Sunday, January 15, 2017

What difference would it make?

In 1995, a survey sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Kaiser Foundation, and the Washington Post asked a series of questions about changes in "the quality of the air we breathe," "the share of Americans over 65 who live in poverty," "the difference in income between wealthy and middle-class Americans," the number of children who "grow up in singe-parent families," and "the rate of violent crime" over the last 20 years.  It then asked a randomly selected half of the sample about whether "federal programs helped to make things better, made things worse, or have they not had much effect either way"; the other half was asked about the effect "more effort and spending by the federal government would have" on each of the conditions.  The results are summarized below:

                 Change    Effect of gov't   Effect of more gov't
Air Quality
    Better        20%         47%             49%
    Worse         53%         13%              7%
    Same          25%         37%             42%

    Summary                  +34%            +42%

Poverty over 65
    Better       15%          23%             53%
    Worse        57%          32%             11%
    Same         24%          41%             33%

    Summary                   -9%            +42%

Income Differences
    Better       10%          10%             25%
    Worse        66%          50%             18%
    Same         22%          36%             53%

    Summary                  -40%             +7%

Single parent families
    Better        3%           10%            21%
    Worse        89%           39%            15%
    Same          7%           48%            59%

    Summary                   -29%            +6%

Violent Crime
    Better        2%            8%            43%
    Worse        91%           33%             9%
    Same          7%           56%            44%

    Summary                    -25%          +34% 

For each condition, the number who thought things had become worse was substantially larger than the number who thought things had improved.  It would be interesting to explore that further--is it something about people in general, or about Americans in particular--but I'll focus on the questions about government action.  For air quality, poverty among people over 65, and violent crime, the number who say that more government action would improve things is substantially larger than the number who say it would make things worse.  For the other two, difference between the rich and the poor and single-parent families, opinion is almost equally divided.  Air quality is the one issue on which more people see the government as having done good rather than harm.  The gap between rich and middle class is the one one which the balance of opinion is most negative.

   This relates to the evergreen question of why many low and moderate income people vote against their apparent interest in redistribution.  The most popular explanations among social scientists seem to be first, that people exaggerate the chances that they or their children will be rich someday, and second, that people are diverted by something else like "social issues" or ethnic loyalties.  I don't think that there's much truth in the first--most people seem to be pretty realistic about their chances of upward mobility (see this paper).  The second is a factor, and often an important factor.  But there's also another potential explanation, which hasn't gotten the attention it deserves--lack of confidence in what the government could or would do.  The puzzling thing is the big difference between reducing poverty among people over 65 and reducing differences between the rich and the poor--both of them involve redistributing income, but public opinion about the effect of trying to do that are very different.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How are things?

During and after the  2016 election campaign, many observers said that  there was widespread discontent with the way things were going.  For example, a Reuters story in late September said "Polls show an electorate hungry for change, with a majority believing the country is on the wrong track."  Donald Trump himself mentioned those polls:  "Seventy-five percent of the American people, based on all polls, think our country is headed on the wrong track."   He was exaggerating a bit, but it was a definite majority--about 60-65%.  

The question, "do you feel that things in this country are generally going in the right direction today, or do you feel that things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?" was first asked in 1971, and repeated a number of times in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Sometime in the middle of the 1980s, a lot of survey organizations adopted it, and since then it's been asked very frequently, probably over a thousand times.  (There have been some variations in question wording, but they don't seem to make much difference.)  I don't have time to transcribe that much data, so starting in 1982, I just considered the last poll before each Presidential or midterm election, plus polls from early September and late October 2001 in order to see the effect of the 9/11 attacks (which was a substantial increase in "right direction" answers).   The figure shows the difference between percent choosing "right direction" and percent choosing "wrong track" (usually between 5-10% aren't sure).

By historical standards, opinions in 2016 were not unusual.  In the last survey taken before the election, 31% chose "right direction" and 62% chose "wrong track," for a score of -31.  That was nowhere near the low of October 2008 (14% to 79% for -65).  There were obvious reasons for alarm then, but in October 1990, 19% chose "right direction" and 79% chose "wrong track."  It would be interesting to try to figure out what causes change in answers to the "right direction/wrong track" question, but at this point I just want to observe that in 2016 the American public was not especially discontented about how things were going in the country.

Since Trump is so different from previous presidents, it's natural to think that his election must result from some profound discontent in the public.  But for a lot of voters, as I've said in a number of previous posts, I think it was just another election between a Republican and a Democrat (and a Democrat who was strongly identified with the party, making it hard for her to pick up Republican votes).  The basic circumstances were favorable to the Republicans--the economy was OK but not great, and the Democrats had been in office for two terms.  Trump got only 45.95% of the vote, less than what Mitt Romney got in 2012 and only 0.3% more than what John McCain got in 2008, suggesting that he cost the party a significant number of votes.

