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December 2011
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Housing segregation at new lows

Segregated neighborhoodsA new study by the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute reports that housing segregation is at its lowest level in more than a century. 

Indeed, far fewer African Americans live in neighborhoods that are predominantly black, far fewer white people live in neighborhoods that are predominantly white.

So by that measure at least, American neighborhoods are less segregated than they used to be.

But -- and you knew there would be a "but" -- that still leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Part of the problem is that our historical benchmarks are so lousy. In 1960, half of blacks lived in neighborhoods that were 80 percent black. Today, only two out of ten do. So by that measure, we're making progress. 

But as the Brookings Institution's chief demographer told the New York Times“The average black resident still lives in a neighborhood that is 45 percent black and 36 percent white. At the same time, the average white lives in a neighborhood that is 78 percent white and 7 percent black."

A lot the improvement in what were once predominantly white communities is due to the influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants. And a lot of the improvement in formerly predominantly black communities is due to the large numbers who have moved to the Sun Belt states in recent years.

Meanwhile, people of color continue to live in poorer neighborhoods than whites with comparable incomes.

So let's celebrate progress, without getting complacent. 

Polarization anyone?

LiersAmericans are less politically polarized than you'd think watching TV.

More to the point, we're far less polarized than our political leaders.

I've quoted Keith Poole and others to the effect that Congress has not been so polarized since the Civil War. No wonder so many of us think the political landscape is fracturing into islands of "us" and "them."

Two-thirds of the public thinks we are sharply divided into red and blue states of mind. 

But a new study of national elections over the last 40 years shows pretty convincingly that Americans are actually not very far apart on issues ranging from government-provided healthcare to defense spending and women's equality.

What gives?

Real polarization is pretty much confined to the political elites -- the relatively small number of people who are most committed to their political party and more likely to be politically active. Exaggerating differences turns out to be a powerful tool in getting out the vote, or -- these days -- the nomination.

So that's what they do, and the media, liking nothing more than a good fight, not only cover it, but encourage and enable it.  

Even the estimable Bob Schieffer couldn't resist putting words in Newt Gingrich's mouth on "Face the Nation." He asked Gingrich if he thought Mitt Romney was "too dishonest to be president."

Gingrich was too smart to repeat the words, but launched into his standard complaint that "(Romney) came into the debate prepared to say things that are false. I will let you decide whether that is clever or whether that is really bad."  

Schieffer wasn't too shy to ask his next guest if she agreed with Gingrich's "serious charge" that Romney is "too dishonest to be president." (Transcript here.)

And do it goes. One talking head's question becomes a political cadidate's "serious charge." 

Votes, ratings -- chasing either at all costs is what threatens to drive us apart.

Polarization anyone?




What's Newt up to?

Newt-yodelsNewt Gingrich likes to call Obama "the food stamp president."

He did it last August and he's been repeating it ever since, most recently yesterday.

What's Newt up to?

Clearly, he's pandering to the same resentment Reagan exploited when he complained about "welfare queens."

But there may be more to it. Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler has done a great deal of research showing that racial attitudes are still very strong predictors of how people feel about Barack Obama. It even spills over into attitudes toward initiatives like his healthcare reform and his Supreme Court appointments.

These racial attitudes contributed to what Tesler calls "the 'otherization' of Barack Obama by his political opponents."

Indeed, it shows itself in the so-called "birther" movement. More than half of GOP primary voters still believe Obama was born outside the U.S. And accusations that Obama is a closet Muslim still pop up from time to time at Republican campaign rallies.

Is it  merely a coincidence that Gingrich has been calling Obama "the food stamp president" while also implying that African-Americans would rather be on food-stamps than get a job?

Hardly. Newt is playing a subtle race card, appealing to people who are OtherDim or OtherDumb. 




TrustPR giant Edelman conducts an annual survey of public trust in government, business, the media, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

It may have started as a way to promote the firm, but the findings have been consistently insightful.

