Archive for the 'Book reviews' Category

We’re all dependent on government, and it has long been thus

September 2, 2012

Nicholas Eberstadt’s “A Nation of Takers” argues that too many Americans have become dependent on government benefits. Over the past half-century, he notes, the share who receive a government cash transfer and/or public health insurance — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and so on — has grown steadily. The United States, according to Eberstadt, is now “on the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government.”

Eberstadt doesn’t contend that this has weakened our economy. His concern is moral. He believes reliance on government for help is undermining Americans’ “fierce and principled independence,” our “proud self-reliance.”

In Eberstadt’s way of seeing things, we are either givers or takers — taxpayers or benefit recipients. This is mistaken. Every American who doesn’t live entirely off the grid pays some taxes. Anyone who is an employee pays payroll taxes, and anyone who purchases things at a store pays sales taxes. Likewise, every American receives benefits from government. If you or your kids attended a public school, if you’ve driven on a road, if you’ve had a drink of tap water or taken a shower in your dwelling, if you’ve deducted mortgage interest payments or a business expense from your federal income taxes, if you haven’t been stricken by polio, if you’ve never had a band of thugs remove you from your home at gunpoint, if you’ve visited a park or lounged on a beach or hiked a mountain trail, if you’ve used the internet….

Eberstadt seems to think receipt of a government cash transfer or health insurance somehow renders people less self-reliant than does receipt of the myriad public goods, services, and tax breaks that government provides. But he doesn’t say why.

Once upon a time public safety was ensured by individuals and privately-organized militias. Then we shifted to government police forces and armies. At one point humans got water and disposed of waste individually. Then we created public water and sewage systems. Education of children was once a family responsibility. Then it shifted to schools. There’s a good reason for this: government provision offers economies of scale and scope, which enables the good or service to be provided to many people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it on their own. Did Americans’ character or spirit diminish when these changes occurred? Is there something qualitatively different about the more recent shift from individual to government responsibility in how we deal with retirement saving, health care, unemployment, and other risks? Here too Eberstadt is silent.

It’s true that some government policies encourage people to work less than they otherwise would. If we create a public pension program (Social Security) and allow receipt of benefits beginning at age 62, some who could work longer will elect to retire at that age. If we ease eligibility criteria for receipt of disability benefits, some people who could be employed will instead choose to live off that benefit. But this behavior isn’t the product of an “entitlement culture” that has weakened our moral fiber; it’s the result of incentives created by specific programs. The solution is not to “roll back the entitlement state”; it’s to alter the rules and/or generosity of the particular program that is causing the problem (or to increase the financial reward from staying in employment).

At the end of his essay, Eberstadt shifts his concern from the moral cost of government to the financial cost. Rising government expenditures on transfers and health care will require, he says, that we cut military spending, sell off public assets (land, buildings, art), or dump the burden onto future generations by running up government debt. None of these options is attractive. But there is, of course, another option: increases taxes. As we’ve transferred various functions from individuals to government over the course of our nation’s history, we’ve (usually) paid for it by asking Americans to contribute more. In many other rich nations governments provide more services and transfers than ours does, and they (usually) fund this by collecting more in taxes than we do. Perhaps Eberstadt ignores this option because at the moment one of our two political parties opposes any tax increase and the leader of the other favors a tax increase for only 5% of the population. But if history is any guide, this stalemate eventually will pass. Higher taxes, coupled with modest tweaks to Social Security and more significant reforms of our (public and private) health care system, can generate enough revenue to pay for our public goods, services, and transfers.

Growth of government spending is not, for the most part, a consequence of rent-seeking special interests or narrow-minded bureaucrats looking to expand their turf. It’s a product of affluence. As people and nations get richer, they tend to be willing to allocate more money for insurance (protection against risks) and for fairness (extension of opportunity and security to those who are less fortunate). Rather than lamenting an imagined shift from self-reliance to dependence, or claiming that we can’t afford more security and fairness, the American right would do better to focus its energy and creativity on devising alternative ways of pursuing these goals. Government doesn’t always do things best; and even when it does, there almost always is room for improvement. Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay is emblematic of the backward-looking orientation that has dominated America’s right for the past three decades. It’s an orientation that in my view has long since outlived its usefulness. The country will benefit when more smart minds on that side of the spectrum turn their gaze forward.

The great decoupling

January 31, 2011

Tyler Cowen’s e-book The Great Stagnation offers a novel explanation of the slowdown in U.S. median income growth since the 1970s. Here’s his causal model:

Innovation —> economic growth —> median income growth

In this model there are three potential sources of the reduction in median income growth:

1. Innovation has slowed.

2. The degree to which innovation boosts economic growth has declined.

3. The degree to which economic growth boosts median income growth has declined.

Cowen argues for hypothesis #1. He cites an estimate by Jonathan Huebner, a Pentagon physicist, that the rate of global innovation per capita peaked in the late 1800s, remained high to the mid-1950s, and then steadily declined. And he suggests that whereas “The period from 1880 to 1940 brought numerous major technological advances into our lives…. Today … apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953.” The high rate of innovation through the mid-1950s enabled rapid economic growth for a few additional decades. But beginning in the 1970s economic growth slowed, and along with it median income growth.

The book is well worth reading. (At four dollars it’s also a good deal — less than a large latte, a Sunday New York Times, or a newsstand copy of The Atlantic.) But I’m skeptical on two counts.

First, I’m not convinced that innovation has in fact slowed significantly. Cowen discusses the internet but not computers more generally. Computers are the engine of the postindustrial economy; they are the modern counterpart to steel, railroads, and the assembly line. Advances in computer hardware and software, their widespread dissemination, and their application to myriad tasks — automation and coordination of supply chains in manufacturing, record keeping and scheduling in services, and much much more — surely represent a massive improvement.

Second, the data point to hypothesis #3. A key difference between the WW2-1973 period and the decades since then is that median income growth has become decoupled from economic growth. (Mark Thoma makes this point too.) The rate of economic growth has been lower in the recent era, but it’s nevertheless been decent. Yet median income growth has been very slow. This contrasts sharply with the prior period.

Here’s one way to see this (others here):

Between 1947 and 1973, GDP per family increased at a rate of 2.6% per year and median family income grew at 2.7% per year. From 1973 to 2007, GDP per family increased at 1.7% per year, but median family income grew at just 0.7% per year.

And note the absolute numbers: GDP per family rose by $52,000 during 1947-73 and then by $82,000 during 1973-2007. Median family income increased by $26,000 during 1947-73 but then by just $13,000 in 1973-2007.

Median family income was $64,000 in 2007. Had it kept pace with GDP per family since the mid-1970s, it instead would have been around $90,000.

