Monday, June 19, 2017

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, and the Poor People of Yesterday and Today

David Bellos has written an engaging tale of Victor Hugo and his struggles involved in bringing his classic tale Les Misérables to fruition: The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables.  His book was found interesting on at least two levels.  The first involves the enormous popularity of Hugo and his novel, in spite of its 1,500 page length.  The second is associated with the attitudes of the non-poor towards the poor that existed in Hugo’s era.  While the poor are treated better today than in that earlier time, it is not clear that prejudicial views of those living in poverty have changed all that much—especially in the United States.  Here we will focus on the people referred to as Les Misérables, and how they were treated then and how they are treated now.

Victor Hugo was born in 1802 and reached the age of eighty-three before passing on.  He was a precocious youth who was well known for his writings that included prose, poetry, and plays.  At the age of twenty-nine he published the enormously popular Notre Dame de Paris, better known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”  Based on that success, he was given a contract for another book which would eventually become Les Misérables.  However, other literary and political diversions intervened and Hugo only began writing that novel in 1845.  An incomplete first draft was soon assembled, but it had to be put aside as political tumult and Hugo’s participation in it kept him busy—eventually forced him into exile.  He would settle into a house in St Peter Port on the island of Guernsey in 1855 where he would begin anew his masterpiece which was finally published in 1862.

The classic tale of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who attempts to live a good life after release from prison, and the overly zealous inspector Javert who hounds him becomes less banal and more compelling when viewed from a nineteenth century perspective.  The book’s title refers those who are poor and the lives they led in Hugo’s time.  Bellos provides some background to Hugo’s tale.

“In the 1840s, France was a constitutional monarchy with a legislative body elected by male taxpayers alone….taxes were levied exclusively on property, and every voter was therefore an owner of a building or of land.  The charge of a government responsible to an assembly representing the well-off defined in this way was to maintain order among those less privileged than the voters it served.  That’s to say, improving the lives of the ragged masses was of interest only if it helped to head off civil strife.”

“The Paris poor were an edgy crowd, always on the brink of disturbing the peace.  What caused the common people to be disorderly so often?  Were they idle by nature?  Irremediably bad?  Was poverty the cause of their frightening behavior, or was their behavior the reason they stayed poor.”

England and France were the dominant economic and intellectual powers at the time.  While they did not agree on much else, both nations concluded that their abundant stocks of poor people were to be feared and controlled rather than pitied and aided.  Poverty breeds crime and crime must be suppressed.

Consider this quote from the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert.

“Few souls are strong enough not to be laid low and eventually debased by poverty.  Common folk are unbelievably stupid.  I do not know what magical illusion makes them blind to their current poverty and to the even greater poverty that awaits them in old age.  Poverty is the mother of great crimes; sovereigns are responsible for making people misérable and it is they who will be judged in this world and the next for the crimes that poverty commits.”

This view at least recognizes that the state has some responsibility for the crime that arises from the poor masses.  A more cynical view—and one more influential—emerged from the theorizing of the Englishman Robert Malthus.

“Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 but read for many decades after that, claims that, absent the benefits of education and refinement, human beings are naturally idle and can be roused to productive labour only by a pressing need.  Its second premise is that the uneducated and unrefined always take the easiest path.  Given the opportunity, poor people steal what they need instead of working to acquire it.  In Malthus’s dim view of human nature, the poor constitute a different species.”

“….even people who were not convinced of Malthus’s grim analysis of the unequal race between population and the land’s capacity to feed it took it for granted that crime and poverty were two sides of the same coin.  The ‘lower classes’ were most often seen as ‘dangerous classes’ in England and in France.”

Both countries had formulated policies for dealing with the poor, none of which could be considered enlightened.  There was a tendency to divide the poor into two classes, one which consisted of those that misfortune had rendered incapable of work, and those who could work but were not earning enough to survive on.  England had a long tradition of “poor laws” that required parish councils to provide some level of sustenance to the sick, orphaned, or disabled.  This definition of the needy gradually expanded to include the low- or non-income poor.  This trend redefined the meaning of the word poor or misérables to that as understood in Hugo’s time.  This change also generated considerable resistance to this expansion by conservative elements.

