Enriched by Immigrants

Even as the Freedom Caucus and their MAGA friend demonize immigrants, it might be good to pause and give thanks for the immigrants in our lives.  Right now the most visible one is my DREAMer exercise instructor, from Mexico, who is a joy to sweat with. Then there are the people who come into my retirement community who tend lawns, clean houses, recover roofs, and work in the Health Care Center across the street.

A different set of immigrants enriched my education across cultures.  I worked with a  group of three women, married to graduate Students at Clemson University, from three different countries—Turkey, Libya, and China.  I was a volunteer teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). They were all Muslims, all had ambitions—one wanted to be a dentist—and they were anxious to become sufficiently competent in English to pas the Graduate Record Exam.  I learned a lot about their religion, the family life, and their experience of the United States.  We spent one class practicing English by reading aloud from the college newspaper!

A larger group of immigrants who affected the way I experience the world were students in my graduate classes in policy studies from 2003 to 2017 who came from everywhere—Mexico, Uruguay, India, The Bahamas, Nigeria,  Angola, Burundi, Argentina, China, Thailand.  Both my behavioral economics class and my ethics and public policy class presented interesting cross-cultural challenges, because the way the economy works in the United States is quite different from heir experiences, and their cultures offered different perspectives on ethical questions. I also had to recognize that one student from Uruguay or Thailand was not necessarily a representative of the “species,” brought home when I had two students from Nigeria, one Catholic, one Muslim, disputing the issue of reproductive choice!

A final group that taught me some useful lessons were not immigrants but also definitely not Americans. They were suddenly liberated citizens of the former USSR, whom I encountered on a two week mission to Bulgaria in the 1990s after the fall of Communism. While my primary role was to help them sort out the role of local government in a market system, we also traded stereotypes and puzzlements about each other’s cultures. We got used to hearing from certain individuals who wanted to use the question and answer time to attack the evils of capitalism, and my partner Jim and I had a secret code when we thought that was coming. Th code was “central casting.” We invoked it when the speaker appeared to look and talk like someone sent over from central casting to play the Russian. During our final session, I was on question duty when a man spoke who was the spitting image of Nikita Khrushchev.  As the translator prepared to turn his question into English, I whispered to Jim, central casting! Not So. The question was, “who is in charge of parking in your cities and how much do they charge?” So much for stereotypes!

We need immigrants to fill the gaps in our labor force. We need them to teach us even as we teach them, and both be enriched by the encounter. We need to seek out more encounters with people who are different from us because we have useful perspectives to share as they do for us.

May you be blessed by the presence of the strangers among us, and help them to become strangers no more.

What’s This ESG Thing?

Most Americans have probably never heard of ESG, but it is the most recent battleground in the ongoing “woke/asleep” divisions in American life and politics.  Corporations have impacts on society in many ways, particularly in environmental behavior (that’s the E) and the way they treat customers, workers, communities, and suppliers (that’s the S).  The G is governance, which has to do with accountability, transparency, and self-serving behavior by management in collaboration with the board of directors, whose responsibility is to look after the best interest of their owners, the shareholders.

The Trump administration created a rule that forbade pension programs from allowing ESG to be a factor in decision-making. Biden’s Labor Department reversed that rule, not requiring ESG, just permitting it to be a factor in the decisions of pension fund managers. The House voted to restore the Trump administration rule, and the Senate, with three Democrats absent and two voting with the Republicans, agreed.  Biden will veto the bill, which Congress clearly cannot override because it would require a 2/3 majority.

The underlying issue is whether corporations have any obligation to society other than to maximize shareholder wealth, according to the gospel of Milton Friedman, whose answer is a resounding NO. (For those of you unfamiliar with Friedman, he is the guru of free market economics and minimum government.). A secondary issue is whether good corporate behavior in these areas promotes or detracts from shareholder wealth. There is some evidence that firms that treat customers, workers, suppliers and communities well are more profitable in the long run, but that’s open to debate.

