Theses on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates

Thanks to our liberal criminal justice system, this maniac is already back on the streets.
1) The arrest itself probably had less to do with race than it did with the fact that most cops are bullies and will become enraged if you challenge their absolute power over you.

2) Where race clearly was the dominant factor is with the person who called the police because she saw a black man pushing on a door in a fancy neighborhood.

3) But concentrating on the particulars of the case is a distraction. The reason an incident like this turns into a topic of national conversation is that it dramatizes major social issues. But instead of confronting these issues head-on, people get bogged down in irrelevant details and only indirectly express their feelings on the actual matter at hand.

4) Opinion has broadly fallen into two categories: 'if even some fancy professor who is black gets arrested for doing nothing, that proves racism is alive and well', and 'it's not racism, stop making me feel guilty about being white'.

5) The 'racism still exists' side is clearly right, especially when you consider the massive disparities in incarceration rates between whites and blacks. But more than a little of the outrage on the liberal side has to do with the fact that it was a black professional who was targeted. After all, poor blacks come in for this kind of harassment every day but it's just a matter of course. This point was nicely displayed in the comments of a white person married to a black professional, who said, “Even here in this diverse area [Chicago's Hyde Park] I’ve heard people say, ‘Look at those black guys coming toward us.’ I say, ‘Yes, but they’re wearing lacrosse shorts and Calvin Klein jeans. They’re probably the kids of the professor down the street.’ You have to be able to discern differences between people.” Or as New York Time columnist Charles Blow put it regarding his own first experience of police abuse, "We were the good guys — dean’s list students with academic scholarships. I was the freshman class president. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us."

6) In other words, many liberals would be satisfied if we could only replace racism with class hatred - in particular, class hatred directed against the ghetto underclass. No surprise here - liberals have always found race-based inequality repulsive but considered class inequality part of the natural order of things.

7) Ironically, the existence of the ghetto underclass is one of the main social phenomena that still make racist ideas plausible, and which drives the substitution of race markers for class markers that is such a striking part of the urban experience. It's this process of misrecognition that is behind some white people's casual fear of blacks (criticized by the proponent of class hatred above), as well as racial profiling by police and the hysteria at the suburban Philadelphia swimming club earlier this summer. After all, the ghetto is horrifically violent - undergoing a perpetual crisis far more disturbing than the groundless arrest of a privileged black Harvard professor. Let's say you see every night on the evening news that yet again some black kids have shot people, but you have no knowledge of history or the economy to make sense of this (lord knows the media don't provide it, and politicians, pundits, and even community activists don't discuss it). If you do have a set of racial stereotypes to draw on instead, it's not at all unreasonable to conclude that there's something about black people that makes them dangerous.

8) The point is, racism is not a communicable disease. People don't internalize ideas simply because someone tells them to. For these ideas to be compelling, there need to be social phenomena that seem to confirm them. The existence of a racially-specific ghetto underclass, in concert with nearly universal ignorance of how the ghetto was made and why it persists, and combined with the suppression of class as an explanatory variable in this country, is one of the most powerful factors behind continued acceptance of racial stereotyping.

9) If you want to eliminate this kind of racial inequality, you can't simply rail against "American racism" or demand that ignorant white people recognize the difference between good (professional) and bad (poor) black people. You have to attack the structural sources of the problem - by abolishing the ghetto.


Illinois General Assembly squanders its chance at redemption

If you thought the problem with Illinois politics was Rod Blagojevich, the embarrassing denouement of the state legislature's spring session has proved you wrong.

After six years of paralysis as Blagojevich, House Speaker Mike Madigan, and Senate President Emil Jones played an infantile blame game, at the beginning of the year the General Assembly was presented with an incredible chance to undo the accumulated damage to our state. Last year Emil Jones abruptly retired (on his way out enfeoffing his son in his Senate seat, which is now apparently inheritable property). He was replaced by John Cullerton, a North Side Senator with a reputation as a reformer. Then Blagojevich was indicted and subsequently removed from office in January, replaced by reformer Pat Quinn.

The new alignment of forces in Springfield came just in time for state government to tackle an enormous budget deficit of $12 billion, caused partly by the economic crisis and partly by decades of budgetary mismanagement. At the same time Springfield had the opportunity to finally pass a state capital bill - 10 years overdue - to fund investment in roads, schools, and transit, and got its best chance in decades to make reforms that might start to address Illinois's culture of public corruption.