The fact that Trump got the Republican nomination may indicate that there was profound discontent among Republicans, at least those who vote in the primaries.  But Americans in general weren't especially discontented--it's normal for a majority to say that things are on the wrong track.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Stay in school?

In December 2013, a Gallup News Service Poll asked "How important is a college education today -- very important, fairly important, or not too important?" 69% said very important, 24% fairly important, and 7% said not important.  While idly looking at a few crosstabulations, I noticed that there were differences by party:  among Democrats, it was 78%-19%-2%; among Republicans, 62%, 28%, and 9%.  Looking at other political questions, a definite pattern appeared.  For example, there were questions about whether you had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Tea Party movement

                                                                     Percent with favorable opinion of
                                             Obama            Democrats       Republicans      Tea Party
Very important                        51                     44                     32                  28
Fairly important                      37                     30                     33                  37
not too important                    16                      13                     31                  55

People who thought education was less important were considerably less favorable towards Obama and the Democratic Party, and more favorable to the Tea Party movement, but not to the Republican Party.

There were also questions about whether people were satisfied with how things were going in the country and in their personal lives.  22% of the people who said very important, 20% of those who said fairly important, and 3% (yes, 3%) of those who said not too important were satisfied with how things were going in the country.  With personal life, they distinguished degrees of satisfaction, and the results were :

                           Very Satisfied    Somewhat satisfied    S. dissatisfied   V. dissatisfied
Very Important            54%                      28%                              6%                    11%
Fairly important          50%                      31%                              5%                    13%
Not too important        26%                      44%                            18%                    12%

So people who think that college is less important tend to be disgruntled conservatives--they don't like the Democrats, but aren't especially keen on the Republicans, and think that things in general are going badly.  The one thing that they like is the outside political movement--the Tea Party.

This is starting to sound like the standard image of Trump voters, and in fact demographically there are parallels with Trump supporters--less educated, mostly men, and more likely to be white.  (There was no clear difference by income).  So something interesting is going on.    If the question asked about how important education should be, I could offer an explanation for a connection:  people who resented the importance of educational credentials, and thought that willingness to work hard or practical experience should be more important would be dissatisfied and attracted to a populist movement like the Tea Party.  But it asks about how important education is, which seems more neutral.  Maybe some people are answering in terms of "ought" rather than "is," despite the wording.  But a few years ago, I noted that people who said that hard work or saving and spending decisions were the most important factors for getting ahead were more conservative than people who said education was most important.  That suggests that views of the way that things actually work makes a difference.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Simple arithmetic

Deirdre McCloskey had a piece in the NY Times on Sunday called, "Growth, Not Forced Equality, Saves the Poor."  In it, she wrote "As a matter of arithmetic, expropriating the rich to give to the poor does not uplift the poor very much.  If we took every dime from the top 20 percent of the income distribution and gave it to the bottom 80 percent, the bottom folk would be only 25 percent better off."  That didn't sound plausible to me, so I looked up figures on the distribution of income.  There are lots of sources, but the one that came up first was from the Congressional Budget Office.

Rather than interpreting "take every dime" literally, I calculated what would happen if you gave to the bottom quintile until they caught up with the second, then gave equally to the first and second until they caught up with the third, etc., and stopped when the top quntile had been reduced to the level of the fourth.  I call that the egalitarian formula.  I also calculate an alternative in which the money is distributed equally to the four lowest quintiles, again stopping when the top quintile is at the same level as the fourth.
                       Actual             Egalitarian            Flat-rate            
Top                $188,000            $83,000                $104,000
2nd                  $83,000            $83,000                 $104,000
3d                    $59,000            $77,000                 $80,000
4th                   $42,000            $77,000                 $63,000
Bottom            $24,000            $77,000                 $45,000

The numbers refer to housholds in 2011, and the "actual" are after taxes and transfers.  The average gain in the bottom four quintiles would be a lot more than 25%--the bottom three would gain by more than 25% under either formula.  Of course, if redistribution led to slower economic growth (and extreme redistribution like this probably would) it would not help the poor in the long run, but it would take quite a while for lost growth to offset the immediate gains.  To quote John Stuart Mill again "The relaxation of industry and activity, and diminished encouragement to saving which would be their ultimate consequence, might perhaps be little felt by the class of unskilled labourers in the space of a single lifetime."

