Saturday, November 21, 2009

Black-owned businesses in America: another way to measure economic inequality

Income inequality between Blacks and Whites in America is bad, but in itself offers an incomplete picture of the real economic inequality between the two races.

Median per capita Black income, circa 2008, was $34,218.
Median per capita White (non-Hispanic) income was $55,530.

This means that Blacks, on average, made about 62% what whites made.

As dismal as this income disparity is, however, it is not representative of the extent of economic inequality.

When we look at economic inequality in terms of business ownership, a more disturbing picture emerges.

In 2002 (according to the U.S. Census' Survey of Business Owners):

White Americans, though only 69.1 percent of the population, owned 86.6 percent of business firms. Black Americans, despite making up 12.8 percent of the American population, owned 5.2 percent of firms. White-owned firms accounted for 36.6 percent of the total sales and receipts in the American market (excluding publicly held and other unclassifiable firms), while Black-owned firms accounted for only 0.4 percent of total sales and receipts.

This means that Whites are over-represented as business owners (per their proportion of the population) by 25%, while Blacks are under-represented by nearly 60%.

One of the most startling numbers in this analysis, however, is this: the total sales and receipts of White-owned firms are nearly 100 times that of Black-owned firms.

Considering that Blacks make up nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population and Whites make up about 70 percent, if all was fair the total sales and receipts of Black-owned firms would account for about 6.8 percent. In other words, Black businesses are making less than 6 percent of what they should be, in a just and fair world.

Finally, Whites are three and a half times more likely to own businesses with paid employees than Blacks; three and a half times more likely to be boss. And since Blacks make up a disproportionate number of employees (considering the relative lack of business ownership), we can guess that Whites are probably far, far more likely to boss around Black folks than the other way around.

This pattern is perpetuated outside of business ownership as well, where Blacks and Whites compete for positions of authority in businesses they don't own. According to the 2002 Census CPS, the percent of Blacks in the workforce who were working as administrators or in executive and managerial occupations in March of 2002 was 9.9 percent, compared to 17.2 percent of Whites. In 2003, Blacks made up 18.7 percent of social and community service workers but only 11 percent of social and community service managers. Similarly, while Blacks made up 13.9 percent of production, transportation, and material moving workers, they accounted for only 5.9 percent of transportation, storage, and distribution managers. The trend here is that Blacks make up a disproportionately low number of managers even within industries in which they are represented disproportionately higher than other races.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Correlation of economic growth with resource depletion and/or environmental degradation

If the reduction of poverty comes at the expense of the natural environment, can it actually be considered a reduction of poverty?

I ask this question because it potentially undermines the basic legitimacy of economic growth as a means to reduce poverty, and not only the neo-liberal/neo-con version of the argument, but the social liberal version of the argument as well.

My social work readings so far tend to support the following analysis: though an increase in economic growth, as measured by GDP, does not necessarily correspond to a decrease in poverty, a decrease in economic growth is consistently correlated with an increase in poverty. The problem - so most of the readings say - is in the unequal distribution of that growth.

However, whether economic growth is distributed equally or not, if it occurs at the expense of the natural environment and/or involves the depletion of unreplenishable natural resources, then it cannot be considered a valid long-term gain, for either the rich or the poor.

There are social costs to environmental degradation that are crucial for a social worker to consider. It seems clear that the costs of environmental degradation accrue to the most vulnerable members of society, while the profits accrue to the wealthy or otherwise privileged. Of course, all pay in the end.

This analysis also (obviously) trumps the classic neo-liberal/neo-con argument that, as markets are consistently deregulated, the rich not only get richer (receiving a bigger piece of the pie) but the poor also get richer, or at least don't get poorer (because the overall pie gets bigger). Even if or when it's true (1949-1969, for example), this an invalid argument if the result of such deregulated market activity is resource depletion and environmental degradation.

It should be noted that natural resources and the quality of the environment are shared resources which industry consistently plunders for little or no cost, and at the expense of everyone. The so-called "tragedy of the commons" is as much its abuse by the wealthy as its neglect by the poor.

I would like to figure out the historical relationship of economic growth to environmental degradation/resource depletion. Have any scholars or economists attempted to measure the historical consumption of resources? Are there estimates as to the accrued cost of resource loss so far? It seems this would be easier to measure than environmental degradation - one might, for example, conceivably measure the amount of forested land lost and translate that to real dollars, even if this takes only partial account of the bigger, long-term costs to the environment.

In particular, if one could measure resource loss between 1949-1969, the same years which Iceland (Ch. 6) identifies as the most prosperous for all Americans including the poor, how much would the costs of resource loss impact the overall real gains for the poor?

Friday, October 30, 2009

What's Obama's vision for American capitalism?

"What we want to create is a race to the top where, because of a strong regulatory framework, the free market can still operate effectively and there's still innovation and dynamism and creativity -- all of the things that have made America great -- but that it's happening with some rules of the road so that things don't spin out of control." - From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tenets of a just economic system in an ideal world

These are thoughts.

1. Freedom to create and pursue what one wishes to create and pursue, within limits.

2. Limits based on whether or not a product or enterprise inhibits another person's capacity to create in pursuit of their own livelihood.

