We Were Eight Years in Power (part 3)

March 24, 2018

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In his final chapter, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on Donald Trump’s election, a tragic turn of events from his point of view.

Race trumped class

Many commentators on the Trump election prefer to explain it more by class than by race. Focusing on Trump’s slim but crucial victories in industrial states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, they tell a story of working-class voters threatened by trends like globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the declining share of national income going to labor. Although there is some truth to this interpretation, Coates has some good reasons to be skeptical.

As I pointed out in my post “Why Trump Won” shortly after the election, Trump won Michigan by less than one percentage point, but he won Alabama by 28 points. This is no surprise to Coates, who finds that race and racial attitudes were better predictors of voting than economic class. Although enough Obama voters switched their allegiance to Trump to swing the election, the bulk of the Trump voters were the same whites who never supported Obama in the first place.

There are plenty of working-class people in all racial groups, and “deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality…have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people.” Yet it was primarily whites who went for Trump, by a 20-point margin according to the exit polls. Clinton won blacks by an 81-point margin, and she won both Latinos and Asians by 38 points.

One study found that “the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?'” This is not really surprising considering that Trump achieved political notoriety as a “birther” suggesting that Obama’s African birth disqualified him to be president. “Trump truly is something new,” Coates says,”–the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Trump’s election was impossible without eight years of white fear and resistance directed against Obama despite his moderation and careful racial neutrality.

Considering all the talk about the Trump campaign as a populist working-class movement, readers may be surprised to learn that on the average, Trump voters had incomes a little higher, on the average, than Clinton voters. And why shouldn’t they? Trump voters were predominantly white men, who are still the highest earning group in the country.

In order to predict how someone voted, the first thing I would want to know is their racial identification. The second thing I would want to know is how threatened they feel by the ascendancy of minorities and women. (I would also want to know if they are evangelical Christians threatened by the secularization of public policies on issues such as abortion and gay rights.) Only then would I turn to economic status for an explanation.

The politics of racial identity

Our ability to see race as an issue is affected by white racial dominance itself. If white is the norm and black the exception, then blackness is what is noticed. Problems concentrated in black areas, like a crack epidemic, are black problems, while problems concentrated in white areas, like opiate addiction, are just problems. The second type gets a lot more sympathy than the first.

Although many commentators have criticized “identity politics” for polarizing the country, they apply the term more readily to black identity than white identity. If a black female voter votes for Clinton, they can easily see her as voting her race or gender identity, and they can readily blame Democrats for playing “identity politics.” If a white male votes for Trump, they say he is voting his working-class interests. So Trump is the working-class champion, while Clinton must be the elitist out of touch with “real people.” Never mind that Clinton did better among voters who saw the economy as the most important issue, as well as voters who were most interested in having a president who “cares about me.” And never mind that she won the popular vote, which Democratic candidates have now done in six out of the last seven elections. If Trump voters were real people, what were Clinton voters, aliens? Trump’s suggestion that he lost the popular vote because of fraudulent votes from illegal aliens goes exactly in that direction.

Identity politics is alive and well in both parties. Accusing the other party of narrowly appealing to blacks and women is an effective way of making one’s own narrow appeal to white men. And vice versa.

But class mattered too

Coates emphasizes that Trump was elected by a broad coalition of white voters–men and women, young and old, with and without college degrees. But his own numbers show that Trump won white college graduates by only 3 points, while winning white non-graduates by 37 points. No doubt economic issues played a role in that result, since people without college degrees are faring especially poorly in the new economy.

However, we cannot be sure that even people who are in the working class actually voted on the basis of their class interests. They could still be voting more as whites clinging to white privilege, as men with disparaging attitudes towards women, or as evangelical Christians hostile to gay rights. All of these tendencies are more common in the less educated white population, and especially in the less educated white Southern population. They may even be voting against their true class interests, if voting conservative on race, gender or religious grounds plays into the hands of economic elites pursuing their own agenda.

When less educated workers do vote their economic interests and insecurities, they may be drawn to an ugly, zero-sum, “beggar thy neighbor” kind of economics. The aim is to protect one group’s jobs at the expense of some other group, such as immigrants or foreigners or even U.S. citizens in other industries. Tariffs on steel may help U.S. steelworkers but hurt not only foreign steelworkers but workers in other domestic industries affected by higher steel prices.

