Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17Jan/140

On Civic Journalism

ArendtWeekendReading

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.

The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”

muck2

One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:

In Pilgrim's Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.

The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.

Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).

Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.

Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.

The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.

The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”

Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?

Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.

Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.”  The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.

watchdog

To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.

Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.

But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.

Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself:  If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?

-RB

28Oct/130

Revolutions

Arendtquote

“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”

-Hannah Arendt, "Revolutions - Spurious and Genuine" (unpublished)

This quote, whose telling typos will be addressed below, is from an unpublished typescript by Hannah Arendt, written for a lecture in Chicago in May 1964, titled “Revolutions – Spurious and Genuine”. The first lines read: “Not my title. I would hesitate to distinguish.” While Arendt rejects the suggested binary definition, her talk offers different sets of distinctions:

First, modern revolutions like the French or the American Revolution imply a change that is radical enough to be experienced as an entirely new beginning. A new beginning that no one can escape, because it affects “the whole fabric of government and/or society.” This call for radical change doesn’t just protest bad government. Citizens who are in the streets for a revolution don’t limit themselves to complaining, “We are badly ruled,” but they claim, “We wish to rule ourselves.” The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990, and most recently the revolutionary events in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East are probably the most prominent events of this kind in contemporary history. At the time of Arendt’s talk, the Cuban Revolution was the most recent example: she thought it was primarily a coup d’état, yet “most certainly” a revolution.

revolution

Second, Arendt distinguishes between social and political upheavals – a distinction we know from her book “On Revolution,” published one year before the lecture in Chicago. Revolutions like those in France in 1789, or Russia in 1905, came to be primarily about the abolition of social misery and inequality, while the American Revolution, for instance, was about building political liberty, according to Arendt. This section of the paper is one of the rare occasions in Arendt’s work where she also addresses America’s “hidden social question,” i.e. the “institution of slavery” and its aftermath. Arendt is puzzled that America’s extremely mobile society and economy resisted change, keeping African-Americans stuck at the bottom of society while many – often poor – immigrants were easily absorbed. Does the civil rights movement call for a revolution in response to this turmoil? No, Arendt says, for it doesn’t claim to change the whole fabric of the society; rather, it is fighting for access to this society. There is a revolutionary aspect to the movement’s political fight “against those laws and ordinances of states which are openly discriminatory,” Arendt remarks, but changing the “whole fabric” isn’t on this agenda either, for the civil rights movement had the Federal government on its side.

In the final section of her talk, Arendt returns to the initially rejected distinction between spurious and genuine – because she does think it is productive when we ask, “Who are the revolutionists?”

On the one hand, there is the concept of a founder, originating in the American Revolution: “a kind of architect” who builds a house that provides stability because those who inhabit it are fleeting, they come and go. “Freedom needs a space to be manifest,” Arendt notes, continuing: the “more stable a body politic is, the more freedom will be possible within it.” Whether the process of life housed by this founder is ruled by the law of progress or not, is secondary.

Yet the concept of progress is still central to how we usually conceive of politics. The conservatives tend to be against it, the liberals tend to be for it up to a certain degree. The revolutionists, however, believe in it, and they believe that true progress requires violence. They’ve been holding this belief with and since Marx, Arendt recalls, with whom she competes for the metaphor of “birth.” Whereas for Marx the pangs of birth must accompany every meaningful political development, for Arendt birth manifests the human capacity for a totally new beginning.

The metaphors of infinite progress as an infinite process “were all born … during the French Revolution,” Arendt notes. They were born, when not only the Jacobins around Robespierre, who represents the cruelties of the rule of “terreur,” but also the slightly more moderate Girondists around Danton had lost control:

“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born[e] [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”

The typos in this passage are maybe the most telling signs of Arendt’s deep struggle with this concept of progress. By having the actors being “born” instead of “borne” on the stream of revolution, she not only conflates the two Marxian ideas of unstoppable progress that necessarily comes with the pangs of birth, but also inscribes her critique into Marx’s concept by allowing the possible reading of actors being born – in Arendt’s sense of an individual new beginning within plurality – upon this process. Marx’s idea of the swimmer “controlling” the stream of history in Arendt’s eyes is an illusion, as she noted in her Thinking Diary. In the face of the atrocities of the 20th century the question would rather be “how to avoid swimming in the stream at all.”

The undercurrents of Arendt’s typos reveal that her debate with Marx, despite the fact that the lecture is written in English, is simultaneously pursued in German – their shared native language. Arendt capitalizes “Revolution” like a German noun; she did the same earlier in the paragraph with “Progress,” and she does it again with the gigantic stream of “Lava.” (I’ve outlined the significance of the “plurality of languages” in Arendt’s political writing and thinking in a different “Quote of the Week” you can read here.)

