Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Givers, Takers and Voters

            In May, Mitt Romney told an audience of big donors in Florida that 47% of Americans would vote for President Obama because they pay no income tax, are dependent on government, believe they are victims, and feel “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” Romney said these people are hopeless: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” When a video of this speech was made public in September, Romney stood by his remarks. After he lost the election, he repeated this claim by attributing his defeat to the big “gifts” that Democrats had given and promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

             A number of other unhappy Republicans made similar claims after the election. At the Republican governors conference two weeks ago, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal vehemently disagreed: “I absolutely reject that notion.”

            Since Romney’s 47% remarks became public, many writers have demonstrated how wrong those claims were. Many of the 47% who pay no federal income tax do pay state income tax. Many others pay other forms of taxes, such as property tax and payroll tax. A significant portion of the 47% are retirees, who are receiving Social Security on which they pay no income taxes, but which represents their own prior payments when they were working.

            Of course, the idea that anyone who currently pays no federal income tax is therefore irresponsible, hopelessly dependent on government, and feels entitled to be supported by other Americans is a remarkable insult to millions of Americans who happen to have low incomes.

            But what about the claim that they all voted for Obama? That’s worth investigating.

            Romney was correct that poorer voters broke against him. The Fox News exit polls showed that Obama won 63% of voters with family incomes under $30,000, and 57% with family incomes between $30,000 and $50,000.

            But among those who pay no federal income taxes because they are recipients of Social Security, Romney did quite well. In the age group over 65, who comprised 16% of the electorate, Romney won by a margin of 56% to 44%.

            A closer look at county-level data reveals a much more complex pattern. If we consider all the benefit dollars that the federal government hands out, it turns out that Mitt Romney’s electoral theory is far from the truth. Romney overwhelmingly won many of the counties whose residents receive the greatest share of government benefits like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and income support, thus the poorest sections of the country. A few examples are instructive. In McDowell County, West Virginia, 48% of all income comes from government benefits, to the tune of over $12,000 per person (these data are from 2009). Romney won 64% of their votes. Residents of Owsley County, Kentucky, receive 53% of their income from government benefits, over $13,800 each; Romney won the county 81% to 19%. In Ripley County, Missouri, and Scott County, Tennessee, over 40% of income is in federal benefits, and Romney won more than 70% of their votes.

            Mitt Romney did very well in some other sections of the country where incomes are very low and government payments are very high, such as the northern part of lower Michigan and southern Oregon. This certainly doesn’t fit with Romney’s 47% claims from May.

            Why did these very poor regions vote Republican? The answer is simple: they are overwhelmingly white. McDowell County, which gave Romney the fewest votes among those I mentioned above, is 89% non-Hispanic white. Owsley, Ripley and Scott counties are at least 96% non-Hispanic white and gave over 70% of their votes to Romney.

            When Mitt Romney insulted poor people who receive government payments, he was speaking of many of his own voters. But after the election, Romney was much clearer about which voters he meant to insult by saying that government payments had bought their votes. His comments two weeks ago singled out blacks and Hispanics as having been given “big gifts”. He didn’t mention that the poor whites who voted for him receive identical gifts.

            So we end up with the same racial profiling that conservatives have been using to win votes since Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. The euphemisms change, but the intent is the same. Tell whites that the Democrats are pandering to minorities, that their hard-earned dollars are being given away to undeserving moochers of other races, that real Americans need to take back our country from the colored masses who threaten us.

            This seems to work only in states with significant minority populations. Charles Blow, who writes for the New York Times, pointed out recently that Obama won the white vote in states where the minority populations are small, such as Iowa, Maine and New Hampshire. In Mississippi, where the black population is the largest (36%), he won only 10% of whites.

            America is still a long way from being a post-racial nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 27, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tradition and Change at Thanksgiving

My mother and my mother-in-law are both coming to Thanksgiving at our house. So is my sister-in-law. And my daughter.

Three generations at Thanksgiving is an American tradition, immortalized in Norman Rockwell paintings and millions of family photos. But it used to be easier to bring the generations together at the Thanksgiving table than it is now. In the middle of the 20th century, about one quarter of Americans lived in multi-generational households, but that proportion has been shrinking since then. The geographic movement of Americans west and south, both in retirement and for employment, has spread many families across the continent. Can the Thanksgiving tradition survive modern, highly mobile American life?