The people who manage pension funds control a substantial share of investment assets and have a fiduciary responsibility to manage them in the best interest of their beneficiaries, both present and future retirees. Many state attorneys general and legislatures in red states have been vocally opposed to having their pension fund managers take ESG into consideration.  But there’s a problem.  Many of these pension funds rely on large financial firms to manage their public equity investments for them based on an index.  These large firms (Black Rock being the best known) hold the proxies for the pension funds and vote them on behalf of their clients, to save the pension fund managers the cost of having to scrutinize every proposal coming forth from every stock in which they have an investment. If the financial firm is into ESG, it will vote those shares accordingly. And Black Rock’s CEO has been vocally pro-ESG.

What’s a pension manager to do?  They want to keep their costs down, and one way they have been able to do that is by outsourcing the voting of proxies.  Many of them have turned to specialists in following, evaluating, and recommending how to vote those proxies, providing clear guidelines on their own criteria.

Most of you are in a pension program of some sort, whether retired or actively working. You might want to inquire as to how this is working out in your state.  Stay tuned, in the meantime, from the next barrage of anti-woke ammunition.

Saving Social Security and Medicare

I am a more or less blue person in a very red state. So I don’t write my representatives in Congress very often. I do lobby my state legislators whom I know personally and have a pretty good rapport with. But every now and then my economist self joins the fray and, having spent my career in a very conservative department, I practice the art of framing my argument from the right of where they are. Today it was Social Security and Medicare, and I was not lying when I said I was a fiscal conservative. I am. And this is a fiscally conservative argument.


I am writing to you because I am concerned about the future of Social Security and Medicare.  I know that both parties are committed to their survival and fiscal health. It is an intergenerational contract that has been with us for 88 years and one that our children and grandchildren are counting on as a safety net for their retirement.

As a fiscal conservative, I believe that we must pay for what we get from government.  Since these two programs are supported by FICA contributions, that source is the right place to look for funding. These Social Security and Medicare contributions are NOT taxes. They represent the cost of a retirement pension and insurance premiums for health care and for the possibility of outliving one’s assets. They are grounded in the ability to pay by making them a percent of income, and like many state defined benefit programs, they come with an employer match as deferred compensation and purchase of insurance

I would recommend a modest increase in the employer and employee premium from 7.6% to 8% and a significant increase in the wage cap to provide the additional funds.

Thank you for your consideration.


Holley H. Ulbrich

Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics, Clemson University

Hurrah for the Red, Purple and Blue!

Marjorie Taylor Greene recently said out loud (or more likely, a tweet) that we should just split the country into red states and blue states, let them go their separate ways,  and diminish the role of the central government—in other words, return to the Articles of Confederation which were our national governing document for 1781-89.  She raises the interesting question of how one defines a red or blue state and how stable that definition might be.  (Arizona definitely moved toward the blue end of the spectrum in 2020 and 2022  compared to previous years.)

Perhaps the best measure of a state’s collective political orientation would be statewide votes for president, governor and senator, because these elections are not affected by gerrymandering for the U.S. House and state legislative districts.  So let’s start with her home state of Georgia, which in the last two senate elections went blue (both senators being Democrats) while the Republican governor was recently re-elected and the Democratic presidential candidate won the popular and electoral vote.  I would call that bluish purple, with three of the four tests being Democratic.  And Georgia is not alone.

Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, one Democrat and one Republican in the US Senate, and voted for Biden.  That also makes them bluish purple like Georgia.  Vermont has a Republican governor, two senators who are more or less independent but both caucus with Democrats, and voted for Biden. Maine has a Democratic governor, a Republican Senator, an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats, and voted for Biden. Virginia has a Republican governor at the moment (the predecessor was a Democrat) and two Democratic Senators, and voted for Biden.  North Carolina is reddish purple with a Democratic governor, two Republican Senators, and voted for Trump in 2020. 

Yes, there are states that are entirely red—my home state of South Carolina, Florida, Texas, North and South Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho.   And there are states that are entirely blue—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois. New Mexico, California. But they are not a monochrome. Within those red states there are blue people and within those blue state there are red people.  And increasingly, there are  many, many citizens who consider themselves independents and wish that the reds and blues would stop treating politics like warfare and rather accept it as an imperfect but useful way of making collective decisions.

Secession was not the answer in 1861. It still isn’t. Time to learn to live together with respect and an open mind.

