The Republican Party’s cynical electoral philosophy

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a law that could disenfranchise 600,000 Texans. But the effects of the law won’t fall equally: African-Americans and Latinos are 305 percent and 195 percent less likely (respectively) to have the necessary forms of identification than whites. The Republican party is increasingly unpopular, and relies almost exclusively on white voters. The charts below show the 2008 if only white men voted and if only people of color voted (source). Since 2008, people of color become a growing share of the voting population while the GOP has, if anything, moved further to the right. It has further alienated voters of color with racist attacks and laws. But as they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, make sure they don’t vote. Over the last four years the Republicans have gone through elaborate attempts to make sure populations that don’t support them don’t get a chance to vote.

 Since 2006, Republicans have pushed through voter ID laws in 34 states.  Such laws did not exist before 2006, when Indiana passed the first voter ID law. The laws were ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud, but a News21 investigation finds only 2,068 instance of alleged fraud since 2000 (that is out of over 146 million voters). They estimate that there is one accusation of voter fraud for every 15 million voters. As Mother Jones notes, instances of voter fraud are more rare than UFO sightings. There have been only 13 instances of in-person voter fraud (the sorts that a voter ID law would reduce), while 47,000 people claim to have seen a UFO.

On the other hand, research by the Brennan Center for Justice finds that, “as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.” Those who do not have ID are most likely to be “seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students” – i.e. people who vote Democratic (chart source).

There is now a large literature studying the effects of voter ID laws. James Avery and Mark Peffley find, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” The GAO finds that, voter ID laws reduce turnout among those between ages 18-23 and African-Americans (two key Democratic constituencies). A 2013 study finds that the proposal and passage of voter ID laws are, “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” They write, “Our findings confirm that Democrats are justified in their concern that restrictive voter legislation takes aim along racial lines with strategic partisan intent.” [Italics in original] The authors also find that increases in low-income voter turnout triggered voter ID laws. A more recent study finds, “where elections are competitive, the furtherance of restrictive voter ID laws is a means of maintaining Republican support while curtailing Democratic electoral gains.” That is, not all Republican legislatures propose voter ID laws – only those that face strong competition from Democrats. If Republicans are concerned about election integrity, why do they only pass voter ID laws when they’re about to lose an election? Because they’re using these laws for partisan advantage.

Voter ID laws are also racially motivated. A recent study finds that voters are significantly more likely to support a voter ID law when they are shown pictures of black people voting than when shown white people voting. In Minnesota, Take Action Minnesota showed that a pro-voter ID group had a picture on their website showing a black inmate voting and a man wearing a mariachi outfit – clearly playing off racial stereotypes.

But this isn’t the only time Republicans have tried to leverage state-level advantages into federal gains. After the 2010 walloping, Republicans decided they would need to tilt the odds in their favor. Using their control of state legislatures, they gerrymandered districts to ensure their victory. In 2012, Democrats actually had a larger share of the popular vote for the House of Representatives, while Republicans gained their largest House majority in 60 years. Cook Political Report noted, “House GOP Won 49 Percent of Votes, 54 Percent of Seats.” How? They changed the rules of the game. Karl Rove came out and said it in an op-ed, writing, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” They won in districts that were drawn specifically to allow them to win. There were certainly other factors at play, but it’s hard to image Republicans winning as many seats without their nifty swindle.

As Tim Dickinson points out, this isn’t the end:

In a project with the explicit blessing of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a half-dozen Republican-dominated legislatures in states that swing blue in presidential elections have advanced proposals to abandon the winner-take-all standard in the Electoral College…Thanks to the GOP’s gerrymandering, such a change would all but guarantee that a Democratic presidential candidate in a big, diverse state like Michigan would lose the split of electoral votes even if he or she won in a popular landslide.

If Republicans have their way, we’ll eventually be back to the days of the poll tax and the literacy test, where the votes of blacks, youth and the poor simply don’t count. We’re already half-way there; one study finds that the indirect costs of obtaining a voter ID are higher than the cost of a poll tax was. The Senate, with its antiquated system of two Senators per state means that the largely rural, old, white and conservative Midwest and South have far more sway than liberal metropolitan areas. By one estimate, 0.59% of the U.S. population will decide control of the Senate this election. This gives Republicans a strong advantage in the Senate, something to remember if they win it this election.

