The American Economy Is Creating a National Identity Crisis: It has become painfully clear that we are more than just consumers and corporate shareholders.
By Tim Wu, a law professor. NYTimes.com, Aug 2019
Europeans often describe the United States as a great place to buy stuff but a terrible place to work. They understand the appeal of our plentiful and affordable consumer goods, but otherwise they just don’t get it: the lack of real vacation, the sending of emails after business hours, the general insensitivity to work-life balance.
That may be just a casual observation, but it identifies something deep and problematic about the economy that the United States has built over the past 40 years.
Since the 1980s, American economic policy has insisted on the central importance of two things: cheaper prices for consumers and maximum returns for corporate shareholders. There is some logic to this: We all buy things, after all, and most of us own at least some stock.
But these priorities also generate an internal conflict, for they neglect, repress and even enslave our other selves: our identities as employees, producers, family members, citizens. And in recent years — as jobs become increasingly unpleasant and unstable, as smaller towns and regional economies are gutted, as essential industries like the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors engage in outlandish profiteering, and above all, as economic inequality becomes the trademark of our nation — the conflict seems to have reached a breaking point.
It wasn’t always this way. For most of American history, it would have been strange to suggest that buying things — as opposed to making them — was deserving of high regard or to suggest that the availability of cheap goods should be a major goal of economic policy. Most Americans were small farmers, craftsmen or merchants, and a person’s economic identity was typically that of a producer or a landowner. Macroeconomic policy, such as it was, consisted of trade policy and the protection of the liberties necessary to do business (such as protections from monopolies).
That changed over the course of the 20th century. Broadly speaking, it was the story of the rise of American consumer culture, the decline of farming, the spread of mass production to household goods and the birth of advertising. But the specific prioritization of consumers and shareholders in economic policy dates from the 1970s and ’80s, in what amounted to a mostly well-intentioned project gone too far.
During the ’70s and ’80s, many critics of corporate America argued that elevating the interests of consumers and shareholders would introduce rigor and discipline to big business, while curbing some of its abuses. The giant American corporation, the argument went, had become too big, too distant from its consumers and stock owners. Consumer activists like Ralph Nader drew public attention to the many ways in which consumers were routinely mistreated. A particularly vivid example was Ford’s decision to select a design for its Pinto model that it knew was prone to fires; Ford made the cold calculation that producing a safer car would cost it more than the lawsuits it would face.
In addition, the shareholder-rights movement of the ’80s — driven by corporate raiders like Carl Icahn — accused corporate management of squandering money. What the movement considered waste included indulgent pet projects and the hiring of cronies, but also things like generous pension funds for workers. Economists urged that management’s only goal should be the maximization of shareholder profit. The 1987 film “Wall Street” captured this ethos in Gordon Gekko’s famous speech about shareholder greed, which was “good” — the salvation not only of American businesses but also of America itself.
By the 1990s, these ideas had become a kind of national gospel: Focus on consumers and shareholders and all else will follow. This simple, disciplined formula is not without appeal, and it has been wildly popular in the tech industry, which loves metrics. But at its center is a glaring omission: the fact that the American people are not just consumers and shareholders. We are also employees, business owners, family members, citizens. And the hard fact is that there is no such thing as prioritizing one thing without neglecting others.
By now it has become obvious that the formula has gone too far, contributing to much of the social and economic dissatisfaction in the country — from the perpetual low-level fatigue with our consumer culture to the growing rage against callous corporations. In the service of our selves as consumers and shareholders, we have hollowed out many of the aspects of life that we care most about.
For an individual person, the lengthy neglect of significant parts of one’s identity can lead to psychological harm. The same goes for a whole nation. Fortunately, there are signs that the country is starting to change. For the first time in decades, large numbers of voters in both parties are demanding candidates who have radically different economic priorities. And even in the corporate world, there are encouraging hints of resistance, as when chief executives publicly ask whether maximizing shareholder value really serves the country in the long run.
