Thursday, February 22, 2007

Grand Canyon

Some years ago there was a movie called Grand Canyon — not a western, but a drama based on the idea beloved of our national journalistic and entertainment media, as well as the odd low-wattage political demagogue, that there are "two Americas" divided by social class with an "enormous gap" between them: the rich and the poor, black and white, executives and workers, insured and uninsured, etc. I accept that such a division exists, and that it's disturbing, without necessarily agreeing with most proposed forms of amelioration.

More recently, a lot of us have become convinced that there is a different but equally striking split in this country, a matter of principles and assumptions rather than conventional economics or politics. It's a little harder to describe, and metaphors like "red states vs. blue states" are too fuzzy for careful discussion. Still, I think practically everyone, regardless of where they're located in the political galaxy, senses this grand canyon by now. And even if we can't agree on exactly how to define it, now and then I read or hear something that seems to embody it perfectly.

Such a revelation came last night as I was driving home with the radio tuned to the National Public Radio station. The program was "Marketplace" (NPR's idea of balance: the program is about business, so that means it's conservative, right?). It was a segment about Wal-Mart. Now, I can't say the following description is precisely accurate, because I wasn't concentrating on it, and at least part of my mind was concerned with preventing a violation of the law of physics which says that my car and another car cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

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But the gist of the story was this: Wal-Mart had announced that it would be using its huge power over suppliers to force them to hire more diverse workforces. Got that? We are beyond the point where the government tells private companies that their employees shall consist of x percent of African Americans, y percent of Hispanics, z percent of Pacific Islanders, etc. Now, big companies can require other companies to meet diversity quotas.

NPR acknowledged that a little controversy had been kicked up by Wal-Mart's announcement, but it was not the kind of controversy that some of us might have expected. The mild debate wheeled around whether this was sufficient penance for Wal-Mart's being, well, Wal-Mart. "Let's at least give them credit for doing the right thing," was one sound bite.

It shouldn't have been surprising, but I experienced an almost physical sensation of culture shock. The network, the producer, the reporter, the interviewees — and probably 90 percent of NPR's listeners: none of them saw anything the least bit strange, let alone worrying, about private organizations being forced to select their personnel from among the vast catalog of Certified Victim Groups™. Nor is NPR particularly extreme: the segment could have been on practically any of the national radio or TV networks. It's a mainstream position.

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But for many Americans, those whose outlook doesn't get much airtime, it is on the other side of a vast gash separating two fundamental ideas of the role of the state. The orthodoxy has shifted so drastically that the ordinary or moderate position is that the centralized state, and those it can cause to do its bidding, has both a right and a duty to make sure that private citizens live, speak, and even think in approved ways. In the period of cultural Stalinism we find ourselves in, only a minority, traditional conservatives, believes that the government's job is to protect citizens' lives and property, and perform a few other functions that don't readily lend themselves to capitalist competition. Otherwise, in this view, social progress as well as technological progress come about through individuals and voluntarily associated groups using their brains, experience, and creativity. There's no assurance that it will happen, but honest and deep progress can't be imposed by legislative and bureaucratic ordinances either.

The system we have now, which the "Marketplace" team believes is holy writ, is essentially how things worked in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. The government didn't own the businesses, it just directed them. Presumably the big manufacturers passed on the government's edicts to their subcontractors. In the case of the 20th century dictatorships, it was to strengthen the state. In our dictatorship of enforced equality, it's to strengthen the state — that is, to put a steel framework under multi-culturalism, which for today's Ministry of What's Good for You is the very model of national (or post-national) identity.

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The biting irony is that the thumb on the scales isn't a necessary evil to check a worse evil. Do you seriously think that any company today refuses to hire anyone of any race, sex, sexual taste, religion, handicap, or country of national origin if that person could do as good or a better job than someone else, thereby smartening up the company's balance sheet? (Sure, for any given opening, there will be qualified people who don't make the cut, but that's as true for non–Certified Victims™ as for the Vestal Virgins of the protected orders.) Never mind: for "progressive" authoritarians, it's always 1960 in Mississippi.

