Tag Archives: capitalism

Long arcs, bending

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

TW: racism, antisemitism, heterosexism, cissexism

I haven’t written much on here because, in spite of a quick look into what went wrong, I have felt woefully wordless. I don’t know that I have answers. I glued my attention to Trump early on in the Republican primary – something that many have held accountable for his meteoric rise. I kept the focus on him as the field narrowed, holding my ground that his visions were an American take on fascism.

His rise, his fall, his uselessness, his usefulness, held my pen captive for months. If anything on the internecine Clinton-Sanders competition I played referee, doling out criticisms on the basis of who seemed to be least examined at the moment. Their contest was secondary – whoever won had to win the ultimate battle, against an age-old adversary hostile to women in control of their own bodies and Jewish existence.

Well, he won. Sanders lost the primary. Clinton lost the general. Any hypothetical in which he would have won in her place was simply that – conjecture. But the allure of that was clearly strong to many, on a deeper level than asking who should have won the primary. It became about what should have been the focus of conversation.

Like many on the outside of the Republican hegemony, the repeated question of whether identity politics had eclipsed “economics” rang like a death knell – as if the clean water Standing Rock and Flint wanted was a resource disconnected from their racial demographics, as if LGBT rights do not cut at their core to cohabitation and hence housing and related industries, as if mandated health coverage of birth control and transgender transitioning care had affected no savings.

Decrying identity politics rarely sounded like a call for including a class consciousness in the politics of the day. If anything, it sounded like looking past some of the most economically deprived people in the country, on the basis of some or all of their identities, chosen or thrust upon them. Are we really supposed to believe that people spraypainting swastikas on walls are motivated by economic problems first and foremost?

A swastika, painted on a UC Davis residence, per Shaun King.

All of this was complicated for me by a more immediate sense of insecurity. At my new job, which was also keeping me occupied with something other than writing here, my coworkers were a motley crew of the terrified. A few days after the election, we held a visit for a recently departed member of the team – an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose father escaped the Holocaust thanks to an integrated military unit and some elbow grease applied to a sealed train car in Nazi-occupied France. Gathered around the table with her were a Black Coptic Christian, people of color with temporary visas, LGBT people, Black people, Latin@ people, and others. The anxiety was tangible, and thirty minutes later it would spill out into the street – as other residents of the Bay Area blockaded almost every major street in a spontaneous expression of the same or similar terrors.

At the core of that terror is at least one question – which is whether it was actually true. The thing itself comes in a million colors, a thousand flavors, untold variations, but what we expected was some sense that this country was salvageable, this country could change, that this country was capable of more than it appeared. For the some among us, that means a capacity to think of women as its highest leaders. For others, that means a rejection of ethnic cleansing as social and economic policy. For others still, maybe that belief suddenly so fragile and subject to destruction was that the moral arc of the universe bends, and it bends towards justice, and it is slow but don’t doubt it. Well, this is a hell of a twist in another direction, shouldn’t we have a moment of doubt?

This doesn’t feel like a failure of the moment. This feels like running up against a wall. This feels like finding out something about the system. Something inescapable. Something unassailable. Some undercurrent that reversed, some tide that has decided to go out after so many years of going in.

Perhaps this cuts to the core of what the call for a refocusing of Democratic strategy sounds like to many of us. It doesn’t sound like shift in priorities, but a clarification of what has long loomed threateningly – that the White working class, and arguably a more specific slice of America than even that, thinks it stands to gain by other vulnerable people’s loss. Feeling like we’re suffocating under that idea, that may not sound new or radical, but it truly is. Historically, the White working class has on the whole checked the aspirations of wealthier White people.

Those expressions have at best inconsistently worked to the benefit of people of color, but a connection is hard to deny. Even at its most toxic – in the populist revolt Andrew Jackson rode into presidential office and later mass ethnic cleansing of much of the South – it easily mutated into other populist expressions of the day, including abolitionism. Whether the uniquely working class expressions of populism were always inclusive of a concern for what would happen to the newly freed slaves, is of course a reasonable concern. But the populist influence was undeniable, in that stymieing the wealthy often meant helping people of color and other groups categorically excluded from power.

