Two Other Minnesota Cities Celebrate Diversity

Previous posts have discussed the positive impacts of immigrants on the southwestern Minnesota city of Worthington (Micropolitan Pop. 20,500 (2018)).  Now two other Minnesota outstate cities (southeastern Austin and northwestern Roseau) have joined the chorus.

Austin, Minnesota[1]

The city of Austin, population 25,190 (2018 est.) is the county seat of southeastern Mower County bordering Iowa to the south. It is the corporate headquarters of Hormel Foods Corp., a Fortune 500 company that grew out of the town’s small late 19th century butcher shop owned by George A. Hormel. In early January this year the county board gave its unanimous consent to resettlement of refugees.

“From 1% minority population in 1980 to 31% today, . . . [Austin’s] transformation has been profound. Immigrants from six continents call Austin home. Schools count more minority students than white students, with 48 different languages being spoken in classrooms. A medley of ethnic dining options and food markets surround the Spam Museum along Main Street downtown.”

The city’s high school basketball team, the Packers, has helped draw this diverse community together. For example, the winning last-second basket in a recent game was scored by Agwa Nywesh, an Ethiopian-American born in Austin.  “Hundreds of students storm the court and took “turns hugging him. White kids, and African kids, and Asian kids, and Hispanic kids. Rich kids, poor kids. All celebrating. The big victories, they bring people together.”

The high school’s soccer program is also successful, becoming a state-tournament regular. “Hold up a mirror to this team and Austin’s diversity stares back. The roster includes a mix of white, Hispanic, Karenni and African players, and one teammate from Poland.”

In its “swelling school district, 37% of students speak a primary language other than English, double the statewide average. One in 12 children here was born outside of the United States, and many more were raised speaking their parents’ native language.” In response , “cultural liaisons were hired to be ‘success coaches’ for students of different ethnic communities. Santino Deng, the success coach for the African community, describes his job as ‘like 9-1-1.’”

Adjusting to these changes was not easy. According to the city’s mayor, Tom Stiehm, at first “you have that big blank space in your head and we just have a tendency to fill it with negative things. Once I got to learn the community and learn the people,” he changed. “It’s the wave of the future. You can either ride that wave or you can drown. I tell people, it doesn’t matter what you like. This is going to happen, and you better acclimate yourself to it.”

“A Welcome Center opened on Main Street, and Taste of the Nations events offered foods from different cultures, including hot dish from the ladies at the Lutheran church. The Hormel Foundation, which pours more than $9 million annually into Mower County with many initiatives, partnered with the YMCA to create a kid-friendly membership: $1 per year, per kid. One night, more than 700 kids — many of them Sudanese — checked into the Y within a four-hour period.”

“City leaders have begun including new voices in high-profile settings. The City Council established a rotating, honorary seat that goes to a leader from an immigrant community. That person doesn’t vote but serves for three months sitting alongside the city attorney and police chief at meetings.”

“Over time, immigrant families found their footing, becoming permanent citizens, taxpayers, homeowners, neighbors. Their kids filled schools, and immigrants opened businesses downtown.”

All of this prompted the state’s main newspaper, the StarTribune, to salute Austin in an editorial. “At a time when so much public discussion about immigrants and immigration is negative — with overblown, fear-inducing narratives about criminal activity, building walls and keeping people out — a Minnesota town is demonstrating how new Americans can strengthen a community.”

 Roseau, Minnesota[2]

The city of Roseau, population 2,660 (2018 est.), is the county seat of Roseau County bordering Canada. A predecessor of Polaris Industries started its history there in 1954 with a prototype of a snowmobile, and the town still has the company’s main manufacturing plant for snowmobiles, all-terrain-vehicles (“ATVs”) and other products along with the company’s R&D.

Roseau, however, has an aging, declining population like most other small communities in the state and as a result has a major challenge in meeting Polaris’ demand for workers. Steve Hine, a research economist for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said,  “There aren’t enough young people being born in Roseau County and staying in Roseau County to meet the needs of an expanding company like Polaris.”

