Saturday, October 08, 2005

Public Discourse and the Persistence of Poverty
As I mentioned in the Bob Mould entry, I was on a Center for an Urban Future panel this past Thursday morning titled "Restoring Economic Opportunity for New York City's Working Poor Families." The discussion was a follow-up to our 2004 report "Between Hope and Hard Times," on low-income working families in New York state, with a closer focus on city issues and policymaking. I think it went pretty well on balance, but where I thought the conversation really got interesting was when we began to talk about how even now, after Hurricane Katrina and a welter of distressing statistics showing an increase in poverty within the United States over the last several years, we don't really hear anything about the issue from our press or politicians.

Broadly defined, I think the public discourse in America and probably every other modernized country runs along two tracks. One has to do with scandal and personalities: who's winning elections, who's appointed to high offices, who's under investigation, and what all these things mean in terms of future elections, appointments and juridicial goings-on. This all is sometimes derided as "horse race" style coverage; except for the underlying content, it's not all that different from those celebrity magazines that seem to be proliferating like bacteria and are forever writing about Angelina and Jen and Jess and Brad and Britney and that whole hell-bound rabble (if I might be allowed a little snobbery). How much of this is simply human nature, and how much of it is a reflection of how monoculture and technologically enabled short attention spans have changed the world, I'm not really stoned enough to consider right now.

(Sidebar: Al Gore gave an absolutely superb speech on some of these issues earlier this week. Though I've never been a big fan of the former vice-president--aside from his Futurama guest stints, that is--a few more of these and he might yet make me a believer.)

But they do obscure, probably more than was the case 30 or 40 years ago, the second track, which has to do with the actual substance of governance and public life. This is power relationships, wealth and poverty, economic trends, and the moral choices of those in power. If this "second track" were somehow prevalent, maybe we would ask questions like why none of the self-appointed moral leaders of this country--from Radical Cleric James Dobson to the crypto-racist Bill Bennett, ever talk about poverty. Or why George W. Bush and his peeps can talk about an "Ownership Society" while willy-nilly disinvesting in the tools people need to take ownership of their own careers, like job training and even basic language skill acquisition. (The administration proposed a two-thirds cut in federal support for ESL in its most recent budget.)

It's also why the whole debate over new Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers--is she Souter in a dress? Thomas with eyeliner and without the pube on the Coke can?--misses the point. As does the larger focus on "moral issues"--abortion and gay marriage--in considering Miers and other court nominees. Fortunately, Robert Reich knows the score:

The social or religious values of Bush’s Supreme Court nominees get most of attention, but economic values are also at stake. When Miers said last year that "[t]he future of the American economy depends on ... making the president's tax cuts permanent, lowering the costs of health care, [and] reducing the burden of frivolous lawsuits and unnecessary regulation," she was sharing a particular vision of how American society should be organized.

A central moral problem for the American economy today is that, although it has been growing at a good clip, with corporate profits rising nicely, most American paychecks have been going nowhere. Last year, the Census Bureau tells us, the U.S. economy grew a solid 3.8 percent. Yet median household income barely grew at all. That’s the fifth straight year of stagnant household earnings, the longest on record. Meanwhile, another 1.1 million Americans fell into poverty, bringing the ranks of the poor to 37 million. And an additional 800,000 workers found themselves without health insurance. Only the top 5 percent of households enjoyed real income gains. These trends are not new. They began 30 years ago, but are now reaching the point where they threaten the social fabric. Not since the Gilded Age of the 1890s has this nation experienced anything like the inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity we are witnessing today.

A central moral choice, then, is whether America should seek to reverse this trend. Those who view this society as a group of self-seeking individuals for whom government’s major purpose is to protect property and ensure freedom of contract would probably say “no.” Those who view America as a national community whose citizens have responsibilities to promote the well-being of one another would likely say “yes.” Is the well-being of American society the sum of individual goods, or is there a common good?

Over the next decades, the U.S. Supreme Court will play an important role in helping America make this choice. Under the guise of many doctrines and rationales -- interpretations of the “takings” and due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment, the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the commerce clause, the doctrine of federal preemption, and so on -- the Court will favor either property or community, depending on the economic values of a majority of the justices.

Reich goes on to discuss the "switch in time that saved nine"--how the Supreme Court of Franklin Roosevelt's day, supposedly under threat from FDR's "court-packing" scheme, suddenly started upholding New Deal actions in 1937. Reich interestingly dismisses the prevalent and cynical view that the justices did this to save their own power, and instead argues that the balance between community and property simply shifted as the realities of Depression became clear.

I think there are strategies for progressives to start talking about these subjects in ways that could impact the discourse. John Edwards certainly seems to be looking for them. An environment in which record corporate profits have become detached to an unprecedented degree from stagnant wages would seem to allow such a conversation. But for now I just want to make the point that the "moral values" of judges absolutely should not only address questions of sexual behavior and reproductive decisions, important as many believe those things to be.

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