Tuesday, February 28, 2017

South versus West: Joan Didion Anticipates the Trump Election in 1970

To many people the election of Donald Trump as president was a soul-rending shock.  What couldn’t possibly happen actually happened.  Much time and effort has been spent on trying to explain what occurred and why.  It is necessary to get the correct answers to those questions and not rush to prematurely drawn conclusions.  In that context, a potentially interesting insight arose from an unexpected source.  Nathaniel Rich wrote a review of Joan Didion’s book, South and West: From a Notebook, for the New York Review of Books under the title Joan Didion in the Deep South.  Didion is a highly-respected writer of novels, screenplays, essays and memoirs.  She was born and has spent much of her life living and working in California, and had an abiding interest in understanding and describing the character of the state and its residents.  Somewhat paradoxically, Didion decided that she might be able to understand California better if she learned more about the South because so many Californians had origins in the South.  Consequently, she spent a month in 1970 driving across the region and taking notes on what she observed and the people to whom she talked.  The study she had intended was never written and published, but her notes from the journey are now about to be released (March, 2017) in book form.  Nathaniel Rich provides this assessment of the product.

“Didion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future.”

It is this notion that the past has predicted the future that is of interest to us today.

One must begin by indicating the common preconceptions about the two regions because they are assumed to be polar opposites in terms of history and prospects for the future.  We are presented with this Didion quote about her home state.

“’The future always looks good in the golden land,’ Didion wrote in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” ‘because no one remembers the past’.”

But a region without a past to act as ballast or anchor can be an unstable construct.  Politics can change quickly in California—at least in its major cities—where cultural upheaval is a way of life.

“….in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as ‘decorative touches’—tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land.”

The South is a quite different place, one where change comes slowly—if at all.

“Even the glimpses of unlikely beauty—the wild carrots growing around the raised railroad tracks in Biloxi, the small girl sitting in the sawdust stringing pop tops from beer cans into a necklace—contribute to the general atmosphere of uneasiness, rot, and ‘somnolence so dense it seemed to inhibit breathing.’ There is a long tradition of northern visitors seeing in the Gulf South an atmosphere of perpetual decline, in which ‘everything seems to go to seed.’ Didion quotes Audubon’s line about ‘the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition,’ though you could go back to 1720, when a visiting French official described the territory as ‘flooded, unhealthy, impracticable’.”

However, Didion saw, or at least sensed, something more powerful and more permanent in her travels through the region.  Here is a quote from her notes presenting a startling hypothesis.

“….a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

How can a region viewed as being in an advanced state of decay be considered to be a representation of the future?

“Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. Part of the answer, she suspects, lies in the bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage—‘distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny and to leave deliberately unmentioned.’ In the South such distinctions are visible, rigid, and the subject of frank conversation.”

“Everybody in the South knows where they stand. There is no shame in discussing it. It is suspicious, in fact, to avoid the subject.”

William Faulkner, a writer from the South once wrote “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”  If true, then the past becomes the future as well.  Didion seems to be sensing this.  Will people be satisfied with a society that promises an exciting but unknowable future?  Or will they prefer the comfort and stability of a society in which “everybody knows where they stand?”

To many liberals, the ideal society would allow people of different races and genders to move fluidly wherever their interests and capabilities might lead them.  They cannot comprehend that others would insist on thinking differently.

“An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.”

Nathaniel Rich accepts Didion’s hypothesis and points to Trump’s election as evidence.

“…..this southern frame of mind has annexed territory in the last four decades, expanding across the Mason-Dixon Line into the rest of rural America. It has taken root among people—or at least registered voters—nostalgic for a more orderly past in which the men concentrated on hunting and fishing and the women on ‘their cooking, their canning, their “prettifying”;’ when graft as a way of life was accepted, particularly in politics, and segregation was unquestioned….”

“Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life. They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.”

Is this a credible position to take?  Could southern ideas and attitudes have seduced citizens from other regions?  That is not a new idea. 

From the era of slavery to today, those in power in the South have fought to maintain it as a low-wage region.  In such a situation people are bred much faster than are living-wage jobs.  The South has a poor attitude toward immigrants, but it has been producing immigrants for other parts of the nation in large numbers throughout its history.  The southern culture was carried with them and likely had an effect on those with whom they cohabited.

Senator Jim Webb (Virginia) wrote a book claiming that these immigrants were mostly the Scots-Irish (his ancestors) and they produced a dramatic change in the areas in which they resettled: Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004).  He makes this claim.

“Domestically, Scots-Irish folkways had become deeply imbedded into the nation’s blue collar communities in every region except the Northeast.”

