A Glitch in “Voting With Our Feet”

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances however, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions. Sometimes the goal is to move into a more wealthy neighborhood, sometimes the goal is to move to reduce a work commute, and sometimes the goal is to move to be closer to a better school. Often the results are neighborhoods with more similar people in terms of race, income/wealth, and cultural values and backgrounds, ultimately, more segregation.

 

This process is playing out because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious negative outcomes when left unchecked. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

Segregation of Trust and Opportunity

“Very often the United States deals with its problems by sending them away to a different part of the country or a different part of town or, saddest of all, by sending them to jail,” writes Tyler Cowen in The Complacent Class. Cowen addresses our problems of segregation and incarceration in his book and looks at the strange reality in the United States where we have several booming metropolitan economies across the country and regions with high trust, cooperation, and philanthropy, but nevertheless we lead the world in the number of people incarcerated. Cowen sees our incarceration problem and this split between productivity and apparent moral/social failure as a consequence of American complacency in our modern age.

 

He writes, “Alexis de Tocqueville originally visited the United States to study its prison system, noting that [i]n no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. That has not been the case for some time.” We arrest a large number of people, many of whom have had high exposures to lead, have mental illnesses that have not been diagnosed, or have been implicated in implicit bias. Rather than confronting difficult realities and striving to improve society for those of us who are the worst off, there are some senses in which we have chosen to jail those of us who fall short rather than striving toward a better society.

 

“Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhere.”

 

Complacency is taking the challenges and the hard parts of life and society and putting them in a box. We take the people who have failed, those who were not brought along through progress and development (often due to explicit exclusion), and set them aside. We physically locate them in prisons, run away from them to suburbs, or push them out of the downtown spaces we want to revitalize. Rather than working with these individuals and figuring out how we can help them connect with our globalized economy to find a way to be productive and engaged in the world, we shut them out and ignore them.

 

Cowen complains that we have lost a sense of betterment. We don’t believe we can solve big problems anymore, and instead of trying, we burrow into our own niches and push aside those who don’t fit with the narrow vision we want to realize. To get beyond this complacency requires inclusionary thinking that asks big questions about making the world better for everyone as opposed to just making ourselves better. Complacency segregates and ignores while the ambition we need to jump-start productivity acknowledges, innovates, and includes.

Why Tyler Cowen is Worried About Segregation and Selectionism

Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class could have been called The Catered Class, and he takes a critical look at the ways we settle for simplicity and comfort in our lives rather than strive for greatness. In the book, Cowen makes the argument that the American Middle-Class (but really all of American culture) has become complacent in our approaches to life, relationships, careers, entertainment, and more. He suggest that we are seeing a slowdown in our economic advances and in productivity because we are creating tools that make us more complacent as opposed to creating tools that fuel an ambition to grow and make the world something better than what we can imagine right now. What is worse, these complacent tools cater to our desires for homogeneity, make inaction easier than action, deplete our sense of agency, and have serious long-term consequences.

 

Much of our technology today includes an algorithm to help us select more of things that we have already selected in the past. Amazon tells us to buy shoes that are similar to the shoes we previously bought, TV streaming services auto-play the next episode of the show we just watched or start a new show that is similar to the last, real estate sites help us navigate to neighborhoods based on our preferences and the characteristics of other buyers like us. These algorithms make us complacent.

 

Rather than take a chance with a title we have never heard of, we are directed to a show or book that people like us also buy if they have similar consumption patterns. Rather than try something new, Amazon pops up with available purchase options for the same things we have always had. Instead of wandering into and exploring new parts of town (maybe this isn’t so different than having a human being show you a part of town based on your race) we scope out the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood online. We have in some ways given our decision-making abilities to machines and a result is that we are actually becoming more segregated today than we have been in the past. We don’t have to interact with people who are not like us, don’t have to experience something new if we want to avoid it, and don’t have to see headlines that don’t correspond with what we want to believe.

 

Cowen writes about the dangers of this segregation in his book, “Segregation has yet another negative consequence: It leads to more intense sorting along political lines, so that both Democrats and Republicans will be more likely to live in communities of politically like-minded individuals. That would lead to more polarization in Congress and to some extent governmental gridlock.”

