About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Race, generational politics, and the Democrats great opportunity


The whitening of the Republican Party, and the great white Boomer estate sale

In the June 7th 2012 online edition of the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow broke down the findings of the recent Pew Research Center American Values survey along racial lines.

Blow points to 3 important findings:
First, since 2000, while the percentage of GOP supporters that are white has remained steady (87%), the percentage of Democrats who are white has fallen from 64% to 55%.  Interestingly, the racial breakdown of 'independents' has also changed -- from 79% white in 2000, to 67% white in 2012.  
Blow's conclusion:  "if current trends persist, in a few years the Democratic Party will be a majority minority party."   
Second, whites, blacks and Latinos often have very different views about poverty, opportunity and the role of government.  
Blow's conclusion:  because the Democrats are increasingly diverse racially (blacks, Latinos), while the Republicans are not, these racially divergent views are going to profoundly affect the national debate in this election year.
Third, swing voters (those who are undecided, who lean towards a candidate, or who say that they could change their mind) are overwhelmingly and disproportionately white (nearly 3/4).  Pew found that these voters lean more towards Obama on issues like civil liberties and the role of labor unions, but are closer to Romney on the social safety net, immigration, and affirmative action.  
Blow's conclusion here is implied rather than stated, but the implication is pretty clear:  Obama will lose if the focus of the 2012 campaign is on these 'racially charged issues.'  The deeper implication is that the GOP would benefit from a campaign that is focused on these things.

I don't have any major quibbles with Blow's analysis, though some of the data he cites really pushes one towards a more radical conclusion, one which he didn't hint at, even obliquely:  
As the Democratic Party slowly begins to reflect the demographic changes underway in the country (in its constituencies, if not yet in its positions), the Republican Party is increasingly becoming the Defense of White Privilege Party, and its short-term electoral interests are leading it even further in that direction.   
Of course, behind the curtain an awful lot of what Republican policymakers actually do has much more to do with the protection of capital (particularly financial capital) than the protection of white privilege per se -- but the nudges, winks and dog whistles, particularly for the Tea Party folks, are often racially inflected.  

And if the GOP's defense of the current structure of American wealth (and its defunding of those institutions which might offer wider access to it or challenge it) isn't at the same time a defense of a certain kind of white privilege, what is it?  If those who have climbed the ladder are overwhelmingly white, and you pull the ladder up behind you, what (who) have you defended?  There is no reason to think that because the Party houses within it a supposedly cosmopolitan financial elite and an aging coalition of economically and racially insecure whites, that these differences will somehow temper the racial nature of its appeal.  For most of the history of our country, corporate and financial interests have been entirely comfortable and compatible with a white supremacist politics.

Almost every major policy position the Republican Party now takes will work to the benefit of white voters, and to the detriment of citizens of color.  Attacks on public employee unions and Paul Ryan's call for massive cuts in non-defense spending has (and will) disproportionately affect black and Hispanic workers.  Likewise with pay freezes for public workers, and pension and health insurance cutbacks.  All of this constitutes an assault on a black middle class that has already seen billions of dollars of its wealth stripped away by sub-prime lending and the collapse of the housing market -- with these things, in turn, enabled by financial deregulation and the refusal to meaningfully address housing discrimination and residential segregation.  

Democrats may try to take some comfort in the belief the GOP's coalition of cosmopolitan financial capital and economically and racially insecure whites will inevitably blow apart, as the latter gradually begins to see what is truly 'the matter with Kansas.'  This comfort, however, is misplaced -- at least in the short-term.  What holds this coalition together at the moment is a unifying hostility to the nature and reach of the modern American state.  Financial elites largely maintain the same position on this issue that they have since they wormed their way into the Republican Party in the 1860s and 1870s:  government should be small and weak, except when it aids in the accumulation of capital, and protects it against internal and external competition.  Insecure whites, particularly those who increasingly affiliate themselves with the Tea Party, believe that the young, the lazy and the dark are parasitically living off of the hard work of whites -- aided by President Obama.  

Of course, the GOP hostility to government (and labor) as a counterweight to concentrated economic power and the inherent vicissitudes of life in a market society directly challenges the civil and social rights that have enabled whatever progress toward racial justice we've achieved in the past half-century.  A government with such a diminished reach inevitably comforts the comfortable, and afflicts the afflicted.  That it will afflict a large number of white Americans too -- particularly the young -- is clear.  The future of the country will depend upon whether these white Americans will answer the GOP's racial siren song, or make common cause with their fellow citizens who represent the nation's demographic future.  

While at first blush all of this seems to be about fiscal conservatism, it really isn't.  You can't balance budgets or grow the economy (or govern effectively and justly) with massive tax cuts, and greatly diminished public investments in infrastructure, institutions, and people.  Not only is the GOP no longer the party of Teddy Roosevelt; it isn't even the party of its Whiggish predecessor Henry Clay.  

But more revealing is the nature of the rhetoric on the Right:  we have witnessed the revival of the racially-tinged language of "government dependency," courtesy of the Tea Party.   