Republicans have also made use of felony disenfranchisement to boost their electoral success. Some 5.85 million Americans are denied the vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Because of the racial bias in our criminal justice system and the war on drugs, a disproportionate share of these voters are black. One study finds that because felons are more likely to be poor and people of color, disenfranchisement benefits Republicans. The authors estimate that, “at least one Republican presidential victory would have been reversed if former felons had been allowed to vote.” Further, they find that such laws may have impacted control of the Senate, and even more state and local elections. It’s no surprise that in Florida, a state where 10% of voters can’t vote because of a felony conviction, one of Rick Scott’s first moves as governor was to tighten rules for felons trying to gain voting rights. To add insult to injury, some 2 million incarcerated citizens are often counted as residents of the place where they are incarcerated, rather than their home. This allows districts where prisons are built to gain disproportionate influence because districts will often include large, non-voting prison populations. In Ward 6 of Rhode Island, prisoners represented 25% of the population.

The radicalism of the Tea Party and the Republican party at-large is partially due to the fact that they don’t represent the whole population- they represent a primarily white and middle to high income voting bloc. And that’s how Republicans want to keep it – they know they can’t win in fair race, so like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, they set all sorts of obstacles in their opponent’s way. Hopefully, much like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, their plan will blow up in their faces. Voters will be so angry about Republican attempts to suppress the vote that they’ll turn out in even higher numbers. Evidence suggests that a shift in turnout would have important effects on policy. Sadly, convicted felons, undocumented immigrants and many citizens without ID will still be denied the vote. In the cartoons, cheaters never win, for Republicans it’s been a successful electoral strategy for three decades running.

 

A version of this piece originally appeared on Salon.

The 1% are more likely to vote than the poor or the middle class, and it matters — a lot

Does it matter that the wealthy turnout to vote at a rate of almost 99% while those making below $10,000 vote at a rate of 49%? It sure seems like it would, but for a long time many political scientists and journalists believed it didn’t. In their seminal 1980 study on the question (using data from 1972) Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone argued that, “voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population.” In a 1999 study, Wolfinger and Benjamin  Highton find a slightly larger gap between voters and nonvoters, but stillconclude, “non-voters appear well represented by those who vote.”

This argument has been largely assimilated by pundits and also non-voters, 59% of whom believe “nothing ever gets done,” and 41% of whom say “my vote doesn’t make a difference anyway.”

But more recent research suggests that the logic of wealth voters is sound — and that if the poor and middle class turned out at a higher rate, policy would shift leftward on economic policy. The most importantstudy on the question is by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler. They revisit the Wolfinger/Rosenstone thesis and find that, in fact, non-voters are not, “a carbon copy” of the voting electorate as previously assumed. They find that, “notable demographic, economic, and political changes that have occurred in the U.S. since Wolfinger and Rosenstone’s classic statement [their 1980 book, "Who Votes"].” The most important difference that Leighley and Nagler find is that:

After 1972, voters and non-voters differ significantly on most issues relating to the role of government in redistributive policies. In addition to these differences being evident in nearly every election since 1972, we also note that the nature of the electoral bias is clear as well: voters are substantially more conservative than non-voters on class-based issues.

 

That is, after the New Deal consensus eroded, policy views became more polarized along class lines and the class-skewed nature of the electorate began to matter considerably. Non-voters skew left on a variety of issues:

A Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study of Californians from 2006 finds that non-voters are more likely to support higher taxes and more services. They are also more likely to oppose Proposition 13 (a constitutional amendment which limits property taxes) and to support affordable housing (a more recent study finds similarly). More recently, a 2012 Pew study that examined likely voters and non-voters finds a strong partisan difference. While likely voters in the 2012 presidential election split 47% in favor of Obama and 47% in favor of Romney, 59% of non-voters supported Obama and only 24% supported Romney. The study also found divergence on other key policy issues, including healthcare, progressive taxation and the role of government in society.

The ideological turnout gap seems strongly related to the economic divide in voting behavior. A recent study by William Franko, Christopher Witko and Nathan Kelly examined 30 years of data for all 50 states. They find no instances in which low-income voter turnout was higher than high-income voter turnout. Across midterm and presidential elections, Census data show strong gaps between turnout rates between those earning above $150k and those earning less than $10k (a 32.6 point gap in 2008, a 34.9 point gap in 2010).

There is evidence that this affects the political system. Consider a recent study by David Broockman and Christopher Skovron finds that politicians believe that their constituencies are significantly more conservative than they are. Such a bias should be impossible to sustain – politicians have strong electoral incentives to gauge their constitutents’ views correctly. Once we understand that voters are more conservative than non-voters, the puzzle disappears. Politicians’s real constituents are the people who vote — a disproportionately affluent and conservative slice of the population.

Conversely, where the electorate is less skewed policy outcomes shift left. In a recent study William Franko, Nathan J. Kelly and Christopher Witko find that “where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.” In another study, Franko examined voting gaps and policy outcomes in three areas–minimum wages, anti-predatory lending laws and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program). He finds that states with smaller voting gaps across incomes had policies more favorable to the poor. States with low turnout inequality have a higher minimum wage, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits than those with high turnout inequality.

