Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Disadvantage of Being White

In my lifetime the shift toward equality has been remarkable. Until the late 1960s the preferential treatment of whites and men was so normal that questioning it made headlines. That form of white male privilege is gone. Quite a few white men are so upset at the loss of that privilege that they now complain about discrimination.

On the online debate forum Debate.org, you can read dozens of white male complaints about discrimination against them. A study by Harvard and Tufts sociologists in 2011 quantifies this white certainty that they are now the underprivileged. White and black men and women were asked to rate the amount of discrimination against both ethnic groups. They all agreed that through the 1960s, there was significant discrimination against blacks and virtually none against whites. But then opinions diverge. Whites believe that discrimination against blacks has now nearly disappeared, while discrimination against themselves has greatly increased, well past the amount against blacks. The researchers summarized: “Whites believe...the pendulum has now swung beyond equality in the direction of anti-white discrimination.”

White feelings of discrimination are more common among the working class, according to a 2012 survey: about 60% of white working-class Americans said that discrimination against whites is as great as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while 39% of college-educated whites believe that.
Those feelings are much more likely among conservatives, older Americans and people in the South.

Such beliefs are comforting to whites, especially men, who are dissatisfied with their lives. It’s all because of discrimination against them! Racist whites were delighted about the results of that study. On the neo-Nazi website Stormfront, one responder had a great idea, expressed in a typically racist manner: “Someone should make a youtube video with White and Black equally qualified job applicants (or even make the White person more qualified to be even more realistic) and drop some hint that one applicant is a Negro. I guarantee that the Black job applicant will be getting a call back while the White applicant is plain out of luck.”

Well, someone has done that, or something like it. In response to job ads in newspapers, the National Bureau of Economic Research sent out 5000 resumes with names that sounded black or white, like Lakisha and Jamal, or Emily and Greg. Although the resumes were the same in every other respect, “white” names received 50% more callbacks than “black” names. That racist result was true across a variety of industries, including employers who advertise “equal opportunity”. Having a “white” name was equivalent to eight more years of experience for a “black” applicant.

A similar study this year of possible racism was done by sending a white and a minority tester of the same age and gender posing as a possible home renter or buyer. Across 8000 tests in 28 cities across the US, blacks were shown 11% fewer rentals and 17% fewer homes than whites. Whites were likely to be offered lower rents, or quoted lower prices. This was a significant improvement over the first time this study was done in 1977, but still far from equality, much less anti-white discrimination.

Some people wondered whether the election of Barack Obama meant an era of racial equality had finally arrived. We know better now.            Suppose Hillary is elected President in 2016. Would that mean that women’s equality has been achieved? I know some white men who would probably go further – they would say that being a woman is an advantage, that another nail has been put into the coffin of white men, now always at a disadvantage.

Too much attention is paid to the few women and the few African Americans who manage to reach high positions. What counts is the next election, the next promotion, the next hire. Will a woman have an equal chance? Will an African American have any chance?

Would Hillary’s election mean that a woman, Republican or Democrat, has an equal chance as a man in the next election? Of course not.

All the complaints about affirmative action and the whining by white men that they now suffer from discrimination imply one thing – that less qualified women and minorities are being unfairly put in front. But it’s very hard to find any such examples. Much more likely is that less qualified white men get the nod. Hence the slow pace toward equality of opportunity.

We have not reached equality, much less some fantasy world where having been the object of discrimination forever gives one extra power. We have reached a point far enough away from unquestioned white male privilege that the reduction in that advantage is being felt. None of the complainers can cite a single study that shows any real privilege for minorities or for women. But that won’t stop the whining.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 26, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Website That Didn’t Work

Many people have offered explanations for why the Affordable Care Act’s website, HealthCare.gov, has not worked as planned. Some blame President Obama, as if he were the programmer responsible. Some blame “government” more generally, meaning that government cannot do anything well, certainly not as well as private enterprise. Some blame liberalism, linking the politics of health care with the technological implementation of signing up for insurance. Many of these explanations are openly partisan, created by conservatives who so badly want the ACA to fail that they shut down the whole government.

Certainly Obama must take some responsibility, as chief promoter of the legislation for which the website is supposed to act as gateway. Although he was far away from the details of constructing the website, he took political credit for winning the most ambitious transformation of American health care since the passage of Medicare in 1965. Because Republicans have attacked this legislation so vehemently since the day it was signed in 2010, the political significance attached to how it would work grew enormously. Obama must take blame for two sets of failures: the technical problems of the website and the massive cancellations of private insurance policies that contradict his oft-stated promise that those who liked their health care plans could keep them. These two failures have significantly damaged the Democrats, but more important, they have made life more difficult for millions of Americans.

Republicans cannot give away all of the blame, though. They decided well before the ACA came to a vote that they were going to oppose every element of health care reform. The possibility of reaching compromise ended already in July 2009, just six months after Obama took office, when Republican senators vowed to defeat any Democratic bill: minority leader Mitch McConnell said, “We’re doing everything we can to defeat it.”

That was just the beginning of Republican efforts to torpedo ACA, a story which is well known. At the federal level, House Republicans kept trying to repeal the bill. They refused to provide the funds requested by the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the ACA. At the state level, Republican-controlled states refused to work with the federal government to implement the insurance exchanges.

