Monthly Archives: December 2015Image
By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. Originally published at at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.
More excellent reporting by Neela Banerjee at the award-winning site InsideClimate News on the “Exxon Knew” story. Turns out, they all knew, all the big oil companies. Their industry group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), had been running a task force for years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at which scientists from all of the big oil companies shared their information.
(Side note: Of course that had to be true. Just like any industry, Big Oil is a very small club at the top. What matters to one of the companies, especially one as big as Exxon, matters to all of them. Their execs all know each other, go to each other’s parties, ride each other’s jets to St. Andrews and Val-d’Isère, share names of the best Confirmation and Bar Mitzvah caterers — so of course when one gets a bug in the behind about maybe CO2 is dangerous, they talk about that bug until they’ve decided what to do. This story was just waiting to be dug out. Kudos to Ms. Banerjee for doing the digging.)
InsideClimate News with the details (my emphasis):
Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too
Members of an American Petroleum Institute task force on CO2 included scientists from nearly every major oil company, including Exxon, Texaco and Shell.
Beginning in 1979 the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s most powerful lobbyist, together with the country’s largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research.
The American Petroleum Institute [API] together with the nation’s largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world’s climate far earlier than previously known.
The group’s members included senior scientists and engineers from nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company, including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio and Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil, the predecessors to Chevron, according to internal documents obtained by InsideClimate News and interviews with the task force’s former director.
An InsideClimate News investigative series has shown that Exxon launched its own cutting-edge CO2 sampling program in 1978 in order to understand a phenomenon it suspected could harm its business. About a decade later, Exxon spearheaded campaigns to cast doubt on climate science and stall regulation of greenhouse gases. The previously unpublished papers about the climate task force indicate that API, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, followed a similar arc to Exxon’s in confronting the threat of climate change.
Just as Exxon began tracking climate science in the late 1970s, when only small groups of scientists in academia and the government were engaged in the research, other oil companies did the same, the documents show. Like Exxon, the companies also expressed a willingness to understand the links between their product, greater CO2 concentrations and the climate, the papers reveal. Some corporations ran their own research units as well, although they were smaller and less ambitious than Exxon’s and focused on climate modeling, said James J. Nelson, the former director of the task force.
“It was a fact-finding task force,” Nelson said in an interview. “We wanted to look at emerging science, the implications of it and where improvements could be made, if possible, to reduce emissions.”
The group was initially called the CO2 and Climate Task Force, but changed its name to the Climate and Energy Task Force in 1980, Nelson said.
A background paper on CO2 informed API members in 1979 that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rising steadily, and it predicted when the first clear effects of climate change might be felt, according to a memo by an Exxon task force representative.
In addition, API task force members appeared open to the idea that the oil industry might have to shoulder some responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions by changing refining processes and developing fuels that emitted less carbon dioxide….
Those prediction weren’t far off. The whole ICN report is worth reading, but this, however, is especially damning:
At [the urging of task force member Henry Shaw, Exxon’s lead climate researcher in the late 1970s], the task force invited Professor John A. Laurmann of Stanford University to brief members about climate science at the February 1980 meeting in New York. Shaw and Laurmann had participated in the same panel at the AAAS climate conference in April 1979.
Like many scientists at the time, Laurmann openly discussed the uncertainties in the evolving climate research, such as the limited long-term sampling data and the difficulty of determining regional effects of climate change, according to a copy of his presentation attached to the meeting minutes [pdf].
Still, Laurmann told his audience several times that the evidence showed that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is likely “caused by anthropogenic release of CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning.”
In his conclusions section, Laurmann estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would double in 2038, which he said would likely lead to a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures with “major economic consequences.” He then told the task force that models showed a 5 degrees Celsius rise by 2067, with “globally catastrophic effects.”
Here are those conclusions in full, from the next-to-last page of the report linked in the quote:
- AT A 3% PER ANNUM GROWTH RATE OF CO2, A 2.5°C RISE BRINGS WORLD ECONOMIC GROWTH TO A HALT IN ABOUT 2025.
