The richest one percent own about one-third of all assets in America and about four-fifths of assets around the world – and wealth concentration is growing. Sharply skewed financial resources lead not only to lives of luxury amid want; they also afford the ultra-rich extraordinary influence over elections, public policy, and governance. In my new book Billionaires, I take a close look at the growing political clout of billionaires and the ways in which they have pioneered activist forms of politics and philanthropy. What does billionaire political activism mean for the health of democracy – here in the United States and across the globe?
Searching for a solution to curb Iran’s nuclear military ambitions, the United States is leading international negotiations likely to come to a head before long. As these discussions have proceeded, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken almost every opportunity to express consternation over the possibility of any agreement enshrining a nuclear détente between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has good reason for concern, because, as seen from Jerusalem, a truly comprehensive deal that would fully and irreversibly dismantle Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons does not seem plausible. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the partial deals appear as fool’s bargains, likely merely to postpone and complicate inevitable military action against Iran’s nuclear complex.
For anyone worried that an Israeli military strike against Iran would unleash an incalculable risk of conflicts in Middle East and world politics, this sounds like bad news. Even if a newly negotiated agreement between the United States and Iran comes packaged with some mild sweeteners for Israel, it probably would not be enough to compensate for what Israel views as an existential threat from a hostile Iranian regime. From this perspective, Israel’s best current move is to play the spoiler, to search for ways to undermine evolving diplomacy, and if that move fails, send the Israeli Air Force to bomb Iran.
Half a century ago, President Lyndon Johnson launched America’s War on Poverty; yet by the 1980s President Ronald Reagan famously declared that “we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” To back up this claim, conservatives point to official U.S. statistics showing that the percentage of Americans living in poverty, around 15%, has changed very little over the decades.
But the official poverty measure is outdated – so I teamed up with several colleagues to produce estimates using a more accurate one. When we use the improved measure, it turns out that U.S. social programs and taxes have had a powerful effect on reducing poverty since the mid-1960s. Back then, government programs did little to alleviate poverty, but today public programs and taxes cut the percentage of people living in poverty by almost half, from the 28.7% it would be without government efforts to 16% after public programs are included. Far too many Americans continue to have inadequate incomes, but U.S. policies have helped millions avoid poverty. (more…)
Many municipalities across the United States have taken measures to keep homeless people and panhandlers out of sight in public spaces. Legislators and government officials justify such steps as necessary to protect the public against unsafe or provocative conduct by “street people.” But some previous studies suggest that many Americans who have frequent interactions with street beggars see them in more benign and nuanced ways. To learn more, I did interviews and collected questionnaire responses from passers-by who recounted their reactions to recent interactions with beggars. My methods allowed me to tap the meanings these interactions hold for people who pass beggars on the street – meanings not usually captured in quantitative studies. (more…)
Relationships between members of the United States Congress and the judiciary are shifting, as Democrats and Republicans alike reassess whether the courts are political allies or foes in this highly polarized era. My research tracks what members of the House of Representatives have had to say about judges and the judiciary in recent years—specifically, I have teamed up with a colleague to analyze public statements published on official House websites from 2010 to 2014, a pivotal and contentious period in recent politics. (more…)
Almost half a century ago, the U.S. federal government expanded financial aid to college students to make college more affordable—but today the odds of getting a degree are more tightly linked to family income than ever before. Getting a college degree remains a good investment, but the current distribution of federal and state financial aid dollars leaves many families of modest means out in the cold. Between 1992 and 2004, the odds that a high school graduate who took at least Algebra II would decide not to go to college went up among all income-groups except the very wealthiest. Sadly, students from families of modest means have also become more likely to drop out from public colleges and universities—leaving with debts, not degrees. (more…)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released its Fifth Assessment Report, presenting the latest accumulation of scientific evidence about the threat of global warming and calling for urgent actions to meet the threat. Earlier reports have pointed in the same directions, but the political, economic, and simple human obstacles to facing and coping with the dangers of global warming remain today as they were twenty-five years ago on the eve of the Intergovernmental Panel’s First Assessment Report. People in the United States and across the globe are no more likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically in 2014 or soon thereafter than they were in 1990. Modern political and economic systems are not geared to cope with this sort of challenge. And there is an enduring collective action problem: no single individual or organization, not even a few working together, can execute necessary solutions. Most must learn to act together, or the game is over—the causes and dire effects of increasing global warming simply will not be handled in time. (more…)
In 2006, the Massachusetts legislature passed and Governor Mitt Romney signed into law a health care reform with subsidized health insurance coverage for low-income people, a health insurance exchange to help people not otherwise covered choose among available plans, an individual mandate requiring residents to obtain coverage if affordable, and an expansion of Medicaid to include children and long-term unemployed adults. The reform in Massachusetts turned out to be a blueprint for the Affordable Care reforms passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. ObamaCare, as the federal reform law is sometimes called, is only now going into full effect, as debate continues to swirl about its provisions and its likely effects. No one can tell what the national reform’s impact on Americans’ health will turn out to be, but we can get an idea of possible benefits by looking at what is known so far about the aftermath of the earlier Massachusetts reforms. (more…)
The Affordable Care Act aims to extend health insurance to tens of millions more Americans through two major routes: by giving people information and in many cases tax credits to help them purchase private insurance plans offered on state or national “exchanges,” or online marketplaces; and by giving the fifty U.S. states plus the District of Columbia additional federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs to insure all low-income people just above as well as below the federal poverty line. States have a key role in implementing health reform. Each state can choose to run its own exchange marketplace and help its residents learn about their options for purchasing affordable plans. Each state also decides whether or not to accept new federal subsidies to expand Medicaid (covering 93% of the costs from 2014 through 2022). What states do—or refuse to do—makes a big difference, as a comparison of the nation’s two largest states, California and Texas, makes clear. California is leading the way in showing that Affordable Care can work, while authorities in Texas are obstructing implementation with gusto. (more…)
Imprisonment in the contemporary United States far surpasses other nations. The ironies are sharp and manifold. The United States deploys armies abroad under the banner of freedom and at the same time has the largest custodial prison infrastructure on the planet, a system of jails and prisons that locks up a greater fraction of our people for life—more than fifty for every 100,000 residents—than the population share imprisoned for any length of time by Denmark, Sweden, and Norway combined. American democracy is inspired by ideals of active and equal citizenship, yet racial and class inequalities run through the heart of our criminal justice system. Urban black communities have little voice in setting criminal justice policies, even though they experience the brunt of violations and the direct and indirect effects of punishment. Intellectuals have an obligation to lay bare the threat to American democracy caused by massive, racially skewed imprisonment. To that end, I offer the following reflections. (more…)