A quick update on the white working class

by John Quiggin on September 25, 2012

As I mentioned a little while ago, if “working class” is defined in terms of income (the same is true, I think, for self-description) rather than the lack of a college education, the “white working class” in the US is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Lots of commenters made the point that this split varies sharply by region, and this has been confirmed by Kevin Drum and John Sides who cite recent research from the Public Religion and Research Institute. Using the “non-college” definition, they point out that the Repubs have overwhelming majority support from white working class voters in the South (as they do from white Southerners more generally), but that for the rest of the country, “working class” whites divide evenly between the parties.

Unfortunately, neither the PRRI report nor the data I received from Andrew Gelman seems to give a breakdown by region and income, but the data I presented showed overwhelming Repub support among high-income non-college whites, who are not concentrated in the South. It follows, I think, the the Dems are winning a clear, though not overwhelming, majority of low-income non-Southern white voters. That’s the same pattern observed with labour/social democratic parties elsewhere.

In other words, if it weren’t for the South, the US would be a lot more similar, in this as in other ways to other developed countries. Conversely, from the Southern perspective, large parts of the US are, indeed, more like Europe than like the America they know and love.

{ 92 comments }

1

john b 09.25.12 at 6:00 am

More evidence for my general view that Union politicians made the wrong call in 1861.

2

PlutoniumKun 09.25.12 at 7:08 am

I was just about to make the same point as John b. I’ve often annoyed American friends when saying the worst possible outcome of the Civil War was the norths victory. The result, along with the way in which the US constitutional system gives disproportionate power to smaller States meant that the ‘US’ has always been held back culturally and politically. Without the South, the modern US would be like Canada on steroids. The south would have followed the same mixed path of countries like Brazil or Mexico. Slavery would eventually have died out anyway in the 19th Century, just like in the rest of the Americas.

3

Hob 09.25.12 at 7:42 am

@2 – Maybe your American friends are annoyed because they’ve heard that argument dozens of times before, each time from someone on the Internet who thinks it’s both novel and self-evident, and are tired of rebutting or hearing others rebut it.

In brief: 1. The South’s intention was not simply to go its own way and leave the rest of the Union alone. 2. Slavery in the South wasn’t just an inefficient economic system that would’ve naturally withered away, it was the cornerstone of their society. 3. Slavery in other parts of the world arguably wouldn’t have ended so soon without the US Civil War. 4. Even if 1-3 were not true, the idea that it would therefore be okay to let four million people live out the rest of their lives in bondage, so that the US would not be “held back culturally,” is hideous.

I hope the comments won’t now be derailed into Civil War counterfactuals since that’s not what John was talking about.

4

Phil 09.25.12 at 8:02 am

Another historical angle that probably seems more interesting viewed from outside the US is that half a century ago it was the Dems who had the lock on the southern White vote – and half a century before that the GOP was the party par excellence of pencil-necked East Coast liberals. So whatever it is that makes the southern “white working-class” vote lean so solidly one way rather than the other, it’s nothing to do with an essence of Republican-ness. Which makes me wonder, what is it – and do they find it *works*?

5

Chris Bertram 09.25.12 at 8:32 am

Re Phil @4: the tendency to project current voting patterns back as the immutable essences of some groups of voters isn’t limited to the US. Go back half a century in the UK, for example, and you find that cities now thought of as bastions of leftism were Tory. In the case of Liverpool, there were 100 years of continuous Tory control before the 1960s.

6

john b 09.25.12 at 8:34 am

Hob: the four million people in question saw little or no improvement in their lives for a century. Had Reconstruction actually been a thing, then perhaps you might have a point.

Phil: surely the point is race-baiting? Race-relations in the South are irretrievably shafted, so poor whites are always going to vote for the anti-black party. When the odd coalition of FDR up north and Jim Crow down south collapsed and was replaced by opportunist Goldwater-ish types, the shift was natural; only the labels rather than the policies (or even the people, in many cases) needed to change.

7

Phil 09.25.12 at 9:12 am

Chris – not quite the same thing; the working-class Tory vote is a recognisable social formation & has recognisably declined (everywhere to some extent, but much further and faster in the urban North than in the South). I think it is a genuine decline rather than label-switching; Blair did poach some of the Tory vote, but more the middle-class part of it – and even that didn’t really last. By contrast it seems as if the US less-educated southern White vote hasn’t changed all that much, despite (permanently) changing parties.

8

etv13 09.25.12 at 9:21 am

john b @ 6: Let me refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently noted that before the war, those four million people could see their kids sold away from them, and after the war, not. That seems like a pretty appreciable difference to me.

9

Alex 09.25.12 at 9:35 am

@evt13: here we go for “John Band tries to mansplain slavery to black people”. ffs.

10

Chris Bertram 09.25.12 at 9:38 am

Phil: yes a genuine decline rather than label-switching and caused by a combination of industrial decline and (in places such as Liverpool) the fading of religious sectarianism (both these forces much more powerful than clever politicians poaching votes). But in the popular imagination, the current attitudes popularly attributed to northerners, Scots etc are now projected backwards onto a time when the the ubiquity of those attitudes was even more of a fiction than it is are now.

11

Soru 09.25.12 at 10:20 am

Can’t see why the founding mythology of a modern industrial state would be quietly dropped, rather than have its technological development subsidised and extent proselytised to the same degree as, say, french farming or yankee exploration. If 20c pharmacology and ECT can’t get a slave factory running at a profit, keep up the funding, something will turn up. Even if it ends up forever 10 years from widespread use…

Back on topic, any discussion of class in the USA is always going to be subtly influenced by the universe next door where ‘slave’ is a row in the same table as ‘professional’. Just as it is by the existence of feudal warlords and peasants outside its formal borders.

