Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bye Bye 2020. And Not a Moment Too Soon.

One of the things I hope for in the New Year is to never hear the term "white privilege" again. The left will either cease being anti-working class or it won't be much of a left. Getting rid of this ridiculous term would be a good start toward the class-oriented left we so desperately need.
"Despair—and the associated mortality trends—is concentrated among the less-than-college educated and is much higher among whites than minorities. The trends are also geographically dispersed, with populations in racially and economically diverse urban and coastal places more optimistic and with lower premature mortality (on average). Death and desperation are higher in the heartland and in areas that were previously hubs for manufacturing and mining jobs that have long since disappeared. The high concentration of prime-age workers who have dropped out of the labor force in these places also reflects in poor health indicators and behaviors (such as high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and reported pain, and extensive opioid addiction), and, in turn, lack of hope.
In recent work, we found surprising differences in well-being across race and income groups. We also tracked the links between low well-being levels and high rates of death of despair at the county level across the country. We find significantly higher hope and optimism among poor Black respondents compared to white ones (with Hispanics in between), and the geographic patterns in lack of hope, worry, reported pain, and deaths of despair are consistent across places with higher death rates. Shannon Monnat and David Brown find that counties with higher levels of poverty, obesity, smoking, deaths of despair, non-Hispanic whites, and individuals on disability, were the same places where Trump “over-performed” in 2016. Nationwide, meanwhile, counties with more Trump voters in 2016 had a higher percentage of respondents who had experienced drops in optimism about the future in the years preceding the election.
In “The Geography of Desperation,” a forthcoming paper in Social Science and Medicine, we explored the well-being and health of prime-age individuals OLF [out of the labor force] in greater detail. Our findings highlight the low levels of hope and poor health of this group, particularly white men, and speak to the related issue of why there is less geographic mobility today than in previous decades, which, in turn, reduces the productivity of the U.S. labor force and labor markets.
Based on data from both Gallup and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2010-2017, we find that prime-age (ages 25-54) males OLF fare much worse than young and older OLF individuals in terms of both well-being and health, and middle-aged prime-age males (35-54) report more pain than any other labor/age group. Prime-age OLF women, meanwhile, display significantly higher well-being and health indicators than their male counterparts. This is likely because OLF women typically have additional purpose and identity as caregivers for either the young or the old. While these are not easy roles, they do provide a purposeful identity and existence, which is key to well-being in all populations, and is something that many OLF men—particularly white ones—have lost.
The story also varies across race and place. The deepest desperation is among OLF men in the white working class, who in the past had stable, middle-class lives compared to the more precarious status of minorities. Yet Black and Hispanic OLF males retain higher levels of well-being, especially hope, and are more likely to report that they get recognition for giving back to their community than are whites. Minority OLF men also report less pain than whites. This suggests psychological pain, as there is no objective reason why whites should have more physical pain than minorities, particularly as the latter often have inferior jobs. Finally, within prime-age white males OLF, well-being and health are particularly bad for those with lower educational attainment and aged 35-44 and, especially, 45-54, in line with the more general demographic patterns in deaths of despair....
In terms of policies, we must address both the demand and supply sides. This entails creative solutions in terms of the future of new kinds of jobs that can help revive economies in at least some of the places in decline. But it also entails addressing the health and well-being of these increasingly desperate cohorts. Our findings suggest that there is an important role for restoring hope and a sense of purpose among these populations and places and providing new forms of training for the next generation, so that they are both healthy and capable of taking up and moving to new jobs and opportunities.
The state of prime-age workers who have dropped out the labor force—and white men in particular—is one of many reasons the country is so divided in terms of labor market outcomes and well-being on the one hand, and civic trust and politics on the other. While restoring hope is an unusual topic for economists, the geography of desperation in America suggests that we must take this issue on to address the gaps between those who get ahead (often by moving) and those who are left behind."
White privilege indeed.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Corrosive Politics of Pessimism

As I have argued many times, the staunch pessimism of the left, where every victory is a defeat in disguise, is a bug not a feature of current progressive practice. Matt Yglesias--who keeps on cranking out great stuff since he escaped from the commissars at Vox--makes this point in the context of the very successful CARES act which has generated amazingly little enthusiasm on the left.
