Democrats were still in their happy dance over Supreme Court decisions preserving ACA subsidies and legalizing gay marriage throughout the U.S. when, in its final orders of the year, the Court agreed to hear cases poised to gut pubic unions and affirmative action.
In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, ten California teachers are challenging a requirement that they pay fees to the teachers union for nonpolitical services, chiefly collective bargaining. That's the type of provision that Scott Walker killed in Wisconsin; without it, pubic sector unions wither. As Mark Joseph Stern at Slate points out, "there is virtually no chance" that the Supreme Court will rule against the teachers:
Over the last several years, Justice Samuel Alito—undoubtedly unions’ biggest enemy on the court—has been tightening the noose around unions’ necks. Joined by his fellow conservatives, Alito has issued two rulings that restricted public-sector unions’ ability to collect mandatory fees. In the second of these cases, Alito essentially telegraphed that he was prepared to rule that the entire system of mandatory fees is unconstitutional—overturning settled precedent in the process. Next term, he will have that opportunity. And there is every reason to believe he (and the court’s other conservatives) will take it.In Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a white student who claims -- without basis -- that the university's consideration of race as a factor in admission denied her entry has gained a SCOTUS rematch. The policy under challenge, operative only for the 8% of UT Austin admissions who are not in the top 10% in their high school classes, considers race as one of a mix of factors, as Jamelle Bouie explains:
For the remaining 8 percent of in-state spots, UT Austin used a comprehensive approach that weighed grades and test scores along with essays, leadership, activities, service to the community, and “special circumstances.” Those ranged from socioeconomic status and school quality, to family background and race. As the university’s director of admissions explained for the 5th Circuit, “[R]ace provides—like language, whether or not someone is the first in their family to attend college, and family responsibilities—important context in which to evaluate applicants, and is only one aspect of the diversity that the University seeks to attain.”In these two cases, the Court is addressing issues at the heart of current domestic policy debate. Over the past two years or so, wage stagnation and the continued impact of racism have come to the fore as the country's two most pressing domestic problems. The facts about growing inequality of income and wealth have been coming into focus for years but were turbo-charged by publication of Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century and have recently been distilled into a potent sound bite by Elizabeth Warren:
How much did the 90% get of income growth in this economy? From 1980 to 2012, the 90% got zero. None. Nothing. All of the income growth went to the top 10%.In a powerful compressed (and simplified) narrative, Warren avers three causes of this state of affairs, a triad of trickle-down economic policies ushered in with the Reagan Revolution: deregulate finance, cut taxes for the wealthy (and so public spending), and gut unions.
As for the continued impact of race, a near-year of demonstrations since Ferguson, ensuing Justice Department investigations of police and criminal justice practices, and the shocking assault on Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston have brought us to a point where last week President Obama could enumerate the lasting effects of institutionalized and internalized racism -- to widespread acclaim and approval.
Links between racism and the political potency of Republican economic policy were recently asserted by Jonathan Chait:
A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.Needless to say, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court does not accept this reading of U.S. history. Ever friendly to business interests (e.g., in Roberts' opinion for the government in King), and ever ready to pronounce institutional racism essentially finished, it is poised to deal major body blows to public unions and state affirmative action policies.
The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.
The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.