Nobody does anything for rural America because there isn’t much that can be done (Mankiw–Romer–Weil) outside of welfare state measures

There have been 100 gillion posts writing about Trump’s victory as a function of the “disaffected white rural voter” and lots of airing of their grievances. I’m not sure how much I buy that, but the material from Katherine Cramer’s very nice book, on angry Wisconsin voters, I’m sure holds true. It’s very good research. Here is a WashPo interview with Cramer as well, where she talks about both “rural identity” and “economic anxiety” as being combined to make people resentful.

But let’s get some straight talk out of the way first.

No doubt people vote for complicated reasons, and we’ve also heard from the foot-stamping “I voted for Trump and I’m not not not not a racist, sexist, Islamaphobe!” Yes, but you voted for one, and undoubtedly in the Trump coalition there are also old-fashioned, sheet-wearing racists. They are having parades. But sure, it’s likely that single-issue voters (security, abortion, anti-tax warriors, etc) joined in who don’t have sheets and hoods in their closets right along with those who prefer to watch television rather than burn crosses but don’t *really* mind that crosses get burned as long as they maintain their place in the racial hierarchy.

My feelings on “But what are we doing for the poor white rural people?” commentary that has started up after the electoral college once again asserted it odd geographic equity rather than actual parliamentarian function on US federal politics comes here from Kali Holloway: Stop Asking Me To Empathize with the White Working Class. Now, you can ask me to do anything you want me to do, including empathize, but I may or may not do what you ask, and it’s another thing entirely about whether my empathy translates into being able to do anything productive about another’s plight.

In particular, Holloway’s notes on how nobody seems to care about black or latino poverty are spot on, right along here:

Please miss me with all this nonsense. I’m not even going to get into how this is based on an easily refutable economic lie, especially since others have already spent precious time they’ll never get back breaking this down. But even if it was true—and I am well aware of what’s plaguing the white working class, from substance abuse to suicide to a loss of manufacturing jobs—I refuse to take part in the endless privileging of white pain above all others. (Martin Gilens, who has studied this stuff going way back, notes that when the media face of poverty is white, this country suddenly gets a lot more compassionate.) Latinos and African Americans remain worse off than the white working class—which is still the “largest demographic bloc in the workforce”—by pretty much every measurable outcome, from home ownership to life expectancy. Where are these appeals for us when we protest or riot against the systemic inequality we live with? Where are all the calls to recognize and understand our anger?

For hundreds of years, white people have controlled everything in this country: the executive office, Congress, the Supreme Court, the criminal justice system, Wall Street, the lending institutions, the history textbook industry, the false narrative that America cares about liberty and justice for all. But I need to understand white feelings of marginalization because a black man was in the White House for eight years? Because political correctness—a general plea for white people not to be as awful as they have been in the past— asked that white people put more effort into being decent than they felt up to? Because white folks didn’t like that feeling when politicians aren’t singularly focused on the hard times and struggles of their communities? Audre Lorde said (I wonder if that woman ever got sick of being right), “oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.” For a people who have shamed black folks for supposedly always wanting a hand out, for being a problem of the entitlement state, I have never seen people who so firmly believe they are owed something.

Let me pass along some advice black folks have been given for a long time: stop being so angry and seeing yourself as a victim, and try pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. That’s really all I have for you right now, this re-gifting of wisdom.

This ties in nicely with the Cramer piece about rural “identity” and economic anxiety. One of the key points of the WashPo piece is here:

According to her research, white voters feel the American Dream is drifting out of reach for them, and they are angry because they believe minorities and immigrants have butted in line.

This is important, and it doesn’t get picked up anywhere in the rest of the post, as it strikes me a really, really important to navigating the politics of resentment.

First off, there’s a line? Where? We’ve been in Chicago-school, trickle down, rising-tides-lifts-all-boats mode of macro thinking for so long that there is a line for a trickle? Are we so brainwashed that we don’t even consider the possibility that trickle-down does not happen, at all, or very little? That Marx was right about something–that capitalism concentrates wealth rather than distributing it–and that if Marx was right rather than the Chicago school, wealth will concentrate both among individuals and, by necessity, in specific regions?

Rural voters, like everybody else, want opportunity, and when sold the “trickle-down” economics argument of capitalism, the idea that “it’s their turn” makes sense, and it makes sense when their turn never seems to come, they think that immigrants and women and Black people have budged in the line in front of them.

But nobody need get in line ahead of you if Marx is right about about how capitalism works and neoclassical folks are wrong. If Marx is right, people can just keep getting poorer together while other folks just keep getting richer together.

In bareknuckles capitalism, the welfare state is seen as something antithetical to markets rather than what prior generations of smarties, like Karl Polyani and Ralph Milliband said it was: a brokered deal between capital and labor so that the latter does not revolt. Milliband, in particular, noted the welfare state is the grease that spins the wheels of capitalism. By taking a little wealth off the top and redistributing it at the bottom, the welfare state enabled a system whereby people had enough to be invested in the stability of the system so that the democratic mob didn’t go after the economically privileged few, and by extension, that redistribution has spatial consequences.

If Marx was right and Polyani/Milliband were right, then there are three options for moving money into rural America, and they don’t come from bareknuckles capitalism. They come from the state and a willingness to either a) pay rural individuals to stay where they are through welfare payments or b) bribe industries to locate there or c) make it impossible for industries to go where they prefer.

