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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Hundred Yard Dash

Has the black man caught up?  Consider the metaphor of the hundred yard dash...

White men like me from the south (of Europe, that is) stand accused of breeding a race of human beings decidedly inferior to those from Europe’s western and northern sections. Still, I suppose I’m not completely in tune with the plight of Latinos, African Americans, Asians, the so-called “people of color.” Or women, for that matter.

By way of example, one day an African American student asks me a simple question. “Why is it,” he begins, “that a black person has to be wildly successful, beat insurmountable odds, fly like superman, to become that nationally popular one-in-a-million hip hop artist, before he is able to afford what is to most white people the common luxury to reside in an affluent southern California neighborhood like Beverly Hills? While, for example, his white neighbor on one side just has to be a dentist - his white neighbor on the other side an insurance salesman?” Frankly, I have never looked at it that way before.  But, of course, once I do take the time to think it through from the student’s perspective, I surmise he has a point.

And if those are the odds for the plight of the ordinary black man, then just where does the “lower” class of white men, like me (the ones who are not white Anglo-Saxon protestant), slot in? Many white people today resent the fact that blacks receive at least a perceived, unfair advantage through the mechanism of affirmative action. This controversial program gives a hiring preference based on race, ethnicity or gender over the application of a similarly situated white male citizen. Many white men, especially on the lower rungs, believe that, perhaps, it is time to reverse or undo affirmative action, that enough has been done, that blacks, anyway, have effectively “caught up.”

I pose this question to a professional colleague whose ethnicity is a mix of African American and Asian. He answers without hesitation: “Hell no! The black man is not even close to catching up.” He proceeds to relate a metaphor I’ve not forgotten. A white man and a black man each line up to compete in a hundred yard dash. The white man is fit and all trained up, with state of the art running gear. By contrast, the black man has a pair of lead shackles locked around his bare ankles. The gun goes off. The race starts. The white man zips along smartly, sporting a huge smile. When he gets to about ten yards from the finish line, someone in the crowd has the decency to call for the black man’s shackles finally to be removed. The crowd waits impatiently, wondering why the black man hasn’t caught up, fully recovered in an instant from deep injuries sustained over 350 years of legally sanctioned subordination. He must just be lazy, they conclude.

It is argued that whites typically lack empathy for their black brethren, taking for granted things that do not come as naturally or predictably for blacks. For example, one of my white colleagues is known to speak rather casually about having inherited his father’s successful printing business. Although it is largely due to his efforts that the business has taken off to the next level, he tends to speak as if such businesses commonly grow on trees. After all, it’s just a printing business, right?

Working people are also rather nonchalant about the financial cost and economic drain of social programs for their dispossessed co-workers. Programs such as workers’ compensation to protect the injured and unemployment insurance benefits to protect those who have been the subject of layoffs are routinely criticized. Even successful, self-employed entrepreneurs tend to complain about the social costs of subsidizing the failed business ventures of others in a brutal, survival of the fittest, take no prisoners mentality.

Of course, the situation changes when the working man loses his own job. Then, as the saying goes, it’s not a recession, it’s a depression. Suppose, for example, the self-employed entrepreneur happens to be a GM dealer, whose father ran the business proudly before he did. For years, all the entrepreneur says he wants is the “government” simply to get off his back and stay out of his life. Until, that is, the music stops playing, GM declares bankruptcy on account of decades of incompetent management, and the entrepreneur is finally left without a chair. All of a sudden, the attitude changes, fundamentally. Then the government must step in, naturally, to help him in his time of dire need.

Lastly, I can only chuckle in considering the story of a woman who tells me she has no idea how she is going to pay for her child’s college education. She is therefore going to vote “Democrat” in the next election, as one of the ordinary people to whom the party has strong appeal. The next time I see her, however, her politics have undergone a complete transformation. Now she is preaching how the Republicans must win the next election. “I thought you were going to vote Democrat?” I interject matter-of-factly. She confides that she has been the grateful recipient of a generous bequest from her parents, which covers the child’s education in full. And all of a sudden, everything changes.

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What Would Washington Do?

What would Washington do? Not Washington, the city. GEORGE Washington --- the man.