To put together this Thanksgiving gathering, my daughter is flying in from Massachusetts and my mother-in-law is driving from Minneapolis, with the help of her daughter. My mother used to live in California, but came to live here in Jacksonville when my father died. The geographical mobility of Americans across our vast continent makes such family gatherings more costly, difficult and rare.

When I grew up near New York City, both sets of my grandparents lived within a two-hour drive, and my cousins lived around the corner. Most of my extended family lived in the New York metropolitan area. Now we are spread across the country, making family gatherings for holidays less frequent.

Even though family holidays seem like unchanging traditions, in fact they evolve as the cast of characters changes. Children grow up and for a few years bring partners to the family meals. Eventually they make their declaration of independence and become the hosts, often blending traditions they like from their families of origin with new ideas. The oldest generation gives up its leading role to a middle-aged child, reserving the right to grumble when recipes are changed or new dishes are added.

Each Thanksgiving is unique. This time, we will miss the grandfathers. My father-in-law can no longer travel and rarely leaves his nursing home. My son will celebrate with his in-laws. My other sister-in-law hosts her own Thanksgiving for her children in Minneapolis.

So our table of six will be thankful for this occasion to celebrate together. My daughter will bring stories of her work, where she is taking on new challenges and responsibilities, discovering what she can do and what she needs to learn. My sister-in-law is preparing to return to apartment living, after 35 years of home ownership. My mother-in-law has gradually been getting used to living alone, taking courses at the local university, developing a new life. My mother has a new home at Jacksonville Skilled Nursing and new people who surround her.

My wife is thinking about working for a new boss, as Illinois College makes the transition to its 14th President. I am about to teach for the last time a course I have taught a dozen times before, as my career in academia approaches its end.

Maybe because it happens slowly, we don’t notice how often we must recreate our habits, our daily routines. Jobs change, neighbors move, and the great events of family life add and subtract loved ones from our lives.

We all have much to wonder about. The future is unpredictable. Maybe that’s why we cherish the familiarity of Thanksgiving dinners. I’ll be happy to see the creamed onions and the homemade cranberry sauce. I’ll be even happier to hear what my family says, as we go around the table, telling each other what we are thankful for. In the midst of constant change, the love of family is something we can rely on. Like turkey and stuffing.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 20, 2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Shape of Politics to Come

All year the Republicans made gleeful fun of President Obama’s “hope and change” mantra from 2008. That didn’t work.

It looks like Democrats will have much more hope in their political future than Republicans, because of changes in the American electorate. The Democratic victory last Tuesday goes beyond the President. Democrats won 2 more seats in the Senate and probably 7 more House seats, notably 4 in Illinois. Democrats took over 5 formerly Republican state houses and 4 state senates, while only 1 house and 2 senates switched the other way.

When the American population is grouped into demographic categories, the Republicans depend on shrinking sub-populations. Most significantly, the white Christian share of the electorate, who voted for Romney about 2 to 1, has dropped from 66% in 2000 to 57% in 2012. That group is shrinking on all sides, the ethnic and the religious.

Hispanics as a percentage of voters have grown from 2% in 1992 to 10% this year. More than 60% have voted Democratic since 1984, except for 2004, when they just dipped to 58%. Obama won 71% of Hispanic voters. Latinos increased their presence in the House from 24 to 28 and in the Senate from 2 to 3.

Voters of Asian background make up only 3% of the nation’s voters, but they too are both growing and becoming more Democratic, voting at least 70% for Obama. Their influence is concentrated in the Pacific states: in California, their proportion of the electorate grew from 6% in 2008 to 11% this year. Their presence in the new Congress will also be unprecedented.

Since 2000, the proportion of voters not Christian or Jewish, or who are unaffiliated, has grown from 15% to 19%. Mazie Horono will be the first Buddhist senator, and Tulsi Gabbard will be the first Hindu in Congress, both from Hawaii. They join an increasingly diverse Congress, including Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Andre Carson from Indiana, both Muslim representatives, and Hark Johnson from Georgia, a Buddhist representative. All of these members of Congress are Democrats.