Blow notes that a remarkable 90% (!) of Romney's supporters are white (87% of Republicans are), and that white independents also move into the Romney camp when the focus is on social programs and immigration, which he describes as 'racially charged issues.'  

There is no inherent reason why the discussion of social programs during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression should be 'racial' in nature, particularly since the vast majority of poor Americans are white, and whites are by far the greatest beneficiaries of the welfare state.  Immigration isn't inherently a 'racially charged' issue either; it is a demographic issue, perhaps, but the push and pull factors that shape the flow of immigration are largely economic.

The deeper question is this:  what makes the social safety net and immigration 'racially charged' issues?  Perhaps this is obvious, but it needs to be stated:  it is white Americans who make these subjects 'racial.'  Not blacks, not Latinos, not liberals, and not Democrats.  Whites.

It is well known that by the middle of this century, 'whites' (as Americans have come to define them since World War II) will no longer constitute a majority of the population of the United States.  In many places, this has either already happened, or soon will.  On the eve of the financial crash, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that non-Hispanic whites would become a minority in the country in 2042, eight years earlier than had previously been estimated.

The collision of the Great Recession with demographic change has lent our already-polarized national politics a discomforting flavor of racial apocalypse, diverting many Americans -- and most of the Republican Party -- away from the inequalities that truly matter, and toward a paranoid defense of the favored racial quarter.  We can see this in our daily lives, as American metropolitan areas re-segregate by race, while economic segregation metastasizes across the national landscape.  We can see it in the racialized rhetoric of the Tea Party.  And we can see it in the 'pull-up-the-ladder-of-opportunity' policies that the GOP increasingly recommends.  

White Americans, of course, aren't monolithic.  The Pew Survey makes clear that while a lot of whites seem to be hunkering down in the Republicans' racial redoubt (particularly older whites), those who continue to define themselves as Democrats increasingly share the views of most blacks and Latinos not only on economics, opportunity and the role of government, but also on the issues of immigration, affirmative action and social programs.  The Survey indicates that this is particularly true for younger white voters.  

The percentage of Republicans calling for "tighter immigration controls" has ticked slightly upward over the past twenty year, from 78% to 84%.  There has, however, been a decided downward shift in opinions among Democrats, reflecting both demographic reality and a growing recognition of that reality by their white constituents, regardless of ideology or education.  In 1992 there was basically no partisan gap on the issue; today, only 58% of Democrats think we need a more restrictive immigration policy, down from 74% in 1992.  While independent voters are more favorably disposed toward tighter controls than Democrats are, the trend is largely downward -- reinforcing my point above, about the increasingly racialized GOP.

From the Survey:
In 1992, Republican and Democratic perceptions of the 'threat' immigrants posed to American values differed little; voters in each party were evenly split.  Today, there is a substantial gap:  60% of Republicans believe that immigrants pose such a threat, while just 39% of Democrats do.  Indeed, regardless of ideology or education, Democrats do not perceive immigrants as a threat, though the numbers do vary; the exact opposite is the case among Republicans.  

There also seems to be an age correlation.  While those between 18-29 and 30-49 are (for lack of a better term) 'pro' immigrant, older voters are not.

According to the Survey, Tea Party Republicans and Tea Party-leaning independents both seem to be more likely to be hostile to immigrants and skeptical of the persistence of racial discrimination than do Republicans more generally.  

In other words, the Tea Party is a force for the continuing racialization of the GOP, as much as its most prominent advocates wish to deny it.

The GOP has effectively become the anti-immigrant party, as Thomas Edsall noted recently.  Its constituents will not support candidates perceived as 'pro-immigrant,' as John McCain discovered in 2010.  And within the larger context of economic insecurity -- when employment appears to be a zero-sum game -- immigration has also become an effective wedge issue for the Republicans.  In 2010 and again this year, they are using it to appeal to economically stressed moderate white Democrats, who fear that immigrants are siphoning off jobs, tax dollars and public benefits, and that all of this has been enabled by the self-evidently 'foreign' Barack Obama.  This of course ignores stacks of research indicating that immigrants are vital to the economic health of the country, and to the long-term viability of the very entitlement programs the Republicans say they are depleting.  Indeed, the greatest threat to Social Security and Medicare is posed by the very candidates Tea Party voters support.

The Republican House vote margin among whites in 2010 (62% to 38%) was higher than in any House election since 1968, when exit polling first began.  The GOP is shoving all of its white chips to the center of the table.

For Democrats, there is an optimistic scenario that can be drawn from this.  There is also a dangerous -- even catastrophic -- one that can also be drawn.  The damage inflicted by the latter would extend far beyond partisan imbalances, and do permanent harm to our democracy.

The more positive one, to be blunt, is that the combination of demographic change and the GOPs over-reaction to the demands of financial capital and the coming death-rattle of white Boomer privilege makes the electoral future of the Democratic Party (or some new party that emerges from it) very bright indeed.

Assuming there is anything left to inherit, once the White Baby Boomer Estate Sale has concluded.

