Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dionne, Demographics, And Why Political Stereotypes Are True

E. J. Dionne is not in step with SWNID's seldom-wrong ideology, but he does have the sense to take facts into account periodically. In today's Washington Post, he does that very thing, citing a paper by a cadre of leading political scientists on our two-party, polarized republic. Remarkably enough, it makes sense of some political stereotypes by careful analysis of demographics and voting patterns.

Here's how:

  • The wealthy Republican stereotype is belied by the observation that blue states tend to be richer than red states. However, it is supported by the observation that in red states, gaps in income tend to be larger overall, and the wealthier in those states tend to be the most consistent Republican voters and supporters.
  • The elitist Democrat stereotype is belied by the observation that higher income brackets nationally tend to vote Republican. But it is supported by the observation that many of the most visible and generous Democrat boosters are in homogeneous subcultural enclaves in blue states (NYC, Boston, SF, LA, Seattle/Redmond), in which states party preferences tend not to correlate with wealth.

The result is that both sides represent their polarization as a class war: the Ds say the Rs are rich oppressors looking to give themselves a free pass; the Rs say the Ds are wealthy coastal elitists who don't give a flying fig for the values of the heartland.

Dionne, of course, implies that the Ds are more truly populist than the Rs. We, of course, disagree, but not because we think the Rs are deliberately populist.

No, conservative political ideology is populist because in the long run it offers the best chance for the most people to live decent, orderly lives with a reasonable degree of prosperity. Conservatives are indifferent to the liberals' favorite complaint, the "widening gap between rich and poor." Conservatives care little that the few have an exponentially greater pile of stuff than the many. They care whether the many have the means and opportunity to contribute to the general well being through productive labor and entrepreneurship and so provide for their own needs reliably and with dignity.

Economic theory and history argue powerfully that free-market capitalism, not redistributive governmental programs, offers the best chance of that outcome. The only place for informed debate is the level of economic regulation necessary to maximize the outcome.

This observation takes us back to the demographics. The study Dionne cites doesn't go here, and we have nothing except our own seldom-wrong impressions to support the upcoming assertion, but that never stopped us before.

Here it is: the difference in voting patterns among the wealthier people of red states versus blue states has much to do with when and how they acquired their wealth.

  • Red-state rich folk tend to be closer to the original and common experience of obtaining wealth. They are more often first-generation entrepreneurs who have built their own startup businesses into modest successes (N.B. that "wealthy" in this instance refers to incomes over $100k/year). They're new-money people. They adhere to conservative ideology not to catch a further break for further wealth but because they see conservative ideology as demonstrated and ratified by their own success in the free market.
  • Blue-state rich folk, however, tend more often to be removed from the original or normal experience of obtaining wealth. Some are heirs. Some are entertainers. Some are seeking the acceptance and approval of the former categories. They're old-money people, or old-money wannabes. For them, wealth is really "fortune," winning "life's lottery" (was it Joe Biden who said that?) through exceptional talent or luck. Most others can't possibly expect to do the same. And from their lofty height, they can't imagine that a life of labor for a wage has any dignity or joy to it at all. So they are persuaded that redistribution of wealth is all that can raise the standards of the unwashed masses.

These are, of course, stereotypes as well. But as Dionne demonstrates, there's a reason for stereotypes. We're waiting for someone to correlate voting patterns not just with how much money the voter has, or even with where the voter lives, but with how and when the voter got the money.


JB in CA said...

I think the following paragraph needs reworking:

"Economic theory and history argue powerfully that free-market capitalism, not redistributive governmental programs, offers the best chance of that outcome. The only place for informed debate is the level of economic regulation necessary to maximize the outcome."

In particular, I'd point out that "the outcome" is in as much need of informed debate as is "the level of economic regulation." For one thing, we need to determine whether the outcome is to be judged solely in economic terms (which appears to be the default position in these discussions) or whether other factors (such as the leading of "decent, orderly lives ... with dignity") are at least equally important. The two, after all, don't always overlap. For instance, we could boost the GNP by legalizing child pornography, but we don't want to do so (!) because we value moral restraint (in this instance, at any rate) more than we value the economy.

Once we realize that the outcome is open to debate, however, it is not entirely clear that "the widening gap between rich and poor" is irrelevant to our well-being, especially when we realize that in the past 30 years, the top 20% of wage earners have experienced a 19% increase in real income (adjusted for inflation) whereas the bottom 20% have experienced a 17% decrease. (I'm drawing from memory, here, statistics given in a U.S. News report. The percentages might be off by a little--but only a little.) At the very least, it seems reasonable to question whether such a state of affairs is a fair trade-off for the overall increase in average income acquired over the same period.

