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.