What's the negative scenario?  That in their effort to 'take their country back' and 'free up' capital to finance that effort, white Republicans will pull the entire structure down around them, diminishing their own future and everyone else's.

Let's start with the scary stuff first, so we can finish on a high note.  


****************
Burning down the (white) house -- a brief history of a bad future

What is the apocalyptic vision of which I speak?  

That as the death rattle of white privilege gets louder, the group of white American dead-enders who continue to rage at the dying of the light will get too large and too influential, and the Republican Party will have boxed itself in.  

That rather than occasionally winning elections and governing the polity in the presence of a loyal minority, they will choose to change the nature of the polity itself.  The temptation to pull up the ladder, close the doors, and slam shut the ballot boxes as the new day dawns will be too hard to resist.  The result may be an effort to deprive these new Americans of their access to the levers of economic and political power, by changing the laws (through legislation and through the courts), by undermining the institutions that provide such access, and by underfunding, eliminating or 'drowning in the bathtub' the public institutions and programs that shape and underpin the opportunity structure.

It has happened before -- resistance, and the contraction of freedom and opportunity.  As school children we are taught that the American story has involved a gradual-but-inevitable opening up of freedom and access, from the Revolution to the present.  We have slowly if somewhat reluctantly included an ever-larger group of people into the American family, granting civil and voting rights, it is said.  

The problem with this triumphalist narrative is that it isn't true.  

Particularly with regard to the vote, there has been a hard fought ebb and flow, as Alexander Keyssar makes clear in his brilliant book The Right to Vote.  The first time this nation faced massive changes to its demography and identity, in a broader context of rising inequality and insecurity, was in the period between the end of the Civil War, and the Great Depression.  And while the reaction of some was to try to humanize industrial capitalism, and welcome the emergence of a polyglot and contested America, there was an equally strong pull in the other direction -- toward limitations on the franchise (Jim Crow in the South, voting obstacles in the North), toward immigration restriction, toward judicial doctrines and rulings that hampered government and protected capital, and toward an intense and often violent effort to protect and reinforce white privilege (lynching in the South, racially restrictive covenants, riots, and segregation in the North) and capital (strike-breaking and repression by police, state militias, the US military, and court injunctions).  It was only when the Great Depression so thoroughly delegitimized many of these rear-guard actions that a new path became possible.  But there was nothing inevitable about the outcome, and we would be living in a very different country today if the herrenvolk nation that millions of 'white' Americans had struggled so mightily for had carried the day, or if the United States had become the 'company town' that so many representatives of capital had sought.

Does this sound too far-fetched for the present?  Let's look at my description of potential calamities a few paragraphs up:

"Rather than occasionally winning elections and governing the polity in the presence of a loyal minority, they will choose to change the nature of the polity itself.  The temptation to pull up the ladder, close the doors, and slam shut the ballot boxes as the new day dawns will be too hard to resist." 

Now let's take a look at a brief list of policies, decisions, developments and campaigns of the past decade or two.  I will leave off those things which can be attributed to policy drift -- things that could have been passed or created to make good things happen or bad ones stop, but weren't:

  • Citizens United (look at my helpful visual above).  The legitimacy, moral justifiability, and economic effectiveness of the New Deal mixed economy resided in its effort to maintain the balance this cartoon depicts.  We can perhaps all acknowledge that in recent decades the GOP (and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats) have placed a thumb on Capital's side of the scale.  But what if one of the two political parties abandons all pretense to the need for balance, and simply cuts the rope holding up that pipe-smoking fellow on the left?  That's Citizens United.
  • The evisceration of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere 
  • The restriction, for the first time in decades, of access to the franchise.  See the systematic destruction of ACORN, the creation of the false issue of voter fraud, and the passage of voter ID laws
  •  
  • The threat and use of the filibuster in the Senate, requiring a 'super-majority' for the passage of laws in a legislative body that is already undemocratic because of its representational structure
  • The rise of the incarceration state.  It has deprived millions of young (and disproportionately black and Latino) adults of opportunity and the right to vote, while gobbling up billions in resources that would have been better spent preventing the...
  • Massive disinvestment in public higher education, and the sharp drop in funding for grants and need-based college aid
  • Public school 'reforms' like vouchers, charter schools and high stakes testing,  which are just as likely to delegitimize and undermine the 'public' aspect of K-12 as to improve it (see Philadelphia and New Orleans)
  • Generations of regressive and unpaid-for tax cuts -- dropping tax revenue as a percentage of GDP to its lowest level in more than half-century -- which have crippled the ability of government at all levels to fund public goods, protect/expand/reform the opportunity structure, and prepare the nation for global warming and the coming transformation in energy resources.  This has also and unnecessarily created a zero-sum political climate.
  • Financial deregulation, which has corrupted our political system, caused massive disinvestment in the real economy, and saddled two generations of Americans with a kind of debt peonage (particularly young adults, since student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy)
  • Austerity economics, which threatens to worsen almost everything I've listed above
  • While the US Supreme Court 'saved' ObamaCare, the minority opinion (and Chief Justice Roberts' delicate balancing act) portends more serious long-term developments.  The Court came very close to a massive overreach, nearly sending us all the way back to 1937, undermining the ability of the American people to collectively govern their economic affairs, and essentially returning us to a pre-New Deal state of nature.  Will this happen?  Based on the health care ruling, it is reasonable to assume that there are at least 4 justices on the court (Alito, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy) who would prefer it.  Roberts probably does too.  We're that close, people.
But while the Republicans -- and a lot of Democrats -- seem happy (or resigned) to continue bringing out the dead, I'm pleased to report that we aren't dead yet.