I’m all for helping to accelerate the rate of innovation. But the big change in recent decades lies in the degree to which economic growth lifts middle-class incomes. If we want to understand slow income growth, that should be our focus.

The science of basketball

January 6, 2011

Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball is part extended sports column, part scholarly tome. The mixture works well. Simmons has taken advantage of the massive increase in available historical information on professional sports to produce a book that is insightful, colorfully written, and steeped in data.

The Book of Basketball offers thoughtful and informed answers to a number of interesting questions: Who was a better player: Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain? Who were the top 96 players, in order, in NBA history? Which were the best teams in NBA history? Which twelve players would form the best basketball team? The most interesting chapter of all, in my view, is one titled “How the Hell Did We Get Here?” — a fascinating year-by-year discussion of developments in the league, the players, the styles, and how they were influenced by trends in American society.

The data come from the usual statistics on scoring, rebounding, assists, turnovers, shot blocks, and other quantifiable aspects of basketball. They also come from journalist reports, from basketball books, from Simmons’ interviews and discussions with (current and former) players, coaches, and basketball executives, and from thousands of games and game segments that are now viewable on the internet and on channels like ESPN Classic.

Simmons has a deep passion for his topic, stemming partly from his having attended hundreds of Boston Celtics home games as a kid in the 1970s and 1980s. That passion is key to the book. It helps not because it leads him to openly reveal his love for the Celtics or his lack of love for Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant. Simmons’ frankness, coupled with his enthusiasm and flowing prose, no doubt help make this book a hit with many basketball fans. For me, Simmons’ passion matters because it’s surely what led him to spend so much time examining individual and team statistics, reading about and digesting reports and books on earlier eras, watching countless hours of game footage, and talking and debating with other experts and analysts. It’s Simmons’ knowledge about his subject — his reliance on evidence, in various forms and from an array of sources — that makes this a terrific book.

It’s therefore particularly surprising and disappointing that the book’s key chapter is missing. In chapter 1, before he gets to history’s best players and teams, Simmons heads straight to basketball’s most important question: What explains which teams win championships? He gives us a sensible though debatable hypothesis (pp. 46-48 in the 2010 paperback edition). But then he moves on, offering only some scattered analysis.

Simmons’ hypothesis: “teamwork over talent.”

A little elaboration: “Teams that play together, kill themselves defensively, sacrifice personal success and ignore statistics invariably win the title.”

More elaboration:

Here’s what we know for sure:

1. You build potential champions around one great player. He doesn’t have to be a super-duper star or someone who can score at will, just someone who leads by example, kills himself on a daily basis, raises the competitive nature of his teammates, and lifts them to a better place.

2. You surround that superstar with one or two elite sidekicks who understand their place in the team’s hierarchy, don’t obsess over stats, and fill in every blank they can.

3. From that framework, you complete your nucleus with top-notch role players and/or character guys who know their place, don’t make mistakes, and won’t threaten that unselfish culture, as well as a coaching staff dedicated to keeping those team-ahead-of-individual values in place.

4. You need to stay healthy in the playoffs and maybe catch one or two breaks.

That’s how you win an NBA championship.

This seems plausible, even compelling. Then again, it sounds like a to-the-tee description of the Utah Jazz from 1988 to 2003. The number of NBA titles the Jazz won during that span: zero.

We need evidence and analysis. Here’s what Simmons offers (pp. 47-48):

1. The list of Best Players on an NBA Champ Since Bird and Magic Joined the League looks like this: Kareem (younger version), Bird, Moses, Magic, Isiah, Jordan, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq (younger version), Billups, Wade, Garnett, Kobe. It’s a list that looks exactly how you’d think it should look with the exception of Billups.

2. The list of Best Championship Sidekicks Since 1980: Magic, Parish/McHale, Kareem (older version), Worthy, Doc/Toney, DJ, Dumars, Pippen/Grant, Drexler, Pippen/Rodman, Robinson, Kobe (younger version), Parker/Ginobili, Shaq (older version), Pierce/Allen, Gasol. You would have wanted to play with everyone on that list … even younger Kobe.

3. Too many to count, but think Robert Horry/Derek Fisher types.

4.

Sprinkled throughout the book are additional bits and pieces of evidence that bear on the “teamwork over talent” hypothesis. But the only systematic analysis is in the chapter I mentioned earlier in which Simmons goes through the 1960s Russell-Chamberlain years comparing their teams and outcomes. It’s a very good chapter. The key conclusion is that contrary to conventional belief, Russell’s supporting cast wasn’t consistently better talent-wise than Chamberlain’s. And there’s loads to indicate that Russell prioritized and fostered a team-first approach whereas Wilt did not. Russell’s teams won eleven NBA titles; Chamberlain’s won two. Hypothesis confirmed.

But only through the early 1970s. The Russell-Chamberlain chapter ends on page 83, and I spent the rest of the 734-page book waiting, largely in vain as it turned out, for examples of post-Chamberlain teams that had sufficient talent to win an NBA title but didn’t because they lacked the teamwork element. Surely the 2004 Lakers. Possibly the post-1986 Houston Rockets, though Simmons says they also were hindered by Ralph Sampson’s bad luck and by cocaine. Others?

So here’s what I’m hoping for in the second edition: the missing chapter(s) in which Simmons walks us through each of the past forty years with an assessment of the talent and teamwork of the top four or five or eight teams. Why add more to a book that’s already very long? Because we need that analysis, and Simmons is the person to do it. It would ensure that The Book of Basketball, already splendid in many respects, remains the book of basketball for many years to come.

Inequality as a social cancer

January 18, 2010

Income inequality makes a lot of things we care about worse, according to a new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Looking across 20 or so rich nations and across the 50 American states, Wilkinson and Pickett find that countries and states with greater income inequality tend to have lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, more mental illness, more obesity, higher rates of teen births, more murder, less trust, and less upward mobility.

The following plot of life expectancy by income inequality shows a pattern that appears again and again in The Spirit Level.

“The problems in rich countries,” Wilkinson and Pickett conclude, “are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society” (p. 25).

The book has received a good bit of attention. It’s been reviewed in a number of major newspapers and been the focus of events at progressive think tanks in London and Washington, DC. It’s easy to see why. Many progressives worry about inequality. Here is a book, referencing hundreds of social scientific studies and making extensive use of quantitative data, which says, in effect, that many of our social problems can be significantly eased by reducing income inequality.

Is it correct? I was initially skeptical, and after reading the book I remain so.

What’s the causal link?

It wouldn’t be surprising to find that inequality in the income distribution contributes to inequality in health, education, and so on. And there’s plenty of evidence that it does. Wilkinson and Pickett make a different claim: income inequality worsens the average level of health, education, safety, trust, and other good things. How does it do that?