This year's wave (the twelfth) is no different:

  • Trust in governments declined precipitously around the world in 2011.
  • For the first time, nearly half of the public says it doesn't trust governments to tell the truth.
  • Trust in business fell everywhere except in China, where nearly three-quarters of the public have confidence in it.
  • CEO credibility fell even more precipitously than trust in the institutions they lead.
  • Although business is more trusted than government, nearly half the public believe governments don't regulate businesses enough.
  • The media was the only institution trusted more in this wave than in the last.
  • But social media saw the biggest rise in trust, surging by 75 percentage points.
  • NGOs remain the most trusted institutions overall.

For more, see Edelman's web site or this executive summary.


Alinsky lives

AlinskyIn a victory speech following his win in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich called President Obama a "Saul Alinsky radical."

But ironically enough Gingrich can credit one of Alinsky's core precepts for his victory.

"The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression," Alinsky wrote. 

That's exactly what Gingrich did when he took on the national media for asking him about ex-wife's accusations of infidelity. Instead of responding to the charge, he tapped into the resentment a lot of small-town conservatives feel towards the Washington-New York-Hollywood elite who mock their values.

I'll bet Gingrich rides that horse all the way to the GOP convention.

He told CBS's Bob Schieffer that Romney wasn't connecting with voters because the governor-turned-private-equity-king didn't appear "authentic." That's true. An essential element of authenticity is not only being true to who you are, but sending a clear signal that "you're one of us."

For better or worse, as far as thousands -- maybe millions -- of Americans are concerned, with all his faults and weaknesses, and despite his PhD and swelling bank account, Gingrich is one of them.




Disappearing common ground

Common GroundA friend who is a retired AP staffer and an astute observer of journalistic trends drew my attention to an article in the Washington Post.

In it, columnist Marc Fisher reveals at least one reason our politics are so divisive.  

"Polarized news market has altered the political process in South Carolina primary," declares the headline in the web edition. 

Fisher followed three people in South Carolina and documented how they get their news on public issues. Not surprisingly, accessing campaign news and commentary is not particularly challenging. South Carolina is at the business end of a fire hose of campaign rhetoric.

Much of it splashes onto voters' own PCs and smart phones. Fisher followed one voter who awoke to more than 100 postings from Facebook friends, forwarding stories they thought she'd like. And, of course, the web gives South Carolinians access to campaign news from around the world.

But all those news sources have one thing in common -- they all tend to share the voter's own worldview. "More and more citizens are tucking themselves inside information silos where they see mainly what they already agree with," Fisher writes.

''The result," he says, "is an electorate in which conservatives and liberals often have not only their own opinions but also their own sets of facts, making it harder than ever to approach common ground."  A raft of studies support Fisher's observation.

"The more clearly defined a voter’s political leanings, the more likely that person is to identify a few trusted news sources," Fisher writes. "Moderates and independents are much more likely to view a relatively broad array of news outlets as trustworthy. And, according to surveys of news consumption, the less ideologically rigid voters are, the more likely they are to take in news that may not match their point of view."

Since people with a well-defined political ideology are also more likely to dominate the political process, I guess we can look forward to ten more months of this. At least.



The power of metaphorical thinking

TimefliesThere's nothing like a good metaphor to get a complicated idea across.

Small businesses are the "engine" of economic growth. The middle class is "treading water." Etc.

We like metaphors because they make abstract ideas concrete and easier to understand.

So we think of "time" as having physical properties -- it "flies" or it's "running out." Or we think of peronalities in terms of temperature readings -- people are "warm" or "cold." Etc.

The metaphors people use can give us an insight into their thinking. Research suggests metaphors can even unconsciously shape their behavior.

People asked to remember a past event leaned backwards; people asked to think about the future leaned forward. People holding a cup of warm coffee were more likely to think an interviewer was warm and friendly than people holding a cold drink. Etc.

Journalist Julia Graf wrote a great post on the phenomenon back in April. 

And one of her points -- that metaphors can mislead -- is worth remembering in this political season. 


So what?

So_What.jpg.scaled.1000Okay, say that inequality is real, and it's worse than it used to be. So what?

Well, it's more than a matter of one group envying another. Inequality seems to be related to the fundamental functioning of society.

Consider these correlations.

Economists measure inequality using what is called the "Gini Index," named after the Italian who invented it.  

A country with perfect equality, where everyone has the same income, would have an index of 0. If only one person had all the country's income, the index would be 1. Measures between 0 and 1 indicate how evenly distributed a nation's income is.  

