Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 June 2011

Changing America, Starting with Dixie


[For a brief update to this post on 6/6/11, click here.]

Not only is the economy stalling. The stories of ordinary people’s suffering are starting to pile in.

Notwithstanding health-insurance reform, and despite reduced health-care claims, insurance companies are [see also comments] starting to raise their rates and continuing to deny valid claims. Banks are seeking to charge merchants more on debit cards and continuing to pile on fees in every way they can. Oil companies, blessed with high prices for their products and the prospect of even higher prices for the foreseeable future, are insisting that their corporate welfare continue, and it looks as if they might win.

And who stands in solidarity with the insurance companies, banks and oil producers, every time? Representatives from the old “Solid South,” especially Alabama and Texas, that’s who.

Are these members of Congress oblivious to human suffering and simple justice? Are they mean-spirited, power-hungry morons? Have their corporate masters bought and paid for them with political contributions and other forms of soft bribery?

That’s the conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s true for Alabama, one of our most backward states since our Founding. But Texas is a big industrial state, number two in 2009 population and 2008 GDP, right after California. You would think representatives of a state that big and powerful would be hard to buy.

In Texas’ case, its leaders’ apparent war on ordinary people seems a matter of conviction, not corruption. The same may be true of much of the Deep South. The salient question is why.

The following essay, which I posted over a year ago, may help us understand this puzzling phenomenon. I have never re-posted a whole essay. But today this one seems important, the more so because it not only explains what otherwise seems inexplicable, but also suggests a way out. The Democratic Party may have a unique opportunity as it gears up for next year’s elections. I’ve changed the title (above), updated a few sentences to bring the essay current, and added a new practical suggestion in the penultimate paragraph. [For another angle on the same topic, click here.]

Introduction
Bossism
Racism
Conclusion

Introduction

Numbers don’t lie. They’re hard. They’re immutable. You can’t “spin” them. Honestly presented, they’re easy to understand. That’s why votes are so compelling. The three votes (out of 435) by which health-insurance reform passed were a small margin. But they did the job.

That’s also why it’s so important for us Americans to become more “numerate,” i.e., literate in math. Math can counteract the avalanche of verbal propaganda that has knocked our nation off its moorings in enlightened pragmatism and often out of its senses. For a lengthy example, read my previous post on economics and our global future.

Numbers best told the story of our 2008 presidential election. About 72% of national productivity―the states that make this nation strong and make it work―voted for Obama. Over one-third of that productivity preferred Obama to McCain by a margin of 20% or more, i.e., by a landslide.

So why is he having such trouble getting things done? Why did his mild, moderate, minor, middle-of-the-road adjustment to health insurance win the House by only three votes out of 435? In that, too, there is a numerical tale.

Bossism

For political math made simple, read the Washington Post. After the presidential election, it gave me the interactive, digital tables (of state-by-state margins in the presidential election), that I needed to do my spreadsheet and post showing GDP favoring Obama by a landslide. Recently the Post did a similar thing for health-insurance reform. It provided an interactive table showing the crucial House vote, along with the percentage of people in each district lacking health insurance.

That table revealed an astonishing fact. Of the representatives whose districts have more than twenty percent uninsured, nearly all voted “no.” Virtually all of them were from the South, plus Oklahoma.

In other words, the Members whose constituencies most need health insurance voted to deny it to them. They preferred to let their voters suffer and die destitute, without access to proper health care or any way to pay for it.

What is going on here? To say these results are odd would be understatement. House members are supposed to help their constituents, aren’t they? Why are reps from the states that most needed health-insurance reform so adamantly against reforming a broken system that denies it to large numbers of their electors?

Of course the old Solid South (now solidly Republican) wants to torpedo the President no matter what the cost. Of course there is a faint but distinct echo of the Civil War in that. We’ll get to those points later.

But I think there’s something more. Americans generally are not nay-sayers. We’re doers and achievers. At least we have been in the past. So how can the Party of No, the party of racism, the party of denial be so successful as to have won a big victory in 2010 and have the President and the Democrats running scared toward the 2012 elections?

The answer is what I call “bossism.” Boiled down to its essence, it’s a political philosophy based on the notion that the straw boss knows best. Down on your luck? Move your home to where the jobs are, the non-union South. You won’t have to worry about disruptive strikes impairing your job. Have no health insurance? Suck it up. Subsidies, “welfare” and “socialism” would just make you weak. Free enterprise and laissez faire capitalism made this country big, strong and great. Don’t rock the boat. And financial reform? Forget it. Leave that to the big boys, who know best.

