Economic Freedom and Crises

Image result for capitalism crisis gif
Ha. No.

Economic crises are often blamed on the abstraction “capitalism.” But does economic freedom lead to economic crisis? A new study argues ‘no’:

In this paper, I explore the politically contested association between the degree of capitalism, captured by measures of economic freedom, and the risk and characteristics of economic crises. After offering some brief theoretical considerations, I estimate the effects of economic freedom on crisis risk in the post-Cold War period 1993–2010. I further estimate the effects on the duration, peak-to-trough GDP ratios and recovery times of 212 crises across 175 countries within this period. Estimates suggest that economic freedom is robustly associated with smaller peak-to-trough ratios and shorter recovery time. These effects are driven by regulatory components of the economic freedom index.

An ungated version of the paper can be found here. Check it out.

Deep Commitment

Underwater World, vai Wikimedia Commons
Underwater World, vai Wikimedia Commons

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

First, an update. Today we’re covering the Sunday Afternoon session of the October 1973 General Conference, and that means we’re wrapping up our sixth GC since starting on this Odyssey. Next week—on September 27th—we’ll start with the Friday Morning Session of the April 1974 GC. Then the week after that—on October 4th—we’re going to be putting the GCO on a one-week hiatus. We’ll be posting that week, but our posts will be in reaction to the October 2016 GC. We’ll pick up again on October 11th with the Friday Afternoon session of April 1974 GC.

Now, back to the last session of the October 1973 GC. I found a definite theme in this section. In The Need for Total Commitment, Elder Burton defined a saint as “not necessarily a person who is perfect” (thank goodness!), “but a person who strives for perfection.”

I believe we must become so immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ that we become physically as well as mentally more and more like the Lord himself. We must yield our whole hearts to him. What we then do is done not because we are asked to, nor because we are forced to, but because we want to. Neither pressure nor force can be exerted upon us from outside, when what we do is done because it is our own choice and desire. It then makes no difference to us what other men may think, or say, or do. Our hearts being committed wholly to God, what we do is done out of our love for and our trust in him. We then serve God in every way we can because we have been converted.

In God’s Way to Eternal Life, Elder Brockbank continued that theme:

We can attain perfection by knowing and loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind; and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. This leaves no love for the devil or for the darkness of the world.

I particularly liked the end of his statement. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few years—although I haven’t managed to turn it into a post yet—is the importance of negative space. Of not doing something. Of not acting. Of simply being unmoved. I try so hard every day and every week to squeeze more of out of my time, to get closer to accomplishing every item on my list. I never make it, but—as I’m slowly starting to get closer—I’m learning again and again that what I don’t do is sometimes the only way to get to what I do want to do.

In any case, both of these statements brought a fresh understand to something (then) Elder Kimball said in the first talk of the session, The Rewards, the Blessings, the Promises. He said,

There are depths in the sea which the storms that lash the surface into fury never reach. They who reach down into the depths of life where, in the stillness, the voice of God is heard, have the stabilizing power which carries them poised and serene through the hurricane of difficulties.

It takes a great deal of commitment to “reach down into the depths of life,” but that is indeed where we can find “the stillness.”

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Man in the Mirror

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey:

Mormons often talk about being in the world, but not of the world. Furthermore, it becomes The World™ in Mormon discourse. In the Gospel of John, there is a cosmic struggle between Jesus and Satan for “the world” (see John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Spiritual warfare is a prominent theme not only in John, but throughout the biblical narrative. The Christian life is to “struggle…not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, NRSV). But, asks Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve James Cullimore, “[w]hat do we mean by the “world”? President McKay refers to it as those “… alienated from the Saints of God. They are aliens to the Church, and it is the spirit of this alienation that we should keep ourselves free from.” (Conference Report, October 1911, p. 58.) Elder Bruce R. McConkie defines the “world” as “the social conditions created by such of the inhabitants of the earth as live carnal, sensuous, lustful lives, and who have not put off the natural man by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], p. 847.) John, in his epistle, describes the “world” as “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 Jn. 2:16.)” In short, it “does not mean the sphere on which we live, but an environment created by individuals who live contrary to his teachings.” But Cullimore’s counsel is not to detach from the world, to leave it behind. “We would not want to be free of our responsibility of being in the world by being taken out of the world…” We “are to be a leaven wherever you are” according to Cullimore. Our best bet of overcoming evil in the world is–in the words of Elder Theodore Burton–to “seek to change [our] manner of living to conform more closely to the ways of the Lord.” Burton says,

A person’s attitude is perhaps the hardest of all personal attributes to change. If your attitude is right, then your life is made right. If your heart is touched, your mind and way of thinking will change and your life will change for the better accordingly. I believe we must become so immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ that we become physically as well as mentally more and more like the Lord himself. We must yield our whole hearts to him. What we then do is done not because we are asked to, nor because we are forced to, but because we want to. Neither pressure nor force can be exerted upon us from outside, when what we do is done because it is our own choice and desire. It then makes no difference to us what other men may think, or say, or do. Our hearts being committed wholly to God, what we do is done out of our love for and our trust in him. We then serve God in every way we can because we have been converted, our attitude has been changed and we now desire to become like him both spiritually and physically.