Trump’s populist appeal continues a long tradition of appeals that do not so much help workers as a class as keep them fighting among themselves for meager benefits, while the interests of the wealthy are fully served. That’s a pretty good description of Trump’s fiscal policy, which cuts taxes primarily for the few while hurting programs beneficial for the many.

How to respond?

The fact that race and class are so entangled in our politics makes Coates’s emphasis on race both illuminating and limiting. How much to focus on race in our political discussions remains a delicate issue.

When Obama was interviewed by Coates, he said, “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” He understood that calling his white opponents racists would only harden opposition to his policy agenda. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton couldn’t resist calling Trump supporters racists, sexists and xenophobes–deplorables, in short–and that didn’t help her cause either.

I would like to see politicians promote their policies with positive appeals to egalitarian values and the general economic good. For progressives, that includes sharpening their economic message to persuade people that progressive taxation to support investments in education, infrastructure and universal health insurance is better than more trickle-down economics. To those who say the country cannot afford these things, progressives should challenge them to explain how we can afford still more tax cuts, extravagant military expenditures and deficits.

As an educator, I realized that I had to gently lead my students to raise their consciousness about race and gender, so they could gradually acknowledge and transcend their own prejudices. I would like to think that a good political leader would also be partly such an educator. We must call out political operatives who manipulate prejudices for their own advantage, but we must also have some faith in the majority of Americans to achieve greater racial understanding. Coates admits that his own experience–and his experience of the Obama years in particular–has caused him to lose that faith. I understand his pessimism, but I cannot endorse it.



The Righteous Mind (part 2)

January 24, 2018

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Here I will discuss Jonathan Haidt’s perspective on liberalism and conservativism, informed by his evolutionary psychology of morality. He views these opposing views as “deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.” Both are influenced–albeit in somewhat different ways–by the foundations of morality that developed in the course of human evolution. While he sees liberals as placing primary emphasis on “caring for victims of oppression,” conservatives prefer to “preserve the institutions that sustain a moral community.” Haidt calls for a more civil, more empathetic politics, where each side opens their hearts, not just their minds, to the other.

If Haidt’s entire discussion were as even-handed as that, I would find little to criticize. But when Haidt compares conservative and liberal perspectives on each of his six moral foundations, the implicit conservatism I described in the last post comes out. So I want to do something unusual–first discuss how I wish he had approached this topic, and then describe what he actually says.

Two sides of the six moral foundations

Recall that Haidt’s six moral foundations are:

  • care/harm
  • fairness/cheating
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation
  • liberty/oppression

The paired terms suggest to me a simple way of distinguishing conservatives and liberals. Let’s start with Haidt’s quotation from John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” When these two parties react to the established social order, the party of stability will naturally appreciate its positive adaptive accomplishments (the first terms in the pair), while the party of reform will naturally criticize its failures.

  • On care/harm, conservatives may appreciate the care provided by the conventional family, while liberals may criticize the harm resulting from public neglect of the poor, homeless, mentally ill, medically uninsured, addicted, etc.
  • On fairness/cheating, conservatives may appreciate the rewards delivered by the market to those who are productive, while liberals may criticize the ways the rich and powerful rig the game to deprive others of a fair chance.
  • On loyalty/betrayal, conservatives may appreciate the social cohesion fostered by parochial loyalties, while liberals may criticize the betrayal of higher loyalties like democratic values or universal human rights.
  • On authority/subversion, conservatives may respect the contribution of legitimate authorities to the common good, while liberals criticize self-serving authority figures who abuse their positions.
  • On sanctity/degradation, conservatives may appreciate the social order for protecting what they hold sacred; to use Haidt’s own example, they may appreciate the role of Christian sexual morality in protecting the chastity of young women. Liberals are more likely to notice how the traditional sexual double standard allows men to degrade women, or how industrial capitalism degrades the environment.
  • On liberty/oppression, conservatives may appreciate existing liberties, while liberals react to the plight of oppressed peoples who are not yet free.

Note that if the focus is not on the established order but some proposed alternative system or policy, the tables can be turned, so that liberals accentuate the positive and conservatives the negative. For example, liberals are more likely to see the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation as an increase in fairness (allowing children of all families to compete on a more level playing field), while conservatives see it as cheating (violating the rules of the game by letting the losers steal from the winners).