That’s why there is a hell of a lot more to class than simple income categories. Real class explains and structures things; income categories sometimes just obfuscate and conceal that structure. Like trying to understand a tree in terms of height measurements, instead of trunk, branches and leaves. Some of the leaves may be lower than the trunk; they are still leaves.

Interesting that JQ seems to be counting the failure of income categories to track or explain voting behaviour as a point in _favour_ of using them…

12

Marc 09.25.12 at 11:15 am

I’d favor the idea that the problem wasn’t the Civil War; it was the abandonment of Reconstruction in favor of Jim Crow.

13

Pascal Leduc 09.25.12 at 12:32 pm

It also bears mentioning that the goal of the South was not to separate from the USA but to impose its political will on it. The Confederate states alone were not powerful enough to preserve slavery, that’s why in the years preceding secession the slave holding states were more and more dependent on federal powers to preserve their institution.

Its the toxic mix of building a society dependent on an institution that can only exist with the help of a government that dosent actually like this institution that led to the confederate states firing on fort sumter all these years ago.

14

SamChevre 09.25.12 at 12:54 pm

A link to the Ta-Nehisi Coates post referenced in #8–read the comments.

http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2012/09/the-longform-podcast/262771/

15

Mao Cheng Ji 09.25.12 at 1:04 pm

Still, it seems that is a confusion here between “working person” and “working class”. A self-employed plumber, a small farmer, they are working people, quite possibly with low income, but ‘working class’? They don’t belong to the same social class as someone working on an assembly line in Detroit.

16

rf 09.25.12 at 1:05 pm

“A link to the Ta-Nehisi Coates post referenced in #8–read the comments.”

There was also this

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/01/civil-war-counterfactuals/251325/

John B shuld take up the challenge Coates offered Zinn

17

BelgianObserver 09.25.12 at 1:21 pm

It seems to me that if you define working *class* by income, you have lost a concept, namely the difference between class and income. My plumber may well earn more than me, but we are definitely not of the same class.

18

Chris Bertram 09.25.12 at 1:25 pm

_They don’t belong to the same social class as someone working on an assembly line in Detroit._

It rather depends. As John Roemer argued a long time ago, it may not matter much whether capital hires labour or labour hires capital. If those self-employed people are actually working for the bank they borrowed from, the difference may not be as great as they imagine.

19

marcel 09.25.12 at 1:44 pm

Conversely, from the Southern perspective, large parts of the US are, indeed, more like Europe than like the America they know and love.

I imagine some of this is also do to regional differences in the origins of what is now the white working class. How much of the southern WWC is Catholic (and thus southern or eastern European) vs. how much of the rest of the WWS is? This difference in origins and time of arrival in the US has led, I believe, to large regional differences in WWC culture.

20

Chris Bertram 09.25.12 at 3:06 pm

A problem with generalizations about “the South” such as John Band’s “poor whites are always going to vote for the anti-black party” is surely that the area covered by statistical surveys of “the South” includes places with a post-civil-war history of working-class radicalism, such as, I believe, parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and coal-mining areas of the Appalachians. Is this not so?

21

Ed Crotty 09.25.12 at 3:18 pm

The result, along with the way in which the US constitutional system gives disproportionate power to smaller States meant that the ‘US’ has always been held back culturally and politically.

Totally agree – reconstruction changed the reading of the Constitution from “these united STATES” ( a looser union ) to “The UNITED states”. ( Much stronger federalism). The biggest mistake was probably that they didn’t completely re-write the Constitiution. Giving political power back to rebels meant reconstruction was a farce and Jim Crow was the result. Should have started over, ditched the states and the Senate.

22

Shelley 09.25.12 at 3:23 pm

Alas for my air-headedness, because I can’t remember the details, but I read a break-down of this report elsewhere, and I came away encouraged, because if you look at the data closely, those “working-class whites” are not nearly as monolithic and conservative as we’ve been led to believe.

23

Tom Hurka 09.25.12 at 3:25 pm

Not that it’s gone all the way, but isn’t one development over the last half-century or so a reduction in the difference between income and class? There used to be people who weren’t well paid but had fairly decent social status, e.g. clergymen and teachers, whereas better-paid plumbers had lower status. But now status and income are more closely, though still not perfectly, correlated, e.g. teachers have lower social status than before and well-off plumbers have higher status.

24

Kenny Easwaran 09.25.12 at 3:43 pm

Some attempts to define class in a non-monetary way suffer from an issue that they inherit from the income-based definitions, namely, in assuming that classes are linearly ordered by some notion of “higher” or “lower” class. It seems to me that there are important social class differences (including ones that explain correlations between income and voting patterns) between people employed in management at corporations, and people working in academia or the arts. Similarly, there are important social class differences between farm workers, factory workers, and restaurant workers, even though they might have similar income and lack of control of their conditions of employment.

Although now that I think about it, some of what I’m coming up with might be largely explained (or perhaps might explain?) cultural differences between urban, suburban, and rural populations.

25

Tim Worstall 09.25.12 at 4:32 pm

“This difference in origins and time of arrival in the US has led, I believe, to large regional differences in WWC culture.”

Wasn’t there a whole book about that? Scots-Irish and the Appalachians or something?

26

christian_h 09.25.12 at 4:35 pm

I don’t think the marxist notion of class orders them as “higher” or “lower”. It has to be understood of course as a living notion – what Chris mentions in 18. for example may change what we should understand as “working class” (or not – it is up for debate), but surely it has much more strength than a mere statistical or census category in that it understands classes as historical subjects.

27

JW Mason 09.25.12 at 4:53 pm

Chris B. @18 and christian h@26 recall E.P. Thompson’s famous lines:

Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine-room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class. They can only find a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest. Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion – not this interest and that interest, but the friction of interests – the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise. Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationship with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time – that is, action and reaction, change and conflict. When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have a disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways. But class itself is not a thing, it is a happening.

