Class In America

Nancy Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State, identifies five myths about class in America. Instead of listing the myths, I’ll turn them around and present the corresponding truths: 

  1. The working class isn’t mostly white and male
  2. Most Americans notice class differences
  3. America has less class mobility than other developed countries
  4. Talent and hard work make it easy to rise above your class
  5. Racial oppression is more serious than class oppression

My favorite paragraph:

Class power takes many forms. Its enduring force, its ability to project hatred toward the lower classes, was best summed up by two presidents 175 years apart. In 1790, then-Vice President John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” he wrote. Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Getting Rich with Government Assistance

[From “The Amazing Career of a Pioneer Capitalist” by Martha Howell, a review of The Richest Man Who Ever Lived by Greg Steinmetz:]

If [16th century Dutch merchant Jacob Fugger] was not the “first capitalist,” the story of his life perfectly exemplifies sixteenth-century capitalism and suggests a fundamental truth about many more forms of capitalism, one that was so monstrously embodied by the Dutch East India Company: wealth is won and preserved with the support of a state that is, in turn, dependent on the riches accumulated by the few who excel in commerce.

In some periods, at some moments of technological history, the riches are typically extracted from ever more efficient production, invariably aided by ruthless exploitation of human labor and natural resources. In others the wealth comes principally from control of supplies, manipulation of demand, and management of distribution networks. But always the merchants grow rich because state power protects them or looks away when the time is right—and does so because in a world where commerce reigns, neither the state nor a powerful merchant class can exist without the other. We have Steinmetz’s book to thank not just for telling Fugger’s story so well but also for showing us how the partnership between state and commerce worked in the earliest days of European capitalism.

[And until this day. The rest is at New York Review of Books.]

How Lobbyists Win in Washington

[From “How the Lobbyists Win in Washington” by Jeff Madrick, a review of Lee Drutman’s The Business of America Is Lobbying:]

…there are two crucial points that are disturbing. The first is that business spends $34 on lobbying for every dollar spent by likely opponents such as labor unions and other interest groups.

The second point is, I think, Drutman’s most important. It may once have been adequate for lobbyists to provide business clients access to the right people. Today, however, they also must develop expertise on major political issues, so that they can provide policymakers with research, draft legislation, and pass on up-to-the-minute information. Lobbyists, not [government] staffers … are now the major source of information for Congress and the executive branch on major legislative issues. In one survey, two thirds of congressional staffers said they depend on lobbyists for the information they need to make legislative decisions and pass bills. Thus lobbying grows because Congress, and often the executive branch, needs lobbyists.

[Of course, we know that information is power. The rest is behind a paywall at New York Review of Books.]

Pro-Market or Pro-Big Business?

“Donald Trump, Crony Capitalist” is a nice little article by Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago’s business school. He analyzes one aspect of Trump’s surprising presidential campaign: the fact that Trump presents himself as a critic of big business, even though he’s a long-standing member of “the pro-business establishment”.

One of the best parts of Zingales’s article is his explanation of the difference between big business and the free market. He says the Republican establishment has spent years obscuring that difference, claiming to be champions of the free market while serving as “big business’s mouthpiece”.

Supporting the market means being in favor of competition and against concentrated economic power. Zingales cites Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican President from a century ago. From Wikipedia:

One of Roosevelt’s first notable acts as president was to deliver a 20,000-word address to Congress asking it to curb the power of large corporations (called “trusts”). He also spoke in support of organized labor to further chagrin big business … For his aggressive use of United States antitrust law, he became known as the “trust-buster”. He brought 40 antitrust suits, and broke up major companies, such as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company.

Being pro-market means you’re against monopolies (in which one company controls a market) and oligopolies (in which a few companies do). It also means you’re in favor of government regulations and policies that help make markets competitive. A fair, properly functioning market requires that the playing field be level, not slanted to the advantage of insiders or the powerful.

Big business, however, is totally in favor of special advantages when it increases profits. As Zingales says, “business executives are only pro-market when they want to enter a new sector”. But:

[Once] they become established in a sector, they favor entry restrictions, excessive licensing, distortive regulation and corporate subsidies. Those policies are pro-business (in the sense that they favor existing businesses), but they are harmful and distort a competitive market economy.

Zingales points out, for example, how rare it is for Republican politicians to call for antitrust enforcement, the prosecution of white-collar criminals and pro-market policies like fostering competition in the market for prescription drugs. That’s because the men who run the Republican Party are in the business of protecting big business, not the market.

Many of his supporters think Trump is fervently pro-market, but:

As a businessman Mr. Trump has a longstanding habit of using his money and power aggressively to obtain special deals from the government… He is, in short, the essence of that commingling of big business and government that goes under the name of crony capitalism.

Anyway, it’s a good little article that’s worth reading even if you’re sick of hearing about the Republican freak show currently touring the country.

