Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is Too Society

The latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal published by the American Political Science Association, has a number of articles related to the financial crisis which began in 2008, and the impacts it has had on American society. Two speak directly to the core question of this blog--how are we going to live together?--and are worthy of comment.

In "The Insecure American: Economic Experiences, Financial Worries, and Policy Attitudes," Jacob S. Hacker and two co-authors report results of a survey that asked Americans about their economic experiences and expectations. The economic crisis brought a "dramatic" increase in the number of people reporting worrying about things like losing jobs, losing health insurance coverage and not being able to keep up with rent or mortgage payments. These worries were "far greater" among nonwhites, people with lower incomes, and people with less educational attainment. The worried are more likely to support government social policies--the "very worried" especially so.

In "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright report on a survey of wealthy Chicago residents. The average income of their respondents was $1,040,140; the median wealth was $7,500,000. Compared to surveys of the general population, respondents in this survey reported far more political activity and attitudes that were in the main (though not universally) far more conservative. The survey asked about a broad range of issues, including the economy, social programs, health care, Social Security and education. The three points of greatest difference were:

  • 52: The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to (general public 87, SESA survey 35)
  • 50: The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so (general public 78, SESA survey 28)
  • 49: The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job (general public 68, SESA survey 19)
The two articles explore in depth different dimensions of our contemporary economic reality: current economic arrangements increase insecurity for most people, and do so in ways that are experienced very differently by people in different life situations. It is clear from these surveys that they know it. This may not be even worth mentioning except that there is little sense of a common destiny among Americans. Many people feel like they've achieved exemption from ordinary insecurities, and work to ensure that their status is protected (for example, by eliminating the tax on estates). Many people have given up. Most people seem to be in some sort of middle state, where they're getting by but aware that one adverse event can knock them severely off track. For their perpetual insecurity they blame whoever they don't like--the government, the rich, the poor, oil companies, Obama, Bush, ...

It is interesting to read and write this in the week following the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She, and her contemporary Ronald Reagan, are widely credited with getting their governments out of ditches, and preparing their societies for the information age economy. They are also criticized for attacking the social safety net and leaving individuals to their own devices amidst increasing economic insecurity. Individualism and competition have their roles to play. But Thatcher is widely quoted as saying, "There is no such thing as 'society.'" The quote's been taken out of context, and so probably doesn't bear deep analysis. But a people who have tilted heavily in the direction of individualism and competition, with no concern for the opportunities of the people around them, is a people that has lost their souls. It may be better in the short run for the rich if they become ever richer, but a public sphere that is impoverished leaves us all poorer eventually--if not financially, then at least in terms of quality of life.

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Source: Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality,

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