Basically, as the King of Pop sang, start with the man in the mirror.

Image result for man in the mirror gif

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Are America’s Poor Worse Off Today?

AEI’s Robert Doar highlights a fairly new review in The New York Review of Books that, in Doar’s estimate, “provides two very strong caveats” to the some of the recent claims by sociologists Edin and Shaefer “that some single parent families are dramatically worse off than they were before the passage of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, which replaced a federal entitlement to cash welfare (AFDC) with a block grant to states to implement work-focused cash assistance programs (TANF).” Harvard’s Christopher Jencks (the review’s author) points out that

estimates of extreme poverty change when they treat the value of EITC refunds, food stamps, and rent subsidies like income. The second row of Table 1 shows that including these resources reduces the estimated prevalence of extreme poverty among households with children from 1.7 to 1.1 percent in 1996 and from 4.3 to 1.6 percent in 2011. Because the reduction is so much larger in 2011 than it was in 1996, the increase in extreme poverty between 1996 and 2011 falls from 2.6 to 0.5 percentage points. In other words, the growth of EITC refunds and noncash benefits offsets about four fifths of the decline in extremely poor families’ pretax money income between 1996 and 2011.


Doar expounds, “Edin and Shaefer acknowledge that they focus only on “cash” income and they argue that vouchers which pay for food or housing are not cash, and don’t cover all the needs of a family.  But for most readers of their book, and certainly for all of those who just hear the headline about families living on $2 a day, the distinction goes unnoticed: Living on $2 a day means that is all they have to purchase food and housing.  That is, after all, what it customarily means when used in the developing world context from which Edin and Shaefer drew the statistic.” Jencks’ second caveat is summed up as follows:

The fourth line in Table 1 shows that when Shaefer counted only those who had spent three or more months living on resources worth less than $2 a day, the prevalence of extreme poverty among households with children fell from 1.7 to 0.5 percent in 1996 and from 4.3 to 1.0 percent in 2011. This more stringent definition of extreme poverty among households with children clearly leads to a sharp reduction in its estimated prevalence. But it does not change the upward trend. The prevalence rises from 0.5 percent in 1996 to 1.0 percent in 2011, and the actual number rises from 189,000 to 373,000 households with children.

All this makes Doar suspicious: “Could it be that the small increase in extreme poverty was caused by the bad economy in the wake of the Great Recession? Did the fact that federal policymakers decided against incorporating strong work requirements in their expansions of assistance programs affect this in any way? Is it possible (if not likely) that the increase is due in part to more underreporting of income on surveys such as the one used by Edin and Shaefer?” Jencks is also skeptical, concluding that the claim about welfare reform “is not the kind of speculation that can be either verified or refuted; but it is worth serious consideration nonetheless.”

All of this demonstrates why consumption is a superior metric for measuring the economic well-being of the poor. A Brookings report from a couple years ago found that when measured for consumption, virtually no one in the United States lives on $2 a day.Poverty in the U.S. has declined substantially since the 1960s with major material gains for the poor and middle class. While there is still much to do, accurately assessing the situation is necessary in order to determine what steps to take next.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Let me start out by saying upfront: this book rocked my world a little bit. As any readers of Difficult Run will probably know by now, I’m extremely critical of contemporary social justice activism. I try not to use the pejorative term “social justice warrior” these days, but you’ll recognize the notion by buzzwords like “trigger warning” or “microaggression.” And so when I picked up Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it was with a side of skepticism.

On the other hand, being a Christian means taking issues of social justice seriously. Of course, what I have in mind when I say “social justice” might not line up very well with the social justice movement as it exists today, but there’s no escaping the simple reality that both Old Testament prophets and the New Testament teachings of Christ are often most pointed on precisely the topic of justice in society.

“The Lord standeth up to plead,” wrote Isaiah, “and standeth to judge the people.” And what was God’s condemnation? “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” And in one of Jesus’s most powerful parables, he taught that visiting prisoners was a service to God, saying, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And then, lest there be any confusion, he also stated that, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

So, a book about oppressing vulnerable people by imprisonment? My skepticism was on hand, but my mind was also open. This is important stuff, and I wanted to hear what Alexander had to say.

I’ll get right down to it: on her primary argument, she has me convinced. And this is her primary argument: although the War on Drugs is ostensibly race-neutral, it systematically impacts black and poor Americans to the detriment of their communities while scrupulously avoiding the same kinds of impacts on white and prosperous Americans.

The first component of that argument, that the War on Drugs has a racially disparate impact, is based on a central fact: whites and blacks commit drug crimes at roughly comparable rates, but blacks are far more likely to be charged and convicted of crimes. Here is how that plays out in practice. First, Alexander notes that:

It is impossible for law enforcement to identify and arrest every drug criminal. Strategic choices must be made about whom to target and what tactics to employ. Police and prosecutors did not declare the War on Drugs, and some initially opposed it, but once the financial incentives for waging the war became too attractive to ignore, law enforcement agencies had to ask themselves, if we’re going to wage this war, where should it be fought and who should be taken prisoner?