From this balanced perspective, we can easily understand how each group is seeking the good in its own way, with some good moral intuitions on each side.

A conservative advantage?

What Haidt actually does is a little different. He argues that conservatives have a distinct advantage in moral/political debates. This is not because they are better people, necessarily, but rather because they are more in touch with fundamental moral realities, the basic moral intuitions that drive moral judgments. The difference between being morally better and being morally more realistic is subtle, and I suspect that in Haidt’s scientific scheme of things they amount to very much the same thing. Much of the time, what he is describing seems also what he is prescribing.

Haidt says that conservatives are better moral psychologists, which may be just another way of saying that moral psychology as Haidt sees it has inherently conservative sympathies. “Republicans have long understood that the [intuitive] elephant is in charge of political behavior, not the [conscious, rational] rider, and they know how elephants work. Their slogans, political commercials, and speeches go straight for the gut….” While liberals blinded by the “rationalist delusion” are trying and failing to persuade people through rational arguments, conservatives are doing something more effective–making emotional appeals to people’s deepest moral intuitions. They are appealing to the elephant that is in control most of the time, not the conscious rider who only occasionally gets the elephant to change direction.

I have to acknowledge the large element of truth in this description. Of course it is easier to press people’s traditional moral buttons than it is to get them to think critically about their society. Of course emotional appeals to family, God and country are effective ways of shaping opinion. As well as race, by the way. Haidt’s example of a Republican message going “straight to the gut” is the Willie Horton ad associating a black criminal with a Democratic presidential candidate. I wonder why that wasn’t a bigger red flag for him. He acknowledges that conservatives are more parochial, but seems rather complacent about the obvious link between parochialism and racism. He even says at one point that parochial love “may be the most we can accomplish.”

Yes, critical thinking is harder, which is why so much of higher education is devoted to it. Study after study has found that more educated people are less parochial and racially prejudiced. Critical thinking about society is especially prized in sociology.

Conservatives may have the upper hand much of the time, but not all of the time. In times of social crisis, when established institutions are not working very well, consciousness tends to be raised and movements for liberal reform come to the forefront. Liberal views that are underdeveloped and poorly articulated in calmer times may suddenly burst on the scene. I find Haidt’s work stronger on past evolution than on contemporary social change, so he may have trouble seeing beyond the recent period of conservative success.

Counting and measuring moral foundations

According to Haidt, conservatives have another advantage in building on the evolutionary foundations of morality. “Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six.” Because liberal philosophy sees society as a collection of autonomous individuals, liberals have a narrower morality that is short on loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of “family values,” Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Notice, however, the traditional ways in which Haidt has described loyalty, authority and sanctity. For example, the conservative advantage would be less clear if he had made reference to alternative authorities, such as scientists, federal regulatory agencies, or international law. The historical sociologist Max Weber distinguished between “traditional authority” and “rational-legal” authority; the latter would surely command more respect from liberals.

The conservative way in which Haidt conceptualizes these moral foundations also affects how he measures them with his “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.” If you are a social conservative, many items give you a chance to express your views of loyalty, authority and sanctity:

Questions about what considerations are relevant to judgments of right and wrong:

  • whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society
  • whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve
  • whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency
  • whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country

Statements calling for agreement or disagreement:

  • I am proud of my country’s history
  • People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong
  • I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural
  • Men and women each have different roles to play in society
  • Chastity is an important and valuable virtue
  • If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty

If, on the other hand, you are a liberal with a strong sense of moral obligation to protect the environment, you’re out of luck. The questionnaire has no place to express a reverence for nature, or a belief in climate science, or respect for the rule of law, or support for international climate agreements. Because of how he thinks about these things, Haidt has inadvertently constructed measures of loyalty, authority and sanctity on which conservatives can hardly fail to score higher.

