A Living Wage for Richmond

The RTD weighed in today with a shockingly ill-informed attack on the efforts of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities (RISC) to promote a local living wage ordinance. The RTD calls on all the old standbys–that working adults won’t really benefit, that it will cause unemployment, that RISC doesn’t trust the free market.

Most of these arguments have already been discussed in this space, so I won’t rehearse them now. Instead I’m going to be working in the next couple of days on an op-ed submission to the paper on this topic.

Here’s a quick preview of a point that I haven’t made already: even if living and minimum wage laws caused a small increase in unemployment (and even the few studies that do find negative effects, find small negative effects), that doesn’t mean a mandated wage increase is bad policy.

Almost all public policies produce both winners and losers; a public policy that produces a net gain but hurts a few people can and should be rounded out by supplemental policies designed to help the “losers”. These might take the form of, for instance, more generous unemployment benefits, expanded training and educational opportunities for the unemployed, and more effective job networking assistance. This is a conventional argument among proponents of “free trade” like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times who argue that aggregate benefits to consumers outweight job losses due to international trade and globalization, but that there need to be trade adjustment policies to assist firms and workers who are directly affected by trade openness.

This observation allows us to look at the living/minimum wage debate in a new light. The academic argument at this point is not whether the costs to low-wage workers outweigh the benefits of a wage increase; it’s about whether there are any costs at all!

Another point I’ll try to work in is how the anti-wage increase argument depends on an orthodox, texbook view of the labor market that ignores lots of evidence that employers have considerable power and discretion in setting wages.

Coincidentally, wage data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics this week shows that wages have fallen 2% nationally since 2003, even as productivity continues to rise.

Published in: on August 29, 2006 at 2:29 am  Leave a Comment  

President McGovern (!), Wal-Mart II, Drug Policy

It might seem ungracious to say anything too critical on a day the RTD saw fit to publish most of the letter on Iraq I submitted ten days ago. (Good for them!) So we’ll limit this post to three relatively brief comments.

First, the main news section carried an interesting “big ideas”-type piece on retrospective voting, based on a recent Ohio U. Poll: If they could do it all over, who would Americans have voted for in Presidential elections dating back to 1960, knowing what they do today? The dominant trend is that Americans tend to retrospectively identify with winners, irrespective of party. Kennedy, LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton all “win” by much larger margins in the present-day polls than they did in real life, as do Carter against Ford in ’76 and Bush (41) against Dukakis in ’88. The exceptions to this rule? Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. The poll shows George McGovern actually beating Nixon in ’72, and Al Gore and John Kerry each rather comfortably defeating W in the past two elections. That can’t be comforting news for the president. (Interestingly, despite a well-known liberal backlash against Ralph Nader after the events of 2000, the Green candidate actually pulls much higher support in the recent “votes” than he did at the polls 2000 and 2004.)

Second, over in the business section Bob Rayner serves up a very simplistic defense of Wal-Mart. The core argument goes like this: because people shop and work at Wal-Mart in great numbers, it must be good for society. Well, maybe. People produce and consume tobacco in large quantities too, but I’m not sure that’s so good for society.

The question of whether Wal-Mart’s prices justify its other social costs deserves its own treatment which I’m sure we’ll have occasion to take up in this space before too long. For now it’s enough to note that just because an outlet has low prices doesn’t mean it’s providing a service to society; to take an extreme example, no one (I hope) would say that an outlet store that specialized in selling stolen goods and/or goods produced by slaves at low, low prices is doing a society a favor.

Today let’s look at the labor argument Rayner offers. He writes, “The long lines of would-be workers whenever a new Wal-Mart prepares to open suggests that many American believe it’s a good employer.” Well, not necessarily–those lines are a better indication of how desperate many Americans are for any employment than they are a comment on Wal-Mart.

A better indicator of Wal-Mart’s fitness as an employer is its turnover rate. It’s estimated that 70% of Wal-Mart employees leave within the first year, and that overall annual turnover in the company is around 50%. In addition, Wal-Mart is the target of the nation’s largest ever class action sex discrimination lawsuit and has been charged with violating child labor law in multiple states, forcing employees to work off the clock, illegal anti-union activities, and myriad other violations of labor laws. No wonder so many employees seem anxious to leave.