We might even get a little better.  Perhaps even pull through.

Why?  How?

Because all of those things that have sent so many older white voters scurrying into the Republican tent also offer opportunities for the Democrats -- and uniquely for them -- if they can take advantage.

Don't trust anyone over 40...or, why young adults are getting screwed like Americans, but might roll like Europeans

There are three important things at work here. 

First, with every great crisis comes an opportunity.  

In the next decade or so, we will likely see the almost complete collapse of the opportunity structure constructed during the New Deal era (trust me, this will argument will become optimistic in just a moment).  Two-thirds of people polled by the Wall Street Journal expressed a lack of confidence that life for their children's generation will be better than it has been for them.  This loss of confidence, says David Wessel, "is corrosive."  The 'social question' -- the reconciliation of capitalism and mass democracy -- is once again on the table.  

When you read about high unemployment and underemployment rates for young adults today, do not be fooled into thinking that this is just a temporary reflection of the economic downturn.  As the iceberg rapidly reveals itself above the surface -- no rising tide here -- we will soon come to understand that the mechanisms which have for decades connected working and middle class young adults to the resources, institutions and experiences of work, wealth creation, social mobility, economic security and full inclusion in the American polity are fundamentally broken.  And I don't mean that they don't work for the poor and for people of color, though that is clearly true; I mean that they do not work for the vast majority of young white middle class adults either.

When trying to balance the equality implicit in citizenship with the inequality implicit in markets, we Americans have always preferred education over both the welfare state, and redistribution.  But that preference no longer works.  

Why?  

Because the striking increase in inequality in the U.S. over the past 3 decades is rooted in deeper inequalities in our political economy, which have in turn generated and reinforced educational inequalities -- not, primarily, the other way around.  It is true, of course, that education (from toddler to twenty-something) has become much more important for gaining access to primary social goods than it was in the past.  But that has as much to do with the closing off of virtually all other avenues, as it does the actual demand for (or value of) education in the labor market.  

Today, in order to maximize one's chance for obtaining economic security in adulthood, one must attend school before kindergarten, and after high school.  And while K-12 is publicly supported (however inadequately and unequally), pre-K and post-secondary education are not -- or, more accurately, public support often reinforces inequality, rather than mitigating it.  

A child's access to quality pre-K is almost entirely dependent upon the class status of their parents; it is, in other words, a public good that it almost completely privatized.  While this is not yet the case for K-12, at least not formally, there is a sense in which it too is privatized, because of its structural attachment to housing markets, and metropolitan segregation by class and race.  The social geography of American public education ensures unequal funding; because economic and racial segregation remain unchallenged and untouched, federal compensatory spending is largely overwhelmed in its effects.      

And as it turns out, economic inequalities -- reinforced by public policy -- are increasingly being mainlined into our system of higher education too.

While the cost of college (and student loan debt) has dramatically escalated in recent decades, public support has dwindled.  State and local spending on public higher education (which 70% of students attend), reached a 25-year low this year.  From 1990 to 2010, state funding fell 26.1 percent per full-time student.

The decline in public support -- which really constitutes a shifting of costs from the citizenry to individual families and students -- has directly contributed to massive increases in tuition and fees.  From the 1981–82 enrollment year to the 2010–11 enrollment year, the cost of a four-year education nationally increased 145 percent for private school and 137 percent for public school.   Median family income only increased 17.3 percent from 1981–2010.  To put it differently, in 1979 the annual cost of sending a child to a four-year public university was roughly 12% of average family income.  Today, it is 25%.  For private schools, its 58%.

Because the incomes of most American families have been stagnant over this same period, and because of the high opportunity costs of not going to college, this price inflation has of course caused a massive increase in student loan debt.  Two-thirds of graduates from 4 year schools now have student loan debt, owing an average of just over $25,000.  If one includes money borrowed by family members on behalf of students, that number goes up even further.  By contrast, as recently as 1992, only 45% of graduates borrowed money of any sort to pay for school.  