The Muted Joy of Pronouns

I first learned about the pronoun problem decades ago from two sources of experience. One was feminism. The other was textbook writing.  The first problem was the word man, as in Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.” As a female, am I in or out?  With Darwin, I’m pretty sure he meant humans, but with Jefferson, I am not at all sure that he didn’t mean property-owning white free men.

Back in the day, say a millennium or so ago , a man in the emerging English language meant a human being.  A male man was a wer-man (as in werewolf and warlock), and a female human being was a wo-man..  Well, you can see where that went.  The folks with the Y chromosome co-opted the generic term. So I have become very careful about using the word man or men in my writing, limiting use to only the ones with the Y chromosomes. Just think, if we went back to using werman and woman, the term man could become gender neutral!

Other gendered terms have evolved.  Stewardesses and their male counterparts became flight attendants.  Chairmen became chairs. Actors and actresses pretty much became actors generically, as in one who acts, except for the still gendered academy awards. And the suffix -ette is a belittling term that is slowly going out of use. Remember the people with two X chromosomes who fought for the right to vote? They were suffragists, not suffragettes. I do accept the term dinette for a small version of dining room furniture and kitchenette for a very small kitchen, because they are non-gendered, nonhuman, and helpful descriptions.

As a female human being who is comfortable with my gender identity and a feminist, I have no problem being called she, her, female, woman. But I recognize that is not true of everyone, especially those who experience their gender as nonbinary, fluid, or transgendered. Unless people display their preferred pronouns on their name tags,  if they happen to be wearing a name tag , I have no way of knowing whether my use of gendered third person singular pronouns is offending someone.  That’s especially true with the second challenge as a writer.

As a textbook writer, I received help from my publisher in using a variety of techniques.  Alternate the use of he and she, her and him.  Use the word “one” instead of he or she.  Since economists are fond of illustrating principles or concepts with stories, give the characters names, perhaps gender-fluid ones like Sidney or Sandy or Terry. Use the plural—people, citizens, buyers, sellers, workers, or voters, so that the word “they” is its historical self, referring to more than one person of unidentified gender. Or more than one rock, building, or book.

Having said that, I am annoyed at being asked what my pronouns are. I am tempted to answer I, me, and mine. What about you (your, yours)?  Furthermore, I am offended as a lover of words and language and particularly our complex English language by the insistence that we replace the first person singular (he, him, she, her) with the plural (they, them, their). I channel my English teachers from many decades ago, putting a red mark on my paper for abuse of the English language. The language belongs to all of us, and while I am open to options, I reserve the right to find this change annoying, or unacceptable.

The choice of the third person plural to replace the third person singular shows a singular lack of imagination. What about hes (she putting he first for the nominative case) and herm (blending her and him) for the direct object? (Herm is particularly apt since a person or animal who has the secondary sexual characteristics of both genders is called a hermaphrodite, combining Hermes and Aphrodite.) What about going to another language to find a word—maybe ilelle combining he and she in French? Or Es, a gender-neutral pronoun from German?

What are your pronouns? And what would be your choice for a gender -neutral replacement for he/she, her/him, and his/hers?

The Housecleaning Holiday

Welcome to the only holiday that is celebrated by cleaning house!  Imbolc or Oimelc, February 1st or 2nd, means ewe’s milk and refers to lambing season, a first harbinger of spring. It is one of the lesser-known cross-quarter holidays on the Wheel of the Year. In addition to Groundhog Day or Candlemas, it survived as the feast of the purification of the virgin (Mary) after the birth of her son 40 days earlier and also as a day sacred to St. Bridget or Brigid. Bridget is actually the great Goddess in her maiden phase, converted to a Christian saint. The corn maiden from the previous harvest is brought out in her honor as a virgin once again, ready to encounter her beloved in the mating rituals of spring.

The purification part of this holiday was known in pre-feminist times as spring house cleaning. In ancient time among the Irish Celts, Imbolc cleaning consisted of removing the Yule greenery from the home and burning it, cleaning up fields and home, and relighting the hearth fire as well as burning old Bridget wheels and making new ones Most of us have already taken down the tree and put away the decorations from Christmas by February 1st, but if you haven’t, you can use Imbolc as the excuse for delaying it till now.  After Imbolc, you are at risk of being a lazy pagan if you don’t deal with the winter holiday residue.