Conservative morality on the defensive

Still another problem is that recent history has called into question Haidt’s simple distinction between individualistic liberals and sociocentric conservatives, and his clear preference for the latter.  The distinction may work pretty well for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when liberals were indeed promoting rational individualism in rebellion against such traditional institutions as absolute monarchy, mercantilism, hereditary aristocracy and church-state theocracy. But as Haidt acknowledges toward the end of his book, twentieth-century liberals split into two camps, often called libertarians and progressives. The libertarians are the main proponents of the old individualistic liberalism, especially the pursuit of self-interest in the free market (think of the Koch brothers and the writings of Ayn Rand). The progressives actually share many of Haidt’s own moral concerns about laissez-faire industrial capitalism, and they are often the ones advocating for more social responsibility.

To upset Haidt’s intellectual apple cart further, most libertarians have joined a conservative Republican coalition, in cooperation with most white social conservatives. The libertarians seem especially influential in that coalition, since they have more money and often get their way on low taxes and less regulation for corporations and the wealthy. But social conservatives keep voting Republican in the hope of legislating their “family values,” especially a return to strict abortion laws.  Haidt’s somewhat rosy view of conservative morality overlooks the fact that religious conservatives have cast their lot with the rugged individualists, who press their moral buttons to get their vote, but then do things that should make a Christian blush, like trying to throw millions of children off of health insurance.

Today the conservative coalition provides the core support for that great exemplar of morality, Donald Trump. Where does he stand on Haidt’s six moral foundations? Is he more noted for care or harm? Fairness or cheating? Loyalty or betrayal? Authority or subversion? Sanctity or degradation? Liberty or oppression? Hmm, I guess I would associate him with liberty, although he values it primarily for himself and his rich friends and family. In general, his amoral egotism is an embarrassment to conservatives who would like to claim the moral high ground.

Haidt says that “conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital,” which he defines as a community’s stock of “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” But just as financial capital can be squandered on bad investments, moral capital can be squandered by standing up for the wrong things. Many social commentators are expressing consternation that the religious right is turning a blind eye to Trump’s misbehavior, especially in light of the new allegations about paying hush money to a porn star to cover up an extramarital affair. Family values indeed. Yesterday, Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that he no longer wants to hear from evangelical Christians at all, since they have now lost their moral authority.

Meanwhile, progressives are building their moral capital by redefining social responsibility and standing up against  harm, cheating, betrayal, subversion (of democratic institutions and values), degradation and oppression. There is an historical process going on here that Haidt’s sweeping generalizations are poorly equipped to handle. One would never know from reading The Righteous Mind that America ever had a religious left, but it has played a strong role in social reform in the past, and may be about to do so again.

In evaluating the book as a whole, I am deeply ambivalent. Haidt has made a reasonable case for the evolution of human morality, and that part of the book may stand the test of time. His political analysis is flawed by overly broad generalizations about conservatism and liberalism and his tendency to favor one over the other without regard to the historical situation. Now that the moral ground is shifting beneath our feet, his argument doesn’t seem as compelling as it may have been just a few short years ago.


The Righteous Mind

January 22, 2018

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Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012

Here it is 2018, and I’m just getting around to reviewing this thought-provoking book from 2012. Waiting this long does have one advantage, however. Recent political events provide additional context for evaluating Haidt’s view of moral conflicts between liberals and conservatives. In the age of Trump, some of his ideas are already starting to seem a little dated.

This is in a way two books, one on the evolutionary origins of human morality and the other on contemporary political conflict. As an evolutionary psychologist, Haidt makes a pretty good contribution to the first topic, but I found him much less convincing on the second. I will deal with these two sides of his argument in separate posts.

Intuitions come before reasons

Haidt is fond of animal metaphors, like “the rider on the elephant” and “the intuitive dog and its rational tail.” His central metaphor for Part I of the book is that “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” The rider is our conscious reasoning, which serves much deeper and more extensive mental processes most of the time. Moral judgment is mostly a matter of reacting quickly and intuitively to situations. Reasoning is secondary, and consists mainly of giving reasons to justify our intuitions in the eyes of others.

According to Haidt, most Western philosophers have had it wrong, accepting Plato’s “rationalist delusion” that reason ought to be the master of the passions. Hume was an exception, saying that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Haidt sides with Hume, although he qualifies his position a little later.

