State of the Union

Labor Union Brings Community Bookstore to Heel

Sex isn’t the only thing that will get New York City’s liberals hot and bothered.

Chris Doelib is an independent bookseller who owns a bookstore in the Morningside Heights neighborhood next to Columbia University. As the New York Times detailed in Sunday’s paper, Doelib self-identifies as “an extremely progressive liberal,” who “hung photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. above the cash registers … threw open his doors to local authors, provided a home for the Queer Book Club and created a weekly story time program for children (in English, Spanish and Mandarin).” Thus to many in the neighborhood, “he is a lanky warrior for the written word, celebrated for creating and sustaining an intellectual haven in the neighborhood for nearly two decades.”

Or he was, rather, until Doelib resisted attempts to unionize his store by firing several employees involved in the effort (saying they were management employees who illicitly voted in the union election).

Within a week, the Times reports,

…[m]ost of Mr. Doeblin’s remaining employees went on strike, picketing his two stores with the help of the union and its giant inflatable rats, and urging neighborhood residents to join in a boycott. The news spread on Twitter, in the local news media and on community email lists. Sales plunged.

The union in question, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, brought giant inflatable rats to their picket lines as they rallied a neighborhood against an independent community book store that had supported so many of its cherished causes over the years. The Times story then contrasts an expected lengthy, drawn-out battle between management and labor with what was in actuality a clean and speedy resolution.

As it tells the story, “something happened as Mr. Doeblin watched his staff protest, as he was peppered with questions while walking to work and as he fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls at his stores.” It wasn’t that he feared for the solvency of his business, or was frightened at the scale of opposition pouring out of the community he had served for so many years. Instead, Doeblin ”started to wonder where he had gone wrong.” After some perfunctory self-examination, he “agreed to rehire the four fired supervisors, provided that they agreed to give up their titles and return to hourly status for now. He gave a severance package to the fifth person he had let go and has agreed to recognize the union.” All this within a day of the giant inflatable rats being deployed outside his store.

As James Poulos articulated in his “Conservative Case for Unions,” ”unions wind up being the only way industrial workers can bargain effectively with the massive corporations that employ them. Unions exist because, without them, the path is opened wide to crony collaboration between big government and big business.” Given the enormous scales at which billion-dollar companies and trillion-dollar governments operate, unions can serve a vital organizing role in connecting wage-labor workers at similarly large scales.

An independent community bookstore staffed largely by Columbia University students, however, is the furthest thing imaginable from the circumstances that legitimate union activity. Here, the hand of organized labor was brought in to signal noncompliance with one of the tenets of contemporary liberal norms, so that the offender might be brought back around. And so he was.


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Can Main Street Poach Talent From Wall Street?

James Fallows of The Atlantic has been touring the United States with his wife, stopping in small and mid-size cities to try and get a picture of what is actually working in American politics. He says they’ve found it in the nation’s mayors, who are exercising a strong hand of leadership to bring the best insights of urban planning and town development to their constituents, and revitalizing even economically stricken towns like former textile stalwart Greenville, South Carolina.

He recently got a response from a small-city Midwestern mayor currently on military duty in Afghanistan, who told him that “There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them.” The young mayor went on to postulate that “The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government,” because it is increasingly becoming a place where people of talent and industry can get things done:

In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.

Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don’t know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.

I’d like to see some hard numbers before jumping all the way on the small city optimism bandwagon, but as Fallows remarks, “We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere,” where many of the people they encountered were driven by “the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success” (emphasis original).

I wonder, too, how much the utopian shine of Silicon Valley’s start-up culture might start to wear thin on practically minded people of talent, and how far Wall Street’s quantitative gymnastics might fall from the sort of meaningful work that can drive late nights for a purpose past the paycheck. Town renewal can be every bit as intellectually stimulating as credit-default swaps and big firm lawyering, with bookcases of accumulated zoning codes in need of a dramatic revamp customized to the needs of each place. That’s not even to mention the tremendous creativity and human capital needed to cultivate established interests while courting new businesses with, as Fallows puts it, “a conception of the town—people think we’re hicks, but we know we’ve developed something great—that depends on a series of specific achievements.”