28

Ragweed 09.25.12 at 5:05 pm

The Marxist notion of class was one that split between whether ones income was mainly from the paid wages of labor, or whether ones income came from ownership of capital. One could make the case that class division could be drawn on whether one has significant investment wealth, or only wages.

The complication in the US and other “developed” nations is that human capital is highly valued in a service economy, so that certain types of education becomes an asset that can be valued. Someone with a CFA or masters in Chemical Engineering might be broke and unemployed, but they stand a pretty good chance of substantial future high income, and they have a certain type of cultural capital which gives them access to higher levels of power (how many members or congress are high-school graduates only?)

29

L2P 09.25.12 at 5:10 pm

“A problem with generalizations about “the South” such as John Band’s “poor whites are always going to vote for the anti-black party” is surely that the area covered by statistical surveys of “the South” includes places with a post-civil-war history of working-class radicalism, such as, I believe, parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and coal-mining areas of the Appalachians. Is this not so?”

I think that’s true, but that’s also kind of besides the point. When everybody I know talks about “The South,” we’re not talking about the anomalies, we’re talking about the general rule. Generally, when you’re talking about white people in Arkansas, you’re not going to get much working-class radicalism. There’s plenty of it – millions of people live in Arkansas. Any group of millions of people is going to have outliers, and from time to time have an outbreak of something out of the norm. But the substantial majority of white people in Arkansas are pretty conservative.

Just like if you talk about white people in the Pacific Coast, you’re going to get A LOT of pretty liberal, progressive people. The vast majority, really. But ever been to Fresno? Sweet mother of gawd – there’s a church full of Evengelicals on every street corner. That’s millions of people throughout the West Coast. It’s a minority, but it’s a LOT of PEOPLE.

30

PeterC 09.25.12 at 5:19 pm

That the poor in the US have choosen to live in the south is unsurprising because it is easier to choose to be poor in warmer climes. In cooler climes if you choose to be poor, and to remain in those climes, in the depth of winter you will wake one morning, crawl out from under your newspapers, only to discover that you have inadvertently choosen to be dead. That is why there tends to be less poverty away from the equator. And why, sometimes, distance from the equator is used as an instrumental variable by econometricians.

31

Bruce Wilder 09.25.12 at 5:27 pm

“. . . the substantial majority of white people in Arkansas are pretty conservative.”

Stating it that way doesn’t tell anyone much about the political dynamics, which made them “conservative”, and defines that “conservative”.

In Arkansas, as in a number of Southern states, anti-majoritarian constitutional provisions make it very difficult to institute a populist or progressive political program, overcoming the presumptive power of the oligopoly of wealthy landowners. People, with a cynical skepticism about the power of populist promise-makers to deliver, fall back on a peculiar kind conservatism, which is very common in the South, particularly among relatively poor whites. Call it cynical conservatism. It’s basic philosophical tenet is not traditionalism or authoritarianism, but a cynical expectation of corruption in government, married to resentments, some of them racially focused. And, it is born out of an experience of political frustration and impotence. If you can’t organize politically to better your lot — the rules of a ruling oligarchy prevent it — you fall back on resentments and cynicism, however perverse, mean, irrational, contradictory and apparently self-defeating.

32

soru 09.25.12 at 5:30 pm

The more immediate political problem with the Marxist definition of class, at least for any democratic left liberal party, is that, strictly applied (i.e. net assets > net expected future value of remaining lifetime’s labour) you can easily end up with something like a electoral plurality of capitalists.

‘We are the 51%’ (but we tend to vote less) has an obvious problem as an electoral strategy.

Of course, retirees generally vote and identify based on their former circumstances. And groups with apparent structural reasons to support a given political party can often end up discounted by it as they chase those who are more persuadable.

33

Matt 09.25.12 at 5:41 pm

It’s been several years since I read them, but at the time I found both Erick Olin Wright’s “What is middle about the middle class” and Jon Elster’s “Three challenges to class” very helpful in thinking about these issues. (Neither focuses much on race, but I think they are still useful.) Both are in the Roemer edited volume _Analytical Marxism_. The book _Social Class: How Does It Work?_, edited by Annette Lareau and Dalton Conley might also be of some use to people thinking about this issue, though I’ve only read a couple of the papers in it.

34

L2P 09.25.12 at 5:43 pm

“In Arkansas, as in a number of Southern states, anti-majoritarian constitutional provisions make it very difficult to institute a populist or progressive political program, overcoming the presumptive power of the oligopoly of wealthy landowners.”

I don’t think you need to go much beyond racism. What else explains why Huey Long had so much success when he tried progressive politics?

35

Dr. Hilarius 09.25.12 at 5:59 pm

In the US class and income have been decoupled, but that doesn’t mean that class has vanished. Class is more and more a tribal identification based on cultural preferences. Choice of music (country or opera), food preferences (burgers or sushi), religion (evangelical or atheist), automobiles (truck or hybrid) are all potential markers of class. This identification is also being decoupled from family past. I encounter people who come from well-to-do backgrounds who try to act as though they were born to a clan of moonshining illiterates. Is that real class or some sort of pseudo-class?

Plumbers are an interesting social niche. Any competent plumber, self-employed or otherwise, can make very good money, far more than most college grads and as much as many professionals. But anyone who deals with toilets and shit gets relegated to a lower social status (even the ones I know who have season tickets to the opera). On the flip side, lawyers are accorded a higher class status even though many lawyers struggle to stay in the middle class. Note to parents: tell your kids to consider plumbing. They will always have work and no student loan debt.

