Google analytics

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Welfare state resentment

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ezra Klein last spring posted a chart, originally from The Fourth Branch, showing states in which more federal dollars are spent than collected in red, and states in which more taxes are paid than federal dollars spent in blue:

and comparing this to a chart showing which states voted for Barak Obama and which for John McCain in 2008:

The first thing one notices about these charts is that states that got the best deal tended to vote for the candidate who said he wanted to cut federal spending, which should hurt the red states the most.  There are exceptions, such as Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas, but the correlation is strong.  Some of the states that went for Obama, such as Iowa, Ohio and Indiana, aren't exactly deep blue states, and could easily swing the other way in the next election.

Why is this the case?  Why do donor states vote for the welfare state, while the welfare states vote against it?

I'd say the the welfare states vote that way because they resent being dependent, and their elected officials don't cut the welfare state because the people they represent really do need the money.  The donor states tend to be on the coast, either Atlantic, Pacific or great lakes, and they are donor states because the average income is higher, resulting in more income taxes paid.  The welfare states tend to be rural, inland, and poorer.

One of the best reasons for locating a city in a particular place is because that place is a natural center of commerce.  A city with a good harbor tends to be such a place, because ships are a more efficient way to move a lot of stuff than even trains, while trucks are way behind.  Other means of transport tend to be built to such cities because they are already transportation centers, enforcing this trend.

I remember the first time I visited Spokane, wondering why they'd chosen to build a city right there, when there was no harbor.  Then I came to the rail yards, and saw that this was Spokane's equivalent to a harbor.

Commerce follows transport, and wealth follows commerce.  And commerce tends to attract people who belong to a culture that Max Weber described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The second thing I noticed about the maps is that most of the welfare states tend to have what Ruth Benedict called a "shame" culture, while most of the donor states have a "guilt" culture.  In a guilt culture, you are mainly defined by what you think of yourself.  One way to think about this is that this is a descendant of the New England Puritan culture, one of the offshoots of which is the Unitarian Church.  Unitarians don't need a church constantly reminding them to act morally, because they've got a Puritan in their head who makes them feel guilty when they don't.  I've had customers at my bookstore point out to me that they wouldn't have known if I'd acted unethically, to which I reply, "I'd know."  I spent my formative years in Maine and the state of Washington, and have lived most of my life in the latter.  I'm a guilt kind of guy.

The South was settled by people who were not so opposed to fun.  Paradoxically, that means they need a church that talks a lot about morals, and have a culture in which a sinner repents (think of Bill Clinton, and a long line of Southern politicians who have had lapses and confessed and asked forgiveness.)  You can have a little fun, but you need to come to Jesus and ask forgiveness, because what's important is what people think of you.  Inside, you may think you're a hell of a fellow, but if you have been publicly shamed, your honor is besmirched.  You must have your honor restored, either by gaining forgiveness or by fighting for your honor.  It's no coincidence that dueling was in the U.S. a Southern institution.  Andrew Jackson fought a duel to defend his honor.  Lincoln, challenged to a duel, is said to have replied that he would accept if his choice of weapons -- cow pies at two paces -- was adopted for the duel.

To the Yankee, the idea of fighting a duel was laughable.  To the Southern gentleman, it was a matter of life and death, because to live without honor was a kind of social death.

The modern-day version of this is a society in which the rich states tend to be those with a guilt culture, who feel they must do the right thing for those less fortunate, while the poorer states tend to be populated by people who worry that the people in the richer states may look down on them.  This is why conservatives tend to talk so much about "liberal elites," even though the wealthy are more likely to support conservative politicians.  If you live in a rural area, you are likely to be dependent of roads that could not be built and maintained with local taxes, crop subsidies that help keep the family farm alive, and a number of other subsidies that wealthier, more urban populations supply.

Each side thinks about this in terms of how they themselves would feel.  Urban "guilt culture" people feel that they should help the less fortunate, and should they fall on hard times would feel grateful rather than guilty for the help the received.  Rural, "shame culture" people need the help, but feel shamed by the need, and feel they must be looked down upon.

Vermont, a guilt culture state, is rural, and a net importer of federal money, yet votes as liberal as Connecticut, because the subsidy is what they would do if they were the rich ones in order to make them feel right about themselves.  Texas, an honor culture state, is wealthier than average, but does not vote like Connecticut.  In part this is because they don't have the guilt culture need to help those less fortunate in order to feel good about themselves, and in part it's because guilt and shame aren't just about the money.

The third thing I noticed about this chart is that the red states in both cases show a strong correlation with where slavery was legal before the Civil War.

As it happens, the state of Washington was a territory at the time, and slavery was not legal here.