Rayner also writes that Wal-Mart appears to have good pay and benefits compared to other retailers. Three points here: first, he could only possibly mean compared to other discount retail chains–but this is probably not the right question to ask. Instead, we should compare wages at Wal-Mart compared to wages at the independently owned hardware stores and the like which it displaces. In fact, a 2005 study found that opening a Wal-Mart in an urban or suburban area tends to reduce wages in that area’s overall retail sector; a new Wal-Mart in rural areas has no net effect on local wages (since fewer higher paying jobs are being displaced).

Second, as is well known, the retail chain Costco pays much higher wages than Wal-Mart. It’s not surprising that Costco also has a turnover rate about half that of Wal-Mart, but it might be a surprise that as a consequence of its policies, Costco actually has lower labor costs as a percentage of sales than Wal-Mart.

Third, according to a 2005 UCal-Berkeley study, Wal-Mart’s low wages require its employees to rely on a various forms of public assistance, estimated to be $86 million a year in California alone. That’s not the “free market” at work–it’s a public subsidy to a low-wage employer.

Finally, whatever else you might think about the RTD, be glad that it carries Neal Peirce, one of the best-informed writers on state and local issues out there. Peirce does what a columnist should do: he engages with the best empirical evidence and most creative thinking and practice on a given topic, and focuses on constructive steps as much as on criticism. Today he weighs in on the failures of America’s war on drugs and possible alternative strategies; I’ll add a link to it in this space as soon as it’s available.

A Gun Control Head-Scratcher

Beware when editorialists deliver bromides such as “Facts are stubborn things.” Case in point is today’s brief Times-Dispatch editorial note using the homicide rate in Washington, DC to point to the folly of gun control. The fact cited by the RTD is that even though the nation’s capital introduced fairly tough gun control laws in 1975, the homicide rate subsequently increased in DC faster than the national average.

The editorial writers probably didn’t come to this observation independently–citing the Washington, DC case is a favorite trick of conservative editorialists. (Do a quick search engine search on Washington, homicide, and gun control and see what comes up.)

But let’s look at the argument on its merits. What we have here is a bivariate correlation, drawn from exactly two data points, the Washington, DC of 1975 and the Washington, DC of today. There are two problems with drawing extensive policy conclusions from this little evidence. First, correlation does not equal causation. There are many possible explanations for the increase in homicides in DC since 1975: the crack epidemic beginning in the 1980s; thirty years of concentrated poverty, social neglect, and dysfunctional schools; changes in gang activity; possibly even changes in drug shipment routes. (Needless to say, none of these alternative explanations for DC’s homicide rate are explored by the editorial.) It might in fact be the case that without the gun control laws, homicides would have risen even faster in DC than they actually did; or it might be the case that gun control laws didn’t really make much difference either way; or as the RTD wants to suggest, it might be the case that gun control laws actually contributed to homicides.

The RTD’s interpretation seems to rely on a mental image in which we think of most homicides as involving criminals preying on obviously defenseless people–as if most murders in DC consisted of professional criminals causing mayhem in the white neighborhoods of upper Northwest. If in fact most homicides are drug or gang-related, then this interpretation is far less plausible: gang members are probably not thinking to themselves “this guy who’s invading my turf couldn’t possibly have a gun, because that would be violating the local gun laws, so I’m going to shoot him and know he won’t shoot back.”

But the bigger point is, we have no way of knowing which of these three interpretations is correct in the absence of much more detailed information.

This brings us to our second problem: two data points is not enough to draw any kind of firm conclusion about the relationship between two different phenomena, and there’s no excuse for just relying on two data points when there are hundreds of other data points we might consider (such as the experience of other U.S. cities).