A year ago Polaris hired a Puerto Rican recruiting firm to find a partial solution for a plant that consistently has about 70 job openings — and could add 70 more jobs if it could find the workers. In so doing, the company recognized that Puerto Rico might be a ready source of workers as it was suffering from hurricanes and more recently earthquakes and as its residents were U.S. citizens.

This recruiting effort has been successful. “On a recent weeknight, some 150 people crowded into Polaris’ fancy new lobby to celebrate the newcomers. A Puerto Rican made 80 pounds of pork butt. The manager of Roseau’s town ball team recruited Puerto Rican ballplayers. One Puerto Rican couple danced merengue. It was the biggest turnout Roseau’s Civic and Commerce Association has ever had.”

One of the newcomers, Ricardo Rojas, had been “a successful network systems engineer for a health insurer in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the mortgage on his $345,000 house was paid off, and his daughter was attending private school. Then he got laid off, . . . [and he] struggled to find steady work. . . . [His] home value plummeted. Jobs became even more scarce.” Now the job at Polaris “was a lifeline: double the pay of a manufacturing job back home, with full benefits, plus a better education for his 14-year-old daughter, who wants to be a doctor.”

Another Puerto Rican newcomer, Edwin Colón Pérez, “had worked at a medical manufacturing company in Puerto Rico, where he made $10.81 an hour. But production plummeted after the hurricane. Colleagues were laid off. Pérez has two children, 5 and 10, so he jumped at the opportunity to work 12-hour night shifts on Polaris’ manufacturing line, where he bends pipes in tube fabrication. He was excited to live in a place the high school principal describes as ‘Mayberry in the ’60s.’”

More generally, the Puerto Ricans “have filled the town’s housing — in apartments, in rental houses, in converted church basements — and brought diversity to this generations-long Scandinavian outpost.” They also “work at the AmericInn and at the bakery at Super One Foods. One Polaris employee hopes to open a restaurant featuring island specialties like mofongo and alcapurria. The wife of another hopes to start a school dance team. They worship at churches and drink beers at Legends Sports Pub and Grill. At a high school lip-sync competition, a new student rapped in Spanish a song he’d written. The 500 students erupted in applause.”

Rev. Steve Hoffer, pastor at Roseau Evangelical Covenant Church, welcomes the Puerto Ricans to the town. Along with six other churches, his church collected donated furniture and bedding, winter coats and used cars for the newcomers and bought plane tickets for families while Polaris paid for travel and temporary lodging for each worker. Said Pastor Hoffer,  “This is a win-win-win for everyone. This is a win for Polaris because companies up here in the northwest corner of Minnesota have a hard time finding employees. It’s a win for our community because it helps broaden the overall perspective of our town. There’s a world of people out there with very different experiences than people who have been here their entire lives. And it’s a win for the folks who are moving here, because this is an economic opportunity they simply didn’t have in Puerto Rico.”

Comments

These two towns remind one of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s recent consent to resettlement of refugees. In his letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the Governor said, “Minnesota has a strong moral tradition of welcoming those who seek refuge. Our state has always stepped forward to help those who are fleeing desperate situations and need a safe place to call home.” Moreover, he said, “Refugees strengthen our communities. Bringing new cultures and fresh perspectives, they contribute to the social fabric of our state. Opening businesses and supporting existing ones, they are critical to the success of our economy. Refugees are doctors and bus drivers. They are entrepreneurs and police officers. They are students and teachers. They are our neighbors.” (Emphasis in original.)[3]

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[1] Austin, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Mower County, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Mower County Online; Hormel Foods Corp.;Minnesota Counties’ Actions on Refugee Resettlement, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 15, 2020); Scoggins, Austin’s True Colors, StarTribune (Feb. 23, 2020); Editorial, A salute to Austin—a welcoming Minnesota town, StarTribune (Mar. 2, 2020).

