Archive for November, 2017

2016_Presidential_Election_-_Electoral_College

Dwight Billings—Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, preeminent scholar of Appalachia, and occasional contributor to this blog—just completed a chapter for a collection of critical responses to J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins, which will be published by West Virginia University Press. He has kindly agreed to allow me to publish extracts from his chapter in this guest post. 

Once upon a time, there was “a strange land and peculiar people.”* It was a mythical place known as “Trumpalachia.” J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, has been widely acclaimed as its foremost explorer, mapmaker, interpreter, and critic. Countless readers have turned to his book to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to white working-class voters. But Hillbilly Elegy is not a “Trump for Dummies,” nor is it an elegy for Appalachia. It’s an advertisement for capitalist neoliberalism and personal choice.

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Vance’s main argument in Hillbilly Elegy is that Appalachians and their descendants in the Rust-Belt have been “reacting to [economic decline] in the worst possible way.” He notes that “Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question of course, but Vance’s answer points in the wrong direction. In his opinion, the problem boils down simply to the bad personal choices individuals make in the face of economic decline—not to the corporate capitalist economy that creates immense profits by casting off much of its workforce or the failure of governments to respond to this ongoing crisis. The real problem, he says, is “about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

Vance’s bottom line is: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself. There is of course nothing new here in Vance’s recycling of worn out culture of poverty theory. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative 1960s Moynihan report on the pathology of the black family in white face and a rehash of Charles Murray’s more recent Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

When the Wall Street Journal endorsed Hillbilly Elegy, it commended the book for its stress on the values of “religion, discipline, and family,” but chiefly lauded that fact that “most of all [Vance] wants people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices.” The stress on personal choice and accountability is a central theme in the ideology of neoliberalism. Hillbilly Elegy’s alignment with it is surely another reason for the book’s sales success.

Capitalist neoliberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas, practices, and policies. Its diverse economic, political, and cultural projects promote, among other things, deregulation, privatization, the outsourcing of public services, fiscal austerity, global trade liberalization, supply-side monetarism rather than demand-side stimulation, financialization, marketization, anti-unionism, and massive taxes cuts for the superrich and corporations. At the individual level, it stresses personal responsibility for one’s own wellbeing

But wait. Things get a little more complicated. Vance isn’t saying that his hillbillies are perfect neoliberal subjects—just that they should become so. To get ahead, they must fix themselves but what holds them back is a dysfunctional ethno-regional, Scots-Irish culture. Here is where the two tracks of Hillbilly Elegy come together, or perhaps tensely collide, Vance’s personal memoir and his cultural one. One the personal level, Hillbilly Elegy is about the good choices Vance made that he believes allowed him to escape poverty. On the cultural level it is about good choices that “others in [his] neighborhood hadn’t” made because of their ethnic heritage. Never mind that the book’s premise about what Scots-Irish culture in Appalachia or elsewhere is based on stereotypes that have long been refuted, or that its demographic claim that the Scots-Irish ever constituted a majority of the Appalachian population is simply not true. Hillbilly Elegy is at once an advertisement for the neoliberal promised land of zombie-like entrepreneurial souls and an elegy for a dying but not yet dead-enough Scots-Irish regional culture that doesn’t really exist.

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Undoubtedly, efforts to understand voters’ choice for Donald Trump led many readers and much of the mass media to Hillbilly Elegy, probably the single factor that most directly contributed to the book’s phenomenal sales. (The New York Times hailed it as one of the most important books to read for understanding the election.) Despite its ultra conservative slant—Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recommended it as his favorite book of 2016—many of its readers were political liberals according to an analysis in The Economist based on Amazon book sales. Readers of Hillbilly Elegy were far more likely to buy books like Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land rather than rightwing books such as Ann Coutler’s In Trump We Trust, Eric Bolling’s The Swamp, or Mark Levin’s Rediscovering Americanism. One hundred and fifty years of stereotypes about Appalachia and elitist stereotypes about poor people as “white trash” (shown by Isenberg to date back to the early colonial era) help to explain the why liberal readers might find J. D. Vance to be a plausible guide to the current political scene as well as a analgesic for any qualms over inequality and injustice in the United States.

