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Posts Tagged ‘government’

Sheltering-in-Place, Berkeley, CA. March 23, 2020. Let’s think about the COVID-19 crisis in a cold-blooded, sociological, and historical way. Rough estimates seem to be that between 200,000 and 1,700,000 will die of COVID-19, depending on how completely authorities shutdown in-person interaction. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the trusted face of the national response, said on March 20 that Americans would need to maintain maximal social distance–or, more correctly, physical distance–for at least several weeks.

Flu Seattle cops

Seattle Police to Enforce Face Mask Rule (National Archives, 165-WW-269B-25)

Those would be several weeks of extended economic destruction, school hours lost, severe family stress for many, cratering of civic institutions, and considerable social and emotional pain. The alternative, not locking down as severely and only partly “flattening the curve,” would mean more medical system chaos and tens or hundreds of thousands–some might argue millions–more lives lost. What is the trade-off between the social and economic destruction caused by the lockdown versus lives lost?

Making this calculation seems brutal. Do we not believe that each and every life is invaluable – “valuable beyond estimation: priceless”? No. If we really did, we would have 40 MPH speed limits and make cancer treatments free to all who cannot pay. Our society makes trade-offs. (One rough cost-benefit calculation is here.)

Properly speculating about the answer to the trade-off question requires some sense of what the consequences of the current shut down may be. Perhaps a look at the last great pandemic, the 1918 so-called “Spanish” influenza, can help. Here, I first review some lessons from the 1918 flu (based on an admittedly quick skim of the literature and archives, so sure to have some error) and then explore what they might imply for understanding the trade-off today.

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Behind the front-stage soap opera–or is it the Shakespearean tragedy? The Moliere farce? The Marx Brothers stateroom buffoonery?–that is Washington today, much of import is going on backstage.

Legions of conservative activists, former corporate executives, and former lobbyists are working to dismantle the modern American state. Most of this would be happening if we had a President Cruz or Walker, too. (Some of us are old enough to recall an earlier such period, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, only then the deconstruction was done with some finesse and principle.) In such an era, it is worth taking a brief historical glance at how the federal government, stepping in for an ineffective market, has sustained average Americans–even if many of these instances of help are now largely forgotten.

Postal Savings

Boy Scout Making Deposit, 1913

Indeed, forgetting such help from the past–and even overlooking it in the present– seems to be a general American trait.

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The Blameless Only

Americans generally believe that the government should not take money from one person to give to another and generally believe that only recently – perhaps just since the 1960s or since the New Deal – has government done so. Consistent with these views, American “welfare” policy is distinctively limited, constrained, and grudging. Yet history shows that American government, notably the federal government, has for centuries used taxpayers’ money to help other people – for example, to assist businessmen with subsidies of various kinds and to provide large pensions for widows of Union Army veterans. Indeed, even a couple of centuries ago, Congress sent large sums of what we would today call “foreign aid” abroad. Two recent books clarify this seeming contradiction between American ideology and practice by showing that whether government helps or not depends not so much on principles of taxation and representation, but on whether those who are helped are seen as blameless or not.

Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber, in her 2013 book, The Sympathetic State, recounts the legislative history of federal relief programs, and Northwestern historian Susan J. Pearson, in her 2100 book, The Rights of the Defenseless, describes the evolution of anti-cruelty legislation. Both accounts revolve crucially around principles of self-reliance and responsibility.

It is the moral logic of blame, Dauber writes, that allowed Massachusetts Governor William Weld in 1995 to sign a bill sharply curtailing assistance to poor single mothers and to also simultaneously ask the federal government for millions in direct payments to the state’s fishermen. The arguments over both moves were arguments about blame and blamelessness.

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About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)

I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.

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Government Works

For such a smart guy, New York Times “Upshot” Editor David Leonhardt made a surprising goof in the July 15th issue, writing, “When the federal government is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad (or at least deeply inefficient), it’s the norm.” One can understand how the goof – the snarky comment about “the norm” – happened. Leonhardt was focusing on special, targeted initiatives for the poor, many of which fail. But he missed the forest for the trees — or the government for the programs.