[2] Forgrave, Puerto Rican connection brings workers, diversity to Roseau, StarTribune (Mar. 7, 2020); Flores, Photography: Puerto Rican families make their home in Roseau, StarTribune (Mar. 8, 2020); Roseau, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Roseau County, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Roseau County, Welcome; Polaris Inc., Wikipedia; Polaris Industries, Inc.

[3]  Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2019).

 

Bernie Sanders’ Early 2014 Cuban Prison Meeting with U.S. Prisoner 

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ recent comments about Cuba and Fidel Castro resulted in journalists’ rediscovery of a meeting Sanders and two other U.S. Senators (Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and Jon Tester (Dem., MT)) had in February 2014 with Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen then in a Cuban prison.[1]

Gross in 2009 had been arrested in Cuba for bringing communications equipment to Jewish synagogues on the island under a subcontract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Gross then was tried and convicted for violating Cuban laws and sentenced to 15 years in prison, and in 2014 as a result of his poor health, the U.S. was seeking his release from the Cuban prison. On December 17, 2014, as part of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to  embark on normalization of relations, Gross was released from the Cuban prison in exchange for the U.S. release of three Cubans from U.S. prison.[2]

In a March 2020 interview by National Public Radio (NPR), Gross recalled the hour-long prison meeting in February 2014 with the three senators and his pleasant conversation with Heitkamp and Tester while Sanders was silent until the end. Then Sanders said he did not see what was wrong with Cuba.

At the time Gross had lost a lot of weight and teeth as a result of mistreatment, and he told NPR that he was offended by Sanders’ comment. “I just think, you know, it was a stupid thing for him to do. First, how could he not have seen the incredible deterioration of what was once the grandeur of the pre-Castro era. And two, how could he be so insensitive to make that remark to a political hostage — me!”

Gross added in the interview, this Sanders’ comment is “relevant now. The guy’s  running for president of the United States. And for him to make those statements [in 2014] demonstrating  a basic lack of a grasp on reality is problematic for me. I don’t want to see this guy in the White House.”

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[1] Mak, Former Prisoner Recalls Sanders Saying, ‘I Don’t Know What’s So Wrong with Cuba, NPR (Mar. 4, 2020); ’I don’t know what’s so bad about this country’: Bernie Sanders told a Alan Gross prisoner in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 5, 2020); Edwards, Cuba: Sanders Meets with Imprisoned American, http://www.sanders.senate.gov (Feb. 11, 2014).

[2] Davis, Alan Gross Gains the Freedom From  Cuba He Thought Would Never Come, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2014); The American Prisoner Alan Gross and Cuban-American Relations, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2014). See also these posts of dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Embark on Reconciliation (Dec. 21, 2014); President Obama’s Strategic Timing of Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation (Dec. 26, 2014); U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Recent Releases from U.S. Prison (Dec. 31, 2014).

 

Professor Orlando Patterson’s Discussion of Affirmative Action

On November 1, 2019, Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, made a presentation about human rights and freedom at a meeting of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.{1]

Now he has set forth views on the related subject of affirmative action in a New York Times review of a book on that subject—The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History From Reconstruction to Today by Malvin L. Urofsky.[2]

Patterson’s prelude to this review says, “For two and a half centuries America enslaved its black population, whose labor was a critical source of the country’s capitalist modernization and prosperity. Upon the abolition of legal, interpersonal slavery, the exploitation and degradation of blacks continued in the neo-slavery system of Jim Crow, a domestic terrorist regime fully sanctioned by the state and courts of the nation, and including Nazi-like instruments of ritualized human slaughter. Black harms and losses accrued to all whites, both to those directly exploiting them, and indirectly to all enjoying the enhanced prosperity their social exclusion and depressed earnings made possible.” These long years, he suggests, were a period of white-affirmative action. (Emphasis added.)