Yankees tend to look back on the Civil War as ancient history, especially if they live in an area that wasn't a state at the time, but when I lived in Texas, I discovered that for many Southerners, that history is still very much alive.  I lived in one of the many counties named after a Confederate general.  The schools in that county were desegregated in the 1980s, not long before I got there.  However they may have felt about desegregation (and remember, the North had plenty of segregated school systems) having it imposed on them by the federal authorities shamed them.  Although many areas in the South saw the emergence of "white academies," private schools that did not have to integrate, usually associated with a church, I suspect that there was an element in the South of not so much opposing integration as feeling shamed by its imposition.

Those white academies, by the way, were dependent on their federal tax-exempt status for their economic survival.  Jimmy Carter, who knew exactly what was happening, felt the law should be enforced requiring that tax-exempt schools be integrated.  It's at that point that Southern churches began to be involved in politics.  In that case, I've have to say it was really about race, although there had to be some shame mixed in.

Yankees try to conceal their racism, and make others feel as guilty as they do about it.  Southerners have historically been more open about racism, and have responded to efforts to make them feel guilty by concluding that the persons doing this are trying to shame them.

The legacy of civil rights legislation has been to make Southerners more hostile to the federal government, but that alone doesn't explain why they keep opposing federal spending.  Donor states tend to have a culture in which guilt is assuaged by compassion, which in turn is mistaken for condescension, leading to shame, in welfare states.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rationalism, Christianity, and the Atheist Best-Sellers

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two classes of books about religion are selling well at my bookstore:  Atheist and Christian apologist.  The latter aren't that hard to keep in, especially C.S. Lewis, because his books have been selling well for quite a long time, and there's a substantial supply of used copies.  The former are much harder to get a copy of, because the only one that has sold well for very long is Bertrand Russel's Why I Am Not a Christian, and it's never sold in the quantities that Mere Christianity has.

Books by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins are recent, and not the sort people give up once they know how it comes out.  As a purveyor of used books, I rely on people who own the book being willing to sell it so that I can stock it, and people are hanging onto their Sam Harris. (For additional reading in atheism, look here.)

But why are these books so fascinating right now?

I suspect it has to do with the the increasing respectability of atheism.  Lewis and other apologists like G.K. Chesterton provide a rational approach to Christianity at a time when much of the public face of Christianity opposes science.  Fundamentalists are often Bible literalists, opposing teaching evolution in schools or trying to get creationism taught as a science.

Lewis had become an atheist as a teenager, and converted to Christianity.  He became an atheist at age 15, in 1913, a theist in 1929 at age 31, and a Christian in 1931.  This places him squarely in the middle of the argument between atheists and Christians, a man who went through that argument and became a rather orthodox Anglican.

But why is atheism such a hot topic?  Well, for one thing, it's a lot safer and more respectable to talk about it now.  In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, an 18-year-old university student, was hanged in Edinburgh for blasphemy, having argued that the Bible was "stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions" and said that Jesus' miracles were magic tricks.  The death penalty was not subsequently used in the United Kingdom, but in 1908 and again in 1909, Hyde Park orator Harry Boulter, who had links with the rationalist movement, was imprisoned for blasphemy.  John William Gott, author of the pamphlet Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons, among others, was sentenced to nine months hard labor in 1921 despite illness, and expired shortly after he was released.  The last English blasphemy case was a private prosecution in 1977.

We in America tend to forget that even liberal democracies like the UK had established churches, and could prosecute public expressions of atheism.  In 2008, England passed a law eliminating the common law crime of blasphemy.  The God Delusion was published in 2006, two years before it was officially legal for an Englishman to profess atheism.

Among Americans, a 2008 poll found that more people (55%) would vote for a homosexual than would vote for an atheist (45%), so apparently there is a stronger prejudice against atheists than homosexuals.  In spite of this, since the Bill of Rights became the law of the land in 1791, we've had no law against expressions of atheism.  This makes us 217 years more progressive than the British on this issue, so mention that next time some pom tells you Americans are backward on issues of religion in politics.  Mind you, we'd rather elect a Muslim than an atheist.

So this is a time when atheism is still shocking, but not actively dangerous to profess.  Perhaps that's why atheism is at last willing to speak its name.  In fact some atheists have become rather strident, and openly contemptuous of those benighted people of faith they engage in public forums.

For the record, I'm agnostic, and find evangelical atheists who seem to want to convert me no more reasonable than evangelical Christians.  They present their belief as the only reasonable one, and want no one to believe differently.

The lager conflict that continues is the rationalism of the Enlightenment against the traditional belief systems that preceded it.  Atheists seek the final triumph of rationalism over what they see as superstition, while Christian apologists such as Lewis maintain that Christianity is compatible with rationalism.  So I surmise that those buying from my religion section are rationalists.  Books seeking to convince the reader that creationism should be taught in schools don't sell at my store.  I'm guessing that they sell in a different kind of bookstore, one that caters to a specifically evangelical Christian clientele.