Americans commonly do not notice the successful operation of government, including the federal level; they, too, snarkily diss government. They do not notice the success because, like air, is all around them and taken for granted. To say government is generally successful is, of course, not to say government operations are optimal. We should strive for A-grade performance, not settle for B grades. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that attaining A grades for the government would call for more of it.

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Public housing in the United States has never sheltered a significant proportion of Americans, perhaps three percent at most, unlike in many western European countries where 10 to 40 percent of households, at various income levels, live in state-constructed buildings. But public housing has been a significant part of the debate over American government safety net programs, a significant factor in the history of large American cities over the last 50 years, and cruel disillusionment for social reformers (and many sociologists).

Pruitt-Igoe (source)

Pruitt-Igoe (source)

American public housing projects started in the New Deal, accelerated after the war, and then largely stopped in the 1970s, when they were widely described as abject failures. This verdict was hammered home by the well-publicized demolition in 1972 of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis. Federal support for housing since, skimpy as it is, has largely been in the form of “Section 8” vouchers and dispersed, low-density, mixed housing. The actual number of public housing units has shrunk in recent decades.

A new study in the Journal of Economic History, by Katharine L. Shester, fleshes out our understanding of what went wrong in this great social experiment. In some ways, large-scale public housing was doomed from the start; in other ways, perhaps different critical decisions could have made it work.

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You Call That a Shutdown?

As the post-mortems on the federal government “shutdown” pile up, here’s one more.

The exercise in brinkmanship turned out to be too painful for the GOP leadership to sustain. In the end, 27 Senate and 87 House Republicans voted to approve the lightly-cloaked surrender resolution last week. Taking a step back from the 24/7 coverage and furor, the shutdown says something about both how important government has become in American life, historically speaking, and how relatively unimportant it is, comparatively speaking.

The shutdown was both too much and not much.

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Back about a decade or two, as polarization widened among America’s politicians and political activists, most analysts concluded from the initial flurry of research that the general public seemed exempt. Officeholders and activists were taking more extreme positions on hot-button issues like immigration and welfare, but Americans in general seemed to be largely in the middle and not that exercised. (That’s what I reported in this 2010 post.)

Well, there are new developments. For one, Americans started to express greater loyalty to their own party and greater hostility to the other party (see this 2012 post). And increasingly they seem to recast their social views, even their religious identifications, to line up with their political positions (see this 2013 post and this one).

A just-published study (pdf) by sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza adds to the evidence that polarization in the general public is increasing. It also has an interesting message about whether and how reality – in this case, the economic crash in late 2008 – affects Americans’ views on government policy. If the Great Depression brought support for the New Deal, should not the Great Recession bring support for a Newer Deal?

Below, I summarize Brooks and Manza’s findings about changes up through 2010 in Americans’ support for government action. And then I look at the changes after 2010, a look that complicates the story.

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Extremely Local

So many people seem to be into being “local” these days. We are urged to shop locally, to eat locally, to act locally (even if we still think globally). This is a new enthusiasm of the left. The ideological right has always tilted local — opposed to the “cosmopolitan.” Americans have generally focused on the local anyway. Just pick up almost any newspaper (aside from that two or three that have tried to be national papers) and see what grabs the headlines.

American political ideas have long reinforced what some might consider people’s “natural” attention to the local community. More strikingly, American political structure reinforces this localism — with some dubious consequences.

This is the topic of my July/August 2013 column in the Boston Review here.

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The 47% Charge in U.S. History

There are many angles – and many comments on each angle – to Mitt Romney’s statement that 47% of American voters are “dependent upon government, … believe that they are victims, … believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, … that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” and “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Pundits have already dissected the political ramifications of the speech, what it reveals about Romney’s world-views, and have speculated about his resulting political prospects. Many have presented the underlying numbers. (That is, 47% of American households in 2009 paid no federal income tax; just about all paid other kinds of taxes. By far, most of the 47% were either households of people who worked at poverty wages or of retirees on Social Security.)

My two cents here concerns the emotional resonance of Romney’s claim. Whatever the facts may be, the charge that huge numbers of shiftless moochers live off hard-working taxpayers feels true to many Americans – and has felt true to many Americans for centuries. It is a sentiment rooted in Americans’ exceptional emphasis on individual self-reliance and insistence on conditioning help upon virtue. (I link below to earlier posts that expand on these points.)

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