Kevin Phillips agreed with this notion of migration of southern culture and included a section dealing with “The Southernization of America” in his book American Theocracy The Peril & Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, & Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006).  The “Great Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and the West had a profound effect on the cities in which they settled.  Phillips reminds us that there was a parallel great migration of whites as well.  It likely had its own profound effect.

“In Dixie Rising, Peter Applebome profiled the huge migration out of the South between 1910 and 1960.  Besides 4.5 million blacks, mostly bound for the urban north, some 4.6 million whites also left the South, principally for the Midwest and the West.”

“So many Kentuckians, West Virginians, and Tennesseans went northward to the automobile and rubber plants of the Great Lakes states that most factory cities had their hillbilly hollows and Little West Virginias.”

Much of the history of the United States has played out as a conflict between competing views of the North and the South.  The North has maintained a slight lead in the hearts of the voting public by winning in high population urban areas.  The recent election seems to suggest that the South has won the hearts and minds of everyone else.  It controls the terrain and that is what is important in our electoral system.  Even in bluest of blue California, if one drives about 60 miles due east of  San Francisco one enters a region that has been described as being politically and culturally more like Oklahoma than the Bay Area.

Nathaniel Rich provides this conclusion.

“A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.”

One fears that we will continue to be a fundamentally divided nation for the indefinite future.  It seems that only world wars and massive social upheavals can draw us together.  If there is any good thought to extract from this discussion, consider that Donald Trump seems capable of causing both.  Thus, perhaps, a reconciliation of some sort may become possible.  That is what passes for good news these days.

The interested reader might find the following article informative:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Making the Young More Interested in Politics: Voting at Age 16

There are clear trends in attitude towards democracy and in voting rates for younger citizens that indicate a lack of appreciation of the benefits of a democratic form of government, and a lack of interest in participation in the political process.  This is a troubling development that is addressed in a recent issue of The Economist.  The discussion is broken into an executive summary article, Vote early, vote often: Why the voting age should be lowered to 16, and a more detailed coverage in Millennials across the rich world are failing to vote.

“The trend across the West is disturbing…. Turnout of American voters under 25 at presidential elections fell from 50% in 1972 to 38% in 2012; among over-65s it rose from 64% to 70% (data for the 2016 election are not yet available). For congressional races, the under-25 vote was a dire 17% in 2014. A similar pattern is repeated across the rich world.”

This chart was provided to make the case that people over 55 are much more likely to vote than those under age 25.

The general results are troubling enough, but the data from Israel and Britain are indicative of something being terribly wrong.

The young are going to become even more marginalized by demographic changes.

“In America’s election in 1972, the first in which 18-year-olds could vote, around a fifth of adults were under 25. By 2010 that share was one in eight. Under-25s are on track to make up just a tenth of American adults by mid-century. The young will have dwindled from a pivotal voting bloc into a peripheral one.”

The withdrawal of the young from the political process has moved The Economist to suggest we are moving towards a “gerontocracy” where older voters, with less at stake in the distant future, will vote their interests while the young will have to live with the consequences.

To address this issue one must first arrive at an explanation for why the young behave as they do.  It is suggested that personal circumstances encountered at the time they become eligible to vote make it difficult to develop the habit of voting.

“In Britain only three in five of under-25s watch the news on television, compared with nine in ten of over-55s. Young people are also less likely to read newspapers, or listen to the news on the radio. Each year around a third of British 19-year-olds move house; the average American moves four times between 18 and 30. People who have children and own a home feel more attached to their communities and more concerned about how they are run. But youngsters are settling down later than their parents did.”

“Voting habits are formed surprisingly early—in a person’s first two elections, says Michael Bruter of the London School of Economics. If future generations, discouraged by their fading influence, never adopt the voting habit, turnout will fall further, weakening the legitimacy of elected governments.”

Some believe there is a fundamental shift in attitudes that has developed among the young in recent years.  They tend to think of themselves as individuals with particular interests and concerns rather than as members of a society with shared concerns.

“Millennials do not see voting as a duty, and therefore do not feel morally obliged to do it, says Rob Ford of Manchester University. Rather, they regard it as the duty of politicians to woo them. They see parties not as movements deserving of loyalty, but as brands they can choose between or ignore. Millennials are accustomed to tailoring their world to their preferences, customising the music they listen to and the news they consume. A system that demands they vote for an all-or-nothing bundle of election promises looks uninviting by comparison.”

While the young express general agreement with liberal political and social goals, that does not mean they are willing to identify and support a political party espousing those goals.