The design and benefit levels of  many social safety net programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are decided at the state level, which provides a natural experiment to test how turnout inequality  affects policy. James Avery and Mark Peffley find that, in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits. Political scientists Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find in two studies that states with a more pronounced turnout bias, social welfare spending is lower. Thus, the evidence confirms what theory would predict: closing low-income voting gaps is consequential for public policy, in favor of lower-income households.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.

Why Turning Out The Vote Makes A Huge Difference In Four Charts

For decades, the conventional wisdom in political science was that the voting electorate was a“carbon copy” of the non-voting electorate, leading two political scientists to argue that, “outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” Although the thesis was tenable in the 1980s and even 1990s, wide chasms have opened up on class lines, and therefore voting lines as well.

As Larry Bartels recently noted, “No other rich country even came close to matching [the U.S.] level of class polarization in budget-cutting preferences.” In a recent study with Bartels and Jason Seawright, Benjamin Page finds that the wealthiest one percent are more conservative than the population as a whole. Within their sample, the wealthiest tended to be even more conservative than the less wealthy participants. They find that even wealthy Democrats are more conservative on economic issues than Democrats on the whole. This comports with a vast literature finding that the wealthy tend to be more economically conservative and therefore likely to support Republicans (see chart).

Recent studies of the non-voting population suggests that wide gaps have opened up between voters and non-voters. In their recent book, “Who Votes Now?” Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler find that, “there are notable, consistent and substantial differences between voters and non-voters on class-based issues.” In the chart below, we can see clear differences between voters and non-voters on key economic issues.

A recent Pew study finds that non-voters are far more likely to oppose repealing Obamacare and support government “doing more things.” While likely voters were split between Obama and Romney, each with 47 percent of the vote, non-voters supported Obama by a whopping 35 points (59 percent to 24 percent).

All of this suggests that more turnout, particularly among low-income voters, would shift our political system to the left. The Median Voter Theorem postulates that democratic systems will produce policy outcomes that align with the preferences of the median voter suggests that turnout gaps as a source of policy bias toward more affluent households. Because non-voters are more economically liberal than voters, the median voter is more conservative than the electorate at large. If more low-income people voted, politicians would become more economically liberal to court the new voters. In one interesting study David Broockman and Christopher Skovron finds that politicians believe that their constituencies are significantly more conservative than they are:

conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by more than 20 percentage points on average, and liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points

 

Such a bias should be impossible to sustain – a Republican could easily win by moving slightly to the left of his opponent. However, given that the population that votes is significantly more conservative than those who do no, it’s unsurprising. Politicians respond to voters, not non-voters. In a recent study examining party platforms, Gerald Wright and Elizabeth Wright find, “a portion of the differential responsiveness we identified stems from parties overlooking low-income constituents who are unlikely to vote.”

But the evidence is not only theoretical: a large literature shows that when low income voters turnout at a higher rate, it leads to more generous policies. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko examined all 50 states over more than three decades and found that “where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.” In another study, Franko examined voting gaps and policy outcomes in three areas—minimum wages, anti-predatory lending laws and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program). He finds that states with smaller voting gaps across incomes had policies more favorable to the poor. States with low turnout inequality have a higher minimum wage, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits than those with high turnout inequality. Further evidence comes from James Avery and Mark Peffley, who find that, in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits. Two studies by Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find shows that states with a more pronounced turnout bias spend less on social welfare.

When black voters mobilized in the wake of the Voting Rights Act, Kenny Whitby and Franklin Gilliam find, “long-term Democratic incumbents have altered their voting patterns due in part to the mobilization and empowerment of the southern black electorate.” And it’s not only policy that would be affected. Thomas Hansford and Brad Gomez studied more than 50 years of data and find that the “effect of variation in turnout on electoral outcomes appears quite meaningful.”

When voter turnout is discussed in public it is often treated as a civic obligation, rather than a means to advance individual interests. Republican candidates often denounce low-income voters for voting for the party that best advances their class interests (while at the same time supporting massive tax cuts for their rich constituents). Yet when Benjamin Page interview the rich he finds that they, “acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self-interest” when discussing their engagement in the political process. In this way, the recent Lil’ Jon video, “Turnout For What,” while tacky, has reframed the voting as a means to forward political interests, rather than as a civic obligation. Since some 41 percent of non-voters claim that their vote wouldn’t matter, this message is important. It’s also important to remove barriers to voting. Research by Jame Avery and Mark Peffley finds, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” In contrast, states that have adopted same-day registration and vigorously enforced the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) have lower levels of class bias in their electorate. Research also suggests that unions are an important mechanism for low and middle income voters to engage with the political process. Attempts to disempower than should also be viewed through the lens of voter suppression.