It's generally acknowledged that incomes in the U.S. are less evenly distributed than in most other countries. In fact, many people take pride in that. Thet believe it's the natural consequence of our freedom of opportunity.

But look at the implications for levels of trust. The countries with the highest proportion of citizens who believe "most people can be trusted" tend to be those with less inequality.

Now look at the same measure within the United States. 

It's pretty much the same pattern. So it can't simply be a function of the capitalist system versus European and Latin American welfare states. 

And now look at the same correlation over time in the U.S.

In years when incomes were more evenly distributed, such as in the 1960s, trust was higher than in years with a more concentrated share of incomes, such as in the 1990s.

So does inequality matter? Only if you think it's important for people to trust each other.

And these levels of inequality in the U.S. may help explain why so many people see the world as warring camps of "us" and "them."


Is it real?

Income-inequality21Is income inequality real?  

If it's real, is it any different now than historically?

An economist at the University of California has probably produced the most complete data on those questions.

Based on tax records from 1907 to 2008, Emmanuel Saez unearthed a U-shaped pattern in the share of incomes going to people in the top 10 percent of incomes.  

From 1907 to 1940, the top 10 percent earned about 45% of the total. During the war years, their share dropped to about 33%, and it stayed there until the 1970s when it rose back to the mid-40s (e.g., 48% in 2008, the highest share since 1928).

What's most interesting is that when Saez took these figures apart, he discovered that most of the fluctuation in the top ten percent's share of incomes occurred within the very top one percent's share. (The top one percent's share went from the low 20s in the 1920s to less than 10 percent in the 1960s and back to the low 20s in 2008.)

By the way, the top one percent of incomes started at $368,000 a year in 2008.

The stark differences become even clearer in Saez's anlysis of recent household incomes. Between 1993 and 2008, average real incomes for the lowest 99 percent grew less than one percent a year (i.e., an average of 0.75%). In contrast, during the same period, incomes for the top one percent grew 3.9 percent per year.

Thanks to the benefits of compounding, over that 15-year period, that's a 12 percent increase for the 99 percent and a 79 percent increase for the top one percent.

In other words, in that 15-year period, the top one percent captured more than half of all income growth.

But, as they say on TV, wait there's more!

Saez went even deeper into that period and broke out the periods of expansion and recession. All incomes declined during the recession periods of 2000-2002 and 2007-2008, even the top one percent's. And all incomes grew during the expansionary periods of 1993-2000 and 2002-2007, even the 99 percent's. 

But what's interesting is to contrast the four periods.

During the 2000-2002 recession, people in the one percent highest income category bore 57 percent of the decline. During the 2007-2008 recession, they bore less than half (47%) of the decline.

Saez's findings on what happened during the expansions deserve to be quoted because they shed so much light on the current controversy:

"While the bottom 99 percent of incomes grew at a solid pace of 2.7 percent per year from 1993–2000, these incomes grew only 1.3 percent per year from 2002–2007. As a result, in the economic expansion of 2002-2007, the top 1 percent captured two thirds of income growth.

"Those results may help explain why the dramatic growth in top incomes during the Clinton administration did not generate much public outcry while there has been an extraordinary level of attention to top incomes in the press and in the public debate since 2005. Moreover, top income tax rates went up in 1993 during the Clinton administration (and hence a larger share of the gains made by top incomes was redistributed) while top income tax rates went down in 2001 during the Bush administration."

So yes, it's real. And it's different.




Not class warfare

ElizabethWarrenWant to know why the rich owe something to the less well-off?

Elizabeth Warren gave the best answer I've heard so far:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

You can see her for yourself on YouTube.

Everything's connected

BonesIn the old spiritual, Ezekiel reminded us that the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone's connected to the shin bone, etc.

That's worth remembering. Everything's connected, even the fact that we're increasingly disconnected.

Yesterday, a Pew Research Center survey showed that divisions between rich and poor are the greatest source of social conflict. That shouldn't be too surprising given that income inequality now is higher than it's ever been in U.S. history. Indeed, the U.S. is now on a par with Uganda.