"With the relief bill squared away, the time is right to consider a question the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal asked the day after Christmas: why didn’t the success of enhanced Unemployment Insurance ever enter the narrative as a progressive success story?
[Mike Konczal
For the last 7+ months I’ve been saying that the Left should claim, highlight, and center the fight over extending the massive expansion of UI, not just as an important program but as a model for reinvigorating Social Security.
My read is that this didn’t happen. Why is that?]
I think there are a lot of specific ingredients that went into this, some good and some not so good. But I also think those specifics came together the way they did because there’s a norm in American progressive politics of looking at every glass as half empty.
Basically, the understanding is that whoever can paint the darkest possible portrait of the status quo is the one who is showing the most commitment to the cause. And you see this norm at work across climate change, health care, criminal justice reform, the economy, and everything else. If you’re not saying the sky is falling, that shows you don’t really care. A true comrade in the struggle would deny that any progress has been made or insist that any good news is trivial.
I tend to think this approach to politics is counterproductive — it’s psychologically and emotionally exhausting, out of touch with people’s lived experience of the world, and ultimately demoralizing and un-motivating. But even if it does in some sense work, it’s simply not true.
In my recent post “A better way to cure recessions,” I noted that the personal savings rate is up in the United States (down from its peak when everyone got their $1,200 but still well above the pre-pandemic baseline) and also that “unlike during the Great Recession, the 67 percent or so of the public who owns a home and the 55 percent of Americans who own stock have seen their net worth rise.”
In the very next paragraph, I acknowledged that this is happening “amidst stories about overwhelmed food banks from San Antonio to Miami and beyond” but I got a lot of blowback for pointing out that most people are doing okay as if that was a way of dismissing the suffering of the minority of people who’ve lost their jobs and are now in desperate need of relief.
Similarly, back in late May, I ran into accidental intra-office controversy by pitching a piece about how police killings of African-Americans had become less common since Ferguson. My thought was that this was good, it showed that political pressure for reform was delivering results. But it was heard by many people as dismissing the problem, or ignoring the lived experiences of people who’ve suffered at the hands of the police.
And of course you see this on climate change, which is legitimately A Bad Thing but where the most keyed-up activists want you to believe it’s literally an existential threat to continued human existence.
When Barack Obama first took office, his administration enacted a bunch of progressive legislation. Bouts of activist legislating normally generate a thermostatic backlash, and Obama’s was no exception. But he managed to end his term popular, and has remained popular since, and most of his legislative achievements remain on the books. Everyone — including Obama — concedes that these achievements were not perfect. But to actually celebrate them as big achievements worth clapping for and taking credit for would be to mark you out as very much not a true progressive.
So I think the left’s attitude toward CARES needs to be seen in that light. Do you judge the Affordable Care Act on how much it helped people compared to the status quo ante or on how far it diverged from a hypothetical perfect health care bill? I’d be inclined to say the former, but the conventional left approach is the latter....
I want to convey that I really do appreciate the appeal of centering your thinking on an idealized end point and then complaining about all the ways that Obama or the CARES Act or whatever else fell short. After all, compare what I am saying we should do with UI and what CARES did with UI, and CARES looks terrible:
It did nothing to address the incredibly stingy base benefits in most states.
It had no automaticity so it expired awkwardly midway through the crisis.
It not only relied on our antiquated benefits administration system, it did nothing to improve it.
But it doesn’t make sense to do politics this way. One reason is because the model where you sketch out an idealized policy endpoint, then wage political combat, then win, then implement your vision just isn’t how anything actually happens. Not only was Social Security’s rollout bungled from a macroeconomic point of view (they started collecting taxes years before they collected benefits), it wasn’t until 20 years after the original Social Security Act’s passage that benefits were expanded to huge swathes of the population. Then it took 20 more years to get automatic cost of living adjustments. And the program still has some weird lacunae that leave out certain categories of state and local government workers, and doesn’t really meet the needs of the very elderly in an aging society.
Medicaid has been a policy triumph, but the initial program LBJ signed into law in 1965 was tiny compared to today’s Medicaid juggernaut that was largely the result of dogged work by Rep. Henry Waxman in the 1980s, some judicious interventions by the Clinton administration, and then the Obama-era expansion which lives on as a series of state-by-state fights.