36

marcel 09.25.12 at 6:13 pm

Tim Worstall wrote:

Wasn’t there a whole book about that? Scots-Irish and the Appalachians or something?

I think you are referring to Albion’s Seed, but it’s focus is on people from different parts of Great Britain &/or the UK, most of whom arrived before (roughly) the War of 1812. I’m thinking more about the migrations from Europe that occurred later in the 19th C, from Germany and points east and south, little of which washed up in Dixie.

37

mrearl 09.25.12 at 7:02 pm

“I don’t think you need to go much beyond racism. What else explains why Huey Long had so much success when he tried progressive politics?”

I’m not so sure that explains Huey, but since the reference was originally to Arkansas, its Governor and US Senator Jeff Davis demonstrated in the early 20th century that it was possible to be radical (or talk that way) and racist (or talk that way) at the same time. I think he illustrates your point better than Huey.

Some say he also managed to be a drunkard at the same time, too.
http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=98

38

SamChevre 09.25.12 at 7:22 pm

It woudl seems to me the white populism and anti-immigrant/anti-black politics have historically gone together pretty closely, North and South.

39

John Quiggin 09.25.12 at 7:24 pm

Of course class is a complex social construction, as EP Thompson says, and as I said (not so well) here. So, for that matter, is race.

But if you want to talk about the question “Does the white working class vote for the Republican Party?”, you have to classify particular people as members of this class, or not. And, if you want to answer the question, you have to do so on the basis of the data available. For race, that’s presumably self-identification. For class, as I mentioned, you sometimes get self-identification, but mostly you have the choice between education and income. The point of the post is that, apart from the South, income gives the “standard” answer, that working class people tend to vote for the less rightwing party, but by an overwhelming margin.

40

indian 09.25.12 at 8:18 pm

41

Bruce Wilder 09.25.12 at 8:53 pm

SamChevre: “It would seems to me the white populism and anti-immigrant/anti-black politics have historically gone together pretty closely, North and South.”

I suppose there’s some truth in that, but also potential obfuscation of differences and distinctions, which would bear fruitful analysis. There’s a long history of apologists for the Deep South, in particular, insisting that the same racism infested the whole country, when, in fact, attitudes and political dynamics varied significantly. The racism of the Deep South, feeding on the economic oppression of blacks, was quite different from the racism of regions, which fearfully sought to exclude blacks as cultural aliens or cut-rate economic competition.

The historic Republican Party, in its formation in the 1850s, absorbed the anti-immigrant American Party (aka the Know-Nothing’s), and then went on, in the 1860s and early 1870s to enact sweeping political equality to black men.

In the South, there’s always been a remarkably sharp distinction between the lowland “Deep South”, where racism focused on an extractive relationship with a large, oppressed and exploited black population, and the hill country of Greater Appalachia, which found blacks and slavery repulsive, and where racism sought to exclude blacks and the aristocratic planter political oligarchy. State politics in places like Tennessee and North Carolina has often featured a significant tension between the political oligarchy of a lowland wealthy few, which wanted to use the state to enforce their domination and reinforce their rentier extractions, and the so-called yeoman farmers of the hill country, who were more interested in public goods, and state protection against economic exploitation — in short, a more populist agenda.

(It is in Greater Appalachia, where Obama has lost Democratic voters most markedly.)

It also worth noting that the political attitudes of authoritarian followers, with whom populist appeals find resonance are somewhat contradictory. They tend to respect authority and convention a bit too much, but, when their resentments are under control, they tend to favor an egalitarian politics and even somewhat paternalist state, and can be very sympathetic to claims of justice, backed by the spectacle of non-violent protest provoking a violent response. They are also easily fooled by demagogues, and in the South, the history and experience of populism is marred by cynical use of corrupt demagogues by oligarchies, of which the stoking of racial resentments is only one aspect.

Quiggin’s understandable focus on measurement, and its difficulties, should not make us ignorant or stupid about the complex subtleties and cross-currents driving politics and political attitudes.

42

Alex 09.25.12 at 9:28 pm

Note to parents: tell your kids to consider plumbing. They will always have work and no student loan debt.

This isn’t actually true. Anecdotes from the UK between 2002 and 2004, when the whole “just go in to plumbing!” thing started, are not actually very useful. Plumbers are sometimes in debt, and sometimes out of work. Property boom conditions are not permanent.

This is a message from the obvious.

43

Keith 09.25.12 at 9:35 pm

If I understand the summary in the original it seems that the monolithic republican group among southern whites are those who lack a university education. So this is more a problem of ignorance. More effective education is required. It would boost incomes and make regional differences in political affiliation less pronounced.

44

John B 09.25.12 at 11:01 pm

Thanks for the links above. Point taken on the inappropriateness of viewing the effectiveness of Abolition solely in terms of southern African Americans’ economic situation. Although I do think many, probably most, white Americans are in denial about how little the latter changed, that doesn’t alter the fact that de re freedom is important, or the corrosive impact that a de re slave nation would have had compared to the economic-only slave-ish states that happened in real life. I also like Coates’ point about the progressive impact of African American culture on the US as a whole.

I’m puzzled about the criticism of generalisation. Isn’t that what data is for? If a trend is overarchingly happening, then counterexamples are interesting, but certainly don’t invalidate it.

Education is a reasonable palliative solution, and something worth supporting in general, but still leaves the question open of why poorly educated whites vote in their class interests in the North and against them in the South. And as Alex notes, the existence of skilled manual jobs that pay well is not a sensible argument against education, given that the aggregate returns are still overwhelmingly positive.

45

Dr. Hilarius 09.25.12 at 11:26 pm

Alex@ 43: I will confess to total ignorance of plumbers in the UK. In the US there seems to be ready work for plumbers as well as some other skilled trades (if you can weld stainless steel you are in great demand). http://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/plumbers-pipefitters-and-steamfitters.htm

Carpentry employment follows the boom-bust housing cycle.