Where did McCloskey get the 25% figure?  Given the magnitude of the discrepancy, it can't be a matter of using figures from a different year, or individuals instead of households, or some other technical issue.  If you interpret "take every dime" literally, start with 20 and divide it 4 ways, that gives 5, which is indeed 25% of 20.  That is, she didn't take account of the fact that people in the top quintile of incomes have higher incomes than people in bottom four quintiles.   That's the only explanation I can think of.  That leads to the question of how someone who is not just a trained economist, but a  Distinguished Professor (emerita) of Economics, History, English, and Communication could make this kind of blunder, but I'm not going to try to answer that.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Yes you can

Paul Krugman has a blog post called "What do Trump voters want"?  The obvious answer for most of them was a Republican president, but Krugman was concerned with the working-class voters who shifted from voting Democratic in previous elections.  He concluded that "I don’t think any kind of economic analysis can explain this. It has to be about culture and, as always, race."  His reasoning was that these voters were going against their economic interests, since they benefited from government spending that Trump was likely to cut.

 I think he's giving up on economic analysis too quickly.  As John Stuart Mill said, people "never . . . save in very exceptional cases . . . direct their conduct by their real ultimate interest, in opposition to their immediate and apparent interest."  Trump could appeal to an "immediate and apparent interest"--protecting American jobs.  A professional economist would say that restricting trade wasn't in the "real ultimate interest" of Americans generally, but many people, especially people with less education, aren't convinced by or even aware of the arguments for free trade.  Also, not everyone gains--the benefits are spread widely, in the form of lower prices, while the costs are concentrated on the workers who are most exposed to foreign competition--that is, on factory workers, or people who would like to get a factory job instead of a poorly paid service job. In principle, the government could increase taxes enough to compensate the "losers" and leave everyone better off, but no one is foolish enough to imagine that will actually happen.  So it's understandable that Trump's promise of "America First" and rejection of trade deals appealed to less educated voters, especially since the Clinton campaign didn't make much effort to reply to it.  As Mill said, "protection of the home producer against foreign industry" is one of the "very natural . . . results of a feeling of class interest in a governing majority of manual laborers."

I don't have any direct evidence for this interpretation, but we can look at the pattern of state differences.  The states in which Trump did well were pretty much the same as those in which Romney did well in 2012 (see the figure), but there were some differences.

Trump's biggest gains over Romney were in North Dakota, West Virginia, Iowa, South Dakota, and Maine.  Those states are all overwhelmingly white.  You could argue that means that the changes really were about race--people are more afraid of the "other" when they hadn't had much exposure to diversity.  But there's a long tradition, which has empirical support, holding that race is more important to white voters in places that are more racially diverse.  For example, when people talked about "Reagan Democrats" in 1980 they meant white working-class voters in places like the New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit metropolitan areas (see this paper).

Although the states that shifted to Trump are all rural and overwhelmingly white, their economic situations vary widely.  West Virginia has one of the highest unemployment rates of all states, while the Dakotas are among the lowest.  The same is true for rates of disability.  One thing I think that they have in common, although I can't find any clear data, is the importance of extractive industries--lumber in Maine, and energy in the others (coal in West Virginia, the Keystone pipeline in the Dakotas, and ethanol production in Iowa).  It seems like the "immediate and apparent" interest of people in those states aligned with Trump.

Monday, December 12, 2016

History repeats itself

A number of people have remarked on parallels between Donald Trump and Senator Joe McCarthy (e. g. this post from Andrew Gelman in June).  In light of the election results, there's another one:  they both got more support among less educated people.  In November, 1954, a NORC survey asked "all things considered, would you say you think favorably of Senator McCarthy, or unfavorably."  The breakdown was:

                 Favorably   Unfavorably   DK
Not HS Grad        46%         29%         25%
HS Grad            47%         34%         19%
Some College       43%         47%         10%
College Grad       36%         58%          6%

TOTAL               45%        35%         21%

There were class differences as well; if you define class by the occupation of the main wage earner, the breakdown is:

White collar         42%       43%       15%
Blue collar          48%       30%       22% 
Farm                 43%       26%       31%

but they were mostly due to education--net of education, the only clear difference is between professionals and all other occupations.

At the time of this survey, McCarthy was near the end of his run.  A Senate resolution to censure him had been proposed in July, and a bipartisan committee "whose members were notable for their impeccable reputations and legal expertise" had been appointed to investigate.  The gave their report at the end of September, and unanimously recommended censure.  The Senate reconvened on November 8 to hear the case, and on December 2 passed a motion of censure by 67-22, with about half of the Republicans (who had a majority in the Senate) voting in favor.  Another NORC survey in January 1955 asked the same question.  The results were 39% favorably, 42% unfavorably, and 29 didn't know:  a definite shift against McCarthy, but he still had substantial popular support.  Among people who had not graduated from high school, who were the largest group at the time, favorable views outnumbered unfavorable ones.

