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.


  1. As you state in your brief that geographically the largest proportion of these "non-payers" whether they be the working class poor or retirees seem to align their voting trend along what we would assess as traditional republican ideologies (modern ideologies per se) in class discussion it has been brought up that this geographic voting alignment is a case of individuals voting against their own self interests...or rather we should clearly define as "economic" self interests as one aspect for which an individual would vote in support of individual is not purely economical reasons but social as well i.e. religion.

    From your own view point or by manner of your opinion, what would you constitute as greater self interests: economical...or social?

    Or can we conclude that one's self interests is dependent upon the individual...even though we subscribe to a norm of operating/existing/participating in a collectivists society which may or may not limit the role of individualism.

    Do we operate (that is to say vote) which serves our individual interests...or do we operate with the pretense of serving what is best for society (collectivism establishing what norms in which we subscribe to).

    Excellent to reference The Atlantic...color me a fan.

    Thank you,

    The Introspective Grad Student.

  2. Introspective Grad Student, that is a great question (or complex of questions, depending on how you view it). I suppose I would respond by saying that I believe that if we break down the nature of rationality we get two distinct but reflexive and simultaneous processes. On the one hand, a la Maslow, humans generate hierarchies of value - they roughly (and dynamically) rank order those things they both want and those things they care to avoid. These need not be consistent or objective in any way, and they are altered by the environmental cues the human being experiences and their particular interpretation of those cues (where the psychological tire hits the sociological road). Thus, it is rational to value "economic" and "biological" goals as baseline, but it can be equally rational as well to value identity-based and faith-based as baseline.

    On the other side of the fence we have the tendency for humans to engage in cost/benefit/risk assessment in order to determine whether to and how to pursue values. Sometimes they do this tactically, focusing only on immediate values, sometimes strategically, focusing on long-term values and the interactions between values. Again, this is both psychological and sociological - the individual is doing the calculating, but they do so with reference to their environmental cues, including social, economic, and political structures and institutions.

    So, I suppose this complicated way of answering your question can be summed up by saying, "yes." Humans who vote do so rationally, but their their rational ends and the ranking of those ends vary pretty wildly, as does their ability and inclination to vote strategically rather than tactically.

    Neat stuff, eh?

  3. Thanks for expanding and offering your opinion in relation to the posed question.

    I enjoyed your application of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

    So one could summize that rationality or lack thereof is dependent upon per individual, thus the actions taken by a group of individuals vis a vie a collective may be viewed as irrational by an outside collective or individuals, but still be held as rational actions by the originators of that action (the collective).

    So what I may determine as an irrational decision choice of another individual leading to the detriment of their self interest, the originator, the individual in question would deem their actions rational based upon the pretext of how they formulate/rank or determine what values are more important to them i.e. Maslow.

    It is a very interesting struggle that exist in understanding rational and irrational actions of not only individuals, but collectivist societies as well. That geographic location plays a rather influential role in how rationality and irrationality is determined.

    I have always enjoyed the academic study of economics in that one of the foundational principles is that individuals will act in ways that best maximizes their benefit, and will act in ways that are deemed rational.

    But, as you in your post identify, there are geographic determinants that influence, or subscribe to a level of collectivist thought that would be viewed as irrational behaviors and actions that threaten the maximization of benefit.

    That benefit however does not necessarily need to be economic, or monetary dependent on how an individual and the associated collective of which that individual belongs ranks their needs.

    Very fascinating stuff indeed...really throws rational choice theory for a loop in trying to model economic and social behaviors of individuals and societies.



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