Here, I’d like to show in conclusion how Arendt through the German resonances in her talk subtly invites a poet into her conversation on revolution. “The revolution devours its own children” has become a common expression, but the way in which Arendt quotes it “like Saturn” translates exactly the wording from Georg Büchner’s pivotal play Danton’s Death. Arendt’s private German copy of the play is marked up in interesting ways. Among the sentences she underlined is for example Danton’s “We didn’t make the revolution, the revolution made us,” which reflects upon the intricacies of agency and intellectual leadership in political turmoil. A sentence many intellectuals — even some of Arendt’s friends — were painfully oblivious to during the “National Revolution” of 1933, which troubled her for decades.

arejdt

We revolutionaries are “no more cruel than nature, or the age we live in,” says St. Just, Robespierre’s hitman, whose name literally means Saint Justice, in a passage from Danton’s Death that Arendt also marked: “Nature follows her own laws, calmly, irresistibly; man is destroyed wherever he comes into conflict with them.”

Büchner’s dialogs are largely based on historical sources from the French Revolution. They flesh out Arendt’s fine allusions e.g. to the fatal might of tropes like “the stream.” “Is it so surprising,” St. Just asks in the same passage Arendt marked, “that at each new turn the raging torrent of the revolution disgorges its quantum of corpses?” Echoing Marx’ metaphor of the irresistible stream of history and progress, Arendt is mindful of the date where these thoughts found their form.

Speaking of being mindful of dates – only a few days ago, on October 18th, Georg Büchner’s 200th anniversary was celebrated.

(The full document of Arendt’s lecture in Chicago will soon be published on www.hannaharendt.net)

-Thomas Wild

5Jul/130

The Moral Roots of Income Inequality

ArendtWeekendReading

Inequality is not simply a matter of numbers and economics. Thomas Edsall explores at the moral and cultural roots of income inequality last week in the New York Times. His essay takes as its basis a recent speech by Alan B. Krueger, President Obama’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, entitled “Fairness as an Economic Force.” Here is one excerpt from Krueger’s speech:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization. But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matter for wage setting, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market. We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to more widely shared – and stronger – economic growth. It is natural to expect that market forces such as globalization would weaken norms and institutions that support fairness in wage setting. Yet I would argue that the erosion of the institutions and practices that support fairness has gone beyond market forces.

While globalization, outsourcing, and the rise of robots certainly are part of the reduction of wages and the hollowing out of the middle class, they do not tell the whole story.

peanuts

At a time when real wages are stagnant, CEO pay is skyrocketing, income at the highest levels of society is increasing disproportionately, and corporate profits as a share of Gross Domestic Product have reached record levels.

Importantly, Edsall notes that conservatives and liberals both have focused a light on this disintegration of the moral fabric of our society, though they often do so in very different ways. He begins his essay with a discussion of Charles Murray and David Brooks, each of whom argue that the economic and political problems we face have their roots in “disintegrating moral norms.”

While Krueger’s analysis is very different from Charles Murray’s or from David Brooks', all three share an interest in what they see as disintegrating moral norms. And there is something else that binds them: the trends that Murray, Brooks and Krueger deplore continue with unrelenting force. From Murray’s perspective, social decay and irresponsible behavior have spread into the broad working and lower middle class.

Liberals and conservatives often reject alliances on moral questions, and their analyses of the moral decay are meaningfully different. And yet, Edsall does well to bring them together and to remind us that radical inequality and political paralysis may have cultural and moral valences that transcend political affiliation.  His essay on “Our Broken Social Contract” is your weekend read.

You might also look at Alan Krueger’s speech, “Fairness as an Economic Force.” originally given at Oberlin College. I have written about Murray’s book Coming Apart, here and here.

-RB

13Feb/130

Let’s Talk About Power

Something happened on February 3rd that has never happened before, and in contrast to the event that provided the circumstance for its happening, it is almost a footnote in our discussion of what we really witnessed that day.

Superbowl XLVII was held in New Orleans last week. It was an awesome game filled with unique shows of strength, human agility and competition, and momentum swings. I have always loved sports for this reason, they can showcase the apex of physical discipline, potential, and unity. They are an active metaphor -- literally, of action.

Football may be the most apt war metaphor we have. A team is a conquering nation set upon invading the other teams turf. No individual effort of strength or force can bring victory. A win is a team win, brought upon only through clear unity. But last Monday these representations became even more pronounced. Just after halftime Jacoby Jones, a speedy receiver who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is a product of New Orleans, took a kickoff 108 yards for a score. The guy was flying, clearly the fastest man on the field that day. Don’t tell me that in part he was not driven by the energy of performing back on his hometown. The man represented the city in this game. It was a triumph for New Orleans. There was a cheer beyond the Stadium. Frankly, most in the stadium were outsiders, only visiting the city for the event, unaware of the fact that Jones was a native. Just after Jones scored the power in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out. Oh yeah, the Superdome has been renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, because that changes things... Anyway, according to Entergy, the energy company supplying the power to the stadium, the outage was the product of a glitch from outside of the Superdome. Does anyone else find this oddly poetic?

