americans by belittling those who discuss the real state of our economy. Waging war on envy won’t make people more confident in their job prospects and more entrepreneurial in their careers. Not if the reality of our tax, trade, labor and other policies is to strip away the rewards of working Americans and concentrate more and more wealth at the top.
It’s good that both left and right want to make the American dream credible again for more people. It’s good that both sides see loss of optimism as a problem. But diminished opportunity won’t be solved by refusing to talk honestly about its causes, and envy won’t be eliminated by more of the policies that kindled it in the first place. The success of the American economy and the American political system depends on people having the genuine conviction, based on the reality of their day-to-day experience, that hard work brings upward mobility.
By: David Brodwin, U. S. News and World Report, March 6, 2014
Almost every culture has some variation on the saying, “rags to rags in three generations.” Whether it’s “clogs to clogs” or “rice paddy to rice paddy,” the message is essentially the same: Starting with nothing, the first generation builds a successful enterprise, which its profligate offspring then manage poorly, so that by the time the grandchildren take over, little value remains.
Much of society’s wealth is created by new enterprises, so the apparent implication of this folk wisdom is that economic inequality should be self-limiting. And for most of the early history of industrial society, it was.
But no longer. Inequality in the United States has been increasing sharply for more than four decades and shows no signs of retreat. In varying degrees, it’s been the same pattern in other countries.
The economy has been changing, and new forces are causing inequality to feed on itself.
One is that the higher incomes of top earners have been shifting consumer demand in favor of goods whose value stems from the talents of other top earners. Because the wealthy have just about every possession anyone might need, they tend to spend their extra income in pursuit of something special. And, often, what makes goods special today is that they’re produced by people or organizations whose talents can’t be duplicated easily.
Wealthy people don’t choose just any architects, artists, lawyers, plastic surgeons, heart specialists or cosmetic dentists. They seek out the best, and the most expensive, practitioners in each category. The information revolution has greatly increased their ability to find those practitioners and transact with them. So as the rich get richer, the talented people they patronize get richer, too. Their spending, in turn, increases the incomes of other elite practitioners, and so on.
More recently, rising inequality has had much impact on the political process. Greater income and wealth in the hands of top earners gives them greater access to legislators. And it confers more ability to influence public opinion through contributions to research organizations and political action committees. The results have included long-term reductions in income and estate taxes, as well as relaxed business regulation. Those changes, in turn, have caused further concentrations of income and wealth at the top, creating even more political influence.
By enabling the best performers in almost every arena to extend their reach, technology has also been a major driver of income inequality. The best athletes and musicians once entertained hundreds, sometimes thousands of people at one time, but they can now serve audiences of hundreds of millions. In other fields, it was once enough to be the best producer in a relatively small region. But because of falling transportation costs and trade barriers in the information economy, many fields are now dominated by only a handful of the best suppliers worldwide.
Income concentration has changed spending patterns in other ways that widen the income gap. The wealthy have been spending more on gifts, clothing, housing, celebrations and other things simply because they have more money. Their extra spending has shifted the frames of reference that shape demand by others just below them, so these less wealthy people have been spending more, and so on, all the way down the income ladder. But because incomes below the top have been stagnant, the resulting expenditure cascades have made it harder for middle- and low-income families to make ends meet. Despite taking on huge amounts of debt, they’ve been unable to keep pace with community standards. Interest payments impoverish them while enriching their wealthy creditors.
But perhaps the most important new feedback loop shows up in higher education. Tighter budgets in middle-class families make it harder for them to afford the special tutors and other environmental advantages that help more affluent students win admission to elite universities. Financial aid helps alleviate these problems, but the children of affluent families graduate debt-free and move quickly into top-paying jobs, while the children of other families face lesser job prospects and heavy loads of student debt. All too often, the less affluent experience the miracle of compound interest in reverse.
More than anything else, what’s transformed the “rags to rags in three generations” story is the reduced importance of inherited wealth relative to other forms of inherited advantage. Monetary bequests are far more easily squandered than early childhood advantage and elite educational credentials. As Americans, we once pointed with pride to our country’s high level of economic and social mobility, but we’ve now become one of the world’s most rigidly stratified industrial democracies.
Given the grave threats to the social order that extreme inequality has posed in other countries, it’s easy to see why the growing income gap is poised to become the signature political issue of 2014. Low- and middle-income Americans don’t appear to be on the threshold of revolt. But the middle-class squeeze continues to tighten, and it would be imprudent to consider ourselves immune. So if growing inequality has become a self-reinforcing process, we’ll want to think more creatively about public policies that might contain it.
In the meantime, the proportion of our citizens who never make it out of rags will continue to grow.
By: Robert H. Frank, Economics Professor, The Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University; The New York Times, January 11, 2014
For most of American history, parents could expect that their children would, on average, be much better educated than they were. But that is no longer true. This development has serious consequences for the economy.
The epochal achievements of American economic growth have gone hand in hand with rising educational attainment, as the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have shown. From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.
Companies pay better-educated people higher wages because they are more productive. The premium that employers pay to a college graduate compared with that to a high school graduate has soared since 1970, because of higher demand for technical and communication skills at the top of the scale and a collapse in demand for unskilled and semiskilled workers at the bottom.
