This is America

Sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, protesters marched against systematic racial bias and police brutality in cities throughout America last week. The majority of attendees participated in the spirit of peaceful disobedience, but were met with police, and threats of military, intimidation, as well as attacks or arrests of journalists. This is a site about global development, a field which typically avoids coverage of the USA. Nonetheless, its tools to study poverty, inequality, and injustice are applicable in wealthy countries as much in low- and middle-income ones.

Income is often used as an approximation of well-being because it tells something real about the ease of solving problems. While some 650m people live below the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day, almost no one in America does. By this standard, even the lowest-wage earners in America are multiple times better off than the poorest people elsewhere. However, measuring income is hard, and decisions like whether to include benefits, or how to compute purchasing power parity can change the picture. Further, measuring overall well-being is even less straightforward than measuring income. African Americans have higher mortality rates compared to not only white Americans, but also citizens of poorer countries like India, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. Contemporaneously, blacks have been disproportionately harmed by both COVID-19 and the related economic effects.

A well-functioning economy is a powerful force for good — more labor force participation generates more and better ideas, and better ideas generate more growth. Talent and intelligence are uniformly distributed across demographics, but African Americans have more difficulty getting jobs and building wealth than whites. It is important that those with low incomes be able to move up through hard work and good choices, and those with high incomes take hits for the opposite, but inequality of opportunities can develop in the absence of mobility. This is unfortunate both because equality of opportunities is good in itself, and because it is creates more opportunities overall in the economy, as well as other areas including this site’s other theme of sustainability.

All Americans are afforded the rights of life, liberty, and property, making the damage done to businesses during protests regrettable. But it would be wrong to prioritize one of those rights at the expense of others — liberty requires a balance between a state strong enough to protect individuals, and a society strong enough to keep the state from becoming despotic. Legitimate political power is rooted not in its ability to wield violence and coercion over citizens, but rather in the decisions by free and equal individuals to recognize it as such, and the fact that so many Americans feel they have been denied their rights, let alone any avenues to express their aspirations, is no less regrettable. Below is a non-exhaustive list of resources for further reading (please submit similar links that you know of in the comments of this post, or via our Contact page):

Links to economic history papers on racial disparities in America

Publications by the Urban Energy Justice Lab, which is led by Dr Tony G Reams

Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on the connection between race and climate

Links to papers on police arrests, violence, and bias

Survey of policing economics

Donate to the Sadie Collective to help increase black representation in economics

Law enforcement members, or researchers: request (free) help designing evaluations and forming partnership sfrom J-PAL North America

Interview with Jennifer Doleac on preventing crime and police reform

Interview with Lisa Cook on racism, violence and economic growth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s