“Although the number of young Americans espousing classic liberal causes is growing, only a quarter of 18- to 33-year-olds describe themselves as ‘Democrats’. Half say they are independent, compared with just a third of those aged 69 and over, according to the Pew Research Centre.”

As the participation rates for the young remain low, politicians focus their efforts on those most likely to vote.  The relative lack of communication with the political process encourages the tendency of the young to feel uninvolved with these activities.

“In 1967 around a quarter of both young and old voters in America had previously made contact with a political official. For the elderly, the rate had almost doubled by 2004; for the young, it remained flat at 23%. Parties have responded accordingly: in 2012 they contacted three-fifths of older voters, but only 15% of younger ones. According to a poll weeks before last year’s presidential election by the Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University (CIRCLE), despite the money sloshing around American politics only 30% of millennials reported having been contacted by one of the campaigns. And when parties do contact youngsters, it is often with a message crafted for voters in general, not tailored to them.”

The Economist suggests a few ways to facilitate voting for young people, although these will not necessarily create the desire to vote.

“A solution used in some other countries, including Sweden and Chile, is to put people on the electoral roll automatically when they turn 18. Also important is to make sure that those who have moved and forgotten to update their details are not caught out on election day; since young people move more, they are more likely to be affected. Some American states are experimenting with ‘portable’ voter registration, whereby a change of address with any government institution is transferred to the electoral register.”

Some countries have made voting compulsory.

“Those fretting about the future of democracy have been searching for ways to get more young people to vote. The most obvious would be to make voting compulsory, as it is in Australia, Belgium, Brazil and many other countries. Barack Obama has said such a move would be ‘transformative” for America, boosting the voices of the young and the poor.”

Making voting mandatory would certainly increase voting rates, but would it instill in people the feeling of community that would inspire them to participate willingly in the political process?

The main proposal espoused by The Economist is to encourage younger voting ages such as 16, an option being tried I some countries. The argument is based on the hypothesis that at the age of 16 the young are still students living with parents who can provide the example of voting as a civic duty.  Data suggests that voting can become a habit, but the habit must be initiated. 

Schools could also help in the process by providing experiences that generate interest in democratic processes.  Holding mock votes between candidates or debating opposing sides on social issues would encourage social and political involvement.

“A lower voting age would strengthen the voice of the young and signal that their opinions matter. It is they, after all, who will bear the brunt of climate change and service the debt that paid for benefits, such as pensions and health care, of today’s elderly. Voting at 16 would make it easier to initiate new citizens in civic life. Above all, it would help guarantee the supply of young voters needed to preserve the vitality of democracy. Catch them early, and they will grow into better citizens.”

There is some indication that a lower voting age would increase the likelihood of greater future participation.

“In Scotland, where 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible to vote in the independence referendum in 2014, an impressive three-quarters of those who registered turned out on the day, compared with 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds.”

“Argentina, Austria and other countries are trying to ingrain voting habits earlier by lowering the minimum age to 16. This lets young people cast their first votes while still in school and living with their parents. In Austria, the only European country to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote nationwide, they have proved more likely than 18- to 20-year-olds to turn out in the first election for which they qualify to vote.”

The young, and others who have not developed the habit of voting regularly, can often be moved to jump into the process suddenly when an especially compelling politician appears or one overriding issue takes the political stage.  The results can be significant—both for the good and the bad.  Obama in 2008 greatly boosted voter participation.  Canada had a similar experience recently.

“In Canada just 37% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the parliamentary election in 2008, and 39% in 2011. In 2015 the “Trudeau effect” saw the youth vote rise sharply, to 57%.”

The results of the US election of 2016 are still being processed and argued, but it seems likely that Donald Trump and his espoused policies generated a surge of interest on the part of voters who previously felt too marginalized to actively propagate their views, or encouraged those not likely to vote in the past to vote in this election.  Democracy would have been better served if these voters had been actively participating all along in forming the political environment rather than suddenly upsetting the system.

Anything we can do to increase voter participation should be done.

The interested reader may find the following articles informative:

Monday, February 13, 2017

Big Data: The End of Insurance as Shared Risk

The roots of the insurance industry go back for several hundred years.  The basis of the business was that while the fate of individuals was not knowable, the probability of death, fire, severe accidents and so on could be ascertained from historical data and used to charge a premium that would cover the expenses from compensating the unlucky and still make a profit.  This was a means by which a large number of people would provide funds to support the few unfortunate ones who would be in need of compensation.  Cathy O’Neil devotes a chapter in her excellent book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, to some of the changes taking place in the insurance industry.  The era of big data, where a myriad of organizations are busy collecting data about us and putting it to uses we have no control over, has tempted insurers to try to predict not group probabilities, but probabilities for each of us as individuals.  Insurance is transitioning from a shared risk model to an individual risk model.