3. Sustainability with zero exceptions. All products must be entirely recyclable (as opposed to "downcyclable") or biodegradable. All energy used in production must be renewable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New tack: African-Americans and Empowerment

Starting with the tone of the lyrics of "Darlin' Cora" (previous blog entry), I would like to examine empowerment in the workplace for African-Americans compared to white and/or other folks of color, and possibly how it has changed over time. I will take several angles, beginning with an examination of the presence of African-Americans in managerial or supervisory positions relative to their percentage of the population at large. I would guess they are not proportionally represented. I also hope to examine their presence in unions, and roles in union leadership. I would like to document these things both at the height of the civil rights movement and today.

Key data: BLS

The Struggle for Employment Equity for Blacks on American Railroads

Race disparities in health among older adults: examining the role of productive engagement
Good paragraph on actual income disparities between blacks and whites pp. 661-2

Understandin Af-Ams Misunderstanding of Racial Economic Fortunes

The Political Economy of Hope and Fear...

Race, Socio-Political Participation, and Black Empowerment

Inequality in the Military: An Examination of Promotion Time for Black and White Enlisted Men
full text not found yet.

"Blacks are less likely than others
to be attached to a single employer for an extended period
of time. While over 30 % of whites and Hispanics
spent 6 or more years with one employer, onIy about 20
percent of blacks did so."And the median number of years spent on the job between age 18-30 is 3.3 for Blacks compared to 4.2 for Hispanics and 4.6 for whites. - from here

Percentage of individuals age 28-36 able to perform their duties adequately when they started their job, 1993: Blacks 68.8% compared to Whites 62.2% and Hispanincs 65.7%. More Blacks also participated in on-the-job learning activites. "Typically, whites spent 116 hours learning, blacks 80 hours, and Hispanics 76 hours. These race/ethnicity differences are particularly evident for learning from supervisors or coworkers. For example, whites spent twice as much time working with supervisors as did Blacks."- from here

Black women, however, fare well in promotions next to white women. - from here

Earnings Mobility in the U.S. 67-91 Earnings mobility for blacks vs. whites. 23% of black men fall in the first quintile of earnings, while only 8% of white men fall in the first quintile. 17% of black men fall in the fifth quintile while 33% of white men do. Though the percentage that stay in the first quintile are realtively close, the percentage of black men that stay in the fifth quintile are only 59% compared to 78% of white men. Blacks economic positions are less secure.

Effect of Race on Promotions...

Race-Related Difference in Promotions... (1997) "Applicants of color were significantly less likely to be referred than white applicants; they were also significantly less likely to be employed in the hiring department, had significantly more work experience, and were significantly lower on the highest degree obtained." pp.118-9 significantly more work experience negatively related to panel evaluations, p.121 "Of the referred applicants, 8 percent of men of color versus 17 percent of white men...were selected for positions." (interestingly, almost three times as many women of color than white women were selected.) p. 123 "Applicants who had reached the pipeline grades for Senior Executive Service positions with fewer years of work experience may have been seen as more likely to succeed in the ranks of top management..." and more. Women of color did not experience the same negative effects of race... p. 124 Unique nature of government organization probably had an effect...procedural fairness... p. 125 * GREAT REFERENCES *

Support for digging through stats

Labor Force Statistics for the Community Population Survey

What Happens to Potential Discouraged? "persistent employer discrimination (Mason 2005; Pager and Quillian 2005; Moss and Tilly 2001a, 2001b; Holzer 1996; Braddock and McPartland 1987)"

from "Darlin' Cora" as sung by Harry Belafonte:

I don’t know why darlin’ Cora
Don’t know what the reason can be
But I never yet found a single town
Where me and the boss-man agree

I ain’t a man to be played with
I ain’t nobody’s toy
Been working for my pay for a long, long time
How come he still calls me boy

Well I’d rather drink muddy water
And sleep in a hollowed out log
Than to hang around in this old town
And be treated like a dirty dog

Well I whopped that man darlin’ Cora
And he fell down where he stood
Don't know if I was wrong darlin’ Cora
But Lord it sure felt good

Monday, October 26, 2009

Research: immigrants and unions (this post will be updated regularly)

From Labor Movement and Social Welfare (United States). Michael Polzin. Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The creation of the 5-day 40-hour work week. This was nationally instituted but came about by union-led collective action. Was any population excluded from the offset? Who?

Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932. denied the federal courts the right to forbid strikes, peaceful picketing, and other actions not illegal in themselves that unions employed in their dealings with employers. From the early 1800s, courts had impeded collective union activity by ruling that such activity, though legal if it involved only one person, constituted a "conspiracy" if it involved more than one and was therefore illegal.

Wagner or National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935. Gave to employees the "right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."

Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 dealt a blow.

Numerous other workplace benefits, now widely available to nonunion workers as well, can be traced to gains first achieved through collective bargaining. Paid leave time—as vacation days, personal days, holidays, bereavement days, and sick leave—are critically important to the well-being of individuals and families, not just to be able to respond appropriately in times of crisis but also to strengthen and celebrate the family ties that are essential for solid communities. Employer-paid insurances—health, dental, vision, life, disability, and legal—help to moderate the effects of situations that could have profoundly negative effects on workers and their families. Pensions, profit sharing, stock ownership, and other retirement funds allow working people to retire with dignity without becoming a financial burden on their families or their communities. Apprenticeship, training and upgrading, tuition assistance, and other educational programs strengthen the capabilities that people can apply to their workplace as well as to the vitality of their communities and the economy at large. Workplace health and safety programs save lives in the short run and in the long term. Federal occupational safety and health programs, underfunded as they currently might be, owe their very existence to union-led initiatives. Employee assistance programs offer a lifeline to workers whose employment, family life, and health are threatened by addictions or other disabling conditions. For a number of reasons that include deterring unionization as well as rewarding, motivating, or retaining employees, many nonunion workplaces provide some or all of these benefits, extending the gains to far more than households with union members.

