notes: the moral underground by lisa dodson
the moral underground: how ordinary americans subvert an unfair economy, by lisa dodson, the new press, 2009
“the people are the root of any real change. no president or house of lawmakers can truly transform this society without the people at the center holding a vital stake and having a strong voice. and in the quiet corners of the country, a lot of these people have long been talking about society gone wrong. over the yers i heard constant talk about hard work, common cares, and fairness as the stuff that holds us together. people also talked about political and corporate leaders who routinely betray all this for personal gain. today, we hear ‘news’ of how the people at the top piled wealth on the rich and ignored damage to the rest. but everywhere in america versions of this story were being told and retold for years.
Most people said that fairness is at the heart of a decent society and that deepening inequality undermines everyting that really matters. and some went further. they said that when fairness is betrayed, when ordinary people just don’t matter to thsoe who get to make the rules, it may be time to break them. it may be time to come up with some new rulees that are based on the public good.” p. viii
“…many others looked beyond the fact that it was legal for the market to set wages below what families need to survive. does that make it right? yes, of course it is lawful and ‘good for business,’ thus enthusiastically endorsed by a government increasingly run by corporate interests and their lobbyist. but when you look into the faces of people who are doing their work and trying to take care of their families, is it decent? and if not, who do you have to become to obediently go along with impoverishing workers and their families? i heard from distinctly different people across the country that when you ignore injustice embedded in your society, you become part of it, complicit with what you consider immoral. and for some this changed how they saw their role in the world and the work that they did.” p6
“when your job brings you face-to-face with others who are being damaged by an unjust system, ‘daily meaning’ may come from taking their side.” p7
“it is a tale that has always emerged in america when business has free rein, can freely undermine the public good, and can freely buy and sell political will. today’s is a contemporary version, but it is one that recalls a history when market rule could justify almost anything – buying and selling human beings, sending children into coal mines, denying people the right to organize, gutting whole communities to take jobs to a cheaper elsewhere, or leaving people who have labored their long lives without a pension or a home.” p10
“the accounts also illuminate how there was no one reaction among middle-income people who dealt with the human harm of an unbalanced economy. by and large most were disturbed by what poverty earnings do to families and many tried to act on their sympathy.. however, some simply blamed poor people for all the problems they have, often drawing on racial, ethnic, or single-mother sterotypes to justify their blame. and then the marketeers said the point was moot according to their version of american values – human harm is the collateral damage of market freedom and furthermore, moral reflection has no place in u.s. business.
but in each of the three arenas, another vital perspective emerged in the views of those who said it is worng to punish working people for making less than they need to live. these middle-income people recognized america’s economic fault line, the one running beteen people who work and make a living and people who work but do not. business power – condoned by government – sets a wage floor so low that parents and children simply cannot perform according to the customs of the country no matter how hard they might try. who should be held accountable for that?” p169
“when cora in boston – who put kids before scrod – called the women who worked for her ‘family,’ so, by extension, were their children. she was establishing a changed backdrop, pushing the norms of american business where human harm is irrelevant. she sketched out a landscape of relationship. in this terrain you get to act according to different principles because we all understand that kin ties are precious, and they come with obligations. by moving her employees into kinship space, cora staked out the right to treat them in humane ways, and that included acting as though their children mattered.” p176
“during the period when this research was done (2001-2008), the top one-tenth of 1 percent was earning seventy times as much as the average in the bottom 90 percent. the new york times reported that ‘those very top households, which include about 300,000 americans, reported significantly more pretax income combined than the poorest 120 million americans earned in 2004.'” p189
“‘the richest one tenth of 1 percent inflation-adjusted income soared by 550 percent’ between 1970 and 2000.
at the same time, or course, most other people were losing ground, particularly those toward the bottom. between the years 2000 and 2006, according to kuttner, ‘the total increase in wages paid to all 124 million non-supervisory workers’ amounted to ‘a raise of $1.60 per worker – not $1.60 per hour but a grand total of one dollar and sixty cents in higher wages per worker over nearly six years!’ by 2007 almost one-third of our families became or remained wage impoverished. and then came 2008, with cascading real estate, financial market, and bank losses. right now, it is hard to recall the voice of the marketeers who demanded less government intervention and less public spending. now all we hear is their successful appeals for market welfare – of an amount that surpasses anything ever invested into ordinary americans.” p190
“over the years i met ordinary americans who believed the actions they take in relation to other people must withstand a tough moral gaze. for some it wasn’t enough to claim obedience to rules, job regulations, professional standards, or a culture of winner-takes-all. some people believe that there’s no such thing as moral exoneration when your actions – whether or not they are legally obedient actions – hurt people made vulnerable by the way the society is running. when thing get so out of whack that harm to millions is an ordinary, accepted way of american life, sometimes the only right thing to do is to refuse to go along. as a jailed martin luther king said to the nation, ‘one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.'” p192
“in a decent society, we would protect other people’s children – not just our own. they have all stopped conducting business as usual, when usual business means ignoring damage to those around you.” p193
“interpretive focus groups / whenever possible, i also asked people to participate in analyzing the data in community conversations or interpretive focus groups. mny years ago i developed this method for analyzing data about daily life, specifically in low-income america. undertaken during the last stage of research, when all the other data have been gathered, the intent of interpretive focus groups is to include people who have similar lived experiences as those being studied in the interpretive stage of inquiry. while this is conventionally the moment when researchers remove themselves from the field and apply their expert knowledge to analyze meaning, i have found this a critical juncture at which to include the people who know about the daily life of those under study.
briefly, the process includes gathering together groups of people who are in the same circumstances (socioeconomic, kinds of employment, family issues, etc.) as the people who were interviewed, surveyed, or observed. together, we look over the data already gathered and discuss, debate, and critically analyze themes, confusions, and sometimes coded messages that i may not understand. over the course of the studies, after gathering waves of information, i conducted interpretive focus groups with gathering of employers, teachers, health care providers, and lower-income parents to include their immediate lived experience in talking about what it all means.” p205