This reminded me of a post-election commentary by Luigi Zingales.  He compared Trump to Silvio Berlusconi, and said that "Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity" and said that the Clinton campaign had made the same mistake.  A general statement that personal attacks increase a candidate's popularity is clearly false, but I think there's a core of truth here:  attacks for violating norms of civility, good taste, or the dignity of the office are not very effective among less educated people, who are are less likely to know or care what the norms are, or to recognize unsavory historical echoes (e. g., "America First").  Trump provided many opportunities for attacks on these grounds (as had Berlusconi and McCarthy);  as a result, the Democrats neglected angles that might have been more effective.

Zingales also said that "Hillary Clinton was so focused on explaining how bad Mr. Trump was that she too often didn’t promote her own ideas, to make the positive case for voting for her."  I don't think that she needed to do that much to promote her ideas--the principles of increasing regulation of business and government programs intended to help the middle class and the poor are already familiar.  What she didn't do was respond to his attacks on trade agreements and his claims that there was no border security.  Those were issues that previous Republican presidential candidates had not pushed, and they appealed to many voters.  Trump gave voters some novel and plausible reasons to vote for him; Clinton countered with arguments that were effective with only some of the voters--more educated and sophisticated ones.  I think that combination explains why Trump did better than previous Republican nominees among less educated voters.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Declining support for democracy?

Last week, the New York Times reported on research by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk that saw a decline in popular support for democracy.  (The paper it talked about is not out yet, but Foa and Mounk published a related article this summer).  This surprised me, since support for democracy and opposition to authoritarianism is strongly related to education, and average levels of education are rising throughout the world.  Also, there seems to have been a general cultural drift, in which political movements of the left, right, and center all claim to be working to give more power to the people.  Of course, their actions might sometimes damage democracy, but it seems like everyone appeals to democracy as a principle.

I looked at the World Values Survey (the major data source for Foa and Mounk), which contains several general questions about forms of government:

"Various types of political systems are described below. Please think about each choice in terms of governing this country and indicate if you think that it would be a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing [your nation]:

a. Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections
b. Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country
c. Having the army rule
d. Having a democratic political system"

The questions are included in four waves of the WVS:  1994-8, 1999-2004, 2005-9, and 2010-14. The prevailing view seems to be that support for democracy may be weak and unstable at first, but that once democracy is firmly established, you don't go back, so I limited it to nations in the latest wave that have a history of stable democracy.  I calculated a summary of opinions--ratings of democracy minus the ratings of all the others.  For example, in 1994 the average rating was 3.4 (4="very good," .... 1= "very bad") for democracy, 2.1 for experts, 1.5 for a strong leader, and  1.3 for the army, for a score of 3.4-2.1-1.5-1.3=-1.5.  The actual value is not meaningful--interest is in how it compares to other nations, with higher numbers meaning more support for democracy relative to the alternatives.  The results:

The United States ranked highest in support for democracy in 1994-8, but lowest in all subsequent waves.  In the other nations, there was fluctuation with no clear trend--the United States stands out for its sustained decline.

Rule by the army or a strong leader are clearly non-democratic, but having experts make decisions is more ambiguous.  People could be thinking of something like the Federal Reserve Board in the United States, which is accountable to the public in some sense.  So I computed an alternative of rating of democracy minus rating of rule by the army or a strong leader.

The results are pretty much the same, although the contrast between the United States and everyone else is a little more striking.  So the United States is different--it's certainly had a larger decline in support for democracy, and is arguably the only one of these nations to have had a decline.

Why?  One possibility would be poor results--if democracy isn't delivering the goods, people will lose confidence in it.  This might be a factor in some of the changes, like the decline in support for democracy in Spain between 2005-9 and 2010-4, when that country was hit hard by the recession.  But it declined substantially in the United States between 1994 and 1999, when the economy was doing well, the country wasn't involved in any wars or threatened by foreign powers, and crime was dropping.  Another possibility is that people are reacting against political polarization and conflict.  Although people sometimes recall the 1990s as a period of relative good feeling, the news was dominated by a long series of investigations of Bill Clinton starting in 1994 and culminating in nearly party-line votes on his impeachment in 1999, with a little time out for a government shutdown in 1995.  That sort of thing has continued in the 21st century.  Another factor may have been increasing deference to the military making people more receptive to the idea of rule by the army.  Although my knowledge of the recent political history of most of the other nations is sketchy, I think that the United States is the only one that's had a dramatic increase in polarization.  The position of the military is certainly unique.   Overall, we seem to have a case of American exceptionalism, but not in a good sense.