The point is that politics is a process, and that’s especially true in a country like the United States that has a lot of institutional veto points. I won’t redo the entire slow boring of hard boards schtick, but the idea that past victories were single decisive battles won at unique moments in time is an illusion. Brown v Board of Education was the culmination of a 15-year litigation strategy that started with a law school case in 1938. But even though the NAACP won in court in 1954, real desegregation didn’t happen until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which in turn built upon the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and its predecessor, the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
It would of course be absurd to be satisfied with any of those interim outcomes, whether on health care or retirement security or civil rights, and it’s just the same with Unemployment Insurance. But successful movements claim victories as victories, highlight the ways in which their victories have helped people and debunked critics’ fears, and move on to build the case for new things. Politicians who do the spadework of getting things done should be praised and not ignored, and while journalists should of course highlight shortcomings, we should also bring perspective to bear. We had more articles written about benefit administration problems than we did about the reduction in poverty — that doesn’t make sense journalistically and it’s not politically constructive."
Yglesias is exactly right about this. It has always been staggeringly obvious to me that pessimism dramatically undermines the appeal of the left. Why on earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless? What’s so inspiring about that?
Nothing. Yet the left persists in promoting a viewpoint that leads to paralysis and inaction, rather than robust action and positive change.
The left wasn’t always like this. Historically, the left has been identified with a belief in the future and the feasibility of dramatic improvements in human welfare. That is how I saw it when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and I was happy to join.
But something went wrong in the 1970’s. The great hopes of the 1960’s went aground on the harsh realities of stagflation and then rising inequality and a resurgent right. It was indisputable that progress in important ways was slowing down rather than speeding up as most on the left had hoped.
Various significant electoral defeats for the left followed--most famously the rise of Reagan in America and Thatcher in the UK. And anti-government ideology thrived, both in politics and economics. The idea that government was the problem, not the solution, gained political credibility that would have seemed unimaginable in previous decades and economics became dominated by theories that glorified the results of the untrammeled market.
If that wasn’t bad enough, new threats like global warming emerged that cast doubt on the future of humanity writ large. Scientific progress, which once spurred visions of flying cars and lives of abundance and leisure, now seemed powerless to stop the apocalypse (if not complicit in bringing it on).
Optimism went out of fashion on the left where it has remained to this day. Instead, the left concentrated on reminding voters just how terrible things were becoming. And there was certainly a lot of plausible material along these lines, as Western capitalism continued to underperform in terms of both growth and the distribution of benefits from growth. Data accumulated over time documenting this poor performance—particularly in the early 21st century and in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis--which the left duly promulgated.
Even the great victories of the left in the social realm tended to get lost in this litany of despair. Not to mention concrete policy victories such as those secured by President Obama. In short, when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing. Not surprisingly, the desired surge in left support has not materialized.
It is time to recognize that pessimism convinces no one. Marx was wrong about the immiseration of the proletariat and contemporary leftists are wrong about the immiseration of the middle class. What is correct is that progress has slowed down, not that it has stopped or reversed. What is correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life. What is correct is that pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely.
So a different, more positive attitude is in order for the left. And it starts, as Yglesias argues, with touting recent victories and advances, rather than bad-mouthing them.

Who's Afraid of Nukes? Not Me.

This is a good article on Persuasion about the safety issues surrounding nuclear power which are widely misunderstood. The problem with nukes is really about cost, which has both technical and political/regulatory aspects. Yet it is my distinct impression that the general hostility toward nukes among green activists and a large chunk of the left is really driven by safety concerns which, as the article shows, are vastly overblown.
Nuclear power deserves a fair hearing on the left. If the climate change problem is as large as most on the left believe, it makes no sense to rule out a potentially large source of (non-intermittent!) clean energy on specious safety grounds.
"Many experts believe that the world cannot approach zero-carbon emissions without the widespread use of nuclear power. Yet many in the public dread a nuclear accident or a terrorist attack on a reactor. How serious are these dangers?