Increasing voter turnout won’t solve the manifold ways the wealthy control the political process. However, it is an important first step toward a more equal democracy and would bring force politicians to consider the interests of low-income voters.

This piece originally appeared on Talking Points Memo

Control of the Senate will be decided by 1.5% of the population

The Senate is a profoundly undemocratic institution. Because representation is apportioned by state, people in California (pop: 38.3 million) has the same number of representatives as Wyoming (pop: 582,658). California has one Senator for every 19.5 million people, while Wyoming has one for every 291,329 people. This leads to all sorts of distortions, since the mostly conservative, rural middle states have a stronger influence on policy than metropolitan areas. Dylan Matthews calculates that you can get a majority in the Senate using only senators representing 17.82% of the population. Adam Liptak writes that the political implication of this bias: 

Beyond influencing government spending, these shifts generally benefit conservative causes and hurt liberal ones. When small states block or shape legislation backed by senators representing a majority of Americans, most of the senators on the winning side tend to be Republicans, because Republicans disproportionately live in small states and Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

The upcoming midterm election gives us a great example of how profoundly undemocratic the Senate is. Assuming the Republicans hold the seats they have, they can gain a majority by picking up Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Those six states represent 3.7% of the U.S. population.  But not everyone votes. I pulled up the 2010 Census data (Table 4C) and ran some calculations. Let’s assume that turnout is the same and that these states still have roughly the same share of the population. If that’s true, the Senate will be be decided by 4.8% of voters, 2% of the U.S. Voting Eligible Population (VEP)* and 1.5% of the total population of the United States. Democracy.

Here’s my calculations:

CensusData1

* Citizens over 18.

 

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

This is your brain on money: Why America’s rich think differently than the rest of us

Consider the following recent headlines:

The Internet is replete with apologias for the rich. They are thinly sourced and even less well thought. The goal is simple: to justify the unjustifiable chasm between the rich and poor, globally and within our nation. But the irony is that, rather than being better than the rest of us, in many ways the rich are worse.

Paul Piff and his co-authors, who have done extended research on the behaviors of the wealthy, find that lower class individuals are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than upper class individuals. In another study, they find individuals with expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers and pedestrians. Further, in laboratory experiments, wealthy participants were more likely to take valued goods, cheat, lie and endorse such behavior. These studies have support from other sources. For instance, the wealthy actually donate less to charity as a share of their income than the middle class. Their giving is more dependent on the economic climate than the middle class. It is unsurprising that Christ warned, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The rich tend to behave badly, but their bad behaviors are often socially accepted; a behavior that would be seen as inappropriate by a poor person is seen as a minor offense by the rich. (See: casual drug use.) The reason is simple: in a society that worships wealth, those with wealth are worshipped as well. A young economist wrote in 1844,

“The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers… I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the realbrain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless?”

Economist Chris Dillow cites research by Cameron Anderson and Sebastien Brion, showing that overconfident individuals are seen by others as more competent. He argues that, “overconfident people are more likely to be promoted. And this could have positive feedback effects. Higher status will itself breed even more overconfidence. (E.g. “I got the job so I must be good.”) And if bosses employ like-minded subordinates, the result could be entire layers of management which are both over-confident and engaged in groupthink.”

This effect is reinforced further by the “just-world” bias, which leads us to believe that the rich and powerful deserve their positions. In a famous study, Melvin Lerner found that when students were informed that another student had randomly won a prize, they attributed positive characteristics to the student who had won. Studies have also shownthat people attribute negative characteristics to victims — from Kent State students shot by the National Guard, to young black men shot by police, to low-wage workers.

A more recent study by Justus Heuer, Christoph Merkle and Martin Weber finds rather the same thing: Investors are fooled into believing risk-taking is based in skill, rather than chance. Like the students in the experiment, investors believe managers who are simply reaping returns from risky bets are, in fact, oracles. Another study by Arvid Hoffmann and Thomas Post finds that “the higher the returns in a previous period are, the more investors agree with a statement claiming that their recent performance accurately reflects their investment skills (and vice versa).” Research by Charles O’Reilly and others finds that narcissistic CEOs are better paid than other CEOs. Another study finds that employees that spend more time grooming make more than workers who do not. (The effect is particularly strong for men of color.) All of this should leave us skeptical of the idea, promoted by many free-market fundamentalists, that compensation is set by objective market factors. As Christopher Lasch notes, “Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.”