The policy of the Obama administration seems to be to shovel enormous quantities of loan money out the door to American families (though not at the discounted rate the financial sector enjoys).  From the 1944 G.I. Bill through the creation of Pell Grants in 1973, federal policy stressed grants to make college accessible.  But from the 1980s onward, the focus has been on public subsidy of private lending.  The present administration has accelerated this regressive trend, though to its credit, it has tried to change the system from government subsidy of private lenders to direct lending by the federal government (mostly Stafford loans), shifting an estimated $61 billion over ten years from the private lenders back to the taxpayers.  It has also pumped money into the Pell Grant program, and fought to renew the Stafford loan interest rate cut that was enacted in 2007.  The upside is that if the American people were to choose a dramatic change in how we finance college, it could be done, because the 'submerged state' isn't quite as submerged as it was before the financial crisis.  The downside is that the American taxpayer is now on the hook for billions of dollars of student loans at an unnecessarily high rate, while no significant measures -- other than some presidential finger-wagging -- have been taken to reign in costs, or fit these programs into some sort of active labor market policy.

The balance of federal student loans has grown by more than 60% in the last five years.  While this may be better than nothing, one must never forget that debt redistributes wealth upwards, and is a poor substitute for more wide-ranging policies that might create jobs, boost wages, and drop college costs.  Thanks to financial deregulation, particularly the 1998 and 2005 bankruptcy law 'reforms,' student loans have become uniquely exploitative.  Student loans, uniquely, cannot be dismissed through bankruptcy proceedings.  Government can not only garnish your wages (with interest) to recover loan payments; it can even go after unemployment and Social Security benefits.  Since 2005, not even loans from for-profit lenders -- the bottom-feeding predators of the industry -- can be discharged.  Beginning one's work life with such an indenture (which is basically what student loan debt is) creates a series of cascading effects, shaping decisions about career choice, family formation, entrance into the housing market, the purchase of health care, etc.  It has a substantial impact on their parents generation as well (1/3 of all Americans with outstanding student loans are over the age of 40), depleting their home equity and their retirement funds, and leaving them susceptible to bankruptcy.  More broadly, this debt overhang -- much like the larger one in housing -- is suppressing consumer demand, and preventing a full economic recovery.

The current policy regime is essentially a not-so-hidden subsidy to private agents, a prime example of what Suzanne Mettler calls 'the submerged state.'  Basically, she argues, instead of creating public programs with clear (and largely progressive) funding streams in recent decades, we have subsidized the purchase of private goods, often using the tax code.  The health insurance and retirement benefits most Americans get through their employers is the quintessential example of this, along with the home mortgage interest deduction.  'Submerged state' subsidies tend to deceive Americans into thinking that such public goods can be provided and funded by the market, while contributing to the belief that only 'others' make direct use of government largesse.  The regressive politics are compounded by an equally regressive pattern of distribution:  when we subsidize through the tax code, people who are well off and pay more taxes benefit more, because the tax credits are rarely refundable.  Such subsidies are hard to root out, and attempts to do so are politically resisted.  More straight-up public programs -- like Pell Grants at the federal level, or direct budgetary support to public universities at the state level -- are much easier to cut.

Federal support for higher education is another expensive, regressive and counter-productive example of such policies.  Through a combination of tax credits, deductions and interest exemptions, according to Mike Konczal, American taxpayers now pay almost $23 billion a year to "make college tuition and student debt more manageable."  This is enormously wasteful, enriching the financial sector while doing nothing to rein in college costs, reduce student debt, or lower the opportunity costs of not going to college in the first place.  These efforts also, one might add, have nothing to do with a well-conceived and active labor market policy.   

The way we fund higher education in the United States seems almost perfectly designed to make young adults and their parents hyperaware of the extent to which the financialization of the American economy over the past couple of decades has diminished our freedom.  The blood-sucking vampire squid of which Matt Taibbi has written have uniquely and significantly attached themselves to the younger half of the American populace, redistributing wealth (and liberty) upward.  

Let's be clear about what I'm not arguing here.  I am not arguing that today's very high levels of inequality are merely a meritocratic reflection of educational differences in the population -- that the folks at the top have taken off into the stratosphere because the labor market is rewarding their unique skills and credentials, while the rest of us languish because we are unqualified for the 'jobs of tomorrow.'  This old saw is trotted out every decade or so -- remember "A Nation At Risk?" -- and it is incorrect.  The college premium has remained essentially the same over the past decade (it grew slowly in the 90s too), while income inequality has exploded.    The issue is the gap between the top 1% (really, the top 0.1%) and the middle class, and there are very few educational differences between these groups.  

Nor am I arguing that better schools and higher college graduation rates are some sort of answer to our present economic plight, let alone the larger one of inequality itself.  The persistent unemployment of the Great Recession is not structural.  The job shortfall is evident in nearly every sector of the economy, and unemployment has doubled for every educational grouping, including college graduates.  Long-term unemployment is also the same across all education groups.  Our economic sluggishness is a consequence of weak demand, itself the result of decades of wage stagnation, risk-shifting and economic insecurity, the debt overhang (largely caused by the housing market collapse, as well as student loans), and the austerity response of the American government at all levels.      