Wilkinson and Pickett say high inequality increases status competition, which in turn increases stress and anxiety, which leads to social dysfunction.

“Greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status…. If inequalities are bigger, so that some people seem to count for almost everything and others for practically nothing, where each one of us is placed becomes more important. Greater inequality is likely to be accompanied by increased status competition and increased status anxiety.” (pp. 43-44)

Here’s how they see stress as the link between income inequality and a key health outcome, lower average life expectancy:

“One of the most important recent developments in our understanding of the factors exerting a major influence on health in rich countries has been the recognition of the importance of psychological stress…. The most powerful sources of stress affecting health seem to fall into three intensely social categories: low social status, lack of friends, and stress in early life…. Much the most plausible interpretation of why these keep cropping up as markers for stress in modern societies is that they all affect — or reflect — the extent to which we do or do not feel at ease and confident with each other. Insecurities which can come from a stressful early life have some similarities with the insecurities which can come from low social status, and each can exacerbate the effects of the other.” (p. 39)

“So how do the stresses of adverse experiences in early life, of low social status, and lack of social support make us unwell? … The psyche affects the neural system and in turn the immune system — when we’re stressed or depressed or feeling hostile, we are far more likely to develop a host of bodily ills, including heart disease, infections and more rapid ageing. Stress disrupts our body’s balance, interferes with what biologists call ‘homeostasis’ — the state we’re in when everything is running smoothly and all our physiological processes are normal.”  (p. 85)

Here’s the hypothesized link with obesity:

“People with a long history of stress seem to respond to food in different ways from people who are not stressed. Their bodies respond by depositing fat particularly round the middle, in the abdomen, rather than lower down on hips and thighs…. The body’s stress reaction causes another problem. Not only does it make us put on weight in the worst places, it can also increase our food intake and change our food choices, a pattern known as stress-eating or eating for comfort.” (p. 95)

And educational achievement:

“New developments in neurology provide biological explanations for how our learning is affected by our feelings. We learn best in stimulating environments when we feel sure we can succeed. When we feel happy or confident our brains benefit from the release of dopamine, the reward chemical, which also helps with memory, attention, and problem solving. We also benefit from serotonin which improves mood, and from adrenaline which helps us to perform at our best. When we feel threatened, helpless and stressed, our bodies are flooded by the hormone cortisol which inhibits our thinking and memory. So inequalities of the kind we have been describing in this chapter, in society and in our schools, have a direct and demonstrable effect on our brains, on our learning and educational achievement.” (p. 115)

Other mechanisms are discussed at various points in the book, including oppositional culture, perceived expectations of inferiority, and humiliation. But stress is the key.

An important question here, which Wilkinson and Pickett don’t address, concerns the tightness of the link between the degree of income inequality in a society and the degree of status competition. The United States has the most unequal income distribution among rich countries, but I’m not certain this results in it having more status competition than other countries. Some European nations with less income inequality have a long history of class divisions. American culture is relatively informal, and Americans tend to be optimistic about the possibility of upward mobility. As a result, perceptions of status divisions may be less pronounced in the U.S. than in some other nations. The same is true for the American states. The states with the highest income inequality include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Is status competition greatest in these states? I’m not sure.

How strong is the effect?

Wilkinson and Pickett are convinced that the effect of income inequality on social well-being is real, and perhaps it is. But if so, how strong is the effect? Social scientists frequently discover statistically significant effects that turn out to be trivially small in magnitude.

Look again at the chart above, which shows life expectancy by income inequality across affluent nations. If you follow the regression (“best-fit”) line, you’ll see it suggests that going from very high income inequality to very low income inequality will increase life expectancy by approximately two years (from about 77.5 to 79.5). The same is true across the 50 U.S. states. Is that a large impact?

One way to think about this is to consider how much life expectancy has changed in these countries over time. Let’s compare 1980 to 2006. I got data for these two years from the OECD for 21 of the 23 countries included in Wilkinson and Pickett’s graph. In 1980 the average life expectancy in these countries was 71 years. By 2006 it had jumped to 78 years. This increase is not simply a function of the poorer countries making huge leaps. In the three richest countries — Norway, the United States, and Switzerland — life expectancy rose by five or six years. The smallest rise, in the Netherlands, was four years.

If Wilkinson and Pickett’s estimate of the impact of income inequality is correct, reducing inequality in the United States to Sweden’s level would improve life expectancy by two years. Yet in the past generation life expectancy in the U.S. increased by more than twice that amount. By this gauge, inequality’s effect isn’t an especially large one.

Are the correlations true?

The point-in-time associations in Wilkinson and Pickett’s graphs are their key piece of evidence. Are they accurate? In studies such as this, there almost always is reason to worry about data and measurement choices. I’ll mention just one here. Wilkinson and Pickett measure income inequality for countries using data from the United Nations’ Human Development Report. It’s not a bad choice, but a more reliable source when comparing across nations is the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS). The LIS has data for fewer countries, but if an association is genuine it ought to hold for a subset of the countries examined by Wilkinson and Pickett.

The following chart plots life expectancy by income inequality as of 2005, using LIS data for inequality. There is no association.

Actually, this isn’t so much because of the difference in data source; it’s mainly a function of the particular countries that drop out when switching to the LIS data. The association in Wilkinson and Pickett’s chart rests heavily on the position of Japan, Singapore, and Portugal, none of which are in the LIS database. A small number of countries, often the United States and Japan, exert a good bit of influence on the patterns in a number (though not all) of Wilkinson and Pickett’s scatterplots. This is worrisome.

Are cross-sectional point-in-time associations the appropriate empirical test?

Patterns of association across countries or states at a single point in time may be very useful evidence. Or they might not. With this kind of evidence, we worry about other ways in which countries differ from one another that could be the true drivers of the observed association.

To supplement cross-sectional snapshots, we can, where data availability permits, look at what happens over time. Wilkinson and Pickett presumably would think this a good idea. In the book’s final chapter they note that the level of income inequality has changed in a number of these countries over the last few decades. And in the conclusion to an article that summarizes the book, they say “Standards of health and social well-being in rich societies may now depend more on reducing income differences than on economic growth without redistribution.” If income inequality is reduced, they’re suggesting, life expectancy and other social outcomes should improve; if inequality rises, outcomes are likely to worsen.

Yet The Spirit Level includes virtually no analysis or discussion of over-time developments. There is one over-time chart in the chapter on trust, a brief discussion in the chapter on crime, and a few references to other studies in a summary chapter. But as best I can tell, that’s all.