The answer is simple: vulnerable communities will be targeted (because they can’t fight back politically) and specifically racial minorities will be targeted (because of stereotypes about drug offenders). In regards to the first, she writes:

Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets.

And in regards to the second, she writes:

In 2002 a team of researchers at the University of Washington decided to take the defense of the drug war seriously by subjecting the arguments to empirical testing in a major study of drug law enforcement in a racially mixed city, Seattle. The study found that, contrary to the prevailing common sense, the high arrest rates of African American in drug law enforcement could not be explained by rates of offending. Nor could they be explained by other standard excuses, such as the ease and efficiency of policing open-air drug markets, citizen complaints, crime rates, or drug-related violence. The study also debunked the assumption that white drug dealers deal indoors, making their criminal activity more difficult to detect. The authors found that it was untrue stereotypes about crack markets, crack dealers, and crack babies–not facts–that were driving discretionary decision-making by the Seattle police department.

Alexander’s case is particularly strong when she notes the difference between mandatory sentences for stereotypically white and black versions of the same drug (e.g. cocaine vs. crack) and provides the legal history of attempts to challenge the racially disparate outcomes of the criminal justice system. There’s McCleskey v. Kemp, for example, in which a death penalty conviction was challenged on the basis of research by David C. Baldus showing that “even after taking account of 39 nonracial variables, defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence than defendants charged with killing blacks.” The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, however. Alexander writes:

The majority observed that significant racial disparities have been found in other criminal settings beyond the death penalty, and the McCleskey’s case implicitly calls into question the integrity of the entire system. In the Court’s words, “taken to its logical conclusion, Warren McCleskey’s claim throws into serious question the principles that underly our criminal justice system. If we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty.” The Court openly worried that other actors in the criminal justice system might also face scrutiny for allegedly biased decision-making if similar claims about bias in the system were allowed to proceed. Driven by these concerns, the Court rejected McCleskey’s claim that Georgia’ death penalty system violates the 8th Amendments ban on arbitrary punishment, framing the critical question as whether the Baldus Study demonstrated a Constitutionally unacceptable risk of discrimination. It’s answer was no. The Court deemed the risk of racial bias in Georgia’s capital sentencing scheme Constitutionally acceptable. Justice Brennan pointedly noted in his dissent that the Court’s opinion “seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”

According to an LA Times survey of legal scholars, it’s one of the worst post-World War II SCOTUS decisions. Prior to reading this book, I’d never heard of it. Nor had I heard of United States v. Armstrong, which found that defendants who suspected that they were victims of discrimination had to prove that they were victims of that discrimination first, before they could get access to prosecutorial records that would be necessary to prove the question of discrimination. Alexander writes:

Unless evidence of conscious, intentional bias on the part of the prosecutor could be produced, the court would not allow any inquiry into the reasons for or causes of apparent racial disparities in prosecutorial decision making.

Her case is also very strong when she makes two key points. First, violent crime can’t explain mass incarceration. This is something that came up in the Facebook comments after I posted Mass Incarceration is Not a Myth. Walker Wright recently wrote a solid follow-up piece with even more data: The Stock and Flow of Drug Offenders. So one of the common rebuttals to Alexander’s criticism–that incarceration is about violent crime rather than drugs–doesn’t hold up. However, it is worth noting that black men do commit violent crimes at higher rates than white men (in contrast to drug offenses) and so higher differential rates of incarceration in that case are not evidence of racial discrimination, a point that Alexander concedes.

Second, and even more strongly, she points out that incarceration itself is not the real problem. The problem is that a felony conviction is basically the modern equivalent of a scarlet-F: it makes you basically unemployable, excludes you from many government programs (like student loans), and therefore makes it all but impossible for people who have paid their debt to society (as the saying goes) to actually re-enter that society. This is why Alexander refers to “a system of control” that extends well beyond literal prisons. She’s right.

But there are some parts where I think Alexander gets important things very wrong. First, she tends to be a little blind to issues of class, which is also a leading problem with most contemporary social justice activists. Interestingly enough, Cornell West–in the introduction–draws this point out much more clearly than Alexander does in her own book, writing:

There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black people, the issue would be a national emergency. But it is also true that if young black middle and upper class people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black poor people, black leaders would focus much more on the prison-industrial complex. Again, Michelle Alexander has exposed the class bias of much of black leadership as well as the racial bias of American leadership for whom the poor and vulnerable of all colors are a low priority.