So even if small cities and large towns can’t end up poaching quantitative whiz-kids from Wall Street, or steal blistering coders from Palo Alto, they may actually be able to do one better: attract great town managers.


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Religious Discrimination Found in the Workplace

One might think that having a stronger cultural bias toward religion would lead to less discrimination against religious affiliations. Two sociological studies, one of New England and one of the South, indicate that in the workplace, at least, that may not be true.

The first study, the survey of New England, measured employer response to fictitious resumes that had various religious affiliations (including a made-up “Wallonian” faith) and a control group that had no such affiliation listed. The second study was a simple replica of the first, performed in the South. Both studies found that including an overt religious affiliation caused a significant drop in follow-up contacts from prospective employers.

The original study was focused on New England because, in the authors’ own words, “New Englanders express the lowest levels of religiosity in the country,” and the “notoriously taciturn New Englanders are not typically prone to flamboyant displays of religious fervor.” The New England study was then replicated in the South, a region known instead for being strongly religious. (The introduction to the survey of the South calls it the “most devout,” in contrast to New England’s label of “least religious.”)

The results? In both studies, Muslims were by far the least likely applicants to receive a follow-up contact, receiving 38 percent fewer e-mails and 41 percent fewer phone calls than the control group in New England. In the South, the numbers were 38 and 54 percent, respectively.

The New England study found that Catholics, pagans, evangelicals, and atheists were again subject to discrimination, if considerably less than Muslims. Each group received roughly 27-29 percent fewer phone calls: close to the effect that religious affiliation itself had on contact returns. (The reaction against these minority groups, save evangelicals, was similar but more pronounced in the South.)

Even cultures that are highly religious—such as the South—will discriminate against expressed religious affiliation in entry-level hirings. From the conclusion of the study conducted in New England:

This suggests that the secularization has developed a normative aspect … prescribing when and where it is “acceptable” to express one’s religiousness. … As such, secularization implies not just independence from religion but normatively enforced separation from it — even to the point of religious discrimination.

The key to overcoming prejudice seems to lie, oddly enough, with Southern Jews. They were given even preferential treatment by employers, despite the fact that their culture is unfamiliar to the regnant strain of Protestantism. From the conclusion of the survey conducted in the South by Wallace, Wright, and Hyde:

While Jews are culturally different from evangelicals in many respects, Southern Jews have deep historical roots in the South and have more successfully assimilated into mainstream culture than Jews in other regions. … In short, Jews thrived in the South, not by brandishing their religious differences but by embracing key aspects of Southern evangelical culture.

American culture has indeed secularized and, as this study shows, become more wary of overt religious affiliation. The separation between public and private freedom of religion is more and more strictly defined. Many Christians chafe at the idea of such restriction. But perhaps, as the success of Southern Jews has demonstrated, the answer is not to “brandish religious differences” but, as Samuel Goldman describes in the latest issue of The American Conservative, to make peace, within limits, with the culture in which we live, for the sake of common harmony.


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Homelessness, Housing, and the Failures of the Regulatory Impulse

When it comes to homelessness, many communities’ first instinct is to regulate the problem away. Making certain aspects of life on the street illegal, the approach goes, will force the homeless into city programs—or into other cities. This regulatory approach, sometimes referred to as the municipal criminalization of homelessness, includes the seizures of homeless Americans’ private property through police sweeps, laws against panhandling, and restrictions (or even bans) on sharing food with the homeless in public. These measures end up wasting money through the overincarceration of the homeless for nonviolent crimes: according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, it costs up to three times as much to keep someone in jail for one night as it does to keep someone in a shelter.

But the approach, which only deals with the visibility of homelessness and not its root causes, is also fundamentally flawed in that it tends to manifest as merely a short-term bandage for a much more complex issue. The misguided strategy is exemplified by Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “war on homelessness,” which has quickly devolved into a “war on the homeless” by seizing the property of the homeless, banning tents in public spaces, and drafting bills to authorize the police to harass anyone sleeping in public spaces. Though it is intended to improve the local economy by boosting tourism—and a booming local economy would be beneficial to the homeless population in the long run, to be sure—this regulatory approach provides no alternatives other than exodus for the homeless population. As Leah Libresco put it, “Hawaii, more than other states, shouldn’t just try to hide their homeless, since, as an island state, they can’t pull the trick other cities have used and hand out one-way bus tickets to shunt their homeless to another city.”

