Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Coming Apart in America

Yesterday the members of the Electoral College met in the various state capitals and collectively affirmed that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election over Hillary Clinton.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has recently been saying that the election was "hacked" by Russian intrusion into Hillary Clinton's campaign's emails. That was the source of items leaked by WikiLeaks that surely hurt Hillary's vote totals in crucial states. FBI Director James Comey didn't help when he sent a letter to Congress announcing that maybe, just maybe, new and incriminating emails that were on her private server when she was secretary of state had been found on a laptop of one of her main aides, Huma Abedin. Comey later backtracked and said no new or incriminating emails were found, but by then the damage was done to Hillary's electoral chances.

Mr. Krugman adds in another column that what's happening now in America resembles the lengthy run-up to the end of the ancient Roman Republic that culminated in the rise of a dictator named Julius Caesar.

I think Krugman is right, but I also think there were deeper reasons why Hillary lost the electoral vote even as she won the nationwide popular vote by some 2.8 million votes.

Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of members of Congress: two U.S. senators plus the number of people it elects to the House of Representatives. For example, my state of Maryland has eight U.S. representatives, so its electoral votes total 2 + 8 = 10. (The District of Columbia has three electoral votes.)

All of each state's electoral votes are supposed to go to the presidential candidate who gets the most popular votes in that state. A few of the electors — the members of the Electoral College — yesterday violated that rule and voted for someone other than their state's popular-vote winner. But those few violations did not change the outcome which made Donald Trump officially the president-elect.

One of the many deeper reasons why the national top vote getter, Clinton, lost to Trump in the Electoral College is that her voters were for the most part tightly clustered into a few metropolitan areas in a relatively tiny number of states. Here's the 2016 electoral map:

Other than Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Illinois, her blue states were all on the East Coast or West Coast. (I'm counting all of New England, including Vermont, as coastal. Hawaii is, in a sense, also coastal.)

One feature of most of the blue states is that they have big cities that are ringed by populous metropolitan areas. Many of the residents of the cities are nonwhite, and nonwhites voted heavily for Hillary. Meanwhile, many of the white residents of the cities and the surrounding metropolitan areas are cosmopolitan and liberal, and also voted for Hillary.

But in and around many Rust Belt cities and in non-metropolitan parts of the country the populace is often white, working-class, and non-cosmopolitan. Their votes served to turn their states red.

Illinois was one of the few non-coastal blue states this year. It was blue largely because of Cook County in the northeast part of the state which contains Chicago:

The state of Virginia went for Clinton largely due to populous urban areas such as the counties in the northeast part of the state that are suburbs of Washington, DC:

(Green areas indicate partial results.)

Get the idea? The reddest areas in the country were mostly places where there is a uniformity of ethnicity and class: specifically, white working-class. Other places tended to go blue.

A huge problem is accordingly the fact that in recent decades there has been an ongoing trend — among white Americans specifically — of pulling apart geographically in such a way that ZIP codes that were once diverse in income and economic class have become much less diverse. This is the thesis of political scientist Charles Murray (decidedly a conservative) in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010National Review's "Essential Gift Guide 2016" said of the book:

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray explores the formation of American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known, focusing on whites as a way of driving home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity. 
Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad. 
The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk. 
The evidence in Coming Apart is about white America. Its message is about all of America. 

Though Mr. Murray examines just white America in his book, it's clear from this year's election results that all of America — that is, whites and nonwhites, of various social and economic classes — has indeed "come apart" politically. This is one strong reason why the popular vote and the electoral vote pointed in different directions this year, just as they did in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidential election to Republican George W. Bush.

If white America had as much mixing of economic classes, geographically speaking, as it did in 1960, there would be fewer solid-red ZIP codes, counties, and states. Whites of various political persuasions would rub shoulders with one another. Chances are the constant interaction would make all affected individuals feel more a part of a common socioeconomic whole. That would tend to make them more moderate than the extreme political attitudes white working-class voters demonstrated this year.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Echo Chambers on Campus

Nicholas Kristof, a liberal columnist, writes in a New York Times op-ed, "The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus," that campus liberals need to take a step back from their accustomed habit of "being inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us." Progressive academics are gung ho for diversity of all kinds — as long as said diversity doesn't include evangelical conservatives:

We champion tolerance, except for conservatives and evangelical Christians. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us. ...
Half of academics in some fields said in a survey that they would discriminate in hiring decisions against an evangelical.
... the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students and to liberalism itself, with liberalism collapsing on some campuses into self-parody.