I *think* the average “Trump is gonna get me a better life” thinking assumes (c) is possible. That assumes that nation-states structure global trade rather than the other way around, and I’m not sure I buy that. But hey, I’m willing to try it. It also means a slowdown in economic growth because some activities are just not going to pencil if you force them to stay in the US. I’m not worried about that, but it is worth noting. Every time a plant locates oversees there’s a sense that it could have, and perhaps should have, located here. But there is the possibility that it wouldn’t have lived at all had capital not had the bigger locational choice set.

Otherwise, (b) is a short-term strategy, and there’s little that rural areas can do about it. Think about the auto industry: has there been an industry more thoroughly bribed to stay put than that one? The result has been, like every other industry, increased capitalization vis-a-vis labor.

From what I can tell, “Rural Identity” means homogeneity (“Shared values”), isolation, and small scale. That’s another problem. Capitalism rewards innovation which does not necessarily emerge from homogeneity or isolation; if the work of regional economic geographers is to be believed, innovation is far more likely to occur where there is heterogeneity, scale, and connectivity. This is not an indictment of rural life. It’s a math problem that explains even if Trump Co is able to engage in trade protectionism, anything but resource extraction industries are likely to locate on the metropolitan fringe in the US rather than in small town America.

Mankiw-Romer-Weil is an extension of the Solow growth model. Their extension explains why capital doesn’t immediately relocate to the poorest nations out there. The extension hinges on the notion of human capital: that is, physical capital requires human capital (I hate the term, but it is what it is) to be productive, and it’s possible that while poor nations may have an abundance of cheap land, and productive land at that, they are also likely to have comparatively lower levels of human capital due to education, health, or other differences.

Makiw-Romer-Weil does not just apply to nation states, and it doesn’t do to put blinders on vis-a-vis the real locational disadvantages rural areas have in capitalism.

Rural workers are likely to be less productive than urban workers not because of anything related to the individual but to the context. Think about it this way: in a small, homogeneous location, an industry needs workers to do activity X. Now some people are good at Activity X; others are less good at X, and they are somewhat better at Activity Q. But a small community is only really likely to able to support one activity, and X gives them the nod. Then X is paired with a few folks good at X and others that are much better at Q, so that on average, worker productivity is somewhat lower than if the employer could get his or her labor needs met with all X all-stars (the way they might in a city where there are way more people from which to draw people with X abilities. Oh, and the Q people are better off, in terms of productivity, moving to join up with other Q people (which, in turn, helps the capital owners of Q). IOW, large human settlements enable specialization and scale that rewards labor productivity disproportionately.

Combine that with the market connectivity of major metros and you have a problem.

So rural identity hinges on isolation, small towns, and staying put in an economic system that rewards connectivity, scale, and mobility. I don’t know what you do about that unless you a) have local innovation in artisanal industries or b) return to some welfare state redistributing activities.

One last bit on the WashPo article, just to make myself feel better:

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

Ok, that’s legit. Hard physical work is hard work. I respect that. But um, where were you, hard-working logger, when I was home Saturday nights studying until my eyeballs bled so that I could pass vector calculus and Jay Sa’Adu’s nonlinear optimization class? Having a few beers with your buddies at the local? Sounds easy to me.

So I guess if this election really was about rural America flexing its political muscles, we’ll see. As I’ve noted before, rural America has disproportionate representation in every scale of US government, from Congress to the electoral college to state assemblies. Why they feel so disenfranchised is a bit beyond me, except for the fact that they are economically disconnected for all the reasons I just noted. I suppose it’s possible that Trump and Co will reinstate Spleenhamland…but not if everybody keeps buying the whole trickle-down idea.

3 thoughts on “Nobody does anything for rural America because there isn’t much that can be done (Mankiw–Romer–Weil) outside of welfare state measures

  1. You don’t tackle automation, though it seems to me it represents the single biggest challenge for our low-and-semi-skilled workforce. It’s not just factory jobs being replaced by robots, it’s every job almost. When that driverless Uber beer truck delivered a load of Budweiser in Colorado last month, the large protest cry you heard was the 4.1 million souls whose driving careers are now squarely in the gunsights of Silicon Valley robots. Google’s AI is writing poetry, and IBM’s Watson is writing songs. A robot in Australia is building brick houses in two days instead of two months. The coastal elites, with all their other ideas on immigration and trade, also happen to be making the software that will run a wrecking ball through the jobs landscape. Meantime, intelligence is limited by biology and evolution; only a select few can derive a function or write a for loop no matter how much education you give them. Retraining will take a generation or more if it can be done, and the years between promise upheaval.

  2. Lisa, this is a ‘smashing’ article you wrote. This is a topic that’s been boggling me, and your insights answered a lot of my questions.
    Thank you.

  3. My simple take on the American dream? Everybody’s entitled to have one… everybody’s entitled to work their butts off to make it happen… nobody is owed anything but what our Constitution allows: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms… etc, etc… you make the wrong choices, lose sight of your goal, not Washington’s fault, not my governor or senator… it all comes down to me and what I choose to do with my life, for being responsible for the choices I make. I totally believe in welfare for people who cannot function, have mental illnesses, etc… I do not believe in welfare for the big black dude with a cell phone, diamond in his tooth and an entitled attitude. And believe me, there are plenty of white folks with that same attitude even if they have no diamond in their tooth, they will have the latest cell phones! Go make it a great day! Love you girl!

Comments are closed.