Friday, November 13, 2015

Everyone Feels Powerless

Francis Wilkinson notes one way that the students protesting at various American colleges are like their parents: a sense of powerlessness. One of the common threads uniting this year's college protests, and also last wave of protests about sexual assault, is a sense that people are being made into victims and nobody in authority cares. Which is precisely what surveys of all Americans show:
In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Americans agree, by a 54-41 landslide, that “the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” . . . Some 71% of GOP primary voters agreed when asked whether they felt “out of place” in their own country.
Wilkinson says that while white men feel with some justification that they have lost power they once had, neither women nor minorities feels much empowered as a result.

I think this sense of powerlessness is driving a lot of the dissatisfaction with America. As to where it comes from, Robert Reich has some ideas:
A security guard recently told me he didn’t know how much he’d be earning from week to week because his firm kept changing his schedule and his pay. “They just don’t care,” he said.

A traveler I met in the Dallas Fort-Worth Airport last week said she’d been there eight hours but the airline responsible for her trip wouldn’t help her find another flight leaving that evening. “They don’t give a hoot,” she said.

Someone I met in North Carolina a few weeks ago told me he had stopped voting because elected officials don’t respond to what average people like him think or want. “They don’t listen,” he said.

What connects these dots? As I travel around America, I’m struck by how utterly powerless most people feel. . . .

Consumers, meanwhile, are feeling mistreated and taken for granted because they, too, have less choice. US airlines, for example, have consolidated into a handful of giant carriers that divide up routes and collude on fares. In 2005 the US had nine major airlines. Now we have just four.

It’s much the same across the economy. Eighty percent of Americans are served by just one Internet Service Provider – usually Comcast, AT&T or Time-Warner. Giant health insurers are larger; the giant hospital chains, far bigger; the most powerful digital platforms (Amazon, Facebook, Google), gigantic.

All this means less consumer choice, which translates into less power.
As to why people don't turn to the government to help them in the struggle with corporations:
Finally, as voters we feel no one is listening because politicians, too, face less and less competition. Over 85 percent of congressional districts are considered “safe” for their incumbents in the upcoming 2016 election; only 3 percent are toss-ups.

In presidential elections, only a handful of states are now considered “battlegrounds” that could go either Democratic or Republican.

So, naturally, that’s where the candidates campaign. Voters in most states won’t see much of them. These voters’ votes are literally taken for granted.
I have never understood why we ever let companies that compete against other merge, unless one of them is on the verge of bankruptcy. Isn't competition the essence of capitalism?

Reich's points about how few elections are competitive suggests two more things we might do to help the national mood: put an end to gerrymandering of electoral districts, and abolish the Electoral College.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The major fears of cyberpunk stories, about corporations rising to levels of unquestionable power and the average person having less and less agency in their life, have slowly been coming true.

It's just that the reality is far more boring and mundane than the fantasies always were. Corporations may be ruthlessly profit driven, but this hasn't plunged society into a squalid dystopia. A lot of people aren't quite satisfied with life, but they're also for the most part not being pushed to the point of actually considering taking any sort of extreme action. Technology has advanced in many ways, but not to the extent that it has caused any real issues. A global communications network now exists, but people are still people.

To be honest, I not entirely convinced that people feel any more powerless than they did a quarter of a century ago. I keep wondering if maybe the difference is that our greater scope and volume of digital communications has simply made us more aware of feelings that were already there.

Consider other social problems like domestic abuse, sexual harassment, racism, et cetera. Are they really any worse today that they were in the 20th century? Or is it just far easier to hear about them today? Is there really more injustice now, or is it just more visible to the average person, with victims more willing to speak out, and passerby being less inclined to turn a blind eye?

I'm honestly not sure that people feel any more or less disempowered today than they did during the Cold War. I just think it's easier and more acceptable to speak honestly about the issue, and we've become more aware of a general unease that had previously been difficult to confirm with others.