Misinformation And The Economy

I recently had coffee with one of the smartest political scientists I know. Given his knowledge and access to data, I hoped he’d provide me with comfort about our upcoming election. He did share his reasons for being cautiously optimistic, but he also shared his distress over the magnitude of disinformation and the credulity of far too many Americans. 

He then said something that set my hair on fire: “If Trump wins, it will be the last real election we have.” This time, he’ll be surrounded by fanatics who know what they’re doing.

We are barreling toward the most important election in my lifetime, and the “chattering classes’ are already making predictions, based largely on elements that have affected political choices in more traditional times. Primary among those is the state of the economy, so Joe Biden should be riding high. But he isn’t–thanks to  the overwhelming amount of misinformation emanating from Faux News and other propaganda sites. The propaganda has convinced large numbers of citizens that what they see with their own eyes isn’t representative of the larger society.

The Atlantic recently addressed this situation in an article titled “U.S. Economy Reaches Superstar Status. No, really.”

If the United States’ economy were an athlete, right now it would be peak LeBron James. If it were a pop star, it would be peak Taylor Swift. Four years ago, the pandemic temporarily brought much of the world economy to a halt. Since then, America’s economic performance has left other countries in the dust and even broken some of its own records. The growth rate is high, the unemployment rate is at historic lows, household wealth is surging, and wages are rising faster than costs, especially for the working class. There are many ways to define a good economy. America is in tremendous shape according to just about any of them.

The American public doesn’t feel that way—a dynamic that many people, including me, have recently tried to explain. But if, instead of asking how people feel about the economy, we ask how it’s objectively performing, we get a very different answer.

The article points out that America’s current economic-growth rate is the envy of the world–that between the end of 2019 to the end of 2023, GDP grew by 8.2 percent, which was “nearly twice as fast as Canada’s, three times as fast as the European Union’s, and more than eight times as fast as the United Kingdom’s.” During the past year, others– some of them among the world’s largest– have fallen into recession, complete with mass layoffs and angry street protests. That included Germany and Japan.

The article analyzes people’s buying power over time. Since 1947, prices have increased by 1,400 percent. That sounds terrifying–except that incomes have increased by 2,400 percent over that same period. And thanks in no small measure to Biden’s focus on “growing the middle out,” several analysts have found that “from the end of 2019 to the end of 2023, the lowest-paid decile of workers saw their wages rise four times faster than middle-class workers and more than 10 times faster than the richest decile.”

 Wage gains at the bottom, they found, have been so steep that they have erased a full third of the rise in wage inequality between the poorest and richest workers over the previous 40 years. This finding holds even when you account for the fact that lower-income Americans tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on the items that have experienced the largest price increases in recent years, such as food and gas. “We haven’t seen a reduction in wage inequality like this since the 1940s,” Dube told me.

The unemployment rate has been at or below 4 percent for more than two years, the longest streak since the 1960s. 

The article has much more data–all positive–and its findings have recently been echoed by the World Bank, which says the U.S. economy is the envy of the world. As the linked story from the Washington Post reports,

While Americans’ unhappiness with high prices remains a key vulnerability for President Biden’s reelection bid, the World Bank now expects the U.S. economy to grow at an annual rate of 2.5 percent, nearly a full percentage point higher than it predicted in January. The United States is the only advanced economy growing significantly faster than the bank anticipated at the start of the year.

The excellent performance of the economy should lift Democratic prospects–but the propaganda war has been effective, especially with the low-information voters who (as still other studies confirm) are most likely to support Trump.

The only good news is that these low-information folks are also the least likely to vote. We can hope….


It’s More Complicated Than That…

A recent controversy reminded me that confirmation bias isn’t confined to the political Right. Those of us who lean Left engage in it too, and–unfortunately– so do serious observers of the political scene who ought to know better.

One reason for the academic process known as “peer review” is to ensure that scholars have accurately interpreted the work of other scholars, and to check that the methodologies they’ve employed have been correctly applied. (Errors in methodology aren’t necessarily intentional–they can be the result of the researcher seeing what she is convinced she’ll see.)

What triggered these reminders was a recent article from The Atlantic, pointing to serious flaws in the arguments and conclusions in White Rural Rage, a recent best-seller by political scientist Tom Schaller and journalist Paul Waldman. I was particularly interested in the article and the scholarship it cited, because my own reading has convinced me that urban-rural divisions are indeed a significant part of America’s current polarization. But the critique of this particular book looks to be firmly grounded.