This is an important omission, because researchers who have examined over-time relationships between income inequality and average levels of health have tended to find no support for the hypothesized link (Jennifer Mellor and Jeffrey Milyo; Jason Beckfield; Andrew Leigh, Christopher Jencks, and Tim Smeeding). Here’s one way to see this. The following chart plots life expectancy on the vertical axis and income inequality on the horizontal. Each country is shown at two points in time, around 1980 and around 2005. For each country, a line connects the two data points. In most of the countries income inequality has increased and yet so has life expectancy. That’s not what Wilkinson and Pickett’s argument and findings would lead us to expect. Moreover, in the two countries where inequality was already low and then decreased, the Netherlands and Denmark, life expectancy rose the least.

I haven’t looked carefully at over-time data for the other outcomes Wilkinson and Pickett examine. But a few trends in the United States seem problematic for their argument. Average educational achievement has improved over the past generation even while income inequality soared. Violent crime began increasing in the mid-1960s, well before the rise in inequality, and it has dropped considerably since the early 1990s. Trends such as these don’t necessarily mean inequality has had no effect, but at the very least they call into question its magnitude.

Interestingly, Wilkinson and Pickett report that anxiety, the mechanism through which they believe income inequality causes social dysfunction, has been increasing steadily in the United States and other rich nations over the past half-century. But as they note, that isn’t due to rising income inequality: “That possibility can be discounted because the rises in anxiety and depression seem to start well before the increases in inequality which in many countries took place during the last quarter of the twentieth century. (It is possible, however, that the trends between the 1970s and 1990s may have been aggravated by increased inequality.)” (p. 35). This leaves us with an important unanswered question: Why would income inequality be a key determinant of stress across countries at a point in time, as Wilkinson and Pickett posit, but not within countries over time?

In sum, longitudinal developments offer further grounds for skepticism about the effect of income inequality on average levels of health, education, safety, and other social goods.

What to do

Improving social outcomes is certainly a worthwhile aim. What’s the best way to do it? According to Wilkinson and Pickett,

“Attempts to deal with health and social problems through the provision of specialized services have proved expensive and, at best, only partially effective…. The evidence presented in this book suggests that greater equality can address a wide range of problems across whole societies.”

I wish it were that simple. I share Wilkinson and Pickett’s conviction that it would be good for America and some other affluent nations to reduce income inequality, but this book hasn’t convinced me that doing so would help us to make much headway in improving health, safety, education, and trust. To achieve those gains, my sense is that our best course of action is greater commitment to specialized programs and services, coupled with poverty reduction.

Then again, I’m not certain that Wilkinson and Pickett are wrong. I’ve focused here mostly on the effect of inequality on life expectancy, because that is the social outcome for which the hypothesized causal link (stress) seems most plausible and because it has received the most attention in prior research. I’m skeptical that income inequality has much of an impact on average life expectancy. But perhaps life expectancy will turn out to be the exception to the rule.

Why does England lose?

December 27, 2009

Soccernomics (U.K. title: Why England Lose) is an attempt by Simon Kuper, a sports journalist, and Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist, to understand the world’s most popular sport based on data rather than lore and cliché. If you’re partial to soccer or interested in sports analysis, it’s a good read. Among the book’s many interesting findings and arguments: soccer fans don’t like equality among teams; the best club teams currently reside in midsize industrial cities such as Manchester, Barcelona, and Turin, but domination likely will shift to postindustrial multicultural giants like London, Paris, Istanbul, and Moscow; soccer will succeed in the U.S. and the U.S. will succeed in soccer irrespective of how the Major Soccer League (MLS) fares; poverty does not make people or countries better at soccer.

The book’s lead chapter tries to answer the question “Why does England lose?” Why has England’s national team fared so poorly in the quadrennial World Cup since its one and only triumph in 1966? This is, the authors note, “perhaps the greatest question in English sports.”

England has a rich soccer history. It is one of only seven countries to have won a World Cup. It ranks fifth all-time in World Cup matches played (55) and wins (25). Its club teams have been highly successful; between 1970 and 2006 an English team won the world’s top club competition, Europe’s Champions League, nine times, which compares favorably to Germany (6), Italy (6), the Netherlands (6), and Spain (5). Yet England won none of the ten World Cups played during that span. Indeed, it never reached the finals, and made it to the semifinals only once. Why?

Kuper and Szymanski begin by dismissing the popular notion that the problem lies in English clubs’ overreliance on foreign players, which supposedly hinders the development of native talent. I agree with their skepticism here. Then they show that a large share of England’s national team players are from working-class households, and they suggest it would be good if more were recruited from the middle class. But they don’t look to see if other more successful countries have done that. They then say England has suffered from being outside the continental European soccer knowledge network. As a result, while other leading European national teams shifted to a rapid short passing game, English soccer remained wedded to a “kick-and-rush” style. But they don’t address the obvious question of why, if the kick-and-rush style contributed to failure in the World Cup, it yielded such success at the club level during the same period.

Ultimately, Kuper and Szymanski assert that the question “Why does England lose?” is wrongheaded, for England’s national team actually hasn’t performed too badly. Here they turn away from World Cup results and look at goal difference in all games played by the national team. They examine all countries’ national teams over the period 1980 to 2001 and discover that GDP per capita, population, and number of matches played since 1872 are helpful predictors. They find that England’s team has done, relative to what this formula predicts, about as well as those of Germany, Italy, Argentina, and France.

Yet here the authors are, I think, trying to be a bit too clever. England truly has underperformed in the past ten World Cups. Kuper and Szymanski note that “Any mathematician would say it’s absurd to expect England to win the World Cup … random factors play an outsize role in determining the winner.” Okay, fair enough. So let’s use getting to the semifinals as the benchmark. Over the past four decades eight nations have dominated world soccer: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. The following chart shows how these countries have fared in reaching the World Cup semis since 1970. England’s record is second-worst.

How well should England have done? We can predict these countries’ recent World Cup success pretty well by looking at their historical performance. The following chart plots the number of semifinals reached in the ten World Cups since 1970 by each country’s World Cup match wins over the entire history of the tournament, from 1930 to 2006. Given its overall number of match victories, England ought to have reached the semifinals three times since 1970, rather than just once.

What accounts for England’s poor results? I think it’s a fairly simple story. First, it helps to host the World Cup tournament. These countries have hosted six of the past ten, and in five of those six instances the host made it to the semifinals or beyond: Germany in 1974 and 2006, Argentina in 1978, Italy in 1990, and France in 1998. (Only Spain in 1982 failed.) England didn’t host any. Second, you need to do okay — not great, but okay — in matches decided on penalty kicks. Penalty kick shootouts have been used in the World Cup since 1982. In the seven tournaments from 1982 to 2006, England was eliminated on penalty kicks three times, with not a single penalty-kick win. In contrast, Germany is 4-0 in penalty-kick shootouts, Argentina is 3-1, Brazil is 2-1, and France is 2-2. Only Italy, at 1-3, rivals England’s record of futility in World Cup penalty-kick matches.

