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        1. Self-refuting scholarship

          By Lorenzo

          [NB: this piece has been updated to incorporate links to further relevant scholarship.]

          One of the signs of the increasing intellectual conformity of the academy, particularly the social science and (even more) the humanities, is the rise of scholarship that treats voting the “wrong” way as a pathology, to be explained pathologically.

          In the US, analysis of voting Republican is increasingly treated in this way. Even more since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the Electoral College and so the US Presidency. Brexit has received similar treatment.

          A recent paper, Growing sense of social status threat and concomitant deaths of despair among whites, by Arjumand Siddiqi, Odmaa Sod-Erdene, Darrick Hamilton, Tressie McMillan Cottom, William Darity Jr. is a case in point.

          The paper starts off well, carefully examining the data and assessing various explanations for the rise in mortality (and so falling life expectancy) about “white” Americans. Then it gets to its own explanation and the intellectual quality rapidly goes downhill.

          The abstract sets out their findings and conclusion:

          Rising white mortality is not restricted to the lowest education bracket and is occurring deeper into the educational distribution. Neither short-term nor long-term economic factors can themselves account for rising white mortality, because parallel trends (and more adverse levels) of these factors were being experienced by blacks, whose mortality rates are not rising. Instead, perceptions – misperceptions – of whites that their social status is being threatened by their declining economic circumstances seems best able to reconcile the observed population health patterns.

          Conclusion: Rising white mortality in the United States is not explained by traditional social and economic population health indicators, but instead by a perceived decline in relative group status on the part of whites – despite no actual loss in relative group position.

          To put the finding at its most blunt: they are dying because they’re stupid. Or, to put it in a little more elevated way: they are dying because they have a false consciousness of their social position.

          This is a very large claim. So, what have the authors done to test the proposition about (lack of) falling social status? Nothing substantive. Which is remarkable, because a recent study of why people voted for Donald Trump finds no difficulty in identifying a range of status threats?(pdf) that motivated voters.?While another study founds that falling subjective social status has considerable explanatory power (pdf) for populism rising vote share in Europe.

          Let’s us put the question in another way: is there any other group, particularly any other racially defined group, that the authors would explain seriously adverse outcomes by arguing they had brought it on themselves because they are too cognitively incompetent to accurately assess their social position?

          If they answer is no, as surely it is, then what does that say about the social status of “white” Americans? After all, such things as having various academic fuss?over “it’s OK to be white” posters?are also, in their own way, signs of loss of status.

          These authors have the gall to sneer at the reasons people are dying when the way they have “conducted” their own research shrieks sneering condescension towards the people they are studying because those people lack the social status to protect them from said sneering condescension.

          This is self-refuting scholarship. ?But self-refuting in a revealing way. It is scholarship unable to see itself critically.

          It is revealing that the paper’s Fig. 4, which is adopted from a WHO document?(pdf), puts in ‘race’ where the WHO document has ‘ethnicity (racism)’. American race talk is typically a clumsy and unfortunate way of talking about ethnicity (i.e. ancestry and culture). For example, disaggregating PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results for the US by “race” is informative, because it disaggregates by ancestral commitment to formal education (with exactly the ranking results you would then expect).

          The only thing race talk is really good for is stigmatisation, as it either strips away a whole lot of relevant factors or reduces them to skin colour.

          Homo sapiens?are a group-living, pair bonding species. We are typically good at social cues, especially social cues about status. We evolved to be, because that is how you acquired a mate and successfully reproduced.

          To claim that an entire group of people (who you have defined racially) are incompetent at such a basic human skill is a very big claim. It runs against evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology and sociology. Such a claim requires a lot of supporting evidence.

          The first evidence offered is that “whites” still do better by various health and other indicators, such as median household income, than other groups whose mortality has not worsened. In fact, has improved. Yes, but that is perfectly compatible with a loss of status.