What’s intriguing about US history is how every period you look to sees a similar level of success for working class politics and the politics of people of color – from abolitionism’s and populism’s fever pitch in the late antebellum, to the Gilded Age’s nadir in Jim Crow amid racist immigration quotes if not bans, and ultimately in a populist resurrection in the form of the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement (while trade unions brought integration into White political conversations). Maybe this isn’t a long arc, so much as a loose correlation between populism and egalitarianism.

Yet, that’s changed. We still have a White working class, which has begun to be defined culturally rather than economically by a social rejection of LGBT people, women’s rights, and other racially-loaded and not-so-loaded litmus tests. That labor politics leave open the door for discussing the unique needs of particular classes of labor – racialized, gendered, and so on – is increasingly less clear. In terms of symbolic representation, supposed the powerless apotheosis of identity politics, a narrowly defined White working class is at its greatest visibility – having been credited with Reagan’s wins, George Bush’s anemic win and ultimate loss, the turn towards Clinton, the close successes of George H. W. Bush, Obama’s rustbelt victories, and now Trump’s minority coalition win.

In short, it feels like gravity has stopped working, and a fundamental force in the universe has suddenly begun operating by another, still curious logic. A White working class at least generally hostile to the wishes of wealthy White elites has suddenly played a pivotal role in ushering in the wealthiest cabinet in history, after decades of almost erratic political behavior. That their questioning of the class structure opens doors to people of color and others endangered under the social and economic rules (mostly blatantly LGBT people, disabled people, Jewish people, women, and others) has suddenly been cast into doubt.

Perhaps, that’s the nature of this post-election, in which all sorts of things have been called projection. These distinctively vulnerable populations have no reason not to identify this concern – that the White working class has shifted its priorities in a way dangerous to those who wish they had their status. That’s a mirror image almost of what the supposed champions of the White working class have articulated as feeling – that they’re forgotten and left behind in a future accessible to people of color (among other marginalized groups). Yet, it’s the White working class that seems to be doing that to the jeopardizing, perhaps unrealized even, of other working classes.

The past fifty years have seen a sweeping transformation, but it is hard to perceive of it as that, from the other end of it. The historical record suggests a change within the politics of the White, and increasing cisgender and straight, working class – towards their advancement by means of undermining others struggling, and specifically away from organizing in ways that other vulnerable people stood to benefit from.

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Marley’s Ghost

Marley was dead, to begin with.

Well before “once upon a time,” Dickens paints us a portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge, which seems to have more to do with Jacob Marley, his late business partner. While there’s quite a lot of talk of Marley, and his being dead, and tangential notes about ironmongery and Shakespeare, the characterization here serves to suggest something. Scrooge himself is all but dead.

Over Scrooge’s (and previously, Marley’s) warehouse hang still, both of their names, and “people new to the business [at times] called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes [called him] Marley, but he answered to both names.” If that’s merely a path of least resistance to their confusion, Scrooge plods along it oddly, feeling no strange stirrings over being called by the name of his dead friend – “It was all the same to him.”

More than emotionally deadened, he seems beyond almost any sensation as “heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.”Physically, Dickens describes Scrooge as weathered, like a corpse. “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue” – that doesn’t sound much like someone who’s living, in any sense does it?

Finally, in the social sphere, Scrooge was also largely outside the vibrant living world. “Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, ‘My dear Scrooge, how are you?  When will you come to see me?'” Scrooge, in his rare moments of agency, walks in a way encouraging others to stay away and “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance”.

Before we reach the sentence “Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his countinghouse” we have been told in Dickens’ typically flowery prose that Scrooge’s harshness has left him in essence dead.

From here.

How does someone already dead to the world – emotionally, spiritually, socially – interact with people?  Now that the story has started in earnest, most people are familiar with a few of the basics. Scrooge doesn’t care for the basic comfort of his clerk, who has draped a comforter over himself in the woefully inadequately heated office. Scrooge discounts his visiting nephew’s well wishes, invitation to dinner, and even cheerful call for help for the unfortunate. The only moment he expresses something like interest or pride in him is when he thinks about how his nephew could capitalize on his speaking ability with a run for political office.