After reading the entire book, it sounds to me like West went much farther than Alexander was willing to do, although she has a lot of the pieces right there in the book. Alexander is very critical of affirmative action, first arguing that it does more harm than good and then arguing that middle- and upper-class blacks have in effect accepted affirmative action as a kind of “racial bribe” for their complicity in mass incarceration:

It may not be easy for the civil rights community to have a candid conversation about [affirmative action]. Civil rights organizations are populated with beneficiaries of affirmative action (like myself) and their friends and allies. Ending affirmative action arouses fears of annihilation. The reality that so many of us would disappear overnight from colleges and universities nationwide if affirmative action were banned, and that our children and grandchildren might not follow in our footsteps, creates a kind of panic that is difficult to describe.

As a result of both affirmative action and the takeover of civil rights organizations by lawyers, she concludes that the entire movement is mired in hypocrisy and inaction:

Try telling a sixteen-year-old black youth in Louisiana who is facing a decade in adult prison and a lifetime of social, political, and economic exclusion that your civil rights organization is not doing much to end the War on Drugs–but would he like to hear about all the great things that are being done to save affirmative action? There is a fundamental disconnect today between the world of civil rights advocacy and the reality facing those trapped in the new racial undercaste.

In examples like these, Alexander is clearly demonstrating that race alone cannot explain what is happening, but she is still unwilling to follow that logic to its conclusion. We’ll return to that in a moment, because it’s my biggest problem with her analysis. Before we get there, however, I want to point out that she also tackles a lot of the conservative criticisms head on. In addition to the violence/drug question, there is the issue of “gangsta culture.” Isn’t it a fact, conservatives might ask, that inner city black culture glorifies illegal and anti-social conduct, and that therefore there’s something rotten at the heart of black culture?

This is an important question, because it is a serious one but also one that conservatives generally can’t ask without simply being shouted down as racist. The inability to have a serious conversation about black culture as it relates to crime is probably the single biggest cause of our dysfunctional national conversation about race (or the lack thereof). As long as social conservatives aren’t even allowed to voice their most important questions, there’s really nothing to talk about. But Alexander doesn’t dismiss the question; she takes it seriously and addresses it. She does so in two ways. First:

Remarkably, it is not uncommon today to hear media pundits, politicians, social critics, and celebrities–most notably Bill Cosby–complain that the biggest problem black men have today is that they “have no shame.” Many worry that prison time has become a badge of honor in some communities–“a rite of passage” is the term most commonly used in the press. Other claims that inner-city residents no longer share the same value system as mainstream society, and therefore are not stigmatized by criminality. Yet as Donald Braman, author of Doing Time on the Outside states: “One can only assume that most participants in these discussions have had little direct contact with the families and communities they are discussing.”

Over a four-year period, Braman conducted a major ethnographic study of families affect by mass incarceration in Washington, D.C., a city where three out of every four young black men can expect to spend some time behind bars. He found that, contrary to popular belief, the young men labeled criminals and their families are profoundly hurt and stigmatized by their status: “They are not shameless; they feel the stigma that accompanies not only incarceration but all the other stereotypes that accompany it–fatherlessness, poverty, and often, despite very intent to make it otherwise, diminished love.” The results of Braman’s study have been largely corroborated by similar studies elsewhere in the United States.

If this is correct–and I have no reason to doubt it–then it means that the idea of a monolithic culture of disrespect for law and glorification of crime (not to mention outright misogyny) is a myth. Even in the inner-city there is respect for rule of law, manifested in deep shame accompanying incarceration.

But if that’s true, why is black culture most frequently represented by gangsta rap that does, in fact, engage in that kind of anti-sociality? That’s Alexander’s second point:

The worst of gangsta rap and other forms of blaxploitation (such as VH1’s Flavor of Love) is best understood as a modern-day minstrel show, only this time televisd around the clock for a worldwide audience. It is a for-profit display of the worst racial stereotypes and images associated wit the era of mass incarceration–an era in which black people are criminalized and portrayed as out-of-control, shameless, violent, over-sexed, and generally undeserving.

Like the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, today’s displays are generally designed for white audiences. The majority of the consumers of gangsta rap are white, suburban teenagers. VH1 had its best ratings ever for the first season of Flavor of Love–ratings drive by large white audiences. MTV has expanded its offerings of black-themed reality shows in the hopes of attracing the same crowd. The profits to be made from racial stigma are considerable, and the fact that blacks–as well as whites–treat racial oppression as a commodity for consumption is not surprising. It is a familiar form of black complicity with racialized systems of control.

The most important part of this response, again, is simply the willingness to engage the issue seriously. This is critical, because once this issue is on the table it’s possible for dialogue. Additionally, however, I find her two-pronged approach compelling.

OK, so let’s get back to my biggest complaint with Alexander’s work: what’s behind the racially disparate impact of the War on Drugs? Throughout the book, she contends that (1) it is exclusively racist and (2) it is deliberately racist. Neither of these claims are supported by her own arguments, and they hurt her case. This starts fairly early on, and then runs consistently throughout the book. Here’s an early example:

The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind. The words “slave” or “negro” were never used, but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism, the division of power between the states and the federal government was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slave-holding states.