It reminds me a bit of the time a fellow called the shop and asked if I carried any Christian authors.  I said sure, we've got C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Aquinas, Marin Luther, Augustine...

"No, no," he said, "Christian authors."

It is apparently possible to be a saint, or author of some of the best selling books about Christianity of all time, without being a Christian by some definition that excludes mainstream protestants and Catholics.  Strangely enough, I find it discouraging that the books the gentleman wanted don't sell in my store.  Americans seem to have sorted themselves so that they don't have to talk to people who don't share their views.

A book like The Shack, which sold millions nationally, languishes on my shelves, and that's bad news, because it means many of the other books in my store are not part of the world of the people reading that book.  Given the number of people who bought The Shack, I'd say the culture it belongs to must be quite widespread, and if the books of interest to so many in Seattle's University District aren't of interest to them, it's as if there is not one mainstream culture, but two in present-day America, and they don't talk to each other.  The rationalists have gathered in the cities, while the traditionalists have chosen to live in smaller towns.  The two groups read different books, even when both are reading about Christianity, because they live in different worlds.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

More on the emotion of belief

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been working on a long essay, working title, The Structure of Thought, the Emotion of Belief, and the Truth We Know Alone.  Just thought I'd excerpt a couple paragraphs:

My own view is that truth is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Belief is an emotion akin to love, which is why Truth and Beauty are so often mentioned together. The question, therefore, is how we should form our beliefs? Different cultures at different times have used different methods. In the end, the searcher for truth may not be objective, but reality is, by definition; what could be more objective than the object we wish to describe? And when a theory is not faithful to reality, the scales fall from our eyes and we no longer desire to embrace it. Or perhaps I should say, we should no longer desire to embrace it.

Many people when faced with facts that contradict their beliefs experience backfire, that is, they end up holding their false belief more strongly in reaction to what they perceive as an attack on them. If you view belief as an emotion, this is understandable. It's as if you told them their lover was unfaithful, and they responded by saying "take that back!"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Shareholders vs. management on political contributions

by John MacBeath Watkins

Looks like I'm not the only one to think corporate executives might be spending money on politics that benefit their interest instead of shareholders'.

"The activists' proposals ask each of the four companies to review political spending and contributions, with an eye on their own corporate rules against political spending.
"Shareholders are likely to introduce more such measures as similar legislation stalls in Washington, said Lucian Bebchuk, a Harvard University law school professor who studies corporate governance.
"In a forthcoming paper, Bebchuk himself and co-writer Robert Jackson of Columbia University argue that shareholders should be given the chance to vote directly on political contributions and that companies ought to be required to disclose their spending to intermediaries.
"Currently, when it comes to such support, "the interests of (company) directors and executives may significantly diverge from those of shareholders," they write."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lessons from the election

by John MacBeath Watkins

1) There are no permanent majorities.  Rove sought to build one, and in a couple elections the Republicans lost the House, Senate and presidency.  Liberals thought they had one, and in the first election since their euphoric declarations, they lost the House.

2) Polls that don't include cell phones are crap.  Also, polls that do include them (like Gallup) can miss by a wide margin.

3) Even in a wave election, it's possible to nominate someone so nutty they can't get elected.  Delaware and Nevada are cases in point, and with Joe Miller running well behind 'write in candidate' Alaska may be an example as well.  We can only hope enough people spelled Lisa Murkowski right to put a sane person in the Senate.

4) Voters don't care about policy, only results.  Poll after poll showed people trust the Democrats on most policy issues more than Republicans, but more voted for Republicans.  They are understandably upset about the economy, and they're expressing their discontent.  Had the economy collapsed a year earlier in Bush's term, he would own the recession.  Instead, he left office while the collapse was still in progress.  More of the recession has happened on Obama's watch than happened on Bush's watch, so the fact that things are slowly getting better seems to be irrelevant.  Obama even gets blamed for TARP, the bank bailout signed into law by Bush, which I happen to think was a necessary evil.

5) Corporations are people too.  Rich people, who like to spend money on elections, especially if they can do so without people knowing who they've spent it on.  From a stockholder's viewpoint, this means they may be spending your money defeating candidates you think will do a better job of getting the economy moving, and they may be doing it because they want executive salaries taxed at a lower rate.  The Citizens United case didn't deal with the agency problem that is always an issue with corporations, and it's just one of the problems with the decision.  The 'educational' money can't be spent to support a candidate, but it can be spent to tear one down, so this flood of new money into our politics is going to make the ads you see in the future even more negative.  The sheer meanness of our politics can only get worse because of this.  Or, as Yeats more ably put it:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity. 

Well, that was what things looked like in Ireland in 1920.  It got better, and so can we.  At least none of our political parties has a terrorist wing.  Yet.