While our society would no doubt gain from allowing more of us access to what college -- at its best -- can provide, a diminution of inequality would not be one of those benefits, at least not in the absence of other policy changes.  Most of the jobs created in the United States, contrary to popular belief, do not require a college education, and this will not change much in the coming decades.  The twin problems of inequality and recovery are ultimately connected to wage stagnation and economic insecurity.  And wages even for college graduates have declined over the past decade, a trend that is likely to get worse in the face of high unemployment and underemployment, public sector layoffs, wage cuts, and union-busting campaigns.  As a policy matter, thus, the answer to stagnant social mobility, inequality and middle class living standards is not 'college for everyone.'   Promising it constitutes a form of cheap grace -- good politics, bad policy.  What will happen if we dramatically boost college graduation rates, in the absence of other changes in the economy, the labor market, and social policy?  Well for one thing, it would cause a further deterioration in the wages and benefits facing young college graduates, as well as an increase in their indebtedness. 

A better approach would be to lower the opportunity costs of not going to college, by stimulating job growth, empowering workers, instituting a more active labor market policy, and finding ways to increase social and private-sector wages.  Simultaneously, we can work on reducing the cost of going to college by moving public higher education closer to being free -- creating the educational equivalent of a 'public option' -- and changing our bankruptcy laws.  As Lawrence Mishel has argued, the enormous increase in inequality over the past 30 years was caused by a "wage deficit," not a skill deficit.  And that wage deficit, in turn, was (and is) a consequence of a power deficit.  The nation's productivity increased by 80% from 1979 to 2009 -- with virtually all of the benefits hoovered up by the wealthiest Americans.  Power and resources have been redistributed upward; pretty much the only thing filtering downward has been risk, debt and stress.  But individual families must still make decisions that are sensible for their children, absent such reforms.  Those jobs that do require a degree are still much more likely to be secure, to pay reasonably well, to offer some possibilities for upward mobility, and to provide access to health and retirement benefits.  As a result, families still feel the need to throw their young people (and their own financial well-being) into the squid tank.  That doesn't mean that public policy has to continue to feed the squid.

Once upon a time, access to higher education was seen as a public good in the United States, as a citizenship right embedded in a larger social contract.  It no longer is, as a consequence of the financial deregulation and defunding of public services that began with the 'Reagan Revolution.'  There have been massive declines in state support for public universities since 1980.  In part as a result, tuition and fees have skyrocketed, far beyond even housing and health care costs -- and well beyond average family wages, which have been more or less stagnant for decades now.  

During the first decade of this century, state and local financing per student fell by 24% nationally, while tuition and fees at state schools increased 72%.  Ohio State University, for example, received 25% of its budget from the state in 1990.  Now, it receives 7%.  In many states (including Ohio), public expenditures on prisons (despite two decades of low crime rates) are now comparable to what is spent on higher education.  How has OSU made up that funding difference?  By increasing tuition and fees 60% (in today's dollars) since 2002.  The University of Virginia received 33% of its budget from the state in 1989.  Today, it receives 12%.  UVA makes up the funding gap in the same way that OSU does.  The state of Massachusetts -- where I teach -- has decreased its funding of public universities by 31% (per FTE student) since 2001, despite a significant increase in student enrollment.


University financial aid has become increasingly merit-based rather than need-based, as schools struggle to attract the children of families capable of carrying the increased financial burden.  

Aid at the federal level has decisively shifted in emphasis from grants to loans.  In 1980, 39 percent of federal financial aid to undergraduates was in the form of loans, and 55 percent was awarded in grants. By 2008, this had shifted to 64 percent of the funds awarded as loans and only 26 percent as grants.  Pell Grants, designed to help young people from lower income families go to college, have not kept up.  In 1979, Pell Grants covered 99% of the cost of community college, 77% of the cost of a 4-year public university, and 36% of a private 4-year school.  By 2010, they covered only 62% of community college, 36% of public university, and 15% of private college tuition and fees.  

College presidents, sadly, seem quite content with the effective privatization of higher education in the United States.  Then again, surrounded as they are by administrators and staffers who increasingly bring a corporate mentality (and salaries) to institutions ill-suited for it, this is not surprising.  Over the last 30 years, the growth of administration and staff has vastly outstripped virtually all other dimensions of the expansion of higher education.  Indeed, this increasingly top-heavy structure is a primary driver of the cost of college, while adding little value.  From 1975 to 2005, according to political scientist Benjamin Ginsburg, the number of colleges, professors, students and BA degrees all increased around 50%.  The number of administrators increased 85%, and the number of administrative staffers increased 240%.   Faculty-student ratios have remained largely unchanged, though of course a higher percentage of those faculty members are part-timers than in the past.  Administrator-student ratios have fallen by nearly 30%, and professional staffer-student ratios by nearly 60%.  

According to a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of college presidents (63%) say students and their families should pay the largest share of the cost of a college education.  Higher education, they imply, is essentially a private consumer good.  Just 48% of the public agrees; an equal share would prefer that the bulk of the cost of a college education be borne by the federal government, state governments, private endowments or some combination.  Surely if the public got its way, one consequence would be increased scrutiny of the salaries of top university administrators -- including presidents.  As has been the case across the vast range of American institutions over the last 3 decades, privatization and deregulation has resulted in a decline in accountability, and a redistribution of risks downward and resources upward.  Private wealth, and public squalor, as J.K. Galbraith once put it.  