- Parallel: the development of the American welfare state as mitigator to decrease the allure of socialism; so the development of myriad benefits to decrease the allure of unionization. With the fall of socialism, so the fall of the welfare state (Mishra); similarly, with the fall of unions, so the fall of non-union benefits provision.

Union leaders' reluctance to bring industrial workers into their fold—workers who were often female, recent immigrants, or members of minority groups—created unnecessary divisions within the labor movement, such as the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, and diverted energy from the task of advancing a common agenda. Fortunately for workers, the labor movement, and U.S. social welfare, the AFL and CIO resolved their differences and merged in 1955. The loss of manufacturing jobs to low-wage, developing countries has contributed greatly to the decline in union membership that has also weakened unions' political influence. Today, the continuing decline in membership presents perhaps the greatest challenge to unions and their ability to enhance U.S. social welfare. Nonetheless, the mere presence of unions contributes significantly to higher quality of life for union and nonunion workers alike and serves as a check to a corporate-employer-driven social policy agenda.

From Migration Policy:


NPR: Labor Unions now recruiting immigrant...

Britannic Online: Unions and New Immigrants

Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Kind of Work Do Immigrants Do? (MPI)
- A greater proportion of immigrant workers from central America are employed in the service occupations and as fabricators, laborers, and operators than native-born workers. These sectors are some of the "stickiest" jobs, meaning the least-susceptible to globalization (offshoring) and therefore the most amenable to unionizing.

"Sticky Jobs"

Overall unemployment in Seattle-Tacoma area hit 8.8% from 4.7% last year (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Percentage of population involved in production, transportation, and material-moving occupations: 19.7% of men, 6.6% of women. Info on union affiliation also in statistical tables here.

Krugman on income disparity (on youtube), incl. the fall of the unions. Full length here, incl. race.

"Organizing Immigrants"

BLS Foreign-born workers labor force characteristics 2008 "rates for foreign-born blacks
(73.2 percent)"? are higher than any other foreign-born population and higher than most or all native-born populations. Go to table 3. Table 4 is broken down by occupation but not race. Shows disproportionate representation of foreign-born in service. Table 5 shows weekly earnings, including that foreign-born blacks make more than native-born blacks, though substantially less than foreign-born whites and asians.

THESIS: Argument for unionization of immigrants as they hold many of the "stickiest" jobs, retail, services, construction, and others that can't be offsourced.

HISTORY COMPONENT: Examine tensions between unions and immigrants in the past in light of better relations in the present.

ROLE OF SOCIAL WORKERS: Facilitating processes to harmonize unions and immigrants to achieve success for both. On micro level, helping immigrants with wage, job security, and benefits, as well as a sense of inclusion and belonging, and on a macro level strengthening unions around "sticky" jobs to resist the capital drain of globalization.

Go to "Foreign-Born Workers" section at this CPS link for these News releases:
- Labor force characteristics of foreign-born workers
- Charts: Foreign-born workforce, 2004: a visual essay (PDF)
- Labor force characteristics of second-generation Americans (September 2006)
- The role of foreign-born workers in the US economy (May 2002)

Labor Force Statistics for the Community Population Survey

Refugee Act 1980, links here and here.

Read this whole thing: Journal of Community Practice, Volume 17 Issue 1 & 2 2009: Economic Justice, Labor and Community Practice In the Social Work periodical stacks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


We need to be able to make our own choices. Only a free being can take full responsibility for his or her life. We have this idea that a person allowed to be free will harm others, crave power, dominate. But isn't this the result of not being free in the first place?

I don't know a practical way out of this - if we freed every person to do whatever they wanted right now without societal restraint or domination by one another...well, hell, maybe it would go over alright. I'm predisposed to imagine disorder, but then I only know people in their oppressed states. We've all developed under domination. If we were free to choose what we wanted, having maintained trust in others, having grown up loved and empowered, would we choose domination? Would it have any advantage or make us feel safer? Quite the contrary. I think if we grew up loved and trusted we would want to love and trust. Just a hunch. Underneath all this conditioning.

Dynamic unions?

If markets fluctuate dynamically to take advantage of new niches and technologies, then the workforce needs to be able to adapt as it does so. But how does the workforce protect itself?

As unions go, how does a union work with the dynamism of the market without compromising the security of workers? Can unions be dynamic?

It seems like a fair share in the yield would be the best motivation. If the business were essentially the workers' - and the connection between the workers' livelihood and the business' competitiveness made direct - perhaps they would be a bit more willing to take risks? This brings us back toward the idea of cooperative corporations, kibbutz-style (Okun, 1975).