Four months later we can see what the legislature has done with all this promise: mostly tossed it in the garbage.

A capital bill was finally passed, and it included a slight improvement in the funding ratio of transit to roads (now 1:1.5 instead of the previous 1:2) as well as two major victories: $850 million in rail investment for Illinois and $425 million for green jobs and job training in weatherization focused on poor areas in the state. But the total funding for transit is barely enough to keep the system limping along, much less expand it to meet current needs, and the revenues are largely to be raised from a regressive expansion of gambling and sales taxes rather than the far more useful increase in the state gas tax that was discussed early on.

The legislature also passed a raft of measures supposedly aimed at eliminating corruption, including a couple of truly useful ones. But on the three most important issues - campaign finance, gerrymandering, and the overwhelming power of the legislative leaders - reforms were ignored or shot full of holes. What we need is publicly financed elections, a nonpartisan process for the drawing of legislative districts, and restrictions on the nearly dictatorial power that the House speaker and Senate president currently wield. What we got was a lot of hypocritical speechifying about how the General Assembly was cleaning up Illinois politics.

The biggest failure of all was the budget. Illinois faces a massive decline in revenues because of the economic crisis, combined with a long-term structural deficit. That leaves us with a gaping $12 billion deficit - nearly 1/4 of the state's spending is currently unfunded!

This should have been an opportunity to rectify some of the injustices of the Illinois tax system while raising the revenue needed to fund essential services. Illinois has the fifth lowest tax burden in the country as a percentage of income, but that burden is distributed by class in such a way as to make the state's already unacceptable inequalities even worse. The bottom twenty percent of state residents by income faces the fourth-highest tax burden in the country, while the top one percent ranks 40th in the country.
The problem is that Illinois suffers from a constitutionally-mandated flat tax, which skews tax assessments against the poor and in favor of the wealthy. Amending the constitution to abolish the flat tax is an urgent priority, but in the meantime the fiscal crisis gave us an opportunity to make significant reforms to the tax system, making it both fairer and more sound at the same time.

The Senate seized that opportunity and passed Senator James Meeks's bill. Meeks has fought heroically for years to reduce Illinois's appalling school funding inequalities, and this tax reform would begin that process in addition to raising revenue and making the tax burden more equitable. The Senate bill would permanently raise the personal income tax from 3 to 5 percent, but it would cushion the blow to the middle class and exempt the working poor by tripling the earned income tax credit, raising the personal exemption from $2,000 to $3,000, and doubling the state property tax credit. The bill also included $2 billion in spending cuts, in addition to the $5 billion in revenue it would raise.

Senate President Cullerton's leadership this term has been somewhat disappointing, as he maneuvered away from raising gas taxes and has issued several apologias for the General Assembly's failure to pass robust measures against corruption. But his championing of the Meeks bill, which had been driven forward by the Senate’s African-American caucus, was a strong assertion of his independence from House Speaker Madigan and a lonely progressive bright spot in the otherwise barren General Assembly performance.

Madigan, on the other hand, has once again demonstrated that, now that Blagojevich is gone, he is the problem in Illinois politics. Wielding nearly dictatorial powers over his chamber, he chose not to bring the Meeks bill for a vote and instead put forward a wholly inadequate temporary tax increase, which he then blithely allowed to meet a crushing defeat, 74-42. Madigan himself voted for this bill, but he used none of his power to bring the members into line behind it. As Rich Miller, one of the most informed and nonpartisan commentators on Illinois politics, put it:
You cannot tell me with a straight face that Speaker Madigan did any serious heavy lifting this session. When real leadership was required, he sat back and let the train of government go completely off the tracks.
Meeks himself agrees:
"You have been campaigning for a tax hike for 20 years, and nothing has happened," Meeks said. "Why? What's the one thing that has remained constant in those 20 years? Michael Madigan as a leader in the House. Everybody else in leadership is gone. If Madigan wanted this bill passed, it would have been passed."
Madigan is not the only villain here. Quinn's potential competitors for the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan (Michael Madigan's daughter) and Comptroller Dan Hynes, have resorted to irresponsible demagogy against the prospect of raising taxes, as have the Republicans. But Madigan - probably the most powerful individual in Illinois politics - is the one who could have solved the problem, and has instead stood in the way.

