Thursday, November 21, 2013

The hardening of America's heart

One might think that the deteriorating economy would produce more sympathy for the unemployed and down-on-their-luck, since more and more of us are threatening to fall into that trap. But, as it turns out, as we get poorer as a society, we become even more hostile to the poor and downtrodden. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's bearing out, especially in America's "every man for himself" culture of sociopathy and Social Darwinism.

Richard Florida says:

The ongoing economic crisis only appears to have deepened America's conservative drift - a trend which is most pronounced in its least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states.

Indeed, research indicates that America is becoming more “conservative.” This is a misnomer, of course, as what they mean by "conservative" has nothing to do with preserving and maintaining existing social institutions, or suspicions of radical, sudden social change. It has nothing to do with  classical Burkean conservatism. Rather, by "conservative," what they really mean is politically reactionary and hostile to the poor.

Barry Rithotz wonders why:
The trend towards the hard right is most pronounced in the least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. 
It is a fascinating glimpse into the Human (or is it American?) Psyche — and I am very curious about it: 
• Conservative states are considerably more religious than liberal-leaning states. And, this correlation between religion is increasing. 
• Conservative states are also less educated than liberal ones; This correlation between conservative affiliation and education (percent of adults who are college graduates) is also substantially higher than before. 
• States with more conservatives are less diverse. 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants or gay and lesbian. 
• There is no correlation to race or ethnicity, however, whether measured as percent white, percent black, or percent Hispanic (Fascinating). 
• Conservative political affiliation is strongly correlated with percentage of a state’s workforce in blue-collar occupations; 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with proportion of workforce engaged in knowledge-based professional and creative work. 
• States with more conservatives are considerably less affluent than those with more liberals. 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with state income levels and even more so with average hourly earnings.
This article speculates that the hostility to Obamacare has less to do with the feasibility of it, but rather that Americans are becoming ever more sociopathic toward their fellow Americans:
New Gallup poll numbers show Americans increasingly dispute the idea that government has a responsibility to make sure everybody can get health insurance. It's tempting to see that as an indictment against Obamacare, but it might just mean more Americans are becoming jerks. 
What's clear is that the shifting views on health care predate the Affordable Care Act. The number of Americans who think health care is the government's responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s, peaking at 69 percent in 2006. Then those numbers started falling, hitting 50 percent in 2010 and 42 percent this year. 
The shrinkage of American generosity during that period wasn't just about health care. The onset of the recession corresponded with a change in public opinion on a range of issues, and in most cases the effect was to make Americans less caring about others. 
Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year. People who said the government should help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, fell from 54 percent to 43 percent over the same period. 
That increased callousness extends beyond Americans' views of helping the needy. In 2007, 60 percent of respondents agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment; by last year, that figure was 43 percent. The share who said the U.S. should "pay less attention to problems overseas" rose from 76 percent to 83 percent between 2007 and 2012. 
It's not unusual for people to react to economic downturns by becoming more self-interested. The recession of 1990-1991 was followed by a drop in the share of people who said the government has a responsibility to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Opposing welfare programs just when they're needed most seems perverse, but it may also be human nature.  
What's different today is the duration of those shifts. Six years after the 1991 recession ended, public attitudes on the virtues of helping the needy had started to move back up. Today, six years after the onset of the last recession, those numbers are still moving down.
Obamacare Shows How Americans Are Becoming Jerks (Bloomberg) Indeed, Americans blowing each other away is becoming about as common as fender-benders here in sociopath nation. What do you expect in a country where Ayn Rand is a a national hero? Remember when a crowd at a Republican debate erupted into cheers of someone dying without health insurance? Because I do. Welcome to this "Christian" country.

Here's at least one reason - as people become poorer, their attitudes become more hostile and more intense:
Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau first manipulated subjects' perceptions of their income by inviting some to compare themselves to high incomes ($500,000 per month) and others to low incomes ($500 per month). They found that people primed to believe they had low incomes then expressed harsher judgments about violent acts than those who were primed to think themselves rich. 
This, they say, supports the idea that when people feel themselves to be poor, they feel more vulnerable to others' harmful acts, and this causes them to make harsher judgments about them. If you can afford to replace your iPod you'll be less censorious of muggers than if you can't. If you're driving your children around all the time, you'll be less hysterical about paedophiles than if your kids have to walk everywhere. And so on. 
Thanks to the work of Ben Friedman, we should know by now that economic insecurity creates intolerance. This paper provides experimental evidence of microfoundations for this. That's progress. 
Now, we should distinguish here between the extent of illiberal opinions and the intensity of them. Surveys suggest that working class folk aren't much more opposed to immigration, drug legalization or gay marriage than richer people. But this is quite consistent with them having more intense feelings. Gillian Duffy's antipathy towards immigrants is, sadly, shared by the middle class; the difference is the vehemence with which those opinions were expressed...when liberal leftists complain about working class illiberalism, they should remember that the failing here lies not (just) with the working class themselves, but in social democracy itself. This has - so far - failed to sufficiently reduce the sense of vulnerability among the poor which produces illiberal attitudes.
The economic base of illiberalism (Stumbling and Mumbling) And see this: America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy (Salon)

Well, we've got a lot of poor people in this country, and more and more every single day. And as the ranks of the poor swell, their attitudes are likely to become more hostile and intense, causing the cycle to repeat itself in a viscous downward spiral as we increasingly turn on each other while the elites watch from their penthouses and offshore havens.

The only people who can stop it is us. Turning on ourselves is exactly what they want.

And see this: Let Them Eat Cake (New York Times)


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