          The authors agree that perceived status threat is the most powerful explanation for the mortality results. They then cite various studies of “white” Americans having inaccurate view about the situation of African-Americans (“blacks”). As they say:

          These findings suggest whites perceive that blacks are economically catching up to them, even though this is not the case.

          But status is not merely a matter of income. The authors note that “whites” show declining happiness and their sense of class status has generally fallen, particularly among the less educated. This is revealing, since class is a rather different metric than race. The authors state:

          In other words, absolute declines in economic status of whites may produce a hyper-vigilance of sorts. This explanation would suggest that the short-term and long-term economic circumstance hypotheses forwarded by Case and Deaton (2017) are in some ways integral to the explanation of white status threat, rather than true competing explanations. However, we do not have sufficient evidence to test the veracity of this claim.

          But on they march:

          Put differently, given our modeling strategy, if county-level changes in the share of Republican voters is associated with changes in county-level white mortality, then it is highly likely that this association is indicative of a link between rising white perceptions of racial threat and rising white mortality, rather than traditional economic and social population health indicators.

          So, if we treat voting Republican as a racially-based pathology, our modelling will demonstrate our case, despite the fact we have made no serious attempt to determine:

          (1) How important “racial” identity is to the target group.

          (2) What components of status matter to the target group.

          (3) How good humans tend to be at rating social status, particularly their own.

          (4) What it takes to misperceive status.

          Scholarship often uses racial resentment as measured by answers to a particular set of survey questions as a measure of racism. Yet those questions do not correlate with?any tendency to discriminate against African-Americans. Moreover, conservatives do not give different answers on such questions between ethnoracial groups while liberals do, but only more sympathetically to African-Americans. Finally, warmness to your own group does not correlate with negative feelings to other groups. This area is somewhat riddled with scholarship that does not show what it purports to show.

          Donald Trump won the Electoral College because a whole group of counties that had twice voted for Barack Obama voted for Donald Trump. Obama was much more electorally successful than Trump, winning in 2008 (53% to 46%) and 2012 (51% to 47%) by absolute majorities of the popular vote while Trump famously lost the popular vote (46% to 48%).

          Given the nature of the Party coalitions, Obama did less well among “white” votes (43% in 2008, 39% in 2012). Trump got 54% of the “white” vote in 2016, but since 1976 among Republican nominees, only Gerald Ford (1976), Bush Snr (1992) and Bob Dole (1996), got a lower share of the “white” vote than Trump. So, if rallying “white” voters was Trump’s thing, he did a comparatively bad job of it. Every other Republican elected President since 1980 did a better job.

          But the author’s analysis is concentrating on particular counties. There they find that:

          Of all covariates, change in share of Republican voters (r = 0.24) and college degree attainment (r = ?0.24) were the most strongly correlated with change in white mortality, suggesting that counties that became more Republican and that did not experience much change in college attainment also had increased rates of white deaths.

          Folk in those counties changed votes because they perceived their situation deteriorating. At no stage have the authors demonstrated that white/black relations or standing is crucial to the target population. Yet the authors find that:

          Rather, we hypothesize that the anxiety of whites is coming from a perception – a misperception – that their dominant status in society is being threatened, which is manifesting in multiple forms of psychological and physiological stress. While stratification economics suggests that this misperception may actually be quite functional for preserving relative group status, it may have health consequences. Indeed, the empirical test we provide of our hypothesis suggests this to be the case.

          Yet, there is lots of public comment on how “whites” will become a minority in the US in the next few decades. The US as majority-minority country. Does that not constitute a threat to “white” Americans “dominant status in society”?

          Let’s put it another way: if you already think you are facing declining economic circumstances and various levels of cultural dislocation, with limited ability to influence events, how does no longer being part of the majority group sound? Not enticing. A loss of status. A basis for rational concern. Yet, migration is not mentioned as an issue once, except to bring up Trump’s infamous comments about migration. Comments which, we might note, were not directed to African-Americans.