As the current recovery continues at a snail’s pace, concerns about America’s future growth potential are warranted. Growth in annual average economic output per capita has slowed from the century-long average of 2 percent, to 1.3 percent over the past 25 years, to a mere 0.7 percent over the past decade. As of this summer, per-person output was still lower than it was in late 2007. The gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.
There are numerous causes of the less-than-satisfying economic growth in America: the retirement of the baby boomers, the withdrawal of working-age men from the labor force, the relentless rise in the inequality of the income distribution and, as I have written about elsewhere, a slowdown in technological innovation.
Education deserves particular focus because its effects are so long-lasting. Every high school dropout becomes a worker who likely won’t earn much more than minimum wage, at best, for the rest of his or her life. And the problems in our educational system pervade all levels.
The surge in high school graduation rates — from less than 10 percent of youth in 1900 to 80 percent by 1970 — was a central driver of 20th-century economic growth. But the percentage of 18-year-olds receiving bona fide high school diplomas fell to 74 percent in 2000, according to the University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman. He found that the holders of G.E.D.’s performed no better economically than high school dropouts and that the rising share of young people who are in prison rather than in school plays a small but important role in the drop in graduation rates.
Then there is the poor quality of our schools. The Program for International Student Assessment tests have consistently rated American high schoolers as middling at best in reading, math and science skills, compared with their peers in other advanced economies.
At the college level, longstanding problems of quality are joined with the issues of affordability. For most of the postwar period, the G.I. Bill, public and land-grant universities and junior colleges made a low-cost education more accessible in the United States than anywhere in the world. But after leading the world in college completion, America has dropped to 16th. The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who hold a four-year bachelor’s degree has inched up in the past 15 years, to 33.5 percent, but that is still lower than in many other nations.
The cost of a university education has risen faster than the rate of inflation for decades. Between 2008 and 2012 state financing for higher education declined by 28 percent. Presidents of Ivy League and other elite schools point to the lavish subsidies they give low- and middle-income students, but this leaves behind the vast majority of American college students who are not lucky or smart enough to attend them.
While a four-year college degree still pays off, about one-quarter of recent college graduates are currently unemployed or underemployed. Meanwhile, total student debt now exceeds $1 trillion.
Heavily indebted students face two kinds of risks. One is that they fall short of their income potential, through some combination of unemployment and inability to find a job in their chosen fields. Research has shown that on average a college student taking on $100,000 in student debt will still come out ahead by age 34. But that break-even age goes up if future income falls short of the average.
There is also completion risk. A student who takes out half as much debt but drops out after two years never breaks even because wages of college dropouts are little better than those of high school graduates. These risks are acute for high-achieving students from low-income families: Caroline M. Hoxby, a Stanford economist, found that they often don’t apply to elite colleges and wind up at subpar ones, deeply in debt.
Two-year community colleges enroll 42 percent of American undergraduates. The Center on International Education Benchmarking reports that only 13 percent of students in two-year colleges graduate in two years; that figure rises to a still-dismal 28 percent after four years. These students are often working while taking classes and are often poorly prepared for college and required to take remedial courses.
Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers. Many children are culturally disadvantaged, even if one or both parents have jobs, have no books at home, do not read to them, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning. Compared with other nations where students learn several languages and have math homework in elementary school, the American system expects too little. Parental expectations also matter: homework should be emphasized more, and sports less.
Poor academic achievement has long been a problem for African-Americans and Hispanics, but now the achievement divide has extended further. Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, has argued that “family breakdown is now biracial.” Among lower-income whites, the proportion of children living with both parents has plummeted over the past half-century, as Charles Murray has noted.
Are there solutions? The appeal of American education as a destination for the world’s best and brightest suggests the most obvious policy solution. Shortly before his death, Steve Jobs told President Obama that a green card conferring permanent residency status should be automatically granted to any foreign student with a degree in engineering, a field in which skills are in short supply..
Richard J. Murnane, an educational economist at Harvard, has found evidence that high school and college completion rates have begun to rise again, although part of this may be a result of weak labor markets that induce students to stay in school rather than face unemployment. Other research has shown that high-discipline, “no-excuses” charter schools, like those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone, have erased racial achievement gaps. This model suggests that a complete departure from the traditional public school model, rather than pouring in more money per se, is needed.
Early childhood education is needed to counteract the negative consequences of growing up in disadvantaged households, especially for children who grow up with only one parent. Only one in four American 4-year-olds participate in preschool education programs, but that’s already too late. In a remarkable program, Reach Out and Read, 12,000 doctors, nurses and other providers have volunteered to include instruction on the importance of in-home reading to low-income mothers during pediatric checkups.
Even in today’s lackluster labor market, employers still complain that they cannot find workers with the needed skills to operate complex modern computer-driven machinery. Lacking in the American system is a well-organized funnel between community colleges and potential blue-collar employers, as in the renowned apprenticeship system in Germany.
How we pay for education shows, in the end, how much we value it. In Canada, each province manages and finances education at the elementary, secondary and college levels, thus avoiding the inequality inherent in America’s system of local property-tax financing for public schools. Tuition at the University of Toronto was a mere $5,695 for Canadian arts and science undergraduates last year, compared with $37,576 at Harvard. It should not be surprising that the Canadian college completion rate is about 15 percentage points above the American rate. As daunting as the problems are, we can overcome them. Our economic growth is at stake.
By: Robert J. Gordon, The New York Times, September 7, 2013