His nephew and his clerk, both yet unnamed, aren’t people to him. They’re investments. Sometimes they don’t yield what’s expected of them, or perform in ways that don’t fully utilize their apparent strengths. At other times, they even incur unexpected costs – like his clerk whom he warns he would fire if he used more coal to warm himself with. Like most investments, they’re easy to quickly and cleanly dispose if they run past their expected liabilities.

Those are a member of his family and a coworker. If they’re so thoroughly less than living, breathing humans to him, what chance do impoverished strangers have? We find out exactly how vastly little they mean to him when some visitors approach him, asking for donations for the poor.

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentlemen, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses,” demanded Scrooge, “are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”


“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

This is where, sadly, what Dickens wrote nearly two centuries ago, becomes horrifyingly familiar. Over the past few decades, debtors’ prisons have reemerged as a part of the judicial terrain in many parts of the United States. Nationally, the welfare system has been restructured to reduce benefits and add work requirements. The effects have been catastrophic, and prominent voices in our society have been asking for even more “reforms” along those lines.

So far, the ways in which Scrooge accepts the social disposal of those unworthy of his attention have been terrible, but non-lethal. He threatens to lay off his clerk, tries to estrange his nephew, and calls for the imprisonment and exploitation of the poor. The ultimate price impoverishment can exact is mentioned, and he doesn’t flinch.

“Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population. […]”

We can gaze back at Scrooge, declaring that a few years before the Great Famine in Ireland in which the government and well-to-do in the United Kingdom made horrifyingly clear which populations it thought were in surplus. From our tidier future, that seems so horrible and reflective of another time. Nowadays, in discussions about the deportation of millions of people, even someone like Donald Trump, takes care to stress that no one would be killed.

In spite of that, however. We live in a future in which a staggering number do needlessly die. They die at the hands of the police in moments of fear created or heightened by racial paranoia. They die for providing a legal medical service. They die from lack of access to medical and social services.

Greeted with that stomach-churning reality, many do what Scrooge does. They retreat to their own world, or wherever they won’t be confronted by the lives (and deaths) of those without.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

With his visitors shortly cast out, Scrooge heads home in the fog and the cold. There’s a flood of scenes familiar to most who have watched an adaptation – Marley’s head appears in the doorknob, the dark stairwell to Scrooge’s room seems haunted by a hearse, and Scrooge somehow manages to after those unsettling images sit in his room by the fire. Then, the house’s bells peal and Marley’s ghost arrives.

Marley comes bearing a message that echoes the deadened nature of Scrooge’s life that we’ve seen so far. He has fashioned himself his own ghostly chains, made in his mortal life by cutting himself off from the concerns of others and which in his next life will weigh him down confine him to that distance.

The situation explained by Marley’s while his hair and clothing wafts “as by the hot vapor of an oven” recalls a parable from Luke. One of the few biblical accounts that depict a fiery hell, a rich man damned for his miserliness pleads with those in heaven to let him or other dead be seen by the living to tell them to help the poor or suffer. In the biblical tale, those in heaven shrug off the suggestion, but in “A Christmas Carol,” we hear of Scrooge’s glimpse at precisely that.

Having delivered the warning to be charitable and expect furthering hauntings from other guests, Marley extends Scrooge’s vision outside. He sees in summary what he has been warned about.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none was free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep

With that image of what fate awaits someone like him, Scrooge seems to continue to rely on his strategy of withdrawal, and goes to bed.

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A tale of two capitalisms

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have kicked up quite the commotion within the Democratic Party in the past couple of weeks. I’ve mentioned before how Sanders’ presidential campaign has pushed fellow candidate Hillary Clinton into adopting more substantive promises to the liberal base, particularly when it comes to affordable access to education. More than a few observers have noted how this has stoked the less obvious competition within the Democratic Party over what economic policies the leaders of the party will advance.

That’s just what’s happening within the presidential primary, however, as Elizabeth Warren is similarly galvanizing the Democrats’ economic left in the Senate. Even while Sanders’ defense of reinstating Glass-Steagall regulations on banks has captured the media’s attention, it’s easy to see Warren’s less eye-catching work on those and other issues. In a traditional legislative dynamic, her criticisms and suggestions to the financial industry and the broader economic system both suggest she might block financial deregulation in the Senate and help inspire left-leaning Democrats in the House to directly oppose it.