First, some good news: A nuclear explosion using a power plant is impossible. The fuel is not enriched nearly enough to produce the required energy. The accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 were not nuclear blasts, but chemical fires or explosions caused by steam or hydrogen gas. The risk in an accident comes from direct radiation and radioactive fallout. Let’s look at those separately.
Several hundred nuclear reactors exist for research and medical purposes, as well as 440 commercial power reactors and an untold number powering ships. All emit radiation, but shielding protects the tens of thousands of people who work around those reactors. Years after Fukushima, the Japanese government had attributed only one death to radiation. The only certain cases of serious radiation poisoning from a reactor were in the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history. But those Soviet reactors were badly designed, shoddily built, lacked proper safety shielding, and the operators did everything wrong. The steam explosion ejected huge quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere, yet the only deaths from direct radiation were about 60 people working at the site. Modern designs are far safer. Even with poor design and no shielding, direct radiation from a disaster would only affect those very near (i.e. plant workers). The reason is that radiation loses potency by the square of the distance it travels: The intensity at 200 yards is one-quarter of that at 100 yards. In short, direct radiation is not a serious hazard beyond the reactor proper. An explosion at a chemical factory or a fire at an oil refinery is a vastly greater danger.
Chernobyl spewed massive quantities of radioactive particles into the air, and the wind carried those particles over much of Europe. Although most of the radiation from that fallout was at levels below natural background radiation, some predicted up to a million deaths from cancers. Nearly 35 years later, we know that no such tragedy came to pass. The percentage increase of fallout-induced cancers has been so small that there is no clear, measurable increase in cancer rates with one exception, treatable thyroid cases. Studies show about 20,000 such cases in Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia, caused by iodine-deficient children drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine. Most of these cases could have been prevented had the Soviets distributed iodine tablets. For perspective, these health effects are orders of magnitude less than the harm from the Bhopal chemical leak of 1984, which killed at least 18,000 people and permanently disabled an additional 50,000. The groundwater in the area is still undrinkable today."

Monday, December 28, 2020

In the End, It's All About Class Isn't It?

In a dreadful year when, for various reasons, some good, some bad, there was a mighty chorus from the media, major corporations and academia leading us away from thinking about class, it's time we remembered that America's problems in general and the harm of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular are still mostly about class. This point is made lucidly by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in a piece on Project Syndicate, "Living and Dying in America in 2021". (Their overall argument was first laid out in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of American Capitalism, which you should read if you haven't already).
"American capitalism is not serving most Americans. While educated elites live longer and more prosperous lives, less-educated Americans – two-thirds of the population – are dying younger and struggling physically, economically, and socially.
This growing divide between those with a four-year college degree and those without one is at the heart of our recent book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. The rise in deaths that we describe is concentrated almost entirely among those without a bachelor’s degree, a qualification that also tends to divide people in terms of employment, remuneration, morbidity, marriage, and social esteem – all keys to a good life.
The COVID-19 pandemic is playing out similarly. Many educated professionals have been able to work from home – protecting themselves and their salaries – while many of those who work in services and retail have lost their jobs or face higher occupational risk. When the final tallies are in, there is little doubt that the overall losses in life and money will divide along the same educational fault line....
In our past work, we showed how suicides and other deaths of despair tracked with the slow destruction of working-class life since 1970. It is now entirely plausible that deaths in the US will rise again as the structure of the economy shifts after the pandemic. For example, cities will likely undergo radical change, with many businesses moving out of urban high-rise buildings and into suburban low-rises. If there is less commuting as a result, there will be fewer service jobs maintaining buildings and providing transportation, security, food, parking, retail, and entertainment. Whereas some of these jobs will move, others will simply vanish. And while there will be entirely new jobs, too, there is sure to be much disruption in people’s lives....
The US economy has long been experiencing large-scale disruption, owing to changes in production techniques (especially automation) and, to a lesser extent, globalization. The inevitable disturbances to employment, especially among less-educated workers who are most vulnerable to them, have been made vastly worse by the inadequacy of social safety nets and an absurdly expensive health-care system. Because that system is financed largely by employer-based insurance, which varies little with earnings, it places the greatest burden on the least skilled, who are priced out of good jobs.