          The authors continue:

          To be sure, this is a startling finding. The social status threat mechanism clearly has emerged as a way to explain the election of a presidential candidate who espoused highly racist views (Green, 2017), but we are now suggesting that this mechanism also explains the highly unusual phenomenon of worsening white mortality – and worsening white health more generally. Moreover, we are suggesting that the perception of racial threat among whites is occurring in the absence of substantive evidence of a decline in their relative social status, since both whites and blacks are experiencing parallel economic declines (Badger, 2017).

          It is a startling finding that is derived only by carefully not enquiring about things that might get in the way and not noticing that Trump’s infamous comments were not directed about African-Americans but about Mexican migrants. Nor are the areas of the study notable for their African-American population.

          What they are generally notable for is rapid ethnic change, particularly increased Hispanic population. In Europe, experiencing, or being adjacent to, a locality experiencing rapid ethnic change is a strong predictor of votes for national populists. Indeed, the rate of change is a much more powerful predictor than the level of ethnic diversity.

          Besides, think how many progressive narratives would be upset if the study concluded that the sense of loss of status was rational. The study reaches the progressively acceptable conclusion by progressively acceptable scholarly tropes.

          This is bubble scholarship: we are going to characterise things racially, we are going reduce complexity to (literally) “black” and “white”, we are going to treat voting Republican pathologically and we are going to say “white” people have rising mortality, and so declining life expectancy, because they are cognitively incompetent. A finding we would, almost certainly, not dare to make about any other racially-defined group. And then we have the gall to say that any sense the racially-defined group have of a loss of status is a misperception as we demonstrate in our own analysis how little status they have.

          Self-refuting scholarship. A prime example of why more cognitive diversity is so needed in contemporary academe.

           

          [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud?and at Medium.]

          Working class alienation as a driver of political polarisation

          By Lorenzo

          This is based on a comment I made here.

          The US has a legislated two Party system. (Left-cynics say that if the Soviet Communist Party had divided itself into two wings who disagreed on abortion, it would still be in power.)

          The UK has working class voters who will never vote Tory, so the Labour Party can take them for granted (but we will see how well the Brexit Party does in such seats on Dec.12).

          Political economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out?(pdf) that politics has become dominated by a struggle between an educated (human capital) elite on the centre-left and a business (commercial capital) elite on the centre-right. Which often leaves working class voters trying to work out which side of politics will betray them least.

          In Australia, compulsory voting and preferential voting means you cannot drive groups away from voting, but must aim for 50%+1. So working class voters can’t be ignored.

          In Canada, class voting is a lot weaker than in the UK, and the Conservative/Liberal/NDP/Quebecois struggle also means that significant slabs of voters cannot be left out.

          Australia and Canada have high migration policies whose content minimises any costs, and maximises any benefit, to local working class voters. Migration is a peripheral issue in politics, provided there is border control.

          Remembering that the benefits of migration go first overwhelmingly to migrants and then to the holders of capital with local providers of labour being, at most, marginal beneficiaries and, if factors not normally included in the current economic literature regarding migration are included (disruption of local networks, pressure on culture and institutions, notably from physical and institutional congestion), are much more likely to be net losers, even over the longer term.

          UK and US have much lower levels of migration than Australia or Canada, but there is very little effort made to ensure migration minimise costs, or maximises benefit, to local working class voters. There are much higher levels of alienation and polarisation in US and UK politics compared to Australia and Canadian politics. This presentation, for example, documents the alienation of working class voters in the UK.

          The polarising/alienating effect is particularly likely to kick in, given that evidence suggests, the less control voters have over matters of concern for them, the?more likely they are?to take refuge in some congenial identity.

          If democratic politics becomes dominated by the interests of capital (human or commercial) in a way that leaves working class voters largely frozen out, politics becomes increasingly dysfunctional. A process that, in the US, the dominance of donor class and interest group preferences in policy outcomes?(pdf) intensifies. Indeed, political rhetoric tends to become more febrile the more intense the gap between donor (and activist) preferences and the voter base becomes, in an attempt to cover that gap. (The Republicans and British Labour being cases in point, though the Democrats seem to be more than catching up.)