Many defenders of the rich argue that the rich are special and therefore merit special treatment. (Charles Murray has gone as far as to argue that the rich should preach their virtues to the poor.) Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy have individually earned their place in society. But this is unlikely. Numerous studies find that financiers are vastly overpaid, and hedge fund managers, even the best, rarely beat the market. CEOs are also vastly overpaid, and largely benefit from a shift in tax policy that allows rent-seeking to flourish.

A famous economist once wrote,

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

The economist was not Marx, but Adam Smith.

In “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that wealth can persist for 10 or more generations. But biases, like the self-serving bias and optimism bias, lead the wealthy to attribute to themselves what is actually caused by factors beyond their control. Lucky people are seen as skillful, and are constantly worshiped for their success. Eventually they begin to believe what others say, leading to a narcissistic personality — or as Paul Piff says, “characteristics we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

There’s an apocryphal story in which F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “The rich are different from you and me,” and Ernest Hemingway retorts,“Yes, they have more money.” In his story, “Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald writes of the wealthy: “They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

All humans all delusional. It is only the rich who have that delusion fostered. All humans are, to some extent, assholes. But only rich people can get away with it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Why the GOP hates U.S. history: Inconvenient truths that freak out American conservatives

Conservative hero Ben Carson is worried about American teenagers joining ISIS. But it’s not because of “radical Islam.” It’s because of new high school history standards.

American’s right wing, you see, is terrified of history because it is always sentimentalizing it. Many of its arguments rely on a feeling of nostalgia for “good old days,” that appeals almost exclusively to aging whites. That means that a more accurate history, one that considers groups that are traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor — don’t necessarily sit that well. Their stories, the stories of the downtrodden, crush the false narrative that many conservatives like to imagine — that of a idyllic past marred by the New Deal, women’s liberation and civil rights.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a school board recently tried to limit the historical curriculum to only events that would, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Needless to say, much of American history — the Great Depression, the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese-Americans — would, under those parameters, need to obfuscated. The Republic National Committee, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the new Advanced Placement U.S. History standards ”radically revisionist.” But conservatives may want to take the plank out of their own eye before examining the speck in their neighbors. Here are the most important distortions of history the right has promoted recently.

Before Welfare, Everything Was Awesome 

Example: Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argues, “Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions.”

The Problem: As with most conservative revisionism, the idea is that before nasty programs like welfare, the poor did just fine, because private charity aided them. Many conservatives will argue that the War on Poverty has done nothing to reduce poverty and instead we should rely on private charity. But the War on Poverty has actually done much to eliminate poverty and private charity could never fill that chasm that would open up if federal poverty programs were eliminated. So how did we get rid of poverty before government? The answer is that there never was a mythical time without government.

As Mike Konczal writes,

“There has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century.”

Later, Congress established a pension system for civil war veterans that consumed about 25 percent of all government spending. Rather than “welfare queens” being a post New-Deal development, some 40 states had programs to support single mothers in 1920. In fact, far from being an invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and liberals, social insurance programs are staple in civil society. Frederik Pedersen finds that back in the 10th through 12th centuries, Iceland had an extensive social welfare program. Rome, too, had a system of public support designed to aid poor children.

Elizabeth Bruenig notes that the purely voluntary Church-based social insurance many Christians adore never existed. Conservatives ignore the fact that the church was often acting in accord with the state, “You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.” Islamic public assistance was also a hybrid church-state institution. The idea that there has ever been a successful purely voluntary public assistance program is a conservative myth invented to justify dismantling anti-poverty programs in the name of a utopian fantasy.

Basically everything about slavery 

Example: Recently convicted felon and conservative columnist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “The End of Racism,” provides some great examples of rewriting race. D’Souza says of slavery, “No free workers enjoyed a comparable social security system from birth until death.” Later, he writes, “Masters … encouraged the family unit which basically remained intact.” He concludes, “In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The Problem: Conservatives in the U.S. have a race problem, specifically that many of them believe that blacks are “primarily responsible for their own success or failure” and that government programs only get in the way. And conservative politicians tend to racialize welfare programs to decrease support for them. To believe that black Americans would have been better off without government intervention, you have to pretend history doesn’t matter.

As Marx notes, people, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” There simply is little mobility for black Americans today because the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and housing segregation still weighs heavily. A recent study finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Further, white people in these counties harbor more racial resentment.

That’s because when slavery permeated society — the legal structure, culture, science — nothing was left untouched by racism and racial hierarchy. The conservative “I built this myself” mentality denies that most wealth is passed from generation to generation, and so is privilege. Erasing the memory of racial hierarchy allows conservatives and Americans to pretend that individual effort, rather than structural racism, is keeping black people down.

