Inequality, is the attention going to drive change?

In the last few weeks there has been a huge amount of focus on inequality. The attention has been riding a bit of roller coaster since the Great Recession started in 2008 when the focus was on Occupy Wallstreet and the inequality because of the action of the bankers. However, Elizabeth Warren began to really shift the conversation away from just inequality to the total system that enables the inequality. In fact, she started to argue that our minimum wage wasn’t keeping up with the rate of productivity of the economic system. As I argued in my piece on Minimum wage there’s not much impact on local jobs comparatively to the theories that minimum wage increases would dramatically increase unemployment.

However, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s brought the conversation back to the fore through the food drive for Wal-Mart employees that couldn’t afford food for Thanksgiving. According to many theories of efficiency to maximize profit Wal-mart must continually drive lower costs through less employees doing more. However, there’s been some negative repercussions to this beyond the extremely low salaries for the majority of employees, it’s also impacted the stocking of shelves which can reduce sales. Wal-Mart’s salaries and behaviors have caught the attention of professors at Harvard, recently there was an HBR Blog post about Wal-mart’s food drive – I strongly suggest reading that article. It provides great perspective about the impact of low salaries. Essentially, if the bulk of Wal-Mart employees work full time at $7.25 per hour they are well below poverty line, which means that these employees would end up getting food stamps. Employees with a family of 4 need to make at least $15/$16 per hour to be above the poverty line. That gap of $7.75 that provides food stamps and medicare for these employees. The author is arguing that these government benefits aren’t purely entitlements for minimum wage workers, but also entitlements for the companies as well.

Of course HBR isn’t the only place arguing that inequality is a serious problem. Paul Krugman, the Pope, and the recent article in the Guardian (that I wrote about in Taking the Long View) are as well. Paul Krugman arguing this isn’t exactly surprising, he’s been arguing that inequity and the result of the recession has had massive negative impact on the economy. The long term under employment of workers is continuing to cause damage to our economy.

The real question is will this conversation actually drive any change? Will we see any change in policy? There has been some recent shifts in the republican perspective of the budget. Which may actually relax the demands on cutting unemployment and other “entitlements.”  Studies have shown that every dollar spent on unemployment adds about $1.64 into the economy. So this is something that will likely have a positive impact on the economy, if we do some different thinking about what we’re spending money on. That being said, I’m very skeptical that in our current state of politics that we’ll see any serious change in how to treat economic inequity in terms of changes in tax policy which can reduce inequality.

I think that at this point it would require a serious popular swing in opinion to drive the change through the elections. In most states that are negatively impacted by inequality, this is an unlikely occurrence as they are republican strongholds.

What can we do about inequality? Well, if you’re an employer work to make sure you pay fair wages. As a consumer we can make choices to buy products at locations that provider higher wages and access to benefits – we can also chose to boycott companies that do not pay a living wage. As I explained in my article about health costs, proper healthcare reduces quality of life and reduces inequality. As a employee of a company that pays low wages, you can work to ensure all employees that work for you receive a living wage through salary increases or other support. This won’t drive systemic changes though and if we want those we’ll have to work through contact our political leaders to drive change. Without these choices we will not see changes and will continue to have inequality. This inequality will likely only get worse over the next several years.

Government Shut Down

The government shut down is bad mmmkay? This is one of the examples as to why I’m glad my wife didn’t end up with a job at either a government research lab, government agency, university or any other place that relies on public funds to keep it’s doors open. That’s a lot of places. Between the sequestration and this shutdown, the US has turned into a horrible place for the sciences. However, it’s alright for us to keep the NSA up and running, but not the people that watch the watchmen. Basically, our government has different priories than most Americans, which of course is no surprise – well at least different from myself. Losing funding for science is a huge blow, especially the fact that they couldn’t continue to speak or publish any papers. It’s disconcerting because our scientific research is what allows the US to stay ahead of the rest of the world in our economic output. The results of scientific funding from the ’60s essentially gave rise to everything we’re doing on the internet. The funding from ARPA that lead to ARPAnet and then the internet, inadvertently lead to the great work I mentioned in my review of Dealers of Lightning. Many of the members of the team at Xerox were funded by ARPA during their PhD’s, their research at various universities, and in some cases even startups. This one government expenditure had massive positive impact in the one area of our economy that’s going gang busters.