Imbolc is an indoor time. It’s cold and still pretty dark, but it is the waxing period of light and warmth following the winter solstice. It represents a final stage of wintry inwardness before the crocuses and daffodils invite us to look outward again. Housebound, we have to find our spiritual practice within that space. It is the late stage of the hibernating season as we prepare for the cycle of life to begin again.

Spiritual practice has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent decades.  A spiritual practice is anything that is centering, mindful, focusing, and connects you to the sacred in a very inclusive sense.  Practicing patience with difficult people is a spiritual practice.  Listening attentively is a spiritual practice.  Eating mindfully is a spiritual practice. Meditation and prayer are traditional spiritual practices in many religious traditions.  But there is also a form of spiritual practice that invests the ordinary activities of daily life with significance in the way carry them out.

The essence of spring housecleaning as spiritual practice blends several Christian and Buddhist ideas.  One is humility; no task is too menial that we are above it, as in Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The second is mindfulness, to be engaged in the moment, to calm the monkey mind, to focus all our attention on the window being washed or the floor being swept. The third is letting go of attachment to possessions as an encumbrance on our spiritual life, passing them on to another use or another user. The spiritual practice of spring housecleaning can incorporate all three.

Housecleaning means two different things.  One is the emphasis on clean, as in wash windows, polish furniture, remove cobwebs, paint, scrub floors, clean woodwork, dust the books. That’s both the humble and the mindful part.  In the words of one contemporary Buddhist writer, “after enlightenment, the laundry.” The other kind of housecleaning is to declutter, simplify, recycle, let go of possessions no longer needed, like the greens from Yul in the Celtic tradition.  That’s the letting go part. 

For many years my Lenten practice, for the forty days that begin sometime after Imbolc and stretch to the floating holiday of Easter, has been to wash a window every day.  Then I moved to a smaller house, which taxed my ingenuity to find forty windows.  I included car windows, TV and computer screens, mirrors.  Friends helpfully offered their windows, but I did not wish to discourage their own spiritual practice.   There is something very satisfying, very symbolic in letting the light of the returning spring shine through a clean window, but it means more when it’s my window. 

A friend described a similar cleaning ritual, only she does it all on New Year’s Day.  She takes each of her many books down one at a time off the shelf, dusts it (and the shelf), and decides whether it stays or goes.  If books are a rich and meaningful part of your life, revisiting these old friends and deciding what role they still may play in your life and which ones should be shared with others  is definitely a spiritual practice.  This particular ritual embodies both humility (dusting). mindfulness (concentrated attention on the books and the memories and teachings they hold), and letting go (books to be passed on).

So, as the daffodils and crocuses pop their leaves through the ground, as the groundhog in Punxatawny ponders his forecast, we can prepare to emerge from the hibernating season by renewing the spaces we inhabit. Like the bluebirds, whose house I have to clean very soon because they refuse to return to a used next, let us be about the humble tasks of maintaining our habitats. Spring housecleaning only comes once a year!

Scarcity and Abundance

Scarcity blog

The annual release from copyright took place last week.  One of the songs that is now public domain is, somewhat ironically, “The best things in life are free.”  Don’t sing it to an economist, though.  Theirs is a world of scarcity, not abundance.

Right at the start of initiating students into the mysteries of economics, we introduce them to the central role of scarcity. (When we were developing materials for K-12 education incorporating economics, that concept was introduced to first graders.  One enterprising youngster believed that it was actually two words, Scar City. That precocious child undoubtedly grew up to be a philosophy major.).   

If wants are unlimited while resources are limited, society needs to direct those scarce resources to their highest and best use in order to get the most out of scarce resources of time, energy, materials, whatever.  Most is normally an adjective, so what’s the noun? Economists are rather vague what the noun is to be maximized.  Most happiness? Wealth? Well-being? Satisfaction?

Following 19th century utilitarianism (which is the foundation of economics), the most likely answer is welfare.  No, not as in aid to poor families.  Welfare is just a synonym for well-being.  Since economist like to be able to measure and compare, they generally use per capita Gross Domestic Product as a rather questionable measure of societal well-being. The Kingdom of Nepal measures Gross National Happiness as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product. I’M WITH Nepal.  The World Bank and other entities construct multiple measures of well-being, like life expectancy, access to health care, and education al attainment.  By those measures the United States does not do so well, because they measure outcomes or access to some of the good things of life—the ones that are not free.

