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Friday, April 18, 2008

Paul Krugman: Clinging to a Stereotype

Paul Krugman looks at the economics, sociology, and political science in Barack Obama's recent statements:

Clinging to a Stereotype, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Will Barack Obama’s now famous “bitter” quote turn out to have been a big deal politically? Frankly, I have no idea. But here’s a different question: was Mr. Obama right?

Mr. Obama’s comments combined assertions about economics, sociology and voting behavior. In each case, his assertion was mostly if not entirely wrong.

Start with the economics. Mr. Obama: “You go into these small towns ... in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration.”

There are, indeed, towns where the mill closed during the 1980s and nothing has replaced it. But..., the Clinton years were very good for working Americans in the Midwest, where real median household income soared before crashing after 2000. (...see the numbers at my blog.)

We can argue about how much credit Bill Clinton deserves... But if I were a Democratic Party elder, I’d urge Mr. Obama to stop blurring the distinction between Clinton-era prosperity and Bush-era economic distress.

Next, the sociology: “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

The crucial word here isn’t “bitter,” it’s “cling.” Does economic hardship drive people to seek solace in firearms, God and xenophobia?

It’s true that people in poor states are more likely to attend church regularly... But this result largely reflects ... that southern states are both church-going and poor... Furthermore, within poor states, people with low incomes are actually less likely to attend church... Over all, none of this suggests that people turn to God out of economic frustration.

Finally, Mr. Obama, in later clarifying remarks, declared that the people he’s talking about “don’t vote on economic issues,” and are motivated instead by things like guns and gay marriage.

That’s a political theory made famous by Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” According to this theory, “values” issues lead working-class Americans to act against their own interests by voting Republican...

I was impressed by Mr. Frank’s book when it came out. But ... Larry Bartels ... convinced me that Mr. Frank was mostly wrong...

Mr. Bartels cited data showing that small-town, working-class Americans are actually less likely ... to vote on the basis of religion and social values. Nor have working-class voters trended Republican..., Democrats do better with these voters now than they did in the 1960s. ...

So why have Republicans won so many elections? In his book, “Unequal Democracy,” Mr. Bartels shows that “the shift of the Solid South from Democratic to Republican control in the wake of the civil rights movement” explains all — literally all — of the Republican success story.

Does it matter that Mr. Obama has embraced an incorrect theory about what motivates working-class voters? His campaign certainly hasn’t been based on Mr. Frank’s book, which calls for a renewed focus on economic issues as a way to win back the working class.

Indeed, the book concludes with a blistering attack on Democrats who cater to “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” while “dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Obama campaign?

Anyway, the important point is that working-class Americans do vote on economic issues — and can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems.

And one more thing: let’s hope that once Mr. Obama is no longer running against someone named Clinton, he’ll stop denigrating the very good economic record of the only Democratic administration most Americans remember.

    Posted by on Friday, April 18, 2008 at 12:51 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (111)


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