And does the market need to be so dynamic? I would argue yes, if only because our culture and world is in such a state of flux. With all the technological change and the need to adapt to a changing awareness of environmental impact, new products, production methods, distributive processes (and so on) changing all the time, the market needs to be dynamic. Nimble. Quick. At least until things stabilize; if things stabilize. Which they may never do.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hahahaha! Men are funny.

Click here to read the full article on 'vicarious dominance contests'...

Amartya Sen on globalization and how the market could be just

From How to Judge Globalism (2002):

“The use of the market economy is consistent with many different ownership patterns, resources availabilities, social opportunities, and rules of operation (such as patent laws and antitrust regulations). And depending on these conditions, the market economy would generate different prices, terms of trade, income distribution, and, more generally, diverse overall outcomes. The arrangements for social security and other public interventions can make further modifications to the outcomes of the market processes, and together they can yield varying levels of inequality and poverty.”

“It is not only the case that a marketinclusive system can generate very distinct results depending on various enabling conditions (such as how physical resources are distributed, how human resources are developed, what rules of business relations prevail, what social-security arrangements are in place, and so on)...”

“As has been amply established in empirical studies, market outcomes are massively influenced by public policies in education, epidemiology, land reform, microcredit facilities, appropriate legal protections, et cetera; and in each of these fields, there is work to be done through public action that can radically alter the outcome of local and global economic relations.”

“The distribution of benefits in the global economy depends, among other things, on a variety of global institutional arrangements, including those for fair trade, medical initiatives, educational exchanges, facilities for technological dissemination, ecological and environmental restraints, and fair treatment of accumulated debts that were often incurred by irresponsible rulers of the past.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

thoughts on 'allyship'

Not only can the privileged be an ally to the oppressed, but the oppressed can be an ally to the privileged, at least where the privileged's privilege isn't enough to effect change against existing power structures. Specifically, for example, one might help organize immigrant labor for the economic benefit of the immigrant community as well as to counteract existing wealth entrenchment and power. If one also includes environmental imperatives as environment justice, so much the better.

A three-part system: Well-meaning progressives (privileged environmentalists/social liberals) intervening on behalf of an oppressed population for the sake of their empowerment and also for the sake of liberal ideals re: the environment. An alignment of interests.
What I don't like - and this is more truly "American" than explicit distrust of government - is too high a concentration of power. And right now, the big money is in too few hands, and those hands are all over the steering wheel of our country. Government - in the Obama-era, public-option sense - is needed to counteract that influence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is capitalism save-able in a just world?

Can capitalism work as an optimizing system rather than a maximizing system?

Could the environmental destruction and oppression caused by the free market be tamed by a new model that accounts for those things as real costs?

The organic flux, the adaptability, the innovation, the vibrancy, the creative potentialities...could these be preserved in a system that works for the well-being of all?

I think it's more interesting to design things within the constraints of a medium than without any constraints. It brings an element of balancing, of considering multiple needs to achieve the best possible results for all. This takes much more nuance, and much more skill.

When one takes into account the properties of clay when creating with it, the result is bound to be more beautiful and more functional than when one does not. But you need freedom to design within those constraints or the interest just gets sucked out of the whole endeavor.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The conservative rebuttal

1) Don't mess with the market. Less is more when it comes to government. All depends upon the invisible hand!

2) Health care reform will fuck the budget for sure. (Heritage Foundation) I'm not going to get into the costs of the bill. 

"In floor speeches for weeks, GOP leaders have slammed Democrats for trillion-dollar price tags, tax increases, Medicare cuts to seniors, expansion of government, and the exclusion of minority views, notably their own...What GOP plans have in common are elements to increase competition and defend against government deciding terms of healthcare or insurance." (csmonitor)

Elements of GOP plans include:

• Tax credits to individuals who purchase health insurance on their own.

• Incentives for states and small businesses to band together and offer health insurance at lower costs.

• Tort reform to reduce costly “defensive medicine.”

• Incentives to save through health savings accounts.

• Incentives to promote prevention and wellness.

• Reforms to end discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions.

• Breaking down barriers to purchasing health insurance across state lines.

Quotes to back my shit up

On State Intervention: " liberals in particular become willing to embrace the state as a potential ally and as an instrument that can be used to protect and even humanise the capitalist system. If capitalism were fair and everybody experienced similar levels of freedom and opportunity, then liberals might shy away from using the state this way." (Taylor 2007)

On Social Justice:

"Originally the idea of social justice was group-specific--that is, it was applied solely to a particular people or nation with the intention of redressing the effects of hierarchical inequalities, particularly inherited focused primarily on issues of economic redistribution largely among individuals." (Reich 2002)

"During much of the twentieth century...there was a broad agreement in the West that a social justice paradigm must incorporate various means of achieving a fair distribution of societal goods--tangible and intangible." (Reich 2002)

"Rawls argues that...the justice of a system must be measured...based 'on how fundamental rights and duties are assigned and on the economic opportunities and social conditions in the various sectors of society' (p.7; see also Rawls, 2001)." (Reich 2002)

Rawls (1971) A Theory of Justice: "Undeserved inequalities call for redress; and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. Thus, the principle holds that in order to treat all persons equally, to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets and to those born into the less favorable social positions. The idea is to redress the bias of contingencies in the direction of equality." (1971, p.100)

Giving people only the option of being a consumer and not a producer skews the "free" market...

