Saturday, July 14, 2018

Education and redistribution

  As a general rule, more educated people are more liberal than less educated people on most "social" issues and more conservative on most economic issues. I wondered if this pattern has changed, so I looked at a question the General Social Survey has asked since 1978:  "Some people think that the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor. Others think the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor." People are shown a card with numbers from 1 (should do something) to 7 (should not concern itself) and pick the number that best represents their views.  If we limit things to people who are not black and compare those who graduated from college to everyone else, here are the means:

  
There's little or no trend among people without college degrees, but a downward trend--that is, more support for redistribution--among college graduates.  There are some year-to-year ups and downs that apply to both groups (partly related to the party of the president), so if you look at the difference the trend is even clearer:


The drop in 2016 is unusually large--if you fit a trend from 1978-2014 and extrapolate to 2016, the standardized residual is -2.63--but the trend is clear even without it.  That is, there has been a gradual decline in the the difference between the opinions of more and less educated people.  Why?  One possibility is that it has to do with economic trends--the income gap between college graduates and other people has been growing since the mid-1970s, so educated people feel more generous or more guilty, and more inclined to do something.  Another is that it's about politics--more educated people have been shifting towards the Democrats over the same period.  Regardless of the original reason for the shift, once you start voting for a party, you'll tend to have more trust in its leaders, and adopt more of the positions usually associated with that party.  I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones that occur to me.  



Saturday, July 7, 2018

The turning point?

On the 4th of July, the New York Times had a quiz about American history.  One of the questions was "What question, posed to Senator Joseph McCarthy by the Army lawyer Joseph Welch in 1954, is often cited as the unraveling point of McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign?"  The correct answer was "have you no sense of decency?"  They add, "McCarthy’s national popularity disappeared overnight, and he died three years later" and link to the official website of the Senate, which says almost the same thing:  "Overnight, McCarthy's immense national popularity evaporated." 

The Gallup Poll had a number of questions about whether people had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of McCarthy.  This figure shows the percent favorable minus percent unfavorable (there were two different versions of the question, which I indicate by different colored dots):


The third vertical line is the date of the Welch/McCarthy exchange.  There's not much sign that it made any difference.  Moreover, McCarthy's popularity was not "immense" before it happened--in the last survey before it happened (late May), 33% were favorable and 43% unfavorable. 

Just looking at the numbers, it seems that there is one event that might have caused a lasting drop in McCarthy's popularity--a critical TV documentary by Edward R. Murrow that ran on March 9.  There seems to have been a downward trend even before that, but there was a large decline between March 2 (+10) and March 24 (-8 and -15) and support for McCarthy never bounced back. 

Why is the idea that "have you no sense of decency" was decisive so popular (I have heard it before)?  It's a satisfying story--people saw the exchange and recognized McCarthy for what he was.  If you say that public opinion was influenced by elites, like Murrow or the Senators who decided to have hearings on accusations against McCarthy, that raises questions.  What if Senate Republicans had stuck together behind McCarthy?  What if Murrow hadn't decided to do the program, or if the network executives had refused to let him run it?  Should journalists express a point of view rather than just report the facts?  It's more comforting to believe that people spontaneously saw the truth than to think about those kinds of things.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Been down so long

A book review in the New York Times started off with a discussion of how discontented people are today.  It cited a Gallup question on "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?" Answers to this question don't actually show a clear trend since it started in the late 1970s.   But maybe the comparison shouldn't be now vs. a few years ago, but the 1970s and after vs. the 1960s and before?  In fact, the book in question refers to " America’s Fifty-Year Fail " in its subtitle, and the 1970s was a turning point in terms of economics--from a long decline in economic inequality to a long rise.

Public opinion surveys were not as common before the 1970s as they are today, so it's hard to address the possibility that there was a lasting drop after the 1960s.  In 1952, Gallup asked "As you look to the future, do you think life for people generally will get better, or will it get worse?"  That question was repeated in 1962, 1979, 1989, and 2009.  As discussed in this post, answers don't show a decline in optimism.  However, the 2009 survey was taken in January, and there might have been a short-lived spell of optimism accompanying the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Unfortunately, that question has not been repeated since 2009, so I looked for other possibilities.

In 1964, a special survey by the Gallup poll asked "Here is a ladder symbolic of the 'ladder of life'. Let's suppose the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?" and this has been repeated a number of times since then.  The means:


The last three times the question was asked were 2009, 2011, and 2014.  The mean was low in 2009 and 2011, but much higher in 2014.  That suggests that assessments might respond to economic conditions and in fact the mean has a substantial correlation (-0.73) with the unemployment rate.  There is no apparent trend or lasting one-time drop.

I've had several posts (e. g., this one) arguing that people are not all that discontented with general economic and social conditions--they are discontented with politics.  I think these figures give further support for that position.  In fact, you might wonder why people haven't become more discontented, given the slow growth (some would say absence of growth) in average family incomes over the last 40 or 50 years.  I would say that it's because people mostly compare themselves to people around them and to their own past--whether they are better off than they were and are keeping up with other people they know.  Whether average income growth was faster for your parents' generation, or whether rich people are getting bigger gains, are too remote to have much impact on how people rate their own lives.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, June 29, 2018

Vacation from facts, 3

I am back from vacation, but in my previous post I proposed that "a pure two-party system promotes ideological politics" and said that my next post would consider the question of why ideological differences between American parties were small until about 50 years ago.  My answer is "tribalism"---at one time, many people voted purely on the basis of ethnic, religious, or regional loyalties, without paying much attention to ideology.  As more people started to think in ideological terms, the tendency towards divergence started to take effect. 

