Spending the 4thof July in San Diego, California, I am wondering about the source and meaning of negative perceptions of California presented to me in recent months by several people in my home state of Oklahoma.
“California” has long had a mythical quality in large portions of the United States, with the association ranging from admiration and wonder – California as the harbinger of technological and cultural things to come – to bemused skepticism – California as a vortex of religious, culinary and leisure time experimentalism and oddity (from the water bed, advanced as a Master’s thesis project by a student at San Francisco State University in 1968 to the hot tub, initially developed in old wine vats in northern California in the 1960s), and a place that is simply weird.
In discussions over the course of the past year or so, I’ve discovered that for some of my fellow residents of Oklahoma, “California” has come to symbolize everything they despise: excessive regulation, environmental fundamentalism, moral decay and lawlessness (marked by the sanctuary cities movement).
And herein is a clue to the puzzling perceptions I’ve encountered: the politics stoked by the current administration and its supporters have turned bemusement and skepticism over California’s oddities and innovations into a full-blown sense of “otherness.”
Despite California’s pivotal place in the economic, cultural and political fabric of the nation, the political message is to reject the entire state (with its 40 million inhabitants and GDP of $2.5 trillion) as a blight on the country.
Of course, there are many inventive, broad-minded Oklahomans who realize their kinship with Californians and the contribution of the state to the national endeavor. And California is itself an extremely diverse place in every way; even those Oklahomans who condemn the state would in fact find much in common with many of their fellow Americans in California were they to spend time here.
Accordingly, though I do so with skepticism and deep concern about the destructive politics that may unfold in the coming months, I express the hope that this 4thof July marks the nadir of the erosion of social cohesion in the United States.
During my week in small, wealthy, verdant Norway, I thought extensively about how societies create and sustain social cohesion.
As I was considering this process, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley publicized the administration’s rejection of a May report of the UN Human Rights Council documenting the immense scope of inequality and poverty in the United States.
The report, based on an intensive visit to the U.S. by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston (who met with government representatives at every level as well as civil society organizations and poor people themselves) points out that inequality and poverty have long been higher in the U.S. than in other western countries.
As Alston, a scholar of international law and human rights, underscores, the United States clearly has the resources to ameliorate these problems, but simply lacks the political will.
What is distinctive, though, is the extent to which the current administration has embarked on a path deliberately designed to exacerbate inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity.
While handing out enormous tax breaks to the wealthy, the administration has embarked on reductions in benefits for the poor; a rollback of environmental, health and safety protections that are vital to the quality of life of the poor and the middle class; and an ongoing effort to narrow access to health care.
The report of the Human Rights Council, which also identifies serious problems of a high rate of infant mortality, broad discrimination and racism, systematic disenfranchisement and criminalization of poverty, should be a great embarrassment for the United States.
Noting the contrasts involved in a country of such vast wealth and innovation, the U.N. Rapporteur writes that these attributes “stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies.”
The U.N. report underscores that the dominant political narrative guiding attitudes toward social welfare policy begins from the (false) premise that past policies were a wasteful failure. In fact the evidence clearly shows that the War on Poverty initiated fifty years ago was highly successful in reducing poverty in the ensuing decades.
Also essential to this narrative is the notion that the poor themselves are unworthy: recipients largely consist of people dedicated to “cheating” the system, and the poor themselves are responsible for their situations because of laziness and bad decision making. Both elements are undoubtedly heavily tinged with racism, especially since prevailing conceptions of who receives social welfare assistance do not correspond to the actual racial makeup of recipients.
The report observes that “it is striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and media. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers and scammers.”
In scrutinizing these narratives, the U.N. Rapporteur made the effort to gather real evidence those currently in charge of policy willfully refuse to see: “The Special Rapporteur wonders how many of those politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but little evidence.”
In contrast with this divisive narrative and the socially destructive policies that follow, social democratic societies like Norway and Sweden engaged in sustained policy efforts to cultivate a broad sense of societal inclusion starting from the Great Depression. Norwegians pay much higher taxes than Americans. They like paying taxes no more than Americans do, but the willingness to pay is sustained by the services that Norwegians receive in return (including health care benefits, university education, modern and efficient public transportation, etc.) – and by the trust between citizens cultivated by inclusive policies.
Conservatives will respond that Norway is a “socialist” society whose relevance is to be dismissed. That’s completely wrong.
Norwegians are capitalist entrepreneurs par excellence, where technological strides in sectors such as aquaculture (primarily salmon farming, a booming and rapidly growing industry) are possible because of policy consistency that encourages long-term investment and innovation.
Similarly, Norway’s policy makers recognize that all policies affect market incentives. Innovations to reduce CO2 emissions in Norway have been hard fought, requiring a series of measures designed to alter market calculations, such as reductions in taxes, road tolls and parking fees for electric vehicles. These incentives rather than some inherent “green gene” account for a recent explosion of electric vehicle sales in Norway.
The current U.S. administration, in contrast, views the inequalities documented by the U.N. NOT as a series of policy problems requiring attention, but as an opportunity that can be exploited to deepen societal divisions for political gain. The administration, in other words, is invested in destroying rather than building social cohesion.
Social cohesion is under stress in Norway over contentious issues such as immigration and taxation. But past policy has mobilized a constituency dedicated to preserving that cohesion and the societal benefits it brings, so efforts to deepen societal divisions will meet with significant resistance.
Put differently, high levels of trust between citizens and a strong sense of social cohesion tend to reinforce themselves. Once destroyed, citizen trust of governing institutions and trust between citizens are extremely difficult to rebuild.
The U.S. is not Norway, nor can it be. But there is an important lesson here: policies that generate social cohesion have dramatically positive effects not only socially, but for longer-term economic innovation and growth.
Intergenerational economic mobility in the U.S. is among the very lowest of the world’s rich countries.
The best predictor of where children will end up in the future is the zip code into which they were born.
Talent, entrepreneurship and innovation are lost.
As the U.N. report notes, “The United States already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality, and it is now moving full steam ahead to make itself even more unequal. But this is a race that no one else would want to win, since almost all other nations, and all the major international institutions, such as OECD, the World Bank and IMF, have recognized that extreme inequalities are economically inefficient and socially damaging.”
An administration truly dedicated to the welfare of the country would receive the U.N. report as a call to action. Instead, the reaction of defensiveness, spite and lashing out only further erodes the sinking international reputation of the U.S.
On top of this, the destruction of social cohesion wrought by the administration will yield long-term economic costs.
"That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children.... is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination.... It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose... tied to one another by a common bond." —Senator Paul Wellstone --- March 31, 2000
"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills." (Pope Francis, "The Joy of the Gospel," 2014, n. 53)