“With ever more information available—including data from our genomes, the patterns of our sleep, exercise, and diet, and the proficiency of our driving— insurers will increasingly calculate risk for the individual and free themselves from the generalities of the larger pool.”

At first glance this might seem to be a healthy trend.  Shouldn’t the most at risk pay the most while the least at risk are allowed to save money?  O’Neil warns us that insurers change their methods when they figure out a way to make more money.  In other words, the cost of providing insurance to society as a whole will go up, and those targeted as the probably misfortunate will, in fact, suffer misfortune as their insurance premiums skyrocket.  They will not so much be protected by insurance as punished by it. 

O’Neil also warns us to be careful about buying into big data schemes because they are often terribly wrong in their assessments.  A poorly constructed algorithm can become a “weapon of math destruction” if it becomes widely applied.  One still cannot predict an individual’s fate, but it can sort people into ever finer bins of lookalikes.  Your fate is assumed to be the probable fate of your particular group—a sorting process that you have no control over.  Your automobile insurance, for example, could double for reasons that have nothing to do with your driving habits or driving record.

“The move toward the individual, as we’ll see, is embryonic.  But already insurers are using data to divide us into smaller tribes, to offer us different products and services at varying prices.  Some might call this customized service.  The trouble is, it’s not individual.  The models place us into groups we cannot see, whose behavior appears to resemble ours.  Regardless of the quality of the analysis, its opacity can lead to gouging.”

O’Neil tells us of a nationwide study performed by Consumer Reports in 2015 analyzing pricing practices in the automobile insurance industry.  What they discovered was startling—to say the least.

“They analyzed more than two billion price quotes from all the major insurers for hypothetical customers from every one of the 33,419 zip codes in the country.  What they found was wildly unfair and rooted….in credit scores.”

Credit scores?  Consumer Reports provides this information in a subsection of the main report: The Secret Score behind Your Rates.

“Your score is used to measure your creditworthiness—the likelihood that you’ll pay back a loan or credit-card debt. But you might not know that car insurers are also rifling through your credit files to do something completely different: to predict the odds that you’ll file a claim. And if they think that your credit isn’t up to their highest standard, they will charge you more, even if you have never had an accident, our price data show.”

“Cherry-picking about 30 of almost 130 elements in a credit report, each insurer creates a proprietary score that’s very different from the FICO score you might be familiar with, so that one can’t be used to guess the other reliably.”

“And your credit score could have more of an impact on your premium price than any other factor. For our single drivers in Kansas, for instance, one moving violation would increase their premium by $122 per year, on average. But a score that was considered just good would boost it by $233, even if they had a flawless driving record. A poor credit score could add $1,301 to their premium, on average.”

The Consumer Reports article provided data from each state that could be called up by clicking on a map.  The reader might find it enlightening.  O’Neil chose to quote data from Florida as being particularly outrageous. One could hardly disagree, so the relevant premium rates will be transcribed here.

excellent credit                        $1,409             $0
good credit                              $1,721             $312
poor credit                               $3,826             $2,417
excellent credit +DWI             $2,274             $866

The first column presents the rate for each credit score, the second is the deviation from the best rate.  Note that a person with a poor credit score and an unblemished driving record could pay $1,552 more than a person with a good credit score and a conviction for driving while intoxicated.

So much for insurance companies trying to allocate risk properly based on driving habits.  Who are the people with the poor credit scores who are hurt by this system?  Among them are some who are indeed a risk to insure, but also among them are those who are the long-term poor, those who might have lost a job temporarily and fell behind on debt payments, or those who suffered from severe health issues.  Is it good for society for those latter classes of individuals to be punished for their misfortune?  Why do automobile companies do what they do?  O’Neil provides her opinion.

“….I would argue that the chief reason has to do with profits.  If an insurer has a system that can pull in an extra $1,552 a year from a driver with a clean record, why change it?  The victims of their WMD [Weapon of Math Destruction], as we’ve seen elsewhere, are likely to be poor and less educated, a good number of them immigrants.  They’re less likely to know that they’re being ripped off.”

“In short, while an e-score might not correlate with safe driving, it does create a lucrative pool of vulnerable drivers.  Many of them are desperate to drive—their jobs depend on it.  Overcharging them is good for the bottom line.”

