Links that made us think: Left-wing cyberbullies? Plus: income inequality and stable homes, and a new look at the Japanese economy

From Matt: Coping with stasis: how the supposed ‘sick man of Asia’ might be a model for us all (Roland Kelts, The Long and Short): Since the early ’90s, the Japanese economy has been treated as a cautionary tale because of its sluggish growth. Kelts argues that perhaps we have been looking at it all wrong. He argues that the Japanese growth numbers belie a thriving society whose standard of living has been steadily improving through innovation – one which might just be the model of a sustainable economy that we desperately need.

How many Lewinskys will we shame? (Elizabeth Renzetti, The Globe and Mail): The topic of online shaming has become hot again since Monica Lewinsky spoke out recently about her experiences in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton sex scandal. Lewinsky calls online shaming a form of cyberbullying, and herself “patient zero”. Renzetti discusses some recent examples of online shaming and a new book (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson, Riverhead Books, 2015) that explores the aftermath for the shamed. Renzetti calls the book “a cold splash of water for anyone who’s gleefully participated in social-media witch hunts”. Granted, most of the examples of shamed behavior given are quite egregious (e.g., posting racist tweets about AIDS in Africa, fabricating news stories, and yes, having an affair with the President). But the book is striking a chord with many people because there also seems to be some truth to the charge that online social activism has recently taken a nasty turn away from teachable moments, towards vindictiveness and ruthlessness.

Renzetti dances around the connection that follows, but I won’t: Much of this recent mean-spirited self-righteousness is coming from liberals. As someone who identifies as a liberal myself, this concerns me. In The Dish, Freddie deBoer sums up the problem nicely, albeit provocatively: “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing.”

There’s another side to this of course, which is that if we don’t want things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination to persist in our society, we have to be clear and united in saying that certain behaviors are socially unacceptable. But Ronson, deBoer, and (likely) Renzetti all seem to think that we can maintain high social standards through education, without having to make a public example out of everyone who makes a mistake. I agree.

From Ian: The importance of social capital, including a stable home, to income inequality

In her latest column in The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente discusses economic inequality, inequality of opportunity, and the importance that our social capital – our networks of friends, family and mentors that support us as we grow up and then build our own careers and families – plays in entrenching these inequalities. This was the topic of a new book by Robert Putnam entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015). In it he argues that more attention needs to be given to the huge disparities in social capital between the top and bottom thirds on the income ladder. Standing out amongst these is the disparity of access to a stable home: “In the United States, nearly 70 per cent of children born to high-school graduates grow up in single-parent households. Just 10 per cent of the children of university graduates do.”

Also discussed in Hannah Rosin’s book The End of Men (Riverhead Books, 2012) (and the accompanying piece in The Atlantic), this divergence in family structure between the college-educated and non-college-educated started in the 1960s and 1970s and has been attributed to a variety of factors, including the shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, mass incarceration of lower class men in the US, the invention of the pill and the widespread availability of birth control, the feminist revolution and mass integration of women into the workforce and traditionally male-dominated fields, and shift in our social norms that made single parenthood less taboo.

It is the moral shift that Wente focuses on in her column: “Today, these classes live in two different worlds, one in which neo-traditional marriage is flourishing and one in which two-parent families are dying off. Ironically, the people who have constructed traditional families for themselves are often loath to condemn the behaviour of others, for fear of seeming unenlightened, intolerant or judgmental.” The contribution of this social shift is also acknowledged by recent columns in Slate and The New York Times that discuss Robert Putnam’s book.

What these columnists don’t agree on is what can be done about it. David Brooks at the NY Times proposes a community-driven moral revival, where norms are reasserted and family responsibility is encouraged. “It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.” Jordan Weissman at Slate argues that we cannot go back to the past and must look forward for solutions, including doing more to “reduce material need for low-income families” and doing more “to educate working-class women about how to safely and effectively use contraception to avoid accidental pregnancies and encourage them to put off children until a bit later in life (which, yes, to some degree would just mean preaching what college-educated families already practice).”  As for Wente, she sees many proposals, but none entirely satisfying: “Universal daycare and prekindergarten? There’s no evidence they reduce the opportunity gap for poor kids. Urging moms like Tammi to read and talk more to their children? Idealists are hopeful, but the idea smacks of wishful thinking. More social transfers to single mothers? In Canada, we actually do a pretty good job of this now. What about mentorship programs and better interventions for troubled kids? Yes, by all means. But the fact is that successful child-rearing is a two-parent job…There must be other ideas out there. If only I had a clue what they might be.”

Where they all can agree is that rising inequality of opportunity is a problem with political, economic and social contributing factors, and none of these factors can be ignored if the problem is to be effectively addressed.

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6 thoughts on “Links that made us think: Left-wing cyberbullies? Plus: income inequality and stable homes, and a new look at the Japanese economy

  1. While I agree that social capital is important and we shouldn’t discount the importance of family stability to opportunity, I also think the low-hanging fruit in combatting economic inequality are still (by far): increasing access to education (including skilled trades and retraining) and affordable housing (by reversing the growth of education and housing costs relative to incomes), and reducing healthcare costs (in the U.S.). Raising the minimum wage is surely a big part of this. Progressive taxes are as well. The last time we had this level of economic inequality was the late ’20s-early ’30s. What fixed it was massive stimulus and The New Deal, not some rude social awakening.

