Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Writing them Off

I have lately been trying out a theory to explain some of the persistent dissatisfaction you see across a wide swath of  America, and today I found just the sort of elite sentiment that I want to focus on. This is from economist and blogger Tyler Cowen:
If you look at the new supporters of Donald Trump, they tend to not otherwise be so politically or socially involved, and the most likely outcome is that they end up some mix of disillusioned and disengaged. President Trump cannot in fact resurrect the economic fortunes of that group of people.
Insofar as Trump voters were not simply Republicans, they were often people without much political engagement, who have not voted much recently, who don't follow the news closely and just feel in their bones that things are bad.

Cowen is saying that nobody can do anything for these people. The world in which you could just drift through high school and drift into the first job you found and still end up in the middle class is dying, and nobody can bring it back. If you want the "American Dream" you have to make it happen: go to college, learn a skilled trade, market yourself, take charge of your own destiny. One of Cowen's favorite lines is "average is over." If you don't fight your way into the successful half of society, you will sink into failure.

Cowen is a right-of-center figure, but I think Obama feels much the same way. When people like coal miners or laid-off factory workers ask, what are you going to do for me? the answer from our whole system is pretty much, "nothing." It's all up to you. The world is through with aging factory workers, so if you want a decent life you have to reinvent yourself. Democrats would in general like to give more help to such people in the way of subsidies for education or training, health insurance, and the like, and they would like to fund those measures with high taxes that will help bring down the rich. But the basic message is the same: the old economy is dying, and you can either join the new one or rust away with the old.

To studies showing that trade with China in particular really has hurt American workers, the elite mostly shrugs. It was bound to happen anyway. If Chinese workers don't take your factory job this year robots will next year. The world is shrinking, thanks to the Internet, container ships, and so on, and any attempt to wall ourselves off from global change is doomed to fail.

On cultural issues Republicans offer a little more support for those befuddled by change, but only a little. By and large the elite response to people upset about gay marriage is, "Get over it." If you don't like all the sex and violence in movies, stay home and watch reruns of "Nineteen Kids and Counting." If you don't like Hispanics moving into your once all white town, you're a racist.

Millions of Americans see that the world is changing in ways that they don't like, and that may render them unemployable – I remember a quarry foreman telling a reporter, "Guys like me, we're being phased out". What they hear from our leadership is, mostly, that the only answer to our problems is more change. Americans who want to thrive simply must adapt. Republicans of the Paul Ryan sort want more capitalism, more trade, more disruption, more thriving on chaos, with a weaker social net for the old and sick. Democrats want faster social change, a radical reworking of our whole approach to energy and the environment, more of the openness that leads to exciting new art and new technology. Bernie Sanders wants a revolution. There is simply no major elite movement in America dedicated to keeping things the way they are, or taking them back to the good old days. People who want exactly that feel like they have been written off, and some of them are not  happy about it.

UPDATE

Here's another good elite view on the economy, from Ben Casselman, via 538. He says that many of Trump's supporters say they really expect him to bring back American manufacturing:
They are likely to be disappointed. Many of the economic grievances of the white working class are legitimate: Manufacturing jobs really have disappeared, and those that remain often don’t pay as well or offer the same benefits as the union jobs that workers remember from decades past. Economists, who said for years that trade’s downsides were minimal, have more recently begun to acknowledge that foreign competition has done lasting damage to many communities (though they still say trade is good for the economy as a whole). But despite his rhetoric, Trump offered few specifics during the campaign for how he would change trade policy to benefit workers; the plan his advisers did offer was widely panned by independent economists, some of whom warned it would cause a recession.

The larger problem for Trump and his supporters is that there is very little reason to think that any set of policies could meaningfully reverse the long-term decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. That decline has been driven by a combination of globalization and automation — forces that aren’t likely to reverse any time soon.
No solace there.

And from the Post, here's another way of seeing the dissatisfaction of Trump voters:
According to the Brookings analysis, the less-than-500 counties that Clinton won nationwide combined to generate 64 percent of America’s economic activity in 2015. The more-than-2,600 counties that Trump won combined to generate 36 percent of the country’s economic activity last year.

Clinton, in other words, carried nearly two-thirds of the American economy.
So if you live in the sort of place where people have high tech or management jobs, you are more likely to support Clinton and the status quo. If you live in the sort of place dominated by retirees or workers in industry or agriculture, you are more likely to be dissatisfied with the whole direction of America.

10 comments:

David said...