Haidt also criticizes developmental psychologists such as Kohlberg for exaggerating how much children can figure out morality for themselves through increasingly advanced reasoning. He sees such views as an expression of a Western liberal tradition of rational individualism. Most of the world’s people, including the less educated within Western countries, are more sociocentric. They react to moral dilemmas by simply and unreflectively applying the intuitions that thousands of years of biological evolution and cultural experience have built into them. Haidt likes the acronym WEIRD for the Western, educated, industrial, rich, democracies, indicating how far out of step they are with the world’s moral majority.

Is an unreflective conformity to moral tradition a good thing? I don’t know that Haidt is entirely clear about that, even in his own mind. Sometimes he claims to be just describing, not prescribing, but social scientists have a way of sliding from is to ought. Haidt seems a little too comfortable with a world in which most people stick to their past adaptations and traditions. He does acknowledge the parochialism of the righteous mind, and he would like different social tribes to respect one another and perhaps learn from one another. But he displays no confidence in an expansion of individual consciousness or critical thinking. He claims that the philosophy he studied in college was no help in figuring out the meaning of life. (For a lover of both science and philosophy like myself, that was a red flag.)

Evolutionary origins of moral intuitions

In accounting for people’s powerful moral intuitions, Haidt tries to balance nature and nurture, the innate and the learned. “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises….’Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience’.” Social experience further organizes what evolution has already organized.

The innate part consists of six universal foundations of morality. These are “adaptations to long-standing threats and opportunities in social life. They would draw people’s attention to certain kinds of events (such as cruelty or disrespect), and trigger instant intuitive reactions, perhaps even specific emotions (such as sympathy or anger).” The situations that trigger these reactions today can be very different from what may have triggered them earlier in our evolutionary history, allowing for considerable variation in cultural experience and cultural norms.  Unlike some earlier evolutionists who fell into the trap of biological determinism, Haidt is sensitive to the need to reconcile evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology.

Perhaps the most obvious of the moral foundations is what Haidt calls “care/harm.” The human species is noted for its large-brained but extremely dependent offspring, who require prolonged protection and care. Humans who didn’t have a strong impulse for care would be out-reproduced by those who did. Once a foundation was laid for caring behavior in human evolution, the caring impulse could be extended and applied in many different ways, depending on the cultural situation.

Haidt relates each of the moral foundations to the adaptive challenge it evolved to meet in the course of building reproductively-successful human groups. The challenges and corresponding foundations are:

  • protecting and caring for children (care/harm)
  • reaping the benefits of two-way partnerships (fairness/cheating)
  • forming cohesive coalitions (loyalty/betrayal)
  • forging beneficial relationships within hierarchies (authority/subversion)
  • avoiding contaminants (sanctity/degradation)
  • avoiding domination (liberty/oppression)

Rationality and politics

In Haidt’s “social intuitionist” model of morality, intuitions come first and reasoning second. When moral reasoning does occur, its function is not primarily to figure out what is right, but rather to “help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes.” In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon argue over which is more important for happiness, being just (Socrates) or appearing to be just in the eyes of others (Glaucon). Haidt agrees with Glaucon that “people care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality.” And he says, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” That description leads to this prescription: “Make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” Thus Haidt pins his hopes for moral improvement on tighter social control, not on moral education.

Haidt does try to avoid taking his disparagement of moral reasoning too far, as he admits that Hume did. He allows that “elephants are sometimes open to reason.” People can sometimes question their intuitive moral reactions, especially when people interact with others whose reactions are different from theirs. In fact, better reasoning is very likely under certain conditions:

But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

Perhaps if Haidt had taken that ball and run with it a little further, he would have had a little more respect for Western liberal rationalism.

A more rational society?

Once one has acknowledged that “good reasoning” can be an emergent property of a social system, contributing to better public policy, then why not also acknowledge that a society can move in that direction in an historical process? Isn’t that exactly what one would expect of a modern, pluralistic democracy? Isn’t Haidt’s own scientific psychology and his critical thinking about prevailing psychological theories a product of such a society? Western societies are in need of reform, to be sure, but rejecting their rationality as WEIRD seems to me to be overkill.

Haidt’s position seems implicitly conservative because he is more interested in how morality evolved in the past than how it continues to evolve culturally in the present. What else besides critical thinking can evaluate traditional morality in the light of new experience?  For example, trying to restrict sexual activity to heterosexual, reproducing couples made a lot more sense when death rates were high, and high birth rates were needed for group survival. Today, societies with low birth rates but prosperous economies flourish, and they do so less by out-reproducing their competitors as by sharing their culture with them. Innovations like contraception and same-sex marriage are not a threat to such societies.