Voters from ages 18 to 29 represented 19% of all those who voted on Tuesday, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. That's an increase of one percentage point from 2008. Obama captured 60% of them, compared with Mitt Romney's 36%. Although people do tend to become more conservative as they get older, an entire generation is becoming used to voting Democratic.

Voters also demonstrated that basic Republican positions are losing support. The Republican position on gay marriage repels more and more voters. Since the 1990s, the percentage of Americans who favor gay marriage has grown from one-quarter of the electorate to half this year. Last week, ballot measures legalizing same sex marriage were approved in Maine, Maryland and Washington. In Minnesota voters decided not to add a prohibition of same-sex marriage to the state’s constitution. Across the country, exit polling showed that 49% of voters said their state should legally recognize same-sex marriage, and 46% said it should not.

Even in the South, the only region where a majority opposes gay marriage, that proportion has been steadily shrinking. Every age group has been increasing its support for gay marriage, and those born before 1945, who are the most opposed, are being replaced every day by voters under 30, who overwhelmingly support it.

Exit polling showed other major issues where Republican ideology has fallen out of favor. A poll by Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future showed that 70% support raising taxes on top earners, while keeping the taxes of others at the same level. Two-thirds of those polled said that any plan would be “unacceptable” if it did not raise taxes on the rich, if it continued to tax capital gains at a lower rate than wages, or if it lowered taxes on corporations.

In a different exit poll, 65% said most illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.

But here’s a hopeful note for the future. Perhaps Republicans will realize that they might be able to increase the size of one of their reliable voting blocs. As is usually the case in presidential elections, those with incomes over $50,000 voted Republican. If the Republicans did not so flagrantly place themselves in the lap of the very wealthy, if they respected the significance of good middle-class jobs in both the public and private sectors, if they developed policies which made it more likely that middle-income Americans could get good health insurance, good mortgages, and good educations, they might help the American economy and their future political prospects.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 13, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 24: At Last, It’s Over

Since the first Republican primary debate in May 2011, we have endured 18 months of constant campaigning. Perhaps this campaign actually began earlier, in October 2010, when Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Presidential campaigns in the US last far longer than in other democracies. Spending here is vastly greater. What do we citizens get out of it?

We get repetition. Obama and Romney boiled down their political visions into a few bite-sized slogans, which they repeated a thousand times. Even in their debates, they fell back on slogans, instead of explanations. Over the final months of this campaign we learned very little new about either candidate.

We get polls. The media devotes far too much money and column inches and screen time to constant polling. The Pew Research Center calculated that only 22% of news coverage concerned the candidates’ policy positions in the last 2 months. Instead we get poll after poll telling us how other people might vote in the future. Nate Silver, whose 538 website provides the most interesting daily commentary on the polls, wrote last week that the polls just before the election looked like the polls in June. After four months of relentless campaigning, hundred of millions of dollars in ads, and four debates, few voters have changed their minds.

We don’t get what we need to know about the candidates. They tell us what makes them look good. Occasionally we get a peek behind the scenes, in unguarded moments, when candidates say what they really believe. Still it’s all talk.

Only in real life can we get the information we need to make good judgments about candidates and policies. “Superstorm” Sandy gave us a frightful dose of real life. The East Coast, where I lived most of my life, and New York, where I grew up, were hit hard. Like the people in Joplin, Missouri, in New Orleans, and everywhere else where freakishly destructive weather wreaks havoc on human life, the Easterners will recover and rebuild. They will look out for each other as much as they can. They will be thankful for the prompt and professional help of charitable organizations.

And they will look to governments to do the rest. Local governments are the first line of public defense, but they are still trying to get the water out of their offices. The power, resources, and reach of state governments and especially the federal government have been crucial in saving lives, limiting damage, moving supplies in and water out, and restoring transport and commercial life. The photos of President Obama and Governor Christie together on the ground and in the air represent the response to disaster that a modern democratic nation must provide.

Now we see clearly what this campaign has been about. The Republican budget plan, authored by Paul Ryan, envisions drastic cuts in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and in other agencies like it. Mitt Romney wants the federal government out of the business of disaster relief. His philosophy says private enterprise can do everything better, so in the June 2011 Republican debate he specifically said about FEMA: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Moderator John King asked once more if Romney was referring to “disaster relief”. Romney said, “We cannot afford to do these things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.”