In the weeks since its publication, a trio of reviews by political scientists have accused Schaller and Waldman of committing what amounts to academic malpractice, alleging that the authors used shoddy methodologies, misinterpreted data, and distorted studies to substantiate their allegations about white rural Americans. I spoke with more than 20 scholars in the tight-knit rural-studies community, most of them cited in White Rural Rage or thanked in the acknowledgments, and they left me convinced that the book is poorly researched and intellectually dishonest.

The Atlantic author, Tyler Austin Harper, says he was initially frustrated by the book’s resort to familiar stereotypes, but when he dug deeper, he found significant problems with White Rural Rage that extended “beyond its anti-rural prejudice. As an academic and a writer, I find Schaller and Waldman’s misuse of other scholars’ research indefensible.”

I won’t go through all of the misquoted scholarship that Harper enumerates in the linked analysis, but the largest error he identifies by far is the failure to define their use of the term “rural.”

The most obvious problem with White Rural Rage is its refusal to define rural. In a note in the back of the book, the authors write, “What constitutes ‘rural’ and who qualifies as a rural American … depends on who you ask.” Fair enough. The rural-studies scholars I spoke with agreed that there are a variety of competing definitions. But rather than tell us what definition they used, Schaller and Waldman confess that they settled on no definition at all: “We remained agnostic throughout our research and writing by merely reporting the categories and definitions that each pollster, scholar, or researcher used.” In other words, they relied on studies that used different definitions of rural, a decision that conveniently lets them pick and choose whatever research fits their narrative. This is what the scholars I interviewed objected to—they emphasized that the existence of multiple definitions of rural is not an excuse to decline to pick one. “This book amounts to a poor amalgamation of disparate literatures designed to fit a preordained narrative,” Cameron Wimpy, a political scientist at Arkansas State University, told me. It would be like undertaking a book-length study demonizing Irish people, refusing to define what you mean by Irish, and then drawing on studies of native Irish in Ireland, non-Irish immigrants to Ireland, Irish Americans, people who took a 23andMe DNA test that showed Irish ancestry, and Bostonians who get drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day to build your argument about the singular danger of “the Irish.” It’s preposterous.

Serious scholars confirm the existence of a very real urban/rural divide, and cultural differences between urban dwellers and Americans living in thinly-populated, economically-struggling parts of the country. But careful scholarship has distinguished between residents of non-metropolitan areas who fit the book’s “rural” stereotype and those who do not. In 2019, I cited a fascinating study from the Niskanan Center that focused on attitudinal differences linked to residential density–the lengthy study found that values of small town residents of “rural” America who lived close to others in the hearts of those communities differed from those of their more isolated neighbors.

The bottom line here is twofold: it’s important to avoid stereotyping, and essential to define our terms. As our political battles heat up, too many of us use language to label opponents rather than as vehicles to convey information.

Is there an urban/rural divide? Yes. Is it important to understand its roots and effects? Yes again. But as I used to tell my students–and as someone should have told the authors of this book–it depends upon how you are defining rural, and it’s more complicated than you want to understand.


The Economy And The Evidence

Nick Hanauer has long advocated for economic policies buttressed by something called “evidence.” I first encountered him when he was pointing out that putting disposable income into the hands of the working class via a higher minimum wage actually strengthens economic performance and supports job creation, because–duh–manufacturers don’t hire people to make widgets that few people have the means to buy.

Hanauer recently addressed “Bidenomics.”

When President Joe Biden first promised to “grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out” through public investments, empowering workers, and promoting competition, critics scornfully derided his agenda as “Bidenomics.” And when the president defiantly embraced this epithet by making it the economic centerpiece of his reelection campaign, even some allies questioned the wisdom of stamping his name on an economic recovery that is as misunderstood as it is strong. Despite record-low unemployment, rising real wages, strong GDP growth, and a rapid fall in the inflation rate to below both global and historical averages, only 36 percent of Americans say they approve of Biden’s handling of the economy. Given such weak approval numbers, “Bidenomics” might at first appear to be an ill-advised slogan for a reelection campaign.

But to dismiss Bidenomics as mere sloganeering is to miss the point: The Biden Revolution is real, and running on Bidenomics is key, not just to winning reelection, but to winning the battle to establish a new consensus over how to manage and build our economy in the decades ahead.

As Hanauer explains, a large and thriving middle class is the primary engine of economic growth. That’s the core proposition of Bidenomics– that prosperity grows from the bottom up and the middle out. It challenges Reagan and the GOP’s belief in “trickle-down.”

All available evidence supports Hanauer and Biden.

A recent article in The Atlantic examined the reluctance to trust that evidence. The article asked why America abandoned the greatest economy in history, and the subhead suggested potential explanations: “Was the country’s turn toward free-market fundamentalism driven by race, class, or something else? Yes.”