When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown in the late 1960s, there was no protective ideological "bubble" in place yet. Professors and guest speakers offered a panoply of ideas from various spots on the ideological spectrum.

Yet there were few non-white students, as affirmative action and other pro-diversity initiatives were still in the future. There were lots of women on campus, but at least half were in the Nursing School and the rest were in "East Campus" schools: Foreign Service and Languages/Linguistics, preeminently. The College of Arts and Sciences (my school) was not yet co-ed.

I never heard anyone say anything at all about the need to protect students from disturbing ideas. That, too, was still in the future.

An early-2016 Washington Post op-ed from liberal columnist Catherine Rampell, "Liberal intolerance is on the rise on America’s college campuses," discusses the issue of campus "free speech." She says:

... while I support and admire students’ efforts to make the world a better place — I also kind of understand the right’s fear that student activism may be disparately used to muzzle conservative viewpoints.

Amen to that!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The "Bathroom Bill" and Transgender Rights

In this year's election last November, Republican North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory lost narrowly to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in a state that went for Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. Pundits said there were multiple reasons, but Reason #1 was that McCrory had signed the controversial so-called "Bathroom Bill" that made it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms and locker rooms opposite to those that align with their birth-certificate gender.

The bill, after being signed into law by McCrory, drew the ire and scorn of a great many people and institutions. Bruce Springsteen cancelled his upcoming performance in North Carolina. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam did likewise. The Atlantic Coast Conference's council of presidents voted to move all neutral-site sports championships during the 2016–17 year, including the ACC Football Championship Game, out of the state. The Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau said four events had been cancelled in the Raleigh area due to the legislation. So the state was losing millions tax revenues in the wake of the bill's signing, and this may be the main reason voters tossed McCrory out of office.

I have to admit, though, that I feel decidedly uneasy about letting people who appear to be of "the opposite sex" into public restrooms/locker rooms.

* * * * *

One problem I have is that I just cannot wrap my head around the transgender mind. I can imagine being gay/lesbian/bisexual, but not transgender. (The former are sexual orientations, the latter is about gender identity. I have read that "T" people — those who are transgender — may have any of the above sexual orientations. Sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things.)

I can accordingly empathize with people who are "L" or "G" or "B." They have a sexual preference, same as I, as a straight man, do. They don't choose their sexual preference, and neither do I. They decide what to do and not to do with their sexual preference, and so do I. We're all basically alike in that regard.

But "T" people — I just don't know what it's like for them. Taking as an example a transgender "woman" — someone born with the anatomy of a male but who nonetheless identifies as a woman — I can't imagine what it's like to have a penis and think it shouldn't be there. Same with a transgender "man"; what is it like to think a penis should be there?

So there's no basis in my personal psychology for empathy for "trans" individuals. I just don't get how the minds of "T" people operate.

* * * * *

Nor do I quite understand the undesirability, for transgender people, of using the restroom or locker facilities designated for their nominal, birth-certificate gender.

Maybe it's because I'm not transgender, but I would feel uncomfortable undressing in front of a group of women, and having them undress in front of me. I know my even being there would make them uncomfortable, even if I had a tattoo on my chest saying I'm transgender. It seems to me to be a question, first and foremost, of bodies undressing with matching bodies.

* * * * *

As for peeing and pooping, it seems to be the same sort of thing. I was once using a restroom in Spain, and in came a woman who was a maid — in Spanish, una criada — intent on cleaning the room. She was unfazed by my presence. I was certainly a bit shocked, but I had read in a travel guide that this was normal behavior in that country. So, okay ... I guess.

What would happen if I went in a women's restroom here in this country? That's not normal behavior here. Women might well be justified in being shocked.

* * * * *

Opponents of the "Bathroom Bill" objected to it as a license for sexual "predators." According to this article, "The predator argument is based on an assumption that men who prey on women will be inspired to dress as women and enter women’s spaces because they could falsely claim to be transgender and therefore allowed to stay." The nominal fear is that women will not only have their spaces inappropriately invaded, but the invasion would sometimes lead to actual sexual assaults.

The article maintains, however, that in other localities where transgender people have become able to choose which spaces they enter, there is no correlated increase in sexual assaults.

What about possible dangers to our children? This article says the anti-trans claim is that "Male perverts and pedophiles disguised as women (faux transgender people) will troll women's bathrooms and sexually assault our wives and daughters" (italics mine).

I can't really judge these anti-trans claims. There are a number of men who get sexual titillation out of witnessing women peeing. I know this because I'm one of them.

So maybe I would be a "predator" if I took advantage of transgender equality to hang out in women's restrooms. But I wouldn't do that, because my interest in urination-for-titillation is far outweighed by not wanting to shock other people and not wanting to violate societal norms.