I know, who wants on the festive day of the Super Bowl, with all its earning potential, both inside and outside of the city, all of its ability to showcase the most celebratory elements of the crescent city, who wants to return to the conversation of race, gentrification, education, and power, and their relationship to one another? But we are not over it. New Orleans is not over it. Yes, thousands of people descend upon this city for the Super Bowl to spend millions of dollars in the most extravagant of ways. The restaurants stock up on expensive meats. Champagne and Courvoisier VSOP are flowing. The private escort sector brings in outside recruits and stocks up on Bolivian marching powder (I mean, come on, do we really think that’s not happening?). Thousands of locals pay their rent and grocery bills through this commerce contract. But is this not an opportunity to re-examine what happened?

Katrina was a stark reminder of the inequality within our county. It awoke the common shout of the forgotten. This lens is not only applicable to the gulf region. It was an opportunity to zoom out and see where else this glitch is taking place. But that of course takes action. An action of self-inventory on the part of the power institutions in this county, as well as individuals. And for the most part these institutions have proven themselves anything but ‘powerful‘ at least in terms of Arendt’s vision of the word. They are money-strong and possess the weight of force, but these alone can lead only to a politic of totalitarianism. “True power,” again, “is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

Have we done that? Have we, as a nation, conducted the self-inventory necessitated by Katrina?

For thirty four minutes the power in the Superdome was out. The images of the players stretching on the field were an odd, ironic, peculiar, haunting flashback to the Fall of 2005, when the turf of the Superdome became the staging ground of a mismanaged relief effort, and another reality TV show for so many around the county watching it on television.

I do not mean to say that people were not moved to action by Katrina. On the contrary, the country united in the wake of the storm and at the shocking disclosures of our government's impotence. But, possibly we have let a great part of the story go, cataloguing it under ‘what happened” We have disbanded. Labeled what happened in New Orleans as “there” and thus divorced from the “here.” We have allowed ourselves to become disempowered. I’m just saying, just asking, have we moved beyond our active, democratic right (and even mandate) to diagnose the source of a power outage?

It was a great game though. After 34 minutes of sedation the momentum shifted. The San Francisco 49ers almost pulled off a historic comeback, before the Ravens defense finally held its ground on a last down goal-line stance. It was a pretty game. A show of individual strength, a collision of forces, an art brought to being in the action of power.

For 34 minutes the fans at the Superdome, as well as the hundreds of millions of people watching across the globe, waited for power to come back. Advertisers, of course, lapped up the extra T.V. time. In between the commercials images of players from both teams laying or sitting and stretching on the turf of the Superdome were broadcast out to the world.

Let’s talk about power...Hannah Arendt writes, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In addition, Arendt makes a clear distinction between power, force and strength. Power is the only of the three that in order to exist requires a union of people, “and vanishes the moment they disperse.” It is only in the “public realm” that power meets its “action potential,” and what “first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” Cease to actualize, and the power is out. In this sense democracy is the products of power, and legitimate, firm standing, only in this active action of its members, and not on the collection of force or display of strength.

In many ways New Orleans has moved beyond Katrina. The rebuilding, re-conceptualizing of the city is well, well on the way. Much of this movement has come from grass-root structures, as well as political institutions, though the latter are often mired in a economics based debate over what New Orleans ‘should‘ look like. And yet the discussion of what happened here and what still happens is often brushed aside too quickly. In 2005, a glitch from outside of the city, outside of the congregation space, had completely disempowered it.

-Nikita Nelin

22Jan/131

The House We All Live in

This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.

Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.

In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.

Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.

At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?

Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.

I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.

Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.

-Jeff Jurgens

22Mar/120

Economic Inequality

If inequality matters, is it rational? David Grusky writes that much of the economic inequality in our economy is irrational, the result of rules and practices that irrationally keep pay high for a small group of college graduates and CEOs.

While many argue that inequality needs to be addressed by higher taxes,  Grusky argues  that inequality has causes deeper than the system of taxation:

But the takeoff in inequality cannot be explained by tax policy alone. To the contrary, as economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have shown [see their response to Grusky], there has been a dramatic rise over the last 30 years in pre-tax income inequality. The share of pre-tax income flowing to the top 1 percent of households increased from less than 10 percent in 1975 to more than 20 percent now. This spectacular increase in market inequality is of course exacerbated by changes in after-market taxation. However, because the takeoff in inequality is mainly generated within the market, we should look to market institutions to understand its main causes.

