Cato Book Forum: Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do

Attention D.C.-area locals!

This Thursday I'll be moderating a Cato book forum on Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do by Columbia political scientist and stats wizard (and blogger) Andrew Gelman. Andrew and co-authors David Park, Boris Shor, Joseph Bafumi, and Jeronimo Cortinaare are responsible for the great paper [pdf] that asked “what's the matter with Connecticut?” and this is the book length treatment of their fascinating findings. If you're interested in understanding the state of the art in the geography and demographics of American public opinion as we head down the final stretch of the presidential race (and who isn't!), this is a book, and a book forum, you shouldn't miss.

Commentators will include public opinion expert Michael P. MacDonald, from Brookings and GMU, and Cato VP for research, Brink Lindsey, author of The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture, and Gelman will be joined by co-author Boris Shor.

Register here.

BONUS: From Red State, Blue State, some myths and facts about the red and the blue:

Myth: The rich vote based on economics, the poor vote “God, guns, and gays.”
Fact: Church attendance predicts Republican voting much more among rich than poor.

Myth: A political divide exists between working-class “red America” and rich “blue America.”
Fact: Within any state, more rich people vote Republican. The real divide is between higher-income voters in red and blue states.

Myth: Rich people vote for the Democrats.
Fact: George W. Bush won more than 60 percent of high-income voters.

Myth: Democrats are the party of the poor, Republicans are the party of the rich.
Fact: Rich people are getting richer in Democratic states. Incomes at the lower end have been increasing faster in Republican states.

Myth: Kansas votes Republican because its low-income voters can't stand the Democrats' 1960s-style values.
Fact: Kansas has been a Republican state for over 50 years, and rich Kansans vote much more Republican than middle-income and poor voters in the state.

Myth: Class divisions in voting are less in America than in European countries, which are sharply divided between left and right.
Fact: Rich and poor differ more strongly in their voting pattern in the United States than in most European countries.

Myth: Religion is particularly divisive in American politics.
Fact: Religious and secular voters differ no more in America than in France, Germany, Sweden, and many other European countries.

Register here.

For CPI Geeks

If you take pleasure in thinking about economic measurement in general and the Consumer Price Index in particular, I urge you to read this lucid short paper [pdf] by Robert McClelland, Chief of the the Division of Price and Index Number Research at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and John S. Greenlees, a research economist in that division. It's called “Addressing misconceptions about the Consumer Price Index.” The misconceptions come from people like Kevin Phillips and John Williams.

I admire McClelland and Greenlees' rigor and drive for objectivity. My worry is that their methods fall short of objectivity, in the sense of a bias-free truth-tracking, because those methods can't fully capture the added value to consumers from the introduction of new products and the improvements in quality. They're right that Phillips-types clearly don't know what they're talking about. But I'd be interested in their response to the opposite worry: that their measures are too conservative in accounting for gains to consumers and so overestimate inflation and thereby underestimate gains in standards of living.

Sex, Culture, and Sarah Palin

Democratic politics, in the end, is not about rational deliberation. It is about coalitional signaling. It is about expressive solidarity. It is about identity and emotion. That's why I have a deep mistrust of democratic politics. But I think I'm as attuned to the subrational frequencies of electoral politics as anyone; I just don't take my gut reactions to provide reasons for endorsement or action. Indeed, I tend to think both rationality and morality require that we often disapprove of, discount, and override our gut reactions. That said, my gut found Sarah Palin enormously appealing.

First, let me just get it out of the way: I think she is a tremendously sexy woman. How this will effect the race, I have no idea, but it's just got to. It's not an issue of glamour so much as a kind of Paglian chthonic sexual power. Set in that context, her unabashed embrace of her fecundity and motherhood as a kind of qualification makes a lot of sense. Megan O'Rourke's post on Palin's political eros has it right, and I think she may even be on to something when she says we got a “glimpse of a novel problem for a presidential candidate: sexual tension with his VP.”

Palin exudes sexual confidence and maternal authority, which in a relatively conservative culture like ours is the most recognizable and viscerally comprehensible form of female power. It makes a lot of men uncomfortable, but that's because it's the kind of female power they are most often subject to, and most often fail to successfully resist. I spent much of my life taking orders from women a lot like Sarah Palin — women like my mother and my Iowa public school teachers. Indeed, it makes a lot more emotional sense for me to feel led by by a woman like that than by some hotshot Air Force pilot. When a guy with a buzzcut says “jump,” I say “screw you.” When a woman like Sarah Palin says “jump,” I am inclined to deferentially inquire into the requirements of this jump.

Palin's speech, I think, set in stark relief what Hillary was/is lacking. Again, I think O'Rourke gets it right when she says,

Ironically, [Palin] may have an easier time bringing what CNN called “toughness and femininity” together precisely because she never assumed at the outset of her adult life that she'd end up in a role like this.

I have very mixed feelings about this. I do not think politics is noble, and I deplore career politicians like Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, and, yes, Hillary Clinton. I would in fact rather be ruled by competent small-town mayors than accomplished professional rent-seekers. (Palin, being very smart, made great strides in this regard during her short time as Governor, because opportunistic predation is what politics is.) But I feel that Hillary's struggle to connect as a strong leadership-worthy woman was part of an attempt to forge a sense of feminine authority not founded an maternality and female sexual power. That she almost succeeded in this is astounding, and I think hugely to her credit.