Had it hosted one of the past ten World Cups and won a penalty-kick shootout in either 1998 or 2006, England’s semifinals appearances might well have jumped from one to three, putting it right at the expected number.

The conscience of a modern conservative

November 11, 2009

“In my opinion, we are past the point where tax cuts can fix what ails us. Large tax increases will be necessary to pay for all the promises that have been made. Instead of opposing them entirely, conservatives should use their insights to design a new tax system better able to raise higher revenues at the least possible cost in terms of economic growth and freedom.” That is Bruce Bartlett in his book The New American Economy. It’s a surprising message coming from a leading supply-side advocate of the 1980s, though it won’t shock anyone who has followed Bartlett’s print and online writings over the past few years.

Bartlett argues that successful economic policies tend to be effective only in a specific set of circumstances. Their success, however, encourages supporters to believe their applicability is universal. Eventually they get overused, prove counterproductive, fall out of favor, and get replaced by new ideas.

This, according to Bartlett, is the story of both Keynesianism and supply-side economics. Keynes was a pragmatist. His recommendation to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy was formulated in response to the conditions of the Great Depression. It worked. But then, in Bartlett’s telling, it came to be viewed as an appropriate remedy for all economic downturns. By the 1970s overuse of fiscal stimulus contributed to inflation without reducing unemployment. This led to its abandonment by many economists and policy makers.

Bartlett tells a parallel tale about supply-side economics. Its core thesis is that if marginal tax rates are too high, they discourage innovation, investment, and work effort. Bartlett says this was the situation in the 1970s. The Reagan administration’s sharp reduction of marginal rates in its 1981 and 1986 tax reforms was therefore effective medicine for the American economy. It “laid the foundation for higher real growth well into the 1990s.” But like the use of budget deficits to fight recession, the supply-side strategy of reducing tax rates came to be seen by its backers as an all-purpose cure — the appropriate tonic irrespective of the economy’s ailment.

The chief economic problem we now face, in Bartlett’s view, is not high marginal tax rates. It is the aging of baby boomers to whom we have made Medicare and Social Security commitments. Absent “massive and politically impossible cuts,” this will cause federal government expenditures to rise from 20% of GDP to around 30% over the coming generation. Supply-side dogma leaves Republicans ill-prepared for this challenge. “When the crunch comes and the need for a major increase in revenue becomes overwhelming,” says Bartlett, “I expect that Republicans will refuse to participate in the process. If Democrats have to raise taxes with no bipartisan support, then they will have no choice but to cater to the demands of their party’s most liberal wing. This will mean higher rates on businesses and entrepreneurs, and soak-the-rich policies that would make Franklin D. Roosevelt blush.”

A better result, according to Bartlett, would be to bring government revenues into line with projected expenditures via a value-added tax (VAT), a type of consumption tax. Heavy use of VATs is a key reason, he says, why “many European countries have tax/GDP ratios far higher than here without suffering particularly ill effects. They may not be growing as fast as they would if taxes and spending were lower, but neither are their standards of living significantly below those of the United States. Even strenuous efforts to show that Europeans are poorer than Americans show that the differences are merely trivial.”

I agree with a good bit of what Bartlett says in the book, and I’m particularly sympathetic to this diagnosis and prescription (see here and here). It’s a long way from Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan.

I wish Bartlett had gone further. If modern conservatism is by necessity “big-government” conservatism, what principles should guide it? If conservatives must give up the goal of rolling back the welfare state, if they must acquiesce to government provision of generous cushions and supports, what should they aim for in economic and social policy? David Brooks, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Will Wilkinson, Ron Haskins and Isabell Sawhill, and others have weighed in on this question. I’d be interested to know Bartlett’s take.

Some likely candidates:

A tax system conducive to entrepreneurship, investment, and work (Bartlett’s emphasis)

Employment incentives for able working-age adults

Enhancement of individual opportunity: early intervention, improvements to K-12 schools

Limited regulation of product and labor markets

Competition and choice in public services: charter schools, vouchers for schools and child care, maybe even a public option in health insurance

Decentralized administration of public services to ensure attentiveness to local conditions

Privatization of services where possible

Benefits and services targeted at the most needy rather than the middle class

Data. Many conservatives believe the poor are better off — more affluent and upwardly mobile — than government statistics and social scientists’ analyses tend to suggest. Why not allocate money for a large high-quality panel survey (something like a PSID on steroids) that will allow us to better assess this claim?

As it happens, we have a real-world illustration, albeit on a small scale, of what much of this — all of it except heavy privatization and targeting — looks like. It looks like this.

Flourishing in a sea of information

November 5, 2009

Life is getting much better in an important respect. That’s the message of Tyler Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy. The gain is in personal enjoyment. The driver is new information and communication technology.

At the center of this is the internet, which gives us access to much more information, and more quickly and cheaply. What about information overload? Doesn’t the resulting sense of bewilderment and paralysis offset, and for some even outweigh, the benefit?

Cowen says no, because we have new ways to control the flow of information. Internet search engines let us target the particular information we want. RSS feeds allow us to focus on the websites that most interest us.

The same holds for music, books, movies, television shows, sporting events, and other types of entertainment. From iTunes you can purchase individual songs rather than entire albums. With an iPod you can then listen to those songs in a sequence of your choosing at whatever time and place you like. Kindle-type devices allow virtually instant purchasing of books and the ease of reading them whenever and wherever you please. DVRs, online rental services, and on-demand television make it possible to borrow or record movies and TV shows and watch them when it’s convenient.

Technological advances also enhance our control over communication. A telephone conversation occurs at the convenience of the caller, whereas email and texting allow you to receive inputs when it suits you. They also permit you to reflect a bit before you respond. With Facebook, chat rooms, blogs, and Twitter you can move in and out of ongoing conversations at will.

Imposing order on information is psychologically satisfying. The increase in our ability to control the amount, the content, and the timing of information and entertainment we consume may be just as valuable, in terms of our well-being, as the increase in the amount of information to which we have access.

The benefit varies across individuals. Enhanced ability to organize information is particularly valuable to people with a cognitive style that prizes order. For some of us more than for others, exerting control over the flow of information is pleasing. Greater access to information and culture is especially valuable to those with narrow and atypical interests. If you want to know a little about current political debates and what celebrities are up to, you may be able to get your fill by reading a daily newspaper or Time magazine or by watching a half-hour network news program. But if your interests are less mainstream — say, soccer in Argentina or west African music or Asian architecture — the internet makes a huge difference.

