February 16, 2021 (Tuesday)History was in the news today in three very different ways. First up is the deep freeze in Texas, which overwhelmed the power grid and knocked out electricity for more than 3.5 million people, leaving them without heat. It has taken the lives of at least 23 people.Most of Texas is on its own power grid, a decision made in the 1930s to keep it clear of federal regulation. This means both that it avoids federal regulation and that it cannot import more electricity during periods of high demand. Apparently, as temperatures began to drop, people turned up electric heaters and needed more power than engineers had been told to design for, just as the ice shut down gas-fired plants and wind turbines froze. Demand for natural gas spiked and created a shortage. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) told Sean Hannity that the disaster “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal” for the United States, but Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization in charge of the state’s power grid, told Bloomberg that the frozen wind turbines were the smallest factor in the crisis. They supply only about 10% of the state’s power in the winter. Frozen instruments at gas, coal, and nuclear plants, as well as shortages of natural gas, were the major culprits. To keep electricity prices low, ERCOT had not prepared for such a crisis. El Paso, which is not part of ERCOT but is instead linked to a larger grid that includes other states and thus is regulated, did, in fact, weatherize their equipment. Its customers lost power only briefly. With climate change expected to intensify extremes of weather, the crisis in Texas indicates that our infrastructure will need to be reinforced to meet conditions it was not designed for.Second, there was an interesting development today with regard to the January 6 insurrection. Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS), in his personal capacity, not as a member of Congress, sued Donald Trump—in his personal capacity—Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Proud Boys International, LLC; and Oath Keepers. The lawsuit is backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and argues that these four people or entities each “intended to prevent, and ultimately delayed, members of Congress from discharging their duty commanded by the United States Constitution to approve the results of the Electoral College in order to elect the next President and Vice President of the United States.”That language is significant. While the lawsuit lays out in detail the actions of the former president and Giuliani and the domestic terrorists in the lead-up to January 6, as well as the events of that day (making its 32 pages an excellent synopsis of the material the House impeachment managers laid out in the Senate trial), Thompson is making a very specific claim. Thompson accuses the four defendants of “conspiring to prevent him and other Members of Congress from discharging… official duties.” This puts them afoul of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, designed to break that deadly organization in the years after the Civil War when its members were intimidating and assaulting Black and white Republicans in the South. The law makes anyone who has “conspire[d] to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any person from… discharging any duties [of an officer of the United States]” “liable to the party injured.” Thompson points out that he is 72, within the age group hardest hit by the coronavirus, and the lockdown precautions put his health at risk. This speaks to the part of the law that calls out perpetrators who “injure [an officer] in his person or property on account of his lawful discharge of the duties of his office, or while engaged in the lawful discharge thereof… so as to molest, interrupt, hinder, or impede him in the discharge of his official duties.”The law allows a successful plaintiff to claim money not only to make up for the damages the perpetrators caused, but also to punish the perpetrators and to try to warn others against trying anything similar. And that is what Thompson has asked for. Thompson appears to be trying to defang the insurrectionists by going after their bank accounts. Bleeding white supremacist gangs dry through lawsuits has proved surprisingly effective in the past. In 1999, a lawsuit bankrupted the Idaho Aryan Nations white supremacists; in 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued a Ku Klux Klan group in Kentucky and won a $2.5 million settlement. Going after Trump, Giuliani, and the organizations central to the January 6 insurrection by taking their money would likely make insurrectionists think twice before they tried such a thing again.Third, President Joe Biden held a televised town hall tonight to sell the idea of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. He answered in detail questions about domestic insurrection, the minimum wage, white supremacy, coronavirus, and vaccines. But what stood out was an exchange between the president and the mother of a young man with health issues who cannot get on a list in Wisconsin to get the coronavirus vaccine. Biden told the woman that he could make recommendations to the states, but the order in which they chose to administer the vaccine was up to them. “But here’s what I’d like to do,” he continued. ”If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help.” This is a powerful echo of an exchange President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had with a Black farmer, Sylvester Harris, in 1934. In the depths of the Great Depression, Harris was about to lose his Mississippi cotton farm because he couldn’t make the mortgage payments. In desperation, he traveled a dozen miles into town, picked up a telephone, and called the White House. News stories told readers that Harris had reached FDR, who had promised to stop the impending foreclosure of Harris’s mortgage, and within days, the bank gave him an extension. In the exchange, Americans saw a president who cared, and a government that finally, after its previous leaders had told them to get out of a terrible catastrophe on their own, responded to their needs.