"In their famous pastoral letter (1986), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops...stated that 'social justice implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way.'" (per Reich 2002)

"The creation of greater social solidarity...implied in the goals of multiculturalism and social justice, requires...the establishment of a societal imperative that promotes full participation of each member of the community in the community's activities." (Reich 2002)

Material conception of justice. People will be happy if you give them things. And can you really distribute power? Doesn't that take a distributor who has the power to distribute?

Young's idea to show not just distribution, but distributive networks...

Reich, M (2002) Defining Social Justice in a Socially Unjust World, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services

On Health:

"the more unequal the distribution of economic rewards, the lower the life expectancy...A series of cross-national studies have demonstrated this to be the case: the more egalitarian the distribution of income, the higher the life expectancy (Rodgers, 1979; Flegg, 1982; Wilkinson, 1992; Waldman, 1992; Wennemo, 1993)." (p.xiii)

The real relationship is between income and health, not insurance and health. Insurance just picks up the slack, but chronic stress from tough living will still kill you sooner.

"Wilkinson reported a striking correlation (r=-0.81, p <0.0001) between the degree of income inequality and life expectancy (Wilkinson, 1986)." and "The U.S. is one of the richest countries in the world, but it is also one of the most unequal in terms of how that wealth is shared (Atkinson et al., 1995)." (p.xi)

"Reduced social spending...translates into diminished life opportunities, especially, for those nearer the bottom of the economic heiracrchy, making it difficult for them to improve their material circumstances." (p.xx)

"When the social fabric thins, more affluent people can buy their way out with private schools, guarded or gated communities, private social clubs, and individual psychotherapy." (p.xxi) And, we might add to that: health insurance.

To read: Amartya Sen, James Galbraith

Kawachi I, Kennedy BP, Wilkinson RG. 1999. "Introduction" p. xi - xxxiv. The Society and Population Health Reader. New York, The New Press.

Oops, Task 3 (part C): Health care reform as social justice

How does health care reform fit into a mixed market economy in terms of social justice?

Well, it will give people a more equal start. It will remove the "bad health" obstacle to success, to self-actualizing participation in the market economy. It will do so to greater or lesser extent depending on the effectiveness of the reforms in increasing health care access and quality.

Ultimately, a single-payer system (universal health care) would probably be best, as it would ensure equality between rich and poor, and thus be a better leveler of the playing field. However, chances are, in the grand scheme of things, that higher-end private health insurance would be only marginally better than a public option as far as guaranteeing a basic foothold in the social and economic world.

(thought on self-actualization: in a market-driven society, is it related to participation in the market? Can one be socially actualized if they can't participate equally in the agreed-upon mechanism of livelihood for a society?)

When it comes down to it, health care reform is a limp-wristed salute to the idea of social justice. Unless obstacles to full participation in the economic (and political) life of the nation are removed for individuals of all "groups," health care reform will not contribute much to social equality. Poor people may live longer, may be physically healthier, may feel a bit less marginalized, but on the whole they won't have a stronger voice nor greater access to genuine opportunity. If opportunities open up, then better health will be a factor in one's ability to pursue those opportunities. But that if is not at all pending on the success of the current health care reforms.

Marginalized peoples' voices have been strangely absent from the whole debate, overshadowed by the partisan bickering of senators and other elected officials and the intellectual sparring of economists.

Task 3: Describe health care reform in this context (part B)

What does health care reform currently look like?

Though the reform measures are not yet finalized and it is still uncertain what they will look like when all is said and done, it is reasonably safe to assume the following: 1) private insurance will still play a large role; a single-payer government-run system is highly unlikely, 2) insurance companies will no longer be allowed to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, 3) government will subsidize the cost of insurance for those who cannot afford to pay for it themselves, 4) increased regulation of private insurance companies will be enacted to attempt to control for costs, both to the government and to the insured, and, 5) health insurance will become mandatory for individuals, though there is disagreement as to how enforceable this 'individual mandate' will be.

What is less certain but is a key point of contention is the 'public option.' The public option has been attacked as 'socialism' by conservatives, been defended avidly by progressives, and is a point of considerable deliberation (and re-election anxiety) for centrists. The basic idea of the public option is that the federal government will develop and offer a public health insurance plan that people can opt to buy into instead of buying into a private plan. The primary intention will be to regulate what insurance companies can charge by competing with them on the market. Critics charge that the public option would eventually put private insurers out of business, as, subsidized by tax-payer's money, it will have the capacity to charge much less than private insurers. The president, however, has stated explicitly that, “like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.” Proponents contend that the public option is the only way to effectively regulate costs in the industry and is essential if individuals are to be mandated to carry health insurance.

The basic idea of the individual mandate is that Americans will be required to carry health insurance much as drivers are required to have car insurance (Fuhrman, 2002). Health costs will theoretically drop as a result. Currently, the costs of health care for the uninsured (as they seek care in Emergency rooms and other sources of free, walk-in care) are covered by revenues gleaned from the insured; that is, health insurance premiums are inflated by insurance companies covering costs associated with the care of the uninsured. It is argued by proponents of the public option that mandated health insurance will give the insurance companies far too much power to reap un-checked profits if there is not a public plan on offer as an alternative. No one, after all, will be able to opt out of insurance, so without a public option an individual will have to pay whatever the insurance companies are charging.

