Friday, September 21, 2012

Greg Vannoy's Question: The 1%, the 47%, the South, and PBR

My friend Greg Vannoy, who is a regional planner at the Mount Rogers Planning District, asked me a great (and totally funny) question.  Ahem:
How has the 1% gotten the 99% to hate the 47%...when the 47% reside majoritively in Republican stronghold states? Suitable answers must contain the following: 1. 'Merica, 2. Pabst Blue Ribbon, 3. Reconstruction, and 4. Earnhardt.
Diggity dang.  Let's do some fact-checking and heavy thinkin'. 

Answer: Hate is a strong word.  My mom told me not to use it.  And, I'll be frank, I don't think the 1% hate the 99%. Heck, a lot of the very wealthy are very concerned with returning their wealth to their nation and humanity in order to leave a lasting heritage (also, in order to get things named after them). 

That said, I think it is hardly surprising that many wealthy folk are dismissive of those who are less wealthy.  Human beings have a tendency to believe that whatever is in their best interest is the most moral policy - heck, Thucydides, the Earnhardt of Greek Classical historians, observed as much in his "Melian Dialogue" in The Peloponnesian War, so this is hardly breaking news.  Indeed, this isn't surprising - plutocrats, tyrants, and the powerful-yet-unpopular rarely know how unpopular they are until they are under the blade, so to speak - they are typically surrounded by people dependent on them who, frankly, kiss their butts.  Not to mention that they have the capacity to self-select the media and data they expose themselves to (especially easy now in the age of the internet, vast numbers of media stations, suburbanization, and gentrification) - they can afford to get only information that confirms their beliefs.   

Furthermore, culturally speaking, Americans are not prone to feel guilty for their relative wealth, both in relation to other Americans and the rest of the species.  This is partly because most Americans are significantly influenced by what Max Weber called "the Protestant Ethic," which argues that Providence rewards the ethical for moral superiority and condemns the heathenish or evil, even if they aren't Protestant Christians. This can be understood as a republican-capitalist variant of the theory of divine right [substituting Pabst Blue Ribbon for coronation oil and eucharistic wine].

Also, this is partly due to the hyperindividualist culture of the United States which values individual achievement in the extreme and often ignores or even despises collective achievement (and often neglects to observe when achievement is the latter and not the former).  That we have such a culture is hardly surprising as well, given the huge proportion of Americans that are descended from immigrants who were willing to leave their families, friends, towns, nations, cultures, religions, and so forth and venture to the Union for their own particular benefit - self-selection manifest.

Finally, part of it is just flat out bigotry.  In the United States today, as it has always been, members of ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial minorities, as well as immigrants, are more likely to be poor than their peers who are of the plurality.  This is perpetuated by structural violence in a host of forms (e.g. school systems which derive their operating budgets from local property taxes, meaning the wealthy will always have superior educational opportunities, which is particularly problematic since minority-majority areas are virtually always valued lower for tax purposes - if Reconstruction taught us anything it is that just having good laws doesn't engender just political-economics).  If you are bigoted, as many Americans tragically still are, you're going to find it easier to be dismissive of poverty in the group or groups you're bigoted against, whether they are Appalachians, African-Americans, or Azeri. 

Bonus: Who the heck are the 47% anyway?  That is to say, the 47% of Americans who, currently, aren't paying income tax.  Well, definitionally they are those people who, according to the current laws of the United States of 'Merica, do not earn adequate income to qualify to have to pay income taxes.  Of course, of those a good majority do pay payroll taxes (28.3% of the national total), while almost all of the rest are either elderly Americans who draw their primary income from Social Security or are poor working Americans who make below $20,000 which, regardless of where you live, is far below the poverty line.  There are some outliers, most annoyingly to me the 7,000 or so millionaires who, thanks to loopholes, pay no income taxes, "But," as The Atlantic succinctly puts it:

"for the most part, when you hear "The 47%" you should think 'old retired folks and poor working families.'"
So, then, where do the nonpayers live geographically?  Well, they live in the Deep South - South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Missisippi, and Louisiana - as well as states that culturally share a lot with the Deep South - Arkansas, Texas, and New Mexico, as well as the geographic outlier (that still shares a great deal culturally with its more southeasterly peers), Idaho.  That means the poorest regions of the country, the areas most disparaged in terms of their interests by some wealthy interests in the Republican party, overwhelmingly vote Republican.  Why? 

Well that is a good question in and of itself.  First, this area correlates strongly with high frequencies of that group of political factions called, generically, "social conservatives."  In the United States this term refers to those individuals and groups who seek to use the apparatus of state to undermine trends of secularism and strictly limit individual mandates and particular forms of competition within rules, justified within the context of "returning" to a religiously and politically better manner of life that, they argue, was actually intended both by Providence and the Founding Fathers.  These factions are aligned, currently, with several rather radically different factions, including fiscal conservatives (more properly understood as conservative liberals), several brands of libertarians, and certain hawkish factions, all under the umbrella organization of the Republican Party.  In other words, a very large number of Southern, religiously conservative voters are voting for economic policies that are unlikely to be in their interests because they are "fixed" on social issues and largely ignorant (unsurprising given the structure of poverty) of the political-economics of poverty. Secondly, we have to remember that the poor vote at radically lower frequencies than the middle and wealthy classes in every state.  The result is that in states with high income inequality and poverty rates the wealthy have a tendency to become more, rather than less, able to dominate the political, and thus the economic, agenda.  I strongly recommend a very elegant summary of the 47% provided by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic.

 Conclusion: I'll take those points now, Mr. Vannoy.