Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Stress–America’s Inter-Generational Poverty Trap

The High Costs of Being Poor in America: Stress, Pain, and Worry:

Reported stress levels are higher on average in the U.S. than in Latin America. Importantly, the gap between the levels of the rich and poor is also much greater, with the U.S. poor reporting the highest levels of stress of all cohorts.

Pain, worry, sadness, and anger (reported as experienced the day before or not) are also all significantly higher among low income cohorts than among wealthy ones, while reported satisfaction with life as a whole is significantly lower, according to our analysis of Gallup data:

The cost and pain of poverty in the U.S. less about basic goods like water and electricity than nonmaterial factors: insecurity, stress, lack of opportunity and discrimination.

Stress impacts cognitive ability. Not only do poorer people have less resources to invest in human capital, due to higher levels of stress they may benefit less from every dollar they do invest. This is the stress-based poverty trap.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that this stress-based poverty trap may be inter-generational:

Stressful experiences for expectant mothers can have detrimental effects on their unborn children:

  1. “Prenatal insults,” such as harassment and discrimination, to pregnant Californian women with Arabic names after 9/11 resulted in higher rates of low birth weight babies, according to research by epidemiologist Diane Lauderdale. Babies who gestated in the weeks after 9/11 and who were given distinctive, Arabic names experienced a two-fold increase in underweight births compared to those who gestated before. Babies born to mothers with non-Arabic names experienced no such effect.
  2. Children in utero during a 40-day ice storm crisis in Québec  had lower scores on tests of vocabulary and psychological measures at age 5.
  3. Using the timing of Ramadan as a natural experiment, economists Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder find persistent effects of prenatal fasting on disability outcomes as an adult.


Why? One strong possibility is that mothers send biological signals to their fetuses, providing information about the outside world and thereby helping prioritize different aspects of fetal development. Some scientists now believe this process actually alters which genes get “switched on” in newborns.


Are We All “Born Equal”?

Ideally, people would only have children when they are financially secure and emotionally ready. In reality this is not the case, and I for one cannot think of a way of achieving this ideal without grossly invading peoples privacy. Given this reality, how can we reduce stress levels in pregnant women?

One obvious past-due reform is legislating paid maternity leave. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Considering the potential link between maternal and fetal stress levels, perhaps maternity leave should begin earlier in pregnancy. This is not only a women’s rights issue, it is a social mobility issue as well.

Other avenues for progress could be informational. Poorer women are less likely to use contraception or have abortions. Abortions are also less common among poorer women, reflecting both the cost and perhaps the percieved stigma surrounding the practice (a source of stress itself). In  “Freakonomics” Steve Dubner and Steve Levner attribute dropping crime rates in the 90s primarily to the legalization of abortions in the 70s (Roe v. Wade). While abortion may be controvertial, the effects of having unwanted children are far more costly to society.   

When considering intentional pregnancy, it is common knowledge that women take great care concerning what they ingest during pregnancy. However, notably less attention is paid to stress levels. Should doctors be informing women about the impact of stress on their unborn children? Should they be promoting stress reducing activities like prenatal yoga / meditation?

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility requires support at all points in life. Some people need support from birth throughout young-adulthood, others need retraining later in life, while others at certain intervals in-between. This is why we see so many different programs and proposals targeting different age cohorts: universal pre-K, subsidized meals / greater school choice in primary and secondary schools, free community college / Pell Grants / “student bill of rights“.

While it may be ideal to promote policies that reduce everyone’s insecurity, early intervention is less politically contentious. A growing body of evidence suggests the earlier the intervention, the greater the “return on investment”. Furthermore, one cannot reasonably appeal to the  “personal accountability” argument when opposing welfare programs targeting unborn / young children.

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility are undoubtedly difficult and expensive, but they are at the root of the American Dream. Furthermore, enabling everyone to realize their full potential spurs innovation and economic growth, and would save money later in life on welfare and criminal justice spending.

As the natural and social sciences advance and become more cooperative, insights such as this will continue to present themselves. As Americans, it is up to us to reject anti-intellectualism and false budgetary restraints, and elect leaders who will turn these insights into effective public policies.

