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Inequality And The Iron Law of Decaying Public Services

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Fires are raging everywhere in California these days, and firefighters are having enormous trouble keeping up. Chronically understaffed local fire departments simply don’t have the resources to handle act one of what climate change has in store for us.

California’s wealthy aren’t particularly worrying about that lack of resources — because they have more than enough of their own. They can afford to shell out up to $25,000 per day for one of the private firefighting services that are popping up in California wherever the rich call home.

In a deeply unequal America, none of this should surprise us. Public services almost always take it on the chin in societies where wealth starts furiously concentrating. Why should inequality have this impact? A little incendiary parable — on tennis — might help us understand.

Imagine yourself in a comfortable suburban county. Every corner of the county has a pleasant public park, and most every park sports a tennis court or two. All comers can volley away on these free public courts, and every once in a while, on especially beautiful Saturday mornings, the courts can get a bit crowded. Players may even have to wait for court time.

But some local racket enthusiasts, the county’s wealthiest racket enthusiasts, never have to wait to play tennis. These players have had private tennis courts installed on their own ample grounds. They play whenever they want.

Installing a private court, of course, can run many thousands of dollars. In our imaginary suburban county, only a handful of local families — maybe one family in a thousand — have the sort of wealth necessary to afford a private court. Local contractors understand this market reality. Few of them bother offering private tennis court-making services. Private courts remain costly and rare.

But what if wealth in our tennis-loving county suddenly starts to concentrate? What if ten families in a thousand could suddenly afford to think about installing a home tennis court? At this point, contractors might start to take notice. More of them might start hawking court-construction services. Prices for private tennis courts would soon start sinking. A wider circle of affluent households would now be able to afford them.

Those affluent who choose to take the private plunge would, naturally enough, no longer frequent the county’s public courts. They would do all their volleying at home and invite their friends to join them. Eventually, noticeably fewer people are frequenting the public courts.

Local parks officials, in response, start devoting fewer dollars to court upkeep. The courts start deteriorating. Tennis buffs of modest means, disturbed by these shabbier courts, start looking for alternative places to play. A clever entrepreneur notes this burgeoning new market for quality tennis facilities and opens an enclosed tennis bubble. Tennis buffs of modest means quickly begin reserving court time in the new bubble. For a fee, of course.

Back in the public parks, ever fewer people are now playing tennis. Parks officials start ignoring downed nets. Why bother keeping nets up, after all, when hardly anyone is knocking balls over them anymore? The public courts soon start going to seed. They become eyesores.

The commons in our imaginary county — the public space with access and services for all — has, in effect, been downsized.

Where wealth concentrates, our commons will always downsize. At some point, in every community becoming more unequal, affluent people will come to feel they’ll be better off going life alone, on their own nickel — better off installing their own private courts, better off sending their kids to private schools, better off living in a privately guarded gated development.

The greater the numbers of affluent who forsake the commons, the greater the danger the commons will face. The affluent, in more equal communities, may grumble about paying taxes for public services they do not use. But grumbling will usually remain all they can do. In communities where wealth is concentrating, by contrast, the affluent have the clout and the numbers to go beyond grumbling. They mobilize politically to slash budgets and roll taxes back. And they succeed, because fewer people, in an unequal community, have a stake in the public services that taxes support.

With every such “success,” with every budget cutback, with every resulting deterioration in public services, the constituencies for maintaining quality public services shrink. Those who can afford to make the shift to private services, to reserve time in private tennis bubbles, do so.

With fewer people using public services, more budget cutbacks become inevitable. Services deteriorate still further. People of distinctly modest means now find themselves depending on private services, even if they really can’t quite afford them. Deteriorating public services leave them no choice.

This dynamic unfolds so predictably whenever wealth concentrates that one economist, the University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, has even formulated a “law” to account for it. Growing income equality, holds Peltzman’s Law, “stimulates growth of government.” Growing inequality has the exact opposite effect. In societies becoming more unequal, taxpayers are less likely to support spending that enhances a society’s stock of public goods and services.

“If wealth and income are unequally distributed, the ‘winners,’ so to speak, will want to maintain their advantage,” explain historians Carolyn Webber and Aaron Wildavsky. But “if substantial equality already exists, then citizens will want still more of it.”

Over recent decades, government spending in the United States has followed Peltzman’s Law as assuredly as if Congress had enacted it. Spending for public goods and services increased in times of growing equality, in the 1950s and 1960s, and fell significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, when gaps in income and wealth started rapidly growing wider.

In California, America’s middle class heaven after World War II, $1 of every $100 Californians earned in the 1950s went for the commons, for building schools, roads, water systems, and other public goods and services. By 1997, California had become the nation’s most unequal state. In that year, of every $100 Californians earned, only seven cents went for public services. The result: a massive deterioration of the California commons, from schools to roads.

In the late 1990s, notes the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson, three-quarters of the teachers hired by the Los Angeles school district, “lacked teaching credentials.” Freeways in the area remained “among the most clogged in the country.”

Americans, by century’s end, could see the same sort of disinvestment in public goods and services throughout the United States, and this disinvestment has continued. Unfortunately and dangerously, so has climate change, another product of our deeply unequal nation and world. The predictable end result: Middle-class homes burn while private fire services save the mansions of the awesomely affluent.