Quinn, on the other hand, has fought doggedly, if occasionally ineptly, for a fair resolution to the crisis, and he is by far the most commendable candidate for governor next year. He continues to push for a resolution to this mess, and has called the General Assembly back into session for further negotiations and another vote next week. If Madigan again lets the tax increase die, the consequences will be dire: catastrophic cuts to state programs in healthcare, education, and aid to the most vulnerable people in the state - the developmentally disabled, poor children, recovering drug addicts, the homebound elderly, and many others.

Here is how your elected representatives voted on each of the budget bills: House and Senate. Call them and voice your support for HB 174, the Meeks bill, which is by far the best solution to this debacle. If they vote against essential state services, they have no right to your vote next year.


Sweatshops a key feature of the best of all possible worlds

A comment on the previous post:
sweat shops are an easy target and are often misunderstood by outsiders. I went to a talk at Northwestern given by Nicholas Kristof on how in nearly every southeastern asian country sweat shops are the only REAL way out of prostitution (the only other line of work available to young girls there). sure sweat shops suck, but they want the work, they want the business, and its really the best we can give them.

what do you think about that viewpoint? i'm just looking at this from a realist perspective.
Is it really the best we can give them? Yes, Kristof is well-known as one of the most prominent sweatshop Candides of our time, but as usual this argument rests on an appalling reductionism in the social and economic context that produces sweatshops and a profound and debilitating pessimism about what we can do about it.

Usually sweatshop apologists ignore the coercive market forces that push people into such employment and simply say "they want the jobs". Well, if your rural economy had been destroyed by a flood of subsidized agribusiness imports or the destruction of collective forms of social security, you might "want" a degrading and debilitating job too.

But let's assume away the real social forces that produce the impersonal violence necessary to create a labor supply for sweatshops. What's wrong with legislating basic safety measures, decent wages, and a right to organize for those who work in these factories? This falls far short of establishing working conditions that might be truly self-actualizing for everyone involved, but could even Pangloss himself object to such minimal reforms?

The answer of the apologists, which is generally overplayed but has more than a kernel of truth, is that such regulations will destroy the very jobs we want to improve (more here). Even if the capacity of mobile capital to drive down work standards by playing poor countries off against each other were eliminated by establishing strictly enforced global minimum standards, the fundamental problem would remain: lower levels of exploitation means lower profits and fewer jobs. On the other hand, over the long term a high rate of exploitation yields increasing levels of overaccumulation as workers are unable to afford the products they produce, and we get crises like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the '70s, or the current disaster. On the third hand, during those periods when capitalist expansion proceeds without crisis, its distinctive style of growth steadily destroys the ecological basis of continued human life.

In other words, capitalism offers horrific working conditions for the global majority and environmentally disastrous levels of consumption for the remainder, all punctuated by crises that regularly yield social destruction on levels akin to war. Sweatshops are a necessary feature of this system, and might seem a rational solution to certain local problems created by wider capitalist dynamics. But when we view the system in its totality, we can recognize sweatshops and environmental crisis alike as just more of Krugman's "paradoxes" - phenomena that reveal the irrationality and unsustainability of capitalism as a whole.


Capitalism is irrational. Where's the paradox?

Paul Krugman is the only indispensable mainstream opinion writer we have. Unlike most of the others, when you get done reading a Krugman column you don't feel like you've actually lost knowledge. Krugman combines a healthy liberal politics with a deep understanding of economics and an ability to put all this in accessible language, and he makes most other columnists look like amateurs.

But he's still a liberal, and he's still an economist. That means he's incapable of giving any sort of fundamental critique of the economic forces he's made a career of explaining. Take this passage from his column today, on a theme he's been pursuing for months now:
We’re suffering from the paradox of thrift: saving is a virtue, but when everyone tries to sharply increase saving at the same time, the effect is a depressed economy. We’re suffering from the paradox of deleveraging: reducing debt and cleaning up balance sheets is good, but when everyone tries to sell off assets and pay down debt at the same time, the result is a financial crisis.

And soon we may be facing the paradox of wages: workers at any one company can help save their jobs by accepting lower wages, but when employers across the economy cut wages at the same time, the result is higher unemployment.
Here’s how the paradox works. Suppose that workers at the XYZ Corporation accept a pay cut. That lets XYZ management cut prices, making its products more competitive. Sales rise, and more workers can keep their jobs. So you might think that wage cuts raise employment — which they do at the level of the individual employer.

But if everyone takes a pay cut, nobody gains a competitive advantage. So there’s no benefit to the economy from lower wages. Meanwhile, the fall in wages can worsen the economy’s problems on other fronts.
The language of paradox here naturalizes capitalist dynamics, distracting attention from the more fundamental question - what on earth are we doing with a system that converts individual merit into collective disaster?