In other words, Alexander is arguing that federalism is nothing but a ruse to covertly encode racism within the Constitution. It’s true that federalism enabled slavery to continue by making it a state-level issue, but to say that that is why federalism existed is to deny that the Founders had any independent, reasonable reasons to support federalism, and that’s not plausible. Federalism was, first and foremost, an attempt to avoid the centralized tyranny of the British monarchy that was the ideological raison d’etre of the American Revolution. To dismiss that as incidental is to fundamentally misunderstand the history and philosophy of the Constitution.

At another point, she clearly states that “all racial caste systems, not just mass incarceration, have been supported by racial indifference,” but she also argues that–at the dawn of the era of mass incarceration–“Conservative whites began once again to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time.” In other words, Federalism was part of an intentionally racist program (slavery), separate-but-equal was part of an intentionally racist program (Jim Crow), and color-blindness is part of an intentionally racist program (mass incarceration). But I’m not convinced.

Oh, there’s strong evidence–smoking gun evidence, as far as I’m concerned–that Nixon and Reagan appealed to racism as part of their “law and order” approach to the War on Drugs. But that was nearly a half-century ago. And no, I don’t think that the US has emerged into a post-racial utopia since then. Obviously not! But I do think Walter Williams had it right:

Back in the late 1960s, during graduate study at UCLA, I had a casual conversation with Professor Armen Alchian, one of my tenacious mentors. . . . I was trying to impress Professor Alchian with my knowledge of type I and type II statistical errors.

I told him that my wife assumes that everybody is her friend until they prove differently. While such an assumption maximizes the number of friends that she will have, it also maximizes her chances of being betrayed. Unlike my wife, my assumption is everyone is my enemy until they prove they’re a friend. That assumption minimizes my number of friends but minimizes the chances of betrayal.

Professor Alchian, donning a mischievous smile, asked, “Williams, have you considered a third alternative, namely, that people don’t give a damn about you one way or another?” . . . During the earlier years of my professional career, I gave Professor Alchian’s question considerable thought and concluded that he was right. The most reliable assumption, in terms of the conduct of one’s life, is to assume that generally people don’t care about you one way or another. It’s a mistake to assume everyone is a friend or everyone is an enemy, or people are out to help you, or people are out to hurt you.

Williams (who is a black economist) was actually talking specifically about race relations in his piece. He said:

Are white people obsessed with and engaged in a conspiracy against black people? I’m guessing no, and here’s an experiment. Walk up to the average white person and ask: How many minutes today have you been thinking about a black person? If the person wasn’t a Klansman or a gushing do-gooder, his answer would probably be zero minutes. If you asked him whether he’s a part of a conspiracy to undermine the welfare of black people, he’d probably look at you as if you were crazy. By the same token, if you asked me: “Williams, how many minutes today have you been thinking about white people?” I’d probably say, “You’d have to break the time interval down into smaller units, like nanoseconds, for me to give an accurate answer.” Because people don’t care about you one way or another doesn’t mean they wish you good will, ill will or no will.

Alexander had it right when she talked about “racial indifference.” Even overt racism is virtually never racism for racism’s sake. Alexander herself said, “By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery; they were motivated by greed.”

So, based on the evidence she presents, what’s the real story of racism in America? Powerful people want to maintain their power at the expense of less powerful people. Race, which Alexanders correctly observes “is a relatively recent development,” is only the most potent and insidious means of perpetuating inequalities that are, at their roots, totally agnostic with respect to race or creed or language or ethnicity or religion. All of these are just social markers that can ennable power inequality, but which are mostly irrelevant in and of themselves. So even when race is appealed to directly, it’s always a means to another end, never an end in itself.

So much for the idea of deliberate racism. What about the exclusivity of the racial aspects of mass incarceration? Here, Alexander uses a military analogy:

Of course, the fact that white people are harmed by the drug war does not mean they are the real targets, the designated enemy. The harm white people suffer in the drug war is much like the harm Iraqi civilians suffer in U.S. military actions targeting presumed terrorists or insurgents. In any way, a tremendous amount of collateral damage is inevitable. Black and brown people are the principal targets in this war; white people are collateral damage.

No analogy is perfect, of course, but in this case her chosen analogy undercuts rather than strengthens her position. The point of “collateral damage” is not merely that it is incidental, but that it is scrupulously avoided whenever possible. I’m not saying that the US is perfect at that, but avoiding collateral damage–at least in theory–is what we strive for.

But if white people were really “collateral damage” in the War on Drugs, then of course we would not only see fewer of them in jail, we’d see none at all. Unlike dropping bombs from miles up, it’s easy to ascertain the race of a suspect before they go to jail. If race were the exclusive characteristic–if mass incarceration were designed specifically to target exclusively African Americans–then why are white drug dealers ever sent to jail? Or Asian, or Hispanic, Native American, etc? Alexander might argue, “to provide enough cover for people to believe it’s truly race-neutral,” but that explanation is thin and overly complex. It falls for the same fundamental mistake as all conspiracy theories: a drastic overestimation in the human ability to plan the future. The War on Drugs was not a consciously designed system of racial oppression that ensnares a set number of white people just to provide a thin veneer of racial neutrality. To see that this is true, just ask yourself: “Who determines the requisite number of white people required to give the system cover, and how do they coordinate all the local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to make sure the quota is hit?” The whole setup doesn’t makes sense.