Beyond opposing a conservative vision for the economy, Warren and like-minded congressional representatives have begun presenting the type of reforms that are anathema for Republicans and distasteful to the more corporate-friendly Democratic circles. She began a speech last week by deflating the calls for lowering corporate taxes, and from there moved to a progressive tax proposal arguing that “revenue generated from corporate taxes is far too low.”

As a part of that, she delivered deeply topical response to the economic conversations being had among both conservatives and centrist Democrats about lowering the taxes collected on international companies to encourage them to remain in or return to the US. As Warren explained, “Fortune500 companies proudly proclaim that they are making record-breaking profits, and then they hire armies of lawyers to make sure they don’t pay taxes on those record-breaking profits.” With Carl Icahn having openly done this, she seems to have a point. She wasn’t kidding about the armies, either, as she noted-

“In just the past ten years, the amount of untaxed, off-shore profit has increased nearly five-fold. In other words, one of the hottest investments in America in the past decade hasn’t been biotech or big oil, it’s been tax lawyers. The money sheltered overseas is now about the same as the combined total earnings of all US corporations in 2013.”


“The Big Short” is, according to Warren, actually the big siphon.

She points out that the push for lowering taxes in the US to be competitive is being driven by other country’s somewhat collective efforts to “shut down tax dodges”. The main companies keeping their money perpetually between countries to avoid taxes in either are looking for a deal competitive with their current set-up that can replace the looming risk of tax litigation.

Centrists like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and business-centered Republicans like Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) have been happy to offer that kind of a deal, including deemed repatriation (one-time giveaways on sheltered companies that keeps them from paying the full cost of back taxes).

As I’ve noted before, one of the most salient differences between the parties in the coming election appears to be their distinct understandings of economics and capitalism. What Sanders and Warren seem to have done is created that, not only by pushing some centrists like Clinton further to the left, but also by making others like Schumer into obvious examples of the centrist wing, rather than just another Democrat.

It’s become common to argue that the two parties are essentially indistinguishable on economics. It’s true that they are both offering, for the most part, fundamentally modern capitalist economics. That said, the specific prescriptions within that type of economic thought have begun to notably diverge. Their common worldview isn’t as shared as one might suspect.

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Coal lights the way

Perhaps it’s because the heart of coal country – West Virginia and Kentucky – won’t be voting in the presidential primaries until relatively late in the season next Spring, but coal hasn’t capture the conversation quite as much as it has in prior campaigns. As a commodity, it’s deeply implicated in almost all of the issues raised in both major parties – climate change, energy availability, domestic economic competitiveness – but it’s become something of a pariah.

Lewis Wickes Hine

A West Virginia coal mine entrance, by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1908. From here.

Quietly however, a few prominent politicians have still come out recently with policies for the industry and its most intense regions of operation in the US. That there is a space for the government to do something to help is, surprisingly, something of a bipartisan concern, particularly advanced by the more business-centered wings of both major parties.

Still, that’s about where agreement ends. Republicans led by Ohioan Republican Senator Rob Portman have called for investment to encourage innovations within the coal industry, particularly to capture carbon emissions. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, instead suggested a broader revitalization project to address any negative outcomes of her environmental policies. It aims to shore up public education in the region and expand access to job training, in case the industry’s workforce ends up being reduced.

In spite of their differences, both proposals attempt to shrink the climate footprint of the US and improve the economic lot of the people of Appalachia. Their different ways of going about those goals, however, indicate a subtly distinction between the typical economic policies from the major parties. The government filling in for the failure of investors to create a drive for carbon-capturing power plants is basically a gentle nudge on the existing market dynamics. The government creating opportunities for people to enter different industries is equally capitalist and competition-minded, actually, but understands the government’s role differently. Instead of redirecting the occasional dinner conversation, the government puts a lot of thought into the seating chart and lets conversations develop organically from there.

What this speaks to is a broader disagreement on how capitalism and economics necessarily function, or at least potentially could. From the conservative perspective, private ownership is absolute and can only rarely and carefully be circumscribed. From eminent domain to taxation, the government is begrudgingly permitted to get involved, but with the constant expectation that it should explain its reasons why and quickly get back out.

