The 1% in America have an out-sized influence on the political process. What policies do they support? And do their priorities differ from those of less wealthy Americans?
Political scientist Benjamin Page and two colleagues wanted to find out, so they started trying to set up interviews with the richest of the rich. This, they noted, was really quite a feat, writing:
It is extremely difficult to make personal contact with wealthy Americans. Most of them are very busy. Most zealously protect their privacy. They often surround themselves with professional gatekeepers whose job it is to fend off people like us. (One of our interviewers remarked that “even their gatekeepers have gatekeepers.”) It can take months of intensive efforts, pestering staffers and pursuing potential respondents to multiple homes, businesses, and vacation spots, just to make contact.
Persistence paid off. They completed interviews with 83 individuals with net worths in in the top 1%. Their mean wealth was over $14 million and their average income was over $1 million a year.
Page and his colleagues learned that these individuals were highly politically active. A majority (84%) said they paid attention to politics “most of the time,” 99% voted in the last presidential election, 68% contributed money to campaigns, and 41% attended political events.
Many of them were also in contact with politicians or officials. Nearly a quarter had conversed with individuals staffing regulatory agencies and many had been in touch with their own senators and representatives (40% and 37% respectively) or those of other constituents (28%).
These individuals also reported opinions that differed from those of the general population. Some differences really stood out: the wealthy were substantially less likely to want to expand support for job programs, the environment, homeland security, healthcare, food stamps, Social Security, and farmers. Most, for example, are not particularly concerned with ensuring that all Americans can work and earn a living wage:
Only half think that the government should ensure equal schooling for whites and racial minorities (58%), only a third (35%) believe that all children deserve to go to “really good public schools,” and only a quarter (28%) think that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to do so.
The wealthy generally opposed regulation on Wall Street firms, food producers, the oil industry, the health insurance industry, and big corporations, all of which is favored by the general public. A minority of the wealthy (17%) believed that the government should reduce class inequality by redistributing wealth, compared to half of the general population (53%).
Interestingly, Page and his colleagues also compared the answers of the top 0.1% with the remainder of the top 1%. The top 0.1%, individuals with $40 million or more net worth, held views that deviated even farther from the general public.
These attitudes may explain why politicians take positions with which the majority of Americans disagree. “[T]he apparent consistency between the preferences of the wealthy and the contours of actual policy in certain important areas,” they write, “— especially social welfare policies, and to a lesser extent economic regulation and taxation — is, at least, suggestive of significant influence.”
Opponents of government aid to the poor often argue that the poor are not really poor. The evidence they are fond of is often an inappropriate comparison, usually with people in other countries: “Thus we can say that by global standards there are no poor people in the US at all: the entire country is at least middle class or better” (Tim Worstall in Forbes). Sometimes the comparison is with earlier times, as in this quote from Heritage’s Robert Rector: “‘Poor’ Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average US citizen throughout much of the 20th Century.”
I parodied this approach in a post a few years ago by using the ridiculous argument that poor people in the US are not really poor and are in fact “better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.” I mean, I thought the toilet argument was ridiculous. But sure enough, Richard Rahn of the Cato Institute used it in an article last year in the Washington Times, complete with a 17th century portrait of the king:
Common Folk Live Better Now than Royalty Did in Earlier Times
Louis XIV lived in constant fear of dying from smallpox and many other diseases that are now cured quickly by antibiotics. His palace at Versailles had 700 rooms but no bathrooms…
Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg has an ingenious way of showing how meaningless this line of thinking his. He compares today not with centuries past but with centuries to come. Consider our hedge-fund billionaires, with private jets whisking them to their several mansions in different states and countries. Are they well off? Not at all. They are worse off than the poor of 2215.
Think about what the poor will enjoy a few centuries from now that even the 0.01 percent lack today. … “Imagine, they died of cancer and heart disease, had to birth their own babies, and even drove their own cars. How primitive can you get!”