No, the War on Drugs isn’t a cleverly designed mechanism. It is an opportunistically cobbled-together mish-mash of policies, laws, practices, and agencies that exploits the vulnerable and powerless because of the blind logic of power, not because it was designed to target minorities. The War on Drugs also feeds off of and reinforces racist stereotypes. It is, without doubt in my mind, systematically racist. But it’s not exclusively racist; it’s also classist. And it does not exist today because of deliberate racism; but because of inertia, racial indifference, and power politics.

There are not just technicalities. They have profound implications for how we talk about race, how we analyze racist institutions, and what solutions we deploy against them. And this is where I found Alexander’s logic to be at its weakest. She is steadfastly set against colorblind policies. And, given the ability of the criminal justice system to be ostensibly colorblind and still produce racist outcomes, I understand. But her logic breaks down when she dismisses colorblindness entirely. This is most obvious when she writes that:

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that racial differences will always exist among us. Even if the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration were completely overcome, we would remain a nation of immigrants (and indigenous people) in a larger world divided by race and ethnicity. It is a world in which there is extraordinary racial and ethnic inequality, and our nation has porous boundaries. For the foreseeable future, racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.

Contrast that with her prior statement that “The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines.” If race is a “recent development,” can we really be so confident that “racial differences will always exist among us?”

No, we can’t. Race is a fluid concept. Not only was it largely invented in the 17th century, but it continued to change dramatically after that. In the 19th and 20th century, Catholic Irish, Jews, and many other groups were considered non-white. Today, the Irish have a distinct cultural identity within the United States, but nobody would seriously argue that they are non-white. How do the Irish fare vs. narrower racial definitions of whiteness on metrics like housing, household wealth, income, or educational attainment? My guess? Nobody knows because nobody even measures it.

I will agree with Alexander this far: race-blindness didn’t stop the racist bent of mass incarceration and it never can. We may need to be proactive about measuring racial outcomes, at a minimum, in our efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system. However, I’m not convinced that the dream of a colorblind society should be so easily dismissed.

Of course, the historical model of an ever-expanding category of whiteness won’t work in the future. First, because any racial definition has to have at least two groups. So if “white” exists as a category, there will have to be non-white. As long as we see the world in racial terms, universal racial inclusiveness is impossible. Second, I would hardly expect African Americans to be enthusiastic about a solution of universal whiteness even if it were possible (which it’s not).
“It’s OK, you can be considered white, too, one day,” is not an acceptable solution to our history of racial prejudice.

There are alternative possibilities, however. The way out of racial binaries is to drop race as a valid characteristic. A Marxist can do this by seeing only the bourgeois and the proletariat, just as one proof-of-concept. But, if we don’t want to all become Marxist, then we’ll have to figure something else out. Nationalism is another approach, although not without its own complications. And who knows: there may be other concepts we haven’t even thought of yet. The point is, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to hope for a day when the difference between an African American and an Irish American becomes much more like the difference between an American whose family came from Scandinavia and one whose family came from Italy.

We can’t get there from here if we do not redress the real and obvious racial disparities within our nation, and the racist War on Drugs seems like a great place to start. But I’m also not sure if we can get there from here as long as we view colorblindness as an intrinsically undesirable destination. If we insist on defining people in racial terms, then Alexander is probably right: “racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.” So maybe we shouldn’t plan on doing that forever.

At the end of the day, I found this book to have its flaws, but on the central points it has me convinced. I was already skeptical of the War on Drugs, but now I’m downright convinced that it is a needlessly oppressive and exploitative racist and classist juggernaut that somehow we need to stop.

What is Recent Research Saying About the Gender Wage Gap?

Image result for gender pay gap
Well, about $0.06 cheaper.

We’ve discussed the gender wage gap here on Difficult Run before. My last post on the subject covered a lot of the research. In the comments, I made mention of a couple more 2016 studies that should be included in the analysis. However, I thought I’d highlight them in a post for educational purposes. In a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Economic Literature, Cornell economists report,

Using PSID microdata over the 1980-2010, we provide new empirical evidence on the extent of and trends in the gender wage gap, which declined considerably over this period. By 2010, conventional human capital variables taken together explained little of the gender wage gap, while gender differences in occupation and industry continued to be important. Moreover, the gender pay gap declined much more slowly at the top of the wage distribution that at the middle or the bottom and by 2010 was noticeably higher at the top. We then survey the literature to identify what has been learned about the explanations for the gap. We conclude that many of the traditional explanations continue to have salience. Although human capital factors are now relatively unimportant in the aggregate, women’s work force interruptions and shorter hours remain significant in high skilled occupations, possibly due to compensating differentials. Gender differences in occupations and industries, as well as differences in gender roles and the gender division of labor remain important, and research based on experimental evidence strongly suggests that discrimination cannot be discounted. Psychological attributes or noncognitive skills comprise one of the newer explanations for gender differences in outcomes. Our effort to assess the quantitative evidence on the importance of these factors suggests that they account for a small to moderate portion of the gender pay gap, considerably smaller than say occupation and industry effects, though they appear to modestly contribute to these differences.