But back to scarcity. More than one economist has observed that scarcity is a universal fact of life outside of paradise—which in their (warped?) view, makes paradise boring and reality more interesting. Scarcity forces us to make choices and tradeoffs, and stimulates competition, creativity, and innovation.  Scarcity forces us to conserve the scarcest resources and rely on the more abundant ones—substituting capital for labor when labor is scarce and vice versa, shifting to sun, wind and hydropower as fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive.  The price signals emanating from the market let us know what shifts we need to make.

HOWEVER…a mentality of scarcity gives rise to greed, and greed gives rise to poverty and inequality, something economists don’t talk much about. Most of what they teach is efficiency, which is how to get the most out of your scarce resources. Most being, implicitly, material goods, services, and other good things that can be purchased with cash.Or credit. So perhaps it is time to switch our attention from scarcity to abundance and efficiency to equality.

Yesterday I tested positive for COVID after escaping it from three blessed years. It’s not severe or incapacitating but the best wishes and offers of help from friends and family were overwhelming.  They did more to raise my spirits than even the over the counter remedies money can buy.

When I was growing up, my mother used to by Reynold’s Doughnuts. On the side of the box was a picture of a tree and two men sitting with their back to the tree.  One was facing a doughnut with a small hole, the other on the doughnut with a big hole.  Accompanying the pictures was the little verse “As you wander on through life, brother, whatever be your goal, Keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.”

Good advice from a doughnut box.

Reflections on a New Year

Happy New Year, everyone!  2023 was a pretty good year, all things considered, although our country and our world still need more cool, sane, calm heads in charge. Starting with each of us and moving ever outward and upward.

I have been making New Year’s resolutions since I was a child. I remember being ten and resolving to master lighting the gas stove, which didn’t have a pilot light and had to be lit with a match. And people wonder about my lack of interest in switching to gas Every New Year’s Day I go back to my journal from a year earlier and see how I did. Some of these resolutions I actually keep. The more generic I make my resolutions, the better the score I can give myself.  I did not do so well on managing weight in 2022, so it’s back to the drawing boards. I have been very faithful to my exercise regimen, so much so that it no longer qualifies as a resolution, just somewhere between a habit and a positive addiction. I’ve done a fair job of practicing various forms of mindfulness (meditation, mindful eating, focused listening) and doing what I can to further and protect democracy through teaching, writing, donating to political campaigns, and working at the polls. I have worked at simplifying my surroundings and being environmentally responsible and trying not to personally dislike or avoid people for supporting Donald Trump. And like the Girl Scout that I once was, I made a conscious effort to make new friends and keep the old.  Attrition among friends speeds up after age 80, so it’s important to enjoy and appreciate those we have and add to the roster.

This new year also marks a transition in my community volunteering life. After three years on the church board, two of them as president, I have sworn off serving on any more volunteer boards. Since 1968 I have served as president of nine volunteer organizations, some of them multiple times.  I estimate a total of 30 years of being president of something.  And countless years on boards.)   I am trying to refocus my volunteer activities to more hands-on, episodic things like planning and carrying out the League’s monthly programs, teaching at OLLI, managing social action activities for my congregation, and preaching here and there.

As you reflect on the year past and the year ahead, the good news is that there are many new year’s days during the year ahead when you can begin again. I actually celebrate many new year’s days each year. The new calendar year, the old calendar year (which began in April, hence April fool’s day), a new year of my life on July 1st that coincides with a new state fiscal year (only an economist would celebrate that!). A new Celtic year which begins at Halloween, a Jewish New Year in the fall, a Chinese New Year in early spring, and of course, the solstice.  I used to celebrate a new academic year in August.  One year I had a New Year’s Eve Party on August 14th, the night before the official start of the fall term. My ties to the academic year have dwindled since my second retirement, but it still lingers in my consciousness with the ebb and flow of some 27,000 college students in our little college town. In other words, there are many chances to acknowledge bumps along the path and get back on track with another new year. No need to wait till next January 1st. There are many chances to begin again!

However and whenever you celebrate, observe, or ignore the New Year, may it be a happy, meaningful, rewarding, surprising year for each of you.