One wonders how many more of these institutions can be delegitimized in this way, before something fundamental snaps.

The end result of this situation has been growing inequalities in college access and completion rates, and an overall system that becomes increasingly class stratified with every passing year.  Recent research indicates that our system of higher education may now be creating and consolidating inequality (and ideologically justifying it), rather than the opposite.  Rates of college entry, persistence and graduation have become increasingly unequal in recent decades, at precisely the moment when a college degree became a gatekeeper to the middle class. In 1988 the federal Department of Education began a longitudinal study of students then in the 8th grade, and followed them over the next 12 years, through college and into the labor market.  The study shows striking correlations between family income and high school and college graduation rates, regardless of academic skill.  The most startling finding:  only 29% of high-achieving kids belonging to the lowest income quartile got a college degree, compared to 74% of high-achieving children in the highest quartile.  Indeed, the lowest-performing rich kids were more likely to graduate from college than the highest-performing poor kids.  

While I don't think anyone can argue that the United States has at any point in its history been a meritocracy -- schooling and employment have been too skewed by race and gender for such an argument to be reasonable -- we are rapidly reaching the opposite situation:  in America today, the class status of a child's family increasingly determines that child's future.  This goes well beyond the struggles of the poor; the children of the middle class are finding themselves on the outside looking in, too.  

The situation in K-12 is  of course equally dire, if not more so.  There, the class achievement gap also seems to be widening -- even overtaking (and overlapping) the racial gap.  The achievement gap between the highest and lowest income deciles is 30-40% larger for kids born in 2001 than among those born in 1976.  According to Stanford professor Sean Reardon, family income has become "more predictive of children's academic achievement" at roughly the same time that educational attainment and cognitive skills have become more predictive of adult earnings.  The result, he concludes, is a "feedback mechanism" that is decreasing intergenerational mobility, and increasing inequality with each generation.  

Not only is our educational system no longer maintaining the balance I mentioned above; it is tipping it in the other direction.  

The entire system, from toddlerhood to young adulthood, is reproducing inequality with each passing year.  The collapse of the opportunity structure -- which is obviously connected to educational inequalities, but even more profoundly to inequalities of income and power in the larger economy -- is the greatest issue of our time.  It will only get worse, without a sharp change in direction.  

Young Americans are waiting for that sharp change.  But they won't wait long.  The Republican Party, as presently constituted, is incapable of providing it.  Whether the Democrats can remains to be seen.
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A second reason for optimism is that young Americans are more diverse, more inclined to identify as Democrats, and more skeptical of free market hokum than their elders.  There is ample reason to believe that the experience of the Great Recession for those born between, say, the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, will delegitimize many of the market fundamentalist views which have so dominated our national discourse since 1980.  The Occupy Wall Street movement would seem to indicate this.  Economic journalist Doug Henwood thinks "this may be the most left-thinking younger generation in modern history."  To put this in political terms, if Democrats actually have something to say about opportunity, they may very well have a willing audience.  


Social scientists have long argued that those who come of age during hard times are profoundly changed by the experience, not only in terms of their long-term earning power, wealth accumulation, and economic security, but in terms of their ways of seeing the world, too.  They are likely to be more risk averse in economic terms, for decades after.  This may explain why more than 14% of Americans between 25 and 34 (5.9 million people) are living with their parents today.  Nearly 1/4 of them have college degrees.  A recent Pew Research survey finds the highest share of young adults living in multigenerational households since the 1950s (21.5%), seemingly without social stigma.  This generation is the least geographically mobile in decades -- one article described them as the The Go-Nowhere Generation.”  The likelihood of 20-somethings moving to another state has dropped well over 40% since the 1980s, affecting those with college degrees as well as those without.  

Why has this happened?  Risk aversion is clearly part of the answer.  As Rana Foroohar recently put it, recession babies not only invest more conservatively, they tend to make less money, choose safer jobs, and believe in wealth redistribution and more government intervention.  While they will tend to be frugal with their own money, they will be much less inclined to buy the market fundamentalist nonsense that so many Boomers have fallen prey to.  Their social antennae will be much more attuned to the role that luck and privilege play in economic life, and to the universal ubiquity of risk and insecurity -- that the marketplace, whatever its benefits, does not itself reward virtue.  They will not internalize the judgements of the market, as their Boomer predecessors have so self-destructively done.  

All of us are susceptible to what Roosevelt once called "the hazards and vicissitudes of life," and individuals simply lack the knowledge, efficacy or resources to insure themselves against them.  This generation may understand this implicitly, in much the same way that the one that came of age in the Depression did.  It will also have its own idiosyncratic and valuable slant:  it is more likely to strongly value a sustainable work/family/leisure balance, cultural and economic life that is locally rooted, relationships rather than individualism, and institutions that reflect these things. 


