Monday, January 23, 2017

My Trump Nightmare

I've seen a number of posts recently trying to show some humility regarding Trump being a disaster and giving some boilerplate regarding hoping he does make things better. I had my own moment of this right after the election. Most of this seems to hinge on Trump using relatively traditional tools to enact economic and social policy. Now, if Trump backs away from everything he has said, I guess I have no problem with this position.

But, after some reflection, my thoughts are that I hope Trump doesn't succeed. Even in its mildest form a Trump success has the potential for people to associate racism and misogyny with economic success for a long time to come; this isn't a price I'm willing to pay for a bit of GDP growth.

My nightmare scenario comes from remembering that Hitler ushered in a pretty good economy for Germany before military reverses began to bite. While I don't think Trump will be another Hitler this has made me consider that there are a number of polices that are long term destructive that could let Trump meet some of his promises in the short term.

The first scenario would be a policy of explicitly targeting his supporters and screwing over everyone else. This isn't that uncommon in one party states. Given the level of support Trump received in rural areas, small towns, and small cities it seems not impossible for Trump to reallocate funds to benefit these areas at the expense of America's urban areas. Think the Japanese LDP's bridges and highways focused in rural areas.

To make this scenario a bit worse, imagine if Trump funded programs targeted to his supporters through discriminatory taxation policies. On a small scale this could be Federal excise taxes on things urban dwellers are more likely to buy, such as Uber rides, or it probably wouldn't be impossible with a unified House, Senate, and Judiciary to cut off funding for liberal states while leaving it in place for conservative states provided some paper thin justification is given. Simultaneously, we could see an income tax surcharge on immigrants followed by making it more difficult to gain US citizenship. Trump could also balance the budget in the short term by selling off assets such as Federal land. In a real pinch he could even resort to tax farming to recognize multiple years of tax receipts during his time in office, like the city of Chicago did when it gave the rights to collect parking meter fees to a private firm.

To continue my trip into economically successful nightmare, imagine if Trump started using forced labor. Detained immigrants could be leased to companies for below market wages. Prison work programs could be expanded. Welfare programs, including food stamps and Medicaid, could have work requirements added complete with a waiver for the minimum wage for these workers. To add to these, new laws, beginning with anti-press legislation, could be drafted which would provide legal mechanisms to seize companies that offend Trump and sell them off to the highest bidder.

To complete my decent into nightmare, Trump could also embark on a campaign of outright plunder. He has brought up Iraq's oil more than once. I believe it seems obvious to most people that war costs more than it could possibly return, but remember that Trump also seems enthralled by our nuclear weapons. While it is far too costly to hold large population centers, a complete monster could simply nuke these and then embark on ethnic cleansing to clear out any remaining people in the area that has the oil. This would be rather economical and help Trump to hit his impossible growth targets.

Very little of this is stuff that I think has any chance of happening. However, when people write that they hope a racist, misogynist, authoritarian warmonger succeeds economically they should be stopping to consider that such a person will not feel restrained by liberal democratic norms. We have seen many dictators in the third world that managed a few economically successful years as a result of policies that we find highly distasteful. This isn't good for these countries in the long term but if you have no respect for others it is not difficult to post good economic results for a few years by simply taking what others have.

So I hope he fails, if a racist succeeds in his policies it opens the way for the next one to do something worse, this is a script we have seen before. The only path to long term growth lies through inclusiveness but Trump reminds us that we can achieve personal success through hate and divisiveness. I don't want to see this extended into the economic sphere, this creates a world whose horror we haven't seen in decades. Again, none of the above seems likely but I think it needs pointing out that economic success over two or four years can be obtained through policies that are horrible to contemplate; judging Trump solely on economic performance just isn't enough.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What If A Real Populist Had Run?