 

With technology that sorts us so efficiently, we become complacent and are catered to by our devices. This allows us to become more narrow minded as our catered news sources, entertainment options, and food delivery reinforce the idea that complacency is the ideal standard that everyone else should live up to. The idea that we would actively participate in making the world a better place has disappeared behind the veil that the world should be catered to our desires. Rather than working to understand things that are different from our own preferences and rather than working with others to create a world that actually improves our happiness and well-being, we prefer a world that tells us we are special and delivers the safe and comfortable things we want directly to our homes. Our complacency is catered to us, and it has serious consequences as we segregate ourselves and our interests, and as we give up a willingness to dream big about the possibilities of the world.

A Glitch in Voting With Our Feet

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars, and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else, and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting for or against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone who is clearly to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should (I would argue) raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more or less segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions.

 

This works because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. They are following cultural and structural factors which push us to want ever larger houses in ever more expensive neighborhoods, recreating segregation that often created pockets of towns that are so different economically and culturally. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious power to shape the world for better or worse. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

Where You Live (& Are Born) Matters

Raj Chetty, a Harvard researcher, has done some pretty interesting work that shows that the zip code you are born into can have a huge impact on how much money you earn over the course of your life. Down to the neighborhood level, where you live, the people around you, and the connections you happen to make in life can be major determining factors in what job you take, what college your children attend, and how well off you end up financially speaking. We don’t like to address this very often, but we recognize that it is true, and we have seen increased segregation as we try to separate ourselves from living next to undesirable people and places.

 

In his book The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen writes, “in 1970, only about 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods that were unambiguously affluent or poor. By 2007, 31 percent of American families were living in such neighborhoods.” We are moving in directions where we separate ourselves from people who are not like us in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Today, relative to 30 to 50 years ago, we are less likely to interact with someone who is very poor if we are rich. We are less likely to know anyone who does not share a generally similar SES, and we are far less likely to have any meaningful interactions with someone from a different SES. Cowen continues, “for where you live, income matters more than ever before, as can be shown by a simple perusal of the apartment ads for most of America’s leading cities.” 

 

This segregation by home value and SES has some obvious consequences, such as schools becoming more segregated by income and race and skyrocketing home prices in some regions of town coupled with deterioration and disinvestment of other regions. However, as the research from Chetty shows, there are other, less obvious consequences from our SES segregation. Where you live influences the opportunities available to you and your children.

 

We like to think that it is our own effort, talent, and hard work which determines how much money we make and where we end up financially and in terms of the home we are able to buy. Since talent, intelligence, and work ethic are evenly distributed on a genetic level, we would expect that everyone could achieve the same ends regardless of where they happened to be born. Instead, we see huge disparities by zip codes and neighborhoods in terms of ultimate SES. Our segregation is leading to situations where those who are born in wealthy areas are able to make valuable connections, learn the unwritten rules of networking to getting ahead, and receive visible reminders of what can be achieved through hard work and perseverance. Certainly people from the lowest SES background can still network and can still see the benefits of hard work, but research also suggest that when people from the lowest SES don’t have any interactions with people who are economically well off and successful in their careers, they do worse.

 

Cowen argues that our segregation by SES is making us a less robust society. Partially because we are leaving other people out, but also because it narrows the world for all of us (not just those in low SES neighborhoods) and stymies innovation, development, and progress. We are comfortable in neighborhoods with people who have a similar background and SES to our own, but this does not help us better understand the world, does not help us advocate for and support policy which might help us and others, and does not help us identify and encourage the top talent born in our country. Our complacency as we all search for our own individual American dream is crippling the American dream that we share as a nation by segregating us into complacent bubbles.