O’Neil then proceeds to tell her readers that that there is even more to this sordid affair: price optimization algorithms.

“….consider the price optimization algorithm at Allstate, the insurer self-branded as ‘the Good Hands People.’  According to a whatchdog group, the Consumer Federation of America [CFA], Allstate analyzes consumer and demographic data to determine the likelihood that customers will shop for lower prices.  If they aren’t likely to, it makes sense to charge them more.  And that’s just what Allstate does.”

“It gets worse.  In a filing to the Wisconsin Department of Insurance, the CFA listed one hundred thousand microsegments in Allstate’s pricing schemes.  These pricing tiers are based on how much each group can be expected to pay.  Consequently, some receive discounts of up to 90 percent off the average rate, while others face an increase of 800 percent.  ‘Allstate’s insurance pricing has become untethered from the rules of risk-based premiums and from the rule of law,’ said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s director of insurance and the former Texas insurance commissioner.”

The Consumer Reports article should be read by all.  Not all insurers have the same practices and shopping around can provide a big difference in premiums.

O’Neil provides another troubling example where supposedly good intentions have been undermined by the discovery of a new way to extract money from an unwary group: employees with company-provided healthcare and placed in wellness programs. 

“Employers, which have long been nickel and diming workers to lower their costs, now have a new tactic to combat those growing costs.  They call it ‘wellness.’  It involves growing surveillance, including lots of data pouring in from the Internet of Things—the Fitbits, Apple watches, and other sensors that relay updates on how our bodies are functioning.”

“The idea, as we’ve seen so many times, springs from good intentions.  In fact, it is encouraged by the government.  The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, invites companies to engage workers in wellness programs, and even to ‘incentivize’ health.  By law, employers can now offer rewards and assess penalties reaching as high as 50 percent of the cost of coverage.  Now, according to a study by the Rand Corporation, more than half of all organizations employing 50 people or more have wellness programs up and running, and more are joining the trend every week.”

Wellness programs are intuitively a good idea, but the surveillance required is intrusive and coercive, and the highly personal data can potentially be put to unintended uses.

“Already, companies are establishing ambitious health standards for workers and penalizing them if they come up short.  Michelin, the tire company, sets its employees goals for metrics ranging from blood pressure to glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and waist size.  Those who don’t reach the targets in three categories have to pay an extra $1,000 a year towards their health insurance.  The national drugstore chain CVS announced in 2013 that it would require employees to report their levels of body fat, blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol—or pay $600 a year.”

The process of “incentivizing” healthcare provides employers with an algorithm by which they can tune small discounts for good behavior with large penalties for bad behavior and turn a profit if they so choose.  But why would a company do such a thing if they are already saving money because wellness is saving costs from medical bills?  O’Neil reports that studies fail to find that wellness programs offer much in the way of savings for employees.  Many are ineffective at changing long-term health behavior.  Encouraging smokers to quit smoking seems to be the one area in which success has been good.  But smokers tend to have health problems that turn up later in life when employees have either moved on to a new job or have retired and healthcare is provided by Medicare.  O’Neil provides this final word on the matter.

“A 2013 study headed by Jill Horwitz, a law professor at UCLA, rips away the movement’s economic underpinning.  Randomized studies, according to the report, ‘raise doubts’ that smokers and obese workers chalk up higher medical bills than others.  While it is true that they are more likely to suffer from health problems, they tend to come later in life, when they’re off the corporate health plan and on Medicare.  In fact, the greatest savings from wellness programs come from the penalties assessed on the workers.  In other words, like scheduling algorithms, they provide corporations with yet another tool to raid their employees’ paychecks.”

O’Neil provides us with one more thing to worry about.  All the data we are providing about our bodies and our health could one day be used against us.

“My fear goes a step further.  Once companies amass troves of data on employees’ health, what will stop them from developing health scores and wielding them to sift through job candidates?  Much of the proxy data collected, whether step counts or sleeping patterns, is not protected by law, so it would theoretically be perfectly legal.  And it would make sense.  As we’ve seen, they routinely reject applicants on the basis of credit scores and personality tests.  Health scores represent a natural—and frightening—next step.”

Beware of good intentions when dealing with for-profit entities.  Especially when you elect politicians who believe you are not worth protecting with government regulations.

The attempt to move from shared risk to individual risk has proved harmful to society.  It saves a little money for many and severely punishes others—something insurance was not intended to do.

