Playing Fair

Americans are fair and open and generous. That’s what we tell ourselves, but when we declared our independence more than two hundred years ago we probably shouldn’t have started by declaring that all men are born equal, because that’s just not so. Those who were born to be short and squat aren’t going to be professional basketball stars, and some people just can’t carry a tune, so they’re not going to be crooning breathless romantic ballads to the nation, for big bucks, and they won’t be knocking them dead on Broadway. They’ll have to settle for wall-of-noise rock stardom. We’re all born with different talents, or a lack of any particular talent, but those who penned the Declaration of Independence had that covered. They really didn’t assert that all men are created absolutely equal, just that all men have, or should have, certain inalienable rights – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That’s the “given” in the axiom they presented. There are those three basic rights that all men have, which should never be taken away by any king, like that King George guy on the other side of the ocean. Of course there are dolts and hopeless losers, and geniuses and winners at everything, but the idea was that everyone should get a fair shot at making what they want of their lives, if they are white males, of property. There was a lot to work out over the years, a process of including more folks in that group who have those same rights – black folks, the former slaves, and even women, who finally got the right to vote, and one day may be guaranteed equal pay for equal work. Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 and many Republicans are still fuming about that. It cripples business. Stuff like that will ruin America.

We’re still working on a lot of this. The Fourteenth Amendment with its equal protection clause was added in 1868, and we’re now in the process of deciding if that applies to gays, and the current consensus is that it does. The pursuit of happiness is also the pursuit of marriage, although many married straight folks will say happiness is a bit iffy there – but what the heck, let gay folks give it a go. They may have better luck. Things tend toward playing fair. Americans play fair.

That’s why there’s a direct line from the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 to the current popularity of Elizabeth Warren, the eloquent populist – something seems unfair. Income inequality has never been this severe. The game seems to be rigged. The one percent, those who hold almost all the wealth, can’t be THAT much better than the rest of us, even if they say they are. Every Republican from Herman Cain to Mitt Romney has said anyone in America can be a millionaire – all they have to do is get off their fat lazy ass and just do it, so everyone should stop whining – but no one believes that. Many have tried. It didn’t work out. Hard work doesn’t get you there. Luck does, or being born into the right family – the hard work is optional. The game is rigged, or it’s all random. Either way, fairness has nothing to do with getting rich – unless you’re one of those that blames only yourself for everything that goes wrong in your life, because you’re just a miserable excuse for a human being. Republicans thrive on the votes of such people. Republicans tell you that the problem is not them, it’s you, and you know it – or it’s those black folks, or the brown ones, who are the problem. There are many ways to use Americans’ sense that things are just not fair. Americans hate unfairness. That’s why we started this country.

This sense of fairness is almost innate:

Even at 15 months, when they are just beginning to grasp language and acquaint themselves with their newfound motor skills, babies understand the concepts of sharing and fairness, suggests a new study.

The researchers also found that infants do have different sharing “personalities,” with some being shocked by unfairness and others by equal sharing.

“These norms of fairness and altruism are more rapidly acquired than we thought,” study researcher Jessica Sommerville, of the University of Washington, said in a statement. “These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants, such that babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy.”

Even infants are little Democrats and little Republicans. Some are shocked by unfairness and others are shocked by equal sharing, which they see as unfair to them. Abolishing slavery was unfair to the slaveholders after all. That ruined them economically, and this whole business is complicated, as the infant-study shows:

The majority (92 percent) of babies who shared their preferred toy were also the ones who were shocked by unfairness in the videos and were named “altruistic sharers.” Of the infants who shared their least favorite toy, 86 percent were also shocked by equal sharing in the video, called “selfish sharers.”

“The altruistic sharers were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task,” Sommerville said. Fairness seems as though it might even be built into our brains; research published in the journal Nature in 2010 showed that our brain centers react to unfair allocation of monetary rewards.

Though fairness may be ingrained in even the youngest of infants, our ideas of fairness seem to change as we age. Previous research found that young children seem to like all things to be equal, but older adolescents are more likely to consider merit when it comes to dividing up the wealth, a study published in the journal Science in 2010 found. It could be due to brain changes and adaptation to social experiences.

Perhaps we outgrow our sense of fairness, and Republicans are the only grown-ups in the room, but in the Washington Post, Matt O’Brien sees something else going on:

America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others.

That’s because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents.

They have the money to do that, but it’s more than the money spent:

It’s also a matter of letters and words. Affluent parents talk to their kids three more hours a week on average than poor parents, which is critical during a child’s formative early years. That’s why, as Stanford professor Sean Reardon explains, “Rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students,” and they’re staying that way.

It’s an educational arms race that’s leaving many kids far, far behind.

But wait! There’s more:

Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. … Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom – 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells.

Hard work and education get you nowhere, unless you’re there already:

What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business – and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that – or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.