The Burden of a Nation

Today we have a problem with the number of people we arrest and the destroyed potential futures for those who have been arrested. As we arrest greater numbers of individuals for drug related offenses, the more families we break apart, the fewer people we have available to work, and the more our nation must spend on housing those who have been arrested. Prior to reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, I had assumed that this system operated fairly and I had criticized those who had been arrested for their own faults and personal shortcomings. What I did not see before her book are the choices that we made as a society that lead to the crime, the policing, and the levels of arrests that we see in our nation. We have a choice in determining the criminality of low level drugs like marijuana, and we have a choice in how harshly we will arrest and punish those who break the laws that we create. At a certain point, we must begin asking ourselves, beyond what an individual has done wrong, what has society done wrong so that so many people are violating drug laws, and should our response be imprisonment or less expensive and less socially damaging responses to crime.

In her book, Alexander writes, “Du Bois got it right a century ago: “the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” It is up to all of us, not just up to criminals and those living in ghettos or low income areas, to solve the crime problems our nation faces and to strengthen our communities. Those of us who do not act and do not take steps to make our world better are equally at fault as those who commit crimes and make our society more segregated and less equitable. Alexander continues, “The reality is that, just a few decades after the collapse of one caste system, we constructed another. Our nation declared a war on people trapped in racially segregated ghettos—just at the moment their economies had collapsed—rather than providing community investment, quality education, and job training when work disappeared.” Our choices created the ghettos and in response to the effects of concentrated power, we decided that incarceration was the best option to deal with the crime that resulted. Alexander looks at the history of segregation in our country and how that has impacted our development, our communities, and the policies put forth by those in power. Our reaction to minorities has historically been to shut them out and deny them of opportunity, and today, when people in communities that have been isolated and exiled result to crime, we find justification in our actions and arrests.

“Of course those communities are suffering from serious crime and dysfunction today. Did we expect otherwise? Did we think that, miraculously, they would thrive?” Alexander pushes us to reflect on ghettos and segregated areas of concentrated poverty. Rather than uniting our communities and putting forth greater resources to help people in ghettos, we have decided to arrest individuals, which diminishes future potential and career opportunities, feeding back into a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, and disfunction. Rather than try to build the areas in new and novel ways that put low income individuals next to more affluent families and people, we isolated the poor and the minorities so that they could be forgotten. It is expensive to provide community support to those who need it and to improve our ghettos, but it is certainly expensive to warehouse individuals in prisons and jails and to react to the crime committed by those who have lost future possibilities or live in disjointed households.

Communities of Fear

Our nation today faces challenges of concentrated poverty and dangerous neighborhoods that lead to stress, fear, and trauma for the families and children living within them. Senator Cory Booker looks at what life is like for people in these neighborhoods and how it impacts our nation’s well being in his book United. Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey and shares a story about a concerned mother whose child was dealing with trauma and symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a gun fight in an impoverished neighborhood in Newark. Focusing on the dangers that these neighborhoods produce and the mental trauma facing those living in such neighborhoods, Booker writes,

“When fear becomes the norm, it stalks your life relentlessly, lurking and casting shadows over your daily routine. Fear changes you. Fear changes us. My parents worried about me, but they never had to deal with an ever present fear that violence could erupt at any moment and consume their child in an instant, affecting him or her in ways that no hug or loving assurance could heal.”

The fear that Booker describes is a result of concentrated poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. Our society has decided that the best way to organize people’s living spaces is to segregate individuals and families based on income. Honest concerns for property values and natural desires to be surrounded by similar people and nice things has pushed societies to split regions and housing based on income, creating wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods of intense poverty. The fear that Booker describes in the quote above is the result of living in a situation where poor people are pushed together and in some ways ignored. Regarding the trauma present in these neighborhoods Booker writes, “This is not normal, but somehow we behave as if it is. We accept it. If anything we think it is ‘their’ problem.”

I don’t have a perfect solution to end housing problems and neighborhood violence, but I think that Booker demonstrates that concentrated poverty and the problems it creates are unfairly faced by those with the fewest resources to overcome such challenges. Society often turns a blind eye to the ghettos we have designed to house our poor, and fail to see the choices society has made in establishing neighborhoods in the way we have. The fear and trauma that so many face makes it nearly impossible to overcome the obstacles present in such communities.