Comparisons with times past or future tell us about progress. They can’t tell us who’s poor today. What makes people rich or poor is what they can buy compared with other people in their own society. To extrapolate a line from Mel Brooks’s Louis XVI, “It’s good to be the king . . . even if flush toilets haven’t been invented yet.”
And you needn’t sweep your gaze to distant centuries to find inappropriate comparisons. When Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” goes from the ’80s to the ’50s, he feels pretty cool, even though the only great advances he has over kids there seem to be skateboards, Stratocasters, and designer underpants. How would he have felt if in 1985 he could have looked forward thirty years to see the Internet, laptops, and smartphones?
People below the poverty line today do not feel well off just because they have indoor plumbing or color TVs or Internet connections. In the same way, our 1% do not feel poor even though they lack consumer goods that people a few decades from now will take for granted.
This post is a collection of racially-themed parties and events at college campuses. They’re examples of one kind of simple individual racism that still perpetuates daily life.
October 2015: University of Louisville President James Ramsey held a staff Halloween party where stereotypically Mexican sombreros, maracas, and bushy mustaches were handed out to guests. Latinos account for 3.4% of the college’s student population.
October 2015: Members of UCLA’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Phi sorority threw a “Kanye Western” party. According to UCLA’s Afrikan American Newsmagazine, witnesses reported:
“a group of women leaving the dormitory dressed in oversized shirts, gold chains, and form-fitting black dresses stuffed to caricature their butts.”
a girl who had “taped a wine glass to her fake butt.”
people “dressed in baggy clothing, bandanas, and gold chains.”
“fraternity members [wearing] black face paint.”
When witnesses tried to take photographs, they reported being rushed by fraternity members, but some images appeared on social media. In their coverage of the party, Cosmopolitan included these:
March 2015: Sigma Alpha Epsilon members and others at the University of Oklahoma sing:
There will never be a nigger in SAE.
You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me.
November 2014: “USA vs. Mexico” party hosted by the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Randolph-Macon College
September 2014: Entries in a “car costume” event by ENSOC, the Engineering Society of the University of Canterbury, mock ebola victims, the violence in the Gaza strip, and the Taliban. Discussed here and the university’s official response can be read here (thanks to Mark B. and another anonymous tipster for the heads up).
And some sexism for good measure:
Earlier that year, in May, the same group also put out a song parody featuring an actor in blackface. The negative response to this incident was swift, but it did not apparently make much impact on the group.
February 2014: Photos from an Olympics-themed mixer co-hosted by the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Columbia University, discussed here. Costumes and gags reflected racial/national stereotypes:
January 2014: The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Arizona State University hosted a so-called Martin Luther King, Jr party in which “mocked blacks by donning loose basketball jerseys, flashing gang signs and drinking from hollowed-out watermelons.” Photos online were tagged with #hood.
November 2013: The Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at California Polytechnic – San Luis Obispo threw a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party.
October 2013: The Delta Kappa Epsilon sorority at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, throws a 60s-themed party features “hippies” mixing with men in rice paddy hats. Faces blacked out. (Thanks to Holly for the link!)
July 2013: The Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority at Dartmouth College hosted at “Bloods and Crips” party (story here, picture here):
April 2013: This still is from a video celebrating the spring semester induction of new recruits into UC Irvine’s Asian-American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta (via Colorlines). It features a fraternity member in blackface. The entire video can be seen here.
February 2013: Three hockey fans in the audience of a North Dakota high school semifinal donned Ku Klux Klan-ish hoods as a “joke,” they later said:
October 2012: The photograph below depicts the members of the Chi Omega sorority at Penn State (source). It was taken during a Mexican fiesta-themed party around Halloween. The signs read: “will mow lawn for weed & beer” and “I don’t cut grass I smoke it.” The Vice President of the college’s Mexican American Student Association, Cesar Sanchez Lopez, wrote:
The Mexican American Student Association is disappointed in the attire chosen by this sorority. It in no way represents our culture. Not only have they chosen to stereotype our culture with serapes and sombreros, but the insinuation about drug usage makes this image more offensive. Our country is plagued by a drug war that has led to the death of an estimated 50,000 people, which is nothing to be joked about.