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Economic Outlook: The Flawed Logic Behind New Bank Rules on Liquidity and Municipal Debt

Original article:

Municipal bonds will no longer be part of the easily sellable assets that banks can use to show they are able to survive a credit crunch, Bloomberg reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

The final liquidity rule will be approved by regulators, including the Federal Reserve, on Sept 3, the news service reported the person as saying.

The most recent draft does not list debt issued by states and municipalities as high-quality assets that could help sustain a bank through a 30-day squeeze, the report said, citing the person.

The regulations could affect the municipal bond market by giving banks less incentive to buy bonds that finance schools, roads and public works, Bloomberg said.

On the surface, this new rule make perfect sense–it is a natural response to the unprecedented explosion of municipal bankruptcies and the economic decision underpinning them (poor investment of public funds, unsustainable public worker benefits, overly generous subsidies to attract private sector jobs, etc.). “Easily sellable assets” are supposed to be liquid and stable in price, in order to assure banks can “wind down” their holdings in the event of a financial crisis.

But upon further consideration, the decision to not include municipal bonds as “easily sellable” assets is representative of a larger [artificial] divide between the “financial” and “real” economies. It is also incredibly shortsighted.

In the aftermath of the “Great Recession”, America realized two economic recoveries. One was a financial recovery which, buoyed by a financial sector bailout, happened very quickly. This recovery resulted in 95% of economic gains between 2009-2013 went to the top 1%–the people who own the vast majority of financial assets. This recovery continues to be marked by record high values for many popular stock indexes.

The second recovery, which 6 years later is only partially complete, is the recovery of the labor market. Unemployment is low (especially compared to levels in certain European countries), but wages remain depressed and many people are still forced to take jobs below their skill level.

In theory, the financial sector should act as a barometer of sorts for the strength of the real economy; when the real economy is doing well, the financial sector should boom. In reality, throughout the past few decades the financial sector has become synonymous with terms like “bubbles”, insider information / fraud, and offshore banking / tax inversion. Financiers, accountants and lawyers are employed to figure out illegal / quasi-legal loopholes to ensure the rich get richer regardless of their productivity or contributions to society as a whole.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the type and amount of “safe” assets banks must hold has to be reexamined. But pricing municipalities out of financial markets is not the answer to this problem.

In the long run, economies do well when we invest in everybody–when no person is left behind. This concept goes by many names; the two most common I have heard are “the human rights based approach to sustainable human development” and “progressive politics”. Regardless of what you call it, this concept is not only ethically and socially just, it is economically viable. Furthermore, we end up paying for those “left behind” in the form of higher police, prison, and welfare expenditures anyways.

The decision to not include municipal debt as “easily sellable” assets will drive up the price municipalities pay for providing essential public services. Of course municipalities must do their best to set economically sustainable policies, perhaps with the assistance / oversight of state and/or federal officials. But America cannot afford to let the current mishandling of municipal policies lead to a further deterioration in local service delivery–it is unfair to the people affected by these policies and the American economy as a whole.

Spending less money on education, social programs, and infrastructure, while perhaps “fiscally responsible” in the eyes of some people, is incredibly harmful to America’s economic prospects in the medium and long runs. Unless this liquidity decision is part of a larger plan for the Federal Reserve to act as a backstop / “lender of last resort” for municipal debt–an idea I have heard nothing about–then it will only further exacerbate the rift between the real and financial economies, setting America up for both future financial crises and a loss of global competitiveness.

During my time interning at the UNDP, there was an organizational slogan I took to heart; judge a society not by the strength of its strongest, but by the strength of its weakest. In America, those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder depend the most on municipal services to realize “the American Dream”. This slogan holds holds as true with regards to the sustainable human development of American’s as it is for people in less developed countries.

America should have the resources and political will to enable everybody to realize their full economic potential. This should be the new American dream.

 


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Economic Outlook: Free College Education For All (Including Prison Inmates)

Taking the above quote to the extreme, defending something because it is “how we currently do it” is an even more “dangerous” way of thinking.

America’s public college and prison systems are currently flawed. Prison reform has gained traction because it is a cost saving measure. Providing free public higher education, as we used to do in this country, has not gained similar traction, because it would require additional funding.