In fact, quantiative criminologists have considered the relationship between gun control and crime, as well as the relationship between gun ownership and crime, in some detail, drawing on many more than two data points. The basic story seems to be this:

1. According to a 1993 study of the 170 largest U.S. cities, local gun control laws generally don’t have a strong effect on local crime, though they might affect certain types of crime. It would be interesting to update the story through the 1990s, when crime rates fell, but I’ll accept this provisional finding.

2. On the other hand, local gun ownership rates are, according to a recent study by scholars from Duke and Georgetown substantially correlated with increased homicides, controlling for a number of other factors (including the overall local crime rate). This paper uses proportion of suicides by gun as its proxy for rates of gun ownership at the county and state level; an earlier study, much hyped by the anti-gun control crowd, which relied on voter exit poll data to estimate local rates of gun ownership produced opposite results. The exit poll method is flawed, because, as the Duke-Georgetown study notes, “voters are by no means a representative sample of the adult public.”

The paper’s authors (Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig) go on to argue that gun ownership rates are causally related to the homicide rate. One obvious reason why is that fights carried out with guns are far more lethal than fights carried out with knives and fists; another is that as the quantity of guns in circulation increases, it becomes easier for criminals to acquire one. Notably, they also find that their measure of gun ownership is not strongly correlated with other types of crimes, or even with homicides committed without guns. That finding actually increases confidence that is the presence of guns, not some unmeasured factor, that is decisive in the relationship between gun ownership and the homicide rate.

3. In the international context, national rates of gun ownership are also correlated with national homicide rates. The most plausible interpretation of this evidence is that there is a causal relation between the fact that the U.S. has much higher homicide rates than Europe and Japan and the fact that we have much higher rates of gun ownership, for the same sorts of reasons noted by Cook and Ludwig.

There might be a slight puzzle in understanding how finding 1 could be consistent with findings 2 and 3. If more guns are associated with more gun-related crime, why don’t local gun control laws seems to have a strong effect on reducing crime (with possibly some exceptions)?

The answer is suggested in the RTD’s editorial itself: that in places like DC, gangs and criminals can easily acquire guns from outside the immediate locality. That explanation, in turn, implies that are needed are truly national efforts to restrict the supply of guns to criminals, since isolated local efforts are likely to be ineffective.

The head-scratcher in all this is the RTD editorialist’s attempt to dissuade readers from that interpretation. “If that were the case,” the editorial states, “the national homicide rate would not be 22 times lower than Washington’s.”

I’ve been struggling all morning to try to make sense of what that statement is supposed to mean. Upon reflection, I think the claim is supposed to be this: that in the rest of America where guns are plentiful and people can defend themselves, homicide rates are low, but in DC, where no one can defend themselves, homicide rates are very high.

Note however that this claim is perfectly consistent with, rather than a contradiction, of the view that the reason the DC gun control laws don’t work is because guns come in from elsewhere. So this statement doesn’t prove what it is intended to prove.

Nor does the claim stand on its terms: as noted above, the best academic evidence suggests that as a general phenomenon widespread gun ownership encourages rather than restricts gun-related violence.

There are hardly any local issues more important than crime, and the RTD could have made a healthy contribution to public understanding of the issue by arguing that local gun control laws in themselves are unlikely to be a panacea to Richmond’s crime problem. They might even have gone on to suggest that the city needs to tackle the social roots of crime rather than rely simply on gun laws, or alerted readers to the efforts now going on in the city to do just that, such as the Richmond Youth Peace Project.

But instead of going for the scentifically defensible, constructive point, the RTD went for the ideologically sweeping claim resting on just two data points as well as some highly questionable assumptions, a claim that can’t be sustained once we look at a broader range of evidence.

As for the utility of gun control itself, there’s no question than figuring out how to reduce gun-related violence in a society that already has 250+ million guns in circulation is a massive challenge. For a sobering, even pessimistic look at the problem, check out James Jacobs’ 2002 book, Can Gun Control Work? Jacobs thinks that we can and should take some regulatory steps to make it more difficult for criminals to get guns, but that effective policing strategies and targeted social welfare policies and interventions will be far more important in reducing violent crime in the long run. That seems like a plausible conclusion, though some critics, such as this thoughtful reviewer, contend that Jacobs is too pessimistic in assessing gun control’s value as an anti-violence tool.