George Bush put a hack in charge of FEMA. Romney wants to make public disaster relief into an opportunity for investors to make money.

Those opportunities will increase in the future. Although Republicans continue to put politics above science, a growing majority of climate scientists believe that global warming is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. Capitalists agree: the giant German reinsurance company Munich Re issued a report in October titled “Severe Weather in North America”. It said that global warming “particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.”

Republican policy will mean relief for profit, outside of public control, in a new age of deadly storms. Democratic policy will mean strong public control of relief combined with an effort to slow down global warming.

Which did you vote for?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 6, 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 23: Seeking the Best Voting System

A local voting controversy is brewing in my Midwestern hometown. Although our city council is elected in wards, as is true across the country, the 7 members of the school board are all elected at-large. One of the inevitable results of such at-large voting is that the poorer sections of town are under-represented or unrepresented. A group of local activists, Save Our Schools, is trying to put a different proposal before the voters: electing the school board by districts, insuring that every ward is directly represented.

These are two competing versions of democratic voting. Our Constitution enshrines both into the elections for Congress. Members of the House of Representatives are elected in districts within states, while Senators have been elected at-large in the states since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

The argument for replacing at-large with district-by-district voting for our local school board is strong. It takes much greater resources to run an at-large campaign in our whole school district of 27,000 people, than in one ward of about 4,000. At-large elections thus typically result in the election of candidates from the wealthier sections of a city. Where there are significant minority populations, at-large elections make it harder for minority candidates to win. For this reason, many southern municipalities switched to at-large voting in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as a way of maintaining white control in places with large black populations.

The bias in at-large voting has been demonstrated here in Illinois. In 1987, Springfield changed its city council from at-large to districts due to a voting rights lawsuit: the first African-American councillor since 1911 was then elected. When Danville eliminated their at-large seats in the same year, their 120-year history of electing only white men was ended. Since then 5 African-Americans, a Latino, a Native American, and 8 women have been elected. There have been only two minority members of the Jacksonville school board over the past 20 years.

The current school board has no members from the eastern and poorer half of the city. Recently the school board voted to close an elementary school in the east, without any voting members who live in that neighborhood. The unrepresentativeness of the board may contribute to the lack of interest in its work. Under 20% of registered voters participate in school board elections. Recently the board proposed a county-wide sales tax to fund the schools, replacing state and federal funds which have been cut. The measure was soundly defeated.

Our local voting controversy is about how to best represent our citizens. Across the US much more serious voting controversies have erupted this election season, because there are some attempts to make it more difficult for some voters to participate.

In Florida a majority of voters vote early. Yet the Republican state government reduced the number of days of early voting from 14 to 8 after Obama succeeded in turning out huge numbers of early black voters in 2008. In particular the Sunday before Election Tuesday was eliminated, after 2008's “Souls to the Polls” campaign brought African Americans directly from church to the polls. Similar reductions in early voting were implemented in Ohio by a Republican state government. A different means of voter suppression was attempted by Republicans in Maine, who passed a law in 2011 ending the practice of allowing registration on Election Day. Voters in Maine then repealed this law.

These are genuine efforts to make it more difficult for potential Democratic voters to vote. Here in Jacksonville the issue is how best to represent all voters equally. A thorough discussion of the merits of ward-based voting for the school board, and then a citywide vote on the issue would be the most democratic way to decide what form of democracy was best. The school board could decide to put this question on the ballot. But when it was brought up to them, they declined to take it seriously. The other means to bring the issue up is to get 5% of local voters to sign a petition to get the proposition on the next ballot.

A school board which represented the whole city would put this question on its own agenda for open discussion. It might mean that some current board members would eventually lose their seats, but the board as whole would be more representative of every neighborhood, and thus more able to rally voters to offer more financial support.

There is not just one way to create democracy. Even when everybody gets to vote, certain types of voting systems can make it more difficult for poor or minority populations to be involved, to have a voice in governance. We should seek not merely democracy, but the best possible democracy.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 1, 2012