My second take on Trump, which I never got around to writing, boils down to the observation that Trump offered rural whites an explanation as to what has caused them to fall so far behind and a way to reassert control over their own lives. While his explanation is bullshit, it's at least an explanation. Democrats offered concrete policy improvements but they didn't offer what mattered to voters, an explanation, a solution, and most critically a way to have some control over their lives, such as whether or not their local plant closed. My impression is that rural voters are a lot less worried about wages than they are about the mere continued existence of their jobs; in low wage, less urbanized areas a higher wage through policies such as a minimum wage hike could often be seen as a threat to the continued existence of the crap job that's at least a job.

But what if Democrats had offered something more concrete then the 30 second hate offered by Trump about devious, cheating foreigners stealing our jobs through some magical, unspecified mechanism? The following is a brief outline of the dream speech of my idealized next populist candidate. Warning, it's NSFW, I believe that a key way to connect with low information voters is to violate elite norms, swearing like a sailor is a norm violation that doesn't involve racism and misogyny.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What if Politics Can't Deliver What Americans Voted For?

While I don't agree with it, part of the purpose of the electoral college is to prevent "tyranny of the majority" and to make sure that a President takes into account a strong, unified minority. That seems to have happened with this election.

While we are still waiting for more data, my first take on this is that the much wider margins in rural voters was a key point. I am sure we have all read far too many articles about how rural voters feel ignored and that policy isn't responding to them.

If you can excuse my strong language, while the feeling is obviously real, this is complete bullshit. As long as I've been conscious of politics we've been deluged with articles about real Americans. Small town citizens have been shown as the quintessential American for most of my life; though I think this has begun to change over the past few years. The Federal governments spends at least as much on rural citizens as it does on urban ones; though the exact ratios depend on if you only count direct subsidies, which according to some analyses are slightly lower for rural citizens, or if you also count the siting of Federal facilities, such as prisons and military bases, whose sites are often chosen partly for consideration of the jobs they bring.

Now, this doesn't change the fact that rural areas are suffering, both in absolute and comparative terms. I've written before about slow income and job growth in rural areas and there is a great deal of evidence that rural areas have been growing slower than urban areas and losing relative, and in recent years, absolute population.

While I ultimately have to agree with Chris Dillow that we have to hope that Trump succeeds in helping these areas to recover and grow, angry people are likely to stay mobilized and vote against progressive reform, I don't believe that there is any real chance of his policies succeeding.

But not just his policies, I don't think there are any policies that would help rural areas catch up to urban. Clinton had numerous policies that would help rural communities and constituencies that they particularly care about, like veterans. It would have helped if the press had covered actual issues and policies, but it is notable that Obama has tried to do a lot for these communities as well. But the new policies proposed seem far too minor to close the gap, and the policies that have been enacted obviously haven't done the job.

To me, the deeper issue is that there is no political solution to their relative decline. Something I gathered from my MBA courses is that the advantages to density, human capital, and diversity are becoming much more powerful forces in modern society. A modern business needs a diverse set of specialists to succeed, it needs an accounting group that can use a modern ERP system that can interface with major vendors, it needs people that can properly use CRM systems, management that can integrate all of this additional information, and IT personnel that can keep it all running. In an urban environment a small business has a decent shot at cobbling this together through a combination of outsourcing and strategic hires. 

However, there just aren't that many urban professionals that want to move to rural areas. It doesn't help that most of these rural areas or small towns have businesses that attempt to specialize in the low cost sections of the market. Back when I was looking for a job I would see insanely low wage posting week after week asking for someone with good educational credentials and experience to come work in these areas, it didn't look to me like many of these ever got filled. While there are a lot of young graduates looking for work, the problem is that most of these small businesses needed someone that could function as the entire department themselves, this required someone with experience. And someone with experience would only move for a huge premium, like what my wife sees when she looks at rural medical jobs paying 2 to 3 times the salary of what we can make in a metro area.

So, the bottom line to my mind is that the problem rural areas are facing is due to changing economies of scale and to competitive pressures changing businesses from being organized around production to being organized around processing information.* My fear is that Trump's policies will fail, likely making the situation worse, and that Trump's supporters will simply become further enraged by the political system's inability to restore what they feel the natural order is. 

