Posts Tagged ‘politics’


Late last month, I argued Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to international trade. But his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters. That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer in recent weeks than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.

And now we’re witnessing the free-trade, anti-Trump backlash.

Thomas B. Edsall cites the same Peter Goodman article I did last week, which included this astute observation:

Across much of the industrialized world, an outsize share of the winnings has been harvested by people with advanced degrees, stock options and the need for accountants. Ordinary laborers have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety.

But then Edsall goes all in with the mainstream economists who, as part of their unchanging mantra, celebrate free international trade.* He cites, as one example, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management:

No nation can succeed by trying to protect the past from the future. We will succeed by having the confidence to embrace competition, and leveraging our comparative strengths, which are numerous. We have the largest, most productive and most technologically advanced economy that’s ever existed on this planet. The more open the world economy is, the more we have an opportunity to leverage our many strengths.

My sense is that mainstream economists are doubling down on their free-trade argument, forgetting about the “ordinary laborers [who] have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety,” for two major reasons.

First, they fervently believe in free trade, because their models are designed to ignore the unequal costs and benefits of international trade. That is, the “gains from trade” that supposedly accrue to everyone are literally baked into their models. And they’re afraid to admit that some gain, and many others lose, under existing international trade regimes and agreements. They’re afraid because admitting the unequal outcomes opens the door to intervening and creating patterns of trade that might actually help workers and other losers within the current arrangements. They’re also fearful of incurring the wrath of other mainstream economists, who attack any exceptions to the free-trade mantra with a vengeance (as even Paul Samuelson discovered).

Second, mainstream economists are doubling down on their defense of free trade because they’re willing to say anything and everything to attack Trump. Just the fact that Trump has had the temerity of criticizing free-trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby creating (in the eyes of mainstream economists) the specter of protectionism, has led them to cast aside all caution and reinforce their uncritical support for free trade. (Edsall even invokes the long-discredited idea that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was “one of the principle causes” of the first Great Depression to make the case.) But, of course, in their determination to oppose the Republican candidate, mainstream economists also dismiss the indignities and injuries many of Trump’s supporters have suffered in recent decades.**

International trade is not the only thing hurting American workers. It’s probably not even the major factor. Decades of stagnant wages, rising inequality, outsourcing, and job-displacing technological change created by their employers are, in my view, even more important. But mainstream economists’ and pundits’ all-out defense of free trade, their refusal to recognize the unequal benefits and costs of globalization, and their determined efforts to let employers completely off the hook are among the important reasons that, against all odds, Trump is only 5-6 points behind in the national polls.***


*It should come as no surprise that, according to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, the solution to the problems of international trade is. . .more trade.

**Many of Clinton’s supporters have also been harmed by U.S. economic policies, including international trade agreements.

***I wrote this post before the revelation of the 2005 Trump tape and the Wikileaks publication of the emails concerning Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Given the media coverage of the two events (plus whatever happens in the Sunday debate), my guess is the new polls will register a much larger lead for Clinton—and there will be much less discussion of international trade (or economics of any sort) in the weeks ahead.


Don Blankenship, the chief executive of the Massey Energy Company in 2010 when a fire in the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners—who should have been charged with murder but was earlier only convicted of a federal misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety standards and was sentenced by U.S. district judge Irene Berge to one year in prison and fined the maximum of $250,000—has just issued a 67-page diatribe (pdf) in which he declares himself an “American political prisoner.”

In the booklet, Blankenship asserts, contrary to all evidence, that the explosion was triggered by natural gas, and not unsafe mining conditions; politicians imprisoned him for political, self-serving reasons; and he has a long history of working to advance the safety of coal miners.

In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, former U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin called the booklet “more Blankenship propaganda.”

“Blankenship was convicted by a jury of his peers of willfully violating mine safety laws-laws designed to keep miners safe,” said Goodwin, who brought the case against Blankenship. “They are the same laws that if broken, cause deadly mine explosions like the one that tragically killed 29 miners at UBB. Blankenship is in prison because of his greed, his arrogance, and his criminal behavior. This most recent stunt shows that he still has not learned this lesson: if you gamble with miners lives, you deserve to go to prison.” . . .

Goodwin said a convicted criminal who denies his crimes from prison is still a convicted criminal – and still in prison.

“The only difference is that this one has the money to spend a fortune on postage for his denials,” he said.