Are such objections concerning "predation" a good reason to oppose transgender restroom equality? Those potential "predators" who'd hasten to shock other people, get titillation, violate norms, commit assaults, etc. probably already do. Accordingly, I don't think these are good reasons to oppose transgender restroom equality.

* * * * *

Leaving aside such questions of predatory behavior, though, I still think the exercise of transgender "rights" to use a restroom or locker room that matches one's non-birth-certificate gender identity may be too disturbing and too shocking to too many people.

The occasion of the exercise of such transgender rights is one in which an individual who appears to be of the "wrong" gender come inside a space designated for the "other" gender alone. The occupants of that space have no way of knowing whether the new arrival is or is not transgender. They may or may not even have the concept of transgender rights firmly implanted in their heads. Their first thought, rightly or wrongly, is apt to be, "Uh-oh! What is that new arrival intending to do here. Are we (or our children) safe? Anyway, isn't our privacy being violated?"

We humans insist on our right to privacy, after all. In the end, it's not about predation or sexual assault. It's all about privacy.

I wonder whether the transgender person who wants to use a restroom opposite to his or her birth gender isn't ultimately seeking to exercise his or her privacy rights: undressing or peeing in one's birth-certificate space feels like an act of exposing oneself, the polar opposite of privacy.

* * * * *

So maybe this really is a question of privacy rights. If a transgender man — someone who looks like a woman to me — "invades" my restroom while I'm at the urinal, my privacy right might feel threatened, if only very briefly.

But his privacy would be compromised his whole life through, if he had under law to stick to using women's facilities.

That may be the most important consideration here, and if so, then maybe I can wrap my head around transgender rights after all!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Falling Behind Your Parents

If you are a young person, you have every right to hope that by the time you are 30 you will be making more money than your parents did at age 30. If that's your hope, then a recent piece in The New York Times, "The American Dream, Quantified at Last" by David Leonhardt, is very bad news for you.

The American dream has always been that the next generation will do better than the previous. It hasn't always come true — witness the Great Depression of the 1930s — but in general it has.

But recent research now shows that the likelihood of the dream coming true has been going down in every decade-of-new-births since 1940:

(Click to enlarge.)

So if you were born in 1980 and are now 36, you had at age 30 just a 50 percent of exceeding your parents' income when they were 30. If yours was a 1950 birth (mine was in 1947) the probability was 79 percent — down from 92 percent for those born in 1940. The figures for 1960 and 1970 were intermediate values. The decline in generation-to-generation expectations has been steady and ongoing.

This next graph shows that in each of these five decade years, the higher the parents' age-30 income was, the less likely the children would surpass it:

(Click to enlarge.)

That is not surprising for those whose parents were exceptionally wealthy (i.e., those income percentiles at the right side of the graph). It's also not surprising that those born to quite poor parents (percentiles at the left end of the graph) would have fewer problems "moving on up" as decade followed decade, simply because in the later decades there were more federal and state income-support programs — and the research being cited takes those into account.

Look, though, at the vast stretch of the graph between the very poor and the very rich and you see the graph getting ever (downwardly) steeper as the decades roll on. In 1940, the whole graph is approximately level until about the 85th percentile of income. By 1980, there is no part of the graph that is even close to being level. That means that even if your parents were relatively comfortable at the 70th income percentile, your likelihood of surpassing them, if you were born in 1980, came to only about 4 chances in 10.

As the article cited above makes clear, the economy has grown quite over recent decades, and the graphs do not show this. The article says:

... the American economy is far larger and more productive than in 1980, even if it isn’t growing as rapidly. Per-capita G.D.P. is almost twice as high now. By itself, that increase should allow most children to live better than their parents.

"G.D.P." is "gross domestic product" — the total value of all goods and services the economy produces in a given year. It is a measure of the size of the economy. "Per-capita G.D.P." is that figure divided by the number of people in the population. If G.D.P. were divided equally among all the people in the population, per-capita G.D.P. would reflect each person's income in dollars.

During the Great Recession of 2008, our G.D.P. actually declined briefly. Since then, G.D.P. growth has been slower than it otherwise would have been. This failure of G.D.P. to grow at its accustomed pace has contributed to a worsening of the prospects of young people vis-à-vis their parents.

The article makes clear that we need to boost G.D.P. growth, if we want to resuscitate the American Dream. But even more needed is to reverse the rise of income inequality that has occurred in our society since 1970:

The researchers ran a clever simulation recreating the last several decades with the same G.D.P. growth but without the post-1970 rise in inequality. When they did, the share of 1980 babies who grew up to out-earn their parents jumped to 80 percent, from 50 percent. 