What happens after this I don't know. I don't think there is any set of policies that can win over Trump's supporters because I don't think there is any set of policies that will work or even seem plausible to them. But it seems difficult to get urban and inner ring suburban voters to turn out in the necessary numbers to win elections against united white, rural opposition. My only small consolation is that myself, and most of my friends and relatives, are well off enough to be sheltered by the direct negative consequences of this election. But I worry a great deal of what happens over the next several years.

*This needs some explanation. Basically, my view is that with capital so abundant there are too many concentrations of capital able to produce goods chasing too little demand. What distinguishes businesses is their ability to process, and act on, information. So no matter how good of a product you make and how hard your work force works it isn't worth anything if you can't gather, analyze, and act on timely market information. And that process relies on people that just don't want to live in rural areas.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Trump, Trust, and Our Political Divide

I was reading an article about trust today and it made something I've observed both anecdotally and in articles about the election click for me. Something I've noticed in sales meetings and some other interactions is that, very broadly speaking, there are two essentially different ways that people go about establishing trust (there are many potential other ways to divide this phenomenon, my interest here is in this one particular divide). One is to establish that you have something in common with each other, often through actions with cultural significance such as a firm handshake or bringing up a controversial subject and seeking agreement (such as "locker room talk"). The other way is to simply stay focused on the goal of the interaction, establish the framework of rules that govern it, and to build out from there.

While some people function well in both worlds, in my experience it's not that uncommon for people to have very strong feelings one way or the other. The most awkward professional interactions I've been a part of have a resulted from the clash of these two sets of expectations. A couple of examples would be someone who harangued several people, rather loudly, about the most recent book they read denying global warming and someone who had everyone, including a couple of people who were non-Christian, to say grace at a work lunch. There are lots of smaller instances, but the attempts to establish rapport through these methods can fall very flat and make everyone awkward. I am sure that someone else could have examples from the other side, I've experienced some push back from being more standoffish and not wanting to get too personal, but my preferences are pretty strong towards formal structures so I can't speak for the other side.

What this has to do with Trump and the election is that I think this represents a fairly fundamental divide in outlook, as well as something that at least a portion of Trump supporters feel they stand to lose. Their frequent complaints regarding political correctness remind me of this, opening a professional interaction with an off color joke or controversial topic is something I've run into enough to realize this is a real problem for many people. But my experiences have also led me to believe that it is generally meant to be friendly, they're doing this to establish rapport. But instead of gaining trust with strangers they are instead met with hostility. From a liberal perspective there is a sense that you can't work with someone if they don't take the time to actually listen and understand you, someone that charges in with an off color joke marks them as someone that will be difficult to work with. From the other side, the formalism liberals insist on is often off putting, an attitude I've run into is that the formalism and paperwork is somehow being used to hide things or trick them (how disclosure is supposed to hide something that could instead be sussed out with a firm handshake, a drink after the deal is made, and some non-pc bullshitting is beyond me but I have met people that feel this way).

My observation is that these people are growing increasingly enraged at the increasing dominance of formal structures and at the corresponding narrowing of their world. They come from a culture which sees their habits as being strong positives, they are surprised and upset when the joke that was well received back home makes them pariahs at a national sales meeting or conference. Then, when they get home they are left feeling that godless liberals hate Christians,* never considering how their actions look to the diverse crowd they are interacting with. At the same time, when they are at these events they often express scepticism, they often express doubt regarding the presenter and this leads them to doubt the rest of the presentation, whatever the facts presented are (I admit I am stereotyping from a few anecdotal observations, but it is consistent with what I've read about the far right's attitude towards a number of subjects).

Something these experiences have led me to realize is that navigating the more formal structures involved with interacting with diverse people is a learned skill. It is second nature to people that have lived in diverse areas, it just seems natural to pay attention to how another person is acting and what they are saying to discern how it is best that we interact. But I've realized this isn't natural for everyone, some people just barge ahead and act the same way towards everyone, often in a way that someone else will find offensive. It reminds me of the article that was talking about rural Trump supporters and describing how they felt like they were doing everything right but that others were cutting ahead of them.