Parting thought:

The Bill of Rights would have been better if the Second Amendment, including its call for a properly-regulated militia, had never been written. In its place, we could have had an amendment like this:

A well-regulated Market, being necessary to the prosperity of a free State, the right of the people to enjoy the benefits of fair competition shall not be infringed except to benefit the Nation as a whole.

If You Have To Ask (World Travel Edition)

If someone in your house subscribes to the National Geographic Society’s magazine and your zip code implies relative affluence, you probably received a very nice booklet in the mail entitled “National Geographic 2016/2017 Private Jet Expeditions”.

Ours came yesterday. It’s the kind of mail that has “recycling bin” all over it, but my curiosity was piqued. What the hell is a “private jet expedition”?

It turns out that National Geographic offers four such tours, each lasting about three weeks. One of them takes you around the world. You leave Orlando, Florida, and then visit places like Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Angkor Wat, the Serengeti and Marrakesh, before returning to Orlando. (They do let you off the plane to walk around and sleep in a nice bed – you’re not seeing everything from 20,000 feet.)

Another trip is advertised as “around the world”, but doesn’t quite make it. You board your private jet in Seattle, take a northern route, mostly across Asia, and are then deposited in Boston, 3,000 miles from where you started.

The other two trips are even more geographically limited. One begins and ends in London, with stops in places like Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Israel. The other starts in Orlando and includes South America, the South Pacific, China and Japan, before inexplicably dropping you off in Seattle.

But how private is this jet anyway? I figured it must be one of those Gulfstream jobs that movie stars and titans of industry enjoy. They probably carry 10 or 20 people at most. 

Unfortunately, the National Geographic’s plane isn’t that private. You ride in “two-by-two VIP-style seats” that look really comfortable, but your “specially outfitted Boeing 757” has room for 75 other passengers.  

Thinking about this, I suppose I could handle the lack of exclusivity, but being on a tour with 75 other world travelers, plus the flight crew, plus the various guides and lecturers, plus the staff photographer, plus the on-call-24-hours-a-day physician, doesn’t seem exactly “private” to me.

Being familiar with that old expression “if you have to ask …”, I went ahead and asked (myself) anyway. The bad news is that the most expensive trip (the one that goes around the world and thoughtfully brings you back to where you started) costs $79,950. With sales tax, let’s call it $80,000. The cheapest trip goes for $67,950. But seriously, who would want to experience a bunch of exotic locations with a down-market group like that?

By the way, those prices are per person with double occupancy. If you don’t want company at night, it’s another $8,000 or so.

To sum up, if you and your significant other select one of these expeditions, your total bill will be around $150,000, maybe more, maybe less (hotel minibar and laundry, among other things, not included).

I don’t know why, but the booklet indicates that this is “sustainable travel”. Sadly, it doesn’t look like anything I’ll be sustaining any time soon. If you’re in the market, however, and you inadvertently recycled your booklet, you can get more information at National Geographic Expeditions. But if you’re as unimpressed by their definition of “travel by private jet” as I am, you might want to visit here instead.

So have a wonderful time, take lots of pictures, vaya con dios and don’t forget your yellow fever shot! Proof of inoculation is required.

Evangelical Christians for Sanders, the Left-Winger?

Two articles about Christianity and American politics caught my eye this week.

The first was a New York Magazine interview with someone named Jim, an alumnus of Liberty University, who now works as a pastor and therapist. Liberty University is the Southern Baptist school in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell, the well-known televangelist and right-wing troublemaker. Jim posted some anonymous remarks on Reddit in response to Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s recent speech at Liberty. Here’s the part New York Magazine quoted:

As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair — this Jew — and he proclaimed justice over us, he called us to account, for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful, and for abandoning the poor, the least of these, who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to.

Jim grew up supporting right-wing politicians, as so many evangelical Christians are taught to do. But he eventually realized that his politics conflicted with the Bible. He says that Bible study convinced him:

that the gospel of Christ is what he says it is in the Book of Luke. He says the messenger comes to bring good news to the poor, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, to the captives, to the indebted and the broken, then it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ…

The Bible talks about God destroying those who destroy the Earth and standing for the weak and the penniless. That same God was being displayed on our flags and in our songs as this warrior king who doesn’t like the Muslims and who doesn’t like the poor and who wants us to have free-market capitalism and no regulations. I thought that was inconsistent. This is the same God who designed … his theocratic government in Israel so that the poor were cared for. This is the same God that designs into the concept of ministry a tithe of 10 percent to care for others…

Jim is remaining semi-anonymous for the time being. He says he doesn’t want his patients or congregants caught up in controversy. Nevertheless, he’s going to continue explaining why it makes sense for an evangelical Christian to support Senator Sanders:

I’m calling my fellow Evangelicals to raise their eyes and to pay attention, to read their Bibles carefully, as I was taught to do in an Evangelical school. So many get their faith points from [right-wing TV personalities] Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, but if they would get their faith from Jesus, they would be surprised at how he does not fit into any box and flips the tables of the money-changers and stands with the adulterers and prevents the death penalty…

Bernie at Liberty, for me, struck such a nerve because he treated us like grown-ups. He presented the message thoughtfully, politely. He was warmhearted, he was jovial, he didn’t play any political games. He didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear. He was just plain, and it reminded me of John the Baptist.