Appalachia became what I call “Trumpalachia,” a media-constructed mythological realm, backward and homogenous. Appalachians were still “yesterday’s people” as they were described in the 1960s, but now it seems they had grown bitter, resentful, rightwing, and racist. Its supposed “cultural issues with racism, sexism, and homophobia” took center stage in liberals’ diagnosis of its pathology. “A perfect storm of economics, creeping conservatism and outright racism” was said to have spawned its turn to the right after decades in the Democratic column. Hillbillies were said to be in despair over their “perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” The Guardian described them as part of “a backlash from white, working-class voters frustrated by their relative decline in status in America—symbolized, in part, of course, by its first black president.” “America is no longer white enough” for these voters wrote a New York Times columnist. “To these people, Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is not the empty rhetoric of a media-savvy con artist from Queens but a last-ditch rallying cry for the soul of a changing land where minorities will be the majority by the middle of the century.” Another stated: “Let’s put this clearly, the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” Above all, white Appalachia came to be represented as “a tinderbox of resentment that ignited national politics.”

Appalachian voters did of course resoundingly support Donald Trump in 2016, and like non-metropolitan voters elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. For many, Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate remark that she would put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work” was decisive. But there is more to the story than this. When asked to explain why Trump was so popular in Appalachia, J. D. Vance explained: “The simple answer is that these people—my people—are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.”

But that’s not true. Bernie Sanders did, and he beat Hillary Clinton in every county in West Virginia and almost all the counties in Appalachian Kentucky including all its coal counties in the presidential primaries, yet the national media gave this almost no attention at all. McDowell County, West Virginia probably got more media attention than any other place because while Obama had won a majority of votes there in 2008, Trump won by 74 percent in 2016. Significantly, however, Sanders won twice as many votes as Trump in the primary election there. When he was not on the ballot, however, 73 percent of McDowell’s registered voters simply stayed home and did not vote at all. Sanders strong support suggests to me that a significant number of voters in the coalfields and the wider region were prepared to vote for a more progressive candidate in the general election had one been available, not one indebted to Wall-Street.

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In the meantime, J. D. Vance has gone on to shore up his rightwing credentials. He has been discussed as a candidate for high political office and has established a non-profit organization in Ohio to fight “opiate abuse, save families, and create a pathway to the middle class.” Recently, he wrote the preface to the Heritage Foundation’s “2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity,” a Koch-funded reiteration of the culture of poverty thesis. In line with the Koch brothers who put their vast money behind down-ticket Republican candidates rather than Donald Trump, Vance reports that he loved but was terrified by Trump and voted for a conservative write-in candidate instead. Nevertheless, he was promoted by alt-right extremist Steve Bannon as a candidate for head of the Heritage Foundation. Vance is misguided, but he is no Steve Bannon. Given his depiction of hillbillies as a distinct race of disadvantaged white ethnics, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that Bannon, who called Hillbilly Elegy “a magnificent book,” would try to recruit him as a potential “ally.”

The top echelon of the super rich in America has never been wealthier, while the income of deeply indebted American wage earners has been stagnant for decades. Millions of people in the United States are forced to live in poverty, and millions more suffer from economic insecurity and severe hardship. Now is no time for identity politics and shibboleths about self-sufficiency and personal choice.

In “The Afterlife of a Memoir,” Aminatta Forno advises: “Write a memoir but only if you are sure you want to live with the consequences everyday for the rest of your life.” The great danger and ultimate tragedy of Hillbilly Elegy is not simply that it perpetuates Appalachian stereotypes. It is that it promotes toxic politics that will only further oppress the hillbillies that J. D. Vance professes to love and speak for.

 

*Appalachian readers will be familiar with the phrase “strange land and peculiar people” as an early instance of the “othering” of Appalachia. See Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).

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And the Republican Congress. . .

The premise and promise of the House and Senate versions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are that lower corporate taxes will lead to increased investment and thus more jobs and higher wages for American workers.