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems like these people think that there should be a certain way that you act and then you're OK; they just don't get that doing everything right means recognizing the agency of others and actively involving them in building up discussions and ways of doing things. Instead, they want there to be a set of rules that they're OK if they follow and that they can judge others for if others don't follow. But this is the anti-thesis of modern liberalism which demands that others be given respect, which means actually involving them rather than just judging them. And people are enraged that they're being asked to adapt to a world that they never learned how to interact with; especially since it's one that doesn't recognize their rules and that keeps calling what they call right, wrong.

Given the very different conceptions of what it takes to build trust, and right and wrong more generally (since I somehow ended up there), I don't find it surprising that both sides are talking past each other. But I don't see how this is resolved either, treating other people as having agency inherently means that you can't simply hold people up to a code,** and vice versa. There simply isn't a possible compromise, these moral positions are mutually exclusive.

*I have heard people say that Christians are disliked a few times. I have never seen or heard anyone make an anti-Christian comment about someone that professed religious belief or did something like cross themselves and say grace over their lunch. What I have heard is outrage when someone doesn't bother to try to be sensitive to people around them, it's really rude to just assume that other people share your beliefs and to make them say grace with you. YOU ARE MAKING THEM TAKE THEIR GOD, AND YOUR GOD, IN VAIN!!!! In my experiences these actions are well meant, the person is just so sheltered that they can't really conceive that they are surrounded by people who hold different deeply held beliefs. But it really shows that you don't really care to learn about the people around you, respect their beliefs, or to involve them in deciding even the little things, like how to eat their lunch.

** Well, beyond a minimal code like respect others, be tolerant, and follow rules once established. This means, of course, that just about the only thing that can't be tolerated is intolerance or attempting to wield power over someone else without accountability and consent. But traditional morality is largely about assigning roles, thus removing agency, and about stipulating who has power over whom. So about the only rule that the liberal perspective has is at the core of the more traditional culture. Another area where compromise seems defeated at the start.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Trying to Wrap My Head Around Trump 1st Take

This is my attempt to wrap my head around the appeal of Donald Trump. I have two different takes on this dealing with what I think are distinctly different sources of support. I'm going to be tying my anecdotal experiences to what I've seen of Trump on TV and what I've read in the news.

My first take on Trump comes from a certain type of business owner I've run into frequently in sales, both in person when I worked in Toledo and around the country when I've worked the phones. This is the type of guy that is going to buttonhole anyone he can to spout right wing propaganda and decorates his office with Ayn Rand books, Republican calendars, and Gadsden flags. Not to mention some of the more unsavory racist stuff I've heard a few of this type spout.

Something I've noticed in doing business with these types is that they always seem to make business very personal. Their business approach emphasizes personal relationships and doing business locally. They're the kind that prefers to do business with a handshake and dislikes the paperwork and formality associated with modern business. They're not the kind to have up to date ERP or CRM systems that are able to extract the maximum value from their knowledge base and business operations. Instead, their approach, which I personally find unprofessional and off-putting, is to try to establish a bond with the people they're interacting with. Their message is always that we're just like each other, sharing similar beliefs, political views, etc. and establishing the bond of being minor common criminals together through expressing anti-PC views, usually tinged with racism and sexism.*

In working with these folks, something I've often heard is how under threat they feel from big business. They often see the competition as unfair, they're firmly grounded in their communities and see the outside competition as an interloper. And they don't know what to do about it; they simply don't have the skill sets necessary to add value to their business beyond their personal relationships and their capital. But they don't see it this way. Instead, for all their talk about free markets, they seem to see business through a prism of personal relationships, while they may feel that they're a pillar of the community locally they seem to assume that all of business runs this way and that they're simply closed off from the important networks and that they'd be a smashing success if only they could get the right contacts.