Patterson then says, “white affirmative action was first developed on a large scale in the New Deal welfare and social programs, and later in the huge state subsidization of suburban housing — a major source of present white wealth — blacks . . . were systematically excluded, to the benefit of the millions of whites whose entitlements would have been less, or whose housing slots would have been given to blacks in any fairly administered system. In this unrelenting history of deprivation, not even the comforting cultural productions of black artists were spared: From Thomas “Daddy” Rice in the early 19th century right down to Elvis Presley, everything of value and beauty that blacks created was promptly appropriated, repackaged and sold to white audiences for the exclusive economic benefit and prestige of white performers, who often added to the injury of cultural confiscation the insult of blackface mockery.” (Italic emphasis in original; bold emphases added.)

Subsequently the nonwhite version of affirmative action, Patterson continues, was begun by “the American state and corporate system” in the middle of the last century to tackle “this inherited patterns racial injustice , and its persisting inequities.” A comprehensive account of this “nonwhite version” is provided in the Urofsky book except for his failure to include the U.S. military, which has the best record of nonwhite racial integration and achievement. Urofsky distinguishes between “soft affirmative action. . . aimed at removing barriers only,” which he favors, and hard affirmative action, which attempts positive actions to make observable betterment of the excluded group” and which he does not favor even though it admittedly does not work. As President Lyndon Johnson said in a 1965 commencement address at Howard University, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” [3] (Emphases added.)

According to Patterson, Urofsky also points out the success of President Nixon’s Machiavellian “Philadelphia Plan,” which had minority business set-asides and insistence on craft unions acceptance of blacks and which resulted in “major improvements for blacks at all levels of the economy, to the applause of nearly every black leader.” But this Nixon program also was an important part of his Southern strategy “to shatter the bond between white working-class union members and the Democratic Party” and to create a new bond between those workers and the Republican Party.

In conclusion, Patterson says this nonwhite affirmative action “is now an integral part of the moral, cultural, military, political and economic fabric of the nation. Its businesses, educational system and political directorate have largely embraced it and the . . . [Supreme Court] undoes it at the cost of its own legitimacy.” This is so even though it is questionable whether this nonwhite affirmative action “could have solved all or even most of the problems of blacks, women and other disadvantaged groups. That surely must await more fundamental structural and political changes that might address America’s chronic postindustrial inequality and labor precariousness.” 

Conclusion

Characterizing the many decades of slavery and Jim Crow measures as “white affirmative action” was a new labeling for this blogger, but it makes sense. It also provides another justification for the more recent era of nonwhite affirmative action.

This blogger also was not familiar with Presdient Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University, which will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Meeting, November 1, 2019), dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2020); Reactions to U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Meeting, November 1, 2019, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 21, 2020) 

[2] Patterson, Affirmative Action: The Uniquely American Experiment, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 23, 2020) 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Responds to Criticisms

On September 15, 2019, Dr. Peter Berkowitz, the Executive Director of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, published responses to criticisms that have been leveled against the Commission.[1] Here are those responses followed by this blogger’s reactions to same.                                    

Dr. Berkowtiz’s Responses to Criticisms

“The announcement of the . . . [Commission’s} existence and mandate immediately triggered a barrage of skepticism, indignation, and anger. The misunderstandings that the criticisms embody underscore the urgency of the commission’s work.”

Characterization of the Criticisms

“The very idea of human rights has come under fire from the left and the right for its supposedly sham universality. Hard-core progressives contend that human rights are nothing more than a vehicle for advancing Western imperialism and colonialism. Single-minded conservatives maintain that the essential function of human rights is to erode national sovereignty and promulgate progressive political goals around the world.”

“More measured and compelling objections focus on the excesses to which the human rights project has been exposed. The proliferation of rights claims has obscured the distinction between fundamental rights that are universally applicable and partisan preferences that are properly left to diplomacy and political give-and-take. International institutions charged with monitoring and safeguarding human rights sometimes include in their membership countries that flagrantly violate human rights and which wield international law as a weapon to undermine them. The growth of international institutions, courts, and NGOs dedicated to human rights has created a cadre of bureaucrats, judges, scholars, and activists. Many of these experts and advocates are dedicated to the cause of human rights and serve with distinction, but all face the temptation — typical of any professional community — of succumbing to special interests and self-serving agendas. And an overemphasis on universal rights can distract from other essentials of political life, including the discharge of responsibilities, the cultivation of virtues, and the caring for community.”