Even if this estimate is grossly wrong it is still probable that
- WHETHER THERE ARE GROUNDS FOR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO THE THREAT DEPENDS ON THE VALIDITY OF THE LONG MARKET PENETRATION [of new energy sources] TIME CONCEPT.
- EVEN IF THE LATTER IS APPLICABLE, PRESENT DAY SIGNIFICANCE OF THE IMPACT DEPENDS STRONGLY ON CHOICE OF A FUTURE [social] DISCOUNTING FACTOR.
- NEED FOR IMMEDIATE POLICY ACTION HINGES ON THESE LAST TWO FEATURES.
Page 10 of the pdf is damning as well. This behavior borders on the criminal, wouldn’t you say? Or maybe crosses it, given the consequences we now face, by the distance of a hemisphere or so. About those consequences…
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. & Ms. American. You’re thinking, ‘Do we have until 2020 to stop making Big Oil richer, or can we wait till 2040 to take them on?’ Now, to tell you the truth, no one really knows. But being this is civilization-ending CO2 emissions we’re talking about, which will blow your grandchildren right back to the stone age while you watch, you’ve got to ask yourselves a question — Do you feel lucky?”
Nope, still not feeling lucky. Perhaps it’s time to act decisively and treat this like the emergency it is. After this gets going, life won’t be fun for anyone, even the wealthy who caused it. After all, if Val-d’Isère is all melted by then, where will they ski?
Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website
Orsola Costantini, Senior Economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, is the author of a new paper, “The Cyclically Adjusted Budget: History and Exegesis of a Fateful Estimate,” which exposes the fascinating — and disturbing — history of how a budget approach cloaked in a scientific and technical aura became a tool to manipulate public opinion and serve the interests of the powerful. In the following conversation, she reveals how austerity has been sold to the public through a process that damages the lives of ordinary people, consolidates knowledge and power at the top, and compromises democracy. As economic inequality reaches new heights and austerity programs are debated around the world (most recently, in Spain and Portugal), understanding how a lie becomes political and economic “truth” has never been more critical.
Lynn Parramore: Your recent work deals with something called the “cyclically adjusted budget.” What is it and what does it mean in the lives of ordinary people?
Orsola Costantini: The Cyclically Adjusted Budget (CAB) is a statistical estimate that aids government officials when they decide what to spend money on and how much they’re going to tax you. It is mostly federal governments that use it, but also international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Economists will tell you this tool is imprecise. Yet national and international institutions still rely on it to justify important decisions about government spending and taxation.
But there’s something the experts aren’t telling you: the cyclically adjusted budget can be easily maneuvered depending on which way the political winds are blowing. And it appears technical and obscure enough so that regular people tend to look at it as objective and undisputable. That’s where the trouble comes in.
Politicians and government officials using the CAB can limit the range of political choices that appear viable to a community. Policymakers can avoid the hassle of taking political responsibility for these choices, too. We had to do it! The budget says so!
Look at what happened all over Europe in 2008: It’s one thing to say to students in the streets that their education and economic wellbeing are not a priority for the government while saving banks is. It’s quite another to say that politics has nothing to do with it and the economy requires taking certain actions, sometimes painful.
LP: You indicate that this approach to budgeting was invented as a way of making the New Deal acceptable to the business community. How did that work? Over time, who has benefitted from it? Who has lost?
OC: Back in the 1940s, workers were fighting for their rights, class struggle was heating up, and soldiers would soon be returning from the fronts. At that point, a new business organization, the Committee for Economic Development (CED), came together. Led by Beardsley Ruml and other influential business figures, the CED played a crucial role in developing a conservative approach to Keynesian economics that helped make policies that would help put all Americans to work acceptable to the business community.
The idea was that more consumers would translate into more profits — which is good for business. After all, the economic experts and budget technicians said so, not just the politicians. And the business leaders were told that economic growth and price stability would go along with this, which they liked.
But things changed progressively over the 1970s and early 1980s. Firms went global. They became financialized. The balance of power between workers and owners started to shift more towards the owners, the capitalists. People were told they needed to sacrifice, to accept cuts to social spending and fewer rights and benefits on the job — all in the name of economic science and capitalism. The CAB was turned into a tool for preventing excessive spending — or justifying selected cuts.