That’s bossism. It’s a transference of the slave-owner mentality to our twenty-first century, equal-opportunity economy. It keeps both African-Americans and working whites (not to mention women) in their places. It’s worked well for a long, long time, especially in the South.

This philosophy makes little sense analytically, let alone in the twenty-first century, but it makes perfect sense culturally. The South could not have existed without its landed aristocracy―including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson―and their straw bosses. That’s why the South has figured and still figures so prominently in our military culture. Theirs not to reason why . . .

How else can you explain the central anomaly of twenty-first century American politics? The poorest, least developed, least industrial and least-well-educated parts of the country consistently vote for policies that centralize and celebrate economic power concentrated elsewhere, primarily in Manhattan and on Wall Street. It is as if the Good Ol’ Boys have a collective death wish. Only culture, which takes centuries to change, provides a plausible answer.

The South loves bosses, even if they phone it in from Manhattan, because bosses have always made the South run. Notwithstanding its mild climate and drawling courtesy, the South has America’s most authoritarian culture. It raises you to say “Sir” and “Ma’am” and not to question adults or authority. That goes double if you’re female or have a darker hue.

That said, there are still some more specific questions worth asking. For one thing, how many of those anomalously high percentages of uninsured are African-American, and why? That’s a subject for a good Ph.D. thesis or two. I don’t know the answers, but I suspect that the percentage of African-Americans and working whites in these “just say no” districts who are uninsured is much higher than 20%.

Let’s suppose for a moment that this is true. Let’s suppose that there are people in the South―many of them―who repeatedly vote against their own economic interests, or who don’t vote at all, because they are imbued with a culture of bossism. Aren’t they the most fertile ground for political enlightenment in twenty-first century America?

Racism

That brings me to my second depressing topic. The March 2010 storm of spittle on African-American House members, including the venerable civil-rights lion John Lewis, made clear the emotional heart of the Tea-Party Movement. A significant fraction of Americans―but thank God still a small minority!―will not accept a leader with black African genes no matter how good he is. These folks won’t change because their “views” are based not on facts or reason, but on deeply ingrained cultural prejudice. Only old age, death and the succession of their children, raised in the twenty-first century, will moderate their extremism.

Of course these facts should have been clear from the outset, even from the presidential election. On the merits that contest was so unequal as to have been a foregone conclusion in any rational society. If Obama had been 100% white, instead of just 50%, his victory would have made Lyndon Johnson’s landslide over Barry Goldwater look puny.

But to paraphrase That Idiot Rumsfeld, we live with the culture we have, not the one we would like. For better or worse, that includes the South, with all its overt and closet racists and working people who would be straw bosses, or will follow them to their own economic ruin.

So what can we do? The first thing, I think, is to recognize that justified outrage has limited potential for change. Bob Herbert’s old and bold column of outrage was brilliantly written and moving, but it won’t do much. Why? Because the justified outrage it reflects is a drop in the bucket. It’s like yet another rape or murder in Darfur. Whites suffer outrage fatigue, and African-Americans suffered it long ago. It’s hard to have grown up “black” in America without also growing a very, very thick skin.

Outrage may generate political contributions, but it’s a poor motivator for action. It can also precede despair. People get really active when they smell the sweet scents of victory and change, when they think their effort can make a difference at last.

That’s what happened in the presidential election. African-Americans in the South held back. Prominent leaders supported Hillary. Enthusiasm was muted and doubtful. But then northern voters, mostly white, picked Obama, and the sweet smell of victory wafted over the Mason-Dixon line. African-Americans came out in large numbers, and the Solid “Red” South began to turn blue.

That’s where the battle for America’s soul still is: where it’s been for a century and a half, in the South.

In his marvelous book A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes [pages 253-295, 321-357] how heartbreakingly close our labor movement came to rejecting racism decisively, once in the populist movement of the late nineteenth century, and again during the labor struggles before World War II. He also describes how the ruling class stumbled into cleverly exploiting racial and ethnic divisions to hold working people back, as it had done since our Founding.

Conclusion

As an avid partisan for a smoke-free America, I still recall the best anti-tobacco ad ever conceived. It was directed toward African-Americans, and it read, “Tobacco. They enslaved us to pick it. Now they want us to smoke it.”