U.S. Role in Evaluating These Criticisms

“It’s especially important for the United States to respond thoughtfully to the confusion and controversy swirling around human rights because of our country’s founding convictions. The Declaration of Independence affirms “certain unalienable Rights” — these include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — that inhere in all human beings. The Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, as a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948 — the United States reaffirmed the nation’s founding conviction that all human beings deserve the rights and liberties secured by its Constitution. At the same time, the Constitution leaves to the American people and their elected representatives the discretion to determine the role in the country’s foreign policy played by the universal rights that Americans and non-Americans share.” (Emphasis added.)

Evaluation of Criticisms

Yet an array of scholars, pundits, former political officials, and organizations are up in arms about the commission. Their critiques are illuminating, though not entirely as they intended.”

First, critics charge that the Trump administration’s record advancing human rights renders it unfit to establish a commission to provide advice on human rights. Set aside that the administration has engaged Kim Jong-un in pursuit of peaceful dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program; imposed tough sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s belligerent Russia; supported a democratic transition in Venezuela; opposed Iran’s quest to impose a brutal hegemony throughout the Middle East; and convened in Bahrain an international forum attended by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, to discuss the economic reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Isn’t the State Department’s determination to improve understanding of the connections between America’s founding principles and the administration’s foreign policy a sign of the enduring significance it attaches to human rights?”

Second, critics detect a sinister ambition in Secretary Pompeo’s “distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.” They worry that authoritarian countries around the world will conclude that the guiding purpose of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is to redefine human rights narrowly. But the American constitutional tradition turns on the difference between universal rights that are essential and unchanging and the contingent rights created by the consent of the governed that serve as a means to protecting citizens’ fundamental freedoms, and which are bound to vary from country to country.” (Emphasis added.)

Third, critics express dismay that the commission was charged with examining the reasoning by which claims about human rights are assessed, because they believe that the debate about the foundations and the meaning of human rights has all but ended. It has been asserted, for example, that codification of human rights by widely ratified international treaties (in many cases, though, not ratified by the United States) renders the commission’s work superfluous. This contention illustrates problems that gave rise to the panel. Contrary to the critics’ belief, a right does not become inalienable simply because an international treaty says so. And the refusal of the United States to ratify many such treaties demonstrates the persistence of questions about what counts as a human right and about the status of such rights in international law.” (Emphasis added.)

Fourth, critics have warned that the commission intends to strip members of various groups and communities of their rights. In fact, the commission proceeds from the premise that all persons — regardless of faith, nationality, race, class, and gender — share essential rights grounded in our common humanity.” (Emphasis added.)

Fifth, critics accuse the commission of lacking intellectual and political diversity. In fact, the political diversity and variety of intellectual perspectives represented compares quite favorably with the uniform political and intellectual outlook that informs so many of those who have condemned the commission.

“In one respect, the quick-out-of-the-gate criticisms of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights have been highly constructive. By throwing into sharp relief the passion and perplexity that surround the discussion of human rights, the critics themselves unwittingly make the case for sober and deliberate reflection about the roots of human rights in the American constitutional tradition, and their reach in the conduct of America’s foreign affairs. That is precisely the task that Secretary Pompeo has directed the Commission on Unalienable Right to undertake, and which its members have proudly embraced.” (Emphasis added.)

This Blogger’s Reactions

Some of the highlighted portions of Berkowitz’s comments correctly observe that some of the criticisms expressed concern that the Commission was designed to reduce the scope of international human rights in accord with the political views of the Trump Administration, but Berkowitz fails to acknowledge statements by Secretary Pompeo that prompted these criticisms.