Middle class folks were afraid that inflation would erode their savings, so they were more keen to approve draconian measures to cut wages and reduce public budgets. People on the lower rungs of the economic ladder felt the pain first. But eventually the middle class fell on the wrong side of the fence, too. Most of them became relatively poorer.
I suppose this shows the limits of democracy when information, knowledge, and ultimately power are unequally distributed.
LP: You’re really talking about birth of austerity and the way lies about public spending and budgets have been sold to the public. Why is austerity such a powerful idea and why do politicians still win elections promoting it?
OC: Austerity is so powerful today because it feeds off of itself. It makes people uncertain about their lives, their debts, and their jobs. They become afraid. It’s a strong disciplinary mechanism. People stop joining forces and the political status quo gets locked down.
name of this tool, the “cyclically adjusted budget,” carries an aura of respect. It diverts our attention. We don’t question it. It creates a barrier between the individual and the political realm: it undermines democratic participation itself. This obscure theory validates, with its authority, a big economic mistake that sounds like common sense but is actually snake oil — the notion that the federal government budget is like a household budget. Actually, it isn’t. Your household doesn’t collect taxes. It doesn’t print money. It works very differently, yet the nonsense that it should behave exactly like a household budget gets repeated by politicians and policymakers who really just want to squeeze ordinary people.
LP: How does all this play out in the U.S. and in Europe?
OC: The European Union requires its members to comply with something called a cyclically adjusted budget constraint. Each country has to review its economic and fiscal plans with the European Commission and prove that those are compatible with the Pact. It’s a ceiling on a country’s deficit, but it’s also much more than that.
Thanks to the estimate, the governments of Italy or Spain, for example, are supposed to force the economy toward some ideal economic condition, the definition of which is obviously quite controversial and has so far rewarded those countries that have implemented labor market deregulation, cut pensions, and even changed the way elections happen. Again, it’s a control mechanism.
In the U.S. this scenario plays out, too, although less strictly. Talk about the budget often relies on the same shifty and politically-shaded statistical tools to support one argument or the other. Usually we hear arguments that suggest we have to cut social programs and workers’ rights and benefits or face economic doom. Tune in to the presidential debates and you’ll hear this played out — and it isn’t strictly limited to one party.
LP: How do we stop powerful players from co-opting economics and budgets for their own purposes?
OC: Our education system is increasingly unequal and deprived of public resources. This is true in the U.S. but also in Europe, where the crisis accelerated a process that was already underway. When children don’t get good educations, the production of knowledge falls into private control. Power gets consolidated. The official theoretical frameworks that benefit the most powerful get locked in.
In the economic field, we need to engage different points of view and keep challenging dominant narratives and frameworks. One day, human curiosity will save us from intellectual prostitution.
Young son-of-a-Jeb, George Pee Bush, got himself elected Land Commissioner in Texas. There have been problems from the get-go, like hiring his buddies to high paying jobs within his office.
The big news in Texas right now is that George P Bush, son of a JebBush, got elected Land Commissioner in Texas and is violating the law, hiring his friends and family, not posting jobs, and has turned the Texas General Land office to a frat house / political payoff machine that even has his retired Republican predecessor aghast.
That has been the good news of his tenure in office.
He’s been spending more time on the campaign trail with his daddy than running his office in Texas.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s good news.
George Pee had a conference call with his closest supporters and even they were dumbfounded when he explained that he had run for “dogcatcher” in Texas
“There’s no better experience than getting involved in a presidential race because you truly do absorb so much more information than say, running for dog catcher like I did in Texas,” he said, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal.
But he didn’t stop there. When asked if he was going to help with the presidential campaign, he explained —
When he began to talk about where his father and brother would be campaigning, he said he was “stuck here in Texas this week, but will be out on the trail.”
So, here we have a young man with a $167,070 a year job that oversees the Texas School Fund and all the damn land in Texas. Land commissioner is the oldest, continuous elected position in Texas history. But, George Pee considers that dogcatcher.
I wonder if he knows he’s not “stuck in Texas.” He can leave at any time. In my mind, the sooner, the better.