Winners and Losers, Competition and Collaboration

Back om 1996, a left of center economist, Robert Frank, wrote a book called The Winner Take All Society. He was particularly interested in the labor market, where those at the top—athletes, movie starts, singers, CEOs, football coaches,… all get paid outrageously extravagant salaries while those who are not at the top get a small fraction of that amount. Most singers and actors have a day job. Careers in professional sports are often short for the non-super stars. There are a few very highly paid lawyers, but the majority just earn fairly ordinary incomes and spend their days dealing with wills and estates, or  work as prosecutors or public defenders while hoping to become a judge.

Winner takes all applies to other areas of our lives besides earning a living.  In fact, having a seven figure plus income and a stash of financial assets enables the lucky few to tip the scales further in their favor.  As major political contributors, they give us a lopsided tax law that gives special treatment to capital gains, even though capital gains are no different from a salary increase in terms of putting food on the table. They were fully supportive of Trump’s outrageous “favor the rich” tax bill with huge giveaways to corporations and a few measly bones thrown at the rest of us.  Adding insult to injury, the bones to the average citizens expire in 025, but the giveaways to the rich are permanent.

A second area in which the rule of winner takes all applies is politics. You probably know the old joke about what do we call the person who finished last in the med school class? Answer: Doctor. What do we call Loren Boebert, who won re-election by a scant 546 votes?  We call her Congresswoman, the Honorable Loren Boebert.  And the second -place person, by a tiny margin, is lost in the mists of history.  Who ran against her? The recount was only a month ago, but I had to look it up. (Adam Frisch).

Winner takes all is part of the reason why those who govern our nation are elected by a minority of the electorate. Some of that tyranny of the minority is built in the constitution in the two senators per state and the electoral college. Some of it is the result of gerrymandering. Some of it is the prevailing practice of electing by a plurality rather than a majority, as many states choose to do. (Frustration with runoff elections is a major factor in the spread of ranked choice voting among the states.) In particular, the prevailing Republican Party practice of winner takes all in presidential primaries allowed a candidate who was supported by a minority of his own party to claim the nomination from a crowded field in 2016.  It could easily happen again in what looks like a crowded Republican field in 2024.

The winner of the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel is known to just about everyone on the planet, but the cardinal who came in second is never even identified.  There is only one Heisman Trophy winner (at least the Olympic games honor three medal winners!), only one class valedictorian, only one governor or president. The winner takes all the power, prestige, and perks of office, just as the winner of a game of monopoly lords it over those whom he or she has forced int bankruptcy.

In January of 1832 when Jackson nominated Martin Van Buren to the prestigious position of minister to Britain, Senator Henry Clay denounced it as nothing more than the same patronage practices that had been practiced for years in VanBuren’s home state of New York.  In response, New York Senator William L. Marcy defended the appointment with his famous words “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”

The winner take all practice of “to the victor belong the spoils” is enshrined in the firmly held American belief that competition is a good thing in all aspects of life. At least in some cases it’s a win for the team—football, political party, nation, or best decorated house in town at Christmas.  There are friendly competitions, and there is no doubt that competition can spur some of us to our best efforts.  But winners are always a small minority. What about the rest of us?  Is there no space for those of us who are good, or even very good, but not necessarily the very best, the top of the heap? Is there no way of organizing society to tamp down on the “winner at all costs,” “winning is the only thing” mentality that drives our culture?

There is an alternative to competition, cooperation or collaboration. Being part of a work, volunteer, social or familiar body that values each person for their contribution, their uniqueness, and practices that best line of Karl Marx, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need.  Many years ago, I had a friend who had a full time job that didn’t pay very well, while her husband worked for the same entity in a much more admired and well-compensated position.  He pointed out that she was only earning a quarter of the family income, and her response says, not I contribute exactly what you do.  I give my job my all, my best.  That’s an equal contribution. It bespeaks a partnership in which each person’s effort is valued and appreciated and not measured in monetary terms.

I complained a while back that an organization on whose board I served had been taken over by the bean counters, an admittedly derisive term for those who are focused intently on the details. One of my friends, a member of the organization but not in a leadership role, reminded me that she was a bean counter, fascinated and absorbed in the financial details.  I had to amend my complaint to admit that at one time the organization was heavy with big picture people and also that the bean counters had an important role to play.  What was needed was the leadership that could strike a balance between the two.