Marx, it seems, would have endorsed the idea:

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! “Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.” Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity? If to classical economy, the proletarian is but a machine for the production of surplus-value; on the other hand, the capitalist is in its eyes only a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital. Political Economy takes the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest.

Except for one thing (as Bruce Norton has explained): Marx never presumed capitalists would follow any kind of fixed rule, including using their surplus-value to accumulate capital. That’s only what the mainstream economists of his day—classical political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo—attributed to, or at least hoped from, capitalists. They’re the ones who thought capitalists had a “historical mission” of accumulating capital.

As I explained to students in class yesterday, you only get the accumulation of more capital out of corporate tax cuts if you assume everything else constant.

Consider, for example, the general law of capitalist accumulation:

K* = r – λ

where K* is the rate of capital accumulation (∆K/K), r is the rate of profit (surplus-value divided by the sum of constant and variable capital, s/[c+v]), and λ is the rate of all other distributions of surplus-value (including taxes to the state, CEO salaries, stock buybacks, dividends to stockholders, payments to money-lenders, and so on).

So, yes, if you hold everything else constant, corporate tax cuts, and thus a lower λ, will lead to a higher K*.

But that only works if everything else is held constant. If capitalists choose to use the tax cuts to increase CEO salaries, stock buybacks, and/or dividends to stockholders, then all bets are off. The Tax Cuts part of the act will not lead to the Jobs part of the act.

And even if capitalists do use some portion of the tax cuts to accumulate capital, that will only result in new jobs if technology is held constant. However, if they use it to invest in newer constant capital (e.g., automation and other labor-displacing technologies), then again we’ll see few if any new jobs.

And even if and when new jobs are created, the effect on workers’ wages will depend on the Reserve Army of Unemployed, Underemployed, and Low-Wage workers.

Clearly, there are lots of hidden steps and assumptions between slashing corporate taxes and more jobs.

That’s why Donald Trump and House and Senate Republicans have decided not to even attempt to justify the tax cuts but only to ram it through Congress in the shortest possible time.

They pretend they’re taking “the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest” but, in the end, they’re just attempting to line their benefactors’ pockets.

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According to a new report on inequality in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, compiled by Rede Nossa São Paulo (pdf, in Portuguese), the gap in the average age of death between the poorest and richest districts of the city is almost 24 years. Thus, for example, the average age of death in Jardim Paulista is 79.4 years while that of residents of Jardim Ângela is only 55.7 years.

This should come as no surprise since Brazil is one of the most unequal countries on the planet.

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However, lest we forget, the United States is also characterized by levels of inequality that are comparable to those in Brazil: in 2014, the top 1 percent of Americans captured 20.2 percent of pre-tax income, while their Brazilian counterparts managed to take home 27.6 percent. Perhaps even more damning, the share of income of the bottom 50 percent of both countries—while rising in Brazil and continuing to fall in the United States—was only 12.5 percent in 2014.

As it turns out, the obscene levels of inequality in the United States have resulted in a life expectancy at birth that is lower than most other high-income countries—and the gains in future years are expected to lower than in most other countries.

According to a an article published earlier this year in the British health journal Lancet,

Notable among poor-performing countries is the USA, whose life expectancy at birth is already lower than most other high-income countries, and is projected to fall further behind such that its 2030 life expectancy at birth might be similar to the Czech Republic for men, and Croatia and Mexico for women. The USA has the highest child and maternal mortality, homicide rate, and body-mass index of any high-income country, and was the first of high-income countries to experience a halt or possibly reversal of increase in height in adulthood, which is associated with higher longevity. The USA is also the only country in the OECD without universal health coverage, and has the largest share of unmet health-care needs due to financial costs. Not only does the USA have high and rising health inequalities, but also life expectancy has stagnated or even declined in some population subgroups. Therefore, the poor recent and projected US performance is at least partly due to high and inequitable mortality from chronic diseases and violence, and insufficient and inequitable health care.

In the case of both Brazil and the United States, the poor will continue to die younger unless and until the fundamental causes of economic inequality are eliminated.

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