Supreme Court and “commonality”

  1. What did the Supreme Court decide in the Wal-Mart case? And more importantly, how did it justify its decision? (HINT: the key word here is “commonality” (and how it related to “class-action lawsuit”). Try to understand what this legal terms means, as it is key to the court’s decision).

In Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the class-action case brought forward by 1.5 million women against Wal-Mart. Scalia wrote the majority opinion, justifying this decision by claiming that the case lacked commonality in that each individual woman was harmed in different ways, and the solutions wouldn’t address the harm in equal or appropriately portioned ways, and so this case couldn’t be tried as class-action. This is interesting because there was enough evidence to find discriminatory practices in hiring, promotion, and explicit misogyny at work, however, the unification of the group over a variety of experiences made it possible to rule it as not a legitimate case. This ruling also acknowledges discrimination as a possibility, but notes that because it is against policy, it does not legitimately exist.

Just and Unjust Laws

  1. According to MLK, how can we tell the difference between just and unjust laws? Understanding these questions is the most important part of this module, and I will ask it again during our second exam.

According to MLK, just laws are laws that respect the humanity of people and which follow moral and ethical codes. Unjust laws, therefore, are laws that do not consider morality and ethical reasoning, and which disregard the humanity of those the law is ruling over.

  1. In your view, is this an important distinction (between just and unjust laws), do you think it makes a difference in the way someone (as an individual, or our society as a whole) lives their lives? Can it affect our politics?

This is an important distinction. I agree with MLK’s assessment that we have an obligation to disobey unjust laws as a way to challenge them. I also think the distinction is important; there are laws and agreements that are helpful to the functioning of society and which are just, but those that are not should be challenged directly. It will make a difference to those victims of such unjust laws when we collectively disobey them, putting pressure on the government or ruling bodies to change the laws to truly be just or to get rid of them altogether.

  1. Based on our discussion of Question 1, give an example of an unjust and just law, in the US today. Explain what makes it unjust or just (using MLK’s definition of those two types of laws).

Unjust — Jaywalking is illegal

Jaywalking is a minor law, but is still sometimes enforced. I regularly break this law and have never been confronted for doing so, but I can see how the racism inherent to policing makes this largely unenforced law dangerous if police do decide to enforce it based on racism. I, a small, white woman, am not likely to be stopped for what is a routine, mundane part of my day, but jaywalking for a BIPOC might lead to unjust interactions with police. My humanity is not ever part of the equation, but this law could be used to infringe on the humanity of Black and Brown people for committing the same infraction.

Just — murder is illegal

This preserves the humanity of individuals by dissuading people from killing. This makes sense, because it protects the humanity of all who may be victims, not just some. However, as we’ve seen, even just laws can be manipulated or selectively enforced in unjust ways to allow individuals with money and power to avoid justice in a system that supposedly has the interests of the people at heart.

Establishment Clause, First and Fifth Amendments

  1. Describe how you understand the “Establishment Clause” and the related “Lemon Test”.

The Establishment Clause prevents the creation of a state-sponsored or state-favored religion. The “Lemon Test” defines three criteria for determining if a law is constitutional with regards to the first amendment and establishment clause. 

  1. Must not lead to “excessive government entanglement with religion”; so can’t require government and religion to become dependent on one another
  2. Cannot “inhibit or advance religious practice”
  3. Must be secular reason for law

Given all of the above, the Lemon test checks to see if a law is actually constitutional with regards to freedom of and also freedom from religion.

2. Is burning the US flag protected by the First Amendment? Explain by referring to the relevant court case discussed in the reading.
Burning the US flag is protected under the First Amendment; in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that the burning of the flag is a form of protected speech. It is not violent speech, and can be considered a form of protest, which is protected under both the intent and letter of the First Amendment.

3. What does it mean when someone says “I’m taking the Fifth”?
When someone says “I’m pleading the Fifth,” they are referring to their right against self-incrimination, which is protected by the Fifth Amendment. This means that they have the right to remain silent when questioned and the right to not testify when accused of a crime, and this lack of testimony cannot be taken as admission of guilt.

Role and Structure of Government

  1. Describe the primary differences in the role of citizens in government, among the federal, confederation, and unitary systems.

In the federal system, there are multiple levels of government (national, subnational), and citizens elect officials at each level. When districts are smaller, citizens in those districts have a greater say than citizens in larger districts. In confederations, citizens are involved at a local level, and the looser overarching level doesn’t have as much power and citizens don’t have as much direct involvement. In unitary systems, the central government is the strongest governing body, so citizens do not have much agency except if involved in central government.

  1. Briefly explain how you understand the system of division of power.

The government is broken into two levels; national and subnational. In the US, this looks like federal, state, and smaller local governing bodies. This requires a clear definition of each level of government’s jurisdiction, as well as the cooperation between levels. This is accomplished with a strong national constitution which cannot be easily overturned. To further divide power, each level of government is divided into executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Although, the federal government’s legislative branch often has the final say. Lastly, subnational regions are represented at the federal level, so local interests do influence federal policy.