Autistics tend to be on the extreme end of both of these continuums; they often find the organization of information highly satisfying, and they tend to have narrow and unusual interests. Advances in information and communication technology are therefore likely to enhance the enjoyment of autistics to an even greater degree than of others. This, according to Cowen, suggests heightened potential for autistics, and people with similar if less extreme cognitive traits, to have a rich life experience.

Create Your Own Economy is well worth reading. Cowen’s case for optimism about the contribution of new technologies to individual well-being is stimulating and fairly compelling. The writing is engaging, and the book is more coherent than a few of the reviews I’ve seen led me to expect (and which I half-expected anyway based on the style of Cowen’s blog).

I wish Cowen had pushed further on two issues.

First, his assessment of the prospects for autistics focuses on consumption. But there’s also the matter of how to make a living.

Cowen rightly notes that autistics tend to have cognitive strengths in matters that interest them: keen perception of details and patterns, an ability to focus clearly, and a capacity to effectively store and organize information. For autistic individuals this cognitive profile may serve as a comparative advantage in a world in which production and analysis of information dominates the production of things. Cowen spends some time discussing the successes and contributions of famous innovators and thinkers and writers who may have been autistic, from Thomas Jefferson to Immanuel Kant to Arthur Conan Doyle.

But what about the earning prospects of less extraordinary autistics? Autistics tend to have a range of impediments to effective social functioning: they may read social cues poorly, lack interest in non-instrumental conversation, get easily distracted, react to imperfection or irregularity with extreme frustration, have strong sensory aversions, engage in odd repetitive motions, and some don’t develop the ability to speak. Cowen is certainly aware of the barriers these impose, and at one point he says “if you take [autistic] abilities and disabilities and stick them into a rapidly evolving market economy, you will get some people who achieve relatively high social status and other people — many others — who end up with much lower status” (p. 21). But he says little more about this.

In the book’s final chapter Cowen writes:

You may know that the division of labor is a key idea in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Smith’s notion of the division of labor referred to increasing specialization in economic production. He gives the example, from a pin factory, of how each worker performs a very specific and repetitive task in the interests of greater productivity for the factory as a whole.

It’s not what Smith intended, but I read this discussion of the pin factory as a parable of autism and the rising returns to autistic cognitive strengths. If you can perform a repetitive task with the proper skills, you can earn a decent income because you are no longer expected to be a jack-of-all-trades or to master a wide variety of skills. It increases the chance that you can have a “dysfunction” and still do well in life and in your career…. Today it’s often enough to be very good at one specific professional task. In other words, the division of labor provides disproportionate benefits to people with specialized cognitive talents and that includes many people along the autism spectrum. (pp. 215-16)

I think there may be something to this, but it strikes me as a pretty thin reed on which to hang an optimistic conclusion. I want to hear more.

Throughout the book Cowen argues for greater appreciation of neurodiversity. Partly this involves recognition that autistic traits are part of a continuum; they differ in degree rather than in kind. It also means we should pay better attention to the cognitive strengths of autistics.

That would be a good thing, but surely more is needed. Early diagnosis and intervention are now widely agreed to be critical. So too are teachers and aides in K-12 schools who foster social development in autistic children without stifling their interests and skills. Less discussed but potentially very helpful is an ongoing shift toward individualization in the administration of government benefit and service provision. Citizens and policy makers in the United States and many western European nations have increasingly wished to encourage employment by able working-age adults. A key lesson from their efforts to do so is that incentives are useful but often insufficient. If you want people to work, it helps to facilitate that with individualized assistance and monitoring. Individualization gives caseworkers better information about what types of help — at-home support, financial assistance, training, job placement, transportation, and so on — are likely to be of greatest benefit. To maximize opportunities for autistics, and to ensure the best possible utilization of their skills and strengths, we need not only the wider appreciation of neurodiversity that Cowen commendably encourages but also a helping hand from the state.

Second, I wish Cowen had addressed the worry that creating your own prosperity will come at the expense of the greater good. Specifically, the internet and other individualized forms of information sharing and communication might hasten the erosion of social capital. Researchers have found links between social capital and economic and political health (though these associations and their magnitudes are by no means a settled issue). If we spend more and more of our time glued to our RSS feeds, iPods, Kindles, and on-demand movies, will we engage less in human interaction, communication, and participation in social groups and activities? Are we heading toward a future of browsing, listening, reading, and viewing alone, bereft of face-to-face connections and civic engagement?

Maybe. But the new technologies might help to offset any such loss. For one thing, they enable us to identify and interact with a better-targeted set of compatriots. We now have fewer widely shared if shallow experiences, such as attending PTA or Elks Club meetings. They may be replaced by more fulfilling ones shared with smaller groups: interacting in a Facebook friend network or an online chat group, emailing or instant messaging with people who you’ll never meet in person but who share your particular passion.

By allowing us to locate other people with similar interests, new information and communication devices also help us to feel connected in a way that, for some, may not have been possible before. Attending church or a committee meeting can be highly interactive for some people. But others may experience them as boring or even alienating. For the latter, reading Facebook or blog or Twitter posts may create a greater sense of connection, of belonging, of membership, of community.

The internet and new communication technologies also make it easier for some people to actively contribute. A person who sits silently in the back of a PTA meeting might experience more engagement and efficacy by writing a blog post, commenting on someone else’s post, editing a Wikipedia entry, reviewing a book, posting photos, or participating in a chat room dialogue.

Perhaps, then, we’re moving toward not less social capital but simply a different form — more fulfilling to some of us and no less useful for sustaining a healthy society.

“The tyranny of dead ideas”

May 4, 2009

Matt Miller’s new book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, is very good. I agree with a great deal of what he has to say. On what Miller thinks is our most important problem, though, the book falls a little short.

Here’s a brief summary of what Miller suggests are six influential but misleading ideas, why they’re wrong, and what we should do:

1. Taxes hurt the economy, and they’re always too high

It’s time, says Miller, to stop pretending that federal tax revenues can remain at their current level, much less be reduced. Rising costs of Medicare (and eventually Social Security) alone will require increases. And real solutions to the myriad other problems we face necessitate further increase. Even (honest) conservatives acknowledge this, though few are willing to do so publicly. “Once this rendezvous with reality trickles down from conservative intellectuals to pols, and liberals find the courage to say the obvious, we’ll start the debate we need: not about whether taxes should go up, but given that taxes are going up, what’s the best way to fund the government we want, consistent with strong economic growth and other vital goals such as saving the planet?” (p. 183).

Miller’s answer is a value-added tax (VAT) and a carbon tax. On the former, “liberals will find that they can offset the regressive tilt of a VAT in several ways: first, by using it to fund progressive programs (like universal health coverage); second, by using a fraction of the proceeds to boost subsidies to the working poor; or third, by exempting certain basic necessities from the tax” (p. 186). I agree.