That same regulating impulse on the local level is also driving up housing costs in cities across the country, likely contributing to homelessness. Scott Beyer recently illustrated how housing policy intersects with homelessness in D.C., where the public health crisis at the decrepit General Hospital shelter is contrasted with housing prices that are rising along with regulations slowing development. “Collectively, writes Cato Institute economist Randal O’Toole, these ‘planning penalties’ add $135,000 to the costs per unit in D.C. Such expenses are paid upfront by businesses, but ultimately get passed onto consumers, making the idea of owning — or even renting — housing impossible for many residents,” Beyer says. He notes that the situation is not specific to D.C. but has spread to politically similar cities like New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

Even affordable housing requirements, meant as a regulated solution to those inflated housing costs, are handled in the same wasteful way. Josh Barro recently detailed the issue of inclusionary zoning, an attempt to increase affordable housing in New York City by offering Manhattan developers the ability to build more luxury apartments if some are allocated to lower rent levels. But while perhaps politically necessary, the strategy underperforms. According to Barro, “Inclusionary zoning generates fewer affordable housing units than a cash equivalent because luxury apartments make for an expensive form of affordable housing.” Read More…

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David Brat’s Half-Cocked Theological-Economic Fusionism

Michael Tanner recently—but before the shocker primary in suburban Richmond—lamented that the tea party’s influence was waning because it had strayed from its core mission:

Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.

Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, “When people ask about [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.”

Tanner is one of an unfortunate many who took the tea party at face value. As I’ve been arguing for years, economic issues, for tea partiers, are inseparable from social ones. It’s the (largely) Protestant version of the seamless garment: capitalism is part of God’s blueprint for human society, just like traditional marriage and heteronormativity. Ironically echoing the atheist Ayn Rand, this worldview values capitalism not merely as an instrumental good, a man’s-estate-reliever, but as a moral imperative.

Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”

Along comes David Brat, professor of economics and slayer of the dragon Rep. Eric Cantor, to bring the argument into sharp relief. The parsing of Brat’s academic writings and theological-economic beliefs has become a cottage industry. The Washington Post called Brat’s primary election an indication of a “rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”

At first blush, Brat seems to draw from the tradition of thinkers like Wilhelm Roepke, who believed that, to properly function, markets depend on bourgeois virtues. As Brat once put it: “If markets are bad … that means people are bad.” There’s an interesting wrinkle to Brat’s fusionism, however. Where proponents of what can only loosely be called “Christian economics,” such as R.C. Sproul, Jr., tease out capitalist principles from the Bible, Brat teases out a biblical influence on secular economic writing. As Kevin Roose writes:

In one unpublished paper from 2005, “Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics,” (Word doc here), which I accessed through a Google Scholar search, Brat makes the case that even though Adam Smith (the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations) is thought of as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, his “invisible hand” theory should properly be seen in the context of Christian moral philosophy.

“In fact, [Smith’s] system really retains most of the fundamental features of the Judeo-Christian system,” Brat writes. “On paper he places Stoic reason above Christian revelation. But on the other hand, he chooses the Christian God over the Stoic God. And in the end, his choice of virtues and ends take a decidedly Christian turn.”

In a sense, Brat’s brand of Protestant-ethic revivalism completes a circle: now, not only can Christians find Adam Smith in the Bible, they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!

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Reparations, Colonialism, and How to Engage an Argument

As conservatives respond en masse to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent cover story for The Atlantic on reparations, a similar, older exchange over liberal scholarship is returning to headlines.