46

Martin Bento 09.25.12 at 11:41 pm

On the minor point about plumbers, since we are admitting anecdotes. A friend of mine was till recently an unlicensed plumber working for a plumbing company, which is evidently legal, or at least happens, in California, where he lives. $15 an hour. Not much in California, really.

47

Peter T 09.26.12 at 1:48 am

In Australia, plumbers are not particularly high on the income scale: average $60,050. Below the average for all occupations ($65,816). Electricians do better, and so do truck drivers, and secretaries don’t do much worse ($56,706). That plumbers live on caviar and champagne seems to be an enduring myth. See http://www.abcdiamond.com/australia/average-wages-by-occupation-in-australia-2010/

48

rf 09.26.12 at 2:28 am

I’m surprised by the pro plumber bias around here. I feel whatever they’re paying plumbers these days it’s too much. All of my friends who got trades are loaded while those who went to college are broke as hell. Anyone with a trade is firmly in the middle class. It’s very difficult to get accepted to an apprenticeship and then support yourself during it without the right connections. It’s been cut of as a means of social mobility for the actual working class, from what I can see.

I always thought this was Ireland specific on account of the property bubble, but the same phenomenon seems to be repeating in all the countries they’ve emigrated to, especially Canada and Australia. I really don’t see any end to the relentless funnelling of tribute to tradesmen. Everywhere they go they leave behind a ruined economy and thousands of vacant houses. I once had a plumber who wasn’t able to unblock a sink. Another one stole my cat. Not that I particularly mind one way or the other, but people here have an overly very romantic view of plumbers.

49

Adam S. 09.26.12 at 2:44 am

“All of my friends who got trades are loaded while those who went to college are broke as hell.”

Well I think to some extent that is the point being made. How is a struggling lower income family or student, wanting to gain some financial security and a foot hold in today’s economy, best able to achieve it?

50

MPAVictoria 09.26.12 at 2:51 am

Hell Peter. People are paid much better down under.

51

John Quiggin 09.26.12 at 5:28 am

For info, although the $A is currently exchanging for $US1.08, Purchasing Power Parity is typically estimated at around $0.80, so the averages cited above translate to around $US50 000. You may wish to make a further adjustment for climate – I certainly would.

52

engels 09.26.12 at 6:28 am

I once had a plumber who wasn’t able to unblock a sink. Another one stole my cat. Not that I particularly mind one way or the other

A plumbner stole your cat and you don’t particularly mind one way or the other? Have you no soul, sir?

53

john b 09.26.12 at 7:27 am

Engels: No, just no cat. Unless you’re following the neo-Egyptian view that the soul is contained within the cat.

JQ: also, further positive adjustments may be required to allow for near-universal healthcare, low social unrest, quality of beer, etc. And negative ones for levels of dangerous charismatic fauna.

54

dbk 09.26.12 at 7:51 am

Tim Worstall@26 “Scots-Irish and Appalachia or something?”

I can think of two books/documentaries dealing with this topic: The Other Irish by Karen McCarthy, and Born Fighting by James Webb (US Sen-VA).

55

engels 09.26.12 at 7:58 am

Unless you’re following the neo-Egyptian view that the soul is contained within the cat.

I don’t want to hijack the thread so I shall forbear responding.

56

Scott Martens 09.26.12 at 8:10 am

The idea that the historical cultural dichotomy between the antebellum north and south is still alive today and accounts for present voting patterns is hardly a radical hypothesis. The most strongly conservative states outside of the south are those that were originally colonized from the south, even when their current demographics are radically different and only a relatively small part of the present population has direct southern origins. Indiana was colonized by migrants from the antebellum south and is a hard right state surrounded by relatively liberal Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. The intermountain west and the states along the Rockies were heavily colonized from the south after the Civil War, and remain staunch conservative states where the balance is tipping only slowly towards the left now because of large scale migration. All of those states contain large majorities that are not descendants of Southerners, but the effect of the early Anglo settlers on culture and politics meant that later migrants were assimilated to the early ones.

This effect extends even to Canada, where the most staunchly conservative province – Alberta – was heavily settled by Americans when it was opened up to farming. Alberta’s population has been so overwhelmed by later immigration that that initial population has basically disappeared as social fact, but its effect continues through the assimilation of later migrants to its established institutions.

There’s a very similar phenomenon in American dialectology: The Northern Cities Vowel Shift. This phenomenon – which accounts for the funny way people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and parts of upstate New York talk – can be traced to founder effects of early settlement from upstate New York, where the vowel shift process had not yet audibly begun but must have been partially in progress already. (Labov hypothesizes that the flood of migrant labor into upstate New York during the construction of the Erie Canal is the original cause for the shift.) The places where it is found were heavily resettled later by non-English-speaking immigrants from central, northern and eastern Europe, to the point where the contribution of those early settlers to the ancestry of the present populations of those states is very small. But their vowels live on.

If that can happen with language, it’s for sure not weird to think it can happen with politics. This does undermine any “lump of proletarians” fallacy that a very naive Marxism might lead to. The southern working class is different from the northern one for reasons that we can only account for through mechanisms of cultural transmission that are separate from economic conditions.

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bad Jim 09.26.12 at 8:48 am

Everyone in the U.S. is middle class, to a first approximation. Working class isn’t a separate identity. A plumber is quite often an entrepreneur, so the lack of a college degree isn’t a definitive signifier. (Primary and secondary school teachers tend to have lower status, despite their educational attainment and even sometimes their income, because teaching was once women’s work.)