Yves here. Be sure to watch the documentary at the end of this post.
By James Kleinfeld (@kleinfeldja) and Max Blumenthal )@MaxBlumenthal), the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Originally published at Alternet
In our documentary released earlier this year, Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie, Max Blumenthal and I surveyed the landscape of French society in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, interviewing representatives of French Muslim and Jewish communities, political activists, academics and average French citizens. The accounts we recorded told of long-exacerbating pressures on inter-communal relations that are rapidly approaching a state of low-level civil conflict. The minority citizens we spoke with were seething under a system that has given rise to daily encounters with discrimination and systematic exclusion from the public space.
In turn, French reality has been punctuated by seemingly random, spectacularly gruesome acts of violence carried out by individuals who come from the most excluded sections of French society. They are at once native-born citizens of France and the country’s ultimate outsiders. The main perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the atrocities this November were not a foreign presence which has disturbed a peaceful status quo in French society, but the unwanted, outcasted byproducts of the French Republic and its imperial legacy in the Middle East.
Whether or not we are willing to describe the situation in impoverished French banlieues (suburbs) as outright apartheid, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls did this year, the toxic combination of militaristic government policies abroad and draconian, discriminatory policies at home have unleashed an authoritarian mood among the general public. For French Muslims and other minorities, the situation increasingly resembles the plight blacks faced in apartheid South Africa and even that of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Though French minorities confront only a shadow of the disproportionate violence that Israel has visited upon Palestinians, they have found themselves in a permanent state of exclusion enforced by a regime of increasingly brutal repression.
The racism that has always simmered just above the surface of mainstream French society has reached historic highs. In the month following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Collective Against Islamophobia measured a 70% rise in Islamophobic incidents, 80% of which were directed against Muslim women usually targeted because they wore hijab. This includes Islamophobic language, verbal and physical assaults and property damage. Since the terrorist attacks of November 13, mosques, halal butchers, kebab restaurants and town halls have been attacked.
The scale of this racist tidal wave on Muslims can be gleaned from a statement made by a Parisian policeman, who said he is “overwhelmed with false accusations” made by civilians toward people perceived as Muslim. This goes hand in hand with the systemic use of racial profiling by France’s security forces. This populist assault on France’s Muslim community has been incited by high-level Islamophobia from the country’s leadership, whose excesses include laws banning the Islamic veil, shuttering mosques, imposing state-friendly, puppet-like religious leadership, removing non-halal options for Muslim school children, and the anti-immigrant bile spewed by members of the far-right National Front and former President Nicholas Sarkozy’s center-right “Republican” Party.
How does this situation mirror apartheid, or the Israeli regime of ethnic separation known as hafrada, and whose benefit does this state of affairs serve? Undoubtedly, France’s political class has been careful to avoid canonizing an overt ideology of ethno-supremacy, and yet the effects of state actions have clearly led to the same result. In our documentary, Houria Bouteldja, a founder of the leftist minority party known as the Indigenous Peoples of the Republic, claimed it was “the figure of the Christian, white, European person” who the state privileges with power and wealth in the society, who is legally positioned above “the black, the Arab, the Muslim and the Roma” person. It isn’t a visible form of apartheid, but a regime of separation which is enacted through systemic, naturalized forms of domination and violence. As her fellow party leader Youssouf Boussouma described to us how the French authorities banned demonstrations against Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, then meted out harsh punishments to young Arab males who took to the streets, “this government behaves toward certain sections of its populations as if they really were citizens of an occupied country.”
The reality Bouteldja and Boussouma painted for us reflected the consequences of a long-term, generational process of exclusion and inequality that stemmed directly from the history of French colonialism in Africa and the Middle East, the treatment of French colonialists to the indigenous populations which it ruled over, and the actions of the French army in those colonies.