In his discussion of the “sanctity/degradation” moral foundation, Haidt expresses his appreciation for conservative sexual morality, especially the idea of chastity, while he portrays liberals as individualistic hedonists. He fails to appreciate the emerging morality expressed in such ideas as safe sex, mutual respect and mutual consent. Isn’t today’s #MeToo movement a moral crusade to hold men accountable for their behavior toward women?

In dismissing Kohlberg’s developmental psychology as too rational, he overlooks the significance of Kohlberg’s “post-conventional” moral stage. Haidt’s conception of morality is so focused on conformity to society that he fails to grasp how a rapidly changing society requires some post-conventional thinking in order to adapt to changing times.

All of this is relevant to Part II of the book, which praises conservatives for being the superior moral politicians. They win a lot of the political arguments by appealing to more of the evolutionary foundations of morality than liberals do. Or so it would seem. That will be the topic of my next post.




Glass House (part 3)

April 6, 2017

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The “1% economy”

Brian Alexander’s book Glass House is subtitled “The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.” Alexander is a journalist, not a macroeconomist, and he doesn’t attempt much analysis of the economy as a whole. Nevertheless, he seems sure that the brand of capitalism we have been practicing lately is largely responsible for Lancaster’s decline.

Alexander suggests that owners and investors have more than one route to profit: “You can increase profits by building value through research and development, creating new products, investing in plants and equipment. But that takes time….Instead, you can also increase company profit by making the same products with the same sales volumes, but cutting expenses.” Which route is chosen dramatically affects people’s lives: “If you were the target company employee, or a small town where that company was located, you might prefer to add value through investment in people, machines, and research and development, for a long-term benefit.”

I didn’t see anywhere in the book where Alexander explained how this choice is affected by the general nature of the “1% economy,” but I’ll offer a few thoughts. Two features of the 21st-century US economy thus far are extreme economic inequality and sluggish economic growth. (Some would say the two are related, although the relationship may not be simple.) The wealthy minority have a lot of capital available to invest. But very weak income growth for the majority limits their ability to spend on new products. Under those conditions, it is not surprising that a lot of capital would go to buy existing enterprises rather than create new ones; nor is it surprising that cost-cutting rather than expansion of production would be a favored route to profit. If this strategy works to make the 1% richer despite hollowing out the middle class, that only reinforces the inequality and sluggish growth, creating a vicious cycle.

Ideological responses

The workers and townspeople who are the victims of economic decline have little knowledge of macroeconomics or high finance. Without understanding the underlying causes, they react to the symptoms they see–the wage concessions, the layoffs, the family instability, the reduced commitment to work, the drug problem and the crime. They try to interpret what they see within a traditional belief system linking hard work, self-reliance, economic success and strong families. If more people are failing, well, that must be due to some mysterious decline in personal responsibility and achievement.

Like many Midwestern small towns, Lancaster, Ohio had always been at least moderately conservative. But as economic conditions deteriorated, “A significant faction within Lancaster lost its moderate conservatism. Stoked by cable news, internet videos, and right-wing politicians, they insisted that most of Lancaster’s problems had to be the natural product of an over-generous social service system that coddled lazy, irresponsible people.” Few stopped to consider what work ethic the high-flying financiers were living by when they made millions off of other people’s misfortunes.

Dependency on government was increasing in two ways: direct assistance through programs like food stamps and Medicaid (whose expansion under Obamacare Ohio chose to implement), and reliance on public money to create jobs. “Medicaid and Medicare supplied over 60 percent of the hospital’s income. The public schools were the second-largest employer in town.” Glass-maker Anchor Hocking had dropped to third. But the increasing dependency was accompanied by denial or resentment.

A certain kind of racism was entangled with popular attitudes toward the needy, but Alexander is careful to qualify it. It was more complicated than a simple prejudice against people who looked and acted different. It was more the resentment of struggling whites against any suggestion that people of color deserved more help than they did, or the idea that one group should have to bear the costs of some other group’s failures. It was easier to direct hostility across racial lines than to identify the shadowy financial interests and economic forces that were really responsible for their problems. “Somebody, they thought, was screwing them out of the good-life lottery. Somebody was screwing them. It just wasn’t who they thought.”

