Is there a solution to the decline of rural America?

I want to take a step back and recognize that there is a very real economic problem going on in broad swathes of rural and suburban America.  Manufacturing and unions died and it left these areas bereft of jobs and opportunity.  I may have previously blithely dismissed the economic hardship visited upon these areas.  It is very easy to say retrain and relocate but this is a large burden, particularly for older people.  I do think there is a nontrivial amount of entitlement among this population, that the solution to their woes must allow them to maintain their provincial lifestyles.  But as a believer in utilitarianism we cannot just ignore their preferences entirely.

Identifying a problem does not mean we have a solution.  This applies to both parties.  I know Republicans don’t have a solution or at least their proposed solutions are not going to do more good than harm.  Democratic policies are definitely more focused on a macro perspective that is more palliative than cure.  As I said before, these towns were mostly built on the backs of manufacturing.  They were company or industry towns through and through.  This is not coming back.  Any reshoring of manufacturing is unlikely to return to the Rust Belt and more likely to head to the South.  In the medium-long term, robotization is going to eliminate these jobs entirely.  So what is the new engine of economic growth for low skilled labor outside cities?  I don’t think anyone has any idea what that looks like which is why even Democrats focus on treating symptoms rather than causes.

It is important to recognize that this issue is really not fundamentally different than that facing the entire nation and at some level the entire developed world.  That is, income/wealth inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class.  Manufacturing is just the first victim of automation, but it will not be the last.  Self-driving cars are going to replace millions of workers to give a salient example.  We can expect an economy with demand for high skilled labor and the capital of the rich and a smattering of service jobs that cannot be automated or where most people prefer human interaction.  Nobody has a model for how to “fix” this outcome.  I am not even sure we want to fix it.  A “post-labor” economy sounds like the zenith of human civilization.  That is if, and this is a huge if, we shepherd it in responsibly such that nobody is left behind.  Sadly, the bulk of science fiction argues that we will fail, but let us hope that is more fiction than science.  Democratic redistributive policies are a good first attempt at trying to make this happen, so it is quite depressing that they are effectively locked out of power by a party that appears intent on recreating the most dire prediction of science fiction.

Lastly, I want to point out that all of this talk about the economic plight of rural Americans ignores a very relevant fact.  Namely that minorities and women, often concentrated in cities, are in even worse straits.  They are grappling with the same macroeconomic trends while still facing discrimination and the crippling legacy of prejudice.  For instance, the black unemployment rate is always at least several points higher than that of whites AND they are working in lower wage jobs.  Rural whites are neither unique nor the most egregiously hurt by the modern economy.  So lets spend a little less time talking about them and their problems.



Understanding the Rising Populist Right

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column expressing befuddlement regarding non-xenophobic reasons for the surge in support for Trump from mostly rural whites.  This is just a continuation of the liberal self-scrutiny after Clinton lost that follows from what I call the Bernie Sanders critique, that liberals need to stop playing identity politics and engage voters under the big tent of economic progress for all.

Krugman and others point out that politics is always identity politics.  For instance, identity politics propelled Trump to the White House.  Some of this identity is defined by racism, the erroneous belief that society is offering a helping hand to minorities as it leaves rural whites behind.  The other part appears to be a dissatisfaction with “elites”, both Republican and Democrat, that they believe look down upon them with disdain. Trump played on both of these, positioning himself as an outsider and fueling racial resentment.

I also don’t agree that racial equality and economic equality are mutually exclusive in a rhetorical sense or in reality and in my mind they in fact build on each other in a virtuous cycle.  There is plenty of evidence from scholarship and recent elections that poor economic conditions predispose people towards intolerance.  On the other side, a better economy will free the poor and disadvantaged to engage in politics more (via the bee sting theory of poverty) which should improve support for liberal policies and express the appropriate amount of opprobrium towards racism and xenophobia.

Let me return to Krugman’s befuddlement.  First, Krugman is not actually ignorant of the positions of the Populist Right, he is more confused about how they got from resentment of nonwhites and elites due to dissatisfaction with current culture and economic circumstances to voting for Trump because they think he can fix it.  He cannot follow the logic and neither can I or other liberals.  Now some would just dismiss this as the irreconcilability of the conservative and liberal world view, but throwing up our hands in despair is never the answer.