  1. How does the federal government shape the actions of state and local governments? Write your answer based on doing a bit of research on how the federal government has influenced the actions of NY state and local governments, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal government can advise but not require specific action from state and local governments unless the specific issue falls under their jurisdiction. For example, the CDC is a federal agency. CDC mask mandates were advice for all states, but many states did not follow the CDC’s advice, and created different local rules because it was within their jurisdiction to do so. At the same time, New York has been hesitant to pull back its mask mandates, despite the fact that the CDC guidelines were loosened, which is within their jurisdiction as a state within a federal system.

War on Terror and the Patriot Act

  1. P. Williams writes in her essay, that the war on terror is a new type of a war. What’s new about it, how is it different from traditional wars?

The war on terror is a different type of war because it is a war grounded only in our fears rather than reality. Thus it is possible to find fault or an enemy in anyone who we see as playing into our fears; they are the enemy not because they wish us malice, but because our fears overpower our reason. We also begin to dehumanize each other even more when we indulge our fears, which makes this kind of warfare more personal and even more dangerous.

  1. In what ways does the “Roving Wiretaps” of the Patriot Act seem to violate the Bill of Rights? Which amendment(s) does it seem to violate and why?

The roving wiretaps seem in contradiction to the first amendment, which protects freedom of speech, even when it is speech critical of the government. The roving wiretaps allow for anonymous surveillance, and encourage retribution against those who are found to be “a threat” to the government, even though speech critical of the government is protected.

  1. What about “Sneak and Peek” Warrants?

“Sneak and Peek” warrants violate the fourth amendment, which says that people are free from unlawful search without reasonable suspicion. These warrants allow the government to provide reasonable suspicion after the fact, which is unjust and a direct violation to the bill of rights. The idea behind these warrants is that they prevent people from compromising legitimate searches, but in reality, people are pursued without reasonable suspicion, and have been arrested because of minor crimes of which there was no previous suspicion.

DB 4.1 Morgan Taylor

  1. Do you notice any similarities in the way social class is discussed in readings 4.1 and 4.2? Do you notice any differences in the way these two readings DIFFERENTIATE between social classes?

Similarly, both readings discuss income, but 4.1 discusses the fact that social class is a subjective categorization, and that while how people identify correlates with their income, it also strongly correlates with their level of education. 4.1 also explains that even within the highest earning group, people still identify more closely with a upper- or middle class name rather than just upper class.

  1. Pick the station closest to where you live. Using the concepts from Reading 4.1, what social class tends to live in your neighborhood? Are you surprised (or not) by the answer? Do you feel it is an accurate representation of the people living in your neighborhood?

I picked the 1, and at my stop the median household earning in 2011 was $43,805. This means that most likely people would identify as working or middle class. I don’t think this is a fair representation of the people living in my neighborhood, because I think the cost of living in NYC is much higher than the averages 4.1 considers.

  1. Based on Reading 4.2, do you notice a general pattern about social classes in NYC?

Based on 4.2, it is easy to see that wealth distribution along subway lines correlates with neighborhoods. “Upper class” New Yorkers tend to live in Downtown Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, while the farther out from lower and mid-Manhattan you go, people tend to have lower median household incomes.

Labor, Capital, and Social Class

  1. What is the distinction that Reading 4.3 makes between owners and employees? Give an example of each. 

4.3 makes the distinction that employees provide labor, while owners make profit off of the labor but without adding much value themselves. For example, the owner of a restaurant franchise doesn’t make money off of their own labor; they charge franchising fees and may take a percentage of profits. An employee, however, is vital to creating the value of the company. Their labor creates the service and product that is being sold, and they are compensated below the value they have added by providing labor, with a large amount of this value going to the owner.

  1. How do you understand the quote by Adam Smith on pg. 28? What is it saying about labor?

I understand Smith to be saying that nothing has inherent value until labor adds value to it. Therefore we should appropriately value labor higher than we do, because without it, a commodity or service doesn’t exist or have value.

  1. What are your thoughts on the main argument of Reading 4.4 that class is NOT an identity?

Identity is something you choose to align yourself with; and are independent of action. Their existence may be in relation to something else, but they are not because of or in spite of what we do. Class is a way of dividing us based on the relationship between worker and capitalist, and it is only defined in relation to each other and by our actions.

  1. How do you understand the argument Reading 4.4. makes when stating that “class structures are built around a close form of dependency”? What is this close form of dependency, and can you think of an example?

“Class structures, then, rest on a particularly close form of dependency” (Heideman, 6) because the existence of one necessitates the existence of the other, and vice versa. That owner of a restaurant franchise makes no money without the exploitation of labor from their employees, and their employees rely on the owner to give them work, exploit their labor, and pay them for less than their value add. This exists because the worker risks lack of survival by not complying with the capitalist society and its exploitation of worker labor.