          Show me a country with high levels of polarisation, and the chances are that working class voters are not having their concerns and interests addressed by mainstream politics.

          [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

          Firms, Cities, States: who has open borders and why?

          By Lorenzo

          This is based on a comment I made here.

          Econblogger Robin Hanson notes that firms and cities have open borders and argues that:

          So if nations act differently from firms and cities, that should be because either:

          1) there are big important effects that are quite different at the national level, than at firm and city levels, or

          2) nations are failing to adopt policies that competition would induce, if they faced more competition.

          My bet is on the latter.

          This comparison is more complicated than it at first appears, but still (it turns out) revealing, if you consider how state behaviour has changed over time.

          Firms (at least as employment entities) have highly controlled borders–they have to hire you, you can be fired. They also have expansionary tendencies and can operate across jurisdictions. That is not really open borders as such. Indeed, the harder it is to fire people, the more cautious they tend to be about who they hire (i.e. “let in”). You can buy your way in to a firm as a shareholder, but then you become a risk guarantor. It is a particular form of commercial exchange to which you commit capital.

          Cities are ambiguous between jurisdictional entities, which are generally not allowed to control movement of people across their borders, or as some (territorially contiguous) level of density of population, in which case it is not clear exactly what one means by “borders” and who would “control” them.

          City governments do tend to control land use, often in considerable detail, and that has sometimes been used to block the residence of certain groups?(pdf). Politicians such as James Michael Curley and Coleman Young have used city policies to drive away folk in order to make their own ethnicity dominant, what economists?Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer?called the Curley Effect?(pdf). The returns to controlling land use are much higher than any returns to controlling population movement as such, so there seems no reason for cities to demand the right to their own border control from states that are not likely to grant it.

          States are the only one of the three (firms, cities and states) with hard territorial borders. That is, borders that are policed, that separate entire legal systems, that have no overlapping political authority. (Obviously, some arrangements, such as the European Union, pool a certain amount of sovereignty, but they are exceptional to the normal pattern.)

          Leaving aside labour bondage systems (serfdom, slavery, Communism) which, by their nature, have to control exit-movement, states have historically not sought to control inward movement. Indeed, attracting more people meant more tax payers.

          What states have had strong controls over is who gets to control the state. Historically, that has been bitterly defended. It is conspicuous that border controls over inward movement start happening when states start acquiring broad electorates. In particular, working class voters have tended to be strong supporters of various forms of border control. Indeed, generally they still are.

          So, the question is not “why do states control borders?” in the sense of movement across borders, because historically many have not, but “why do working class voters support border control?”. That is not a hard question to answer. Especially when the vote is their only significant political leverage and they are the group (unlike migrants and holders of land and capital) who do not gain significantly from migration, indeed, can be net losers from migration, and who are much more reliant than more educated voters on local networks for support and risk management that can easily be disrupted by migration.

          So, once we have worked through the what do you mean by borders? question, yes it is about competition pressures and how much capacity working class voters have to push back. But it is the comparison with state behaviour over the long run that is the most revealing, not the comparison with firms and cities.

           

          [Cross-posted from Skepticlawyer.]

          Montesquieu and the US: explaining the US’s Presidential aberration

          By Lorenzo

          That pioneer political scientist?Montesquieu‘s theory of the separation of powers?was both a very odd take on the English system of government (which he claimed it to be) but also very influential in the drafting of the US Constitution.

          Listening to a paper on considerations of Montesquieu’s The?Spirit of Laws by Louis Althusser and Albert Hirschman,?a plausible reason for the appeal of Montesquieu to the US Founding Fathers?occurred to me. The notion of executive, legislature and judiciary as separate and balancing branches of government solved a problem the separating