February 17, 2021 (Wednesday)The crisis in Texas continues, with almost 2 million people still without power in frigid temperatures. Pipes are bursting in homes, pulling down ceilings and flooding living spaces, while 7 million Texans are under a water boil advisory.Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, put on Facebook: “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!... If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy is direct result of your raising! [sic]…. This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts…. I’ll be damned if I’m going to provide for anyone that is capable of doing it themselves!... Bottom line quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!” “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic],” he said. After an outcry, Boyd resigned.Boyd’s post was a fitting tribute to talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who passed today from lung cancer at age 70. It was Limbaugh who popularized the idea that hardworking white men were under attack in America. According to him, minorities and feminists were too lazy to work, and instead expected a handout from the government, paid for by tax dollars levied from hardworking white men. This, he explained, was “socialism,” and it was destroying America. Limbaugh didn’t invent this theory; it was the driving principle behind Movement Conservatism, which rose in the 1950s to combat the New Deal government that regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure. But Movement Conservatives' efforts to get voters to reject the system that they credited for creating widespread prosperity had little success. In 1971, Lewis Powell, an attorney for the tobacco industry, wrote a confidential memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce outlining how business interests could overturn the New Deal and retake control of America. Powell focused on putting like-minded scholars and speakers on college campuses, rewriting textbooks, stacking the courts, and pressuring politicians. He also called for “reaching the public generally” through television, newspapers, and radio. “[E]very available means should be employed to challenge and refute unfair attacks,” he wrote, “as well as to present the affirmative case through this media.”Pressing the Movement Conservative case faced headwinds, however, since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforced a policy that, in the interests of serving the community, required any outlet that held a federal broadcast license to present issues honestly, equitably, and with balance. This “Fairness Doctrine” meant that Movement Conservatives had trouble gaining traction, since voters rejected their ideas when they were stacked up against the ideas of Democrats and traditional Republicans, who agreed that the government had a role to play in the economy (even though they squabbled about the extent of that role).In 1985, under a chair appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the FCC stated that the Fairness Doctrine hurt the public interest. Two years later, under another Reagan-appointed chair, the FCC abolished the rule. With the Fairness Doctrine gone, Rush Limbaugh stepped into the role of promoting the Movement Conservative narrative. He gave it the concrete examples, color, and passion it needed to jump from think tanks and businessmen to ordinary voters who could help make it the driving force behind national policy. While politicians talked with veiled language about “welfare queens” and same-sex bathrooms, and “makers” and “takers,” Limbaugh played “Barack the Magic Negro,” talked of “femiNazis,” and said “Liberals” were “socialists,” redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to the undeserving.Constantly, he hammered on the idea that the federal government threatened the freedom of white men, and he did so in a style that his listeners found entertaining and liberating. By the end of the 1980s, Limbaugh’s show was carried on more than 650 radio stations, and in 1992, he briefly branched out into television with a show produced by Roger Ailes, who had packaged Richard Nixon in 1968 and would go on to become the head of the Fox News Channel. Before the 1994 midterm elections, Limbaugh was so effective in pushing the Republicans’ “Contract With America” that when the party won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952, the Republican revolutionaries made him an honorary member of their group.Limbaugh told them that, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republicans must “begin an emergency dismantling of the welfare system, which is shredding the social fabric,” bankrupting the country, and “gutting the work ethic, educational performance, and moral discipline of the poor.” Next, Congress should cut capital gains taxes, which would drive economic growth, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and generate billions in federal revenue. Limbaugh kept staff in Washington to make sure Republican positions got through to voters. At the same time, every congressman knew that taking a stand against Limbaugh would earn instant condemnation on radio channels across the country, and they acted accordingly.Limbaugh saw politics as entertainment that pays well for the people who can rile up their base with compelling stories—Limbaugh’s net worth when he died was estimated at $600 million—but he sold the Movement Conservative narrative well. He laid the groundwork for the political career of Donald Trump, who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a made-for-tv moment at Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address. His influence runs deep in the current party: former Mayor Boyd, an elected official, began his diatribe with: “Let me hurt some feelings while I have a minute!!”Like Boyd, other Texas politicians are also falling back on the Movement Conservative narrative to explain the disaster in their state. The crisis was caused by a lack of maintenance on Texas’s unregulated energy grid, which meant that instruments at coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants froze, at the same time that supplies of natural gas fell short. Nonetheless, Governor Greg Abbott and his allies in the fossil fuel industry went after “liberal” ideas. They blamed the crisis on the frozen wind turbines and solar plants which account for about 13% of Texas’s winter power. Abbott told Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity that “this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Tucker Carlson told his viewers that Texas was “totally reliant on windmills.”The former Texas governor and former Secretary of Energy under Trump, Rick Perry, wrote on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website to warn against regulation of Texas’s energy system: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” he said. The website warned that “Those watching on the left may see the situation in Texas as an opportunity to expand their top-down, radical proposals. Two phrases come to mind: don’t mess with Texas, and don’t let a crisis go to waste.”At Abbott’s request, President Biden has declared that Texas is in a state of emergency, freeing up federal money and supplies for the state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent 60 generators to state hospitals, water plants, and other critical facilities, along with blankets, food, and bottled water. It is also delivering diesel fuel for backup power.
Thanks for your contributions to society there Rush. And if I were POTUS, I would have told Abbott&Costello to stop being takers, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop sucking off of the teat of government. Or at least to publicly apologize and retract their false statements regarding the cause of their problems prior to my sending aid. They suck.
Over a two-decade career in the white-collar think tank world, I’ve continually wondered: Why can’t we have nice things?
By “we,” I mean America at-large. As for “nice things,” I don’t picture self-driving cars, hovercraft backpacks or laundry that does itself. Instead, I mean the basic aspects of a high-functioning society: well-funded schools, reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty, or a comprehensive public health system equipped to handle pandemics — things that equally developed but less wealthy nations seem to have.
In 2010, eight years into my time as an economic policy wonk at Demos, a progressive policy research group, budget deficits were on the rise. The Great Recession had decimated tax revenue, requiring more public spending to restart the economy.
But both the Tea Party and many in President Barack Obama’s inner circle were calling for a “grand bargain” to shrink the size of government by capping future public outlays and slashing Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Despite the still-fragile recovery and evidence that corporations were already paring back retirement benefits and ratcheting down real wages, the idea gained steam.
On a call with a group of all-white economist colleagues, we discussed how to advise leaders in Washington against this disastrous retrenchment. I cleared my throat and asked: “So where should we make the point that all these programs were created without concern for their cost when the goal was to build a white middle class, and they paid for themselves in economic growth? Now these guys are trying to fundamentally renege on the deal for a future middle class that would be majority people of color?”
Nobody answered. I checked to see if I was muted.
Finally, one of the economists breached the awkward silence. “Well, sure, Heather. We know that — and you know that — but let’s not lead with our chin here,” he said. “We are trying to be persuasive.”
The sad truth is that he was probably right. Soon, the Tea Party movement, harnessing the language of fiscal responsibility and the subtext of white grievance, would shut down the federal government, win across-the-board cuts to public programs and essentially halt the legislative function of the federal government for the next six years. The result: A jobless recovery followed by a slow, unequal economic expansion that hurt Americans of all backgrounds.
The anti-government stinginess of traditional conservatism, along with the fear of losing social status held by many white people, now broadly associated with Trumpism, have long been connected. Both have sapped American society’s strength for generations, causing a majority of white Americans to rally behind the draining of public resources and investments. Those very investments would provide white Americans — the largest group of the impoverished and uninsured — greater security, too: A new Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco study calculated that in 2019, the country’s output would have been $2.6 trillion greater if the gap between white men and everyone else were closed. And a 2020 report from analysts at Citigroup calculated that if America had adopted policies to close the Black-white economic gap 20 years ago, U.S. G.D.P would be an estimated $16 trillion higher.
To understand what stops us from uniting for our mutual benefit, I’ve spent the past three years traveling the country from California to Mississippi to Maine, visiting churches and worker centers and city halls, in search of on-the-ground answers.