From the 1940s through the ’70s, sometimes called the New Deal era, U.S. law and policy were engineered to ensure strong unions, high taxes on the rich, huge public investments, and an expanding social safety net. Inequality shrank as the economy boomed. But by the end of that period, the economy was faltering, and voters turned against the postwar consensus. Ronald Reagan took office promising to restore growth by paring back government, slashing taxes on the rich and corporations, and gutting business regulations and antitrust enforcement. The idea, famously, was that a rising tide would lift all boats. Instead, inequality soared while living standards stagnated and life expectancy fell behind that of peer countries. No other advanced economy pivoted quite as sharply to free-market economics as the United States, and none experienced as sharp a reversal in income, mobility, and public-health trends as America did. Today, a child born in Norway or the United Kingdom has a far better chance of outearning their parents than one born in the U.S.

The rest of the article considers three theories for why America abandoned New Deal economics: white backlash to civil-rights legislation, the Democratic Party’s “cultural elitism,” and/or global crises beyond any political party’s control. It concluded that all of them played a role.

Whatever the reason, Americans seem to have a very hard time accepting the fact that “Bidenomics”–which harks back to New Deal principles–has produced an economy better than anyone predicted.

Yet the economy is ending the year in a remarkably better position than almost anyone on Wall Street or in mainstream economics had predicted, having bested just about all expectations time and again. Inflation has dropped to 3.1 percent, from a peak of 9.1. The unemployment rate is at a hot 3.7 percent, and the economy grew at a healthy clip in the most recent quarter. The Fed is probably finished hiking interest rates and is eyeing cuts next year. Financial markets are at or near all-time highs, and the S&P 500 could hit a new record this week, too.

The GOP demanded reductions in government spending. The White House disagreed, arguing that funding programs on infrastructure, domestic semiconductor production and clean energy would help inflation by expanding the economy’s productive capacity. The White House was right.

I’m currently reading a book on Modern Monetary Theory, which makes a point that Biden clearly understands: national budgets are nothing like household budgets, and failure to understand the difference leads to bad policy.

More on that book–and that theory– later….


The Power Of Resentment

Every once in a while, as I wade through the onslaught of emails, newsletters, solicitations and media transmissions that clog my daily in-box, I’m brought up short by a sentence that seems profound. (Granted, the degree of profundity often varies with the amount of sleep I had the night before…) The most recent such experience was triggered by an Atlantic newsletter from Tom Nichols, who wrote that “resentment is perhaps the most powerful political force in the modern world.”

The context of that observation was in the newsletter’s lede

On October 7, the Republican House Judiciary Committee cryptically tweeted, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” The tweet was, predictably, ridiculed—especially after Ye (as Kanye West is now known), just days later, threatened “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” on Twitter. But, intentionally or not, the committee had hit upon a basic truth: The three are alike.

What unites these successful men—and, yes, Trump is successful—is their seething resentment toward a world that has rewarded them money and influence, but that still refuses to grant them the respect they think is their due. And if we should have learned anything since 2016, it is that resentment is perhaps the most powerful political force in the modern world.

Nichols writes that the movements that historically motivated large numbers of people have dwindled, while today, it is “social and cultural resentment” that is driving millions of people into what he describes as a kind of mass psychosis.

I will leave aside Ye, who has his own unique problems (although I will note that his early career was marked by his anger at being shut out, as he saw it, from hip-hop and then the fashion world). Prominent and wealthy Americans such as Trump and Musk, along with the former White House guru Steve Bannon and the investor Peter Thiel, are at war not so much with the American political system, whose institutions they are trying to capture, but with a dominant culture that they seem to believe is withholding its respect from them. Politics is merely the instrument of revenge.

As Nichols reminds us, Trump has spent his life “with his nose pressed to the windows of midtown Manhattan, wondering why no one wants him there. He claims to hate The New York Times but follows it obsessively and courts its approval.” Elon Musk, who has put people in space and who claims to be a free speech purist, has blocked and suspended twitter users who made fun of him. “As one Twitter wag noted, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is like Elmer Fudd buying a platform full of Bugs Bunnies.”

The great irony is that Musk’s other achievements might have vaulted him past perceptions that he’s a spoiled, rich doofus, but buying Twitter and making (and then deleting) jokes about self-gratification while telling people to vote Republican has pretty much obliterated that possibility.

Nichols is absolutely correct when he notes that the people who do support Trump are people with whom he would never, ever want to associate.

He is also correct when he notes that the people most likely to act out their resentments aren’t the poor–they are the “comfortably off populist voters” who were “never invited into the” top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations.”