Published in: on August 25, 2006 at 7:10 pm  Comments (1)  

Energy Policy, and Escaping an Abusive Coach

Robert Bradley of the Institute for Energy Research informs Times-Dispatch readers today that the solution to all our energy problems is more and more capitalism. The argument goes something like this: if those pesky oil-rich regimes didn’t set rules to prevent Western companies from taking over their oil fields, and didn’t insist on trying to use their natural resources to benefit their populations, there wouldn’t be any oil shortages. I will fault the Saudis for a lot of things, but not for failing to organize oil production to maximally benefit American consumers or failing to allow outside corporations to acquire comprehensive oil rights “from the wellhead to the pump.” Note that Bradley also assumes that the long-run supply of oil is limitless–and that the term “conservation” appears to be entirely outside his vocabulary.

But don’t let Bradley’s corporate utopianism spoil your day: today the RTD sports page carries an outstanding article about James Madison basketball player Jennifer Harris. Harris is a transfer from Penn State who has filed a federal lawsuit against coach Rene Portland, charging that “Portland repeatedly accused, humilated and berated her–privately and in front of teammates–and ultimately dismissed her from the team because Portland suspected that the player was a lesbian.” Generally speaking, athletes who are courageous enough to criticize publically the methods of their coaches, past or present, are viewed in a dim light by sportswriters. But here Vic Dorr Jr. provides a sympathetic, well-researched portrait of former high school All-American Harris and her motivations. For instance, we learn that while Harris maintains she is not gay, the level of verbal abuse at Penn State she bore was so scarring that she does not want any other player to have to endure it.

Coach Portland herself refused to speak to the paper for the article, but a Penn State spokewoman denied Harris’s claim. Portland has publicly stated that the does not tolerate lesbianism in her program, however. Congrats to the RTD for a well-written and important piece.

Published in: on August 24, 2006 at 1:54 pm  Comments (1)  

On the Minimum Wage

The featured op-ed in the RTD Tuesday is a relatively lengthy piece on the economics of the minimum wage by David Henderson of the Hoover Institution. Not surprisingly, Henderson concludes that the minimum wage has perverse effects, and certainly should not be increased.

This piece is actually more sophisticated than many standard conservative statements about the minimum wage, which simply ignore the mass of empirical evidence indicating that the employment effects of minimum wage increases are negligible, especially among adult workers. Henderson at least takes the trouble to cite influential research by David Card and Alan Krueger on the (limited to non-existent) impact of minimum wage increases on fast food employment.

Along the way, however, Henderson makes some baffling claims. For instance, Henderson charges the pro-labor, pro-minimum wage Economic Policy Institute with “admitting” that a higher minimum wage may lead not to reduced employment but reduced training and increased productivity. Henderson concludes that this must mean cutbacks in training of workers and a faster work pace. Wrong. Productivity might increase and training costs decline if turnover among low-wage workers decreases in response to a higher minimum wage. When wages go up, the cost to workers of losing their job go up as well, so they may become inclined to work harder to hold onto it even in the absence of greater workplace discipline. Likewise, if there is less turnover in a firm, there will be less need for firms to spend money training new workers.

Second, Henderson argues that the minimum wage doesn’t really benefit the least well off, since “only” 9% of those affected (some 1.4 million workers) are likely to be affected by the increase are single parents with children. (Never mind that this is a higher proportion than the percentage of single parents with children in the workforce as a whole–here is the data.) So we shouldn’t care about poor households in which both parents are working, or individuals who happen to be poor? In any case, Henderson draws a seriously misleading picture: some 80% of affected wage earners are adults, 54% are full time workers, and 26% are parents.

Third, in his conclusion, Henderson makes the bizarre claim that unions’ support for the minimum wage is motivated by “greed” and is akin to protectionism. Well, it’s no secret that unions support increases in the price of labor–if that is “greed,” then fair enough. But Henderson implies that unions’ interest is in reducing the jobs available at the bottom of the labor market. This is just silly: higher unemployment rates weaken, not strengthen, unions’ bargaining power and their ability to organize new workers. No one has a more vested interest in a full employment economy than labor unions.