The president of the sorority sent out an apology. Penalties are under discussion as of this posting.
May 2012: The University of Chicago’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity required pledges to wear “Mexican labor outfits” and sombreros while mowing the frat house lawn to Mexican ranchera music (source).
UPDATE: A University of Chicago student involved in reporting this incident wrote it to say that the photograph we originally published is likely unrelated to the Alpha Delta Phi incident (that is, a fake or a photo of a different event). In other words, the incident happened, but the photograph was not of the incident. Accordingly, we’ve removed the photo.
March 2012: “Cowboys and Indians” party, University of Denver, hosted by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority:
February 2010: Members of the Athletics Union at the London School of Economics painted their faces brown and “dressed up as Guantanamo Bay inmates and drunkenly yelled ‘Oh Allah’…” At least 12 students were found to have dressed up in costumes that were deemed “racist, religiously insensitive and demeaning.”
October 2009: University of Toronto students decided to dress up like the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings for Halloween (source). Their costume, which earned them a “Costume of the Night” award at this college-sponsored party, included blackface.
February 2007: Pictures from a “South of the Border” party at Santa Clara University in California. Indeed, that IS a pregnant woman, cleaning ladies, and a slutty gang member.
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at Tarleton State University in Texas:
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at Clemson College in South Carolina:
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at University of Connecticut School of Law:
In the 6-minute video below, Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein discusses her research showing that the perception of other peoples’ race is shaped by what we know about them. She uses data collected through a series of in-person interviews in which interviewers sit down with respondents several times over many years, learn about what’s happened and, among other things, make a judgment call as to their race. You may be surprised how often racial designations. In one of her samples, 20% of respondents were inconsistently identified, meaning that they were given different racial classifications by different interviewers at least once.
Saperstein found that a person judged as white in an early interview was more likely to be marked as black in a later interview if they experienced a life event that is stereotypically associated with blackness, like imprisonment or unemployment.
She and some colleagues also did an experiment, asking subjects to indicate whether people with black, white, and ambiguous faces dressed in a suit or a blue work shirt were white or black. Tracing their mouse paths, it was clear that the same face in a suit was more easily categorized as white than the one in a work shirt.
Race is a social construction, not just in the sense that we made it up, but in that it’s flexible and dependent on status as well as phenotype.
She finishes with the observation that, while phenotype definitely impacts a person’s life chances, we also need to be aware that differences in education, income, and imprisonment reflect not only bias against phenotype, but the fact that success begets whiteness. And vice versa.
The Federal Reserve has announced that it is holding off on an interest rate hike; the last time it raised rates was in 2006. The reason for the lack of action: the Federal Reserve believes the economy remains fragile and, since inflation remains low, it doesn’t want to do anything that might bring the expansion to a halt.
In reality our economic problems go much deeper than slow growth and economic fragility. Bluntly said, most workers are losing ground regardless of whether the economy is in recession or expansion.
The following chart, from a New York Times article, shows the movement in real, inflation adjusted, median household income from 1999 to 2014.
The median household income was $53,657 in 2014. That was 1.5 percent below what it was in 2013. Perhaps even more disturbing, as the Times article notes:
The 2014 real median income number is 6.5 percent below its 2007, pre-crisis level. It is 7.2 percent below the number in 1999.
A middle-income American family, in other words, makes substantially less money in inflation-adjusted terms than it did 15 years ago. And there is no evidence that is reversing…
The depressing data on middle-class wages is true across almost all groups based on race and age. (One exception is a 5.3 percent gain in median wages among Hispanics in 2014, though that is within the statistical margin of error and so may not be meaningful).