The New York Times recently picked up on a month-old story from Brazil in which Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano expressed distaste for his famed 1971 manifesto on the historical roots of the region’s contemporary poverty, Open Veins of Latin America. The book has become a classic in Latin American anti-colonialist academia, laying the blame for Latin American poverty squarely at the feet of the United States and its corporations. Open Veins enjoyed a brief burst of popularity in the U.S. in 2009, when then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez famously gifted a copy of the book to President Obama. As Adam Goodman noted at Tropics of Meta, contrary to the Times, Galeano did not “disavow” the historical viewpoint of his book, merely his “leaden” prose and inexperienced presentation. Yet Open Veins’s academic value has long since been relegated to historical conversation-starter, rather than policy inspiration. Marjorie Miller illustrated the changed value of the book in the L.A. Times in 2009:

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic failure of Cuba, Open Veins seems dated. The military governments of South and Central America have been replaced by independent, democratically elected leaders who do not take their cues from United Fruit or the United States. …

Yet almost 40 years after Galeano wrote Open Veins, Latin America is still beleaguered by a poverty and inequality born of the colonialism he described.

The trajectory of Open Veins is instructive, as Galeano’s work was received similarly to that of Coates: with liberal adulation and conservative skepticism. One of the main conservative criticisms of both Galeano and Coates’s work is that their presentations are unproductive calls to victimhood. Venezuelan columnist Ibsen Martínez characterized Galeano’s work as a “self-victimizing” that “debases the very theory of neocolonial dependence that Open Veins purports to sustain,” while The Federalist’s Rachel Lu accused Coates of depicting black Americans as “‘victims’ of history rather than its rightful inheritors.” To critics, this victim-focus led to Galeano and Coates’s failure to craft policy solutions to the cultural problems they highlighted.

In his own day, Galeano’s argument was countered by both the widespread Latin American experience of socialist failure and a well-articulated alternative historical viewpoint, exemplified by the work of conservative Venezuelan journalist Carlos Rangel and his own 1976 book, The Latin Americans. Rangel accepted Galeano’s structure, which compared the U.S. experience of colonization with the Latin American one, but corrected its content. Read More…

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Rule by the Very Few

Pat Buchanan beat me to it writing about the Pfizer story which appeared in the New York Times. In what is now called an “inversion” strategy, Pfizer is in negotiations to buy a British drug company, declare its corporate home Great Britain, and cease paying corporate taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Buchanan argues that U.S. corporate taxes are among the highest in the world, and if the U.S. reduced them to zero, it could make up the revenue by tariffs on manufactured imports. I don’t feel especially confident that this would work, though I would state unequivocally, based on experience with him during one of his presidential campaigns, that Buchanan knows more about the nitty gritty of the federal budget than most prominent people in Washington.

On significant mention in the Pfizer story was the galvanizing role of hedge funds in encouraging companies to pull up stakes in the U.S. and renounce their nationality. It makes sense, I suppose. If you own a big block of stock which has a greater chance of appreciating if a company expatriates itself, you will do what you can to increase your return. And you will have leverage—enough perhaps to persuade a large company to do what you want. You will be rewarded as well. Recent stories about hedge fund chieftans demonstrate without a doubt that they are now the highest-paid princelings of capitalism, making sums well beyond a humble CEO who employs and manages hundreds of thousands of people. If during the 1950s, Secretary of Defense and former GM CEO Charlie Wilson said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” (the popular if incorrect version of what Wilson actually said) an apt aphorism about contemporary capitalism might be “What’s good for Appaloosa Management is good for David Tepper and his friends.”

The shift in the commanding heights of American capitalism from huge Midwest-based conglomerates that employed hundreds of thousands to small firms staffed by a handful of Ivy League graduates is the central fact of what the Marxists used to call “late capitalism.” With the exception of various technology developments, betting on the markets is a route to greater money and power (probably not status) than building companies, making useful discoveries, or just about anything else. As the “inversion” model now begins to illustrate, CEO’s of large companies tend to listen to hedge fund managers, and do what they are told.

I’m no economist, but seems obvious that this transformation has not only accompanied but contributed to the growing inequality that has taken place over two generations, and which shows every sign of increasing. It’s reached the point where “equality” ought to be elevated to the status of at least a secondary conservative goal, somewhere beneath liberty but not far from it. If one is conservative by temperament at all, it is because one sees virtues in the society one grew up with under threat. And growing up in California in the 1960s (as I did, in part) one was conscious of feeling that America was better because of its science and its social organization—that is, very few people seemed poor, and there was no obvious class of rich oligarchs. It was a middle class democracy. That alternative social model—the few very rich, the great mass of impoverished—was for Mexico or Brazil, or pre-revolutionary China, places which either teetered on the edge of violent revolution or deserved to.

