Economists, politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs, historians — and even capitalists — are expressing concerns over how capitalism has discounted global warming, placed profitability over all other concerns, exacerbated inequality, and overlooked violations of human rights. Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson, in her book, “Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire,” writes: “It is going to be hard to make money if the major coastal cities are underwater, [and] half the population is underemployed or working at jobs that pay less than a living wage.”
Society provides benefits to individuals. What is expected of the individual in return? Minouche Shafik is an Egyptian-British economist and director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. In her recently published book, “What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society,” she writes: “Throughout history, people have pooled their resources to varying degrees in order to enjoy the benefits and manage the risks that come from living in large groups.” Responsibilities are split among individuals, businesses, civil society and the state.
Capitalism is being challenged to abandon its overriding focus on profits and acknowledge the harm it has imposed. At the same time, changes due to globalization, automation, global warming and population aging are preventing large sectors of the population from sharing in the social contract.
Legislation currently under discussion in Washington is targeted to address these same changes. Beneficiaries of legislative proposals would include families below the poverty level, families with children, unemployed or low income workers, less educated, and elderly. The racial composition of these subsets of the U.S. population follows a pattern.
The percentage of whites in the population is higher than the percentage of whites in each of these population subsets. In 2019, for example, 72% of the total population was white, but only 60% of the population below the poverty level was white. At the same time, 13% of the population was Black, but 22% of the population below the poverty level was Black.
However, when considering population numbers rather than percentages, whites outnumber Blacks. The population living below the poverty level included 23.8 million whites and 8.6 million Blacks. Thus the benefits envisioned in anti-poverty legislation accrue to many more whites than Blacks. The pattern is the same for other subsets of the population:
• Families below poverty level: 4.1 million white; 1.6 million Black
• Population 16 and over unemployed: 11.9 million white; 2.5 million Black
• Population 25 and over with less than high school education: 16.1 million white; 3.5 million Black
• Female-headed households with own children under 18: 4.5 million white; 2.1 million Black
• Population over age 50: 82.4 million white; 11.1 million Black
A recent Pew Research Center study reported characteristics of registered voters in 2019, the same year as the population data. Population was divided between Republican or Republican-leaning and Democrat or Democrat-leaning. Among Republican or GOP-leaning voters, 35% had a high school education or less. For Democrats or voters leaning in that direction, 28% had a high school education or less. The percent of voters aged 50 or over comprised 56% on the Republican side versus 50% on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, 81% of voters were white and 5% Black; while 59% were white and 19% Black on the Democratic side.
At the state level, Republican-dominated states fare worse on various economic measures. Compared to how states voted in the 2020 presidential election:
• 11 of 12 states with highest poverty rate in 2019, and 17 of the highest 25, voted Republican, the Department of Agriculture says.
• 10 of the worst 12 state economies in 2018, and 16 of the worst 25, voted Republican, USA Today reports.
• 11 of the lowest 12 median household incomes in 2017, and 18 out of the lowest 25, voted Republican.
• 21 of the 25 states voting Republican also had Republican governors and state legislatures.
• 15 of the 25 states voting Democrat also had Democrat governors and state legislatures.
Post-pandemic legislation improving education from pre-K through retraining for displaced workers, aiding low-income households, the unemployed and elderly, eradicating poverty, and supporting economic development through infrastructure investment would disproportionately benefit white Republicans and GOP-leaning voters. It would also disproportionately benefit states that voted Republican in the 2020 election.
Keith Zeff is a former city planner and commercial real estate researcher whose blog, fiftyyearperspective.com, explores issues of sustainability and geopolitical upheaval. He lives in Clayton.