The January 6 rioters were, by and large, not the dispossessed; they were real-estate agents and chiropractors. These citizens think that the disconnect between material success and their perceived lack of status must be punished, and if that means voting for election deniers and conspiracy theorists, so be it…

And finally, look at the Republican campaigns across the nation. Few are about kitchen-table issues; many are seizing on resentment. Resentment sells. The GOP is running a slew of candidates who are promising that “we” will make sure “they” never steal an election again, that “we” will stop “them” from making your kids pee in litter boxes, that “we” will finally get even with “them.”

Voters in the United States and many other developed countries can lie to themselves and pretend that a one-year hike in the price of eggs is worth handing power to such a movement. Human beings need rationalizations, and we all make them. But voting as responsible citizens requires being honest with ourselves, and I suspect that we will soon learn that more of us are gripped by this kind of sour social irritation than we are by the price of gas.

Nichol’s essay is well worth reading in its entirety, and I encourage you to click through. I think his diagnosis is absolutely correct.

The problem is, he neglects to prescribe a remedy. And I can’t come up with one.


That Was The Party That Was

Norm Ornstein speaks to me. From his books (It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, with Thomas Mann, and One Nation After Trump, with E.J.  Dionne  and Thomas Mann) to his principled fight against gerrymandering,  I have admired both his intellect and his principles.

And in his recent essay in the Atlantic, he gave voice to my own political distress.

I have been immersed in national politics in Washington for five decades. Over my time here, as an academic, a congressional staffer, a think tanker, and a commentator and public figure, I have gotten to know and worked with a wide range of key actors in politics and policy. I have seen up close the changes in our politics and culture. Nothing has been more striking or significant than the transformation of the Republican Party, from a moderately conservative party to a very conservative party to something else entirely.

One sign of this change? A five-term Republican congressman from Colorado, elected in the Tea Party wave in 2010 and now a Trump loyalist, was recently defeated in a primary by a candidate who runs Shooters Grill, where servers are encouraged to carry firearms, and who has indulged the QAnon conspiracy theories and who is now endorsed, not repudiated, by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Another? The current buzz surrounding Tucker Carlson as the party’s hope in 2024—even as he takes sudden leave from his show to go fishing, after one of his writers was tied to racist and misogynistic posts on an internet message board.

Those of us of a. “certain age” would agree with Ornstein that “old-time” Republicans would be appalled by the party’s ethnic and anti-immigrant animus and deliberate efforts to stoke racial division. Although  the GOP has always had a rightwing, nativist fringe–just as the Democrats have always had a collectivist fringe– when I was Republican, they were, for the most part, consigned  to that fringe.

The party of Nixon, with all its pathologies, created the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed a health-care-reform plan as sweeping as the later Affordable Care Act, and considered offering Americans a guaranteed annual income on a par with Andrew Yang’s universal basic income. The party of Reagan, which tried to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and which slashed taxes in 1981, precipitating ballooning deficits, also cut deals with Democratic Representative Henry Waxman to bolster Medicare and Medicaid; championed bipartisan Social Security reform in 1983; and supported tax increases in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 to offset the earlier cuts and reduce the deficits. The party responsible for Iran-Contra is also the party that championed democracy and moved in concert with Democrats to create the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Institute of Peace, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute.

Many of  the Republicans with whom Ornstein worked exemplified  “institutional patriotism,” which he defines as a concern for the integrity of Congress as an institution, and a commitment to checks and balances.

Unfortunately, they were unable to transfer those values to succeeding generations, or to overcome the regional shift in American party politics, the rise of manipulative leaders, and the growing influence of extremist tribal media.

Ornstein tells us what we all know: that whatever it is that has taken the place of that GOP “has thrown away its guiding values and embraced its darkest instincts.”

It has blown up long-standing norms in the Senate, creating divisions that outstrip anything I have seen before; done nothing about rank corruption in the White House and the Cabinet; accepted the politicization of the Justice Department and lies from the attorney general; avoided any meaningful oversight of misconduct; and failed to curb attacks on the independence of inspectors general.

The article goes into considerable detail about Ornstein’s political biography–the Senators and staff with whom he worked, and the ability that afforded him to see public servants up close, to evaluate their sincerity and integrity. I encourage  you to click through and read it in its entirety.

But the sentence that really resonated with me was the following:

Plenty of the Republicans I dealt with in the past were fierce partisans, including Dole and John Rhodes. But when pushed, they put country first.

When the sniveling sycophants beholden to the conspiracy theorists and bigots that make up today’s GOP “base” are pushed, they put their own prospects above country– and arguably even above the long-term best interests of their party.