We can thank Donald Trump for one thing: he’s put the white working-class on the political map.*

In recent months, we’ve seen a veritable flood of articles, polls, and surveys about the characteristics, conditions, and concerns of white working-class voters—all with the premise that the white working-class is fundamentally different from the rest of non-working-class, non-white Americans.

But why are the members of the white working-class attracting so much attention? My sense is, they both represent a threat—because many plan to vote for Trump and, more generally, reject much elite opinion (including, but not limited, to Trump)—and, at the same time, are assumed to be a dying breed—as the U.S. working-class becomes more female, more racially and ethnically diverse, and increasingly employed in non-manufacturing jobs. So, the argument goes, the white working-class, supposedly radically different from the rest of Americans, is motivated by fear and resentment occasioned by a loss of identity and standing.**

Hence the curiosity—best exemplified by a new CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation [ht: ja] poll, about what white working-class Americans think. The results of the poll are interesting, if only because on many issues (aside from support for or opposition to Trump and immigration) the white working-class holds views that are not all that different from other whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

The fundamental problem with CNN/Kaiser poll (as with so many others) is its basic definition of the working-class: “those who have attained less than a four-year college degree, excluding those between the ages of 18-24 who are currently enrolled in school.” As I have argued before (e.g., here and here), that’s not the working-class. It’s just people who never went to or didn’t finish college. What they’re using is a definition of the working-class that doesn’t include all those other people, many of whom have college degrees, who are forced to have the freedom to work for someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. Together, most Americans with and without college degrees work for the boards of directors of large corporations—and they don’t manage the production process or supervise other employees.

As Vivek Chibber explains,

Workers show up for work every day knowing that they have little job security; they are paid what employers feel is consistent with their main priority, which is making profits, not the well-being of employees; they work at a pace and duration that is set by their bosses; and they submit to these conditions, not because they want to, but because for most of them, the alternative to accepting these conditions is not having a job at all.

The working-class, as I am defining it then, turns out to comprise the vast majority (70-80 percent) of the U.S. population. And most of them, of course, are white.

So, what does the CNN/Kaiser pool reveal about the views of, to be clear, one portion of the white working-class? As I wrote above, on many issues, they’re not all that different from other whites or blacks and Hispanics without college degrees. In terms of their own lives, most of the so-called white working-class, as the other poll respondents, are not angry, worried, pessimistic, or unhappy. But they are dissatisfied with the country’s economic situation and with the influence on the political process of people like them. In recent years, they report it’s become harder for them to get ahead financially and to find good jobs. Finally, they blame the federal government much more than their employers or Wall Street for the economic problems facing the working-class and they believe the federal government helps wealthy people too much and members of the working-class too little.

That’s exactly the set of answers one would expect from the American working-class—white, black, and Hispanic, with and without college degrees—right now. They’re getting screwed and, while they may not be dissatisfied in their own lives, they certainly think both the economic and political systems are stacked against them. Perhaps the only surprising item in the survey is the extent to which they blame the government, and not their employers or Wall Street, for the economic problems facing the working-class.

The only major differences within the working-class have to do with Trump and the role of immigrants. While 56 percent of whites without a college degree would consider voting for Trump, most other respondents would definitely not vote for him. A similar difference emerges with respect to immigrants: a much smaller percentage of the so-called white working-class believe immigrants “strengthen our country” and a much higher percentage thinks “immigrants today are a burden on our country” than the other groups.***

In the end, those two differences—on Trump and immigration—are what make the so-called white working-class interesting to the media. It’s not their conditions or their grievances, much of which they share with other members of the working-class. It’s only the fact that they threaten to vote for the renegade presidential candidate and they’re wary about the role played by other, immigrant members of the working-class. And, of course, many of them are thrown into the “basket of deplorables” by the opposing campaign.

Both presidential candidates, then, are sowing and exploiting those differences to their own advantage, which is what U.S. politicians have always attempted to do when it comes to real or imagined divisions within the working-class. That’s how they campaign and that’s how they hope to get elected.

Trump and Hillary Clinton (and their echoes in the mainstream media) have created the “white working-class” and they hope to ride it—as a source of support or a specter—to victory in November. And then, whoever wins, they’ll abandon it—along with the rest of the working-class.



*Actually, Bernie Sanders also played an important role in focusing attention on the white working-class, especially with his stunning primary victories in Michigan and West Virginia. Since his loss to Hillary Clinton, however, the white working-class (along with the rest of the American working-class) has virtually disappeared from Democratic discourse.