So what was slavery really like? Jennifer Hallam writes, “Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.” Rather than being “relatively mild,” slavery relied on brutality and violence, the horrors of which are described in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

And, of course, racism and racial hierarchy didn’t end when slavery was formally abolished, but rather continued through local policies, terrorism and violence. This violence was often orchestrated at the highest levels of government. Consider, for example, the FBI’s attempts to discredit MLK or the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

In his response to Phil Robertson’s sentimentalism about the Jim Crow era last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates cites Freddie Moore:

“The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche. Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.”

And racial violence didn’t end in the ’30s, but continued until through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and, well, two months ago.

U.S. foreign policy

Example: Conservative foreign policy is dictated by a small coterie of conquistadors. These people are called “neo-conservatives.” Some people claim neoconservatives have no uniting vision; in fact, the basis of neo-conservativism is a belief that imperial violence can spread democracy. To maintain this myth, the long history of imperialism must be re-written. Thus the official RNC statement on the AP controversy laments that “the [AP] Framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) …” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including American involvement in WWII, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.”

The Problem: Imperial violence cannot spread democracy. America’s foreign policy history is littered with failed attempts to impose our ideas on others — often with the ulterior motive of stealing resources. As Mark Twain writes, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Among the other examples of horrifying and cynical use of American power conservatives may wish to avoid:

  • Reagan supporting the Contras, a fascist junta: Much of Reagan’s presidency is now hagiography, rather than history. Because of this, it’s often hard to remember how awful the group that Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” truly was. Truth is, the Nicaraguan Contras were known for their brutality. And where did Reagan get the money to support the brutes? Why, by selling weapons to Iran. Yes, the Iran that George W. Bush later called a member of the Axis of Evil. The International Court of Justice ruled against the U.S. for violating another country’s sovereignty and laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, but the U.S. ignored the decision.
  • Chemical weapons: Before the U.S. joined forces with Assad to fight ISIS, he was public enemy number one for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilian populations. But the U.S. has used chemical weapons on a range and scale that Assad could hardly even fathom. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dumped between 12 and 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. At least 1 million Vietnamese had defects or disabilities caused by U.S. chemical attacks. And those chemical weapons we judged Saddam Hussein so harshly for using? The U.S. not only knew the attacks were coming, we gave Hussein intelligence on strategic sites to attack.
  • Screwing up democracy: Sure, America supports democracy — unless that democracy will do something to hurt business interests. Among acts that qualify: nationalizing oil fieldsraising minimum wages and boosting literacy. In place, we installed brutal, murderous dictators — but only ones that would push through economic “reforms” and play ball when we needed.
  • Prolonging the Vietnam War: Richard Nixon intentionally sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s chances of winning the Presidency. In the wake of the failure, the war continued for two long and bloody years, made more horrifying by Nixon’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia.

Then there’s the support of genocidal maniacs like SuhartoMontt and Khan. And that’s just the last half century!

Conclusion 

English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines conservatism as “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

There was a time when conservatism was a philosophy concerned primarily with wrestling with and understanding tradition and the limits of human reason and ability. However, these days conservatism is reactionary — it has been imbued with racism, conspiratorial thinking and a hyper-individualistic capitalism. Instead of questioning the limits of reason, it has jettisoned it. In its place remains free market dogmabad Biblical interpretation and a sentimentalized past. In place of reason and argument, most conservatives rely on fantasy and reminiscence. Allowing conservatives to redefine the past will be incredibly harmful.

As George Orwell notes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

This article originally appeared on Salon. 

Inequality benefits the rich and hurts the poor

For a long time, the right has argued that we shouldn’t worry about inequality because the true concern is the reduction of poverty. Conservatives also maintained that higher levels of inequality were unimportant because “a rising tide would lift all boats,” and high levels of inequality propelled the economy forward. New research by Roy van der Weide and Branko Milanovic decimates these myths. They find that inequality doesn’t fuel growth for the whole economy, but rather, just the rich.

Before we get to the research of van der Weide and Milanovic, it’s important to understand how mainstream thought on inequality and growth has changed recently. For a long time, mainstream economists didn’t spend much time worrying about distribution. Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared, “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”

Once rampant inequality did become an increasingly mainstream concern, Martin Feldstein insisted that the question is “not inequality but poverty.” Economists believed that redistribution slowed down economic growth, and that attempts to reduce inequality would, as a result, only worsen poverty. The reasoning had at least two strands of thought: First, since the poor tend to consume most of their income, it was good for the rich to have more wealth to invest in the future — inequality would increase savings. Second, inequality provided incentives for individuals to work harder to take home more of the pie.

