New factoids feed the prejudices SHOCK! And a story . . .

Deaton and Case states

When we know so little, it’s incumbent on us all to show a little applied humility to interpreting the recent and much celebrated and punditised results about rising mortality amongst American whites.

But I will at least say this. The results which Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case report and which I reported in an earlier post, are much worse in the bible belt large parts of which are in the previously slave owning South which I’ve argued suffers from psychosis.

Education is good, looking after those at the bottom of the ladder is good. Of course the left’s tendency to valorise ‘victims’ can go too far. I think it does and it’s a growing problem (#TriggerAlert you may not agree and this may trigger anxiety, depression and flashbacks to traumatic events in your childhood when you discovered you weren’t the only person in the world). But ethically it seems like so much less a crime than the right’s demonisation of those at the bottom and their valorisation of those at the top. Perhaps it’s also a practical mistake.

This puts me in mind of what was a moment of epiphany for me in the suburbs of Los Angeles with my son Alex.

It was late at night in a not particularly run down light industrial area – a bit like Fyshwick in the ACT when we went into a ‘Walgreens supermarket’. The place was nearly empty. There may have been one other shopper. We went in and got our stuff and went to check out. At the check out was a Mexican guy and a very large overweight black woman security guard with guns strapped round her waste.

The Mexican guy checked one of four or five of our items through the cash register and then proceeded to have a leisurely conversation with the security guard. It seemed to go on for about 5 minutes though it was probably less. They weren’t making a point of their power over us. Indeed, these kinds of people’s jobs are on the line the whole time. They were just out of it. In a world of their own. A kind of eternal present.

There was something quite weird about it. If it was Australia I would have shown them my manifest annoyance at being kept waiting. I thought better of it in this circumstance. Then as we went to our car a black guy, somehow psychically part of the other two, though he was outside the door asked us for money. He wasn’t at all overtly menacing, but I felt unsafe. Unsure of what the safest thing to do was, we did what one often does in such circumstances. Nothing. And kept walking to our car. There was no problem at all. As we drove away Alex got a spray that surprised me as much as it did him.

Never forget Alex, that you come from a country where not only is the minimum wage over $15 per hour without compromising something close to full employment but we don’t hate poor people. We don’t want people ripping off the system, but we’re basically OK with people being given a hand. It might be a niggardly safety net, but it’s a comprehensive safety net. We don’t have beggars everywhere. Here in America, the general population hate people like the three we’ve just dealt with – that’s around 15 percent of the population. And they’re all out of it. That’s not true in Australia. We don’t hate the people at the bottom.

Or words to that effect.

So there you have it. My outburst. Until that time I felt rather torn about minimum wages – just because it’s a big call to say to someone you can’t work if you can’t get someone to pay you a wage others feel comfortable about. I still respect that argument, though mostly in the context of a situation in which one is concerned about people being priced out of a job.

I also had psychologically distanced myself from the issue of equality. I’ve always been in favour of strong redistribution policies and I don’t shy away from saying so here or in columns. But I’m not much of a campaigner for equality. If people who would be advantaged by them won’t vote for them, who am I to disagree? But I had my moment of epiphany. The means by which we try to help those losing out might sometimes be inefficient (though if high minimum wages coincide with close to full employment they offer an uncommonly efficient means of lifting low incomes). But what is prosperity about if it can’t be spent on what matters? And we really are all in this together. I really don’t want to live in a country with beggars strewn across the street, and where 15 percent of the population have fear in their eyes.

 

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Michael
Michael
6 years ago

The US should be a wakeup call in many respects. Do we want to live in a society where the majority of the population don’t vote – and many for all practical purposes can’t vote? Not to mention their diabolical healthcare system which much of the medical profession and political elite in this country seem to want to replicate. My first and only trip to the US was a massive wakeup call and the experience was totally at odds with my expectations having being exposed to a lot of US media. Beggars in the US seem to be regarded as part of the natural order. I don’t want to live in that kind of society.
It’s time for the economics profession to rediscover human dignity and make gainful employment opportunities and civil society the primary goals of economic policy rather than inflation targeting and spurious measures of values free growth.

Steve from Brisbane
6 years ago

Well said, Nicholas.

Looking at the line up for Republican Presidential candidates, I find it hard to see how anyone can argue against the proposition that the Right in America has abandoned common sense and evidence, and been taken over by harmful rigid ideology, and it is difficult to see how they are going to make their way back to a reasonable centre. Yes, the Left in some quarters is having a bit of a revival of the irritating matter of identity politics trumping common sense, but the effects of that are much less harmful overall than persisting with current American Right economic policies.

peter tuck
6 years ago

Agree entirely, but then it was Bill Clinton that gave us ‘three strikes…’ and a minimum wage of US$5 an hour not to mention who’s front runner for the Democrats this time around.