For comparative purposes, the key facts are that "tribalism" was an unusually strong force in the United States because of size, ethnic diversity, and other historical factors, and that we have an unusually strong two-party system, probably because of political institutions.   That combination produced a unique path in the ideological differences between parties. 


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Vacation from facts, 2

  My last post finished by asking why ideological politics has grown in the United States, in contrast to almost all other countries.  A distinctive feature of American political institutions is the dominance of two parties.  There have only been a handful of members of Congress who belonged to other parties; some third-party candidates for President have received a significant share of the vote, but none of those parties have lasted.

In a two-party system, ideological competition drives parties to the center, as Anthony Downs argued.  But there's another way to compete:  if you convince people that the other side is totally unacceptable, then they have no choice but to vote for you.  It seems to be easier to motivate people by fear rather than by a positive vision, so focusing on the negative may be a more attractive strategy than moving to the center.*  I have mentioned in several posts that negative feelings about both parties have grown.  In 2016, many people who weren't enthusiastic about Donald Trump voted for him anyway because they couldn't bear the idea of Hillary Clinton as President.  Some never-Trumpers voted for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or wrote someone in.  Others voted for Clinton but didn't publicly support her.   In contrast, if the British Conservatives chose someone like Trump as a leader, party members who were unhappy could turn to the Liberal Democrats.  Those votes wouldn't be wasted--by winning a small number of seats, they could produce a hung parliament, which has happened several times.  So people who strongly objected to the leader would not just vote for the Liberal Democrats, but publicly advocate voting for them, further strengthening the movement away from the Conservatives.

So my suggestion is that a pure two-party system promotes ideological politics.  If true, that raises the question of why the ideological differences between the American parties were small until about 50 years ago.  I will consider that in my next post.

*Why not do both--move to the center and promote negative feelings about the other party?  For example, you could try to convince people that they are incompetent or corrupt.  However, it seems to be easier to create strong negative feelings when the charges have some ideological content--the other party will take us down the slippery slope to a Soviet-style planned economy, or a Handmaid's Tale society.  In order to make those kind of charges seem sincere, you have to stake out an extreme position yourself--no compromise on X.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Vacation from facts, 1

I will be on vacation when this post appears, so it seems appropriate to take a break from facts and engage in speculation.

"Tribalism" has become a favorite word in writing about contemporary politics.  It seems like the wrong word to me--the key thing about a tribe is that you don't choose it, you are born into it.  A second feature is that tribal leaders have a good deal of freedom in conducting relations with other tribes (see this paper, p. 141)--if they say that we've traditionally been allied with group A, but now it's in our interests to make an alliance with group B, the members will go along.  Tribal politics can involve intense conflict, but it can also involve toleration and coexistence--you can't blame someone for being born a member of a different tribe, and there's a chance of winning them over by making a deal with their leaders.

What we have now is ideological politics.  where people choose a side because it represents the right principles.  Ideological politics necessarily involves conflict.  You can definitely blame someone for choosing the wrong principles; also, leaders have less freedom, because the members may revolt if they seem to betray those principles.  It's sometimes said that Republicans have abandoned their principles to follow Trump, but when those principles are specified they turn out to be things like free trade, concern about budget deficits, and the rule of law, which aren't traditional Republican or conservative principles--they cut across party and ideological lines, and are probably strongest in the "good government" center.  If Trump did something that really went against conservative principles--e.g., proposed a program of infrastructure spending financed by closing tax loopholes that benefit high earners--there would be a revolt.  Of course, I can't give evidence of that, because Trump has conformed to conservative orthodoxy on everything that's important to conservatives--you don't have to take my word for it, you can take Mitch McConnell's. 

That raises a question of why ideological politics grew in the United States.   In almost all other affluent democracies, it has been declining for a long time, and the decline seems to be continuing.  I will turn to that in my next post. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Measuring racial resentment

My last post discussed a scale that is usually referred to as "racial resentment."  The questions (all with responses going from strongly agree to strongly disagree) are:
  1. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
   2. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up.  Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
   3. It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
  4. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.

I'd say that the first question simply measures perceptions of how much racial inequality there is. It showed a strong trend towards "disagree" between 1986 (when it was first asked) and 2012.  Even with the move towards "agree" in 2016 the correlation is about 0.8.  That is, people see less racial inequality than they used to, which is reasonable given actual changes in society. 

With the other three, the end that is scored as "resentment" can include two kinds of people--those who think that things are reasonably fair, and that blacks haven't taken advantage of opportunities, and those who think that blacks are getting some kind of unfair advantage.  In terms of the last question:   people who think that blacks have gotten about what they deserve and those who think they've gotten more than they deserve.  So they are basically just measures of general liberalism versus conservatism on the causes of racial inequality.  None of those showed a strong trend through 2012. 

In 2013, I had a post about a question that seemed like a pretty good measure of resentment "For each of the following groups, please tell me whether you feel that they are receiving too many special advantages, receiving fair treatment, or are being discriminated against?" The groups included blacks/African Americans.  I remarked then that unfortunately the question hadn't been asked since 2008, and it still hasn't.  It also goes back only to 1990, so I took another look for questions that might be regarded as measuring racial resentment. 

There is one question that was asked several times in the 1970s, and then reappeared in a very similar form in the 2010s.  The 1970s version asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement "the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities."  The 2010s version:  "Over the past couple of decades, the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities," with "completely agree," "mostly agree," "mostly disagree," and "completely disagree" as possible responses.  If we collapse the 2010 categories into agree and disagree, the percent agreeing minus disagree is:


The figures for 1976, 1978, and 2012 are averages of multiple surveys (5, 2, and 3). Although the question wording differs, I don't think that could plausibly account for the difference in responses. It's reasonable to conclude that there's less racial resentment now than there was in the 1970s. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]