Trumps rise has strongly reminded me of this kind of person. Trump seems to be this kind of small time operator scaled up massively. For this kind of person I think he confirms their view of business, it isn't the impersonal transactions of the market, using technology to leverage information, or efficiencies gained through careful planning that matter, instead it's the mano-e-mano cut and thrust of one on one deal making and the relationships made through a life time of business that matter. Trump confirms for them that they're right about how the world works, Trump knows the best people and he's successful because of his personal qualities, not because of running a tight business organization. Given these assumptions he must confirm for these folks what they "know" deep down, that they are falling behind because coastal elites have reserved the important networks for themselves and locked people like them out. They're pissed off because they see programs like affirmative action providing an alternate way into these networks that are closed off to them. They want access to these networks and they see Trump shaking things up enough that there might be some openings. Especially if trade is reduced, then those business elites will have to do business with them because they can't turn to Europe or China for suppliers and will have to turn to the small businesses in the US.

Just to make sure it's clear, I don't see all or even most small business owners as thinking this way. In truth, many of them are finding valuable niches in the modern economy. But these businesses are nothing like what I've described above. They tend to be professional, have skilled people able to leverage low cost technology options, and are able to work with people that aren't like themselves. One particular example I remember was a four man shop I walked into that specialized in doing custom work for China. These folks were the polar opposite of the kind of guy that would buttonhole me to talk about whatever Limbaugh has been going on about that day. So it isn't a small business thing, but if you're going to try to build your business on nothing but relationships with people like you its a given that you're never going to be anything but small. We live in a world that big or small you just can't get by acting like a Trump style business; our world no longer has a place for these people. And there's a lot of them and they're really, really mad about the fact that the world has changed to favor people that know how to work in an environment where trust is established through formal agreements rather than through bullshitting in a smoky back room.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What Are Their Self-Interests Anyway?

It has been a long time since I wrote a post. I started a new job as an auditor and that has been leaving me sufficiently occupied to not feel the bug to write. It has also meant this has taken a rather long time to finish writing, I have retained references from before it was obvious Trump would dominate the Republican primary. I must also note that I am not trying to explain Trump here, his appeal does not appear to differ significantly between rural and urban areas, but rather to look at how the Republican Party as a whole may be representing the interests of the people that vote for them and not just the donor class.

However, I have been bothered by the re-emergence, more so in comment threads than in articles or blog posts, that right wing voters do not recognize or vote for their own best interest. I have read some excellent writing on how class and race play into this to define interests beyond income but what really jumps out at me regarding the identify of the right wing are maps like this which shows how concentrated Democratic voters are, primarily in urban counties, though the northeast and some other areas are exceptions:

2012 Presidential Election by County.svg
"2012 Presidential Election by County" by Kelvinsong - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons.

This leads me to believe that to understand what is happening in the right wing, and with political polarization more generally, we need to look through the lens of rural vs. urban America. The lenses of class and race, while relevant to these problems, miss many aspects of the urban and rural divide.

Looking through this lens we see very different lived experiences. While Obama could rightly state during his State of the Union Address that the US unemployment rate has been cut in half during his presidency this likely rang hollow to many rural voters. While US urban employment had risen above its pre-recession level by 2014, rural employment remained 3.2 points below its pre-recessionary level in 2015 (page 1 and 2). Furthermore, the period of 2010-2014 marks the first time that rural America as a whole has faced population declines, with a loss of 116,000 people over this period. While overall poverty rates are comparable with past history in rural areas, the poverty rate for children living in rural areas has continued to climb through the recession and recovery, from 21.9% in 2007 to 24.2% in 2009 and to a further 25.2% in 2014 (page 3). Poverty in working age adults has risen from 14.6% in 2007 to 17.6% in 2014 (page 3). This was offset in declines in poverty rates among seniors. (both links in the paragraph are to USDA Rural America at a Glance report)