One might simply define class by income and call the bottom quintile poor, the top quintile rich, and everyone else middle class. For some reason there is a polite fiction that most of the top quintile, households with six figure incomes, is also middle class, and Romney is promising to relieve us, as well as the less fortunate, of the burden of paying taxes on our capital gains, dividends and interest income (which are negligible for most of that group).

Half of Americans have some college and a quarter have degrees, so defining us by education is as much at odds with our self-perception as defining us by income. Now that you can buy wine at bowling alleys you can’t define us by taste either.

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bad Jim 09.26.12 at 9:17 am

Scott Martens, the migration effect you describe also had an enormous effect on southern and central California, which has slowly been attenuated by attrition and by immigration from Asia and Latin America. Fifty years ago my county elected the craziest right wingers in Congress, but now a few of our representatives aren’t actually terrible.

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Tim Worstall 09.26.12 at 9:57 am

“Born Fighting by James Webb (US Sen-VA).”

That’s the one I was thinking of.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.26.12 at 9:59 am

“Everyone in the U.S. is middle class, to a first approximation.”

Everyone you see and notice, maybe. It could be just that in the US people of different classes (or income levels) don’t mix much. We live in different areas. They may be close, but we never go to their areas. No reason to go to a place like East Palo Alto.

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soru 09.26.12 at 12:21 pm

why poorly educated whites vote in their class interests in the North and against them in the South

Occam’s razor would suggets if the group in question votes as if it were middle class (i.e. status comes from ownership of assets, especially housing), and the only available data has it as low income, then it is low-income middle class.

The complicating factor is that in the presence of slavery, freedom counts as an asset: conceptually, you own yourself. This means that certain types of income can actually be seen as a net loss. In particular anything that is presented as organised by the powerful from concern from your welfare will decreases your personal ownership asset by at least as much as the income’s value.

Of course, the US apparently doesn’t collect statistics on class, presumably for the same reason France doesn’t collect them on race: officially it doesn’t exist, and so must not be acknowledged.

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ajay 09.26.12 at 12:57 pm

Of course, the US apparently doesn’t collect statistics on class, presumably for the same reason France doesn’t collect them on race: officially it doesn’t exist, and so must not be acknowledged.

I’m not quite sure what statistics you could collect. The UK has things like the National Readership Survey which puts you in A, B, C1, C2, D, E – but that’s almost entirely based on job status.

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Barry 09.26.12 at 1:01 pm

rf: “I really don’t see any end to the relentless funnelling of tribute to tradesmen. Everywhere they go they leave behind a ruined economy and thousands of vacant houses.”

I think that you misspelled ‘bankers’.

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Barry 09.26.12 at 1:04 pm

rf: “Everyone in the U.S. is middle class, to a first approximation. “

To a very bad first approximation, almost as bad as the proverbial spherical cow of uniform density.

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rf 09.26.12 at 1:10 pm

Barry

You have me on the first one brother. Second was bad Jim. I wouldn’t imagine everyone in the US is middle class….(my point, such as I have one, is limited to plumbers)

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SamChevre 09.26.12 at 1:16 pm

One might simply define class by income and call the bottom quintile poor, the top quintile rich, and everyone else middle class.

I think “class” is more connected to capital than income; if you include social/cultural capital as capital, you get something pretty close to a standard account of class.

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ajay 09.26.12 at 1:40 pm

68 is extremely believable but might be a bit tricky to measure?

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john b 09.26.12 at 1:57 pm

Sam & Ajay are right. There is an entire branch, never mind just a chair, in economics in working out how to financially quantify social and cultural capital. Once that’s done, class is reducible. Now, who wants to join me in putting together a funding bid?

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ajay 09.26.12 at 2:16 pm

70: it’s trivial if you’re working in India; you can just go to the marriage brokers, who charge commission based on the desirability of the husband they hook your daughter up with, and work out what sort of social capital would equate to a certain level of actual capital. So if Sanjay has $50,000 a year, and Rajiv has $40,000 a year plus a masters’ degree, and they’ll charge you the same for each one, the value of a masters’ is ten grand.

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ajay 09.26.12 at 2:16 pm

As mentioned elsewhere, they’ll give you a discount on MiG-21 IAF pilots because it has such a dreadful safety record.

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Scott Martens 09.26.12 at 2:44 pm

ajay (on Indian marriage brokers): The evil, failed, dot-entrepreneur in me suddenly finds himself wondering if you can use dating websites and social networking to assign a cash value to certain trades, educations, ethnic origins, religions and lifestyle choices. There should be some way to profit from being able to say “If you’re looking for a partner, you have to make an extra $10,000 a year to compensate for smoking.”

It’s an evil thought and I’ll probably manage to suppress it.

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ajay 09.26.12 at 3:13 pm

73: you could certainly do controlled experiments; see how much interest each of two profiles get, if they’re identical but for a couple of characteristics. (Like those studies where they send in lots of identical CVs and the one from “Todd Smith” gets lots more interview callbacks than the one from “Latasha Washington”.)

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MPAVictoria 09.26.12 at 3:20 pm

“There should be some way to profit from being able to say “If you’re looking for a partner, you have to make an extra $10,000 a year to compensate for smoking.””

There was some research on this recently. I wish I could find the link. It looked at things like height in males and how much extra money a man had to earn to make up for being short.

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Tony Wikrent 09.26.12 at 4:22 pm

Union politicians made the wrong call, NOT in 1861 with their decision to “accept war rather than let the nation perish” but in 1876, when former Union major general, Adelbert Ames, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while a lieutenant of artillery at First Manassas, was serving as the elected governor of Mississippi. and asked President Grant for federal troops to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and other neo-confederate oligarchs who had begun a terror campaign to prevent African Americans from voting in the November election.