These so-called paradoxes are just more examples of the perverse incentives built into market economies. Sweatshop clothes are cheaper than those produced under decent working conditions, so the rational individual will choose the socially destructive product. Companies that force the costs of the pollution they produce onto society win a competitive advantage, so the environment is steadily destroyed that the individual consumer might save 50 cents. Cutting corners on quality means higher profits - even at the cost of seriously injuring or killing the consumer - so the fairly free markets of China have churned out scandal after scandal of tainted food and drugs.

As with Krugman's "paradoxes", these phenomena illustrate a fundamental truth of capitalism - brutally rational at the individual level, it is insanely irrational as a whole. Even more terrifying, altho the economic system was created by humans and only exists thru our collective institutions and individual behaviors, its logic exists as something beyond our control, acting upon us as an external force animated by unstable, mysterious laws.

This helps explain the widespread portrayal of the economic crisis as a kind of natural disaster rather than what it is: a creation of human beings. We have to start aggressively making the point that capitalism, like the crises and social devastation it endlessly produces, is a human invention and could be ended once and for all if we so chose.


The existential dread of the health insurance industry

This is worth reading:
"in 1999, Americans spent $1,059 per capita on [health insurance] administration compared with only $307 spent in Canada."

"about 85 percent of this excess administrative overhead can be attributed to the highly complex private health insurance system in the United States."
Of course, we already know that the US spends two to three times more per capita on healthcare than the other rich countries - but unlike them, it does not cover everyone and health outcomes and customer satisfaction are lower.

In other words, the government is a much more efficient provider of health insurance. So it's no surprise that the insurance companies are bringing all their power to bear against the possibility of a public health insurance option. In essence, the government would offer a Medicare account to anyone in the country who wanted to join. As long as the option weren't hamstrung from the start by constraints imposed by the insurance industry's shills in Congress, and as long as the playing field were leveled with a provision that all insurance companies must accept anyone regardless of preexisting conditions, the government would over time eliminate most or all competitors because it is a more efficient provider. In light of the bizarre resistance to socialized medicine in this country, such a long drawn-out demonstration of the merits of single-payer healthcare may be the only way to win the health system we need.

But the insurance industry understands that on a level playing field with the government, it cannot survive. So we have to expect a bitter fight against this essential reform, and we have to do whatever we can to win it. Any health reform bill that does not include a public insurance option - and only one free of insurance industry poison pills - is not worthy of the name.


Green toilet paper

What's the deal with Americans? If there's some kind of behavior that's bad for the environment, we seem to always be its biggest fans. We drive the most, eat the most meat, buy the most stuff, build the most sprawl - and buy the softest toilet paper.

As far as I can tell, toilet paper made from recycled paper works just as well, but it doesn't have that soft feel that Americans apparently require. For that you have to cut down trees, including old-growth forests in Canada. So recycled-content toilet paper is a miniscule part of the American market, unlike in Europe and Latin America where it accounts for about 1/5 of sales.

According to Greenpeace, these are the brands best for the environment (the first number is percentage of recycled post-consumer waste, the second is overall recycled content. All avoid chlorine bleaching):

Green Forest 90 100
365 80 100
April Soft 80 100
Earth Friendly 80 100
Fiesta and Fiesta Green 80 100
Natural Value 80 100
Seventh Generation 80 100
Trader Joe’s 80 100

It's far more important, of course, to reduce/eliminate your driving and meat eating, buy less stuff, weatherize your home and switch your lightbulbs, etc. But if you can help save a tree you might as well.


We're far short of King's dream

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday and the inauguration of the first black American president, it's worth remembering what exactly King fought and died for. He believed in racial equality, democratic socialism, and an end to imperialism. It's a measure of how far we still have to go until we achieve King's vision and create a truly just society that Barack Obama only supports one of these principles.


Obama endorses the culture of impunity

The latest Obama disappointment is that he's not interested in investigating the crimes committed by the Cheney administration in torturing people and violating the civil liberties of US citizens. Congressional Democrats say they are more interested in enforcing the law, but given their generally spineless performance during the last eight years, I'm not holding my breath. Rule-of-law conservatives, who can marshal unlimited outrage over the similar crimes of official enemies and even over petty street crime, are nowhere to be seen.