Meanwhile, some politicians refuse to talk about it. Mitt Romney, for example, says it's simply a matter of "envy." His competitors for the GOP nomination seem to agree, decrying Democrats for trying to stimulate "class warfare" whenever they bring up the issue of rising inequality.

Indeed, some political scientists see a strong connection between income inequality and political polarization. In fact, it's the subtitle of one of the best books I've read on the topic -- Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches.

In it, the authors show how political polarization and income inequality fell in tandem from 1913 to 1957 and then rose together dramatically from 1977 on.

Part of the reason, they claim, is that Republicans increasingly moved away from redistributive policies that would reduce income inequality. They suggest that rising immigration in the 1970s made this shift possible. Non-citizens, a larger share of the population and disproportionately poor, can't vote. So there was less political pressure from the bottom for redistribution than there was from the top against it.

In what they call "the choreography of American politics," inequality feeds directly into political polarization, and polarization in turn creates policies that further increase inequality.

Interestingly, Pew's last report showed that immigration was the greatest source of conflict and it's still a close second, pretty much within the margin or error. 

So there you have it -- inequality, immigration, political polarization, they're all connected. Just like Ezeckiel said.


You are what you read

Come-libros525Every day, I see more evidence that people filter information through the lens of their political beliefs.

Case in point:

Yesterday, the White House announced the appointment of Cecilia Muñoz as director of the Domestic Policy Council, making her one of the president's top advisers.  

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times covered the appointment with straightforward stories, describing her background and the significance of her new position.  

In its online headline, the Journal highlighted her role as an advisor on immigration matters; the Times positioned her as an "Hispanic advisor." 

By 10 a.m., the Times' story had generated exactly one comment, suggesting that the president should further reshuffle his senior staff by asking Joe Biden to step aside as candidate for vice president in favor of Hilary Clinton.  

The Journal story, meanwhile had generated 158 comments, compared to just nine comments on the appointment of a new White House chief of staff, announced the same day and also reported in the paper.  

Most of the Journal comments were similar to this beaut from James Jenkins:  "And while they are at it, how about turning Homeland Security over to Al Quada? Unbelievable, does this appointment come with a full surrender to Mexico? King Obama is showing his true colors; Anti-USA! When do the treason trials begin? Or has Mexico successfully bought off Congress as well?"

Apparently, Mr. Jenkins, who wisely chose to keep his online profile private, is concerned that Ms. Muñoz was once a senior officer of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group. She also advised the Obama administration on immigration policy, though her previous job was to oversee inter-governmental relations. Her parents are immigrants from Bolivia, not Mexico.

I will probably dig into this a little more when I have the time, but my general impression is that the Journal's readers tend to comment on the paper's stories at a higher rate than the Times' readers. If that's true, it would be fun to figure out why.

Meanwhile, it's becoming increasingly clear that we are what we read and we read what we are.




Do the Rich Have Feelings, Too?

Does having piles of money make you less compassionate?
According to a U.C. Berkeley study, well-off individuals show less empathy and sensitivity to distress in others than working-class individuals do. 

The rich “seem to be more absorbed in their own lives,” says the study’s co-author, Michael Kraus. He also notes, “Thinking about the self a lot, it becomes easier to ignore those around you.” Feelings are kind of 99 percenty, anyway.  
Or so says Heather Havrilesky in a super-brief piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  But didn't at least two of the three people pitcured with the piece (above) give a big chunk of their cash to others? (I have no idea who the guy in the armless tee is, but he seems to be assocoated with the Heat, whoever they are.) I'm told the guy in the armless tee is Le Bron James, a basketball player with the Miami Heat basketball team. He apparently made $14.5 million last year and has a host of lucrative endorsement deals.  Like Facebook's Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey, he supports a host of philanthropic endeavors.  Maybe they're the exception that proves the rule?

Anyway, isn't the Times' "One Page Magazine" feature terrific? It reminds me of some front-of-the-book material in the old Harper's magazine before Lewis Lapham got his hands on it.


Another chief

CDOContinuing to be optimistic, I want to draw attention to an article in today's Wall Street Journal.

It describes a relatively new corporate trend -- the appointment of Chief Diversity Officers. 