From a policy perspective, Democratic policy has been and will continue to be geared toward addressing income inequality through progressive tax structure, government benefits and regulation to curb the excesses of corporate and moneyed elite.  Trump policy in this area is fairly orthodox Republican policy: cut taxes for rich, deregulate and cut government benefits.  The only satisfaction this will give the many Trump supporters in the low and middle classes is that many minorities they perceive as undeserving will be hurt.  But this is classic cut off the nose to spite the face behavior.  Trump’s sole policy contribution is a more extreme antagonism towards immigration, but there is little evidence that immigration is a contributor to the economic malaise felt by Trump supporters.  There is an even more tenuous relationship between Trump’s suggestions in this area and economic prosperity.

Thus, the conclusion is that most people don’t care about policy or at least the details of policy, which I believe was always obvious.  Conservatives realized this long ago and I am not sure why so many on the Left still labor under the false belief that policy informs voting decisions.  Maybe it is a charitable assumption about voters or an inability to see that not everyone thinks like them.  Or maybe they all know it, but refuse to lower themselves to a political discourse that revolves around “feelings.”

I cannot understand the white working class dissatisfaction and what they see as their future.  The picture emerging is that they want to live their small town lifestyles, as they seem to have a strong distaste for city life, but want the economic progress and perks of modernization.  However, human progress is built on the back of the agglomeration benefits of cities and it is very hard to see how you export that out of cities.  There was a short period of prosperous small manufacturing towns dotted around the country, but that era is over and it is not coming back.  Even if globalization trends downward, robots will continue to erode manufacturing positions.  The irony of course is that manufacturing has been in decline so long that many of these voters aren’t even pining for a nostalgic past they experienced, but merely one they imagined their parents living.

Therefore, when Krugman writes that these people are voting against their interests he seems exactly right.  He is not engaging in liberal paternalism or disdain.  He is writing from the perspective of an expert in economics engaging in an economic analysis and his conclusion is that they haven’t thought beyond their immediate anger and resentment.  This is also how democracy works, people vote for representatives that are hopefully better informed and can therefore make better decisions, decisions that may not align with popular opinion.

Which is not to say that there is not a strain of disdain among the liberal camp, a feeling I all too often succumb to as well.  For me, this mostly springs from what I perceive is the blithe dismissal of evidence and empiricism by the conservative half of the country.  WHY DON’T THEY JUST LOOK AT THIS GRAPH AND AGREE WITH ME?  THEY MUST BE MORONS.  It’s very hard to tamp down on that particularly because logic and data have been my language through school and into my post-graduation career.

However, there is a particular faction of liberalism, most readily seen on social media that are very judgmental about their opponent’s culture or lack thereof.  They mock their food and clothing styles or even their methods of speech.  It dovetails with a general surge on the internet of a belief in the infallibility of personal preferences and culture and a need to project them onto others.  In the Democratic party this appears to mostly be driven by the younger, whiter, more affluent and college educated demographic.  The irony is that the real Democratic base of the poor and minorities probably has more in common with Midwestern Trump supporters than they do with this privileged minority of the Democratic Party.  And yet it is likely that this outspoken minority draws the ire of so many Trump supporters that feel a real disdain coming from the liberal camp.

The rallying cry of the Democratic party should not be about adherence to some specific set of cultural mores or even a grounding in facts and empiricism.  It is about compassion for humanity, all of it, any race or socioeconomic status and even those outside our own political boundaries.  And around that core of compassion, we construct a solid theory, backed by as much data as we can muster, of governance and policy.  And it just so happens that theory suggests that government is not always the problem and that the market is not always right.  Democrats are not the party of big government.  They are the party of better government that cares for all people.



Beef Caldereta

I have decided that I need to start cataloging recipes that significantly diverge from any written recipe I currently possess and for which I believe my version is superior.

I have never had beef caldereta before making it myself.  This situation, that my first taste of an ethnic dish comes from my kitchen, is surprisingly common despite residing in a large city with a diverse assortment of very good ethnic food.  For those unfamiliar with the dish, it is a Filipino beef stew the distinguishing feature of which is the addition of pureed liver to the dish.  Liver has really become a favored protein for me, it has rich meaty flavor and adds tons of umami and was really the reason I made this dish.  Otherwise it’s pretty standard beef stew.