Ironically, in that 1960s America, extraordinarily egalitarian by today’s standards, one heard (from a quite loud and much listened to New Left) constant calls to challenge corporate hegemony. Marxist tomes which purported to explain U.S. foreign policy by reference to needs of major capitalist enterprises brought fame to several professors.

One hears none of that now, though perhaps the Thomas Piketty book will revive it. So far as I can see, the United States has no anti-capitalist left whatsoever, only movements of cultural or ethnic minorities fighting for greater recognition or rights. This seems curious, since the capitalists are fewer, contribute less to the public good than any prior American capitalist elite, all the while managing to acquire a much larger slice of the pie. But there seems to be no hope of challenging them. A politician who suggested he would aim to restore an America with an income distribution resembling that of Eisenhower’s second term would be dismissed, not just on Fox but everywhere, as a mad, raging socialist.

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The Corporate Income Tax Has Got to Go

News that Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, plans to buy Britain’s AstraZeneca for $106 billion, renounce its U.S. citizenship, and declare itself a British company, has jolted Congress. Pfizer is being denounced as disloyal to the land of its birth, and politicians are devising ways to stop Pfizer from departing.

Yet Pfizer is not alone. Hedge fund managers are urging giant corporations like Walgreens to go nation-shopping for new residences abroad to evade the 35 percent U.S. corporate income tax. Britain’s corporate income tax is 20 percent, and Pfizer stands to save over $1 billion a year by moving there.

In what are called “inversions,” dozens of U.S. companies have bought up foreign rivals, and then moved abroad to countries with lower tax rates, cutting revenue to the U.S. Treasury. But Pfizer is far and away the biggest.

The real question, however, is not why companies are fleeing the USA, but why our politicians continue to drive them out of the country.

Consider. Here in America we do not tax charities, churches or colleges. Yet these institutions produce a fraction of the jobs that businesses produce. If, as a nation, we are committed to “creating jobs,” does it make sense to impose the highest corporate tax rate in the Western world on our biggest and best job creators? Is this not economic masochism?

Many governors understand that if you want something in your state, you do not drive it out with high taxes. You strengthen the magnet of low taxes. Florida wants residents of other states to move there and retire there, so it has no income, estate or inheritance tax. For years, Rep. Jack Kemp urged the creation of enterprise zones in poor communities like Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Harlan County, Kentucky. Businesses that relocated there would be exempt from corporate income taxes.

Why not make the United States the largest enterprise zone on earth—by abolishing the corporate income tax? Read More…

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How Red (State) Is Marx?

May Day, 2014

Not since the 1960s has Marx’s name been so widely invoked as a guide and sage. Except in a few academic outposts—mainly “culture studies,” not in the disciplines in which Marxism was once most vital, political science and economics—Marx had almost wholly disappeared as a serious contender of our attention. By the early 1970s, Rawls had replaced Marx as the main object of the devotions among those on the Left, by which time the Marxist experiments in Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere seemed to have left it wholly discredited. The American Left had made its peace with liberalism, and while it remained egalitarian, redistributist, and enamored of centralization, it largely made its peace with capitalism.

With the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Marx is back in vogue, though—as is the case with Piketty as well—likely more invoked than read. In the backdrop of a range of statistics showing that economic inequality has deepened over the past several decades and accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008, and the broader anxiety felt nearly everywhere that the nation is heading in the wrong direction, Piketty’s argument is riding high on the wave of the Zeitgeist. Critiques of capitalism are in vogue in salons and academe and in the media, and calls for radical rethinking are the order of the day.

But as in early-20th century, those who most ardently embrace Marx tend not to be the dispossessed, but educated and wealthy elites. The revolution—such as it is—once again seems to be the cri de coeur of the nation’s educational, media, and even business liberal elites. The object of their critique would seem to be—themselves. As Matt Continetti recently documented, those most likely to be in the 1 percent (or at least 5 percent) today are documented liberals.

