The Economics of Injustice

I was recently at a conference about fair housing, and and a man stood up to say that the emotional appeal is no longer working; there is no inherent desire for social justice among the American people. Those of us who care about equity must switch to making the economic argument.

But I can’t help getting goosebumps on my arms each time I think about Michelle Obama saying “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

When I stood on the railroad tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau I swear I could feel the ground rumbling like a train was coming in, filled with both the hopeful and the hopeless, even 72 years after the last time those tracks were used.

There is a reason why it’s hard for anyone to look into the eyes of the homeless people we pass each morning on the street: emotion is universal. Empathy is natural. Don’t we all feel a desire for justice during these moments? It is inherently intertwined with empathy, deeply embedded in each of us. The question is only, how deep?

For those who don’t feel the need for equality as readily as the need for wealth, we can look at the economics of social issues. A World Bank report on LGBTQA discrimination quantified the cost of workforce discrimination, increased health costs and anti-LGBTQ laws globally. They found that these things can cost a nation up to 1% of its GDP, or a conservative estimate (0.05%) of over $400 billion globally. This would be enough to eliminate extreme poverty everywhere on Earth.

In the U.S., it is easy to look at racial or gender discrimination in terms of economic inefficiency – misallocation of human capital in the workplace. Those in the discriminated-against groups are often more qualified than the members of more privileged groups, who are the ones that end up getting the opportunity to take high powered, high paying jobs (that are beyond their capabilities, therefore dragging everyone’s efficiency down).

Further looking at racism, tracing the history of any drug law in the United States will lead to its racist beginnings.  At the apex stands the War on Drugs, lasting 40 years and costing $1 trillion, achieving virtually none of its goals. This is in addition to the labor hours lost to mass incarceration, and the lifelong effect that a criminal record has on the earnings of previously incarcerated citizens.

Since 9/11, the cost of Islamophobia has risen exponentially in the U.S. as well. Excessive security in airports, public service responses to the rising number of hate crimes, and the explicit promotion of hate groups themselves ($200 million between 2008 and 2013 alone) contribute to these costs. It is worth noting that a national database of domestic terrorism shows that from 2008-2016,  115 incidents were caused by right-wing extremists, compared to 63 by Islamist extremists. A theoretical total Muslim ban would cost the U.S. $18 billion in tourism alone, and many billions more in missed students paying tuition, and domestic stock changes, among other things.

The emotional case is obvious and the economic case is not incredibly complex. Can we continue to blame apathetic, “unfeeling” Americans for the state of the union today? Will the economic appeal be recognized as more persuasive and therefore become more pervasive in the coming years?

The only thing I know is that I will not be free until every innocent black man in this country is free. I will not be safe here until every child of immigrants feels safe in this land. I will have no faith until every muslim woman is free to practice her religion unscathed, and I will not be able to love fully until every person feels that they can openly do the same.

When we are equal, socially and economically, I will rejoice. Until then, I will be fighting.

 

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