There is an area where these two issues–prison reform and free higher education–intersect; offering college degree programs to prison inmates (which, again, used to be a much more common practice):

IN February, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced plans to underwrite college classes in 10 state prisons, building on the success of privately funded and widely praised programs like the Bard Prison Initiative. Mr. Cuomo pointed out that inmates who got an education had a much better chance of finding a job and were much less likely to menace their neighbors after release. He noted that the cost — $5,000 per inmate per year — would be a bargain compared with the $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year. 

The punch lines of the opposing politicians (mostly Republicans, but some Democrats) all struck the same theme: How dare the governor offer taxpayer money to educate convicted criminals when decent citizens skimp and borrow to send their kids to college? “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’ ” said George D. Maziarz, a state senator from western New York. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.” In other words, let criminals be criminals.

The bureaucracies that run prisons are called departments of “corrections” for a reason. This is at least as important as the first two purposes, because nearly 95 percent of the incarcerated are eventually released back into society.

Alas, nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we are not doing a good job of “correcting.”

This is not a bleeding-heart cause. Leading conservatives and red-state politicians have supported prison college programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence. A RAND meta-analysis of 58 studies concluded that inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime; even assuming that the most redeemable inmates are the likeliest to sign up, this is an incredible return on a modest investment.

Experts who have studied the American way of crime and punishment far longer than I have tell me, to quote Michael P. Jacobson, a veteran corrections official who heads a public policy institute for the City University of New York, that they see “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do.”

“The influence of high-profile crimes, fear of crime, issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just,” Mr. Jacobson told me.

America has greatly reduced access to college and graduate degree programs for prison inmates. Coinciding with mass incarceration, this policy change has effectively turned prison into a uniquely American poverty-trap.

Free public education in America has become almost non-existent, and the results are not pretty. There is roughly $900B-$1T dollars in outstanding student loan debt in America. One reason for this is that college tuition increases have far outstripped inflation over the past few decades.

People correctly argue that law abiding citizens should not have to pay exorbitant college tuition rates, while prisoners receive a free college education. However, this argument misses the point; a free public college education should be available to everyone! 

Aside from the obvious socioeconomic benefits associated with greater access to higher education (both in and out of prison), such a policy would also help reign in increasing tuition costs at private Universities. Make these institutions compete with a free alternative, and the price of college tuition should drop for those who still desire a private education.

This “us vs. them” mentality is indicative of public policy discourse in America, and it is a shame. Instead of debating the costs and benefits of policy reforms, we are stuck in a circle of spite; “I didn’t have this benefit, why should someone else!”. 

This “argument” misses the point of policy reform–whether or not people believe they would have been better off with said reform (spiteful responses suggests that people do, on some level, believe that said reform would have helped them)? It precludes truly progressive policy reforms, such as providing everyone with access to free public higher education. Of course this would require a greater public investment (although it doesn’t necessarily have to increase the deficit); the questions are whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and how those costs will be financed.

American politics has become a class battle between those below the poverty line and those barely above it. All the while, inequality increases and the American Dream becomes just that, a dream.


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Transparency Report: America The Post-Racial? Not So Fast…

While there is no single definition of a post-racial society, I like the definition offered on Wikipedia:

Post-racial America is a theoretical environment where the United States is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice.

Having defined what a post-racial American society entails, the next natural question would be “have we achieved this normative goal ?” Despite anecdotal evidence (Barack Obama was elected and re-elected as our President!), I would argue that America is not yet a post-racial society. It is important to make this distinction, as prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” ultimately makes accomplishing this goal all the more difficult.

Two specific issues–minority voting rights and school desegregation–highlight that work still remains to be done when it comes to achieving a post-racial society. Recent Supreme court decisions would make it seem that racial bias is no longer an issue in America; experiences in everyday life suggest otherwise.

Voting Rights:

During the 2011 legislative sessions, states across the country passed measures to make it harder for Americans – particularly African-Americans, the elderly, students and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. Over thirty states considered laws that would require voters to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely.

Despite this frenzy of state legislation to counteract so-called voter fraud and to protect the integrity of our elections, proponents of such voter suppression legislation have failed to show that voter fraud is a problem anywhere in the country. Aside from the occasional unproven anecdote or baseless allegation, supporters of these laws simply cannot show that there is any need for them. Indeed, despite the Department of Justice’s 2002 “Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative” promising to vigorously prosecute allegations of voter fraud, the federal government obtained only 26 convictions or guilty pleas for fraud between 2002 and 2005. And other studies of voter fraud consistently find that it is exceedingly rare – a 2007 Demos study concluded that “voter fraud appears to be very rare” and a 2007 study by the Brennan Center found that “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.” The Voting Rights Project will continue to fight these laws that disenfranchise millions of eligible voters without any legitimate justification.