2 lb of beef chuck or shank
2 tbsp flour
6 oz liver, pork or chicken
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 poblano pepper, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp tomato paste
dried chiles to taste
1 c red wine
1/4 c soy sauce
14 oz can of tomatoes
2 c of stock, add gelatin if needed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp pepper
8 oz carrot, stew size chunk
8 oz potato, stew size chunks
8 oz frozen pearl onions

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Celsius.  Brown both sides of beef, remove from pan and cut into large chunks and toss with flour.

Heat oil in dutch oven until smoking and add well dried livers.  Cook until well browned and remove.  Puree tomatoes, stock, soy sauce and livers together.

Saute onions, peppers and garlic until soft.  Add shrimp paste, tomato paste and dried chiles and continue cooking until pastes start to brown.  Add wine and cook scraping pan until most of it has evaporated.  Add soy sauce, tomatoes, stock, livers and bay leaves and pepper and bring back to a simmer.  Stir in floured beef and make sure it is simmering again before placing it in the oven, partially covered.  Cook for an hour and 30 minutes before adding carrots,  potatoes and pearl onions to pot and stirring to combine.  Cook for another hour in the oven.

Check for seasoning of salt, pepper and chiles.  Feel free to add more and different vegetables to stew.

Racism is a Tool of the Oligarchs

As many have pointed out, this election and recent political events in Europe highlight just how strong a force racism and xenophobia still are in the modern developed world.  What seems to go unremarked upon is how this is a distraction from the actually important struggle between the moneyed elites and the rest of us.  It’s not the Mexicans stealing our jobs, it’s the bankers and CEOs sucking up all the productivity gains from the last thirty years.  Class warfare is the decisive struggle of our time and whenever we take our eye of the ball we are succumbing to the oligarch’s feint.

The elites harnessing racism to divert attention from their looting and pillaging of the economy is, literally, the oldest trick in the book.  The key is to play on humanities natural prejudices to present an ideal cause for all the things wrong with your life.  How convenient that you already harbor a natural animus towards that group and now you learn that all along they were sabotaging your life.  I don’t like to bring up Hitler, but in this case it is a salient and well-known extreme example of relieving mass economic distress via unleashing racial animosity that culminated in genocide.

Now it should be obvious that apart from being morally wrong, tapping into racism almost never produces the results promised.  Many studies have shown that immigration is at worst neutral for the existing population and in many cases bolstered the wages of natural citizens.  Furthermore from a logical standpoint, racism (and sexism) are obviously inefficient.  I wrote about this before, but the best everything are not all white males.  By putting up barriers you are limiting the talent pool you can draw from and reducing the efficiencies of comparative advantage.

So playing on racism is a classic red herring employed by the elite to distract people from the true cause of their distress, the elites.  They have a disproportionate amount of power, even in a democracy, over the apparatus of government.  Upon acquiring this power, they bend the rules in their favor even further to amass more power and wealth.  The trend toward heightened wealth and income inequality in developed countries suggest a vicious feedback cycle where wealth begets social power which begets more wealth.

Thus, the central skirmish of modern (and often ancient) civilization is that of the weak and numerous versus the few and wealthy.  The oligarchs know that they are in fact quite vulnerable and the 19th and early 20th centuries bear this out as the working class realized that their institutions were merely the tools of the already powerful and revolted.  Even when revolutions did not succeed, they reduce the precious wealth of the elite.  As such the oligarchs employ a divide and conquer strategy to divert the masses.  As long as the lower classes fight among themselves they can’t turn on the ruling class.

Now so far I have talked in generalities, but this is exactly what we expect a Trump administration to be.  He gets elected on racial anxiety and may make a few attempts at some of the more insane proposals meant to ameliorate that anxiety, but more than likely the morass of the U.S. government will stop him.  He will likely have far more success implementing the tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and the gutting of aid to the poor that have also been planks of his campaign and that of the now dominant Republican party. So he throws a few sops to the masses and gets on with his real agenda, enriching himself and his friends at the expense of everyone else.

So good job America.  You elected a terrible man and you aren’t going to get any of the things you wanted while the real enemies gorge themselves.