Obama explained that violations of the law under Cheney should not be prosecuted because he believes “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” The nation's prisoners - who constitute one-fourth of the world's total and are mostly in jail for nonviolent offenses - may be disappointed to learn that their less significant crimes do not qualify for such treatment. Philosophers of justice, however, may wish to further develop this new theory that crimes committed in the past need not be prosecuted.

More to the point, Obama explained that he has “to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.” He did not explain why we would want "extraordinarily talented" torturers to remain at the CIA.

In abandoning his campaign rhetoric, Obama has signaled his complete acceptance of the culture of impunity that surrounds the country's leaders. Some "extreme left-wing" Democrats who take human rights more seriously are willing to tear at the edges of this culture, but even they dare not raise the most monstrous crimes: initiating wars of aggression and extensive violations of the laws of war.

These acts are not even thinkable as crimes as long as the nationalist discourse of American righteousness remains intact. The task of human rights campaigners and progressives must not be limited to the legalistic demand of prosecuting those who break the law. It must extend to a radical critique of America's place in the world and to changing the culture of popular nationalism that has sustained the imperial agenda of presidents both Democrat and Republican for the last century and more.


Density makes great cities

If you could only pick one measure to predict whether a city is awesome or not, make it density. The list below of the top 50 American cities ranked by density (population/sq mile) also gives a very rough ordering of cities stretching from great places to live to horrific suburban wasteland "cities". Of course there are problems with using municipal boundaries, which are pretty arbitrary, as the cutoff point, and things like park land or industrial areas can bring down your score. But generally speaking, lots of people close together means good architecture, diversity of culture and entertainment, good transit, more space given over to living and less to cars, more interesting stores and fewer chains, and a sense of place that cannot be found at a strip mall or TGIFriday's. Density is also a good measure of how environmentally sustainable a city is.

The best way to promote density is to discourage cars. We all should take public transit whenever possible, of course, because a strong CTA makes for a stronger Chicago, and it's one of the best ways to fight global warming in your own life. But individual action is not enough - the only way to increase density and sustainability is by increasing the cost of driving (raise the gas tax, increase the cost of parking and other fees associated with driving, implement congestion pricing), improving public transit and biking infrastructure, and focusing on transit-oriented development (including zoning for higher density) rather than sprawl. People living in the suburbs remain the biggest obstacle, because they elect politicians who are afraid to make the necessary reforms restricting car culture. We could just wait until oil scarcity or global warming make the suburbs obsolete, but the costs to the environment and future generations would be very steep. We need to start figuring out how we can get suburbanites and other drivers on our side in the fight to essentially destroy their way of life. Even New York, the densest and most sustainable city in the country, hasn't figured it out yet. So we have a lot of work to do, and despite Obama's political timidity, this can't wait until the economy starts expanding again.

1 New York City 26,403.8
13 San Francisco 16,632.4
3 Chicago 12,752.2
21 Boston 12,172.3
6 Philadelphia 11,232.8
43 Miami 10,153.2
27 Washington, DC 9,316.9
36 Long Beach 9,157.2
20 Baltimore 8,058.8
2 Los Angeles 7,876.4
44 Oakland 7,120.9
46 Minneapolis 6,969.4
11 Detroit 6,853.5
24 Seattle 6,714.8
23 Milwaukee 6,212.0
40 Cleveland 6,165.0
10 San Jose 5,116.9
49 Honolulu 4,336.7
28 Las Vegas 4,222.7
37 Sacramento 4,187.4
29 Louisville 4,126.1
35 Fresno 4,096.3
30 Portland 3,939.8
8 San Diego 3,772.4
26 Denver 3,615.6
50 Arlington 3,475.7
9 Dallas 3,470.3
15 Columbus 3,383.1
4 Houston 3,371.8
42 Omaha 3,370.8
38 Mesa 3,171.0
33 Atlanta 3,162.3
7 San Antonio 2,808.3
5 Phoenix 2,781.7
16 Austin 2,610.6
32 Tucson 2,499.7
34 Albuquerque 2,484.0
48 Raleigh 2,409.2
18 Memphis 2,327.6
22 El Paso 2,262.8
19 Charlotte 2,232.1
14 Indianapolis 2,162.8
45 Tulsa 2,152.5
47 Colorado Springs 1,943.4
17 Fort Worth 1,828.0
41 Virginia Beach 1,712.7
39 Kansas City 1,408.4
25 Nashville 1,152.6
12 Jacksonville 970.9
31 Oklahoma City 833.8