In Montgomery, Ala., I walked the grounds of what was once a grand public pool, one of more than 2,000 such pools built in the early 20th century. However, much like the era’s government-backed suburban developments or G.I. Bill home loans, the pool was for whites only. Threatened with court action to integrate its pool in 1958, the town drained it instead, shuttering the entire parks and recreation department. Even after reopening the parks a decade later, they never rebuilt the pool. Towns from Ohio to Louisiana lashed out in similar ways.
The civil rights movement, which widened the circle of public beneficiaries and could have heralded a more moral, prosperous nation, wound up diminishing white people’s commitment to the very idea of public goods. In the late 1950s, over two-thirds of white Americans agreed with the now-radical idea that the government ought to guarantee a job for anyone who wants one and ensure a minimum standard of living for everyone in the country. White support for those ideas nose-dived from around 70 to 35 percent from 1960 to 1964, and has remained low ever since.
It’s no historical accident that this dip coincided with the 1963 March on Washington, when white Americans saw Black activists demanding the same economic guarantees, and when Democrats began to promise to extend government benefits across the color line. It’s also no accident that, to this day, no Democratic presidential candidate has won the white vote since the Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Racial integration portended the end of America’s high-tax, high-investment growth strategy: Tax revenue hit its peak as a percentage of the economy in 1965. Now, America’s per capita government spending is near the bottom among industrialized countries. Our roads, bridges and water systems get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Unlike our peers, we don’t have high-speed rail, universal broadband, mandatory paid family leave or universal child care.
And while growing corporate power and money in politics have certainly played a role, it’s now clear that racial resentment is the key uncredited actor in our economic backslide. White people who exhibit low racial resentment against Black people are 60 percentage points more likely to support increased government spending than are those with high racial resentment. At the base of this resentment is a zero-sum story: the default framework for conservative arguments, rife with references to “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders.”
In my travels, I also realized that those seeking to repair America’s social divides can invoke this sort of zero-sum framing as well. Progressives often end up talking about race relations through a prism of competition — every advantage for whites, mirrored by a disadvantage for people of color.
In my research and writing on disparities, I learned to focus on how white people benefited from systemic racism: Their schools have more funding, they have less contact with the police, they have greater access to health care. These hallmarks of white privilege are not freedoms that racial justice activists want to take away from white people, however — they’re basic human rights and dignities that everyone should enjoy. And the right wing is eager to fill the gap when we don’t finish the sentence.
For an entire generation of American politics, racist stereotypes and dog whistles have strengthened the hand that beat progressives in the fight against rising inequality. But did white people win? No: Many of them lost good jobs, benefits and social mobility along with the rest of us not born into wealth.
The task ahead, then, is to unwind this idea of a fixed quantity of prosperity and replace it with what I’ve come to call Solidarity Dividends: gains available to everyone when they unite across racial lines, in the form of higher wages, cleaner air and better-funded schools.
I’ll never forget Bridget, a white woman I met in Kansas City who had worked in fast food for over a decade. When a co-worker at Wendy’s first approached her about joining a local Fight for $15 group pushing for a livable minimum wage, she was skeptical. “I didn’t think that things in my life would ever change,” she told me. “They weren’t going to give $15 to a fast food worker. That was just insane to me.”
But Bridget attended the first organizing meeting anyway. And when a Latina woman rose and described her life — three children in a two-bedroom apartment with bad plumbing, the feeling of being “trapped in a life where she didn’t have any opportunity to do anything better” — Bridget, also a mother of three, said she was struck by how “I was really able to see myself in her.”
“I had been fed this whole line of, ‘These immigrant workers are coming over here and stealing our jobs — not paying taxes, committing crimes and causing problems,’” Bridget admitted. “You know, us against them.”
Soon after she began organizing, the cross-racial movement had won a convert. “In order for all of us to come up, it’s not a matter of me coming up and them staying down,” she said. “It’s the matter of: In order for me to come up, they have to come up too. Because honestly, as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered.”
Ms. McGhee is the author of “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” from which this essay is adapted.
Opinion | The Way Out of America’s Zero-Sum Thinking on Race and Wealth - The New York Times (nytimes.com)