The main recommendation the article makes is accordingly to give tax cuts to the middle class ... not to the affluent! They would help level the income playing field, and they would leave more money in average folks' pockets that could be spent on goods and services, thereby boosting the total size of the American economy.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Rich Get Richer ...

"A Bigger Economic Pie, but a Smaller Slice for Half of the U.S.," says an important article in today's New York Times. Patricia Cohen's article cites a just-published study by economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman that shows U.S. income inequality has risen apace since 1980:

The incomes of those in the bottom half of the economy have basically flatlined. Those of the top 1% concurrently ballooned:

Why this has happened is a contentious subject. Sure, wages for wage-earners have stagnated, jobs have disappeared. The top 1% get their incomes mostly from investment income, and the economy has grown in such a huge way, overall, as to generate a lot of that.

The economic growth has reflected successful entrepreneurship in Silicon valley and elsewhere. Entrepreneurship is the driving force behind investment income.

In an earlier era, the growth would have been shared by those in the lower half. That hasn't been happening for quite a long time.

Why not? Cohen writes:

N. Gregory Mankiw, an economist at Harvard who is familiar with the new research ... argues that large disparities in income more often than not accurately reflect widely varying economic contributions.

The entrepreneurs and their investors, in other words, now contribute a lot more to economic growth than do the ordinary folks in the bottom 50 percent. "That is a switch from the 1980s and 1990s," writes Cohen, "when gains in income were primarily generated by working."

In short, working at ordinary jobs isn't paying off as much as it used to.

The new study, unlike earlier ones about income inequality, takes into account the value of public benefits like Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). People in the lower half of the economy (see here) pay tiny amounts of income tax ... if any at all. So various governmental programs combine with the progressiveness of income taxes to redistribute income downward. Still, the bottom half have been flatlining.

This is one of the defining issues of our time.

* * *

My question is — and it's an irreverent one for a liberal — how can this be happening, given the capaciousness of the safety net?

The bottom graph above suggests the flatlining began as early as 1960, before the arrival of the Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson. True, the share taken by the top 1% also remained about the same from 1960 to 1980. Only after the Reagan Revolution which began in 1980 did the take of the top percentile begin to soar. So one might contend that massive income inequality began with Reagan.

But copious income redistribution downward began with the Kennedy-Johnson era. Why hasn't it offset the immense gains at the top better than it has?

The redistributive government policies of the past 50-plus years have kept the ordinary folks below the midline from losing ground in terms of their real average pre-tax income. But neither have they gained. Is the widening disparity entirely explained, then, by trends that have boosted the fortunes of the wealthiest among us?

Clearly, there have been such trends, and we liberals are right to decry them. But are they the whole of the story?

Conservatives say no, that the various forms of government aid and "welfare" make for a disincentive to work. Cohen:

[Republican House Speaker Paul] Ryan argues that aid to the poor is ultimately counterproductive because it undermines the incentive to work.

One reads the same thought in the words of J.D. Vance in the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy. He writes (italics mine):

Mamaw [Vance's grandmother, who mainly raised him] listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s [grocery store]. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”— the Democrats— weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Vance is writing about his life and upbringing as a "hillbilly" transplant from the coal-mining area of Kentucky to a city in Ohio where his family had moved to get work. He tells of much dysfunctional behavior, but also of the less frequently found opposite. Many of the so-called "hillbillies" of whose community he was part were decent and hardworking, while some were "content to live off the dole."

So to what extent is it true that "the dole" actually hurts those in the bottom half of the economy? What would be the result if we phased out most income-redistribution policies? Would things get better rather than worse?

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Up Next: Civil War Among Us Democrats?

Liberal Democratic columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in today's Washington Post:

A panicky abandonment of their core commitments is the last thing Democrats need ... An effort to reach out to the white working class cannot be seen as a strategy for abandoning people of color, Muslims or immigrants, or for stepping back from commitments to gender equality, or for withdrawing support for long-excluded groups.

On the other hand, he asks:

... whether it’s time for “the end of identity liberalism."

And says:
... liberalism needs to root its devotion to [the principle of] inclusion in larger principles and should not allow itself to be cast (or parodied) as simply about the summing up of group claims ... Democrats, who gave us the New Deal and empowered the labor movement, should be alarmed by the flight of the white working class.

Dionne quotes New York Times opinion writer Mark Lilla:

“If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.”