There is now a burgeoning literature showing that these assumptions aren’t true, and that inequality actually reduces growth. That’s because the reasons for accepting inequality were actually backwards. Instead of motivating the rich to invest, higher inequality meant that the poor took on more and more debt, destabilizing the economy. Without enough poor and middle-class families consuming their products, businesses had fewer customers, and less revenue. Further, instead of providing the poor and middle class an incentive to better their lives, higher inequality gave the rich a reason to pull up the ladder, leaving the poor behind. Instead of working harder, the rich sit back on their wealth. The poor and middle class, disenchanted by lack of opportunity, have less money to invest in their own education (and are therefore are increasingly burdened by debt). Inequality thereby reduces growth by reducing both demand and upward mobility.

So Milanovic and van der Weide decided to investigate how inequality affects growth across the income spectrum. They used a state-level survey conducted once every decade to estimate annualized income growth at different income percentiles. What the researchers find is that the old story of “trickle down” economics have no support in the data – instead, inequality boosts growth only for the rich.

The charts below show income growth across different percentiles. Each line shows annualized growth over a decade with the horizontal axis defining growth by quintile. The first chart shows that during the relatively equal period of the 1960 to 1970 (red), when inequality was lower, growth was strong and equally distributed (it actually slightly favored the poor). During the 1980-to-2000 period (blue and green) growth favored the rich; however, their gains weren’t enough to make up for the massive losses to the poor and middle class. Finally, in the period between 2000-to-2010, growth for everyone was abysmal in the wake of a massive financial crisis (see the purple line of the final chart). 

As Milanovic tells Salon, “You know it used to be that the U.S. growth was pro-poor, in the sense, that the growth rates among the poor were higher than amongst the rich. Now it’s the opposite.”

Inline image 2

When the authors dug deeper and looked at individual states, they find that, “inequality is negatively associated… with subsequent real growth for the population located below the 25th percentile, and positively with growth for the population belonging to the top decile.” In simple language: Inequality benefits the rich and harms the poor. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats — just the luxury yachts.

Using the data the authors have developed, we can discover what growth would look like in a more equitable society. The chart below shows annual income growth between 1960 and 2010 by percentile in red. The chart is sloped upward, meaning that the income of the richest grew by 1.8 percent each year, while the growth of the poorest grew by .7 percent each year. However, if inequality was reduced by one standard deviation (the difference between Connecticut and South Carolina) across the country, income growth for the poor would more than double, to 1.6 percent each year (blue line).

Inline image 1

This has important political implications. First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. Inequality benefits the rich immensely. Second, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats has been so utterly disproved it should be embarrassing to state in public. Yet reformicons like Michael Strain continue to repeat the mantra, “ Growth Beats Inequality.” That is false, Between 1960 and 2010, GDP increased by an annualized rate of 3.2 percent (a total of  378 percent) but incomes for the poorest 5 percent increased by only .7 percent a year. However, if we had reduced our gini coefficient (the standard measure of inequality) by only 9 percent, to the level of Japan, we could have doubled income growth for the poorest Americans.

Inline image 4

There is also hope, however. The growth rate of the 1960-to-70s was rapid and equitable. Compared with growth rates from the massively unequal 1990-to-2010 period, everyone was better off. So there is some reason to believe the rich could support more equitable policies. But the rich won’t be so easy to persuade – in a massively unequal society, even modest economic growth still benefits economic elites. Don’t worry about growth, worry about inequality.

A version of this article originally appeared on Salon. 

It’s a fact: inequality slows growth

My latest in Salon cites new research on the inequality and growth debate. Toward the end to the piece, I discuss the political implications of the findings:

First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. 

On Twitter, @richisglorious objects:

 

Initially, I was tempted to respond simply that this is a slightly pedantic point – my argument is that even if the wealthy accept the proposition that inequality reduces growth overall, they may still oppose redistribution for other reasons.

As I thought about the question though, I realized the sentence is true: inequality reduces growth. To see why, simply imagine a perfectly unequal society where one person controls all income and everyone else has nothing. There will be no economic growth. Imagine a slightly less unequal society, where ten people control nearly all the income, and everyone else struggle to survive. Again, no growth. The question then, is not whether inequality reduces growth, it’s at what point inequality reduces growth.*

The evidence I summarize in my essay strongly suggests we might be at the point. Other research suggests this as well. But let us not re-litigate this and instead make an important distinction between good inequality and bad inequality.

In my interview with Branko Milanovic, we discussed this distinction. He tells me:

These two extremes [absolute inequality and absolute equality] are clearly not good. We know that the optimum must be at some point in-between. Now, we don’t know what it is. Is this the Gini of “X” or “Y”? We have no idea, but we have in mind a certain “good” range simply by observing things empirically or, sort of, heuristically looking at the world. We see that there are countries that do well economically and socially and what type of inequality they have. Moreover, we have now studies, and I’m quite encouraged by them, which  for the first time try to empirically ascertain what percentage of overall inequality is caused by so called bad inequality. And that leads us to the issue of “deserved” and “undeserved” inequality and social mobility.