Five interesting facts from the study are:

  1. The gender pay gap shrank the most in the 1980s.
  2. Wage-gap narrowing wasn’t tied to government policies.
  3. Gender differences in occupations and job roles matter the most.
  4. High-income women have seen the smallest wage-gap closing.
  5. Findings are fuzzy about the impact of family-leave policies.

A 2016 study from Glassdoor yields further support for #3. When “comparing [male and female] workers with the same job title, employer and location, the gender pay gap in the U.S. falls to 5.4 percent (94.6 cents per dollar).” But it turns out that “the single biggest cause of the gender pay gap is occupation and industry sorting of men and women into jobs that pay differently throughout the economy. In the U.S., occupation and industry sorting explains 54 percent of the overall pay gap—by far the largest factor.” And “while overt forms of discrimination may be a partial cause of the gender pay gap, they are not likely the main cause. Instead, occupation and industry sorting of men and women into systematically different jobs is the main cause.”

In short, the gender pay gap has shrunk considerably and is far smaller than one typically hears in political discourse. Nonetheless, a gap remains. The Glassdoor study finds that “employer policies that embrace salary transparency can help eliminate hard-to-justify gender pay gaps, and can play an important role in helping achieve balance in male-female pay in the workplace.” Perhaps this and similar policies going forward can help us eradicate the (adjusted) gender pay gap indefinitely.

Media Fragmentation and Political Polarization

I’ve written about political polarization beforeRecent research suggests that media fragmentation is the culprit behind growing political polarization. A new study finds that

  • The growing plurality of news sources as well as the increasing access to cable television made the greatest contribution to political polarization. Two phenomena, or a combination of the two, are responsible: Individuals seek out “self-reinforcing viewpoints rather than be exposed to a common ‘nightly news’ broadcast” — this is sometimes called siloing. Also, individuals are jettisoning news programming for entertainment, “thereby reducing incidental or by-product learning about politics.”
  • The decreasing exposure to alternative views and the increasing buttressing of one’s own views has combined to create less sympathy for others’ views and less of an ability to understand others’ views. “This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding.”
  • Inequality — the divide between rich and poor — may have contributed to political polarization, but less than media fragmentation.
  • Duca and Saving test for a number of trends but find no statistically significant associations with generational attitudes, voter partisanship, economic conditions or campaign contributions. But they do find associations with income inequality and media fragmentation.
  • There is some evidence that Congress is more polarized at the beginning of a president’s second term.

Despite these findings, there may be room for caution. According to a new paper by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, the average American has not followed the political class to the fringes. Reason‘s write-up draws five lessons from Fiorina’s work:

  1. The political class is becoming more polarized: “If you limit its scope to elected officials and professional activists, the polarization thesis has some truth to it. Since the early ’70s, the parties have gone through a sorting process, to the point where the most left-wing Republican in either house of Congress is now more conservative than the most right-wing congressional Democrat.”
  2. The general public has not followed suit: “Over the last four decades, there has been little change in how Americans describe themselves ideologically—the most popular category in such surveys is still “moderate,” without a big exodus to the liberal and conservative poles. Opinions have shifted on some specific topics, but not always in the same direction: Americans have gotten more liberal on certain issues, such as health insurance, and more conservative on others, such as aid to minorities.”
  3. The more politically active you are, the less well-informed you are about these trends in grassroots opinion: “Both normal Americans and the political class tend to exaggerate the extent that the general public is polarized. But the politicos do much more of this, projecting their divisions onto the electorate at large. “Ironically,” Fiorina writes, “the great majority of Americans whose lives do not revolve around politics are more accurate in their political perceptions than their more politically involved compatriots.””
  4. The stronger your partisan affiliations, the more likely you are to misconstrue what life is like at the other end of spectrum: For example, “Democrats think that 44 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 per year, when the actual percentage is 2, and that 44 percent of Republicans are senior citizens, when the actual percentage is 21. For their part, Republicans think that 36 percent of Democrats are atheists or agnostics, when the actual percentage is about 9, and that 38 percent of Democrats are LGBT, when the true percentage is about 6. Once again, the more politically involved the respondent, the greater the misperception.”
  5. We’re not retreating into smaller bubbles: “A paper on Twitter users…found that “Twitter networks tend to be fairly heterogeneous politically, in part because many of those in them are connected by only ‘weak ties.’ Contrary to the fears expressed by those worried about ideological segregation, social media actually may lessen people’s tendency to live in echo chambers.””