Persse
Persse
6 years ago

Personally I am sure that dislike and contempt for poor people and fear of being associated with them is a powerful driving force in Australia as well. The growth of private education in this country seems to me more driven be social perceptions and not educational needs.
Broadly, policies that reduce inequality and rely on transfers, as far as I can see, also is good economic policy. John Quiggin has pointed out that the USA is a very ordinary, middle ranking country in terms of outcomes, it defining characteristic is its large size.
If a chart is drawn of all the countries that have gone to the top of the economic ladder in the post war period heavily social interventionist nations predominate. Doesn’t matter if it is Singapore, Norway or Australia.
Two things about the USA, one is that it is an old country, the Europeans managed to destroy their old selves and renew within the last few generations. The USA has an overwhelming institutional stasis with its shambolic political institutions.
I strongly disagree that psychological factors ( other than the psychology of being both economically disadvantaged and alienated) play a role in the ex-slave states, ‘Reconstruction” post civil war was implemented badly, rural economies never made a successful transition from the latifundia of the slavers, remaining fragmented, under-capitalised, technologically backward and extremely poor, and bypassed by the great leap forward the Second World War provided the USA.

derrida derider
derrida derider
6 years ago

I’ve been involved in a lot of debates about the economic effects of minimum wages – if you stick purely to the economics then whether they are a good or bad thing is indeed ambiguous. And, yes, highly targeted welfare with punitive conditionality costs the government less than broader based payments.

But if you want a society where people respect menial workers then decent minimum wages are indispensable. And if you want a society where people don’t despise an underclass then welfare should be an unconditional right obtainable on need without humiliation. It’s about how we treat others more than about cash.

GrueBleen
GrueBleen
6 years ago

“… decent minimum wages are indispensable.”

Well perhaps, but surely the basic question is who pays this indispensable minimum wage: the employer (private or public) pays the whole minimum wage, or, the employer pays part of the minimum wage and ‘society’ pays the rest via ‘tax credits’ and other redistributive practices.

The employer paying part and ‘society’ paying the balance is how Walmart makes its big profits, I believe. Of course, whether this is ‘efficient’ (as defined by economists) is open to question, but it does appear to be at least minimally ‘effective’.

Michael
Michael
6 years ago

So the right would rather spend taxes on increased policing and other costs associated with societal disfunction instead of education and a broad based safety net. They oppose a high minimum wage because it presumably limits employment. The left is quietly in favour of minimum wages and a functioning if restrictive social safety net. Both outcomes deny people the dignity of participating usefully in society – I can see that this point of view is hopelessly out of fashion in this ultra cynical age.

ChrisB
6 years ago

A slight modification; some corrections here – http://andrewgelman.com/2015/11/10/death-rates-have-been-increasing-for-middle-aged-white-women-decreasing-for-men/ – and the stats show that the increase for white men has levelled off, although it continues for white women. Which I wouldn’t have predicted under the loss-of-meaning scenario, since women have the alternative narrative of increasing rights to compensate for decreasing national pride.

conrad
conrad
6 years ago
Reply to  ChrisB

Chris — I think it’s been known for quite some time that low SES white females are having poorer life expectancies compared to previous years. In case you’re interested, some older data documenting this is here: http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/8/1803.full.pdf+html . The second graph shows the effect is about 5 years between 1990 and 2008.

I think typically that was attributed to SES and income. I think the new data was interesting because of the way males dieing. It would be interesting to see the data by categories for males and females to see if the same was true of them, which might give some insight into the prediction.

conrad
conrad
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I think it makes the story a little less severe but compared to the other groups they are still having poorer outcomes.

The reason you need the actual type of death is it could be that even though both male and female groups are not doing so well in that group, it could be that the reasons are different and this would give you some insight into that.

You also need the SES data because the female data (at least in older sets) is driven by low SES groups, and I suspect the male data would be too. But male life expectancy may have increased more in the mid/high SES bands. In this case, there could be a compensatory effect due to males doing less dangerous jobs (e.g., more white collar jobs), murder rates going down, etc. the rates of which may not have moved as much with females. This would lead to a weaker pattern in the male vs. female data.

john Walker
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Conrad
Just wondering : why are the rates of decline of all the other countries ( and the American Hispanics) mapped in the graph in that report, so similar? It seems a bit odd to me.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
6 years ago

That’s not true in Australia. We don’t hate the people at the bottom.

Oh, but we do. We just hate them fairly quietly and much more dangerously. Why hate the people dying unnoticed in aboriginal communities? Why bother hating the people being tortured to death in our concentration camps (outsourced, of course)? There’s no need, we never have to see them or have any contact with them.

People even turn their noses up when United Patriots or some other gang is so uncouth as to voice the policies that “keep us safe”.

GrueBleen
GrueBleen
6 years ago

“Of course the left’s tendency to valorise ‘victims’ can go too far.”

You might recall Nicholas, that back in early August (discussing Hayek) you declined to enlighten me as to who or what is “the left”. But here you are giving helpful advice to aid my inquiry into this esoteric matter.

But it’s only a “tendency” you say, so I shouldn’t necessarily assume that all those who have valorized Tony Abbott as a victim are “the left”. But some of them might be.

ChrisB
6 years ago

OK, another new graph that puts my thesis back into contention again;
http://delong.typepad.com/.a/6a00e551f08003883401b7c7ed2722970b-pi

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