“As insurance companies learn more about us, they will be able to pinpoint those who appear to be the riskiest customers and then either drive their rates to the stratosphere or, where legal, deny them coverage.  This is a far cry from insurance’s original purpose, which is to help society balance its risk.  In a targeted world, we no longer pay the average.  Instead, we’re saddled with anticipated costs.  Instead of smoothing out life’s bumps, insurance companies will demand payment for those bumps in advance.  This undermines the point of insurance, and the hits will fall especially hard on those who can least afford them.”

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Is the United States Willing to Accept an Autocrat as Leader?

Fear that democracy was losing its hold on the citizens of the great democracies of North America and Western Europe was the focus of a startling article produced by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk: The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect.  The authors used data from World Values Surveys over the period 1995-2014 to demonstrate that support for democratic institutions has fallen in the United States and in Europe.  In particular, they find that those born in the period when democracy was most challenged, before and during World War II, have the highest respect for democracy, but the subsequent generations lose enthusiasm for it as they are further removed from this period.  This also means that younger people view living in a democracy as being less important than do older people.  This change in attitude is strongest in the United States.  A general discussion of their article is available here.

What is of greatest interest at this point in time is the conclusion that citizens have grown increasingly willing to accept non-democratic forms of government such as one led by the military or by a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections.”  Consider this conclusion by the authors.

“In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing for the ‘army to rule’—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections’ and those who want experts rather than the government to ‘take decisions’ for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.”

The authors focus on army rule as an indicator of acceptance of nondemocratic governance, but a related question on the surveys addressed the acceptance of nondemocratic rule by a “strong leader.”  The answer to that question is much more relevant with Donald Trump now installed as president of the United States and acting like one who would bypass the conventions and institutions of governance to attain his goals.

The authors plot the percent of US responders to the surveys who thought it would be a good thing to have a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections.”  The samples are divided into the top 30 percent by income and the bottom 70 percent.

The number satisfied with rule by army was stated to be one in six or about 17 percent.  The number who would be satisfied with rule by a strong leader, one who doesn’t have to bother with parliament (Congress) or elections, is around 33 percent, or twice as high.  According to these surveys, roughly one-in three US citizens would be willing to trade our current representative system of democracy for rule by an autocrat.  Combine those people with the voters who will vote for any Republican candidate, no matter who it might be, and is it any wonder that Trump performed as well as he did in the recent election?

What is it about the state of our nation that would provoke a third of its citizens to be willing to trash its constitution and over two centuries of tradition?  The authors provide simple explanations for why the rich and the non-rich might be so inclined.  The poorer people will be dissatisfied with their economic status and hope that the strong leader would provide greater distribution of wealth than has been available by democratic means.  The wealthy have always had a primal fear that the masses of lower income voters would create legislation that would “confiscate” more of their wealth than they were willing to part with.  Consequently, they might hope for a strong leader who would protect their assets.  Interestingly, Trump managed to promise each group what they wanted with neither noticing the inconsistency.

The authors provide this comment on their chart.

“If we widen the historical lens, we see that, with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm.”

The rate of increase in the acceptance of autocratic rule by the upper-income groups is rather remarkable.  It is unlikely that their concern about having their wealth confiscated by taxation ever really abated; one cannot return to a norm that was never discarded.  Consequently, it is worth pondering other explanations for why the acceptance of autocracy has increased within the ranks of the wealthy.  For example, have the wealthy progressed over the last century from being merely an outraged elite to being a powerful political force whose quest for political domination inevitably leads to autocracy?  Donald Trump would provide an example of such an elite.

Isaac William Martin provided an interesting book profiling the activities of the wealthy over the past century as they attempted to influence governmental actions in such a way as to protect their assets from democratic plunder: Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent.  The passage of the sixteenth amendment allowing the federal government to levy an income tax—and a progressive one at that—was viewed as a “revolutionary” development that required some sort of response.  Martin tells us that this “response” has been continually under development over the years, taking different forms and applying different tactics.  In particular, the emergence of the Tea Party after the 2008 election can be viewed as another phase in this strategy.

Martin begins with a description of the Tea Party demonstrations that took place on tax day, April 15, 2010.  Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to issue demands that were designed to assist the wealthy in becoming wealthier.

“….they united in expressing hostility toward the taxation of income and wealth.  Spokespeople for the demonstrators demanded, among many other things, an end to progressive income tax rates, a permanent repeal of the estate tax, an extension of temporary income tax cuts for the richest Americans, and a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote in Congress to increase any tax on anyone, for any purpose, ever.  Protesters held up picket signs denouncing taxes and the redistribution of wealth.  Many asserted that the government was redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, and objected that this was unfair to the rich.”