Corporate headquarters may be in danger of occupation by too many "chiefs," what with Chief Executive Officers, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Communications Officers, etc.  But even the Journal seems to think this particular version could be a timely addition to the rolls.  

"Having a diverse work force no doubt helps a company's image," it writes, "and some say it can also impact the bottom line by reducing employee turnover, boosting innovation and attracting new business."

The paper cites a PriceWaterHouse Cooper's finding that some 60% of Fortune 500 companies have appointed CDCs, a quarter reporting directly to the CEO. Most have traditional human resource responsibilities, but interestingly some are also responsible for marketing.

Sadly, not all the paper's readers see the value. For example, Dan Freeman, president of a NJ- based marketing firm of all things, considers it "a total piece of rubbish." He accuses the reporter who wrote the piece of sounding "much more like the mouthpiece of the Democratic-Government establishment than a journalist."

Building up a righteous head of steam, he writes, "Workplace diversity is institutionalized racism against white men. Nothing more. No better than the KKK and perhaps worse, since it is sanctioned by the state. ... Diversity is something to be tolerated; not worshiped."

On his web site, Mr. Freeman claims an impressive list of blue-chip clients. Apparently, they are unaware of the country's changing demographics. (Dan, if you see this, contact me. I have reserved a free copy of OtherWise for you.)

But, back to the bright side, only about half a dozen people had commented on the Journal article by mid-morning. Some might consider this a sign that there is little interest in the subject.  In my new optimistic mode, I prefer to think most of the Journal's readers saw the headline and said "Duh?"


Let's be less crazy

UncrazySustaining an optimistic note for the new year, let's consider some remedies for my oft'-cited finding that people are crazy.

We are, but we don't have to wallow in the craziness of the cognitive errors that are the legacy of our stone-aged brains.

If someone disagrees with us, instead of looking for evidence that our view is correct, why not look for evidence contrary to what we believe? It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it could lead to more accurate information.

When someone sends us email that is too good to be true in terms of proving a long-held belief, why not check it out on or before forwarding it to someone else? It could kill a delicious bit of gossip, but YouTube videos of some kid trying to skate board on a two-story railing can be entertaining too.

If someone pontificates on an issue we know little about (except what our political leanings would suggest is the correct position), why not ask questions instead of taking sides? A couple of good questions to ask: what do people on the other side of the issue say? Why do they say that?

If we have a favorite right- or left-wing columnist, why not try reading someone on the other side of the political fence once in a while?  NPR often teams David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, and they almost always manage to be informative and entertaining without resorting to name-calling, insults, or sarcasm.   

Finally, why not adopt as a motto the sign posted in many of those Republican caucus rooms last night?  "Good manners are practiced here."



The road ahead

Bumpy road 2Let's start the new year on an optimistic note.

We may not yet live in a "post-racial" society, but inexorable forces are pushing us in that direction.

For example:

  • Genetic studies have conclusively established that categorizing people by features like their skin color, the shape of their nose, or the texture of their hair has no scientific basis.
  • Immigration and multi-racial marriages are making such categories increasingly problematic and irrelevant in day-to-day life.
  • And younger generations, while not yet completely free of unconscious stereotyping, are less driven by prejudice and suffer less attendant rage and guilt.     

Taken together, these forces are inexorably lowering the social and economic boundaries between groups. 

Indeed, even in the debris of the Great Recession, researchers have discovered a new vein of optimism among people of color. More than two-thirds of Black and Hispanic Americans believe their economic situation will improve over the next ten years.  

According to another study, Black Americans' perception of racial bias has declined by more than a third since the 1950s.

Unfortunately, the same study indicates White Americans think such progress was at their expense. Their perception of anti-White bias has more than doubled.

I suspect perceptions of anti-White bias reflect a generalized resentment of affirmative action and the social imposition of political-correctness. As the researchers noted, "by nearly any metric — from employment to police treatment, loan rates to education — statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black than White Americans." 

The factual data support neither Black optimism nor White resentment. But in time the former may be justified. And once White Americans realize that economic and social equality is not a zero-sum game, the latter may dissipate.

Ironically, real progress depends on both.

Meanwhile the road ahead may be bumpy, even if we can be rightfully optimistic about the destination.