The Republican Party has essentially conceded -- sacrificed -- this emerging America.  To be more specific, white older voters in the party have demonstrated that they are more than willing to throw them in the volcano, if it will buy them a few more years of the 'good old days.'  The Tea Party, if nothing else, is a kind of grey revolution.  According to sociologist Theda Skocpol, it is "very much a reaction by older white conservative Americans who resent and fear what they think might be the political accompaniments of a nation transformed by rising younger cohorts with different experiences, values, and social characteristics."  This stance is typified by the Paul Ryan budget, which essentially pulls up the ladder and wages war on the young -- and on the future. 

Data from the Survey discussed above supports this argument.  A 2011 Pew study of the 'generation gap' and the 2012 election does as well.  Younger voters ('Millennials') are more diverse than their predecessors, and much more likely to be self-identified Democrats.  

The overwhelmingly white 'Silent Generation' -- those born between 1928 and 1945 -- have become increasingly angry about politics, and moved into the Republican Party in large numbers.  

The Survey indicates that this has little to do with economics.  It is, quite simply, about race:  
"Silents are the whitest of the generations and are the least accepting of the new face of America. Compared with younger generations, relatively few Silents see racial intermarriage and the growing population of immigrants as changes for the better."

The generation gap is unmistakable:
A November 2010 poll by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute echoes these findings.  61% of Tea Party supporters and 56% of all Republicans agreed with the statement that "today, discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities."

A study by two UCLA political scientists, presented to the American Political Science Association in 2010, found a big increase in the correlation between Republican identification and conservative beliefs on race, hard work and social mobility.  Most agreed that since white ethnics had overcome discrimination and worked their way up, blacks should do the same, "without any special favors."  If they just tried harder, they could achieve equality.

The racial and generational polarization of the American electorate, quite simply, offers a tremendous opportunity for the Democratic Party -- and a limited future for the GOP, if they continue on their current path.  

Research does predict that 'Generation Recession' may become more cynical about public institutions, and thus have less interest in them; GOP obstructionism in Washington, therefore, may be a wise short-term electoral strategy.  It is ultimately unsustainable, however.  Young Americans appear to be open to the idea that government can do them some good, and skeptical of laissez-faire economics and the politics of austerity.  Connor Kilpatrick describes the Occupy movement as the Millennial generation's "guttural roar that capitalism will not do."  They see that this country is awash in wealth, and don't buy the lie that the coffers are empty, that we have entered an age of scarcity and austerity.

The interest of young Americans in public institutions will ultimately depend upon how much interest public institutions have in them. 

And that gets us to policy.
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Third, we've been here before -- or at least, someplace that looks passably similar.  The Democrats need to learn from their own history, and cultivate the America that is emerging, not the one that is disappearing.  

The gradual inclusion, in conjunction with the reborn labor movement, of Southern and Eastern Europeans and their children into the Roosevelt coalition (and the American body politic) in the 1920s, 30s and 40s was by and large a liberal Democratic accomplishment.  The emergence of a 'majority minority' America is a comparable opportunity.  Let us not forget that while the grandchildren and great grandchildren of these folks (a group which includes me) are thought of as 'white' in 2012, their identities were very much in question in the first few decades of the 20th century.  FDR, the labor movement, World War II and the G.I. Bill all succeeded in 'Americanizing' this broad and diverse (and generally young) working-class 'from the bottom up,' tying them into a broad multi-racial and multi-class coalition that essentially built the modern American opportunity structure from scratch.  I think we can acknowledge the substantial flaws in that structure -- the extent to which both blacks and women were given secondary access to it, the extent to which it trapped and stigmatized the poor as much as it sustained them, the extent to which it fetishized consumption and materialism in the post-war era, even the extent to which it ultimately valorized the private over the public -- while still learning from the historical experience, and seeking to re-boot it for the 21st century.

In other words, the new young multi-racial America (those born since Jacob Hacker's 'Great Risk Shift' began -- after the Bicentennial, let's say) may be primed, more than any generation in quite a while, to listen to a new Democratic vision of inclusion and shared prosperity.  But that vision must move beyond the small-scale 'submerged state' policies of the Clinton era.  

With the exception of the G.I. Bill, the old liberal order was built upon a social safety net that was primarily aimed at Americans in the back-half of their lives.  And that net must not fray.  But the future of the Democratic Party -- and the future of America -- will ultimately rise upon public cultivation of the very young (0-5), the young (18-30), and the not-so-young (30-45).

I'll have a lot more to say in a separate post about what policies this might entail, but let's just try three:  
*  universal, public, and high quality pre-school
*  stakeholder accounts
*  free public higher education.  
All three are affordable (this nation, contrary to conventional wisdom, is sick with wealth).

All three will boost economic growth and productivity.

All three will make American society more just and equal.  

And all 3 will empower a new and relevant Democratic Party for generations.

Do this, and you lay the basis for the new world within the shell of the old.    

We will either have a multi-racial and just democracy, or we will not have a democracy.  Nor, it should be said, will we deserve one.

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