Regulation vs. Public Option

"private markets for health insurance, left to their own devices, work very badly: insurers deny as many claims as possible, and they also try to avoid covering people who are likely to need care." - Krugman

Regulation seems like a pain in the ass, a bureaucratic nightmare and financial sinkhole. The insurance companies will spend tons of money trying to wriggle around regulations and will ultimately wriggle successfully around some of them. The government will expend tons of energy watching what they do and coming up with regulations. A public option, on the other hand, could set the terms, and the insurance companies would have to follow them, compete or fail.

p.s. This is another observation I'm probably not qualified to make. It's just a thought.

A note on the politics of it

"In the end, this isn’t about politics. This is about people’s lives and livelihoods. This is about people’s businesses. This is about America’s future, and whether we will be able to look back years from now and say that this was the moment when we made the changes we needed, and gave our children a better life." - Obama

Given the decided motion toward state intervention, I would say it is most certainly about politics. This is the moment the U.S. goes left instead of right, choosing to eschew neo-liberalism in favor of increased market controls, and even direct intervention by the state in the market. When the conservatives cry "socialist!" they are wrong, it's not socialist. But it's definitely not going their way.

Task 3: Describe health care reform in this context (part A)

Here we go.

"This context" is the U.S. economy: a market economy that can be considered mixed because some goods and services are provided by the state or subsidized by the state. Health care has traditionally been left to the market but has been subsidized to some extent in the cases of medicaid and medicare, for the poor and the elderly.

Why is health care reform happening?

The short answer is because most everyone agrees that it sucks.

Except maybe the Republicans, which would explain why they're not interested in putting their own plan on the table. The reforms they've hinted at would basically make it more of what it already is, with a couple concessions.

Reasons, from Obama's Op-Ed:

- 46 million uninsured.
- "provide more stability and security to every American."
- It's expensive. "Skyrocketing health care costs" (reason #2)
- "choice" (reason #1)
- the costs of medicare for the government, which right now are out of control and go straight to insurance companies. (reason #3)
- lack of consumer protections in the insurance market to ensure good coverage. (reason #4)

From the American Community Survey 2008:

- 15.1% of all (U.S. civilian non-institutionalized) people are uninsured.
- 9.9% of children.
- More than a quarter of all 18-34 year olds.
- Nearly a third of all American Indian or Alaskan Native and Hispanic or Latino people.
- Almost half of all non-U.S. citizens.
- Strong correlation between income and education level: nearly 32% of all who did not graduate high-school are uninsured, while only 6.5% of college graduates.
- Among age 18-64, 17.3% of those that are employed do not have insurance.
- Massachusetts, which reformed health care in 2006 and is a model for much of the current reforms being discussed, has only 4.1% uninsured. Besides Hawaii (6.7%), all other states have at least twice the uninsured rate, often significantly higher. 60% of states have at least triple Massachusetts' uninsured rate.

As for the costs of medicare, mm, I think I won't get into that here. Live to fight another day.

Task 2: Define current political / economic state of the U.S.

HAHAHAHAHA!!! I have never been less qualified before in my life.

First of all, it's easy to forget that politics and economics are two different things. Politically we're a democracy. Economically, we're a mixed market economy. We're mixed because we are not a pure, free market. Right?

Wikipedia says:
A central feature of the U.S. economy is the economic freedom afforded to the private sector by allowing the private sector to make the majority of economic decisions in determining the direction and scale of what the U.S. economy produces. This is enhanced by relatively low levels of regulation and government involvement, as well as a court system that generally protects property rights and enforces contracts.

From Encarta:
In a market economy, government plays a limited role in economic decision making. However, the United States does not have a pure market economy, and the government plays an important role in the national economy. It provides services and goods that the market cannot provide effectively, such as national defense, assistance programs for low-income families, and interstate highways and airports. The government also provides incentives to encourage the production and consumption of certain types of products, and discourage the production and consumption of others. It sets general guidelines for doing business and makes policy decisions that affect the economy as a whole. The government also establishes safety guidelines that regulate consumer products, working conditions, and environmental protection. (for more, go here.)

Other kinds of goods and services (such as health care and higher education) are produced and consumed in private markets, but the government attempts to increase the amount of these products available in the economy.

Even the staunchest supporters of private markets have recognized a role for the government to provide a safety net of support for U.S. citizens. This support includes providing income, housing, food, and medicine for those who cannot provide a basic standard of living for themselves or their families.

We'll catch you when you fall, but we won't help you up. Ok, maybe that's not fair: "assistance programs for low-income families" etc. But I might argue that it's not nearly sufficient. I'd like to think we could do better. I do think we could do better. I'm just not sure how. Yet. That's the point of grad school.

Task 1: Social justice

What is social justice?

Social justice in the U.S. is social justice in the context of a mixed market economy. As such, I would say it's whatever has to happen to make sure people can participate equally in the market, as both producers and consumers. It is necessary that everyone has access to both sides.

Does this mean I think everyone should have the same amount to spend? No. Does it mean I think that everyone should have a fair chance to earn as much as anyone else? Yes.

What about people that work just as hard but don't make as much money? Okun made this point. The problem with income being linked to production is that it's not necessarily linked. We see this, too, with labor. It can be argued that education takes someone into higher earnings and a person can choose to invest in their education, but if we're going to accept this then we have a lot to do to ensure equal (equitable?) access to education.