Martin informs us that earlier there was something called the “T Party.”

“In September 4, 1962, hundreds of conservative activists crowded into the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles for a protest meeting that they called the California T Party.  These protestors were unusually well-heeled and unusually radical.  They were there to support a constitutional amendment that would outlaw all federal taxation of income and inherited wealth, and would further require the federal government to sell off virtually all of its assets in order to pay for a massive, one-time transfer of wealth to the richest Americans.”

This was not just a one-off event.  It was hoped to be the kickoff to a powerful national movement.

“There were two more California T Parties that week, followed by a national gathering in Chicago two weeks later, at which activists from around the country met, sang protest songs, and attended workshops on grass roots organizing for income tax repeal.”

Wealthy people gathering to sing protest songs is a bit difficult to imagine today, but Martin indicates that this was not too surprising in the 1960s.  The wealthy quickly learned that they could not get their way just by demanding what they wanted.  Looking around for a better strategy would likely lead them to consider the success of the civil rights movement and the techniques applied there.  The movements of the wealthy had to take on the tone of ones that would be of benefit to all of society rather than just to themselves. 

Over time they would become more sophisticated and more politically astute in campaigning for their objectives.  Eliminating the hated estate became a campaign to avoid the “death tax,” an approach that would find sympathetic response from all income levels.  Lowering levels of taxation morphed into campaigns for a constitutionally imposed balanced budget amendment.  Having a balanced budget requirement would seem reasonable to a large number of people with varied economic backgrounds.  Nevertheless, the government budget would have to be cut when hard times hit and tax revenue fell.  When better times returned, it would be easy to argue against increased spending and use any increase in revenue to retire debt or lower taxes.  Who could argue against that?  The net result would be that government—and its need for tax revenue— would grow progressively smaller.

One might look at these movement goals and think that the efforts were failures, but the net result was that much of their economic philosophy has been absorbed as gospel by the current version of the Republican Party.  In fact, Martin claims, the lesson learned from these campaigns was that the most effective strategy for them was to take over a political party—which they did.

“Rich people’s movements have been thoroughly institutionalized and thereby tamed.  Many former activists are now well entrenched in the Republican Party and its allied think tanks, and their tactics are now correspondingly oriented toward inside lobbying.  Some movement goals remain unrealized only because they are nigh unachievable.”

He then leaves the reader with this warning.

“Rich people’s movements have a permanent place in the American political bestiary.  As long as one of our great political parties is allied with the radical rich, it is safe to predict that rich people’s movements will continue to influence public policy in ways that preserve—and perhaps even increase—the extremes of inequality in America.”

Martin wrote before the arrival of Donald Trump on the scene.  One suspects that he might recognize that the acceptance by the Republican elite of the autocratic tone of Trump’s campaign and his first weeks in office was a natural extension of the Party’s long term political evolution.  Controlling a party is not an assurance of success.  Having a “strong leader” willing to destroy political norms and undermine political institutions in order to get his way can appear to be much more efficient than the messiness of politics in a democracy.

The rise in acceptance of autocratic rule by the wealthy—from this perspective—is driven by the growing disappointment with the gains obtained from merely having control of one of the political parties in a democratic form of government.  When Donald Trump came along, there were a lot of people willing to buy what he was selling.

We are indeed living in interesting times.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Decline in Support for Democratic Institutions: Use Them or Lose Them

Populist candidates are gaining ever larger shares of the vote in a number of European countries.  Donald Trump, as a populist candidate, is now the president of the United States.  The hallmark of a populist candidate, once in power, is to weaken the institutions of government that restrict the actions of the political leader and protect the rights of minorities.  Trump seems to be moving full speed in that direction.  Representative democracy is being weakened and replaced by a form of slightly-restrained autocracy.  Is this a brief aberration to which democracies will respond and recover their balance, or is it an inevitable trend that will continue to grow for the foreseeable future?

Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk argue, in their article The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect, that we should not be overconfident and thus complacent.  History has taught us that change can come very suddenly and we should be constantly vigilant.  As an example they provide the experience of a large German newspaper, Die Welt, in dealing with East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) while under Soviet control.  For decades the paper refused to recognize the integrity of the GDR and referred to it only in quotes, “GDR,” as a way of noting its illegitimacy.  When they finally decided that the GDR was firmly established and would endure they decided to remove the quotes from GDR references.

“On 2 August 1989, reporters were allowed to drop the scare quotes when writing about the GDR for the first time in the paper’s history. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell. On 3 October 1990, the GDR ceased to exist.”