    So social capital is important, yes; and has arguably been eroding, yes. But in the context of economic inequality, it may turn out to be more of a red herring than we might think.

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  2. There are certainly similarities between the 1920s inequality and now, but also some pretty big differences. Hopefully one of them is the huge war that played a significant part in reducing income inequality after the 1930s (I hope will not be repeated). The family structure, talked about in the book, is a significant one. I am not sure that it is possible to ‘force’ or ‘educate’ people back to stable families, but I do think we need to ask how our society should respond to the disappearance of one of its fundamental support structures, and not pretend like this structure is not disappearing. There is no ‘blame’ implied in the previous sentence. Is this changed caused by an ‘immoral social revolution’ or just purely a result of growing inequality/a changing labor market? I don’t know, but either way I think the hypothesis that a child being raised by a single parent has less social capital than one raised by two parents in the absence of extensive social services to fill the gap is a reasonable one. We have to replace the support from this old (antiquated?) family/community structure with something. Universal childcare? Maybe. I think mixed zoning for housing and schools is a low hanging fruit (which includes making affordable housing) that can be implemented successfully at the municipal level (as it has been where I live). As for other poverty-fighting measures: raise the minimum wage? Sure. Service sector jobs cannot be outsourced or mechanized so raising the minimum wage for them has a clear upside with no downside.

    Technology is another significant difference between inequality now and then (our population is another one). The upside is that the absolute standard of living is nearly universally better now for everyone than in the 1930s. The downside is that the connections between jobs, income and capital are becoming fundamentally different from anytime in history. This is why I think some of the tools (like organized labor) that worked very well 50-100 years ago to reduce inequality will not work so well this time (unionized machines? unlikely). I think we need to mentally separate the concepts of labor and income if we are to come up with rational 21st century policies that keep the pie growing, but also distributed evenly. Guaranteed minimum income is an example of this line of thinking. I might even venture out and say that a minimum equity wage is another we could think about (or other ideas promoting ‘stakeholder capitalism’).

    Finally, relating to ‘Left-wing cyberbullies’: one place where I fundamentally disagree with Freddie deBoer is that the academic ‘social justice’ movement’s only problem is a ‘message’ problem. The underlying assumption there is that “we know everything, and all we need to do is ‘educate’ the ‘ignorant’ without chastising them too much and then they will get it and be on our side.” Dismissing the credibility of any substantiative criticism of these ideas and blaming everything on ‘the message’ reminds me a lot of the way the many US Republicans talk about reviving their party after their policies are rejected in polls. David Frum does a pretty good job delineating between ‘liberalism’ and ‘leftism’ and making more substantiative criticisms of what he calls “illiberal leftist” ideas.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/01/liberals-and-the-illiberal-left/384988/ The way he uses the terms, where liberalism and leftism distinguish themselves is liberals’ emphasis on political equality and the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, freedom of dissent and democratic principles, vs. leftists who place greater importance on economic and social equality over political equality. As Jonathan Chait describes here http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html: “The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents — you know, the old line often misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — as hopelessly naïve. If you maintain equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims, this will simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to. The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones.”

    While taken past a certain point, economic inequality also erodes political equality (there is a good evidence this is happening in the US now), but it is also important for movements like the academic social justice movement to be honest about the fact that the converse – complete economic and social equality – is also incompatible with democracy and political equality (the reason can be easily explained by statistical mechanics for all the physicists out there). I personally, pick the liberal priority over the leftist one. The book Why Nations Fail makes a good argument for why it is political equality that gives rise to innovation and increasing standards of living. In the current North American landscape there are several policies (like universal health care) that enhance political and economic equality. I certainly support these win-wins. But, no matter how many times I am ‘educated’ by more knowledgeable leftists, I am not going to waver in my support for free speech and open discourse, even if they play a small part in contributing to economic inequality.

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  3. While education has a valuable place in maintaining those high social standards, it is worth thinking through the important social roles that both the publicly scandalous, and the public that is scandalized (and which rakes the scandalous over those fiery social coals) play. The scandalous illustrate the very human tendency of lacking self awareness & a surprisingly self destructive streak (what PR exec who deserves her title doesn’t know better than to tweet about race & pandemics?). One has to wonder what prompts the very selective blindness that gets them into the scrapes they land in (Ms. Winfrey & Mr. Frey come to mind) and remind us that we could very easily be in their position. The scandalized use the convenient scandalous scapegoats to unite and purify themselves as a whole. In a culture where one is encouraged to find their 15 minutes of fame, a scandal and the resulting public shaming can be a surprisingly lucrative route if one is willing to live through the vituperative period.

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    • Interesting point, Niya. You could definitely argue, for example, that Monica Lewinsky’s scandal is more of a financial opportunity than a liability given the book and speaking deals she can likely get.

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