A well-run business, corporate or other, would encourage the organization to compete without for the clients or customers, but use a thoughtful balance of competition and collaboration to get the work done within.  In an ideal world, so would the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate. The same is true for the other institutions of society.  We need more winners not fewer, but we also need to avoid the stigma of being labeled a loser. And we need to learn and practice how to honor the contribution of every member of the work team, family, community, or whatever entity of which we area a part.

Make it your New Year’s resolution!

The Legacy of Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry was an early governor of Massachusetts who created some very oddly shaped districts in an effort to control the outcome of elections. One famous district was in the shape of a salamander, and a newspaper quickly labeled it a gerrymander—a word that has stuck ever since.  A lot has been written, argued, and taken to court over the design of electoral districts from Congress all the way to county councils, school board, and city governments. The Supreme Court is hearing a case right now, and state courts are tied up with the aftermath of the 2020 census even as we got to the midterms with questionably drawn district lines.  Once these districts are affirmed or redrawn—and a number of states are still contesting the lines used for the midterm elections—they will be with us until 2032.  That sounds disheartening.  But it’s not as bad as you might think.

A recent article in Politico identified two consequences of the redrawing after the 2020 Census that may have had an unexpected effect on the relatively strong Democratic performance.  Both of them relate to the COVID pandemic, which began just as the Census was wrapping up.  During COVID, a lot of workers got to work from home, and many of those who had that option moved farther away from work, often from the center city to the suburbs or even small towns and rural areas.  Those who had that option were disproportionally Democrats, and they were moving in many cases from Democratic-leaning districts to Republican-leaning districts.  Apparently, that made a difference in some closely contested races—and it was a year of many closely contested races.

The second effect of COVID was partisan differences in death rates.  More Republicans died from COVID than Democrats, at least partly because of calls from Republican party leaders to refuse both masks and vaccines.  I wondered at the time about the wisdom of pushing a response o the pandemic that would kill off your most loyal partisans. 

Attention is now focused on the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices are considering the independent legislature theory that would vest all the power to redistrict in state legislatures without court oversight at either the state or federal level. That is certainly an important decision.  Beyond SCOTUS and the midterm 2022 elections, however, there are reasons to hope that the 2020 Census-based districts, drawn up by partisan state legislatures, may not have as much lasting impact as one might think.  Age cohorts die off and new ones come of age. The difference in voting preferences between the average 75-year-old and the newly enfranchised 18 to 25-year-old is quite substantial. Also, people move.  A district that might have looked safely Republican in 2022 could be very different by 2026 or 2028 or 2030 as voters migrate to where the weather is better or the job opportunities and cost of living are more attractive. . There has been a steady migration from the Northeast and the Midwest and California to redder states, turning parts of them purple—my favorite political color. The Elbridge Gerrys of 2030 will have a harder task squeezing as many of their opponents into as few districts as possible.

Economists believe that monopoly power is ephemeral, attracting would-be competitors to find ways into that monopolized market, encouraging consumers to find substitutes for the products and services of monopolized industries. Technology moves on and pokes holes in the flying buttresses and drains moats surrounding a castled monopoly.  Remember when cable TV was an evil monopoly? And before that, the “Big Three”—NBC, ABC, and CBS? The political equivalent of monopoly is tyranny of the minority.  It’s true that the Constitution, somewhat deliberately, provided excessive protections for the minority, , the southern states where enslaved persons only counted for 3/5 in the Census and couldn’t vote, the smaller states with two senators per sat regardless of population. But ultimately, the majority will find a way to prevail, sometimes by intent but more often by the changes carved by the flow of a moving population river flowing in and out of districts, bringing in changes in gender, politics, religion and priorities to districts which were once safely stowed in a particular political basket.

I never understood why economics was labeled the dismal science.  I think it is largely populated by incurable optimists, with deep and abiding faith in the forces of change. Like the fabled King Canute, who was (apparently wrongly) accused of trying to hold back the ocean’s tide, we know change is inevitable.  Good change, bad change, neutral change. Yes, it’s worth trying to direct the tides in the affairs of men (and wmen), but it’s also good to learn to go with the flow!