Opportunity hoarding, then, is unfair, but there’s not much that can be done about it. Fredrik deBoer cites study after study (with nifty charts) that shows the same thing and throws up his hands:

The question of how much control the average individual has over his or her own economic outcomes is not a theoretical or ideological question. What to do about the odds – that’s philosophical and political. But the power of chance and received advantage – those things can be measured, and have to be. And what we are finding, more and more, is that the outcomes of individuals are buffeted constantly by the forces of economic inequality. Education has been proffered as a tool to counteract these forces, but that claim, too, cannot withstand scrutiny. Redistributive efforts are required to address these differences in opportunity. In the meantime, it falls on us to chip away, bit by bit, on the lie of American meritocracy.

At least someone is doing some chipping away at that lie:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren railed against the GOP during a campaign rally in Minnesota for Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) on Saturday.

“The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” she said during her speech at Carleton College, according to the Washington Post.

Warren told the crowd that she would fight against the banks that oppose her legislation that would allow students to refinance their student loans.

“We’re coming after them,” she said.

Every little bit helps, unless it doesn’t. The Republicans will sink any legislation she proposes, because she’s dangerous, as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson explains here:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she isn’t running for president. At this rate, however, she may have to.

The Massachusetts Democrat has become the brightest ideological and rhetorical light in a party whose prospects are dimmed by – to use a word Jimmy Carter never uttered – malaise. Her weekend swing through Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa to rally the faithful displayed something no other potential contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton, seems able to present: a message.

The message is simple. Play fair:

“We can go through the list over and over, but at the end of every line is this: Republicans believe this country should work for those who are rich, those who are powerful, those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” she said Friday in Englewood, Colo. “I will tell you we can whimper about it, we can whine about it or we can fight back. I’m here with [Sen.] Mark Udall so we can fight back.”

Warren was making her second visit to the state in two months because Udall’s reelection race against Republican Cory Gardner is what Dan Rather used to call “tight as a tick.” If Democrats are to keep their majority in the Senate, the party’s base must break with form and turn out in large numbers for a midterm election. Voters won’t do this unless somebody gives them a reason.

Warren may be that somebody. Her grand theme is economic inequality and her critique, both populist and progressive, includes a searing indictment of Wall Street. Liberals eat it up.

Of course they do:

Warren talks about comprehensive immigration reform, support for same-sex marriage, the need to raise the minimum wage, abortion rights and contraception – a list of red-button issues at which she jabs and pokes with enthusiasm. The centerpiece, though, is her progressive analysis of how bad decisions in Washington have allowed powerful interests to re-engineer the financial system so that it serves the wealthy and well-connected, not the middle class.

It’s unfair:

There once was consensus on the need for government investment in areas such as education and infrastructure that produced long-term dividends, she said. “Here’s the amazing thing: It worked. It absolutely, positively worked.”

But starting in the 1980s, she said, Republicans took the country in a different direction, beginning with the decision to “fire the cops on Wall Street.”

“They called it deregulation,” Warren said, “but what it really meant was: Have at ’em, boys. They were saying, in effect, to the biggest financial institutions, any way you can trick or trap or fool anybody into signing anything, man, you can just rake in the profits.”

She went on to say that “Republicans, man, they ought to be wearing a T-shirt. The T-shirt should say, ‘I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.'”

Those were the “selfish sharers” in the infant-study, and Robinson senses something is changing:

She’s not running for president apparently because everyone assumes the nomination is Clinton’s. But everyone was making that same assumption eight years ago, and we know what happened. If the choice is between inspiration and inevitability, Warren may be forced to change her plans.

Americans are fair and open and generous. We have an innate sense of fairness. Everyone does, as that infant-study showed, and Warren thinks we should take our country back, even if she prefers to help America do that from the Senate, not the Oval Office. That’s what she’s saying now, and she may not change her mind. Hillary Clinton had better hope she doesn’t change her mind. If Warren does change her mind, however, that election would be clarifying. The Republican candidate would offer the same message as before, the Tea Party message – I’ve got mine, and the rest of you are on your own, and that’s only fair, because you have no right to my stuff. That’s the country they want to take back, a completely different country. Some are shocked by unfairness and others are shocked by equal sharing. Let’s see who wins.

The outcome of that election would be determined by who is allowed to vote, another matter of fairness, and Joan Walsh covers the latest twist in that fairness battle:

It’s become a cliché that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg issued a “blistering dissent” from a conservative, pro-corporate anti-democracy majority position. We need a new term for what Ginsberg did at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, in a rare public dissent from a SCOTUS decision not to take up a case – this one a challenge to Texas’ harsh and in Ginsberg’s words “discriminatory” voter identification law. …

Not only did Ginsberg demand to write a dissent – she was joined by Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor – but she laid out her reasoning in stirring words that echoed a conservative judicial critic of voter identification, Richard Posner, calling it an “unconstitutional poll tax.”

Now that we know what to call it, and we have a legal framework for understanding that voter ID is a direct descendant of Jim Crow laws, will it be easier to fight? I’m not sure, but understanding is always a necessary first step to action.