But we all know that politics is a primate sport. We're used to marveling over the fact that the taller man usually wins, that a commanding, alpha-male jock toughness is de rigeur for successful presidential candidates. Palin's gut appeal drives home the perhaps inevitable but nevertheless regrettable fact that female political success is at some level going to be grounded in primate appeal, too. And, as a female primate, Palin is evidently “a force to be reckoned with” — as the pundits kept saying.

But I don't want to push too hard on the biopsychology of this. Biology is heavily strained through through the filter of contingent culture and identity. That Palin reminded my of my school teachers is a matter of her acquired manner and the assumptions beneath them, a matter of her Upper-Midwest-sounding accent. I'm from a small town. She's from a small town! And damn straight: people who study at the University of Idaho (which is, in fact, where my sister is currently studying law) are every bit as smart as all you snide elitist Ivy League cosmoplitans!

The overwhelmed Republican delegates interviewed after the speech were at a total loss when asked to pin down specifically what they had liked about Palin's address. What they liked is that they saw a feminine yet powerful conservative Christian mother — someone they understand, someone they would like to have as a friend, someone they are or would like to be. What they liked was the thrill of such direct cultural identification, of being on that stage and commanding attention and respect. I do not doubt that conservative Christian moms all over the country were brought to tears by the power of this. There are a lot of conservative Christian moms.

Palin made my gut want John McCain to win and then suffer a fatal heart attack. But I am a studied skeptic of my gut, and no wordly force could deliver my vote to him. However, every stars-and-bars stripes backdrop, every picture of the bloodied-but-not-bowed McCain in hospital, every Shephard Fairey icon of Obama, tells me that this skepticism is not broadly shared.

[Photo by Ryan McFarland]

McCloskey on Happiness and Flourishing

Speaking of McCloskey, I'm enjoying her response to critics [doc] of Bourgeois Virtues. I'm symapthetic to her position on happiness in this passage:

[Graafland and I] do more sharply disagree that “the goal of virtues is just this: to become happy.”  The Greek word that started the discussion, eudaimonia, is indeed sometime translated erroneously as “happiness,” which then slides over to the pot-of-pleasure definition favored by modern utilitarians.  A well-fed cat sitting on the window sill in the afternoon sun would report to a happiness-questionnaire scientist that she was happy, being at 9 on a scale of 10 (reserving 10 for sexual intercourse).  But we are not cats—though I would be the last to deny that a cat-like “happiness” from time to time is an element of a full life.  Baskin-Robbins. 

One would have thought that more economists, though, would be familiar with the Experience-Machine example that Robert Nozick devised in 1974 (I discuss it in The Bourgeois Virtues, pp. 124-125).  “Superduper neuropsychologists,” wrote Nozick, “would stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel” any life you want. Then you would die.  “Would you plug in?”  No, of course not.  You are you.  You have an identity (faith) and projects (hope) and loyalties (love).  Being Queen Elizabeth I would be great fun, the fun we get from a novel or a history about her reign, or a TV series starring Helen Mirren.  But in a novel or TV series we do not have to give up being ourselves, and won't.  Nozick's argument devastates any version of utilitarianism that does not have a serious theory of identity (faith, hope, love).  The experiment shows, as Nozick put it elsewhere, that “we are not empty containers or buckets to be stuffed with good things.”

The better translation of Plato's and Aristotle's eudaimonia is “fulfilled” or “flourishing” or close to literally (though having then anachronistic Judeo-Christian overtones) “blessed,” since the word literally means “having good spirits attending one.”  Doubtless, if she was lucky enough in 1800 to miss smallpox and starvation, Burns' impoverished Scottish nut-brown maiden, “Her eye so mildly beaming/ Her look so frank and free,” equaled in “happiness” defined in the pot-of-pleasure sense the average person on the streets of Glasgow nowadays.  That is what recent research on so-called happiness claims, quite plausibly.  Nonetheless the modern Glaswegian has gigantically greater scope.  She can do 100 times more of some things, leading a fuller life-fuller in travel, education, ease of life, ease of listening to “The Nut-Brown Maiden” sung in English and Gaelic on the internet.  “Happiness” viewed as self-reported mood is not the point of a fully human life.  Therefore I think it obvious that modern economic growth has greatly improved modern life, and made people better as much as better off.  Some people don't get it, true, and watch TV for six hours a day and eat Frittos by the bagful.  Therefore let us preach to them.

I don not believe that recent happiness research in fact implies that the nut-brown maiden would have reported a level of happiness no less than contemporary Glaswegians. But the broader point is bang on.

Nozick is right that we're not utility pots. But I'm skeptical of superstrong notions of personal continuity, too, (“faith” is the right word for identity) and therefore I'm skeptical of certain kinds of strong conceptions of flourishing as living according to virtue — unless simply we define virtues as “those habits of mind and action that facilitate flourishing” — in which case, we need an independent account of flourishing. I'm not skeptical of the idea that neural deselection and myelination creates deeply persistent skills or excellences that one might want to identify with virtuea. But I doubt that (1) there is a pattern of such brain development that counts as virtue everywhere and always, completely independent of local social structure, and that (2) the internalization of local norms — the kind we tend to identify with virtues — generally goes this deep. Once acquired, it is difficult to lose a well-practiced backswing or the hard-won ability to see through to an argument's implicit logical structure. But given the right shift in social context, many of our virtues can turn on a dime.