“The editors of Die Welt radically misjudged the signs of the times. At precisely the moment when they should have realized that support for the communist regime was dwindling, they finally reconciled themselves to its durability. They were hardly alone. The collective failure of social scientists, policy makers, and journalists to take seriously the possibility that the Soviet bloc might collapse should serve as a warning. Even the best-trained and most methodologically rigorous scholars are liable to assume that the recent past is a reliable guide to the future, and that extreme events are not going to happen.”

The authors argue that sufficient warning signs are already evident to arouse our concern for the safety of our democratic institutions.

“Three decades ago, most scholars simply assumed that the Soviet Union would remain stable. This assumption was suddenly proven false. Today, we have even greater confidence in the durability of the world’s affluent, consolidated democracies. But do we have good grounds for our democratic self-confidence? At first sight, there would seem to be some reason for concern. Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout. As party identification has weakened and party membership has declined, citizens have become less willing to stick with establishment parties. Instead, voters increasingly endorse single-issue movements, vote for populist candidates, or support ‘antisystem’ parties that define themselves in opposition to the status quo. Even in some of the richest and most politically stable regions of the world, it seems as though democracy is in a state of serious disrepair.”

The authors use data from World Values Surveys over the period 1995-2014 to demonstrate that support for democratic institutions has fallen dramatically in the United States and in Europe.  In particular, they find that those born in the period when democracy was most challenged, before and during World War II, have the highest respect for democracy, but the subsequent generations lose enthusiasm for it as they are further removed from this period.  This also means that younger people view living in a democracy as being less important than older people.  This change in attitude is strongest in the United States.  This chart illustrates the generational shift in attitudes.

The next chart presents survey data indicating that younger voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with democracy.

A strong democracy requires broad-based participation in elections and other political activities.

The health of a democracy depends not only on support for key political values such as civil rights, but also on the active participation of an informed citizenry….This makes it all the more troubling that there has been a long-documented withdrawal from formal democratic participation: Since the 1960s, voter turnout has fallen and political-party membership has plummeted in virtually all established democracies.

This chart indicates that interest in democratic activities has fallen in Europe as the young become less involved.  The story is somewhat different in the United States where political participation has stayed at a more nearly constant level because older citizens have increased their participation level to partly counteract the diminished interest of the young.

The diminished demand for strong democratic institutions has been accompanied by an increase in those who would welcome rule by a “strongman” or by a military takeover.

“In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing for the ‘army to rule’—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections’ and those who want experts rather than the government to ‘take decisions’ for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.”

The authors define a “consolidated democracy” as one that is firmly established and has no competing approaches to governance.  They fear that the process of deconsolidation may have begun in the United States.  Publishing their article in July, 2016, they had the United States and the Trump campaign as evidence in support of that contention.

“In the United States, citizens have rapidly lost faith in the political system; in early March 2016, for example, public approval of Congress stood at a mere 13 percent. Wealthy businessman and television personality Donald Trump, having attracted fervent and surprisingly broad support by railing against the political system and promising policies that would openly violate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, appears to have won the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. Meanwhile, even mainstream political actors are increasingly willing to violate the informal rules for the sake of partisan advantage: To name but one example of the resulting gridlock and constitutional dysfunction, the U.S. Senate has refused even to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court.”

As this is being written, Donald Trump has been president for about two weeks.  That has been a period in which the nation and the world have been shaken by his autocratic mode of operation.  He has issued edict after edict showing little respect for the press, other branches of government, or the norms of traditional governance.  He has surrounded himself with a small group of family and advisors who seem to owe their allegiance to him personally rather than to the nation.  Trump’s Republican allies thought they could ultimately control him and make him agree to their agenda, but they were wrong.  They have been left to cower in the background, rubberstamping just about anything he is likely to propose.

The authors are correct in warning us that we are in a dangerous time.  Those who do not agree with Trump and his policies seem to sense this danger and recognize that this is not a simple case of one party replacing the other in the presidency.  They have begun to mobilize as if to counter an existential threat.  Trump is an existential threat, and if he is going to ignore the norms of political behavior then those who feel they must not acquiesce to his policies should feel free to also ignore traditional norms of behavior.  Perhaps Trump’s threat to our democratic institutions is enough to rouse our youth and others whose disenchantment with the workings of democratic governance has left them disinterested in political participation.  You don’t appreciate what you have until you see it slipping away.

Those who feel a need to hit the streets and protest should be encouraged.  Flex your democratic muscles!  Don’t ever again be indifferent to political participation.  Do whatever you must to limit Trump’s quest for power.

The interested reader might find the following article informative:

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