You've put very well what I was trying to say in my last post on the "Apple's Jobs" thread. I detect in phrases like "get with the program," "get over it," and "adapt or die" the same casual cruelty that used to be (and may yet be again) socially acceptable in its racist, sexist, and homophobic forms. I would agree with Obama that the best thing about our society is our effort to remove what Richard Rorty calls "socially accepted sadism." In that sense, I think it's a little unfair to Obama that you lump him with Tyler Cowen, Reid Hoffman, and similar sorts. Based on things you've said previously, I realize you put Obama in that group because, in the final analysis, liberals like him haven't come up with any real alternative to meritocracy. You're right. But I think rhetorical and attitudinal stance matters. Rejecting meritocracy's stance of cruelty seems to me a necessary (and welcome) first step toward real solutions.

John said...

Yes, Obama and the Democrats in general have stayed away from blaming people for not being more economically successful. On the other hand the left has been louder in blaming people for not altering their ideas about homosexuality, etc., which many conservatives resent a lot. The Obama line most famous among his opponents is "clinging to guns and religion."

I have, as you can probably tell, been thinking a lot about Obama in this context. He has tried to help poor Americans through measures like expanding Medicaid. But I think he sees the future of the economy in pretty much the same way Cowen does: the world is changing and people have to adapt or sink. Obama wants to help people adapt with education subsidies and the like, but he has consistently refused to tell miners or factory workers that he will preserve their jobs. Coal miners in particular make him roll his eyes. They are the past, and need to recognize it.

John said...

Here's another good elite view on the economy, from Ben Casselman, via 538. He says that many of Trump's supporters say they really expect them to bring back American manufacturing:

"They are likely to be disappointed. Many of the economic grievances of the white working class are legitimate: Manufacturing jobs really have disappeared, and those that remain often don’t pay as well or offer the same benefits as the union jobs that workers remember from decades past. Economists, who said for years that trade’s downsides were minimal, have more recently begun to acknowledge that foreign competition has done lasting damage to many communities (though they still say trade is good for the economy as a whole). But despite his rhetoric, Trump offered few specifics during the campaign for how he would change trade policy to benefit workers; the plan his advisers did offer was widely panned by independent economists, some of whom warned it would cause a recession.

"The larger problem for Trump and his supporters is that there is very little reason to think that any set of policies could meaningfully reverse the long-term decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. That decline has been driven by a combination of globalization and automation — forces that aren’t likely to reverse any time soon."

David said...

Yes, Obama's remarks about clinging to religion and guns were bad. I thought so at the time, though I will also admit it is partly the proclivities for coastal snobbery that I recognize in my own self that make me touchy on this issue.

I do think it is an important, indeed vital, first step that liberals stop saying things like that.

But yes, as for the deeper structural issues, I have no solution. Personally I like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income (as you frequently put it, giving poor people money), especially because it entails no idea of separating the deserving from the undeserving poor (a misguided tendency that, I think, contributes much to what people think of as interfering government bureaucracy). But proponents of this idea may need to accept the prospect of decades of hard and bitter slogging to make such an idea acceptable.

G. Verloren said...

@David

Out of curiosity, why should liberals stop saying things like that?

We don't live in the Wild West anymore, what rational need do people have for guns? We live in a world built on science and logic, what reason is there to continue to promote the absurdly narrow worldviews of backwater Iron Age tribal societies long since past? What's wrong with flatly calling people out for being violent and superstitious? Why do we need to sugar coat our complaints and wear kid gloves when dealing with these people?

For all that certain people like to complain about "political correctness", they sure can't handle the tables being turned and receiving criticism of their own. Owning a gun is irrational. Believing in a magic man in the sky is irrational. That's not opinion - that's logically demonstrable fact.

Meanwhile, half the country voted for a pathological liar with openly sexist, racist, and xenophobic tendencies born out of pure irrationality.

No, I think quite a large number of liberals are growing quite sick of biting their tongues and being polite towards people who make no effort of their own to be rational, civilized, or decent. They act like deranged brutes and no one bats an eyelash; we stop walking on eggshells for once and openly criticize them and suddenly everyone is aghast. The double standards are revolting.

------

As for your second point, yes, a basic income or minimum income is absolutely the direction society is going to progress toward. And yes, it's going to be a difficult road to get there.

There really aren't any other feasible alternatives, though.

David said...

Liberals should stop saying things like that because the targets of statements like that are our fellow citizens, and comity is a positive social value. Plus, we don't live in a world "built on science and logic" full-stop, any more than we live in a world built on Christian values or gun rights, full-stop. We live in a nation where 300 million should be trying to live together without grabbing each other by the throat. To borrow John's vocabulary, how social apes can live together is a great enough challenge. Rhetoric like "deranged brutes" doesn't help that, any more than the alt-right's shouts of "Heil Victory."