Berkowitz also acknowledges, as he should, that the U.S. “Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” But he fails to note that the U.S. Declaration of Independence itself states, ““to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” immediately following its proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the U.S. Declaration itself implicitly recognizes that it does not secure the rights it proclaims because it does not create binding legal obligations. Instead the Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration while alluding to a larger category of unalienable rights. These subsequent statutes are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say. [2]

Similarly the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948, which the Commission, in other contexts, properly mentions in the same breath as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, does not create any binding legal obligations. Instead, the UDHR says, “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR. Again, these are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights.(Emphasis added.)

In addition, the Commission’s Chair Mary Ann Glendon, the author of a leading book about the creation of the UDHR, has said that one of the principles of the UDHR’s framers was “flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected. [3]

“Flexible universalism” also exists in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. But these are only recommendations.[4]

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[1] Berkowitz, Criticisms Illustrate Need for State Dept. Human Rights Panel (Sept. 15, 2019). Dr. Berkowitz also serves this year on the Department’s Policy Planning Staff while on leave as Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of books and articles about constitutional government, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism, liberal education and Israel and the Middle East. He holds degrees from Swarthmore College (B.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (M.A.), and Yale University (PhD and JD). (Com’n Unalienable Rights, Member Bios.) 

[2] E.g., Another Speech About Unalienable Rights by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, dwkcommentareies.com (Sept. 7, 2019); Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 20, 2019).

[3] Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 2, 2019). 

[4] E.g., U.N.’s Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review, dwkcommentaries/com (Sept. 20, 2018); U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentareis.com. (Feb. 5, 2013) (U.S. ratification had five reservations, understandings, four declarations and a proviso).

Are Developed Countries Decadent?

Yes, provocatively says Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, in a recent lengthy column that deserves reflection by us all. [1}

Introduction

He starts with the assertion that in the 21st century the U.S. and other developed countries “are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.” In other words, we “really inhabit an era in which repetition is more the norm than invention; in which stalemate rather than revolution stamps our politics; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private life alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, consistently underdeliver.”

This is an overall depiction of “decadence,” which Douthat defines as “economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development .” This “stagnation is often a consequence of previous development.”

He then expands upon this opinion by examining current economic, social and political factors.

Economics

“The decadent economy is not an impoverished one. The United States [for example] is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions, and the last decade of growth has (slowly) raised our living standard to a new high after the losses from the Great Recession.”

But, Douthat says, the U.S. and other developed canopies are not dynamic. “American entrepreneurship has been declining since the 1970s. . . . [There is] a slowdown, a mounting difficulty in achieving breakthroughs [in science and technology].”

One of the sources for this assertion was a 2017 paper by a group of economists, “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” These economists asserted, ““We present a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.”

Another source was Northwestern University economist, Robert Gordon, whom Douthat describes as “one of the most persuasive theorist of stagnation.” Gordon had concluded, “the period from 1840 to 1970 featured dramatic growth and innovation across multiple arenas — energy and transportation and medicine and agriculture and communication and the built environment. Whereas in the last two generations, progress has become increasingly monodimensional — all tech and nothing more.”

Society

“America is a more peaceable country than it was in 1970 or 1990, with lower crime rates and safer streets and better-behaved kids. But it’s also a country where that supposedly most American of qualities, wanderlust, has markedly declined: Americans no longer “go west” (or east or north or south) in search of opportunity the way they did 50 years ago; the rate at which people move between states has fallen from 3.5 percent in the early 1970s to 1.4 percent in 2010. . . . Nor do Americans change jobs as often as they once did.”

“Those well-behaved young people are more depressed than prior cohorts, less likely to drive drunk or get pregnant but more tempted toward self-harm. They are also the most medicated generation in history, from the drugs prescribed for A.D.H.D. to the antidepressants offered to anxious teens, and most of the medications are designed to be calming, offering a smoothed-out experience rather than a spiky high.”

“[P]eople are also less likely to invest in the future in the most literal of ways. The United States birthrate was once an outlier among developed countries, but since the Great Recession, it has descended rapidly, converging with the wealthy world’s general below-replacement norm. This demographic decline worsens economic stagnation; economists reckoning with its impact keep finding stark effects. A 2016 analysis found that a 10 percent increase in the fraction of the population over 60 decreased the growth rate of states’ per capita G.D.P. by 5.5 percent. A 2018 paper found that companies in younger labor markets are more innovative; another found that the aging of society helped explain the growth of monopolies and the declining rate of start-ups.”