Ethnic separation is also maintained through the urban environment, where large numbers of Arab and African communities languish in a spiral of poverty, relegated to second-class citizenship and physically separated through deliberate planning. Ethnic divisions are most notable in Paris, where successive waves of immigration from France’s African and Middle Eastern colonies were settled in underfunded, distant suburbs. Meanwhile, gentrification is pushing the remaining minority communities out of the socially engineered Parisian city center, relegating them to the immiseration and despair of thebanlieues. The périphérique, the ring road encircling the 20 districts of Paris and elegantly buried underground in the genteel neighbourhoods of the West and South, functions as a concrete roadblock cutting off access to and from the lower-class neighbourhoods of Saint-Ouen, Saint-Denis, Aubervilliers and Montreuil to the North and East. What this leads to is a growing cultural and ethnic homogenization of the center, through turfing out the different Others to the periphery. As Boussouma, the minority rights activist, remarked, “We have the feeling that… this isn’t the same country, that these aren’t the same norms, not the same references, that [we] live in a sort of sub-humanity.”
Following the atrocities of November 13, President François Hollande launched a state of emergency across France, which has since been extended for the next three months. The emergency regulations represent a legal no-man’s land between peacetime common law and wartime state of siege that has allowed the French state to deploy a war without needing to call it one. This is a war of low intensity, whose main tools are legal and judicial rather than through physical offensives. The state of emergency allows local officials to impose curfews, limit the freedom of movement and enter residences in certain areas, forbid individuals from entering certain zones and place them under house arrest in arbitrary fashion. French citizens who remember the Vichy regime have made the connection between the expanded policy of house arrests, and the creation of concentration camps by the Vichy regime, who used the same expression of ‘house arrest’ to justify their draconian clampdowns. The state of emergency was also used during the Algerian war to imprison thousands of suspected nationalist sympathisers.
What sort of result can we expect when the widespread ethnic profiling by French security forces is armed with a state of emergency? At the very moment when the French army is beefing up its military presence in Syria, it is impossible to demonstrate against these military operations, just as it was illegal to gather in large crowds for the COP 21 climate change talks recently held in Paris. Indeed, 26 environmental activists have been placed under house arrest, preventing them from protesting against the climate talks.
The new rules have been applied most firmly against the minority banlieue dwellers who bear the figure of the “terrorist.” The day after the November 13 attacks, police stormed through the impoverished St. Denis neighborhood where two of the assailants lived, stopping and frisking young Arab men in droves, and raiding homes indiscriminately. By early December, the authorities had closed at least three mosques, and arrested hundreds after more than 2,200 raids carried out under the premise of anti-terrorism. Laurent Wauqiuez, the number-three figure in Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican Party, has even suggested placing French citizens under terror investigations in internment camps.
While dynamics in French society have come to resemble those in Israel-Palestine, with deep fractures along ethnic lines, suppression of civil liberties and racist incitement, the Israel-Palestine crisis has been simultaneously imported back into French society. The French government entertains an obsequious relationship toward the State of Israel, having invited Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to Paris following the attacks in January while slavishly supporting his successive assaults on Gaza. France’s security and intelligence forces cooperate closely with their Israeli counterparts; the municipality of Paris even stoked controversy earlier this year by hosting the city of Tel Aviv for a one day event at the Paris Plage artificial beach, whitewashing the murder of children on the beaches of Gaza one year earlier. At the recent COP 21 climate summit, Parisian authorities deployed a surveillance balloon made by Israel and first tested on occupied Palestinians by the Israeli army.
France can also be considered as contiguous territory on the war on Palestine. The French government is assisting Israel’s strategic imperatives by acting as the only country in the world that has criminalized the boycott of the State of Israel. A memorandum issued in 2010 by then-Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie demanded legal actions against BDS activists on the specious grounds that their political activities represented a form of anti-Semitic hate speech. In recent weeks dozens of activists of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement have been taken to court under the so-called Lellouche law. This month, four more activists will stand trial in Toulouse for distributing pro-boycott material.
Omar Slaouti, a BDS activist who was summoned to trial under the Alliot-Marie directive, hears disturbing echoes of Israeli rhetoric in French political discourse. “The political language used to justify Western wars of foreign intervention is the same used by Israel to justify its occupation of Palestine,” Slaouti said, “and the same discourse wielded by the French political and security class towards the French underclasses.”