But why does someone like Jim seem like such an outlier? Aren’t evangelical Christians the natural ally of right-wing politicians and Big Business?

No, not according to One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, a book by Kevin Kruse, Professor of History at Princeton. As explained in a review at the website of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Kruse argues that there was an organized effort in the 1950s to link religion and corporate capitalism. For example, a group called:

Spiritual Mobilization sought to rally clergymen to fight liberalism, arguing that the only political position compatible with Christianity was laissez-faire. They aimed to counter the ideas—summed up as the Social Gospel—that good Christians might have obligations to help the poor, that there was something spiritually problematic about the love of money, and that working to create a better and more egalitarian social order might be necessary to live a righteous life. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt had celebrated the expulsion of the money changers from the “temple of our civilization,” and called for replacing the “mad chase of evanescent profits” with a return to more noble social values. Spiritual Mobilization begged to differ, insisting instead that profit could be the cornerstone of a moral vision.

Spiritual Mobilization was funded by conservative businessmen and a number of corporations, including General Motors and Gulf Oil. Its leader “embraced his identity as a man who preached to the rich: “I have smiled when critics of mine have called me the Thirteenth Apostle of Big Business or the St. Paul of the Prosperous.”

Kruse says that:

 … long before the 1970s, religious leaders … and the businessmen who backed them sought to politicize the country’s churches, seeing them as a natural and sympathetic base. Their concern was not social or sexual politics, but rather economics—they wanted to advance a libertarian agenda to undermine the economic program that became ascendant during the New Deal. This top-down Christianity in turn provided an image of the United States as an explicitly religious nation, creating a rhetoric that inspired the populist Christian conservatives of a later generation. When the men who built the religious right in the 1970s—such as Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority—issued their jeremiads about the United States as a fallen nation, they made the implicit case that the country had hewed more closely to faith before the 1960s. But in fact, Kruse suggests, the pumped-up image of America as a Christian nation had gained popularity only a decade before.

Before Jerry Falwell, there was the evangelist Billy Graham:  

… one of his major concerns [was] the encroachment of the liberal state… Graham opposed the Marshall Plan and the welfare state, and attacked the Truman Administration for spending too much on each…  [In 1951] Graham warned the audience at a North Carolina crusade that the country was no longer “devoted to the individualism that made America great,” and that it needed to return to the “rugged individualism that Christ brought” to humankind.

America has been a Christian nation for a long time in the sense that most Americans have thought of themselves as Christians and still do. The question is: what role should Christianity play in a our democracy? The Constitution requires separation of church and state, but people have the right to support politicians who share their religious ideals. This makes me wonder what America would be like if there were more Christians like Jim.

Cutting the Cord (Thanks to a Hard-Working Man)

The Verizon website said their technician would get to our house around 9:30 pm to do our installation. The anonymous dispatcher said it would really be around 8:15 (only three hours after the original 5 pm deadline).

So it was a pleasant surprise when the technician called at 6:30 to say he’d be at our house in fifteen minutes. He arrived as promised and quickly got to work.

Four hours later, he was done. Among other things, he’d had to string 350 feet of cable from our basement to a telephone pole two blocks away, working in the dark on a hot, humid night. It was an impressive performance.

When we thanked him and said good-night, we assumed he’d be dropping off his van at some Verizon garage and then get home by midnight or so. No, he’d actually be driving to Newark to do some work for another customer. He explained that Verizon is forcing their previously-unionized technicians to work 60 hours a week.

We didn’t ask what time he started work yesterday. But on a good day, if all goes well, he puts in 12 hours. That’s not 12 hours in an air-conditioned or heated office. That’s 12 hours of driving around, in good and bad weather, carrying equipment, going up and down stairs, climbing on roofs, drilling holes, stringing cable, attaching electronic gizmos to inside and outside walls, while also dealing with people like us. Sometimes in the dark. 

Do you think it would be a good idea for Verizon to hire and train more technicians, so their employees wouldn’t have to work 12 hours a day (or more), five days a week? We all know the corporate business model is to get as much work as possible out of workers while providing as little compensation as possible, but there are lots of Americans who could use a decent job. It would be good for the country and even good for the corporations if they’d spread some of the wealth around.