"Representative" government?

The final picks are in–the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and the Senate have each made their 3 picks for the 12 member \”supercommittee\” that will determine which Americans bear the brunt of the \”sacrifices\” to come.

Among those 12 there is one woman, one African-American and one Hispanic.

How does the diversity of the committee compare to that of the American population? Less than 9 percent of the committee is female, African-American or Hispanic while 51% of Americans are female, 16% are Hispanic and 13% are African-Americans.

One can argue (and indeed there are people arguing this right now) that women, African-Americans and Hispanics have less experience in these kind of leadership positions. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy because as long as the only people we name to leadership positions are people who have already been named to leadership positions then only the kind of people who in the past were given an opportunity to serve in such positions will in the future be deemed to have enough experience to be named to such positions.

This argument, however, avoids the key question \”what type of experience are these people supposed to be calling on?\” Surely the people who are tasked with deciding \”where to cut the budget / government programs\” should be people who have some degree of experience with the impact of the budget cuts / government programs.

To give a real world example. One of the college buildings in which I taught was gutted, rewired and repainted. While inspecting the building one day with one of the \”important people with experience, training and credentials\” I pointed to one of the emergency fire alarms on the wall. \”What am I supposed to do with that?\” I asked. \”Pull the handle in case of fire\” he smirked back at me. \”And how am I supposed to do that?\” I asked, walking over and reaching up my arm. The handle was several inches (about 5 centimeters) above my outreaching fingers.

[Yes, for those who wonder, that was against code — the point is that not a single one of the men who had inspected the building had noticed it.]

One of the most basic concepts that underlies the push towards diversity is that those who are not part of a group (women, short people, parents, African-Americans, people who use canes, diabetics…..) tend to be unaware of how things will impact that particular group of people.

Sometimes the results of having one group of people make decisions that will have an effect of a group to which they do not belong can be almost laughable—as happened the year in which the committee who decided when the grades were due at a particular college had no overlap with the committee who decided when exams would be held. This resulted in professors being informed that the grades that semester were due before the final exams had been written.

It is not laughable when the people who decide what government program will be cut are not the people who may not be able to pay the rent or the people who may not be able to feed their children or may not be able to get health care or may lose their pensions.

I am not sure whether of not \”the fix is in\” but I am sure that great injustices will arise from the decisions made by this group of people. Unintended consequences can be just as cruel and lethal as intended ones.


4 thoughts on “"Representative" government?

  1. While I understand the concern, I don't think that anyone in a position to be appointed to the committee would also be one of the people struggling to pay the rent, feed their children, etc. Struggling people aren't elected to Congress – even if the committee were 100% Latinas of African ancestry, as long as they were pulled from government, I don't think they'd be significantly more likely to have the poor in mind.I don't care enough to check, but I wonder how the demographics of the committee compare to the demographics of Congress as a whole. Including exactly 1 of every token minority feels like an after school special, but given how white male-dominated Congress is, I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of those demographics is \”overrepresented\” in the committee with respect to Congress in general. (Not that that excuses anything; it would just be kind of ironic.)

  2. I wonder how the demographics of the committee compare to the demographics of Congress as a whole.The number of women on the committee doesn't even reflect their miserably bad representation in Congress (8.3% versus 17%)And the point about the importance of diversity is that different life experiences given people an insight into things whether or not they are \”fighters.\”For example, unless you are a woman you might not notice that there are no women's washrooms on certain floors of buildings.For example, unless you are in a wheelchair you might simply not notice that not only do old bathroom stall have doors too narrow for a wheelchair they also have sinks that people in wheelchairs can not use.If you are a woman you probably aren't going to say \”why should I have to pay in my health insurance for ovarian cancer why I don't have ovaries?\” (Paraphrase of actual statement made in a committee in congress this year.) If you are an African-American male you probably have experienced people at a formal party thinking that if you are wearing a tux you must be a waiter (happened to President Obama.)This isn't a issue of \”fighting\” for anything it is about having had life experiences which few white men have.

  3. [[For example, unless you are a woman you might not notice that there are no women's washrooms on certain floors of buildings.]]At Penn, in the math, physics, and astronomy building, they had to convert some of the men's restrooms into women's restrooms…because there were no women's restrooms *in the entire building*. It was built in 1954.

  4. @sarah: Oh I can believe it (the building put up in 1954 with no women's washrooms.)Apparently women just don't exist in the mental universe of some people. This often comes up in discussion of taxation as when an Australian health minister justified taxing tampons and sanitary napkins (but not condoms or sunscreens.) He said that tampons and sanitary napkins were as necessary as shaving cream. \”Government officials in hot water over planned new tax on tampons.\” (http://www.socialism.com/drupal-6.8/?q=node/1160)

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