During a demonstration last year in protest of Israel’s war on the besieged Gaza Strip, the extremist Jewish Defense League instigated a scuffle with anti-war protesters, throwing projectiles at the demonstrators before fleeing for safety behind line of riot police. The French government reflexively took the side of JDL and its supporters, criminalizing all further demonstrations in support of Palestine. This suppression of Palestinian solidarity has been supplemented by attacks on anti-Zionist Jewish organisations, such as the the Union of French Jews for Peace (UJFP) and Juives et juifs révolutionnaires (Revolutionary Jews) by the JDL.
A French-Israeli hacker named Ulcan (real name Gregory Chelli) has taken refuge in Israeli-controlled territory, where he terrorizes activists from the leftist UJFP. A typical Ulcan prank caused riot police to rush to the home of UJFP president Jean Guy Greilsamer to respond to a false claim that Greilsamer had killed his entire family and would open fire on any police who approached his home. Ulcan is a former member of the JDL, which has appealed to French police for direct security coordinations, particularly in heavily Jewish areas like Sarcelles that also contain large Muslim and immigrant populations. A Jewish community leader from Sarcelles, David Haik, told us that this collaboration is already taking place below the radar.
“When the army is called in to protect some French citizens against others,” Haik remarked, “it’s the beginning of a civil war.”
Kahina Rabahi assisted in the reporting of this article.
By Barbara Ehrenreich, a founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (now in a 10th anniversary edition with a new afterword) and most recently the autobiographical Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. Originally published at TomDispatch
The white working class, which usually inspires liberal concern only for its paradoxical, Republican-leaning voting habits, has recently become newsworthy for something else: according to economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the winner of the latest Nobel Prize in economics, its members in the 45- to 54-year-old age group are dying at an immoderate rate. While the lifespan of affluent whites continues to lengthen, the lifespan of poor whites has been shrinking. As a result, in just the last four years, the gap between poor white men and wealthier ones has widened by up to four years. The New York Times summed up the Deaton and Case study with this headline: “Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap.”
This was not supposed to happen. For almost a century, the comforting American narrative was that better nutrition and medical care would guarantee longer lives for all. So the great blue-collar die-off has come out of the blue and is, as the Wall Street Journal says, “startling.”
It was especially not supposed to happen to whites who, in relation to people of color, have long had the advantage of higher earnings, better access to health care, safer neighborhoods, and of course freedom from the daily insults and harms inflicted on the darker-skinned. There has also been a major racial gap in longevity — 5.3 years between white and black men and 3.8 years between white and black women — though, hardly noticed, it has been narrowing for the last two decades. Only whites, however, are now dying off in unexpectedly large numbers in middle age, their excess deaths accounted for by suicide, alcoholism, and drug (usually opiate) addiction.There are some practical reasons why whites are likely to be more efficient than blacks at killing themselves. For one thing, they are more likely to be gun-owners, and white men favor gunshots as a means of suicide. For another, doctors, undoubtedly acting in part on stereotypes of non-whites as drug addicts, are more likely to prescribe powerful opiate painkillers to whites than to people of color. (I’ve been offered enough oxycodone prescriptions over the years to stock a small illegal business.)
Manual labor — from waitressing to construction work — tends to wear the body down quickly, from knees to back and rotator cuffs, and when Tylenol fails, the doctor may opt for an opiate just to get you through the day.
The Wages of Despair
But something more profound is going on here, too. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman puts it, the “diseases” leading to excess white working class deaths are those of “despair,” and some of the obvious causes are economic. In the last few decades, things have not been going well for working class people of any color.
I grew up in an America where a man with a strong back — and better yet, a strong union — could reasonably expect to support a family on his own without a college degree. In 2015, those jobs are long gone, leaving only the kind of work once relegated to women and people of color available in areas like retail, landscaping, and delivery-truck driving. This means that those in the bottom 20% of white income distribution face material circumstances like those long familiar to poor blacks, including erratic employment and crowded, hazardous living spaces.
White privilege was never, however, simply a matter of economic advantage. As the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1935, “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.”