At stake here for us Democrats is our self-definition going forward — nothing less. It's not going to be easy to re-establish our onetime rapport with the white working class while not seeming to abandon people of color, immigrants, women, gays, and so forth.

Not only would many in those long-excluded groups be offended, many Democrats who have made group rights Job Number One can be expected to push back quite vigorously.


I myself am torn. I feel a kinship with the white working class, though I am not of that class.They have been left out of the economic and political equation. As a simple matter of justice, they ought to have their needs attended to.

Trump has played to their needs. Hillary Clinton did not. I don't think she tried hard enough to show the white working class why Trump's agenda won't really help them economically. She didn't find a way to bridge between traditional Democratic identity politics and an economic approach that would ease the white working class's wounds. She failed to adequately address their "identity anger."

Yet it's extremely hard to find either a rhetorical or a policy approach that can put the Democrats back on top. It may be like putting Humpty Dumpty together again ...

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently ("The View From Trump Tower") that we need a third party:

The job for the rest of us is to rebind the fabric of society, community by community, and to construct a political movement for the post-Trump era. I suspect the coming political movements will be identified on two axes: open and closed and individual and social. 
Those who believe in open trade, relatively open immigration, an active foreign policy and racial integration. Those who believe in closed believe in protective trade, closed borders, a withdrawn foreign policy and ethnic separatism. 
Those who favor individual believe in individual initiative, designing programs to incentivize enterprise and removing regulatory barriers. Those who believe in social believe that social mobility happens within rich communities — that people can undertake daring adventures when they have a secure social and emotional base. 
Donald Trump is probably going to make the G.O.P. the party of individual/closed. He’s going to start with the traditional Republican agenda of getting government out of the way, and he’s going to add walls, protectionism and xenophobia. That will leave people isolated in the face of the challenges of the information age economy, and it will close off the dynamism and diversity that always marked this crossroads of the nation. 
The Democrats are probably going to be the party of social/closed. The coming Sanders-Warren party will advocate proposals that help communities with early education programs and the like, but that party will close off trade, withdraw from the world, close off integration with hyper-race-conscious categories and close off debate with political correctness. 
Which is why I’ve been thinking we need a third party that is social/open.

I believe in "social." And in "open" — as it applies to relations among people and to relations (including trade relations) among nations. When Brooks says, "... close off integration with hyper-race-conscious categories and close off debate with political correctness," I'm with him. The "hyper-race-conscious categories" he refers to are "identity politics" by another name. Political correctness and limiting debate on university campuses offend my 1960s ideals of what college is for in the first place.

So is a third party a good idea? I'm not sure. It might backfire by helping Trump ...

Monday, November 28, 2016

Two More Views of the Democrats' Dilemma

In today's Washington Post columnist Paul Kane writes that "Senate Democrats lost by doing nothing to separate themselves from Hillary Clinton." In states where she lost to Donald Trump, Democrats running for Senate seats tended to lost by comparable margins. Where she won, they won. It's no wonder. The Senate candidates' campaign strategy had been to hitch themselves to Clinton's coattails.

Kane adds:

“The problem is they [Democratic candidates] talk to people in segments,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is challenging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told The Washington Post’s Daily 202 last weekend. “Here’s our LGBT community. Here’s our labor guy. That doesn’t work. You stop becoming a national party. That’s what happened.”

Notably, when Hillary Clinton uttered her unfortunate "basket of deplorables" comment about half of Donald Trump's constituents, she was speaking before an LGBT audience.

So is the answer for Democrats to stop "talking to people in segments" — relying on "identity politics"?


Also in today's Post is a column by economics expert Robert J. Samuelson, "Jobless by choice — or pain?" About 1 in 8 men 25 to 54 years of age — in their prime working years — have no job, says Samuelson, "and, unlike the officially unemployed, aren't looking for one." These men are classed as "dropouts" from the labor force. Back in the mid-1960s, the dropout rate was just 1 in 29. The rate of dropping out began rising as far back as then.

Samuelson lists several possible reasons why there are so many dropouts now. Experts tend to divide about this, with some calling the dropouts "shirkers" and others calling them "victims."


Whatever the reasons for the high rate of dropping out, it seems clear that here we have yet another segment of the populace who — mainly in the person of Donald Trump — are looking for political leverage. Identity politics boosted the GOP more than it helped the Democrats this year. That was unexpected. But is the Democrats' answer, if they want to restore their status as a national party, to cater to the jobless-and-no-longer-looking? If so, given that so many of this segment are white working-class men, how would they go about doing that without alienating other segments of the erstwhile "Obama coalition"?

It's all well and good to say "stop talking to people in segments," but how?