“Sterility feeds stagnation, which further discourages childbearing, which sinks society ever-deeper into old age — makes demographic decline a clear example of how decadence overtakes a civilization. For much of Western history, declining birthrates reflected straightforward gains to human welfare: victories over infant mortality, over backbreaking agrarian economies, over confining expectations for young women. But once we crossed over into permanent below-replacement territory, the birth dearth began undercutting the very forces (youth, risk -taking, dynamism) necessary for continued growth, meaning that any further gains to individual welfare are coming at the future’s expense.”

        Politics

“From Trump’s Washington to the capitals of Europe, Western politics is now polarized between anti-establishment forces that are unprepared to competently govern and an establishment that’s too disliked to effectively rule.”

“The structures of the Western system, the United States Constitution and administrative state, the half-built federalism of the European Union, are everywhere creaking and everywhere critiqued. But our stalemates make them impervious to substantial reform, let alone to revolution. The most strident European nationalists don’t even want to leave the European Union, and Trump’s first term has actually been much like Obama’s second, with failed legislation and contested executive orders, and policy made mostly by negotiation between the bureaucracy and the courts.”

        Douthat’s Conclusion

“Complaining about decadence is a luxury good — a feature of societies where the mail is delivered, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is plenty of entertainment at your fingertips. Human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition. And the decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradictions to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.”

“So you can even build a case for decadence, not as a falling-off or disappointing end, but as a healthy balance between the misery of poverty and the dangers of growth for growth’s sake. A sustainable decadence, if you will, in which the crucial task for 21st-century humanity would be making the most of a prosperous stagnation: learning to temper our expectations and live within limits; making sure existing resources are distributed more justly; using education to lift people into the sunlit uplands of the creative class; and doing everything we can to help poorer countries transition successfully into our current position. Not because meliorism can cure every ill, but because the more revolutionary alternatives are too dangerous, and a simple greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number calculus requires that we just keep the existing system running and give up more ambitious dreams.”

“The longer a period of stagnation continues, the narrower the space for fecundity and piety, memory and invention, creativity and daring. The unresisted drift of decadence can lead into a territory of darkness, whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death.”

“So decadence must be critiqued and resisted . . . . by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.”

This Blogger’s Conclusion

The societal facts cited by Douthat are well known, and this blog has commented about the economic challenges presented by lower birth rates and aging populations of the U.S. [2] and of his home state of Minnesota. [3] Therefore, this blogger has been and is an advocate for increasing U.S. welcoming  refugees and other immigrants in accordance with the U.S. history of immigration, which should be an U.S. advantage over other countries. [4] Douthat, however, does not mention immigration. Nor does he mention the high costs of raising children in the U.S. as a deterrent to having children. This blog also has discussed declining birth rates and aging populations in Japan, China and Cuba. [5]

This societal situation is also shown by recent U.S. declines in important international socio-political indices: freedom of the press, human development, level of corruption, income inequality, global peace and social progress. These may well relate to Douthat’s thesis.[6]

I agree with Douthat’s assessment of the political scene at least in the U.S. In fact, I believe that the U.S. Constitution is obsolete in so many ways, especially in its anti-democratic U.S. Senate which gives greater weight to land than to people, its filibuster rule, its Electoral College for electing the president and to the difficulty of amending that document.

Douthat’s discussion of current economic conditions presented new facts and analyses for this blogger. As a result, I will be studying Douthat’s forthcoming book, examining the paper by Robert Gordon that is hyperlinked in the column; finding and reading the paper by an unnamed group of economists that is discussed in the column; reading the over 1,000 comments on the column published by the Times; and searching for other opinions on these issues.