Some of the elements of this invisible wage sound almost quaint today, like Du Bois’s assertion that white working class people were “admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools.” Today, there are few public spaces that are not open, at least legally speaking, to blacks, while the “best” schools are reserved for the affluent — mostly white and Asian American along with a sprinkling of other people of color to provide the fairy dust of “diversity.” While whites have lost ground economically, blacks have made gains, at least in the de jure sense. As a result, the “psychological wage” awarded to white people has been shrinking.
For most of American history, government could be counted on to maintain white power and privilege by enforcing slavery and later segregation. When the federal government finally weighed in on the side of desegregation, working class whites were left to defend their own diminishing privilege by moving rightward toward the likes of Alabama Governor (and later presidential candidate) George Wallace and his many white pseudo-populist successors down to Donald Trump.
At the same time, the day-to-day task of upholding white power devolved from the federal government to the state and then local level, specifically to local police forces, which, as we know, have taken it up with such enthusiasm as to become both a national and international scandal. The Guardian, for instance, now keeps a running tally of the number of Americans (mostly black) killed by cops (as of this moment, 1,209 for 2015), while black protest, in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and a wave of on-campus demonstrations, has largely recaptured the moral high ground formerly occupied by the civil rights movement.
The culture, too, has been inching bit by bit toward racial equality, if not, in some limited areas, black ascendency. If the stock image of the early twentieth century “Negro” was the minstrel, the role of rural simpleton in popular culture has been taken over in this century by the characters in Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. At least in the entertainment world, working class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street-smart, and sometimes as wealthy as Kanye West. It’s not easy to maintain the usual sense of white superiority when parts of the media are squeezing laughs from the contrast between savvy blacks and rural white bumpkins, as in the Tina Fey comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. White, presumably upper-middle class people generally conceive of these characters and plot lines, which, to a child of white working class parents like myself, sting with condescension.
Of course, there was also the election of the first black president. White, native-born Americans began to talk of “taking our country back.” The more affluent ones formed the Tea Party; less affluent ones often contented themselves with affixing Confederate flag decals to their trucks.
On the American Downward Slope
All of this means that the maintenance of white privilege, especially among the least privileged whites, has become more difficult and so, for some, more urgent than ever. Poor whites always had the comfort of knowing that someone was worse off and more despised than they were; racial subjugation was the ground under their feet, the rock they stood upon, even when their own situation was deteriorating.
If the government, especially at the federal level, is no longer as reliable an enforcer of white privilege, then it’s grassroots initiatives by individuals and small groups that are helping to fill the gap — perpetrating the micro-aggressions that roil college campuses, the racial slurs yelled from pickup trucks, or, at a deadly extreme, the shooting up of a black church renowned for its efforts in the Civil Rights era. Dylann Roof, the Charleston killer who did just that, was a jobless high school dropout and reportedly a heavy user of alcohol and opiates. Even without a death sentence hanging over him, Roof was surely headed toward an early demise.
Acts of racial aggression may provide their white perpetrators with a fleeting sense of triumph, but they also take a special kind of effort. It takes effort, for instance, to target a black runner and swerve over to insult her from your truck; it takes such effort — and a strong stomach — to paint a racial slur in excrement on a dormitory bathroom wall. College students may do such things in part out of a sense of economic vulnerability, the knowledge that as soon as school is over their college-debt payments will come due. No matter the effort expended, however, it is especially hard to maintain a feeling of racial superiority while struggling to hold onto one’s own place near the bottom of an undependable economy.
While there is no medical evidence that racism is toxic to those who express it — after all, generations of wealthy slave owners survived quite nicely — the combination of downward mobility and racial resentment may be a potent invitation to the kind of despair that leads to suicide in one form or another, whether by gunshots or drugs. You can’t break a glass ceiling if you’re standing on ice.
It’s easy for the liberal intelligentsia to feel righteous in their disgust for lower-class white racism, but the college-educated elite that produces the intelligentsia is in trouble, too, with diminishing prospects and an ever-slipperier slope for the young. Whole professions have fallen on hard times, from college teaching to journalism and the law. One of the worst mistakes this relative elite could make is to try to pump up its own pride by hating on those — of any color or ethnicity — who are falling even faster.