**As Connor Kilpatrick has explained, the Democratic Party “has established a clear line on the white wage-earning class: they’re all either dying (demographically or literally), irrelevant in an increasingly nonwhite country, or so hopelessly racist they can go off themselves with a Miller High Life-prescription-painkiller cocktail for all they care.”

***There is one additional difference that requires mention: while a majority of whites—with (62 percent) and without (69 percent) college degrees—believe trade agreements cost the United States jobs, a much smaller percentage of blacks and Hispanics without college degrees (both 37 percent) think that’s the case.


Special mention

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Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven make a convincing case, from the Left, for a universal basic income.

In particular, they demonstrate an understanding that wage work has become one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion,” past relief efforts (going back to Poor Laws) were mostly punitive, and employers will likely resist any attempt to undermine the so-called work ethic.

Not everyone will be on board to sever the age-old ties between poverty relief and tough demands on the poor. The basic-income approach will be resisted by employer interests because it violates that venerable principle, and will make workers more powerful over time by reducing their dependence on any one employer. A generous basic-income policy could, in other words, transform class relations.

There are however other obstacles, particularly problems of political language, that need to be overcome in any attempt to expand the “entitlement society” (a term that itself needs to be recaptured from the Right) through a universal basic income.

As I wrote back in 2012 (at the early stages of the previous presidential campaign), there are at least two issues we need to confront:

First, we need to contest the meaning of dependence. In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

Second,. . .corporations have been successful in shifting the financing of government assistance programs from their surpluses to workers’ incomes. But the solution to the pressure on current workers’ standard of living is not to cut government programs but to change how they’re financed.

The campaign for a universal basic income will only be successful when we effectively contest the meaning of dependence (such that wage-labor is no longer viewed as a sign of independence) and change the way government programs are financed (such that the social surplus, not workers’ wages, can be utilized to satisfy social needs.)

Ultimately, then, a universal basic income points toward a new realm of freedom, including freedom from the need to work for the benefit of someone else and from the need to hand over a growing portion of one’s already-low individual income to finance a program that benefits society as a whole.

elegy hillbilly

Last week, I promised a review of J. D. Vance’s new book‚ because I knew I could count on Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, University of Kentucky sociologist, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him.

J. D. Vance is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working- class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.

Vance notes that “Noble-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 his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case you can. All you really need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can be learned from those who endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package, which purports to explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks, who recently proclaimed in the New York Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . .These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth about one’s self, etc.] 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. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger and alienation of the white working-class and its presumed support for Donald Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success.**

A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience.

It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.

The real focus of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam, among others, but their research does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline, and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in my words, a little engine that could.

I tell my students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber, which contended that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural analyst as Max Weber.

J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.


*Hillbilly Elegy premiered at number nine on the New York Times list of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books. It is currently ranked number 5 in the Amazon list of best-selling books and number 1 in various specific categories (Sociology of Class, Poverty, and Ethnic Demographic Studies).

** For why Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see the interview with him by Rod Dreher, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People.”


Here’s an episode concerning U.S. unemployment statistics I was not aware of: in September 1961, James Daniel, writing in the Readers’ Digest, accused the U.S. government of providing “excellent fodder for the communist line.”

Daniel’s article, “Let’s Look at Those ‘Alarming’ Unemployment Figures,” began as follows:

For months the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has been pouring out a stream of doleful figures depicting the worst ‘unemployment crisis’ in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930′s. Almost daily some administration official tells us that nearly seven percent of our labor force is out of work. Meanwhile, Congress has passed one emergency spending bill after another on the ground, in part or in whole, that it will help employment…. All this unemployment news out of Washington provides excellent fodder for the communist line, of course.

At least in part in response to the Daniels article, in November 1961, the President’s Committee to Appraise Employment and Unemployment Statistics was appointed. Then, in 1963, the Subcommittee on Economic Statistics of the Joint Economic Committee held hearings on “Measuring Employment and Unemployment” (pdf).

Here’s Robert A. Gordon, the chair of the president’s committee:

You will forgive me if I say that this article represented an egregious example of irresponsible journalism. In effect, it charged that the official data on unemployment were being deliberately manipulated in order to justify larger Government spending and more extensive Government controls.

The entire transcript of the hearings is worth reading, if only to get a sense that there is no level of unemployment “out there” to be measured. The measuring of unemployment (like all such statistics, from national income to profits) is a social construction.


Today, of course, the rate of unemployment is once again contested, as conspiracy theorists (like Donald Trump) argue the official unemployment numbers out of Washington are exaggerated. However, in their case, it’s not that they’re too high, but too low.