But, read your Marx: Marx knew that the revolution of the proletariat was not likely to be advanced by the proletariat: it would, in fact, be the enlightened segment of the bourgeoisie who would lead the charge in transforming of society. They would constitute the “vanguard” who would act on behalf of the dispossessed workers, and then rule on their behalf until society was sufficiently transformed that true equality could be established and the “State” could finally wither away.

In fact, the lower classes on whose behalf the enlightened would act could not be trusted: they were in the grip of “false consciousness,” deceived about the nature of their true condition, likely to “cling” to their religion and other backward beliefs. Marx was clear who constituted the true opposition: not the wealthy, from whom the enlightened were to be drawn; it was the lower-middle class, the “conservative” element of society. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto,

The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionaries, but conservative. Nay, more they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.

The elites would invoke the anxieties of these classes—wrought above all by the dislocation of capitalism—to justify the displacement of the old aristocracy with their replacement by the temporary dictatorship of the enlightened. The enlightened would rule for an unspecified time until the “reactionaries” could be re-educated, and then all divisions would cease: no more war, no more countries, no more religion, no more possessions. Imagine!—it’s easy if you try. Read More…

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America’s Not an Oligarchy—Yet

A new study released over the weekend sparked a miniature firestorm on the Internet, mostly because it confirmed long-held suspicions about the role of money in politics. While the researchers make strongly-worded conclusions about the state of American democracy, journalists have used hyperbolic language to state that America is already a de facto oligarchy: PolicyMic calls the findings “beyond alarming…their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter. [italics in original]“ Such overblown rhetoric makes it difficult to examine the root of the problem dispassionately in order to address the underlying issues beneath the growing inequality; instead, such reporting is fueling hysteria and pessimism about America’s inexorable decline.

Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University conducted a study measuring the impact of the wealthy and powerful interests groups on American democracy. Looking at over 1,700 proposed policy shifts, they tested whether the interest of the general public, the preferences of elites, or the desires of interest groups had the greatest influence over whether the policy was put into practice. It was hard to test the relative influence of elites and ordinary Americans, since, for the most part, the two groups had identical policy preferences. But, when the groups differed, the elites were much more likely to prevail against the popular will than vice versa.  In the statistical model used by the researchers, the effect of popular opinion dwindled into insignificance once the will of the elites was factored in.  The idea of “oligarchy” is never explicitly endorsed by the paper; it’s only referenced in other cited works. Furthermore, they admit that there are other factors outside the analysis they performed: “[I]t is also possible that there may exist important explanatory factors outside the three theoretical traditions addressed in this analysis[.]”

The New Yorker offered a cool-headed take of what the numbers might mean, a welcome counterpoint to the media hand-wringing. Their blog post points out that the model only explains 10 percent of the data, which, by the authors’ own admission, is a low number that lends itself to weak explanatory ability. The New Yorker wisely doesn’t presume to judge the full validity of Gilens and Page’s argument, but gently suggests that less inflammatory language be used besides the term “oligarchy” that media outlets have picked up. It’s chiding sensationalist journalism more so than attacking the authors, but a look over the study’s introduction and conclusion does reveal some charged language: “But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” Ultimately, the statistics they used suggest an interesting narrative, but do not tell a complete story. Another thing worth noting is the lack of future predictions regarding the impact of wealth on the political process—all the data is from 1981 to 2002. It would be helpful if the researchers could predict which direction they think America’s political process is going based on their findings. “America May Become an Oligarchy” is still a very clickable headline, but a more responsible one.

American democracy is rife with troubling inequalities, but calling it an oligarchy is a step too far. Framing America as an oligarchy implies that there is a disenfranchised group pinned down helplessly by an oppressive elite, and that the true nature of our democracy is defunct. Before making grim prognoses about the extent of the elites’ influence on policy, it may be wise to first examine all the factors that contribute to a certainly troubling trend. That way, we can start to find a solution to cure what ails a society that may be concentrating influence in the hands of too few.

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