The care of the natural environment--insofar as it is, by its very nature, a common resource--is part and parcel of social justice. If anybody damages the natural environment, all eventually suffer for it. Thus, it is an abuse of power, and not just, to do so. A socially just society would ensure that no one suffers for anyone else's meddling in the environment.

So what are the obstacles to equal participation in a mixed market economy? This could be a laundry list. The one I keep thinking about now is race, because it's so insidious. You could provide universal health care, education and all the educational support in the world, affordable housing and so on, but if in the end white people are still the employers and are more likely to hire white people, than you got a problem. So I suppose communities of color have to be empowered to be employers as well, which means targeted economic development among communities of color. This development would have to be collaborative so that the communities feel and have genuine ownership in the process.

So, besides universal state provisions--those things that could be "decommodified," such as health care and education--I think it's really important to empower disadvantaged groups to be producers as well as consumers. It's like the promise of communism ("seize the means of production!") but in a market economy.

A mixed market economy. I'm not sure we'd ever get anywhere without the state supplying certain services equally. I suppose the current batch of health care reform is just a tweak in that direction.

Racism as market failure

I like this conception of racism as a market failure--in other words, a place where the market is not functioning freely because human error (so to speak) is jamming it up. As such, it deserves state intervention even from the most classic liberal point of view. The state is responsible for removing the impact of racism, so that the market can do what it's supposed to do for people.
I said yesterday:

The problem with welfare isn't welfare. The reason we have folks living off welfare and not working (to the extent that we do) is not because they're lazy. It's because--for many of them (and, again, this falls along color lines, gender lines, etc.)--there's not real opportunity to do much else.

The problem is a lack of opportunity. The market, friends, is not providing. State assistance + opportunity would probably be a better plan than state assistance - opportunity.
I have to write about health care reform. These are the tasks I set out for myself:

Task 1: Define social justice.
Task 2: Define current political/economic state of the U.S.
Task 3: Describe health care reform in this context.
Task 4: Argue the extent of justice within the current reforms.
Task 5: Suggest possibilities for achieving justice and the extent to which they would shake up 'things as they are.'

HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! This paper is 5-7 pages, double-spaced, and I plan to tackle ALL OF THE ABOVE? Don't think so. But how does one write about something smaller. I mean, can I write about health care reform without writing about social justice?

What do I mean by social justice? I feel like what I mean is that everybody gets a fair chance and no one's treated like shit. I think about equal participation a lot. That everybody should have equal representation and have a fair say. I think about multiculturalism and how it should impact our nation's identity. I do not like this idea that the U.S. has this fixed sense of itself and you either fit in or you don't. I have a different image of the U.S., where new immigrants are co-creators and folks of color feel adequately represented. I don't want to have all the say in what goes down, and I sure as hell don't want the people that do have all the say to have all the say.

I want a country where everyone's treated well--hell: equally--and everybody feels a sense of ownership in this big national project we're all working on.

I want an economy that is moderated in its impact on the natural world so that we have a zero net decrease of Gross Natural Product. I want an economy that allows for people to develop and actualize their creative visions, realize self-sufficiency with enough left over to have some fun. I think people who have children should be able to spend some time with them. I think schools should be triply or quadrupely funded and not only about creating productive corporate participants. I think we should realize that these are the primary places that young people are socialized, and ask ourselves what we want people to be. I think we should ride bikes more and eat better food, but as people need medical treatment they should be able to get it. Doctors (and insurers) make shit-tons of money because people are willing to pay shit-tons of money to stay alive and functioning. People who don't have shit-tons of money shouldn't be left out in the cold. I'm sorry, but if the American Dream is that anybody willing to work for it can have a middle class standard of living, then punishing the poor, the sick, the dark-skinned (because yes, poverty is racialized), the under-18, I mean, it's wrong, right?

The only argument against it is denial that it's even the case. "Everyone is born with an equal chance at success." Bleh. Right.

The facts: We're born. I'm born into a white, well-educated family in a nice part of town. I grow up playing with the neighborhood kids and all of us have to do our homework before we go out to play. I learn how to talk smart early so I get moved into the 'gifted' class. Because I'm gifted. "Shoot, just smarter than the other kids for some reason." I get lots of praise. I grow up knowing, just knowing I'm gonna to be a scientist and a writer.

You, you're born into a newly immigrated family from some place in, say, East Africa, or Southeast Asia. Only one of your parents even speaks a little bit of English, and you live in really big apartment complex where kids get shot sometimes. Your parents can't help you much with your homework and often work evenings. You learn how to talk tough because it's a lot more useful than the pythagorean theorem. You get moved to the remedial class, which you feel more comfortable in anyway. "He's a bright kid, but he just doesn't try." You don't get a whole lot of praise. You grow up not really thinking about what you're gonna be when you grow up. You get by.

Every time I write something like this, I feel like I'm dealing in stereotypes, which is true. I also feel like pity, or sympathy, is not really what's needed. Some people do pull themselves up by the proverbial boot straps, or have strong family support even in a bad neighborhood, and do well. Some people probably do better for the adversity. BUT, the point remains: generally speaking, everyone is not born with an equal chance at success.

I guess I wonder how to remedy this. I can speak generally of "social provision and economic regulation," but what am I really talking about?