The empirical evidence for large employment affects resulting from an increased minimum wage is suspect at best. Interested readers might check out Card and Krueger’s 2000 article, this summary of the issue from a “neutral” government economist that explores some of the theoretical reasons why minimum wages don’t damage employment, or a recent journalistic piece on economists’ shifting views on the minimum wage.

A few orienting observations might help put the discussion in perspective: the debate about raising the minimum wage can be more accurately characterized as a debate about keeping the minimum wage level from falling further. With each passing day, Americans earning the minimum wage effectively recieve a wage cut.

Indeed, the real value of the minimum wage is now about one-third lower than in the 1960s. The value of the minimum wage rose over the course of the 1960s from around $6/hr (current dollars) to nearly $8/hr by 1969. Yet unemployment fell during that same decade from 5.5% in 1961-1965 to just 3.9% during 1966-1970.

Three decades later, history repeated itself. Unemployment during the first Clinton term (1993-1996) averaged 6.0%; although the minimum wage was increased in 1997, unemployment during the second term (1997-2000) fell to just 4.4%.

In short, even if the increased minimum wage had some slight negative impact on employment during these periods, that effect was simply overwhelmed by larger macroeconomic factors.

One more example: In 1999, the United Kingdom implemented a minimum wage for the first time; according to this study (and others), the sky has hardly fallen.

Given this set of experiences, it’s not reasonable to assert that a modest increase in the minimum wage will have serious perverse effects on employment, especially when combined with sensible macroeconomic policies. And if we reject that conclusion, two fundamental moral reasons for maintaining and increasing the minimum wage carry the day.

The first as that we as a society have an interest in forbidding certain kinds of deeply exploitative relationships. A fundamental tenet of American labor law (and that of every other advanced nation) is that there is an asymmetry in power between employers and employees. The employment relationship is not a simple transaction like buying a banana, but represents an “incomplete contract”; employers and employees agree on what wage will be paid, but not on how much work will be performed. That depends on how much labor is extracted during the labor process. Employers use the threat of unemployment as well as systems of authority to extract as much labor as possible from their workers. The role of the minimum wage is simply to provide a counterweight to the power employers wield, by establishing a minimum threshold of compensation and prohibiting purely exploitative relationships between employers and workers.

Contrary to conventional economic theory, the wages paid by employers are not determined by the marginal contribution made by a given employee; rather they are based on how easily the employee in question can be replaced by a functional equivalent.

Current fast food technology, for instance, might allow a worker to produce $10 of “value” an hour. In a full employment economy in which it is not so easy to find a replacement worker, the employer may feel it necessary to pay $9/hour to a fast food worker. But in an economy with 10% unemployment and the employer is receiving dozens of job applications a day, the employer might be able to hire an equivalent employee who will produce the same value of goods for as little as $4/hour–or much less, in the absence of a minimum wage law. While a minimum wage law does not limit on what some might term the “rate of exploitation” in a given employment relationship, it does put a limit on how little a worker can receive. Indeed, taken to its logical conclusion, the argument against minimum wage morphs into what is in effect an argument for legalizing voluntary slavery.

The second point is more straightforward: Our aim as a society should be to reach the point where if you work, you will not be poor. A higher (and eventually, inflation-indexed) minimum wage is one tool for reaching that goal; the Earned Income Tax Credit is another.

In theory, the EITC could do all the work–some economists claim this is a more efficient approach. But this is at best a politically unrealistic proposition (since it would depend on greater taxation of the better off), and flat out cynical when proposed by conservatives who know that a Republican Congress will never approve large increases in the EITC. Moreover, not all eligible workers claim the EITC to which they are entitled, meaning its efficiency as an anti-poverty measure is often overrrated.