Unfortunately, a group of Ohio Republican leaders had already told Grant that any further extension of the Federal Army into the ex-slave states would result in the Republicans losing control of Ohio. Grant decided that holding Ohio was more important than saving Mississippi, and refused Ames’ request. Grant’s decision spelled the end of Radical Reconstruction, the return to power of the old southern oligarchs, and the abandonment of the freedmen to the cruel mercies of the South’s conservatives. History.com notes:

When Democrats waged a campaign of violence to take control of Mississippi in 1875, Grant refused to send federal troops, marking the end of federal support for Reconstruction-era state governments in the South. By 1876, only Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were still in Republican hands. In the contested presidential election that year, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise with Democrats in Congress: In exchange for certification of his election, he acknowledged Democratic control of the entire South. The Compromise of 1876 marked the end of Reconstruction as a distinct period, but the struggle to deal with the revolution ushered in by slavery’s eradication would continue in the South and elsewhere long after that date.

Liberals and progressives probably dislike having to recall and contemplate this dismal historical moment, because it is proof that violence, unfortunately, does sometime work. The abandonment of Reconstruction by the North allowed the return to power of racists and bigots in the South, who created and oversaw a century of political and economic terrorism known as Jim Crow.

The idea that the mistake was made in 1861 is dangerous, immoral, and inept historical revisionism. It is an idea that can only be countenanced by people who do not properly understand the historic role of the United States as the world’s foremost experiment in government of, by, and for the people. The left in America is unfortunately more likely to be conversant in, and approve of, the failed systems of political economy spun from the brilliant but unrealistic ideas of Karl Marx, rather than the system of political economy that actually built the United States, based on the policies developed and implemented by Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Henry Clay is today the best known nineteenth century proponent of that “American System” but I would argue even more important was the nineteenth century American economist Henry Carey – who was also the largest publisher in the U.S. at the time. An excellent introduction to “American System” is Gettysburg College professor Gabor Boritt’s 1994 book, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream.

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Martin Bento 09.26.12 at 4:39 pm

It’s a tangent here, but I think the characterization of populism above unfair. The relationship between populism and racism/authoritarianism/right-wing sentiment is something we’ve been over it before. Here is an overview I did of the major 19th century populist parties. Short version: most of their ideas were left-wing, some were prescient (fiat currency, anti-monopoly, business regulation, graduated income tax), and anti-authoritarian (direct election of Senators, women’s vote). There was some racism, especially in the Knights of Labor, the most classically left-wing group (and the one that had an urban proletarian rather than rural base), but there was also opposition to racism, which compares favorably to the Democrats of the day. If we are to evaluate them primarily in terms of prejudice, we should also note that they were very early suffragists.

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SamChevre 09.26.12 at 5:11 pm

The relationship between populism and racism/authoritarianism/right-wing sentiment is something we’ve been over it before.

I still disagree; I’m pretty certain (don’t have time today to look at sources) most of those parties were for much tighter regulations on immigration, particularly immigration of people “not like us. (particularly Catholics and Jews)” I agree that many of the populist parties were left; what none of them were (to my knowledge) is cosmopolitan.

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Martin Bento 09.26.12 at 5:50 pm

When I looked up their platforms, the only ones I found that had a position on immigration were the Knights of Labor, who were opposed (largely to cheap Chinese labor). The last incarnation of the Populist Party, largely a personal vehicle for Tom Watson, may also have had such a platform as it did embrace racism, unlike the earlier versions of the party.

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SamChevre 09.26.12 at 6:16 pm

Look at the 1892 Populist Party platform

4. RESOLVED, That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

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JW Mason 09.26.12 at 6:18 pm

The evil, failed, dot-entrepreneur in me suddenly finds himself wondering if you can use dating websites and social networking to assign a cash value to certain trades, educations, ethnic origins, religions and lifestyle choices.

OKCupid has published some stuff along these lines. The numbers on race are predictably dispiriting.

Some quantitative social scientist should be talking to them about getting the underlying data…

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Barry 09.26.12 at 6:29 pm

rf : “Barry

You have me on the first one brother. Second was bad Jim. I wouldn’t imagine everyone in the US is middle class….(my point, such as I have one, is limited to plumbers)”

sorry.

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Martin Bento 09.26.12 at 7:03 pm

Yes, there was some of that in the People’s Party. You notice I looked at 5 different groups and got a complex answer. You are looking at one to support a broad generalization.

Someone else seemed to imply Huey Long was a racist candidate. This, too, is oversimplified. He eliminated the state poll tax increasing voter registration by 76% in one year. Figure that helped blacks any? He invested majorly in Universities and Charity Hospitals. He declared a foreclosure moratorium during the depression. He created a major adult literacy program. He initiated health and dental care for prisoners. His strict regulation of the banking system meant only 7 failed in Louisiana out of 4800 nationwide. He was the key and decisive backer of the first woman elected to the US Senate. He was autocratic as hell, and clownish, and willing to ally with the likes of Coughlin, though this is before Coughlin got into the antisemitic stuff. He took no position on the Klan, though he was running against an outright backer. It seems to me there is more to be said for the man than liberals typically will admit.

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piglet 09.26.12 at 7:44 pm

“A good plumber is worth more than a PhD.”

Finding a good, trustworthy plumber or electrician is very very difficult where I am. Ditto for lawyers.

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piglet 09.26.12 at 7:51 pm

There is a recent book called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0143122029). The thesis is basically that regional cultures within the US/North America are strongly determined by the first permanent settlers, even when they have been diluted by later immigration waves. Appalachia is of course one of those regional cultures.