If George Washington knew that the richest 400 Americans today possess more wealth than the bottom half (150 million) of the US population combined, what would he do about it? If he knew that the top 1% possess as much wealth as the bottom 39%, would George Washington take note? Would he show even mild concern? And then there is the matter of the $15.5 trillion national debt.

Surely George Washington would know that the ordinary citizen could trace this situation to his very own decision made long ago. President Washington deliberated the proposal of Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, for the economic system of capitalism on the British model. Against this he weighed the objection of Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. As was typically the case with Jefferson, his objection to Hamilton’s plan was philosophically based.

Thomas Jefferson saw that Hamilton's plan called for the federal government under the new constitution to create an artificial class of wealth, an “influence” of treasury over the legislative branch, which was inherently susceptible to patronage and corruption. The design was a full fledged system of preference, which flowed from principles adverse to liberty. This would violate the unfettered freedom of the individual to pursue happiness. The author of the document which set forth that “all men are created equal” viewed with consternation a proposed system which would not treat all men equally under the law.

The benefit of hindsight informs the ordinary citizen that George Washington chose to endorse Hamilton’s plan, which would provide the greatest good for the greatest number. But the plan would invariably cause collateral damage, however small it would likely be portrayed. George Washington had known this from the very start.

And so one of the national government's earliest policy decisions has created the system responsible for the growing problem of wealth disparity we are experiencing today, now comprising nearly half the country. So the question is: What would George Washington do? Unfortunately, the question seems to devolve to a smallness debate on the proper size of government.

On the one hand, advocates of big government, so labeled, trace their roots to F.D.R.’s New Deal, a 1930s experiment to offset the economic calamity which was the Great Depression. Capitalism’s private sector had completely derailed, a phenomenon exacerbated by its proponent’s stubborn state of denial. The experiment was a success, restoring the ordinary citizen’s faith in democracy by making capitalism seem more humane. But F.D.R. was a fiscal conservative, too, the idea of a fully engaged, activist government as the great provider not fully maturing until decades later.

On the other hand, proponents of so called small government champion individual initiative and personal responsibility. So determined are they to cut the size of government, their actions are seen by many as reckless. They propose to reduce government revenue by cutting taxes for the affluent, trying to kill the beast by starving it. But they do not propose a corresponding offset in spending. Free of government constraints, the economy grows to make up for the offset, and wealth trickles down to the masses. If only there were some precedent, George Washington could better know if this approach were the holy grail.

So the partisan divide ebbs and flows. Positions become entrenched. The status quo has been set. George Washington was the president who, as he was leaving office, warned of the baneful effect of partisan division, of political parties. But he was the only president who did not have to deal with political parties, as they did not materialize until he had left the scene. So his ability to act was freer, less constrained.

What would George Washington do, absent the constraints of today's competing ideologies, where sideshows tend to swallow substance?  Perhaps, more than 200 years later, George Washington would know intuitively that in order to aim higher, to progress meaningfully from one stage to the next in an upward course for the greater good, it will become necessary to move beyond a traditional analysis affixed to economic cycles of boom and bust, war and peace.

The lens of the ordinary citizen turns to the legislative branch. Its structure has remained largely intact since George Washington’s time. But many would agree it has evolved into a state of dysfunctional chaos. Examples are abundant --- and ominous.

As our democratic system was designed, voters would choose their legislators at the ballot box. But for many years that is no longer the case.  In a legislative tradition known as gerrymandering, self-serving legislators have long chosen their voters by drawing arbitrary, movable lines around voting districts to make them safe from challenge by the other side. Moreover, a legislative seat, once a post of honor, has been transformed into a place of profit. So pressured is a lawmaker from the corruptive effects of special interests for private gain that public service is no longer seen as a selfless commitment to the welfare of others. It is more like a self-centered establishment paradise. The use of one simple technique, the filibuster, transforms the US Senate from a moderating force into an impregnable wall, blocking the rising demand for social justice. And finally, once elected, lawmakers are set up in office for unlimited term or duration, indefinitely, arguably for life.

So where is the incentive in this structural scheme to change for the greater good, even when its need appears so obvious?   Perhaps, George Washington would consider starting there.

-Michael D’Angelo