And there is good reason for believing that things are unlikely to improve in the near future. As a recent study by the National Employment Law Project makes clears, real wages are continuing to fall for most workers.
The authors of the National Employment Law Project study “calculated the percentage change in real median hourly wages from 2009 to 2014 for 785 occupations, which were grouped into quintiles, each representing approximately one-fifth of total employment in 2014.” Figure 1 shows the change in real wages for each of the five quintiles over the period. As we can see, real median hourly wages fell across the board, with the overall median wage falling by 4 percent.
Figure 2 keeps the same wage groupings but shows the change in wages for both the highest (90th percentile) and lowest (10th percentile) earners in each wage quintile. As we can see, with the exception of occupations in the lowest paid quintile, the fall in wages was greater for those in the bottom percentile than for those in the top percentile. That said, the most striking fact is that all suffered declines in real wages.
Steady as she goes, which seems to be the strategy of most policy-makers, is unlikely to turn things around.
The term “fetal alcohol syndrome” (FAS) refers to a group of problems that include mental retardation, growth problems, abnormal facial features, and other birth defects. The disorder affects children whose mothers drank large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.
Well, not exactly.
It turns out that only about 5% of alcoholic women give birth to babies who are later diagnosed with FAS. This means that many mothers drink excessively, and many more drink somewhat (at least 16 percent of mothers drink during pregnancy), and yet many, many children born to these women show no diagnosable signs of FAS. Twin studies, further, have shown that sometimes one fraternal twin is diagnosed with FAS, but the other twin, who shared the same uterine environment, is fine.
So, drinking during pregnancy does not appear to be a sufficient cause of FAS, even if it is a necessary cause (by definition?). In her book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility, sociologist and public health scholar Elizabeth M. Armstrong explains that FAS is not just related to alcohol intake, but is “highly correlated with smoking, poverty, malnutrition, high parity [i.e., having lots of children], and advanced maternal age” (p. 6). Further, there appears to be a genetic component. Some fetuses may be more vulnerable than others due to different ways that bodies breakdown ethanol, a characteristic that may be inherited. (This may also explain why one fraternal twin is affected, but not the other.)
To sum, drinking alcohol during pregnancy appears to contribute to FAS, but it by no means causes FAS.
And yet… almost all public health campaigns, whether sponsored by states, social movement organizations, public health institutes, or the associations of alcohol purveyors tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol during, before, or after pregnancy… at all… or else.
These campaigns all target women and explain to them that they should not drink any alcohol at all if they are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, during the period in which they are breastfeeding and, in some cases, if they are not trying to conceive but are using only somewhat effective birth control.
So, the strategy to reduce FAS is reduced to the targeting of women’s behavior.
But “women” do not cause FAS. Neither does alcohol. This strategy replaces addressing all of the other problems that correlate with the appearance of FAS — poverty, stress, and other kinds of social deprivation — in favor of policing women. FAS, in fact, is partly the result of individual behavior, partly the result of social inequality, and partly genetic, but our entire eradication strategy focuses on individual behavior. It places the blame and responsibility solely on women.
And, since women’s choices are not highly correlated with the appearance of FAS, the strategy fails. Very few women actually drink at the levels correlated with FAS. If we did not have a no-drinking-during-pregnancy campaign and pregnant women continued drinking at the rates at which they drank before being pregnant, we would not see a massive rise in FAS. Only the heaviest drinking women put their fetus at risk and they, unfortunately, are the least likely to respond to the no-drinking campaign (largely due to addiction).
Originally posted in 2010 and developed into a two-page essay for Contexts magazine.
The one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death passed a little more than a year ago. Before Garner’s death, I had never heard of Tompkinsville, the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner regularly hung out, near the busy intersection of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street.
This was Garner’s spot. He played checkers and chess there, bought kids ice cream, earned the reputation of a “peacemaker” among his peers, and, yes, routinely sold untaxed “loose” cigarettes.