All of this reinforces something Georgetown professor Peter Jaworski said: “Partisan politics corrupts your character. Instead of trying to get votes for your favoured tribe, try to make money instead. Engaging in markets makes mean people nicer, makes you more trustworthy, more charitable, and more beneficent.”

Religion and the U.S. Economy

Economist Steve Horwitz once made the point, “Critics of markets sometimes say “you can’t eat GDP.” What they miss is that you can’t eat, or learn to read, or go to school, or leave a bad marriage, or do pretty much any of the basics that we might see as required for a flourishing life without the wealth and time created by the market economy.” This is why I tend to focus on economic growth: it is growth that lifts people out of poverty. This is why I’m happy to report that religion, according to a new study, is good for the economy. As reported in Christianity Today,

Specifically, religion is a $378 billion to $4.8 trillion boost to the US economy, the Grims found. Even at the lowest estimate, religious organizations make more than the global revenue of Apple and Microsoft combined; at the high end, religion makes the roughly the same amount as a third of the United States GDP.

The researchers’ first estimate only takes into account “the revenues of faith-based organizations falling into several sectors: education, healthcare, local congregational activities, charities, media, and food.” The largest chunk of these–healthcare–raises about $161 billion a year. Congregations raise $84 billion a year, religious schools raise $74 billion, and religious charities bring in $45 billion. Furthermore, the money is increasingly spent on social services like food assistance, parenting classes, and drug and alcohol abuse recovery programs ($9 billion in 2012).

“Their second estimate—that religion has an economic value of $1.2 trillion—adds in the price of social services provided by congregations,” the article continues.

Churches sponsor more than 1.6 million social services programs in America each year, and provide 7.6 million volunteers. More than 9 in 10 congregations actively recruit volunteers for outside projects (93%), half allow their building to be used for non-congregational purposes (50%), and close to half have groups that think about how to meet community needs (48%).

The Grims also added in the halo effect a community receives from the benefits of having a church nearby: it encourages investment in family and children; stimulates the local economy by buying goods and services; provides a place to host weddings, funerals, or large community events; may run schools or day cares; provides outdoor space for leisure activities; and augments the city’s social services.

The result: $418.9 [billion] worth of value.

When religious businesses are considered, the estimate is $1.2 trillion. “The study wasn’t perfect, the Grims admitted. It didn’t add in any of the financial or physical assets of religious groups, or subtract any negative impacts of religious groups, like fraud or abuse of children by clergy…Still, they wrote, “the data are clear.””

Glad to see religion making a big impact in the real world.

Economic Freedom of the World Report: 2016

The Fraser Institute just published its Economic Freedom of the World 2016 Annual Report. The degree of economic freedom is measured using 5 broad areas:

  1. size of government (expenditures, taxes, enterprises)
  2. legal structure and property rights
  3. access to sound money
  4. freedom to trade internationally
  5. regulation of credit, business, and labor

The ten most economically free countries are:

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Singapore
  3. New Zealand
  4. Switzerland
  5. Canada
  6. Georgia
  7. Ireland
  8. Mauritius
  9. United Arab Emirates
  10. Australia (United Kingdom was tied with Australia)

One of the most important findings of past reports that is once again confirmed in the latest is the following:

The share of income earned by the poorest 10% of the population is virtually the same from the least (2.45%) to the most (2.75%) free countries. It is unaffected by economic freedom. But, as shown above, the amount of income earned by the poorest 10% of the population is significantly higher in freer countries. In other words, the poorest of the population are better off in countries that are more economically free.

The rest of the report includes articles on gender disparity in legal rights, Venezuela, Ireland’s growth, and economic freedom in the United States.

Check it out.

Economic Perception and Voting LEAVE

Recent research finds that the way people perceived the economic outcomes of immigration influenced whether or not they voted “Leave” in the Brexit referendum:

The pattern of voting in the referendum reflects differences in the share of the over-65 group and the less educated across regions (with these two groups more likely to vote for Brexit).  A high rate of immigration and low levels of GDP per capita also correlated with greater propensities to vote to leave. These variables explain not only the voting patterns but also the attitude towards immigrants as neighbours, the perceived dangers posed by immigrants to society, and feelings of apprehension towards the EU. Figure 2 shows the relationship between the latent economic variable E and the leave vote by region.

The researchers also found that “an increase in GDP per capita of €5,000…will lower the share of the leave vote by 0.55%. An increase of 5% in the share of the population over the age of 65…will increase the leave vote by 3.3%. A 5% increase in the share of the population with low education…will increase the leave vote by 4.8%.”

The authors summarize,

We have found that old people and those with low education and low income tend to dislike immigration and fear the influence of the EU, and therefore voted for Brexit. A likely reason is that they feel vulnerable to immigration from other European countries. However, the empirical evidence on the adverse effect of immigration on the labour market is weak, although there is some evidence that the lowest-skilled workers in the UK may be adversely affected by immigration…Given the limited effect on wages, an exaggerated fear of immigration in public debate may have influenced voters to want to leave the EU. Thus, voters perceive the numbers and effects of immigrants as being much greater than they actually are.