So-called progressives are not only bullies on a power trip, they're also hypocrites. Later in the program, Robert Reich, the Labor Secretary under Clinton, was called on to give the sermon for the day, about big international companies that have factories in what is called the Developing World. He wanted them to insist that local workers, besides being paid a reasonable minimum wage, be allowed to join unions. Why unions? Because, Reich said, they should have the right to free association. I agree, they should. But if they deserve such a right, why don't organizations, labor and business, in these United States of America?

UPDATE 2/23

Vigilant Investor has similar thoughts on Robert Reich and the pseudo-free-market system:

No reader should be distracted to believing the U.S.A. is operating as a free market capitalist nation. No. It much more closely resembles, by definition, a blend of mercantilism and fascism, where major corporations and special interests are quasi government fixtures, running legislation in their favor while parasitically living off the masses. I personally prefer the term parasitic capitalism for what Reich pawns off as capitalism, pure and clean. The real solution to this problem, I’m afraid, was long ago dead in the water: stop the out-of-control government growth.

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11 comments:

Jewish Atheist said...

Do you seriously think that any company today refuses to hire anyone of any race, sex, sexual taste, religion, handicap, or country of national origin if that person could do as good or a better job than someone else, thereby smartening up the company's balance sheet?

Of course they do. Although most people are no longer overtly racist, a majority are still unconsciously affected by race.

Two recent papers from the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research draw somewhat different conclusions about whether a black name is a burden. One, an analysis of the 16 million births in California between 1960 and 2000, claims it has no significant effect on how someone's life turns out.

The other, however, suggests a black-sounding name remains an impediment to getting a job. After responding to 1,300 classified ads with dummy resumes, the authors found black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.


Do you really think a fundamentalist Christian will choose an atheist or Buddhist over a moderately less-qualified Christian?

I'm not saying you can't argue that it's wrong to force people to hire with an eye on diversity, but to claim that there's no unfair discrimination anymore is nonsense.

Rich Rostrom said...

Let's not be silly. Wal-Mart is doing this as a public-relations measure, not under explicit compulsion. The state does not tell Wal-Mart where to locate its stores, how large they may be, what hours they may be open, what goods to carry, or what its prices should be - all of which would be explicitly regulated by a fascist "corporate state". We have a lot of government overreaching, but we don't have anything like that straitjacket, or even the notorious "License Raj" of India.

The Spoonman said...

Of course they do. Although most people are no longer overtly racist, a majority are still unconsciously affected by race.

I'm sorry, but I find that to be a decidely racist thing to say.

Do you really think a fundamentalist Christian will choose an atheist or Buddhist over a moderately less-qualified Christian?

Firstly, to suggest fundamentalist christians represent even more than the smallest minority of people is flawed thinking. While a majority of people may CLAIM to be christian, I think you'd find they go to church about as often as I do (ie, when forced to for weddings and funerals). Secondly, correlation is not causation: could it be that those folks don't get called back for the simple reason that their names aren't as easily pronouceable as names they're used to? In the distant past, I did phone work (bill collection, fundraising, telemarketing), and I can tell you if I came across a name that wasn't immediately pronouncable, I would generally put that name off until later because I didn't want to sound like an idiot (my own last name is very difficult to pronounce, so I know what people sound like when they muff it up). What a way for someone to get off onto the wrong foot with a potential future employee: "Hello, I'd like to speak to Mister. Gweg..gwernna..galananana..." "It's MRS. Gortchavalanoskinter! I'm a woman, and it's pronounced like it's written!" Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to ignorance.

I would like to see links to those studies you cited, otherwise you're just making it up. If true, though, I'd much more likely follow the results of the one with 16 million people over 40 years than some impromptu get together. Taking both tests into account though, they just disprove your point. They prove that racism might have short-term effects on your employment status, but long term it means nothing significant to your life. In other words, if a single employer won't hire you because of race, etc, go work for one of the many others who don't care. It's not 1950 anymore and racists are hanging on, at best, by a single finger. They'll be over the cliff soon.

BTW, what exactly does a "black" name look like?

Rick Darby said...