But how are we to address such a problem without enacting a "redistributive governmental program?" (I, too, share SWNID's distaste for such interventions from on high.) Perhaps the solution lies with what economists refer to as "maximining." If we enact legislation that requires corporations to index the amount of remuneration a CEO can make to the remuneration of the lowest wage-earners in the company, we would do two things at once: (1) ensure that the highest wage-earners won't benefit at the expense of the lowest (thus stabilizing the gap between rich and poor) and (2) maintain the market incentive for everyone to be productive (since everyone, from CEO on down, will still benefit--though, in some cases, not as much--as a result).

This is not proposed as a cure-all, of course, but it does appear to meet SWIND's free-market test, while, at the same time, allowing us to exercise more control over the outcome of the market on the well-being of our citizens.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Unscientifically, I question any notion that "real wages" for the lower quartiles have actually fallen in this country. Americans in all quartiles drive more cars, live in bigger and better houses, and eat more and better food, much of it cooked by other people, and travel more freely than they ever have before. I see nothing that demonstrates otherwise.

You have to question the assumptions that underlie these assertions about falling real wages. I expect that they're like the attempts to state an eqivalent in modern currency for an ancient coin, e.g. a denarius was worth about two dollars. Well, for two dollars, I can rent a DVD, which no Graeco-Roman ever could. But he could feed his family for that, and I'd need more than two bucks for that, even if we ate as simply as they.

As to the child porn analogy, I would note that such things actually exist: see Thailand. But they exist not because their economies aretoo free but because they are not free enough. Far fewer people choose to work in the "sex industry" in countries with real economic opportunity than in those without it. Most people will choose dignity if given the choice. Not all of course, but most.

JB in CA said...

1. Where can you rent a DVD for two bucks? It costs me $4.65--a dollar (that's half a denarii) more than a Whopper Jr. Meal at Burger King.

2. Real income is simply income adjusted for inflation. Hence, if my salary goes up 2% this year but the cost of living goes up by 3%, I've lost 1% in buying power. Multiply that loss in buying power by 17, over a period of 30 years, and it seems to me we have a serious problem on our hands, at least for the bottom one-fifth of the population. True, the comparison is not exact--some goods increase in price, fewer decrease, some disappear altogether, and new ones arise--but it's going to be much more accurate than your analogy of the dollar with ancient coinage would indicate. It is, after all, only a 30 year period (within the same culture) we're talking about, not two millenia (across radically different cultures).

3. Since we're admitting anecdotal evidence, I might point out that I personally know quite a few people (including whole families) that don't own cars because they can't afford them. They were my neighbors back when we rented. They walk or ride their bikes to their jobs at Taco Bell, MacDonald's, Sav-On, etc. Indeed, I still see some of them on their treks from time to time. My suspicion is that I didn't just happen to live in one of the very few places where this sort of thing takes place but that it is more common than we might have otherwise thought.

4. If creating an open and free market is the key to reducing undignified work such as child pornography, why is it that here in the freest economy in the world we have a run-away illegal drug industry and a multi-billion-dollar abortion industry? Surely drug trafficking and abortion "providing" count as undignified labor.

JB in CA said...

Before my former professor corrects my Greek (yet once again), I thought I'd point out that my "half a denarii" comment should have been "half a denarius." Believe me. It would have been funny if it had made sense.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Point by point:

1. Hollywood video on Colerain Avenue rents non-first-run DVDs for $2 American. The Cincinnati Public Library rents them free. This is a great country, yes?
2. The problem with calculating the cost of living is that it doesn't account for the way that people adjust their spending to reflect disparities in price changes. Beef goes up; chicken goes down. Consumers buy more chicken, but the CPI doesn't register that. The problem with official inflation figures is that they don't account for all the variations that develop in people's spending. When they are adjusted, they're adjusted late. So I remain suspect of such figures in calculating whether people are better off. More reliable, IMHO, are measures such as how many calories people consume, how many households have autos and TVs and computers, etc.
3. Yes, there are millions of people without cars, even in Southern California. But there are more households with more cars than ever before. And you can get an amazingly good car for about $1000 these days, not a small sum, but not a princely. And when the quality and reliablity of those cars is taken into account along with inflation, it's a marvelous deal. The Ford Maverick was famous for selling for $1995 new in 1970. But when new it wasn't anywhere near as good as 1996 the Geo Prizm that I drive currently with 135k miles, which costs $1200 in present dollars.
4. I submit that closed economies have more social problems than open ones. I'll take Singapore's problems with the sex industry over Thailand's any time. However, I not just admit but assert that there is a limit to this curve. Nevertheless, which offers the better hope of shutting down, say, Columbia's drug trade: further measures at the American border to interdict, or reform of the Columbian government and economy to offer real economic opportunity by legal means? There will always be bad guys, but there are more reasons to be a good guy in a free society than in a closed one. This, as many have observed, is the social genius of the free market: it harnesses human greed to human virtue.

JB in CA said...


