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June 18, 2012 2:00 PM American Elites: Distant From Some Problems, But Not Others

By Harold Pollack

I am reading Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites—well worth the $26 I paid for it. Hayes’ book strikes several chords with me. One simple point concerns the pernicious consequences of elites’ great and growing social distance from ordinary people in American society. When less than two-percent of fighting-age adults serve in the volunteer military, most policymakers are personally insulated from the consequences of the ill-fated venture in Iraq. This matters, too, for our policies regarding the continually grinding low-level engagement in Afghanistan.

Something similar might be said regarding the millions of Americans affected by the foreclosure crisis. Members of our nation’s various elites are genuinely saddened by the accompanying human costs. Yeah, white papers are written. Hearings are held. Yet our society’s lack of urgency is abetted by the great social and economic distance between the families losing their lifesavings and the key public and private actors who will decide their fates. Too many of our national leaders behave rather as I’ve done, passing several empty houses on my street. I feel terrible for the affected families. I still scurry home, hit the web, and take solace in the ballooning value of my 401(k) supported by my tenured professorship. Pretty soon, I’m pondering other things.

Hayes recounts the Katrina fiasco, and the lesser-known failures here in Chicago that produced hundreds of Chicago deaths chronicled in Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave. In both cases, elites’ distance from—and thus ignorance of—basic life realities of vulnerable people produced serious mistakes and failures when a natural disaster struck. FEMA decision-makers failed to anticipate the huge numbers of New Orleans residents who didn’t own cars, lacked cash or credit for gas, or were rendered immobile through disability.

For the development-minded, both stories are reminiscent of Amartya Sen’s famine work, in which the great economist documents needless starvation among politically, socially, and economically marginal groups. Potentially deadly famines rarely result from some absolute food shortage below levels required to sustain life. Rather some shock such as warfare, rapid shifts in commodity markets, or drought induces sharp changes in wages and prices, such that the poorest people (ironically often agricultural workers) lack the purchasing power to meet their family needs.

Well-functioning democracies respond quickly to such emergencies. Indeed that may be the working definition of a well-functioning democracy. Elected officials have strong incentives to recognize these problems and to send quick and potent help. Mass tragedies are more common when political and economic elites are more distant from these realities, when they are not held to account for their failures to effectively intervene. Sen rightly notes that post-colonial democratic India made many mistakes in its economic policies. It has not experienced millions of famine deaths as have occurred in Communist China, and as occurred in India’s 1943 Bengal famine under colonial British rule.

American democracy doesn’t look so good when we apply these same standards to our less-deadly but economically punishing times. Our weakened political feedback loops—weakened by institutional gridlock, rising inequality, and the sheer social distance between the bottom and top layers of U.S. society—have hindered our ability and our willingness to effectively respond.

American democracy doesn’t always respond so poorly. With the support of the Century Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Investigator program, I am now researching intellectual disability policy. Viewed in historical terms, this has been a quiet triumph of American social policy. In so many ways, our society has opened its heart, its legal system, and its wallet to embrace people who live with these disabilities and to embrace their caregivers. Religious conservative Christians, liberal atheist Jews, Democrats, Republicans, and political commentators, homeboys in the inner-city have all helped to make things better.

Americans’ intimate familiarity with the issue has been fundamental to social progress. It seems that everyone has a child or sibling, cousin, uncle, classmate, or friend who is personally touched by these issues. Moreover, family caregivers are an articulate, popular, politically-engaged constituency that no elected politician wishes to cross. In many ways, these were the original community organizers ironically criticized by Sarah Palin. They forced others to pay attention. Americans who most matter—socially, politically, and economically–are not so distant from this issue. This matters.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
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