Life without a simple formula is, of course, harder and more confusing. But there is no coming to consciousness without difficulty and pain, and what the United States desperately needs is a vision of economic health more consistent with what we know makes life worth living.
Tim Wu (@superwuster) is a law professor at Columbia, a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”
A new report called “Ahead of the Majority,” by the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund and Groundswell Fund uses recently released census data, polling data from the 2018 midterm elections and interviews with community organizers to illuminate the political power of women of color. Their numbers are growing, and they are turning out to vote; mobilizing their families, friends and communities; and taking to the streets.
Since 2008, women of color have grown by 18 percentage points in the general population and by 25 percentage points among registered voters. This is starting to show up at the ballot box. The 2018 election set new benchmarks for turnout in a midterm election, with a whopping 30 million more people voting than in 2014. For women of color, the increased turnout was even more stark, at 37 percent; for Latinas it was 51 percent; and for Asian-American and Pacific Islander women, 48 percent.
Women of color incited this change because they mobilized their friends and family in significant numbers. Black women led the way, with 84 percent convincing members of their social networks to register and vote, followed by 76 percent of Asian-American and Pacific Islander women, 72 percent of Native American women, 70 percent of Latinas and 66 percent of white women.
Turnout also substantially relied on the efforts of independent political groups. Consider that nearly half of 2018 voters who were contacted to register or go to the polls reported that the contact came from a group unaffiliated with a political party.
Voters of color were more likely to have been contacted this way, and these numbers buttress the experience of community-based organizations on the ground that carried out an uncommon range of nonpartisan civic engagement activities to reach those who had recently become citizens or who were classified as having a “low propensity” to vote.
The impact of community groups is especially impressive given their limited resources. Those focused on reaching communities of color have even fewer resources.
Women of color who are organizers on the ground testify that they were effective because they came from the same communities they were organizing. These independent community groups see women as the original influencers in the family and designed culturally informed programs for them. Those programs drew from the knowledge of existing networks and were used to help develop homegrown talent instead of simply relying on outside strategists who parachute into communities to extract surgical campaign victories
We also found that in 2018 voters were engaged beyond the ballot box. What looked to be an unprecedented number of Americans took to the streets, with communities of color especially active in grass-roots political activism and mass protests. Surveys from previous midterm years show protest participation typically hovers in the low single digits. But in 2018, an extraordinarily high estimate of 1 out of every 8 Americans engaged in protest politics. That figure was nearly 20 percent among African-Americans and Native Americans.
We are in a time of extraordinary challenges and opportunities for our democratic politics. At moments like this, people most directly impacted best understand the urgency for change and action. In 2018 women of color showed America what that urgency means in terms of political engagement.
Ninety-three percent of black women voters supported a Democratic House candidate as did 68 percent of Native American women, 76 percent of Latinas and 73 percent of Asian-American and Pacific Islander women. This does not bode well for the incumbent president.
Mr. Trump’s re-election strategy is focused on energizing his base of disaffected white men. And with white women evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, we would do well to heed the potential for women of color to decide the outcome of the 2020 election.
In other words, steering away from the divisive rhetoric and vitriol is the right thing for both major political parties to do in 2020. So is investing in women of color. To do so, donors should fund work in ways that are not episodic, chaotic or project-based, which is now the status quo. Instead, they ought to provide multiyear, general operating grants that allow women of color to develop leadership skills, execute culturally informed approaches and learn and grow in other ways. Organizations led by women of color are chronically underfunded and expected to produce measurable outcomes in a short time.
Moreover, we know very little about how to engage women of color in politics. We need to support more research, more innovation and greater improvements to existing voter contact tools. And we need to focus on protecting voting rights as voter suppression continues. Finally, people working in civic engagement must help create infrastructure, the formation of durable groups that are led by women of color and that are in the fight for the long term. We urgently need this. Our democracy itself is at stake.