Universal Health Care: would help shrink the gap in health, longevity, and well-being. But we could still have a lot of healthier people with little new chance for success.

Re-envisioning America. That's the project I'm most interested in. People need to feel a sense of ownership. People need to feel on the inside. They need to have power. Power needs to be shared. Authority gets so used to being in charge that it forgets it's even in charge. It acts like that's how things are supposed to be. "We make the decisions for you, but don't worry, we'll make them in your best interest." Bleh. I feel nauseous when I think of it. The gross pride, power-taken-for-granted. Get out. Get off the throne. Give it up. Not to us. But can't we just give up this being in charge business?

Closet capitalist? Arthur Okun's 'Case for the Market'

I thought I was a socialist after these last three weeks of reading. By the end of Okun's 'Case for the Market' I was pretty sure I was a capitalist. More than anything, it turns out I'm impressionable. A well-written article is so damn convincing! No wonder they want us to learn how to write.

Okun's piece is, to be fair, a much better argument for the market than anything I've yet read, and puts words to some things I've felt about capitalism that I haven't quite articulated before. I have always appreciated the potential for creativity, for one, and the dynamism of the market. It's not boring. Communism, on the other hand, despite how heroic Marx and Freire make it sound, seems pretty boring.

Of course, I've never liked the way the market leaves some people out and f*s others. At least Okun doesn't pretend this isn't the case. Does he adequately account for the shortcomings of the market? No, he sidelines the issue and points out that no other system is any better, so we might as well take the one that is more efficient and offers greater freedom to a greater number of people. Okun is not an idealist.

Things I appreciate about Okun:
1) He's honest.
2) He doesn't buy the argument that everyone gets an even start in the American market economy. In fact, he says straight up: "some of the contestants get a head start while others have handicaps. Social and economic disparities among families make the race unfair."
3) He doesn't pretend that the market is great, or ethical: "Equality in the distributions of well as in the distribution of rights would be my ethical preference."

Question: Is it chickensh*t to opt for any other way than one's ethical preference?

I don't know. I suppose practical matters have to be taken into account. The idea that the shortcomings of the market are correctable, and that we might not need to dynamite the whole thing and start over, is compelling. It would certainly save a lot of trouble.

And I agree in some sense with Okun that a certain amount of inequality is, if not acceptable, unavoidable. To the extent that inequality is a result of class, history, access to resources, and so on, however, I can't abide by it.

I find entrepreneurship, innovation, and invention to be invigorating, and I have a realist streak. I am predisposed, in other words, to be sympathetic to Okun's argument. But I can't write off those that suffer in a market economy for the greater good of the majority (I'd be a paltry social worker if I could, I suppose). Okun, however, seems to suggest that a certain amount of social provision and regulation might go far. He is willing to cede many functions to government, and I wouldn't be surprised if he included health care and education among those. I bet he would also support measures to curb the effect of racism, class, gender, sexuality, etc. on one's opportunity to participate equally in the market. It could be argued that such obstacles are in fact market failures, and thus worthy of correction by direct intervention by the state. Anyway, regardless of whether he'd support these things, I would.

I want my cake and I want to eat it, too. The dynamic, creative beast that is the market is cool, except that it's also a beast and has an appetite. It eats people and natural resources. I don't mean this to sound flip. I really mean it. But if it could be tamed and its strength harnessed, that sounds worth trying. No economic system is going to be perfect, any more than any other human thing is perfect. We try our best, we flail, we adjust. The only thing that I'm against is people not caring.

And I'd prefer things not be boring.

Friday, October 16, 2009

In reading economics I want to become an economist, because it feels like I could fix everything. But in the end, I'd be working with people. They do as they please or as others please. They do as they do. They do not see the blueprint of perfection. They live within the construct only by chance. They have no allegiance to constructs. They are preoccupied, busy with their own ideas and their own needs. I know this because I am one.

social work and where it goes

It is fascinating that a deep study of anything takes you into the heart of everything.

I hadn't realized I would be studying Adam Smith and the invisible hand, Marx, Rawls and Nozick, the foundations of capitalism and the various theories of our various states - liberal, new liberal, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, social democratic, socialist, communist. And inside these things are the bigger questions: freedom, liberty, equality, rights, care, love. We try to account for these things when we devise our strategies for living. We think of love and then we practice economics. We try to be practical and human. We try to do what's right. We devise lengthy rationalizations when our choices depart from what is clearly love. We come up with the invisible hand. We call it beautiful. We extoll the impartiality of nature, the primeval state, the purity, like Robinson Jeffers speaks of God. We equate economics with God.

My mind hums with thoughts. It is an incredible feeling, like flying, to soar so high above things. The joy of theory is in the bird's eye view, the height, the disengagement, the freedom to turn one's head this way and that and see it all.

I want to stay engaged in the world while studying theory. I want to keep from loving theory like one loves the abstractions of love. I want to stay in relationship with the world, not just in love with the idea of it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

morning, october

The city is dark. The mind
stirring, no quickness
not yet.

When the mug is empty, perhaps.
The cavity that says: more
and inclines me to react,
demands: more.

I resist. I am
a foot dragger at dawn. Am
slow to react. That second cup of tea:
a compromise, cleverly disguised.
Industry's man on the inside.