For liberals on the other hand, and that doesn’t mean anti-capitalists, the understanding is that the government has always been involved, if for no other reason than it sets up the courts and legal standards that create our understanding of ownership and award different people ownership of different goods, territories, or resources. The government’s involvement is a constant – as it continually maintains the legal, social, and political systems and expectations that basically create the economic system.

It’s a shame that coal has ended up on the back burner of US politics, because the policies around it have created such a great example of the contrasting understandings of the world and ideas about how it should work which the two major parties are offering.

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STEM: too few positions, too few applicants?

It’s become a cliché that news articles can brush off, but STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as a set of tightly interrelated fields) has received a long list of praises from almost every level of government and other type of authority in the US. In spite of the largely positive coverage, many critics have noted that how people talk about and seek to affect the STEM fields is often divorced from the reality that there are more than enough people capable of working in those fields (globally or nationally) and that the perceived scarcity of STEM-trained workers is maybe deliberately created to encourage certain policy ends.

Part of what seems desirable to many STEM companies is a basic outcome of supply and demand – creating a vast supply of STEM workers is of great use to those hiring in that field, in that they get their pick among them. What STEM companies need isn’t more workers trained in new technologies or otherwise more directly useful to them as workers. Rather, what they want is an even more cutthroat competition for those types of jobs, leading to applicants accepting lower wages, fewer benefits, and longer hours. Encouraging new visa policies only further intensifies the power inequalities in STEM workplaces, giving companies even more options, and increasing the number of workers whose residency status and employment are directly related.

Some new information has come to light that calls into question those dynamics. A recent report on STEM in early education by the California division of The Education Trust found that many students of color and lower income students in the diverse state have limited and lower quality opportunities to learn basic STEM concepts. While in the economy at large STEM workers are steadily becoming a less rare and hence valuable commodity, STEM teaching in California public schools faced a hiring shortfall of 199 teachers for the 2013-2014 school year. That may sound small, but that gap between needed and available STEM teachers “likely affected about 28,000 California students” and seems to be one of the key components in the racial and class-related gaps in education.

2015-10-19_1552From the report’s accompanying infographic, available here.

At first it may seem strange that STEM-trained workers simultaneously outstrip available jobs and are chronically unavailable for key positions. In some ways, however, this may regrettably reflect the cultural values encouraged in STEM fields. As most of the praise for STEM makes clear, it is seen as inherently marketable or otherwise tied to a life of security if not prosperity. Stereotypes of STEM workers – as at best socially awkward and at worst actively antisocial – are a sometimes loving and sometimes critical reflection of that assessment. They’re supposedly good with figures and money, not with people.

Recent actions within the tech industry make that seem at times intimately connected to a libertarian disdain for the public sector and a patronizing approach towards those who don’t own a company. From my parents working in STEM themselves, I have run into more than a few people who seemed intent on demonstrating that stereotype, including one who kept a (Jesus Camp style) life-size cutout of President Bush in his office well into the Obama years. There’s a blurry line between being better with code than people and actually caring more about your business than your communities. STEM seems to either attract or encourage a sizable number of people who regularly mix those personalities and politics together.

If we think of STEM as something of a subculture, the impression of many seems to be that it’s a space where a certain type of student and eventual worker is expected and others aren’t. There are racial and gendered dimensions of that, but it also leads to an anticipation that STEM workers will work primarily in non-service sectors, and largely in the private sector as well. Schools, especially underfunded public schools full of younger kids, are thought of as basically the last place a STEM worker would want to be. Potentially as a result of that, our society has created a generation of STEM workers who at an even higher rate than other potential teachers, avoid those types of jobs.

I spoke recently about this issue with a friend, herself a part-time teacher in an after-school educational environment that focuses on engineering and computer science skills. She had a number of thoughts on the issue, expressing a dissatisfaction with both the cultural norms within STEM as well as the broader education system. As someone who works at the intersection between the two, she surprised me by frankly calling them in some sense “incompatible”. She made clear that she loves her students, but thought of the work that goes into helping them as literally a “sacrifice” in spite of the culture surrounding what she was teaching her students being, in her words, “self aggrandizing”.