So what’s going on with this shutdown? As this article points out the House did pass a budget, which is where all budget must start, however, the Senate didn’t pass it and countered with their own budget, which happens fairly often. This leads to negotiation between the two chambers in Congress. The problem that we’re experiencing in this case is that the “don’t match” portion happens to be Obamacare. The House did not fund Obamacare at all, while the Senate naturally did (being held by the Democrats). This required that the House and Senate come together to reconcile their differences, which aren’t possible to reconcile with everyone. Which is the Speaker’s problem right now. Almost a week ago, there were rumored to be enough votes in the House to pass the Senate version of the budget – as Republicans were defecting to support the Democrats. The House refused to allow a vote to be called. Bills that don’t have a chance to pass get votes all the time (many people have pointed out Obamacare repeal is a key example of that). So, I think that the article I linked above is a bit disingenuous either intentionally or is just intellectually dishonest. The author clearly knows what people mean by saying “law of the land.” It means that as we have obligation within the law we need to pay them. The House, Senate, President, and Supreme Court weighed in and it’s a legal bill. The House is unable to repeal it through legislative methods so created a plan to shutdown the government to stop the bill from taking effect – to defund the bill and “repeal” it that way. That’s what they are doing and why.

The reasons for why the Republicans believe this would work is beautifully laid out in an argument using Game Theory on the Harvard Business Review: every other time brinkmanship was used, it worked. Go with the strategy until it doesn’t work any more. The White House figured this out too and now cannot allow it to continue. Otherwise, the above author would be correct, the best way to kill a bill you don’t like that passed through everything is to simply defund it later or shutdown the government until the other people meet your demands. Toss some spin on their to make it seem like the other side is unreasonable and boom, you’ve gotten your way again.

The problem with brinkmanship is that it’s a zero sum game and if the government defaults, it’s going to be terrible for everyone. The bulk of US voters blame the republicans, this could cause massive damage to even safe areas for the republicans. Are there better ways to deal with Obamacare? Yes, if it’s as awful as the Republicans think it is, use that to get everyone out of office that voted for it. Run on that plank and push it to the hilt. If it kills jobs, causes people to go bankrupt use all that to get the Democrats out of office. Then once a majority is secured repeal the law. That’s how government should work. Sure you can work to undermine the law while you’re at it, but if you want to get rid of it, do it with votes so it’s clear the people have spoken. This shut down is bad for everyone. Let’s end it, figure out how to address long term debt, improve the job market, pay for more science, and address the structural problems we have as a nation. If Obamacare is a bad thing, we’ll figure it out really quick and then deal with that fall out. We need leaders now, not children.

Texas Repulicans

Yesterday the Texas Republican Party released their platform. It’s terrifying. It starts out innocently enough saying that they plan to uphold the constitution and that everyone is created equally. However, that’s the end of the good stuff. As I tweeted out yesterday there’s a portion that says that they do not support teaching children critical thinking or anything that could lead them to question their current belief system or parental authority.

I can’t think of a better definition of science than critical thinking, questioning current beliefs and authority. When a scientist makes a discovery that doesn’t conform to the current scientific paradigm(program) accepting the results for the experiment REQUIRE these abilities. Looking at the faster than light neutrino fiasco of the past year is a perfect example of this. Scientists saw a result that was highly suspect (faster than light speeds), but they were willing to accept it, if it passed enough tests. They were critical of the results, didn’t accept it on face value, they were willing to question the current paradigm (relativistic physics) and the authority of nearly 100 years of work based on that paradigm.

This is also a case of biting the hand that feeds. Texas’s growth has been fueled through science, technology and research at businesses. With Houston as the center of the oil world, which is driven by better science of getting oil out of the ground, new technologies to do so and the research for increasing the conversion rates from crude oil to gasoline and other goods, you’d think that Texas would understand why it’s important to have scientists. While Texas doesn’t have as many Tier 1 research universities as California (3 vs 9) these three are extremely powerful and wealthy. UT is the 3rd richest in the country and Texas A&M is the 10th. They are both research powerhouses in the academic world. Creating policies that negatively impact the education system that feeds these schools is only going to hurt their abilities to compete in the future.

The Texas Republicans also want to “Teach the Controversy” with equal air time for every side of the argument. In this case when they get to evolution I hope the controversy they discuss is the recent disagreement between Evolutionary Biologists Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson, because that’s the biggest one going on in Evolution right now. However, I know this is not what they mean. They plan to teach the “controversy” of creationism in science class. This is as dangerous as not teaching critical thinking.

If you couple the lack of critical thinking with teach the controversy approach, you have a recipe for disaster. You create students that are unable to really understand the differences and take what the teacher believes at face value. If the “biology” teacher is a creationist (which has happened in some states) then they will not adequately teach evolution and the students will not understand why creationism is wrong and evolution is scientifically accurate. They will be unable to critically reason the differences. This is a terrifying prospect.

These are not the only areas that Texas Republicans are showing that they are out of touch with the youth of America. The DailyKOS has further analysis  a lot of the bad policy stances that are coming down the road in Texas from Republicans.