1. To get that two dollar video from Hollywood, I'd need an additional ten bucks for the gas to get there and back (which would take me an hour in good traffic, two or more in bad). To get the free one from Cincinnati, I'd need an additional two hundred (or more) for round-trip airfare (not to mention a phony ID to check it out).

Sure, if I could shop around the country--or around the world, for that matter--I'd find some great bargains. Nevertheless, I have to live most of my life locally, and it's my local market, therefore, that largely determines my buying power.

2. The idea that the affordability of caloric intake is an indicator of economic buying power is an illusion. What matters is the affordability of nutritional caloric intake. And that has clearly gone up in price, as any trip to your local health-food store will confirm. The kind of calories that are more affordable in the short term--the one's we derive from polyunsaturated fats, carbohydrates, corn-fed (as opposed to free-range) beef etc.--are more costly in the long term because of the expense involved in treating heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc.

Second and third cars are the primary reason for our having more cars per capita in the last thirty years. But these are no longer an option for the vast majority of families as they were in the early 1970s. We need them to get to work, to school, to church--indeed, almost to anywhere. The fact that we have to pay any money at all for them (and for the gas, maintenance, insurance, and repairs they require) is money down the drain as far as our economic buying power is concerned.

Increasingly, the same is true for computers, cell phones, and other techno-gadgets. Not so for TVs, of course, but I'd worry if that were the major success story of my economic philosophy.

3. Ditto # 2.

4. (a) And what markets can we open up to reduce the abortion industry?

(b) I hope you're wrong about closed economies having more social problems than open ones since we're heading for one big closed one--unless, of course, we can find others to open up elsewhere in the universe.

(c) I don't argue that free markets are not helpful in some areas, but that they are neither a panacea for our social problems nor a reliable method for determining the common good. The idea that (individual) human greed (by itself) could bring about (collective) human good (with a minimum of evil) was a bad idea when Adam Smith came up with it and would never have worked had we not largely ignored it (while continuing to preach it) and actively regulated the market from the very beginning.

And why have we never allowed Smith's "invisible hand" to remain entirely invisible? Because we realize that although the market has positive benefits (e.g., encouraging the work ethic, promoting efficiency in production, balancing supply and demand), it also has its fair share of drawbacks (e.g., encouraging greed, breaking down long-established social relationships, promoting consumerism).

The idea that the economic well-being of society can best be determined, ultimately, by individual human desire is consistent with Smith's overall theory of moral sentiments. He believes that morality in general is based on human feelings and desires. Actions that satisfy these "sentiments" are morally right, those that don't are morally wrong. Our reasoning about morality, in other words, is limited to determining how best to get what we already want.

To my way of thinking, that approach is entirely wrong-headed. We should begin, instead, by rationally determining what the common good is and then adjust our desires accordingly. That doesn't mean we can't use desire-based mechanisms (such as the free market) to help us achieve those goals, only that in doing so, we must realize that such measures are open to rational scrutiny and adjustment for the sake of the common good.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

First on the facts: there are not just more cars owned in the United States per capita now than in the past, but a larger percentage of households that own at least one car. Likewise, your argument on the "quality" of the calories is not convincing on the hard data. Healthy foods (not "organic" foods and such, the nutritional superiority of which has little clinical basis) are manifestly cheaper overall than the processed crap that makes rich and poor unhealthy in this country. I testify as one who has spent many weeks living mostly on oatmeal, cabbage, potatoes and cheddar cheese that health is cheap in the free-market economies of the industrialized West.

Second, on the interpretation: agreeing that cars stink, it is nevertheless the case that people everywhere want to have access to them, and one reliable way of determining the ability of people to fulfill their desires economically is their ability to own cars. My fantasy is to live otherwise, but it remains such.

Third, ironically enough, the cost of living in places where one can live reasonably well without a car (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago in the United States, many major cities of Europe) is notably higher than in cities where cars are necessary. You, jb in ca, live in the worst of all possible worlds: a place with an outrageous cost of living where cars remain a near-absolute necessity. Yet even in those places where one can live a carless life, people want the things. Go figure.

I would never argue that Smith's view of morality was satisfactory. However, I would contend that there is no way to conduct a civil society without taking into account the very obvious ways in which his economic analysis has proved largely true. He may fail as a moral philosopher, but he succeeds as an economist.

Isn't the alternative to some version of Smith's free market a republic of philosopher-kings who will impose its superior moral vision on the rabble? Hmm, doesn't sound like something that accounts well for universal human frailty.

So of course we have sought to regulate the free market to avoid its excesses. There's hardly a debate on tha tpoint. And making the case for a thoughtful and critical moral life is no doubt more necessary to the improvement of the human condition than the mere freeing of markets. Count me a tory, not a libertarian.

But I submit again that the absence of free economies does much to stifle the human spirit and even more to destroy human welfare than just about anything that is patient of political solution.