While she mentioned the on-going problem of low pay in education, she also seemed to note that the nature of the different types of work available to STEM-trained workers contributes to this. What seemed clear to her was the the economically devaluing of teaching younger students went hand-in-hand with the labor’s characterization as self abnegating and even feminine. Recognizing that, she said that the paucity of that type of teachers in the STEM fields probably “won’t change until there’s more women [in STEM].” Efforts to diversify STEM are widely understood as improving the lots of the many groups largely shut out of those growing industries, but it seems like it would also improve the lot of STEM itself, by ultimately challenging some common expectations about what STEM can be used for.


The featured image is from the US Naval Academy’s atomic fingerprinting workshop, more information here.

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Onwards and upwards, but not for all

Trigger warning: gun violence, racism

Yesterday, ten people died and seven were injured in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Motivated by the public outcry, President Obama gave a speech on the event and the issues it raises yesterday which still dominates my newsfeed and in all likelihood yours as well. He laid out a basic argument for gun control and against a hypervigilance for over-regulation of firearms and related weapons:

We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston.  It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.  Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out:  We need more guns, they’ll argue.  Fewer gun safety laws.

Does anybody really believe that?  There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that’s not true.  We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

That is understandably deeply moving. It taps into one of the great beliefs in the United States about this country – that we are an evolving country, tethered by traditions but not ensnared by them. We can – and do – blaze forward, the story goes, changing ourselves in order to make life better. This story is sometimes about this type of regulation on a product, but can also come in the form of appeals to how the franchise has expanded, widening the voting population towards something today considered to be an approximation of universal suffrage. Obama is, I suspect, quite consciously marrying those two tales together, crediting the ostensibly safer and healthier life of the average US citizen to the theoretically democratic achievements of this country. We can literally vote ourselves to safety.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly unclear that any part of this narrative is true. Past regulations on firearms and present day regulations on cars and other products Obama later mentions were opposed at almost every step by a major industry if not several. Those two are some of the most successful campaigns for that matter. Even as cars have reduced the dangers in an accident, they’ve gotten better at concealing their emissions, disguising the threat they pose to a stable and useful climate for us and ultimately everyone else in the world. Almost all of these improvements are rooted in economic bottom lines. It’s better to make a product that doesn’t easily and regularly kill your customers – that’s just basic business sense. But longer term damage to its consumers, to their descendants, and to the broader world can just be “externalities“, at least for much longer than that other kind of threat.

When it comes to more general issues of social and economic security that same statistics crop up repeatedly showing that many problems have lingered or even worsened. Food insecurity remains prevalent in the US. Union membership – long a bulwark for lower and middle classes to protect their interests – has drastically declined, as has (for that and other reasons) the political effectiveness of unions. Fear of poverty, of want, and of homelessness are barely considerations in the economic and political system in which we live, and so have at best been allowed, and at worst encouraged as “motivation“. The idea that we have become safer than those before us downplays these concerns and denies the observable reality that sometimes things actually have gotten worse.

Suffrage, still full of historical holes like felon disenfranchisement, has recently taken a hit from the dismantling of the pre-clearance system. Already, Alabama appears to be coordinating mass suppression of voters of color in advance of the 2016 election with no effective federal oversight. Other states are likely to follow suit. Even before that structural link in US democracy crumbled, we were already facing an effective plutocratic check on at the very least national elections, and by one study’s standards, were no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. A majority of people in this country – citizens or not – might want basic regulations on weapons, but does that mean anything? For years, in spite of popular outcry, it hasn’t.

katrinaNew Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, from here.

Further along in his speech, Obama presented what he viewed as a few analogues to what he hopes we could accomplish on gun control, saying among other things, “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.” One needs only point to Katrina as an example of how limited those improvements often can be. Over a thousand died, and over a million were displaced. More valued populations threatened by later hurricanes have been better protected, so perhaps the government learned something from that disaster. But those lessons learned in catastrophe haven’t been applied to repair the still hurting (and specifically Black) communities in New Orleans, but to preserve the business centers of Houston and the greater New York area. In fact, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina created the opportunity for a wealthier and Whiter demographic to move in and replace dead or displaced residents, parts of New Orleans seem poised to attain a similar status, only without the people who originally lived there.

Progress appears to be a privilege, increasingly reserved only for some in this society. It seems vital that we ask who gets left behind, and not only when the answer is “almost everyone.”

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