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[1] Douthat. The Age of Decadence, N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 2020). He will expand on this topic in his book: The Age of Decadence: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success (to be released Feb. 25, 2020). An earlier column provided a slice of his analysis in discussing the second decade of our current century: The Decade of Disillusionment, N.Y. Times ( Dec. 28, 2019).      

[2] ] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: More Warnings of the Problems Facing U.S. Aging, Declining Population (Aug. 14, 2019); Implications of Reduced U.S. Population Growth (Jan. 10, 2020); U.S. Needs Immigration To Keep Growing and Maintain Prosperity (Feb.16, 2020).

[3] ] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota’s Challenges of Declining, Aging Population (Oct. 2, 2019); Slower Growth Projected for Minnesota Population in the 2020’s (Dec. 29, 2019).

[4] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Report About U.S. Need for More Immigrants (Aug. 25, 2019); Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants (Sept. 1, 2019); Prominent Economist Says Cuts in U.S. immigration Threaten U.S. Economy and Innovation (Oct. 12, 2019); Immigrants Come to U.S. To Work (Jan. 31, 2020); U.S. State Governments Celebrate Refugees’ Accomplishments (Feb. 2, 2020); U.S. Needs Immigrants To Keep Growing and Maintain Prosperity (Feb. 16, 2020).

[5] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants (Sept. 1, 2019); Japan Implements New Law Allowing Increased Immigration (Sept. 15, 2019); Cuba’s Aging and Declining Population Continues (Dec. 13, 2019); Continued Demographic Squeeze on Japan (Dec. 26, 2019); “The Chinese Population Crisis” (Jan. 21, 2020); Cuba’s Low Birth Rate, Increasing Emigration and Declining Population (Feb. 3, 2020).

[6] Declining U.S. Rankings in Important Socio-Poltical Indices, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 19, 2019).

Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis

A prior post reviewed the recent Ezra Klein column (and related book) that argued for “reducing the polarization of American politics by democratization, including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” https://dwkcommentaries.com/2020/02/14/u-s-needs-more-democratization/

Two respected political commentators–Norman J. Ornstein, a noted author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ross Douthat, a self-proclaimed conservative New York Times columnist–have discussed the Klein book, which was the basis for his column.

Norman Ornstein[1]

The Klein book cites research by political scientists showing that split ticket voting in presidential and congressional elections has virtually disappeared, that self-proclaimed independents now vote more predictably for one party over another and that such voters are now more motivated by their antipathy for the other party rather than affinity for their own. Related to all of this is the emergence of political mega-identities: “Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation” while “Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy.”

Ornstein also endorses Klein’s opinion that “baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country becomes more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. . . . At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged.”

Therefore, in the book, Klein calls for eliminating the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. “Of course, even these measures , commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift.”

Ross Douthat[2]

Douthat also takes on the more expansive statement of Ezra Klein’s opinions in his book, “Why We’re Polarized.”  [1]

This book, says Douthat, correctly debunks the theory that “the cure for division is just to educate people about the Right Answers to complicated policy disputes.”

Then Douthat counters Klein by relying on two other recent books, Christopher Caldwell’s “Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite.” 

According to Douthat, Caldwell, another conservative author and New York Times contributing opinion writer,  sees the current polarization as due to the 1960’s reformers creating “through the Civil Rights Act, a structure of judicial and bureaucratic supervision and redress that gradually expanded into a rival constitutional system. This so-called  ‘Second Constitution’ is organized around the advancement of groups claiming equality, not the protection of citizens enjoying liberties. And so the claims these groups make must be privileged over and against both the normal legislative process and the freedoms of speech and religion and association that the original Constitution protects.”

Lind’s book, says Douthat, sees the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class'” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thacher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”

The above two books, however, in Douthat’s opinion, fail to acknowledge the importance of the “secularization and institutional-Christian decline” and resulting religious polarization as important trends contributing to polarization. which Douthat will address in a future column.

Note that Douthat does not address Klein’s point about American polarization being connected with the structure of American government giving greater weight to geographical units than to the number of people.

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[1] Ornstein, Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 9, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020).