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A Trifecta Wish List Part II: Policy

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Protest outside the Minnesota State Capitol demanding reparations, St Paul MN, June 19 2020
 | Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0 Found in Petersen-Smith & Gyamerah “The United States owes Black America reparations” 30 June 2020.

A couple weeks ago, I discussed a fantasy world where not only did the Democrats win the trifecta, but I argue that they should use this power to redress institutional biases in the US Senate and the Supreme Court. There’s a reasonable chance for the trifecta, and likewise a decent chance for statehood for DC, but everything beyond that is probably wishful thinking. Speaking of wishful thinking, in that post I overlooked the constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, but at least I was able to find a surprising example of writing about the history of the Electoral College without once mentioning slavery. How is that even possible.

In that spirit, this is another post from the chimera files where not only do Democrats win the things that matter, they use this power as ruthlessly as the Republicans have been for most of my life. I’ve been spending most of the summer re-writing my final year class on American Politics from the ground up, so while each topic deserves a detailed post of its own, unfortunately it will have to be a superficial treatment. Incidentally, my new American Politics class will include a two lecture sequence on policing and race, and as I’m using it as one of the sources for these lectures, I can not recommend Simon Balto’s book enough. Not only is it an excellent case study, but stylistically his prose is the product of a gifted writer and an absolute joy to read.

There’s a long and varied list of things that need to happen on the policy side to salvage what remains of American democracy (if it ever really existed). School Districts should be eliminated, they serve little more than reinforcing institutional racism in the United States. This should be bloody obvious. At minimum, Congress needs to restore Section 4 to the VRA, but the winds seems to suggest an entirely new, comprehensive VRA. Any new VRA should eliminate gerrymandering at federal and state level, and should have nationwide pre-clearance for every election dealing with so much as sheriff and dog catcher. As an aside, my first couple publications, which examined the effects of cumulative and limited voting in cities and school districts, wouldn’t have been possible without VRA pre-clearance, as there’s no chance in hell some school district in Alabama was going to adopt cumulative or limited voting on their own.

The Department of Homeland Security should be abolished (and Teen Vogue should be distributed for free), and it should go without saying that several of the child agencies should be smashed as well, with ICE first against the wall. There should be comprehensive campaign finance reform, and I suspect that it needs to be constitutional, rather than statutory, because it’s more than just tinkering with the fallout from Citizens United, but it goes back to Buckley v. Valeo.

The legislation supporting collective bargaining and unions need to be significantly strengthened. Writing as a school rep for my trade union here in the UK, effective collective bargaining is difficult in an open shop environment. I don’t have to be a member of the union, and at least one person in my department isn’t, but in a classic collective action problem, these free-riders reap the benefits of the work we do (and sacrifices we make when we do go out on strike). My understanding of this subject is obviously non-existent compared to Loomis, but there is enough economic evidence to demonstrate the relationship between strong unions and a strong middle class, (even Forbes was writing about this five years ago) alongside the destructive elements of everything from Taft Hartley in 1947 up to and including Mitch McConnell.

Fox News needs to be crushed, and while that might be difficult, at least significantly curtailed. A start would be bringing back the FCC Fairness Doctrine. This would also have the side effect of curtailing Sinclair Broadcasting’s ongoing war on objectivity.

I’ve saved the best for last. Part of researching for the complete re-write of my US politics class is a possible lecture on reparations. The moral case for reparations is blatant; suffice it to say that the United States owes a significant debt to Black and Native Americans, and that the United States should pay this debt. We should all be familiar with the now famous Ta-Nehisi Coates piece in The Atlantic from 2014, and a bit over a year ago there was a revisitng interview with Coates in the New Yorker that’s worth a read / listen if you haven’t yet. In that, he succinctly and eloquently summarises the issue:

The case I make for reparations is, virtually every institution with some degree of history in America, be it public, be it private, has a history of extracting wealth and resources out of the African-American community. I think what has often been missing—this is what I was trying to make the point of in 2014—that behind all of that oppression was actually theft. In other words, this is not just mean. This is not just maltreatment. This is the theft of resources out of that community. That theft of resources continued well into the period of, I would make the argument, around the time of the Fair Housing Act.“Ta-Nehisi Coates Revisits the Case for Reparations”, in The New Yorker, June 10, 2019.

I’ve been building a nascent literature review for a lecture on reparations, and I’ll include the articles I’m more likely to use at the end of this post. Note, this is very new, so far cursory, and I’m confident I’ve missed a ton, so if there’s anything blatant that needs including please feel free to mention it — especially on the economics side. The focus on housing policy that Coates makes, or as he says it, “So, out of all of those policies of theft, I had to pick one . . .” has some additional consideration in the literature:

However, some arguments about black reparations, both pro and con, are focused too far in the past. An unspoken assumption of much of the debate about black reparations is that these would be reparations for slavery. This, we argue, is a mistake. Racial inequality in the United States today may, ultimately, be based on slavery, but it is also based on the failure of the country to take effective steps since slavery to undermine the structural racial inequality that slavery put in place. From the latter part of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century, the Jim Crow system continued to keep Blacks “in their place,” and even during and after the civil rights era no policies were adopted to dismantle the racial hierarchy that already existed. An important part of the story of racial inequality today is the history of housing and lending discrimination in the second half of the twentieth centu (McCarthy 2002; 2004). Home equity, for many Americans, is a very important source of wealth, and the decades after World War II were ones of rapid home equity growth. They were the decades that saw the creation of a large, mostly suburban, middle class. But the middle class that was created was also mostly White, and this was due largely to government policies that (in many cases intentionally) excluded Blacks from the opportunities to get into the home market and benefit from home equity growth. Kaplan & Valls (2007) “Housing Discrimination as a Basis for Black Reparations”. Public Affairs Quarterly 21:255

There are numerous questions that any lecture on reparations would have to grapple with, including but not limited to eligibility and amount, that transcend the purposes of this post, or frankly, my ability to answer. In terms of amount, however, a more recent source I have suggests $5 to $10 trillion. As of the middle of May, Congress had allocated some $3 trillion to Covid relief alone. One thing this pandemic has taught us is that governments can suddenly embrace policies what would have ordinarily been deemed reckless and profligate. By my rough calculations, $5 trillion, which is on the way low side of most estimations, would pass on to every Black American something like $120,000. My entirely naive reaction is to imagine the innovation and entrepreneurial explosion all that capital would suddenly unleash. I get that this is a hopeful blind spot in my assessment of reparations, which is one reason I’ve been looking for empirical literature on predicting the economic impact.

Still, my hunch is that it would be a large positive.

Some literature on reparations:

Allen, Robert. 1998. “Past Due: The African American Quest for Reparations. The Black Scholar” 28: 2-17.

Boxill, Bernard. 1972. “The Morality of Reparation”. Social Theory and Practice 2:113-123.

Boxill, Bernard. 2003. “A Lockean Argument for Black Reparations”. The Journal of Ethics 7:63-91.

Browne, Robert. 1972. “The Economic Case for Reparations to Black America”. The American Economic Review 62:39-46.

Darity, Jr. William. 2008. “Forty Acres and a Mule in the 21st Century”. Social Science Quarterly 89:656-664

Kaplan & Valls 2007. “Housing Discrimination as a Basis for Black Reparations”. Public Affairs Quarterly 21:255-73.

Michelson, Melissa. 2002. “The Black Reparations Movement: Public Opinion and Congressional Policy Making”. Journal of Black Studies 32:574-87.

Westley, Robert. 2005. “The Accursed Share: Genealogy, Temporality, and the Problem of Value in Black Reparations Discourse”. Representations 92:81-116.

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