JA, By "black name" I presume you mean an unusual name. Those with unusual names do tend to be discriminated against — other people are uncomfortable, afraid of mispronouncing it, not sure which sex the person is, and so forth. It's unfair and silly, but human nature, and hardly racist per se.

I don't claim that there is no one anywhere in the whole country who might discriminate purely on the basis of race against a black person (or, for that matter, a white person: almost all government agencies show a preference for hiring anyone other than a white male). I do maintain that there is not a widespread practice of racial bias in hiring in corporate America.

RR, Yes, of course this is just a public relations ploy by Wal-Mart, but the state does in fact set ethnic quotas for hiring, unofficially of course — ever heard of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? If you're a corporation of any size, they'll sue you faster than you can say "Blimey O'Riley" if the racial makeup of your workforce doesn't "look like" the racial composition of the area where you do business.

True, the government's heavy hand falls only where its perceived interests lie. I doubt very much that the Nazi and Fascist governments told a store what hours to be open or what colors its logo should be. I didn't think it was necessary to add a disclaimer to the effect that I wasn't claiming that the U.S. government was as bad as Hitler's or Mussolini's. My point was that, in key respects, government now directs business in ways that go well beyond regulating for fairness and consumer protection: it inflicts its will on businesses for ideological reasons. And it seems to me even more outrageous that a company should use its leverage over its suppliers to enforce hiring quotas.

But there's that Grand Canyon I was writing about: to many people today, extra-legal pressures like these are just normal, while to others they are extortion.

Spoonman, I agree with you: when someone accuses another of "unconscious" racism, it's logically meaningless because nothing the accused could do would disprove it. You can just as well say the Pope is unconsciously an animist.

Jewish Atheist said...

Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/09/29/national/main575685.shtml

They looked specifically at "black-sounding names, like "DeShawn and Shanice" as opposed to "Cody and Caitlin." Some of the so-called "black-sounding names" might be hard to pronounce, but many, like Deshawn or Shanice, probably aren't.

when someone accuses another of "unconscious" racism, it's logically meaningless because nothing the accused could do would disprove it.

I'm not saying that people with unconscious racism should be criticized, just that pressure to hire diverse workforces can make up for it. It's not about rooting out racists, it's about giving non-whites (or whites, when they are perceived as inferior) a fair shake.

Rick Darby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Darby said...

JA,

You sound like a good-hearted person who wants to see everyone treated right. Where we differ, I guess, is that you seem to believe that it's inevitable that those in certain groups are culled from the candidates for reasons of pure bias, even if they're fully qualified. I don't claim that no such thing ever happens, but in this day and time it is the rare anomaly, not a standard or widespread practice.

Even if it were, I'm not convinced that reverse discrimination is the cure. There is no way to discriminate in favor of one kind of person without discriminating against another kind.

Jewish Atheist said...

I don't claim that no such thing ever happens, but in this day and time it is the rare anomaly, not a standard or widespread practice.

It's certainly gotten a lot better. I was just replying to your overstatement (which might have just been hyperbole) "Do you seriously think that any company today refuses to hire anyone of any race, sex, sexual taste, religion, handicap, or country of national origin..."

Even if it were, I'm not convinced that reverse discrimination is the cure.

It's not without drawbacks, to be sure. There will come a day when the downsides outweigh the upsides. You and I simply disagree, I think, when they day will (or has) come.

David said...

JA.."Do you really think a fundamentalist Christian will choose an atheist or Buddhist over a moderately less-qualified Christian?"...I've known several devout Christians in management positions in business and I don't think any of them would have made hiring decisions based on religion.

Let me turn it around: since you identify as an atheist, would you choose a moderately less-qualified atheist over a Christian or Buddhist?

Jewish Atheist said...

Let me turn it around: since you identify as an atheist, would you choose a moderately less-qualified atheist over a Christian or Buddhist?

No, but certain subgroups of religious people appear to be less open-minded. Have you ever seen The Shepherd's Guide? It's a listing of Christian businesses, apparently because they're more trustworthy. There's no such Atheist Yellow Pages that I know of.

David said...

I've never heard of such a Yellow Pages, either. But I have heard many stories of hiring and promotion prejudice against conservatives, religious people, and free-market people in university departments that are dominated by "progressives."