2. Your company should take care of you

Structuring our health insurance system around employers was reasonable once upon a time, but these days it’s asinine. It results in bloated health care expenditures, inadequate coverage, and an excessive cost burden on firms. This role needs to be shifted to government. Yes.

3. Free trade is “good,” no matter how many people get hurt

The fact that free trade is good for Americans on average doesn’t mean that it’s good for all Americans. Some lose their jobs, and some experience stagnant or falling wages. The answer isn’t protectionism; that would hurt lots of people in developing nations who are far poorer than we are. Instead, we need “a new formulation: that free trade is good, provided we have protections in place to make people feel sufficiently secure in a time of rapid economic change. This means health care and pension security that aren’t tied to a job that can suddenly disappear. It means broader trade adjustment assistance, job retraining, and wage insurance that keeps offshoring from being a catastrophe for affected families” (p. 60). Good.

I think Miller is wrong, however, on an important tactical question. He says politicians should not commit to any further expansion of trade until these protections are in place (p. 60). I disagree.

4. Schools are a local matter

Our decentralized educational system, in which administration and funding of public elementary and secondary schools are primarily local responsibilities, does a disservice to virtually all students, but particularly to those living in districts that are poor and/or have overly intrusive school boards. We need enhanced federal government spending, mainly to raise the salaries of good teachers, and imposition of nationwide performance standards. I like this too.

5. The kids will earn more than we do

For most of the period since World War II, Americans have taken it for granted that income would grow steadily across generations. But new technologies facilitate the automation of more and more jobs, and globalization encourages the offshoring of others. In the past generation many kids have ended up with incomes no higher than their parents’, and in Miller’s view this is likely to continue.

Part of the answer, he ways, is technology, which continuously reduces prices, improving living standards for the middle class and the poor even as their incomes stagnate or decline. Beyond that lie changes in our preferences: “The economic challenges ahead will spark a renaissance of interest in less material sources of meaning and happiness, and for many a flight from the consumer culture altogether…. Time with friends and loved ones will become more cherished. The craving for community will deepen. And curiosities like today’s nascent ‘slow movement,’ which cheerleads for (among other things) longer meals savored with loved ones and a quieter pace of life in general, will expand from a niche lifestyle to a broader force in the culture” (pp. 202-03). Again good, though I would add that expansion and improvement of public services can help to push up the floor of consumption and experience.

6. Money follows merit

Traditionally, Americans haven’t gotten too worked up about high levels of income inequality because they’ve believed that the big paychecks go to those who contribute the most. But when CEOs of companies whose stock price has fallen through the floor walk away with $25 million severance packages and financial players run the economy into the ground yet rake in mammoth bonuses, things clearly have gone awry. Miller says frustration is likely to be especially pronounced among highly-educated professionals who, for reasons that seemingly have nothing to do with merit or societal contribution, bring home a mere $150,000 a year instead of $15 million.

Inequality is a major problem, in Miller’s view. Indeed, he says it is “the preeminent economic issue of the twenty-first century” (pp. 146, 148).

Here’s what he believes these “lower uppers,” and more broadly we as a society, will and should do:

Now that their second-tier status is awakening them to the fragility of ‘merit’ as the source of their self-esteem and as the basis for where they ‘deserve’ to stand in society, Lower Uppers will start seeing luck’s hand elsewhere. They’ll see it not only in their own story or in the fate of the ultrarich above them, but in the destiny of millions of their countrymen, now buffeted and struggling with rapid economic change. They’ll be open to fresh appeals about what these powerful forces outside people’s control should mean for society’s basic arrangements. As a result they’ll become stronger voices for equal opportunity, and for some set of minimal protections appropriate for a wealthy nation like the United States. Like their Progressive Era predecessors … they’ll also see justice (and take satisfaction) in asking the ultrarich to kick a little more into the pot to make this happen. (pp. 195-96)

Compared to Miller’s other proposals, this is pretty vague. One of the things I like most about Miller’s earlier book, The Two-Percent Solution, is that he picked a small set of problems and offered specific proposals for what to do. To some extent that is true of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas as well. Miller gives us concrete numbers for what the federal government’s contribution to school expenditures should be and for what share of GDP tax revenues will need to rise to, and he tells us what specific programs will help to cushion the impact of globalization. But here, on this “preeminent issue,” detail is absent.

This omission is even more problematic because though Miller advocates higher taxes on those with top incomes, in a prior chapter he offers a caution: “Some suggest … we eliminate the cap on the amount of earnings subjected to the 12.4 percent payroll tax, so that it would apply to a person’s entire income. While at first blush this step might seem fair, if it were done in addition to proposals to return marginal income tax rates to the 39.6 percent that prevailed under President Clinton, it would effectively boost marginal rates beyond 50 percent — and this would be before high tax states and localities add what could be another 7 to 10 percent. You don’t need to be a Reagan Republican to think that marginal income tax rates at these levels would have negative economic effects” (p. 185).

It isn’t easy to figure out exactly what the tax rate should be on high-income households, or what programs would be most useful in boosting the living standards of those in the lower half of the income distribution. I wish Miller, whose policy thinking tends to be both interesting and level-headed, had made more of an attempt. It’s a small scar on what’s otherwise a very helpful book.

Outliers, Opportunity, and Luck

January 11, 2009

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell relates a series of stories — about Canadian hockey players, Bill Gates, the Beatles, Jewish lawyers, Chinese schoolchildren, and others — which reveal that

It is not the brightest who succeed… Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. (p. 267)

It’s a good book. We should be wary of generalizing, as Gladwell does, from a small sample of cherry-picked cases. (Imagine the outcry from progressives at a book written by someone like Charles Murray that relied on this type of evidence.) Yet Gladwell’s stories are nevertheless compelling, and the details nicely illustrate what large, representative samples can’t.

My chief complaint about Outliers concerns Gladwell’s choice to frame his key causal factor as opportunity rather than luck. This leads to some odd interpretations and policy recommendations.

Consider Joe Flom, an attorney whose story is recounted in chapter 5. Because he is Jewish, Flom is denied jobs at the top corporate law firms in New York City in the 1940s, despite his top-flight educational credentials and evident ability. He joins a small start-up firm and focuses on hostile takeovers. At the time such takeovers were rare, so this wasn’t an especially lucrative line of business. But decades of practice puts Flom and his firm in perfect position to benefit when hostile takeovers become common in the 1980s, and he ends up rich and famous. Is it best to think of the discrimination Flom encountered as an “opportunity”? Or would we do better to label it (initially bad, then good) “luck”?