Political fallout

The political leaders of Lancaster and many of its higher-income residents were Republicans. Alexander describes them as having an anti-tax philosophy that kept them from raising the money to maintain the town’s infrastructure and institutions. They also had a “pro-business bias [that] blinded them to how Newell and Cerberus [new owners of the glass company] picked their pockets.”

The blue-collar workers of Lancaster were more likely to vote Democratic, if they voted at all. But they were turned off by the Party’s preoccupation with the rights of minorities like African Americans and gay people.

In 2012, Fairfield County, where Lancaster was located, voted 57% for Romney, although Ohio went narrowly for Obama. In 2016, the county went 60% for Trump, helping turn the state red again.  The great irony here is that by voting for Romney and Trump, the people of Lancaster were casting their lot with the kind of financial wheelers and dealers Alexander holds responsible for the town’s decline.

Donald Trump promised the downwardly mobile workers of towns like Lancaster to “make America great again.” What those workers couldn’t acknowledge was that “buccaneering free-market finance” had done so much to undermine that greatness. It was so much easier to blame “sin, laziness, scientists, immigrants, unions, and any number of other enemies of the American Way.” Trump cleverly combined populist anger with right-wing conservatism. The good manufacturing jobs would come back if the government would defend the borders, make tougher trade deals with other countries, and lighten the tax and regulatory burden on business. Trump shared Romney’s admiration for the wealthy as the job creators. What was missing from his critique was any suggestion that they might be investing the country’s wealth unwisely.

Alexander does not discuss the 2016 election, but I think he would agree that it does not portend a reversal of fortunes for towns like Lancaster. What I fear it does is add a layer of political exploitation to the economic exploitation that has already occurred.

The Distribution of National Income (part 3)

February 23, 2017

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I admit that my last two posts have been pretty heavy on the facts and figures. But now we can use the conclusions to shed some light on the political polarization of the country.

Two main conclusions of Piketty, Saez, and Zucman’s analysis stand out. First, the distribution of pre-tax income is now more uneven than at any time since the 1920s. The top tenth of the population is getting almost half the national income, while the entire bottom half of the population is getting only one-eighth of it. Second, taxation and government spending are only mildly progressive and redistributive. Redistribution reduces the top tenth’s share from 47% to 39%, while increasing the bottom half’s share from 12.5% to 19.4%.

The politics of redistribution

To start assessing the political implications of these conclusions, let’s do a mental experiment. Imagine that each of the broad income groups described in the report took a position on government taxes and spending based solely on their narrow economic self-interest. We would expect people in the top tenth of the distribution to oppose the government’s redistributive role, since they pay more of its costs and qualify for fewer of its benefits. The lower-half of the population should be more supportive, since they receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes.

However, the political stance of the remaining two-fifths–those with incomes in the upper half but not in the top tenth–is likely to be more ambivalent. Their pre- and post-tax shares of national income are about the same (40.5% vs. 41.6%). What they receive in benefits offsets what they pay in taxes. Bear in mind that post-tax income in this analysis includes all forms of government benefits–monetary transfers, in-kind transfers, and general spending for the public good. If they focus on the benefits, they may support government spending; but if they focus on the costs, they may support tax cuts. (Or they can support a lot of both, and put up with deficits and more national debt.)

Since the major political parties disagree so much on taxes and spending, we would expect higher-income people to prefer the Republican Party and lower-income people to prefer the Democratic Party. This is true up to a point. Income is a fair predictor of party affiliation and voting, and the effect of income on voting has actually increased as the gap between rich and poor has widened. Gelman, Kenworthy and Su reported, “For the nation as a whole…there is a broad similarity between the trends in income inequality and the rich-poor gap in partisan voting. Each declined after the 1940s and then rose beginning in the 1970s or 1980s” (Social Science Quarterly, December 2010).

Gallup surveys have found that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to believe that the present distribution of wealth is unfair, and that higher-income groups should pay more taxes.