Is this just normal politics? Not if we look at the first version of Obamacare, which we could call Romneycare in Massachusetts. When Governor Mitt Romney exulted about passage of his most significant legislative achievement in 2006, he was flanked by Democrats. The Massachusetts health care bill was a bipartisan creation, written by Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who is a Democrat, and Robert Moffit, from the conservative Heritage Foundation. After its passage, Democrats helped to implement it. Now it functions to increase the number of people with insurance and reduce the annual growth of insurance costs. That’s how government is supposed to work.

Here’s one more reason, perhaps the most important, why HealthCare.gov failed to work properly. Giant new computer systems usually fail. Other huge government IT projects have had similar results. Last year, the Air Force scrapped a software project that cost $1 billion over seven years. A spokesman said that the Expeditionary Combat Support System “has not yielded any significant military capability.”

In case anyone believes that government is the problem here, giant commercial IT projects also fail. Last year, Apple rolled out Apple Maps after two years of development as a competitor to Google Maps, but it made embarrassing errors, and CEO Tim Cook apologized publicly. A year later, however, Apple Maps is successfully taking customers away from Google. The 2010 merger of United Airlines and Continental caused massive foul-ups when the two reservation systems could not cooperate properly. In August, the Department of Transportation fined United because 9000 refund requests from customers were still delayed.

These are not isolated cases. One survey of thousands of big IT development projects estimated that over 40% failed and 52% were “challenged”, meaning over budget, behind schedule or not meeting user expectations. Even if those numbers are exaggerated, the likelihood of HealthCare.gov working on its first day, or even in its first month, was small.

That takes us back to the beginning – the responsibility of the Obama administration to integrate this knowledge into their planning. Because several different software development companies worked on different parts of the website, and its proper functioning required computer systems from many different government agencies and insurance companies to mesh smoothly, a long period of testing was necessary before the public rollout. That didn’t happen.

The Obama administration failed to deliver what it promised. Republican obstructionism contributed to the failure. But now more people who are eligible are enrolling for Medicaid. People who have signed up are already saving money on insurance. Eventually the website problems will be fixed. Only then will we be able to weigh the value of this singular reform of our health care system.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 19, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Trust in Government

Tea Party adherents don’t trust government. They want less government, small government, maybe no government. For them, government can do no right. Everything that government bureaucrats do could be done better by private enterprise.

That’s the way most political commentary about the right wing goes these days. I think it’s partially wrong. Certainly Tea Party Republicans don’t trust our government: a Pew Research Center poll last month showed that only 3% trusted the federal government to “do what is right” most of the time. 55% of them said they were angry with the federal government, twice as many as among other Republicans or Democrats.

Conservatives talk a lot about shrinking government, but when they are in power they do no such thing. Federal spending increased in each year of the Reagan administration and each year of George Bush’s presidency. So did the federal deficit, which skyrocketed during both Republican presidencies. Rick Perry, Tea Party favorite and Governor of Texas since December 2000, has doubled his state’s spending since he took office.

Conservatives want government to stop doing some things and do much more of others. Their political targets for reduction represent liberal programs they don’t like. They hate that many of our state governments now allow marriage between homosexuals. They don’t want the federal government to prevent discrimination against homosexuals. When the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act last week, only 10 Republicans voted for it, and 32 against. Speaker John Boehner says he won’t even bring the bill for a vote in the House.

They don’t want the government to prevent companies from polluting the environment. Only 22% of Tea Party Republicans have a favorable view of the Environmental Protection Agency, while 58% of Independents and 77% of Democrats view the EPA favorably.

Conservatives don’t want the federal government to use tax dollars to help the poorest Americans get by. House Republicans want to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade. But the huge subsidies for big agribusiness were left virtually untouched.

Conservatives don’t want any government to restrict a person’s ability to buy an automatic weapon. TeaParty.org says “Gun ownership is sacred,” which is a strange statement from people who tend to take the Bible literally.

They don’t like the National Labor Relations Board, which tries to make sure workers are treated fairly. Republicans in the Senate held up President Obama’s appointments to fill vacant seats on the NLRB.

Small government works well as a rallying cry, but it is designed to mislead. Listen to Tea Party politicians, and you’ll get an earful about bigger government. Preventing abortions. Regulating marriage. Building walls around our borders. Forcing schools to tell Biblical stories as science. Continuing the war on marijuana, which has forced an enormous expansion of our prison system. Reinforcing the Patriot Act and its global network of surveillance.

TeaParty.org lists as one of its core beliefs that “Intrusive government must be stopped.” But just a little further along on that list is “Traditional family values are encouraged.” That is code for imposing an evangelical religious agenda on American politics. A Tennessee Tea Party group says its mission is “Putting God back in our schools - on our money and in our lives to govern our country.” A New York Times article in 2011 said, “The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”

Tea Party supporters say they don’t trust government. If they had power, I believe they would use government to make their intrusive agenda into law. Suddenly the power of the state would be their friend. I don’t trust Tea Party politicians to shrink government.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 12, 2013