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Enduring Puzzles

In today's Opinion Journal, James Taranto comments unfavorably (of course) on Timothy Noah's ruminations on the possibility that conservatives might be insane. But Taranto misses a whole lot more that can be criticised. Noah begins his article thusly:

The working class's refusal to synchronize its politics with its economic interests is one of the enduring puzzles of the present age.

Note the breezy assumption that voting Democratic is unarguably in working classmen's economic interests. Their failure to vote this way is only an "enduring puzzle" to those who would present such an assumption as fact.

Noah continues:

Between 1989 and 1997, middle-income families (defined in this instance as the middle 20 percent) saw their share of the nation's wealth fall from 4.8 percent to 4.4 percent.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States was 245,705,000 on January 1, 1989 and 266,574,000 on January 1, 1997. 20% of those numbers are 49,141,000 and 53,314,800, respectively.

And according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Gross Domestic Product (which I feel is a good proxy for "the nation's wealth") in constant 2000 dollars was $6.9814 trillion in 1989 and $8.7035 trillion in 1997.

So, in 1989, the 49,141,000 citizens in the middle of the income pile had, according to Noah, 4.8% of the wealth. That would be $335.1 billion. Or $6819 each.

And (you can see where this is going, can't you?) in 1997, the 53,314,800 citizens in the middle had 4.4% of the wealth. That would be $383.0 billion. Or $7184 each.

In other words, people in the middle 20% did, in real terms, get richer. Not a whole lot richer, and granted, my calculations are a bit back-of-the-envelope, but it certainly contradicts the point that Noah wants to get across when he compares 4.8% and 4.4%.

And I won't even delve into the question of how many people in the middle 20% in 1989 were still in the middle 20% in 1997. Time to go on to Noah's next sentence:

Yet Al Gore lost the white working class by a margin of 17 percentage points, and John Kerry lost it by a margin of 23 percentage points.

I don't agree with Taranto's position that "working class" is an insult (to me, it's as neutral as "blue collar"), but still, Noah seems to be pulling a fast one on us by using the term here. After presenting us with a statistic about middle-income Americans, Noah goes on in the very next sentence to tell us about the voting habits of the "white working class" as if the two sets of people are interchangeable. Are they? The link in the above sentence defines "white working class" as "whites with less than a four year college degree". No mention of how many in the white working class are in the middle 20% of income. For that matter, neither is there any mention of how many middle-income folks are non-white.

In addition to the switch from middle-income to white working class, note the switch in timelines. Noah uses data (incorrectly, as I pointed out) from 1989 and 1997. Then extrapolates to elections in 2000 and 2004. What happened from 1998 through 2004? Noah doesn't say. He just finds it self-evidently inexplicable that white working-class folk would vote against Al Gore (the same Al Gore, it should be said, who was vice-president for half of the time Noah claims the middle-income group was losing ground economically).

Noah's paragraph concludes:

As the GOP drifts further to the right, and becomes more starkly the party of the wealthy, it is gaining support among the working class.

Some possible explanations: The working class is indeed already on the right, towards where the GOP is drifting to. Or the working class doesn't have any animosity towards the wealthy and would like to join their ranks someday. Or the GOP isn't as starkly a party of the wealthy as a party who managed to field a candidate even more wealthy than Bush is. Or maybe even the working class knows condescension when it hears it, and doesn't much like it. That, in the end, is Taranto's analysis:

Every time the Democrats lose an election, they make a big show of asking questions like these. Then, the next time they lose an election, they once again wonder why the "working class" has forsaken them. Maybe it's as simple as: because they were listening.


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Comments (6)


GDP is not necessarily a good proxy for the nation's wealth. In fact, I doubt it is a good proxy (just like your income is not necessarily a good proxy for your total net worth).

Furthermore, your numbers don't really support your point. If per capital income in the "middle" had gone from $6819 to $7814 in the 8 years from 1989-1997, that reflects an 0.7% annual growth rate in real income for that period of time. That is not that impressive.


Sorry, that should be $7184, not $7814.

No, I can't say it's a very impressive growth rate, but it's at least upwards (and because it's given in real constant dollars, it by definition is outpacing inflation), whereas Noah seems to want us to believe that the middle's fortunes have declined.

I don't know where I would find statistics for total wealth, but I don't believe it's unreasonable to assume as GDP goes up, total wealth goes up too. (In my case, my total net worth has gone up with my income over the years - in fact, it's been going up *faster* than my income. But that's because I'm pretty good at saving).

In any case, telling us that the percentage has gone from 4.8% to 4.4% does not mean anything in and of itself. As I've suggested, it could be 4.4% of a much larger pie.


In the last 50 years, the income of the average American has doubled, but all the evidence indicates that the average American is no happier now than then (e.g. as indicated by surveys). But average happiness is actually higher in more egalitarian societies, after cancelling for wealth.

So it would seem that at the end of the day, the size of the pie doesn't matter.

Americans may be no happier (or no less happy) than they were, but that may not have any impact on voting trends anyway. Politicians promise to make you healthier, wealthier, and wiser, but I don't recall any promises that you'll be happier.

Marta Richards:

I am thrilled that I stumbled on this discussion, because it concerns one of my very favorite laments of the Democrats following the 2004 election. One of the people most perplexed, almost to the point of hysteria, by the idea that middle class people would vote "against" their economic self-interest, was/is our fellow Princetonian Katrina Vanden Heuvel. She is so distressed and so amazed by the phenomenon that non-wealthy people choose to vote Republican that at times I worried she would collapse on Chris Matthews's show's New York set.

Anyway, since I live in the heart of white-working-class-Republican voters, I would like to suggest that the economic policies that the Democrats believe will attract such voters instead in fact repel them. Many middle class white male voters here do not want government help or more government programs, which they see as designed mainly to benefit racial and cultural minorities who aren't interested in pulling their own weight. Instead of new government assistance, they'd much rather have lower taxes so that they can decide themselves what to do with the money. I venture to say that even if it could be shown to a particular individual that he would end up in a net positive financial position with things like a national health insurance plan
that voter would usually prefer the freedom to choose to pay the doctor he wanted more than saving some money.

These white middle class male voters are particularly jealous of self-determination and individual rights. When the Democrats talk about giving more publicity to their stance on values in order to attract this bloc, they cannot do so with "values" such as "ridding the country of poverty". They can't do it with "inclusionary programs" meant to "make everyone equal." They can't do it by having Democrat candidates saying they're born-again Christians. They have to do it by demonstrating that above all they value and reward being law-abiding (e.g., not condoning illegal immigration), being hard-working (e.g., not setting up more programs for minorities who are un- or underemployed), and being resilient (e.g., not crying racism or bringing a personal injury or class action lawsuit when anything doesn't go someone's way). Of course, the Democrats don't understand this at all. That's why they'll never made a dent in the white middle-class constituency here in the South. They'll have to win without the South, and that is a tall order.


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