Grusky shows that beyond tax raises, it might be better to focus on two other causes of inequality: unequal opportunities in education and unjustified CEO pay. Since there remains a premium paid for college education and especially for elite college educations, increasingly the educational opportunities and preparation of more people would be one way to address income inequality. And since CEO pay has skyrocketed beyond market justification through the use of toothless boards of directors and suspect compensation consultants, leading to economic rewards beyond market justification.

Read more.

-RB

21Mar/120

Is Economic Inequality Becoming a Problem for Americans?

Is economic inequality becoming a problem for Americans? The common sense today is that OWS has put inequality on the agenda today in a way that is new in American politics. And today Eduardo Porter makes the argument that OWS is having some traction on the question of income inequality. While Americans traditionally are tolerant of inequality, that may be changing.

Our tolerance for a widening income gap may be ebbing, however. Since Occupy Wall Street and kindred movements highlighted the issue, the chasm between the rich and ordinary workers has become a crucial talking point in the Democratic Party’s arsenal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, President Obama underscored how “the rungs of the ladder of opportunity had grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”

There are signs that the political strategy has traction. Inequality isn’t quite the top priority of voters: only 17 percent of Americans think it is extremely important for the government to try to reduce income and wealth inequality, according to a Gallup survey last November. That is about half the share that said reigniting economic growth was crucial.

Seventeen percent seem a low number of citizens concerned about inequality, but looking deeper, Porter argues that attitudes are changing.

A slightly different question indicates views have changed: 29 percent said it was extremely important for the government to increase equality of opportunity. More significant, 41 percent said that there was not much opportunity in America, up from 17 percent in 1998.

Statistics on income mobility are notoriously hard to measure and contested, but the surveys indicate that optimistic Americans are losing that sense of mobility and possibility. Even if people can and do often earn more than their parents, the vast rifts opening up between rich and middle class means that increasingly Americans live in different worlds. These vast divisions are now seen as a problem not only by liberals, but also by conservatives like Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart bemoans the loss of a common sense of American values. There is a way in which the truly extraordinary gaps in income are unraveling the social contract that holds the country together.

In other words, even for those who are accepting of inequality and who believe in a meritocracy, excessive inequality cannot be justified.  As Porter writes:

One doesn’t have to believe in equality to be concerned about these trends. Once inequality becomes very acute, it breeds resentment and political instability, eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions. It can produce political polarization and gridlock, splitting the political system between haves and have-nots, making it more difficult for governments to address imbalances and respond to brewing crises. That too can undermine economic growth, let alone democracy.

Read more here.

-RB

 

10Feb/124

America’s Great Cultural Divide

You know that the problem of inequality has gone mainstream when even Charles Murray has written a book about it. Not only the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, but also Murray—the conservative force between The Bell Curve and other controversial contributions to the culture wars—is now loudly screaming about the dangers of inequality in America. But with Murray, there is a difference.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the vast income inequality that divides the country into haves, have nots, and have-it-alls, and if the Tea Party divides the country into the self-sufficient and the governmental dependents, Murray points to yet another divide: the Cultural Divide.

Murray begins with a point that I take to be essential:

Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting.

Americans (Murray means by this term always white Americans) are living increasingly amongst those like themselves. Murray means by this that American elites (both Republican and Democrat) have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Specifically, he is worried that wealthy white Americans live apart from and are ignorant of poor white Americans. And vice versa.

In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Murray argues that an enormous cultural divide has separated white Americans into classes that don't mix. While many liberals might welcome Murray's voice pointing to the rise of inequality in America, his analysis and prescriptions are radically different from those usually suggested by the left. For one thing, Murray focuses on white Americans between 30-49. Part of this focus is to support his argument that "Cultural inequality is not grounded in race or ethnicity." This itself will strike many on the left as an evasion, which it is. And yet, Murray's focus on the increasingly vast class divisions amongst white Americans points to the profound depths of the rising class and income inequality that pervades and divides American society.

Murray does not only point out the vast class divide in the United States. He points to solutions as well. His book is a call to action, but one that has little if nothing to say about the need for government to help the poor. No, for Murray, what both the lower and upper classes need are better values. The lower classes must learn from the upper classes the values of hard work, marriage, and family. The upper classes must learn from the lower classes the value of community, patriotism, and religion.

Whatever one thinks of Murray's analysis, he is right that we all need to do more to read and think and interact with others with whom we don't always agree. Those interested in and concerned by inequality in American can learn from Murray's book, and they should, even as they should wonder at his single-minded concern with white people. Problematic books can teach us much. Thus, for this week's weekend read, I suggest you take a look at Murray's latest essay on "The New American Divide."

-RB