Production, Value, and Labor

  1. Two key concepts in this video are the means of production and labor. In your comment, explain how you understand the means of production and labor. Give an example of each.

Means of production are the physical things needed to create a product, while labor is the effort and literal man-power needed to use the means of production to create a product. For example, for a writer the means of production may be the paper and pens or technology they use to actually write a book, and the labor is the effort, energy, thought process, and mental focus that they use to create the book with those tools.

  1. Another important concept in understanding social class is value. Based on the ideas presented in Video 5.1, what is value?  What give “value” to value, what makes something valuable? 

Value is how much labor goes into the creation of a good (or service). The value is in outsourcing labor to someone else to create a product that we otherwise could not produce ourselves or do not want to produce ourselves.

  1. How are labor and value related? What’s the relationship/connection between the two?

Value is derived directly from labor. Labor is a force to create value in a service or product, without which there would be no value inherent in the service/product because it wouldn’t exist.

  1. How do you understand the difference between labor and labor power? Hint: this is a key difference, give it your best shot based on what the video says about it, and your own ideas. We’ll clarify and develop it in our discussions, and in my video comments.

Labor is the actual effort put into creating value, while labor power is the total effort and time needed to create the labor itself. I go to work, and work for 6 hours, and that is my labor. The labor power is the time and energy I spend on getting ready for work, commuting to work, buying clothes for work, buying or preparing food for my time at work, etc.

  1. Surplus Value: what is it? Why is it important to know about, in our study of social classes? Think about an example of surplus value?

Surplus value is the value that workers create through their labor that doesn’t directly get paid to them, but to the owners and capitalists. It is important to be aware of surplus value, because often there is a large discrepancy between value produced and worker compensation resulting in a large surplus of value not being given to the worker. This relates to social class because people who are producing surplus value have little social mobility and ability to accumulate the value they produce, while those exploiting them continue to maximize their personal profits without appropriately redirecting surplus value back to the workers, thus widening the gaps between social classes.

Maintaining and Increasing Wealth

  1. Explain M-C-M’ to show how capitalists maintain and increase their wealth. (hint: your answer should weave a summary that includes what you reviewed in the self-assessment exercise question 1-7)

M-C-M’ is the “general formula of capital” (Jalee, 24). Before capitalism existed, people would trade goods and services (C) for each other or for money which was a direct representation of the value of the product(M). They would then use that money to buy products of the same value as M (C). When someone starts with money (M), they can then purchase a commodity (C), and transform it into something worth more than the original value of that commodity (M’). At the end of these transactions, the seller ends up with a surplus of value (m). This surplus of value is labor power that has gone into the creation of the new commodity.

In order to transform money into “productive capital”(26), capitalists must accumulate tools, materials, and labor to produce a commodity. They then must create a surplus of value so they can continue to acquire these three factors, which they do by undervaluing the labor required to produce the commodity, since labor doesn’t have the same quantifiable price as the commodities required as tools or materials. The labor that has been undervalued creates surplus value, which doesn’t return to the worker who created the value, but to the capitalist to continue their cyclical investing and profiting.

So since the only variable in the cost of production is the value going back to the worker, capitalists must find a point at which they can maintain exploitation of the worker while still accumulating surplus value from them. In this way, capitalists maintain and increase their wealth.

Wealth Inequality

  1. Which statistic on wealth inequality in the US (discussed on p. 29) made the biggest impression on you? Explain why?

“The top 1 percent own between 40 and 50 perent of the nation’s total wealth… more than the bottom 90 percent combined” (Parenti 29)

This stands out to me because it is truly incomprehensible. It makes sense given my understanding of how capitalism requires the continued expansion of exploitation in order for the wealthy to profit, but it is a statistic that I cannot fully comprehend because of its inherent greed and lack of empathy.

  1. What could be some of the implications of living in a society that has such huge wealth inequalities? Do you see this dynamic getting played out in everyday life in our society? How so? Example?

We see the implication of wealth inequality daily. Capitalists have created a system where to maintain profitable, and therefore to maintain their exploitation of workers, they do not have to consider the burdens of exploitation. Workers are themselves largely responsible for healthcare, medical expenses, food, housing, education, and other necessities for themselves and their families, let alone anything to maintain mental well-being beyond a mandatory 2 weeks vacation within corporate jobs. My employer should have a vested interest in compensating me enough to cover my needs, so I am able to continue adding value to their products, but instead the burden is on me as an individual, exploited worker to cover the costs of living without being appropriately compensated for my value add or otherwise taken care of. This injustice plays out most starkly to me within the healthcare system; people should not have to crowdfund or else go without medical care, but it is a common occurrence in the US. Workers die because they are unable to afford basic needs, but because we are both profitable and replaceable, capitalists do not care and will not voluntarily change their actions until forced.