The bad or undeserved inequality would be the one that arises from the factors over which you have no control: what was the income level of your parents, whether you were born male or female, what is your race, and things like that. Actually, these studies do show that, in some countries, a large chunk of inequality is due to these factors. Thus we can rank countries by their bad and good inequalities. The good inequality, calculated as the residual between overall and bad inequality, is inequality we effort, work, luck and so on.**

The studies to which he refers can be found here and here. They find, after studying Europe and the United States, that inequality which stems from factors beyond an individual’s control (father’s education/race) are correlated with lower growth. Their study of 23 U.S. states over a two decade periods finds, “Inequality is good for growth when that comes from differences in the returns to effort, while it is harmful for growth when that comes from differences in opportunity.” They also find a strong correlation between changes in total inequality and inequality of opportunity.

Inequality and Opportunity

I believe that there are persuasive reasons to believe that the much of the exploding income inequality in the U.S. is due not to the good inequality, but bad inequality. As inequality increases, the opportunities for rent-seeking through the political system, education system and labor market become greater.

It is also worth noting that good inequality quickly become bad inequality unless mitigated (see: Walton family). Call it the The First Law of Inequality: inequality tends to perpetuate itself unless acted upon by an outside force. Estate taxes and capital gains taxes can limit such rent-seeking.

To summarize: in a state of perfect inequality, there will be no growth. In the state of perfect equality there will be little growth. At some point, inequality will become high enough to choke off growth, mainly by reducing demand and opportunity. Most of the research here is being done by economists who aren’t as cocky as Reinhart/Rogoff and therefore uncomfortable declaring a cut-off point. Instead, we’ll have to use Potter Stewart’s maxim: “I know it when I see it.” I think we see it.

image

* We might have a similar thought experiment with perfect equality, in which no one is motivated to work since they earn the same amount as everyone else. Even if we assume that Amour-propre provides some incentive, we can assume growth would be slower.

** The full interview will be available next week on the Demos Policyshop blog.

Does it matter that Americans can’t name the Fed Chair?

There’s a new Pew Survey that tests your “News IQ.” Take it here. The questions are pretty simple* and it’s multiple choice, so most people can probably make informed guesses. Right now only 1% of people got 12/12 right, with most people clustered between 2 and 6. The questions about the minimum wage and ISIS were answered correctly the most, while questions about government spending, poverty and the Fed Chair were less likely to be answered incorrectly. NewsIQ

 

A few thoughts here. First, remember these numbers every time a Washington insider tells you Hillary is doomed because of some campaign minutia – most people really aren’t paying attention. More importantly, these sorts of quizzes are often used to bludgeon people like myself who work tirelessly to increase voting participation. See for example, here. We’re told the American people are too dumb to vote, and can’t look out for their own preferences. This argument is deeply flawed.The first problem here is that many of the wrong things people believe - about our aging population, benefit fraud, immigration, deficits and government spending – originate from elites. Ideology is the mechanism by which those who control material production control mental production. Because most Americans are not media producers, but consumers, elite opinions are likely to drive politics. This can be reversed, but more often than not it it’s the case. So elites can complain all they want about the fact that Americans don’t understand deficits and monetary policy, but it’s other elites, many who benefit from obfuscation, that perpetuate these falsehoods.

I really don’t worry about the fact that most Americans can’t name Janet Yellen as the federal reserve, because I really don’t think that prevents them from making an informed voting decision. Ultimately, most Americans have fairly defined views on the size of government, social issues, etc. Any confusion is likely the result of elite messaging (i.e. Republicans believe that the government can bring democracy to Iraq but not performing basic tasks like food stamps) rather than the silliness of the American populace. Americans can accurately decide who would better represent their preferences and elect them because they may not know the players, but they know the game.

Take me and sports. I know the rules to baseball. I can explain even rather complicated rules like infield fly and could name the proper time to use most strategies (don’t bunt on the third out, etc.) but I can name literally zero current baseball players. I’m rationally ignorant about the current situation in baseball, but I know quite a bit about the game and could easily become informed if I need to. Most people view politics this way. Why on earth would they follow horse-race politics when they have kids, a job, sports, etc. When it’s time to vote, they’ll likely become informed of what’s happened over the past few months, but before then, why bother? Most pundits ignore this simple fact, so we have to deal with navel gazing every time one of these polls comes out. I’ll write more on this subject in the coming months, but the core fact is that most Americans are aware enough of their policy preferences (though not always interests) to vote.

* I got 11 of 12 right (I slightly overestimated poverty)