“According to award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard, North America is made up of eleven distinct nations, each with its own unique historical roots. In American Nations he takes readers on a journey through the history of our fractured continent, offering a revolutionary and revelatory take on American identity, and how the conflicts between them have shaped our past and continue to mold our future. From the Deep South to the Far West, to Yankeedom to El Norte, Woodard reveals how each region continues to uphold its distinguishing ideals and identities today, with results that can be seen in the composition of the U.S. Congress or on the county-by-county election maps of presidential elections.”

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piglet 09.26.12 at 8:03 pm

Scott 73: this reminds me of the way economists try to measure natural capital (willingness to pay, property value differential, travel cost, contingent valuation). No reason why this shouldn’t work for human capital (except, of course, that it doesn’t work very well).

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Tim Worstall 09.26.12 at 8:16 pm

“I’m not quite sure what statistics you could collect. The UK has things like the National Readership Survey which puts you in A, B, C1, C2, D, E – but that’s almost entirely based on job status.”

One of the reasons why “class” is such a difficult concept in the UK. Whether it’s “tea” or “dinner”, whether you hold you knife as a pencil or not, whether, if you thought about joining the Army, you would expect (yes, expect) to join as a squaddie or a 2nd Lt.

Tea and dinner are also, to some extent, northern and southern. But class is a socio-economic concept, not purely an economic one, in that country.

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Martin Bento 09.26.12 at 8:18 pm

I’m gonna drop the populism discussion. I don’t want to be accused of threadjacking.

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John Quiggin 09.27.12 at 12:55 am

Scott, I’m reminded of a study showing (IIRC) that people in German villages where witches were burned in C15 were more likely to persecute Jews in C20.

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Michael Sullivan 09.27.12 at 1:20 am

One thing that always bothers me in discussions of the voting behavior of the “white working class” is that it seems to implicitly assume that one would benchmark against 50-50.

But whites in general break republican by pretty significant margins. Democrats don’t have a problem with the “white working class” except to the extent that they have a problem with white people in general.

This is the natural corollary of really solid dem voting among african americans in a context where the parties have roughly even support.

Here is my proposition. Suppose you could find some way to measure “racism” among white people, and break them out separately, the way that it is easy to break out black people. I believe that you would find there is a “racist” bloc, making up 10-20% of the country, that has a very high level of anti-black prejudice, and who vote with the GOP 85%+ of the time in the last 30-40 years, that roughly balances out the huge advantage Democrats have had with minorities. The rest of the white population is maybe 50-50 with a very slight tilt toward one party or the other. Among that “less racist” group that is the great majority of white people, I would expect that Democrats generally win the “working class” vote by any income based definition, except in a extreme republican strongholds (Utah, MS, etc.).

Not easy to test, but it’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

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PeterC 09.27.12 at 10:55 am

Surely it’s “everyone in the US is middle-class to a zeroth approximation”. And that is an appalling approximation. Just one more example of how easy it is to talk nonsense with numbers.

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Salient 09.27.12 at 2:11 pm

@JW: Some quantitative social scientist should be talking to them about getting the underlying data…

OKCupid used to be run by a trio of fairly awesome quantitative social scientists, and collecting the underlying data for research purposes had been the point of the website since its inception. (The original iteration was a “take fun quizzes for free” data gatherer, and the couples-matching was just an offshoot of some kind of sociometrics experiment. Deep in the terms of service there was some kind of notice that your match information could be used [anonymously] for research, though you could opt out of it IIRC.) Past tense because, not too long after the developers’ blog posted a critical assessment of match.com, it got bought out by match.com. The site got scrubbed and the blog entries stopped cold immediately. So there probably won’t be any more data, or meaningful research, forthcoming–its algorithms and data are now the intellectual property of its chief rival. (I retain some bitterness over this because, to deal with the problem of user’s journal posts criticizing of match.com and the OKC acquisition, they eliminated new journaling and deleted the journal archive of every insufficiently active account, with no warning, effectively eliminating the nondating social atmosphere of the site. Lost years of diary entries just ’cause I hadn’t logged in for awhile. Haven’t really diaryblogged since. Lousy bastards.)

@PeterC
Apropos of nothing–this morning on NPR, Steve Inskeep and some interviewee split the population into poverty / middle class / wealthy without any hesitation, as if that were a natural default for the dividing lines that the listener would be expecting. (There was a bit of discussion over whether $180000 was a reasonable cutoff for wealthy.) That’d normally be something to just shrug off, but as it turned out, the interviewee was the lead pollster for Gallup. The nonsense with numbers goes straight to the top…

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PeterC 09.28.12 at 3:08 pm

@Salient

Interesting example, the pollster. Nowadays I think occasionally the person involved might be capable of doing it right, and consequently, not talking nonsense, but that would be too much effort, and too few would recognize the difference. Indeed, where doing things wrong and talking nonsense is the norm, doing it right risks dangerously standing out from the crowd. Those who stand out from the crowd in our era are not fêted the way Keynes was. And following Keynes death an industry has developed to dance on his grave ad posthumous punishment for his standing out.

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Alex G 10.01.12 at 12:20 pm

Firstly – a fascinating discussion across the two posts on this subject.

Just responding to Tom Hurka’s point (comment #23), I can confirm the unusual class position of clergy and teachers. Both my parents have previously worked in academia – my father became a vicar (CofE) about 20 years ago. He now earns somewhere around the UK national median wage for a demanding job with management/ budgetary responsibility and effectively unlimited “on call” time.

They both have post-graduate degrees, by contrast I have a BA only in a subject unrelated to my current career (admittedly from a Russell Group university). However, because I have chosen a private-sector career in a field with high demand for skilled applicants, regardless of paper qualifications (software development, incidentally), I make significantly more money for an equal or lesser commitment of time and energy.

My parents are clearly middle class in background and culture, but there are many, many people who would self-identify as working class with significantly higher household incomes.

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