This is a matter of fairness, with competing views of just what that is:

It can be hard to combat the notion that voter ID is a common-sense requirement. The vast majority of us have driver’s licenses, and we’re used to showing ID to board a plane or enter a major office building. Yet 20 million adults, or 10 percent of eligible voters, don’t have a driver’s license. Voter ID laws disproportionately hurt black and Latino voters, but also elderly people and students. With the exception of the elderly, those voters are the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition.

In Texas, a federal trial court found that Gov. Rick Perry’s voter ID law was intentionally discriminating against minority voters, disenfranchising as many as 600,000 Texans. But the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that decision last week, so the ACLU and other groups went to the Supreme Court. The court declined to consider the case, in line with earlier decisions not to change the rules for voting so close to an election. Ginsberg challenged her colleagues’ peculiar decision to prioritize orderly election administration over protecting voting rights.

“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law,” Ginsberg thundered, “one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”

And here, context matters:

Texas has the worst voter ID law in the country, not even allowing student IDs or Veterans Administration IDs, unlike other states. Unlike her majority colleagues, Ginsberg took seriously the costs of obtaining public ID, as well as the difficulty of traveling to get it. That’s what makes it a poll tax, comparable to the imposition of voting fees that were used to turn away poor black voters in the Jim Crow South – which were outlawed by the 24th Amendment.

Ginsberg’s reasoning echoes that of 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, a conservative who’s had a change of heart and mind on the issue of voter ID. Amazingly, Posner wrote the decision upholding Indiana’s voter ID law, which the Supreme Court later upheld. In his remarkable dissent from his colleagues’ refusal to take up a challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law earlier this month – the Supreme Court actually stepped in and suspended that one – Posner specifically blasted Republicans for hyping the “essentially nonexistent” threat of voter fraud.

“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud,” he writes, “and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.” He noted that such laws are “highly correlated with a state’s having a Republican governor and Republican control of the legislature and appear to be aimed at limiting voting by minorities, particularly blacks.” Posner specifically mocked right-wing groups like True-the-Vote, which claims Democrats are busing minority voters to the polls “on nonexistent buses.”

Posner was fighting a lot of nonsense:

While his colleagues claimed anyone could “scrounge up” their birth certificate, the 75-year-old jurist admitted he “has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about ‘scrounging’ it up.” … Posner attached to his dissent 12 confusing pages of documents given to an applicant whose birth certificate couldn’t be found. He noted that getting ID could cost $75 to $175, much higher than “the $1.50 poll tax outlawed by the 24th amendment in 1964.”

This fairness bug is catching, even if not much can be done now:

Between Posner and Ginsberg, we have a rare bipartisan intellectual, political and moral agreement that voter ID laws are a 21st century descendant of Jim Crow, only now playing nationwide, not just in the South. This should settle the issue, but it’s unlikely to. The Republican Party faces demographic extinction, on its current course, but it has two powerful weapons in its arsenal: stoking fear – of Ebola, ISIS, immigrants, nearly anybody who isn’t white, our first black president and uppity women – and voter suppression.

That may be so, and unfair, but isn’t it fair to ask for a simple photo-ID to vote in Texas and all the other states where the Republicans have changed the rules? The states are supposed to administer the voting process, because it’s a precinct by precinct thing and quite local, and tedious. Why can’t the state specify which sort of ID is good and which is not? If you can’t get one, because you’re poor, that’s hardly the state’s problem. Fair is fair. Maybe you should get a good job and stop insisting on being poor, because you like government freebies.

This is fairly simple. If you now can’t vote that’s your fault, not theirs. That seems to be the counterargument, from the days when everyone had a fair shot at making what they want of their lives, if they were white males, of property – the good old days. It seems that everyone wants to take their country back. They just choose different points in time, which means they choose different countries.

The issue, however, is fairness, and even a fifteen-month-old infant knows all about that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Playing Fair

  1. Rick says:

    “Though fairness may be ingrained in even the youngest of infants, our ideas of fairness seem to change as we age. Previous research found that young children seem to like all things to be equal, but older adolescents are more likely to consider merit when it comes to dividing up the wealth, a study published in the journal Science in 2010 found. It could be due to brain changes and adaptation to social experiences.”

    Too bad someone can’t collate these two studies, to show how many of these babies stick by their original inclinations to share and which ones don’t. I’ve always suspected that we are born with the temperaments that later help determine our political leanings, which is reflected in this latest survey you report, and I wonder if the number of those who are socialized out of fairness isn’t actually a very small number.

    True confessions:

    Although I was very fond of my mildly conservative Republican parents, I always felt we didn’t share assumptions about basic fairness, and the older I got, the more I realized that I was actually a liberal Democrat — in much the same way that I’ve heard some gay people describe how they knew they were different from the rest of their family at an early age.

    Often, when I tell my friends I was raised in a family of Republicans, I hear myself saying I was a bunny rabbit who was raised by wolves.


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