That ad helped save hundreds of thousands of “black” people from the scourge of tobacco. Why, I wonder, can’t we progressives be as clever, succinctly truthful and forceful in our politics as in that public-service ad?

The South holds the key to America’s future. Modernize it and its culture, and you have a whole new America. Neglect or ignore it, and the ball and chain of our Senate and its filibusters will surely drag us under. For the South’s culture of bossism and racism is among the most intransigent and resilient in human history. Old habits die hard.

We might not ever again have the same chance for changing it as we do today. We have an extraordinarily talented president whose genetic makeup symbolizes racial neutrality and change. He cut his political teeth organizing communities. We have the Internet. And though the straw bosses are still dreaming up clever ways to keep them from the polls, African-Americans now have the vote. So do poor, downtrodden working whites. What miracles might follow from organizing both groups and getting them to recognize their common interests?

When Republican straw bosses tried to ridicule the President’s community organizing, they were whistling past the graveyard. His organizing skill is precisely what they and their shills most fear.

Nationwide, our African-Americans are only twelve percent of us. In the South, their percentage is much, much higher. As objects of oppression for four centuries, they are more than normally cynical and resistant to lies and propaganda. All they need is real hope.

Virtually every issue of consequence in the last decade, including health-insurance reform, has turned on a margin of a few percent, either in Congress or the general electorate. Ten percent or so more African-Americans going faithfully to the polls might make all the difference.

If we convince African-Americans in the South to vote for their own economic interests as enthusiastically as they did for the President in 2008, we can begin to change the face of America. If we can get working whites, who have the same economic interests, to understand that simple point, we can change the South’s bossist, racist culture for once and for all. In so doing, we can transform America and change the world.

Howard Dean and his 50-state strategy were right. But this time, we should focus on the states that most need change. Nixon’s disgraceful “Southern Strategy” won the day for the troglodytes for two generations. But it was just a holding action in a slowly losing war. Time, momentum, history and demographics are on our side, not to mention justice. If we can only speed them up a bit, we will see change we really can believe in.

Dr. King once had a dream, and it’s winning. I, too, have a dream, a shorter-term one. I dream that, this summer and next, college students from all over the country will re-live the “Freedom Summer” of 1963 and go South. They won’t have to risk their lives as those brave pioneers did. But they’ll have to be very patient. I dream they will organize people of all races and explain to them how the GOP is driving them into misery and the nation into ruin, and how easy it would be to change all that if everyone votes and votes smart.

Perhaps we can get some bold veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to promote real American values. They will have behind them the clout of military tradition and culture, which the South respects.

Update: 6/6/11


Quite often these days, current news confirms my insights a mere day or two after I post them. The confirmation’s perpetrator this time was Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. His views and votes on matters economic are so reliably predictable that, if Senate rules permitted, he could stay home all day and drink mint juleps while his staff or the Senate clerk spoke and voted for him.

The speech and votes in question were not themselves recent but were reviewed by his victim, Peter Diamond, in a New York Times op-ed piece today. As the piece explains, Diamond is a Nobel Prize winning economist whom the President nominated three times to serve on the Fed. Shelby led the fight against his confirmation, which was so successful that Diamond now has withdrawn.

The reason? Shelby questioned the relevance of Diamond’s expertise (and Nobel Prize) in labor-market theory to monetary policy. He did so despite the fact that the Fed’s own Website and its governing statute set its goals as “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” [emphasis added]

Maybe Shelby missed the connection between “employment” and “labor.” But I doubt it. Even he isn’t that stupid. More likely, he simply prefers to kneel to people who run banks, however badly or crookedly, rather than someone like Diamond, who has studied them (and how they effect the economy) his whole life and has received the world’s highest accolade for his doing so.

Here is how Wikipedia summarizes Shelby’s record on regulating banks in the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008:
“Sen. Richard Shelby voted to block three amendments to regulate banks, including an amendment #3812 to S. 3217, to cap ATM fees at $0.50 per transaction, and also to bar banks who borrowed tax payer money through TARP funds to use those funds for their own benefit. Sen. Shelby also believes that bank oversight violates the right to privacy and is against the Government Office of Financial Research being able to collect any financial data it needs to regulate the bank industry.” [Footnotes omitted.]

A better example of bossism would be hard to find. Let the banks’ straw bosses rule, in private, without oversight or regulation, especially by someone with globally recognized expertise who might actually be able to see what they are doing wrong.

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