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It is now well-understood that lead in the bloodstream, even at levels once thought negligible, harms people, especially children. Discovery, in the mid-2010s, of dangerous lead levels in the water of Flint, Michigan, brought this home to many Americans. Even as the United States purged paint and gasoline of lead and closed lead-emitting smelting plants, lead residues in millions of older homes, in the soil near high-traffic roads, and, as in the case of Flint, in many water pipes persisted.

Lead poisoning is a story of environment and health; it is also a story of environment and behavior. Although lead was a known poison when it was first added to gasoline nearly a century ago, only in recent decades have studies pointed to lead poisoning as a cause of problematic social behavior ranging from underperforming in school to teen pregnancy to murder. Such findings enrich sociologists’ understanding, but it also makes them nervous about biology’s role in explaining social phenomena. Should it?

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This year has seen disturbing flare-ups around issues of race, immigration, and white nativism generally.

Flags

Source: Chet Strange/Getty Images News

They ranged from clumsy White House tweets about Jewish “disloyalty” to angry controversies around two Muslim congresswomen, more episodes of police shootings of blacks, all the way to mass murders such as the slaughter of Latinos in an El Paso Walmart (and last year of synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh).

Correspondingly, Americans’ anxieties about race have spiked in recent years. In 2016, 38 percent of respondents told the Pew survey that they thought race relations have worsened; in 2019, 53 percent did.[1] Respondents to the Gallup Poll felt the same surge of concern. The following graph shows the percentage who said that they worried a “great deal” about race relations.[2]

Worry_Gallup

Does the rising tide of worry mean that the nation is descending into a maelstrom of racial conflict? More likely, we are seeing the kind of fearful and angry reaction that major social change often brings.

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[Note to readers: I started this blog not for political comments but for reporting social science, especially American social history. But I will scratch the itch… and then return to “regular programming.”]

Premise: Removing Trump is America’s number one priority, because his re-election would make us fall further behind in addressing priorities number two through n–slowing climate change, tamping down war, moderating inequality, repairing the infrastructure, learning to live with growing diversity, and more.

Strategies: They largely boil down to hard-nosed pragmatics: We on the left should not shoot ourselves in the foot.

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Efforts to increase equal opportunity in America have been frustrated for many years. Racial gaps in upward mobility persist; children of low-income families fall further behind children of affluent families. Why hasn’t progress been made since the social programs of the 1960s and ‘70s and the many school reform movements in the last decades?

Three scholars–Stanford sociologist David Grusky, Harvard political scientist Peter Hall, and Stanford psychologist Hazel Markus–have just offered a useful way to understand what has thwarted expanded equal opportunity for American youth. In the latest issue of Daedalus, they describe the rise, expansion, and operation of what they call “opportunity markets.” The idea, simply put, is that increasingly the very opportunities for children to succeed are up for sale and, of course, wealthy parents can and do buy more opportunities than less affluent parents can.

I’ll start the explanation–although the authors do not start this way–with a first axiom: parental love.

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It frustrates many parents. The kid is off in a corner, head down, hunched over, totally absorbed in what he or she is staring at, oblivious to anyone who may be speaking, totally uninterested in going out to play with other children or even to get some fresh air, and likely to stay withdrawn that way for hours. Then there are the nights the kid spends doing the same secretly under the bed covers (as if you didn’t know), escaping into some other reality.

The addiction is, of course, to books.epic

Many of us remember being told to get our noses out of the books, to go outside and play, to turn the light off at night, and to hand over contraband reading.

That reading should be so absorbing and satisfying is paradoxical given how totally unnatural it is. Its artificiality is relevant to the long and wide debate over “human nature.” The specter of “Natural Man” [sic] has strode powerfully through American intellectual and public thought since at least the mid-19th century when Darwinism challenged the biblical model of Man as Adam. The ape-who-stood-up image remains perhaps stronger today than ever. It is not just the popularity of fads like the Pleistocene diet and herbal remedies, but more powerfully the idea that we can best understand 21st-century human beings by looking back to the moment when homo sapiens emerged from the forests. It is their Pleistocene brains that we are born with and with which we must confront modern times.

But those early humans did not read. And we do.

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Baseball fanatics like me love to wallow in cliches such as “baseball is life.” “Baseball is a lot like life,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell. “It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.” Yes, indeed.

Regularly enough, however, a desiccated cliche like “baseball is America” comes alive. Such is the comment of San Francisco sportswriter Henry Schulman upon the announcements that Bryce Harper will get a guaranteed $330 million over 13 years from the Phillies and Mike Trout a guaranteed $430 million over 12 years from the Angels. (Trout will receive annually about 25 times more in real dollars than Babe Ruth ever did. He will make about 800 times as much per year as the median American worker today makes–and he will have a lot more fun making it, too.) “So, if I understand Baseball economics now,” Schulman tweeted, “a few guys at the top earn more than they can spend in 100 lifetimes, a lot of players who used to be paid decently now get scraps, and the group in the middle is shrinking quickly. No, wait, that’s America!” (@hankschulman 3/20/19).

Indeed, the pay disparities developing in major league baseball roughly parallel those that have developed in the general economy. (Mind you, no one need weep for the lowest-paid major leaguers; their minimum wage is about a half-million dollars a year. The real proletarians are average minor leaguers; they effectively earn less than the national minimum wage under difficult working conditions.) Another commonality between baseball and American economics is how massive data-crunching has helped produce growing inequality.

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Now that the decades of rapidly rising economic inequality have become evident to all, the center of public debate has shifted toward the question of what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.

This development is most dramatically displayed in the eagerness with which newly-energized progressives have proposed ideas such as a 70 percent marginal top tax rate, a two-to-three percent annual tax on wealth, and a beefed-up estate tax. Polls show that most Americans, even many rank-and-file Republicans, dislike growing inequality and endorse, at least in the abstract, taxing the rich more. However, when it gets down to concrete action, Americans–with our insistence on “deservingness” and “just desserts”–typically back off from redistribution. We instead prefer expanding opportunities for people to get ahead, especially by broadening access to education.

Unfortunately, while increasing access would make for a more equal inequality–I’ll explain what I mean by that in a bit–it would do little to compress the ever-yawning income and wealth gaps. That is because the core problem is not making the race to the top fairer, although that is a worthy goal, but is making the results of the race to the top fairer. There, the options are even tougher.

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