These statistics reflect a reality that many liberal pundits are missing when they react to Republican statements such as Bush's "The idea that somehow we're better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe," or Kasich's "In this country, people are concerned about their economic future... And they wonder whether somebody is getting something to — keeping them from getting it." A few hours outside their urban liberal bastions lies an America a few hours outside of urban America which has a declining population, job numbers that haven't recovered to pre-recession levels, businesses permanently closed, and at least in some areas (my knowledge is anecdotal) property values which continue to decline. (quotes from MotherJones, also see MSNBC for another liberal article striking the same theme) While these statements do not reflect America as a whole, I have little doubt that many conservative politicians are hearing from supporters who feel everything is getting worse for themselves and for just about everyone like them. They aren't sharing even in the little bit of prosperity being experienced in urban and suburban areas, instead they are in both absolute and relative decline. They feel that people not like them, and from the rhetoric I think this would include urban hipsters and pundits as well as other groups, are receiving all the gains and that they are being left out. In their view, they want to be listened to and important, like they were through most of America's history, and resent being left behind.

In addition to this recent decline, liberals should consider that rural areas, particularly in the south, had very different experiences in the past as well. Liberals tend to hold up the high wage, high security union jobs in the rust belt cities as an ideal to go back to, however, much of the initial de-industrialization came from competition from more rural, and particularly southern and western, areas where companies could pay lower wages and labor had more difficulty organizing. The experiences of these areas was that union-busting and long, hard work for less saved towns and small cities that seemed doomed due to declining employment in agriculture and other resource extracting activities. Many corporations and businessmen who would be decried by liberals for their labor practices are looked at much more positively by people that depend on that plant for the survival of their town.

This translates into support for policies that liberals consistently claim is not in these people's best interests. However, if your interest is in preserving your community, your property, and your way of life it may be entirely consistent to support low taxes on the rich, low wages, and low regulation; after all, these are the policies that attracted to the local factory to your town in the first place. It may seem very likely in these cases that supporting more of the same is the only path forward that would preserve the things these people value most.

Now, we can recognize that this was always an unstable equilibrium. In practice companies used these areas as leverage to lower labor standards, environmental regulation, and wages throughout the U.S.; for instance 25 states now have right to work laws removing the comparative advantage that states gained by pioneering these laws. Wage growth has been slow for decades eroding the cost differences between states for low skill manufacturing jobs. Furthermore, international competition has left a very small gap in which these companies can exist, there has to be a reason for these companies to stay in the US rather than seek even lower wages elsewhere but not a need for them to locate in a higher productivity area with more access to specialized skills. For the US as a whole, trying to be a low cost competitor means pay cuts and a much worse quality of life to most of us, but it may be entirely consistent that pursuing this strategy would be in the interest of rural communities having trouble competing in the modern economy.*

But what alternative do rural areas have? Even in the best days their low wage, low tax strategy meant that they never had the revenue necessary to build up the infrastructure, institutions, and human capital necessary to be competitive in the knowledge economy. Due to these deficits in investment as well as the disadvantage of low population density, these rural communities lack the diversity of skilled professionals needed to staff a well managed business as well as lacking the close proximity to related businesses and customers that fosters innovation. A movement back towards unionization, higher wages, and stricter regulation on a nationwide scale threatens the only business model available to these communities, in these conditions what business would choose not to locate near an urban area?

These concerns also tie in with the cultural issues that have become so prominent in Republican rhetoric. This subject deserves a full post on its own, which I may or may not get around to writing, but reading a lot of Rod Dreher ( and Ross Douthat ( has caused me to reflect on how modern values are causing great harm to some communities. However, their perspective runs into the fact that, in aggregate, kids these days are doing better on pretty much everything (see Healthcare Triage for the most recent thing I've seen on this). In aggregate, adults are doing better too, crime rates are down and marriages are more stable. My view on this is increasingly shaped by an urban vs rural divide, traditional morality taught how to live life in a small, rural community. The modern norms we see developing through campus protests and other forms of activism are about how to live in a modern, urban setting. But only one of the two sets can be normative across a society as a whole, and as urban and suburban views become more dominant people that live in and prefer small town and rural life naturally feel dislocated and marginalized.