G. Verloren said...

@David

No, I'm sorry, people can only be pushed so far, can only tolerate so much hatred, can only force a smile through gritted teeth for so long. We're not going to stoop to their levels, but we damn well are going to stop coddling them.

I have a live and let live attitude. Do whatever you want so long as it doesn't hurt other people. But when you go around demanding that other people must be made to suffer and struggle senseless simply because you have a perverse and insane worldview and sense of self entitlement, my patience runs out.

I wish I had the patience and compassion of someone like the Dalai Lama, but I don't. There's only so much I can do to reach across the aisle, only so much I can compromise in someone else's favor, only so much patience I can exhibit in the face of open hostility, cruelty, selfishness, hatred, and lies.

But sure, let's condemn the people who dare to call people out on their violence and selfishness and hatred. Let's get all the liberals to just be even more patient, even more understanding, even more generous than they've been for decades. Let's just keep biting our tongues, keep tolerating more and more vitriol, keep quiet as we watch lifetimes of societal progress be undermined by the ignorant and the stupid and the greedy.

We're already stuck with a conman for president and his zealous nutjob lackies for a cabinet. We're already resigned to the fact that things are going to go to hell in a handbasket for four years. We're already resigned to having to fight and struggle and be vigilant during that time to protect many of our fellow citizens who will absolutely be victimized for their race, sex, religion, or politics.

So what's a little more, right? While they go about walling off our neighbors, destroying our economy, and denying their fellow citizens the most basic of rights, we need to stop and be mindful about what we say! After all, we wouldn't want to hurt their feelings, right?

Or is your notion more mercenary than that? Is it simply a calculated move to not offend potential voters come the next election? That we'll be better off politically if we just turn a blind eye and politely keep our tut-tuts of disapproval to ourselves?

Or perhaps you really do think it's a moral obligation - that we need to be the "bigger" people, that we need to patiently lead by example and give our fellow citizens time to come around to our point of view?

No, I'm sorry. That option is no longer acceptable.

The KKK is on the march. Muslim Americans are being beaten in broad daylight. The poorest, most vulnerable portions of our society with the least rights are being openly attacked by those who historically were most privileged, and who are now upset that they're losing their place in the sun.

Innocent people are being made to suffer. To whom do we owe a greater moral obligation? To our "fellow citizens" who are out lashing out at their neighbors? Or to the innocent victims of their hatred and selfishness?

Which is more important to you? Showing civility toward the uncivil, or protecting the basic security and wellbeing of the innocent? How much senseless violence and human misery is an acceptable tradeoff for the promotion of your sense of "comity"?

I'm all for civil discourse when human lives aren't being destroyed. But that time has since past. We should have drawn a line in the sand a long time ago, but people like you kept saying, "Not yet, wait a little longer, we can still give a little bit more".

Well I hope you're happy, because people are in fact now giving that little bit more - in blood and in tears. Would you call that a positive social value?

David said...

Verloren, like I said, we should just avoid one another.

John said...

Here is Paul Krugman's (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/opinion/the-populism-perplex.html) version of the view I am writing about:

"Now, you might say that health insurance is one thing, but what people want are good jobs. Eastern Kentucky used to be coal country, and Mr. Trump, unlike Mrs. Clinton, promised to bring the coal jobs back. (So much for the idea that Democrats need a candidate who will stand up to the fossil fuels industry.) But it’s a nonsensical promise.

"Where did Appalachia’s coal mining jobs go? They weren’t lost to unfair competition from China or Mexico. What happened instead was, first, a decades-long erosion as U.S. coal production shifted from underground mining to strip mining and mountaintop removal, which require many fewer workers: Coal employment peaked in 1979, fell rapidly during the Reagan years, and was down more than half by 2007. A further plunge came in recent years thanks to fracking. None of this is reversible.

"Is the case of former coal country exceptional? Not really. Unlike the decline in coal, some of the long-term decline in manufacturing employment can be attributed to rising trade deficits, but even there it’s a fairly small fraction of the story. Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed health care and higher minimum wages. But working-class whites overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to destroy those gains."

None of this is reversible, says pretty much the entire elite. Only Trump promised to bring back the world that these voters want, so he got their votes.

David said...

I read Krugman's essay, and was struck that he referred twice to these workers' resentment of "imagined" liberal disdain. Calling it imagined is crucial to his whole argument. FWIW, I would say that discourse of disdain is real and crucial, both to liberal and to working class white identity. I believe you want to get beyond it, and kudos to you; but Krugman's method of getting beyond it, by pretending (guiltily, I suspect) that it's not there, won't hold water.