Column: Pervasive, Distorting Power of Privilege

For The Washington Post
Monday, October 08, 2018

As a service to my readers, I try to stay in my political-economy lane, sticking to the intersection of politics, social justice and economics. But it seems irresponsible to ignore the righteous anger upon the land today after Brett Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. I want to explore this anger from the perspective of the intersection noted above.

One of the most revealing moments of this dark, historical moment occurred on the day when both Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified about his alleged attack on her decades ago. While she was calm, credible and forthright, he was the opposite, a towering inferno of privileged, white, male rage. She was the person who had lived for so long with the memory of a sexual assault in which she says she feared for her life, while he was being considered for one of the most influential, powerful positions in the country. And yet he was the furious one, a dynamic that clearly made sense to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican members, a group consisting solely of white men.

Consider this same dynamic — affluent white men judging those who’ve suffered some form of oppression — in other political debates.

Our current poverty debate, for example, starts from the assumption that poor people are lazy exploiters of an overly generous government who, therefore, must be required to work to qualify for health, housing and nutritional support. But like the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, these policymakers know nothing about the lives of the poor, about the labor market barriers and discrimination they face, the effort they’re already making, the challenge of holding down a job while paying for child care when you’re barely scraping by.

In fact, most poverty programs now support work. The earned-income tax credit is a wage subsidy available only to the working poor; health coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion is associated with greater financial security and slightly more, not less, labor-force participation. Most working-age, able-bodied people who get nutritional support are connected to the job market. As I wrote earlier this year: “More than half of able-bodied, working-age SNAP recipients work when on the program, and more than 80 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP benefits (that is almost 90 percent for families with kids). About 60 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries work, and among working-age households in the Housing Choice Voucher program, 70 percent have at least one member who is working or recently worked.”

When you combine these facts with our tax debate — the one that produced a tax cut that delivers the vast majority of its benefits to the wealthy while depriving the Treasury of $2 trillion in revenue over 10 years (much more if the Republicans are able to double down with further cuts) — you arrive at the conservatives’ conclusion: Morally deprived poor people (and immigrants) abuse the help we give them while morally superior rich people use it to make us all better off.

There’s a telling microcosm of how wrong this is in The New York Times’ remarkable exposé of how President Donald Trump’s riches were born through a combination of decades of support from his father and alleged tax fraud. In one of their apparently fraudulent schemes, to move the father’s wealth to the children (and thus avoid estate taxes), they marked up purchases of equipment and pocketed the difference. But they didn’t stop there. Based on the phony, inflated receipts, they raised their tenants’ rent, the report says.

And these people are claiming the moral high ground in our policy debates.

Such examples reveal that Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is not some anomaly. It’s merely the latest case of how the distorting power of white privilege defines today’s politics and policy, at great cost to women, minorities, immigrants and any other subset of Americans not represented by the majority senators on the Judiciary Committee and their partisan brethren.

These politicians, the ones who are leading the country, willfully refuse to understand the power imbalances and vast inequalities that characterize America, a willfulness born of systemic incentives to keep their powerful jobs by delivering the goods to their donors. Moreover, their actions create a reinforcing loop wherein they cement their power for years to come (e.g., the courts) while convincing a numerically much larger opposition that resistance is futile because government is bought and paid for: “Go ahead and shout all you want, folks. Come Saturday, we’re voting for him.”

I just spoke to a family member, a sister who has always been driven by an acute and empathic moral compass. Though she’s never gotten deeply into politics, I’ve never heard her so angry and politically activated.

Our conversation reminded me of Rebecca Traister’s new, timely book, Good and Mad, in which she zeros in on this “nexus of women’s anger and American politics, about how the particular dissatisfactions and resentments of America’s women have often ignited movements for social change and progress ... how an impulse that many women have taken pains to hide or disguise or distance themselves from — the impulse to be really mad — has been crucial in determining their political power and social standing, how women’s rage has played parts in revolutionary social movements. ...”

We are again at a historical moment where such anger is powerful, important and justified. The question is whether American democracy has devolved to a point where it can no longer self-correct, where there is simply no channel or mechanism left by which those longing for justice can achieve it. In just about a month, we shall have one answer to that question.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.