These issues have created a large minority who are left feeling that no one is responding to their problems. Despite net income flows to their communities from government they see the communities they live in crumbling around them. They grew up with an image of small town America being America's true self, they feel dislocated in a country that is increasingly presenting a suburban and urban face to the world. They don't see either government or business responding to their concerns, and they are very, very angry about this especially because they see their version of America as being the true America, and they can point to support going back to Thomas Jefferson for this view. They are looking for someone to blame for their fall from influence, it appears that it has become easy to focus this on outsiders but they also cast blame on moochers in their midst, such as those receiving government assistance. It would be hard for them to admit that there is simply no way to develop these areas and that many of those on government assistance are likely those who feel too closely tied to their community to look elsewhere for work.

This leads to the deep problem however, there is no plausible policy path within US political traditions to help these regions. A report by the St. Louis Fed finds that convergence to the national average income across people is driven by urbanization, they find that non-metros areas converge to a lower income. They state the prospects for non-metro areas very bluntly, "Our results provide evidence that the idea of preserving rural economies while achieving significant gains in per capita income (or slowing divergence) in the long run appears to be far-fetched." (Income Convergence and in the United States, page 12) It is worth noting that things have only gotten worse in rural areas since 2008 relative to the rest of the United States. Most policy paths that could have helped are now no longer possible, I remember back when I was an undergrad taking economics courses hearing about how terrible the employment preserving European Common Agricultural Policy was compared to our efficiency focused policies; however, as I grow older I am forced to reflect on the fact that an awful lot of people desire to live in rural communities and that it is rather peculiar that our socio-economic system has little way of prioritizing how people want to live but instead only what they want to purchase. People feel the political system has failed them because it cannot preserve their communities, they are enraged because they see that the political system is helping many people build and maintain stable communities in urban areas; communities they do not desire to be part of. Ultimately, however, I don't see how the system can respond to their desires. Even a Japan style massive building program would be temporary and it wouldn't stop the kids from wanting to leave. Government can help stabilize urban communities because they ultimately have the density to support the modern, highly complex production process that businesses require to be competitive. Rural areas don't so there is no political fix available.

You can get mad and you can block responses to the problems of an increasingly urbanized America trying to adapt to the dominance of multi-national firms, but there just isn't anything to bring back a country dominated by small towns and small businesses so there is nothing for a political party focused on America's small towns and rural areas to do but block and obstruct. The problems these areas face aren't fixable so the party that does nothing is acting in the interests of their constituents by doing the only thing they can, holding back everyone else so they at least lose slower than they would if America's problems were addressed. And with no prospect for better wages in an area whose competitive advantage is low costs, a tax cut may represent the only chance for an increase in real take home pay, so there's some small prospect of improvement there.

*I don't mean for it to sound like all rural areas are suffering. Rural areas blessed with outdoor amenities are doing quite well. In addition to attracting tourists they also attract well educated individuals lucky enough to have jobs that they can do remotely. However, this does nothing for an old coal town or agricultural community, instead it generally means the growth of new areas and the growth of these new communities is likely masking an even sharper decline in the health of older rural communities in the aggregate statistics.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What is the Inequality for Our Age?

The article, "To Each Age Its Inequality," presents a concept that in broad outline reflects my own view. Underlying economic conditions lead to differing levels of inequality being efficient giving differing economic conditions. The key concept is this:

So, just as in the farming and foraging worlds before it, our fossil fuel world has a “right” level of inequality, and societies that move toward it will flourish, while those that move the other way will not. Successful governments know this and apply taxation and other measures to push economic inequality toward what they hope is the sweet spot.
However I have a major problem with the next passage:

The big question, of course, is just where this sweet spot is. By 1970, the Organization for Economic Cooperative and Development nations had driven post-tax income inequality down into hunter-gatherer territory, averaging just 0.26 on the Gini scale. The economic difficulties of the following decades, however, suggest that this was perhaps too low. Most people apparently thought so, electing governments in the Reagan-Thatcher era that allowed the rich to keep more of their gains.
My issue with this is that while we can be fairly confident that over the millenia agrarian societies had plenty of time to reach their equilibrium levels of inequality the same cannot be said for modern ones. While powerful groups did an excellent job selling low inequality as a source of the problems of the 70s the economic history that I've read focuses on other factors, primarily the oil shock and the beginnings of adjustments to globalization. It does not follow from the fact that various groups in favor of higher inequality successfully sold their ideas to the public that this was in fact the correct diagnosis. It may or may not be, but we lack the evidence to call this one accurately and this particular observation is basically irrelevant to the question as to what inequality is in truth demanded by our age.

To get at this, I suggest we should explore the concept a bit more deeply, and think about what underlying economic factors drive the variance in efficient levels of inequality. This is straightforward enough for pre-modern agrarian societies. Everything I've read on this topic is in agreement that inequality arises because the variance in the productivity of the land is far greater than the variance in the output of individuals. Some societies tried various schemes to reduce this inequality, such as periodic rotation of fields between households, These societies proved less successful because of a second factor, while land could be improved rates of return were very low for investments in early periods. To create incentives for long term investment it was necessary to make land holdings perpetual, if a household could pass down the improvements to subsequent generations then the investment looked more attractive then if the land was likely to be redistributed at some future point. Since the variability in an individual farmer's skills were less important than the variability in the land itself it was inevitable that highly unequal societies would emerge.

The above is of course vastly oversimplified but it is far more difficult to tell a similar story for the modern world. We are still faced with the fact that human ability just doesn't vary that much, while some individuals can pick things up quicker than others with enough time most humans will perform most tasks with relatively similar ability.* Another factor is that unlike with land most plant and equipment used in the modern productive process can be replicated, there isn't a similar dynamic with land where high variance in the productive qualities of plant and equipment would lead those that have it to get high returns.

Since it can be taken as a given that any firm could acquire both people and the plant and equipment necessary to perform economic tasks with similar efficiency as existing firms we are left with intangibles as being the driving force behind the efficient level of inequality. Firms do differ with respect to their internal culture, the efficiency of their organization, and factors such as reputation and market position. These are the factors that lead firms that are otherwise similar to experience greatly different returns. The question that arises is what does this imply for the efficient level of inequality? In my opinion, I see the differences as arising primarily from the bottom up, emerging from the solutions reached by workers within the firm to gradually become institutionalized in the practices of the firms they work for. But this is contained within structures of property rights which evolved to create incentives for the development of land in agrarian societies, with something of an overlay to encourage agrarian land owners to transition their wealth into property, plant, and equipment instead of agricultural land, and not to create incentives for the development of the intangibles necessary for success in the market.

Given the extent to which our property laws continue to resemble those of the agrarian era rather than those that would create incentives for those traits needed in modern market economies, my view is that current property laws tend to lead societies to have much greater levels of inequality than would be ideal for a market economy. While competition between societies is resulting in some experimentation towards more efficient forms of organization they power granted by current law allows those with that power to exploit openings, such as the economic turmoil of the 1970s, to reassert their historical dominance and roll back the evolution towards more efficient forms of economic organization. Over time, competition between societies will decrease the power of these groups but this is likely to be a very slow evolution, just like the transition from the egalitarian world of the foragers to agrarian societies was very slow. But I see power structures that give outsize influence to owners to be essentially similar to that of agrarian societies that tried to rotate their fields to make people more equal, an inefficient set of institutions that will cause these societies to decline and to eventually be replaced by societies that recognize that underlying economic conditions have changed and that society must reflect the underlying more egalitarian requirements created by modern systems of production if they are to flourish.

* I realize this is a fairly strong statement, and there are obviously tasks where some trait is hugely beneficial, but most workplace tasks are of the type that any individual performing them repetitively for a long enough period of time will perform similarly. Of course, since some tasks are valued far more than others those that take to them easily will tend to get the high valued tasks to perform and leave others for the lower valued tasks; opportunities are just never given for these slower individuals to perform high value tasks.