Independent of that concern about the EITC, there is also a strong case to be made for the notion that a higher minimum wage will contribute to the social respect conferred upon low-wage workers. Americans tend to regard income received from employers–whether it’s our own income or someone else’s–as “earned,” and a greater source of moral worth and pride than income channelled through the government.

Seen in this light, higher minimum wages have a key role to play in securing what should be seen as a central goal of social policy: to ensure that all citizens and especially all workers are treated with basic respect.

Published in: on August 22, 2006 at 4:19 pm  Comments (1)  

“Boxed Out”

Today the Times-Dispatch editorial writers decided to provide advice to the Chicago city council. At issue is a recent council ordinance that will require large retailers within the city to meet a living wage standard of $10/hr + $3/hr in benefits, to be phased in over several years.

The essence of the RTD argument seems to be that the ordinance may jeopardize Wal-Mart and Target’s expansion plans in the Windy City. Well, that’s precisely the point: the city leaders don’t want Chicago’s vast retail market captured by a handful of big box enterprises who compete for market share and try to drive out competitors on the basis of low wages.

Not all “economic development” is healthy for a locality. When an employer says it’s going to come in and create x number of jobs, that claim needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Even if the promised jobs do materialize (not always the case)–if a Wal-Mart really does come in and hire 2,000 new people, for instance–this does not mean that the local economy has in fact gained 2,000 net new jobs.

From that figure of 2,000 we need to subtract the following, for starters: jobs lost by competitors to the new business, who may find themselves out of business; the proportion of the Wal-Mart jobs that will go to outsiders, rather than current Chicago residents; and jobs not created by firms who might have invested in Chicago but will stay away rather than go head to head with a Wal-Mart.

Even if Wal-Mart’s arrival in the city led on a full accounting to a net gain in jobs, there still would be sound reasons to oppose this form of development if the quality of these jobs turn out to be significantly worse than the jobs it displaces, or if the employer’s presence helps under-cut labor standards throughout the city. It’s perfectly possible that a Wal-Mart coming to town could increase total employment but lead to a reduction in the total wages and benefits paid to workers. That’s not economic “progress” in any meaningful sense–that’s shifting from a high-road to a low-road model of economic development.

It is often claimed that Wal-Mart has made the American economy more “efficient.” But squeezing workers and suppliers is not efficiency at all–it’s redistribution from one sector of the economy to the other. If Wal-Mart were truly efficient in the sense of being able to technically organize retail better than competitors, it should be able to thrive without needing to squeeze workers below locally prevalent wage standards.

Finally, some analysts of the Chicago ordinance believe that the Chicago market for retail is so strong that having to pay workers a higher wage will not deter Wal-Mart or others from seeking access to the city. These analysts note that living wage laws in Santa Fe, NM and San Francisco have not deterred employment growth in the retail sector in those cities.

High-road economic development strategies are, of course, largely alien to the historic practices of the Southern states, whose approach to economic development has largely consisted of suppressing labor and writing large subsidy checks to mobile corporations. But it’s not quite that way everywhere in the country. A good journalistic approach on this issue would be to investigate the range of living wage ordinances that have been implemented around the country and attempt to sort out their effects on wages and employment–or at least to survey existing studies.

Here are two good examples: The Los Angeles Living Wage Study, chaired by a UC-Riverside economics professor, and a study of the Santa Fe living wage by economists at the University of New Mexico. Both studies found that the laws produced minimal negative effects on employment. A 2006 literature review of existing studies by the Economic Poilcy Institute provides further corroboration of that conclusion.

It would not take too long for a smart editorial writer to familiarize him or herself with such studies. Until then, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the RTD should refrain from criticizing what it doesn’t understand.

Published in: on August 21, 2006 at 6:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Letter to the Editor on Iraq

We’ll get rolling on the substance of the blog with a letter to the editor I penned last week regarding a column by Ross Mackenzie which approvingly cites Norman Podhoretz’s view that “Iraq has gone not badly but well.” Three days have passed so I’m assuming RTD is not going to run the letter.