The role of beliefs

Narrow self-interest is not the only basis on which people vote, however, even on questions of economics. Beliefs about how the economy works or should work are important, as well as beliefs about the impact of public policy on the general prosperity. Politics in a democracy is partly a struggle for the hearts and minds of the people, especially the hearts and minds of the middle class. They may align themselves with either the rich or the poor, depending on whose interests they think best represent the general good.

The upper-tenth have a disproportionate share of the money, but only a minority of the votes. To have their way politically–and they’ve been doing a pretty good job of that lately–they need good arguments against high taxes on the rich and high spending for the less fortunate.

One of those arguments is the appeal to meritocracy. Higher-income people can defend the very unequal pre-tax income distribution as a reflection of people’s real contribution to society. The successful deserve what they get; the unsuccessful deserve less; and the trouble with redistribution is that it punishes achievement and rewards failure. A related argument is that the rich are the job creators who use their incomes and wealth to invest in economic growth for the benefit of all.

Support for these views is widespread. Gallup has reported that when Americans are given a choice between taking steps “to distribute wealth more evenly” or “to improve overall economic conditions and the jobs situation,” people of all political affiliations and income levels prefer the latter by a wide margin.

That helps explain the working-class conservatism reported, for example, by J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. Although many low-income whites have more to gain from government spending than they have to lose from taxation, they cling to an ideology of self-reliance and hostility to government “handouts”. Reliance on government carries with it a stigma that I see as partly a racial stigma. Slavery, segregation and discrimination impeded black achievement and fostered government dependence, contributing to a stereotype of black laziness. Whites could maintain their sense of superiority by dissociating themselves from such dependency. That meant dissociating themselves from Big Government and liberal politics, especially after the Democratic Party embraced the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Progressives need to change the national conversation about economic inequality, so that it is no longer about industrious job creators at the top, undeserving slackers at the bottom, and families in the middle who should be grateful to the rich for whatever wages they are offered. They need to challenge the dubious assumption that private wealth is always invested for the public good, while government spending is nothing but a drag on the economy. Considering our low rate of economic growth, our lagging productivity, and our wage stagnation, it isn’t obvious that concentrating more and more financial capital at the top has been such a winning strategy. Meanwhile, we cannot seem to find the money to make vital investments in our human capital, so that young people can get educations without accumulating a mountain of debt. People should not have to apologize for getting help to develop their human potential, especially when that enhances their capacity to contribute to society.

Voters shouldn’t have to choose between policies that create jobs and those that alleviate inequality. In a properly functioning democracy, they ought to go hand in hand, as they did during the postwar economic boom.

Progressive beliefs have the potential to spread to all class levels, just as conservative beliefs have. Already there are many higher-income individuals, such as Warren Buffet and George Soros, who advocate for more egalitarian policies.

Trump: populist or plutocrat?

Where does President Trump fit into the politics of redistribution? As a billionaire, he stands near the top of the economic pyramid. Like many other rich men, he sees his success as a sign of his superior merit, no matter what Trump University students or other detractors say in their lawsuits. Indeed, he declares himself to be uniquely suited to save the US economy.

Trump has filled his cabinet mainly with other rich folks who are not noted for their egalitarian views. Mother Jones reported that his cabinet selections have an average net worth of $357 million. The richest 1% of American households have an average net worth of only (did I say “only”?) $18.7 million.

Why is Trump so popular? I think primarily because he presents himself as the ultimate job creator, who will boost economic growth by bringing back lost American jobs. He will use the unorthodox strategy of getting other countries to give us more favorable terms of trade, so that our manufacturing industries prosper, presumably at someone else’s expense. All Americans will benefit, especially downwardly mobile workers, when he puts America first and makes America great again.

We are supposed to be so impressed by these promises that we overlook his tendency to favor the privileged over the rest of society. Strip away his economic nationalism, and what’s left is the usual Republican tax breaks for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor. We don’t have the detailed plans yet, but all indications point to a tax reform bill that will give the biggest reductions to the top brackets, and an Obamacare replacement that will make health insurance less affordable for the poor. Although Trump appealed to enough Democrats and independents to eke out an electoral college victory, the core of his support is among  Republicans.

The Trump administration has a real potential to exacerbate income inequality and political polarization. Maybe he can grow the economic pie so much that people don’t care how unequally it is divided, but I wouldn’t bet on it.