This was also the spot were Eric Garner was died.
Over the past year, despite the substantial media attention devoted to Garner’s death and the subsequent grand jury inquiry into the responsibility for his death, I didn’t hear or read much about Tompkinsville.
The lack of attention to the neighborhood in which Garner lived and died is strange given that the NYPD’s initial encounter with Garner was ostensibly motivated by the Broken Windows theory of crime causation. According to the theory, “disorder” in any given neighborhood, if “left unchecked,” will result in ever greater levels of disorder, which, in turn, will ultimately result in higher rates of serious crime. This is the justification for approaching and penalizing people like Garner who are engaged in non-violent, misdemeanors.
Based on my own research in Jersey City, New Jersey (approximately six miles, as the crow flies, from Tompkinsville), I’ve come to the conclusion that Broken Windows is more of a slogan than a theory and, when it comes down to it, morally and empirically wrong. As I wrote at City Limits:
The question that begs addressing is why the police or anyone else should ever aggressively police the likes of people who not only are “down and out,” but are doing nothing to directly harm others? Why create a situation of humiliation, tension, and hostility—the very kind of situation that led to Garner’s death—unless it is truly necessary? If only in one in a thousand instances, the circumstances are such that in such degrading and antagonistic encounters they result in death or serious injury, is that not one time too many? Or if all that results is humiliation and hostility, don’t these costs alone outweigh whatever benefits might conceivably come from cracking down on offenses like selling loosies?
In the three years of ethnographic work I did in Jersey City, I saw plenty of disorder, but this didn’t translate into serious crime:
Much as many people may not like who or what they see in the square, it is undoubtedly a safe space. I know this from experience and it is also borne out in the city’s official crime statistics.
Of course, one case doesn’t definitively show that high disorder never leads to high crime, but it does suggest that it doesn’t necessarily do so. In any case, there has been no definitive science supporting the Broken Windows theory.
On the same logic, the case of Tompkinsville further undermines the theory that disorder leads to serious crime. According to official data, rates of serious crime in and around Tompkinsville have long been relatively low, even during the years when the NYPD was not employing the Broken Windows strategy. This suggests that, however “disorderly” Tompkinsville may have been at times, the recent implementation of Broken Windows was, and remains, a solution in search of a problem.
Upon realizing the possibility that Tompkinsville might be another example of a high disorder/low crime space, I decided it was time to visit the neighborhood. I made the trip twice and I did not encounter what appeared to me to be a dangerous neighborhood or a neighborhood on the verge of becoming dangerous anytime soon.
Here is the part of town where Garner lived out his days:
While this part of town didn’t strike me as “bad,” it is a far cry from the Tompkinsville that sits just a short walk away, separated only by a concrete path. Much of Tompkinsville is actually rather well-to-do:
The socioeconomic disparity on display in Tompkinsville illustrates how policing and punishment are but one part of a much larger, far more complex, and deeply-rooted equation of inequality in America. Perhaps if Garner’s part of the neighborhood had been farther from the kind of real estate that developers and wealthy residents value, a little disorder would have been a little more tolerable.
I’m more convinced than ever that Garner’s death was a gross injustice and the consequence, not just of the actions of a single individual, but of a deeply misguided policy and theory. As Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith poignantly argued in The Nation (in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer whose chokehold certainly, at the very least, served as the but-for cause of Garner’s death), neither black lives, nor many other lives besides, will likely matter much unless, in addition to urgently-needed criminal justice reforms, something is done to seriously address the roots of poverty and inequality in America.
Mike Rowan is an assistant professor in the Sociology Department at John Jay College. His book in progress examines how a population of chronically homeless, jobless men and women were policed in a neighborhood of Jersey City. Dr. Rowan is also a member of the Executive Board for the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness, the director of the CUNY Service Corps’ Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project, and a contributor to the Punishment to Public Health Initiative at John Jay.