In reference to Ross Mackenzie’s latest column (August 17): Perhaps the reason honest conservatives like George Will and William F. Buckley are (like the majority of Americans) increasingly troubled by the situation in Iraq is that they are actually paying attention to what is going on. In addition to the near-daily reports of widespread violence, there is now an overwhelming body of evidence documenting just what has gone wrong and why.

A good place to start is respected Pentagon reporter Thomas E. Ricks’s book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. That book, based largely on detailed interviews with military officials who participated in the war effort, documents in excruciating detail how the Bush Administration trumped up evidence and ignored internal skeptics on the way to war and embraced wildly over-optimistic scenarios about the cost and ease of pacifying post-war Iraq. And as Ricks shows, the Bush team also utterly failed to prepare for, let alone carry out, the task of reestablishing a functional, secure regime capable of winning over the Iraqi public and quelling any insurgencies.

The result is a protracted, nightmarish quagmire that has cost American lives, damaged America’s position in the world, created a magnet and rallying point for terrorists, and called the future viability of Iraq as a nation into doubt. Three years after “mission accomplished,” the only truly secure place in Iraq remains the Green Zone. This is not what the American people bargained for.

Is it too much to ask that Mr. Mackenzie trouble himself to read the work of Ricks and other close observers of this tragedy before again blithely reassuring readers that all is well?

Published in: on August 20, 2006 at 9:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

About the Blogger

This blog is being written by Thad Williamson. I am a political scientist and an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. I grew up in Chapel Hill, NC, and attended Brown University. After working for a progressive thinktank in Washington for several years, I earned a master’s degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and a doctorate in political science from Harvard University.

I have written frequently in the past for Dollars & Sense, a progressive economics magazine based in Boston, and for Inside Carolina magazine, which covers the North Carolina Tar Heels. I have written three books, and am currently hard at work on a fourth on suburban sprawl and American political culture.

It needs to be stated these blog postings reflect only my own views, and not those of my employer or my colleagues. Generally speaking, however, my wife tends to agree with me.

Published in: on August 20, 2006 at 8:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Welcome and Mission Statement

The purpose of this blog is straightforward: to periodically respond to and critique columns and editorials appearing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The RTD famously maintains a very conservative editorial page–you’d never know from reading the paper that Richmond is a city that votes Democratic by about a 70-30 margin. Moreover, the limited range of opinion typically offered in the RTD’s pages has a negative effect on public discourse in this city, and constrains wide-ranging, serious public discussion of the many severe problems and issues the city and region face.

Instead, readers are treated to a parade of syndicated right-wing columnists, along with contributions from two local writers (one a moderate conservative, the other an extreme conservative). The paper’s own editorials also are quite conservative in orientation (with occasional exceptions). To be fair, the paper does print Paul Krugman, probably the most important liberal columnist on the national scene at the moment, as well as Ellen Goodman, Leonard Pitts and Molly Ivins. But that’s about it; more radical points of view (be they local or national) are off the RTD radar completely.

In short, readers of the RTD are too rarely exposed to the wider array of voices that characterizes American political discourse, let alone exposed to international views. This limited discourse reinforces overly-parochial views on fundamental social questions such as poverty, race, war, and the American role in the world. Equally troubling, only a small amount of the material that appears in the RTD’s op-ed pages reflect the views and interests of the citizens of this city, especially poorer and African-American citizens. The world of the RTD op-ed page is overwhelmingly white, conservative and (to a slightly lesser extent) male; the actual city of Richmond is very different.

This blog, then, will try to provide a broader perspective, usually in the form of critiques of material appearing in the RTD. The blog is not intended to be simply relentless criticism: we’ll also give credit when credit is due, and try (to the extent possible!) to avoid vitriolic language and rhetorical excess. (Occasional sarcasm will prove unavoidable, I suspect.)

Initially, the blog will focus primarily on how the RTD opinion pages address national and global issues, but I hope to devote more critical attention to its coverage of local issues as times goes along (and would welcome suggestions from readers on how to do so). To the extent that this blog takes up issues of concern beyond Richmond, I certainly also welcome readers who don’t live anywhere near the region.

Published in: on August 20, 2006 at 8:47 pm  Comments (4)