Despite evidence of voter discrimination based on race as recently as the 2012 Presidential Election, a Supreme Court ruling this June essentially removed federal oversight over state and local voting laws (which is the level at which all elections are held):    

The decision in Shelby County v. Holder revolves around Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes a “coverage formula” to determine which states and local governments fall under Section 5, and therefore need to get approval before changing their voting laws. The justices ruled that Section 4 is unconstitutional, and that the formula used for decades — revised and extended several times by Congress — can no longer be used to establish those “preclearance” requirements: “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” 

Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion on the ruling highlights the need to restore Section 4 and the potential dangers of prematurely gutting the Voting Rights Act:

With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, §5 should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against back­-sliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.

School Desegregation:

African-American and Latino students are less likely to attend racially and ethnically diverse schools today than at any other time in the last four decades. This, almost 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools, represents a major setback for one of the core goals of the civil rights movement.

“Our school district is extremely segregated,” said Caitlin McNulty, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Valley West Elementary School in Houston. “Part of that is just we have a huge minority population in our district, period, so I’d say the majority of our schools are at least 80 percent minority.”

In her school district, African-Americans and Latinos made up more than 90 percent of the student population last year. Only seven of the 705 students at her school were white — less than one percent.

“That’s not out of the ordinary” in her district, McNulty said. “It’s just not representative of the population that’s here.”

In the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public school districts could pursue desegregation by busing students from highly segregated neighborhoods into majority-white schools. The goal was for schools to be “racially balanced” and be compliant with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But in 1991, the Oklahoma City v. Dowell case ended a federal order to desegregate Oklahoma schools, opening the door for numerous court cases that have rolled back desegregation efforts across the country. The court ruled that as long as school districts made a “good faith” attempt to remedy past segregation, they would no longer have to try to integrate public schools.

Commenting on the findings of the Civil Rights Project’s study, the University of South Carolina School of Law’s Derek Black said that “integration steadily increased in our public schools from the late 1960s well into the 1980s and fundamentally enhanced the quality of education received by students of all races. But through a combination of willful, blind and benign neglect, nearly all of those gains have been lost.”

In Texas and other states experiencing resegregation of their schools, students now often grow up interacting only with other students who look like them.

Some may say “so what? whats the big deal? overt racism is no longer a problem in America and beyond that a persons racial biases (or lack-thereof) is their personal choice” However, racial bias in voting rights and school segregation have implications beyond just educational attainment and electoral outcomes. Both of these variables shape the enabling environment for a more racially inclusive and egalitarian society.

Voting rights are important because, based on who is elected to office, different policies will be enacted. By depressing minorities abilities to choose their elected officials, a snowball effect begins, with the end result being that the concerns of these marginalized groups are not addressed by our politicians. Inequalities increase and social exclusion persists. Minorities do not have the right to unilaterally determine who is elected / what policies they pass. However, they should have the same rights of every other citizen in affecting the outcomes of elections.

School re-segregation has an inter-generational effect on racial equality. When students go to desegregated schools, they interact with children who come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences, particularly early in life, go a long way towards shaping peoples attitudes towards race and can help break damaging stereotypes. Every future leader of America will go through school, who they go to school with could very well affect their future policy decisions.

There is also the idea that “separate but equal” is never truly equal. If minority students are systematically herded into sub-par schools, they will go on to get worse jobs and racial inequality will increase in the future. American concepts of “equality of opportunity” and “meritocracy” are at stake; recent evidence suggests that inequality and social immobility have been trending upwards unchecked for decades.      

It is nice to dream of a post-racial America–it is a normative vision I surely share with millions of other Americans. However, simply saying “race is no longer an issue” does not make it so. This premature declaration will reverse recent gains made in racial equality and depresses the future prospects of minorities, threatening the “American Dream” itself. Political will is needed to counter inequality of opportunity in America, and it is clear that race must still be a consideration when harnessing this political will into public policy.