Gladwell’s main recommendation is that we as a society extend to everyone the thing that so benefited his success stories. He calls it opportunity. But he suggests that the key for Bill Gates was being at a junior high school that before almost any other had a computer terminal hooked up to a mainframe, living close to a university that provided him free access to a computer system, and having parents who allowed him (or didn’t notice) to sneak out in the middle of the night to use that university computer. For the Beatles it was getting invited, as teenagers, to play long sets for weeks at a stretch at a strip club in Germany. Can these types of “opportunities” be made widely available? Of course not. Their benefits couldn’t possibly be foreseen by a social planner, and in any event they aren’t replicable on a large scale.

At various points in the book Gladwell emphasizes the importance of parents’ traits, attitudes, and behaviors in contributing to success. This plays a central role in the story of Chris Langan, a genius who was raised in circumstances that stifled his capacity to later take advantage of his mental ability. How do we extend to more children the opportunity to experience good parenting? That’s a tall order in a society committed to limited interference in family affairs. As I see it, the only viable strategy here would be to take parenting out of the hands of parents to a greater extent. I don’t mean by force, of course. But if child care and preschool were available at sufficiently good quality and low cost, many less-than-stellar parents might be induced to utilize it. Interestingly, Denmark and Sweden have been engaged in an experiment along these lines since the 1970s, when their governments began providing extensive funding for early education. We have only limited study of the effects, though, and even in these circumstances parents’ impact is likely to be significant.

I’m fully in favor of expanding opportunity. But the real message of Gladwell’s book is that individual success tends to be heavily influenced by luck. That, in my view, should encourage us to think not only about how to increase opportunity, but also about whether a bit more redistribution from the lucky to the less fortunate would be just.

Nixonland: One, Two, or Many Americas?

June 17, 2008

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is a terrific book. It’s a fascinating history of American society and politics from 1965 to 1972, woven together in a compelling and exceptionally well-written narrative. I had such a hard time putting the book down it nearly spoiled my recent family vacation.

Nixonland aims at more than a historical recounting. Perlstein suggests that during these years Americans increasingly divided into two political groups, and these groups’ opposition to one another grew more intense and passionate. Here’s how he puts it on the book’s penultimate page (p. 747): “I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.”

It’s difficult to read the book and not be at least somewhat convinced. The 1960s brought enhanced government support for economic security and opportunity via Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, civil rights legislation that opened economic and social doors for racial minorities and women, and massive cultural liberalization among young Americans. Yet it also brought a backlash. Hence the remarkable contrast between the 1964 and 1972 presidential elections — two of the most lopsided in American history, the former yielding an activist-government Democratic president, the latter a law-and-order Republican. And stunningly, given the seemingly inexorable liberalization of the mid-to-late 1960s, Republicans have won seven of the ten presidential elections since 1964.

Perlstein is at his best in providing insight into the motivations behind the backlash: the overwhelming sense of chaos, disorder, violence, insecurity, change — urban riots by frustrated African Americans, widespread drug use, disintegration of authority on college campuses and in public spaces, the seeming impotence of the American military in a poor Asian nation, unruly protesters at the Democrats’ 1968 political convention, exploding crime rates, horrific murders in once-calm suburban neighborhoods. The changes were fast, furious, and, to many ordinary Americans, frightening.

It isn’t only the historical facts that persuade. It’s also Perlstein’s telling of them. He steps quickly from one aspect of change to another, digs deeply into a particular event, such as the Newark riots or an antiwar rally, and then jumps abruptly to another and another. The prose is vivid and punchy. Without going overboard, it conveys the feel of growing chaos.

Is Perlstein right about what happened during these years? Did America harden into two warring camps? I think an argument can be made that something very different occurred: the developments of the 1960s coupled with (and accentuated by) Nixon’s political tactics opened up new fissures that left the political landscape not more crystallized, but more clouded. Instead of shifting from (more or less) one America to two, the shift was, arguably, toward a greater multiplicity of political identities that the two political parties had to struggle mightily to try to shape into manageable coalitions.

After the New Deal, economic policy was the chief fault line between Democrats and Republicans. The political legacy of the 1960s is the diminution of one incongruous aspect of American party politics, the Democrats’ dominance in the conservative south, but simultaneously the growing importance of issues that cut across the economic divide:

Race. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Democrats became not only the party representing the economic interests of the lower and middle classes, but the champions of economic opportunity for black Americans — and soon of integration of neighborhoods and schools.

Cultural norms about authority, sex, drugs, appearance, and public behavior

Crime

Gender relations in the home and at work

Foreign policy

Separation of church and state

The environment

Socio-political status. One of Nixon’s chief contributions to altering the fault lines in American politics, according to Perlstein, had to do with social and political status. Nixon always felt himself an outsider. In college he formed a club, the “Orthogonians,” composed of self-perceived commoners, hard-working strivers excluded from the well-bred, elitist, condescending “Franklins.” Beginning with his 1952 “Checkers Speech,” in which he invoked his family’s humble financial circumstances and his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth [as opposed to mink] coat,” Nixon played up the seeming incongruity of rich Ivy-league-educated Democratic politicians claiming to speak and govern on behalf of working- and middle-class Americans.

It’s widely recognized that these issues increasingly fractured the Democratic coalition. But they also, if perhaps less dramatically, created new rifts among Republicans.

Despite the popularity of the “two Americas” image, recent research (such as this, this, and this) suggests that the views of Americans are not especially polarized. Was it different in 1972?

This isn’t much explored by Perlstein, in part because the second half of the book, covering the period from 1969 to 1972, focuses heavily on Nixon and Vietnam. In the book’s Preface, Perlstein writes (p. xiii) “The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name — but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.” I think that’s accurate for the first half of the book. But in the second half the story is much more about Nixon himself than about those voters.

Throughout this latter part of the book I wanted to hear less about what Nixon was thinking and what he and Abbie Hoffman and the Weathermen were doing (though that’s plenty interesting) and more about what those voters were thinking. For instance, were they still, in 1970 and 1972, concerned about the urban riots that are front and center in Perlstein’s discussion of 1965 and 1966? His description of post-1968 developments focuses almost entirely on Vietnam and the counterculture, with very occasional and brief mentions of crime and busing. Notwithstanding the book’s considerable virtues, I finished it feeling just as uncertain as before about the political sensibilities of the “switchers” that Perlstein sees as his protagonist.

Were they, by 1972, committed Republicans? Or was their vote for Nixon largely a function of the perceived extremism and stumbling campaign of the Democratic presidential nominee? After all, as Perlstein notes, in the same 1972 election in which McGovern was pummeled, the Democrats lost only twelve seats in the House, maintaining a majority of more than fifty, and gained two in the Senate.

Were there really two Americas in 1972, or had political views and allegiances instead become, like the events of the preceding years, increasingly chaotic and confused?

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