Chronic legislative gridlock in Washington, DC, makes it hard to be optimistic about ameliorating these problems. But if ever there were a time to break the political impasse, it is now."
That's right, the time is now. This broad, overarching class problem is what the Biden administration needs to focus on. Time to put 2020 behind us and get our priorities straight. The fate of the progressive movement, the Democratic party and the country as a whole depends on it.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Sobering Downballot Facts

The good folks at the Cook Political Report have produced their traditional list of end-of-cycle facts about the the most recent election. I call your attention to the downballot facts. They should provoke some serious thinking about how the Democrats blew it so badly. The 2022 election could be a serious bloodbath without some very smart Democratic campaigning. The 2020 results do not inspire confidence.
12. Senate races still largely went the same way as the presidential election did in that state, save for Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who outran Trump by 7.2 points to win re-election. In 2008, she outran John McCain on the ballot by nearly 21 points, and in 1996 she outpaced Bob Dole in the state by more than 18 points. Her 2020 result is still the largest overperformance in a competitive race with Trump on the ballot by a Republican ever, outpacing Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s 6.69 in 2016, but Collins was in far more danger than Portman was and Trump won Ohio, while he lost Maine in 2020. In 2016, every single Senate race went the same way as the presidential race; this year, it was all but one.
13. Democrat Sara Gideon in Maine had the worst performance by a Democrat in a Toss Up race in comparison to the presidential results, running behind Joe Biden in the state by 11 points.
14. The Republican who ran the most behind Trump was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose winning margin was 4.4 points less than Trump, but he nonetheless sailed to a very comfortable 20 point win.
15. If Republicans hold onto both Senate seats in the January 5 Georgia runoffs, it will be the first time since tracking our Toss Up races that all the contests broke 100 percent one way for one party.
16. In Senate races we didn’t rate as Solid, Democrats (candidates + outside groups) spent $1,078,640,272 on TV ads, according to data from AdImpact. Republicans meanwhile, spent $850,828,443. In total, $1,929,468,715 was spent on TV ads this cycle.
17. The most expensive Senate race was North Carolina, where a total of $263,675,801 was spent by both parties on TV ads. Democrats spent more ($151,694,974) than Republicans ($111,980,827), outspending them by $39.7 million. Iowa was second, with $217,043,080 spent in total. Again, Democrats ($128,320,541) outspent Republicans ($88,722,539) by $39.6 million. Democrats nonetheless lost both races.
18. The most money spent in a state per vote was in Montana, where Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and his Democratic allies ended up spending about $323 per vote. In comparison, GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who won by 10 points, spent $193 per vote. The next biggest disparity was in Maine, where Democrats spent $272 per vote compared to $172 per vote for Republicans in a race that Democrats also lost.
19. The best bargain in a state that flipped was in Alabama, where Republicans spent just $12 per vote to have former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville oust Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. Democrats spent $17 per vote.
20. In Colorado, one of the two states Democrats flipped so far, Republicans did outspend Democrats per vote, $31 to $29, only to have GOP Sen. Cory Gardner lose to former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper by almost 10 points.
21. In all competitive races (excluding both Georgia races), Democrats spent on average $94 per vote, while Republicans spent $60 per vote.
22. In January, House Democrats will represent 51 percent of all House seats, but just 16 percent of the nation's land area — the smallest geographical footprint of any majority in modern history.
23. All 13 of the Republicans who have been certified as the winners in Democratic-held districts were women and/or minorities — including three of Cuban descent, two of Korean descent, one African-American and ten women. Of the 46 freshman Republicans entering the House, 18 are women — more than Republicans' current tally from 13 to 29.
24. The top three most expensive House races of 2020 — in terms of both candidate and outside spending — were California's 25th District ($37.9 million), New Mexico's 2nd District ($36.7 million) and Texas's 22nd District ($34.1 million), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
25. The four largest outside spenders in House races (the DCCC, NRCC, House Majority PAC and Congressional Leadership Fund) spent a combined $442 million, including $196 million in races that were decided by more than five points and $42 million in races decided by more than ten. Meanwhile, there were 10 races Democrats won by less than five points where GOP groups failed to spend more than $500,000. Had Republicans invested in those races, they might have won back the House majority."
Now that is genuinely scary. Time for a course correction.