Tennis, anyone?

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on November 7, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: A veteran labor journalist, Sam Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, in articles, books, and online, for both popular and scholarly readers. Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.


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Woman Fired For Being Transgender Scores A Victory

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Bryce CovertJessi Dye was excited about her new job at the Summerford Nursing Home in Alabama. Her experience watching her grandmother be put in a nursing home when she was younger made her want to help others who end up in the same situation. “She felt alone a lot of the time,” the 28-year-old said. “I wanted to be there for people, make it a little brighter place for these people who might not have somebody to visit them.”

She had also been working in fast food, but this job would come with better pay, better hours, and the possibility of fast advancement.

Yet she would only spend four hours actually doing her new job. After going through half a day of training, she says she was told to report to the manager’s office after lunch. “And the first thing the manager said to me when I stepped into his office is, ‘What are you?’” she said. “That’s not a question you ask me as a person, it’s a question you ask some little knickknack… It’s honestly not even a question for a pet.”

As a transgender woman, she had changed the photo on her driver’s license to match her gender expression, but her gender marker was wrong. That was what the manager was looking at as he asked her blunt questions about her gender. Getting a driver’s license updated can be difficult; more than 40 percent of transgender people across the country go without an ID that matches their gender identity, and 11 percent say they were denied in an attempt to update it. But having an ID that doesn’t reflect someone’s gender identity is correlated with much higher rates of discrimination and harassment.

“I can’t describe easily how that felt,” she said of that first question the manager asked her. “The closest thing I can say is that it felt like somebody punched me in the stomach.” She says that the manager not only told her he was letting her go just hours after she started, but that he confirmed it was because she is transgender.

“I walked out the door of the nursing home, said my goodbyes to the ladies I’d been working with, and made the hardest phone call of my life to my wife to say I couldn’t support us the way I’d planned on,” she said. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”

She has since received some good news: On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented her in her lawsuit against Summerford, announced that the nursing home has agreed to pay her a financial settlement, as well as to implement a workplace nondiscrimination policy for sexual orientation and gender and to provide LGBT training for human resource employees, including the manager who fired Dye. A representative of the nursing home declined to comment on the settlement.

The policy change is the most important part for Dye. “That was more of a victory for me than any money could have ever been. Making sure the world’s a little bit safer for the next person who comes along,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to ever have to make that phone call I made that day.”

The loss of a job can be catastrophic, and losing her job at the nursing home was a blow for Dye and her wife. “Our financial stability was completely taken out from under us,” she said. She was able to rescind her two weeks notice at the fast food job, but her entire shift was laid off just a couple of months later. After that, she spent six months looking for work until she found the retail job she has now. “It’s hard to find a job in Alabama anyway, but one that’s openly accepting and easy to work with, not so much,” she noted.

The hope is also that such a case, which is likely the first of its kind won against a private Alabama employer, resonates beyond Dye. “There still seems to be a misperception among many employers that they can fire employees at will for any reason or no reason at all,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But there are federal protections against individuals because they are transgender, and we’re hopeful this lawsuit will raise awareness.”

Federal law doesn’t explicitly enumerate gender identity as a protected class against workplace discrimination. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that employer discrimination on that basis violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex. Just in April, it ruled that the Army illegally discriminated against a transgender civilian employee by forcing her to use a single bathroom. Yet just 19 states and Washington, D.C.have laws prohibiting employment discrimination that include gender identity. The Equality Act, introduced in Congress in July, would explicitly ban employment discrimination against all LGBT people, but has not yet been passed and doesn’t have any Republican sponsors.

This is part of what motivated Dye to take action in the first place. “It was never about money,” she said. “It was about doing what’s right, standing up and and letting it be known you can’t do this to people, you can’t treat people like objects.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on September 11th, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.


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The Bangladeshi Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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When I first read about the horrendous fire in Bangladesh, I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 — more than 100 years ago. In many ways, nothing has changed. In some ways, some things have changed.

Today:

A Bangladeshi garment factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney,  and other major Western companies had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before a blaze in the facility killed 112 workers, a fire official told the Associated Press.

Separately, the owner of the Tazreen factory told AP that he had only received permission to build a three-story facility but had expanded it illegally to eight stories and was adding a ninth at the time of the blaze…

The factory didn’t have any fire exits for its 1,400 workers, many of whom became trapped by the blaze. Investigators have said the death toll would have been far lower if there had been even a single emergency exit. Fire extinguishers in the building were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t know how to use them.

100 years ago:

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

Nothing has changed in 100 years — workers’ lives are thought of as expendable, corners are cut in the name of profit, whether the name is Triangle Waist Company or Wal-Mart.

What did change a bit in the wake of the 1911 fire was a renewed drive to unionize and strengthen health and safety laws. Out of the tragedy, workers mobilized.

Whether that will happen in Bangladesh is to be seen. It would be a great testament to those who died is, out of the ashes of the fire, workers organized to stop the survivors and others from being future victims of the greed of Wal-Mart and its global corporate ilk.

This post was originally posted on Working Life on December 7, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors. He has also written four books, including the Audacity of Greed.


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