“The gradual but fundamental shift in meaning from ‘laid low by ill fortune’ to ‘short of money’ ran into a wall of resistance from entrenched economic, moral and political positions, and it took a century and more for them to be overcome.  Les Misérables was a key element in the history of that long drawn out change.”

England generally out performed France economically, but that also meant that it was also more proficient in creating poor people.  Conservative elements won the debate as to how to deal with those suffering from poverty.  The result was a new and most cruel version of a “Poor Law” in which those capable of work would receive no benefits at all and the remainder would be incarcerated in poor houses or workhouses.

“The out-turn of the political debate was not simple abolition, however, but a new kind of Poor Law that drove a wedge between people who didn’t have enough money to live on—the poor, in the modern sense of the word—and paupers, who were to be removed from public sight.  Income support for the underpaid was indeed abolished, but so was direct payment to the ‘victims of misfortune’, who were to be cared for in institutions called poor houses or workhouses.  These were designed to be as unpleasant as possible.  The rationale behind the considerable expense of constructing them was to provide a standard of living lower than any that could be had from work: the workhouse should never tempt the able bodied to abandon toil, however pitiful the wages of honest labour came to be.  So horrible and humiliating were they that some indigents, like Mrs Higden in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, preferred to die on the road rather than enter the doors of a poor house for their last days.”

Bellos suggests that these poor houses where derived from a policy instituted in France by Napoleon.

“The idea came from the dépôts de mendicité (beggars’ repositories), prison-like dormitories set up by Napoleon in 1808 to put vagrants, beggars, lunatics and the disabled out of public sight.  The scheme may have had a cosmetic effect in town centres, but it made no impact on the number of indigents and beggars in France.”

When Hugo began work on his novel in the 1840s, the French system of dépôts had mostly disappeared, while the English system of poor houses had continued to spread to where almost every town had one.  France had no policy for dealing with the poor and England had one that was horrible.  Hugo saw the necessity of a social revolution and he wanted to use his novel to encourage it.  This revolution was intended to extend well beyond France as Hugo and his associates geared up to produce the quickest and broadest distribution of any book in history—one that would be translated into many languages and be read and appreciated worldwide—justifying Bellos’s appellation : ”The Novel of the Century.”

What he wished to accomplish was to create the perception that there was no fundamental difference between the poor and the wealthy other than circumstance.  His novel would produce the immensely sympathetic character of Jean Valjean who struggles mightily with the obstacles placed in his path yet manages to live a good life.  Hugo also creates the villainous Thénardier to balance Valjean’s goodness with his evil.  People do respond to poverty by turning to crime, just as those with immense wealth have demonstrated the capability to commit immense crimes.  And then there is Javert whose behavior is least easily understood by the modern reader.  He plays the symbolic role of society in general which refuses to recognize that an ex-con like Valjean can be a good man.  His logically awkward suicide symbolizes the need to render extinct the notion that there is a class separation between human beings.

“Javert’s limited vision of the social sphere is both a product and a pillar of the society he strives to uphold.  For him, there are two and only two kinds of person, the well-to-do and the ne’er-do-well.  Javert sees these classes as fundamentally incompatible, and his job is to keep them apart.”

“Javert’s too-simple understanding of duty is contradicted by the noble behavior of Valjean, who lets the police spy go free rather than shooting him dead.  A member of the underclass behaving with generosity shatters Javert’s view of the world.  Unable to grasp how he could reconcile himself to the existence of a man whose actions have turned his world upside down, he throws himself into the Seine.  In this late stage in the narrative of Les Misérables, psychological plausibility is less vital than the symbolic meaning of the act: those who refuse reconciliation between social classes in the name of law and order are swept away.  Moral progress cannot be realized as long as Javert’s two-part vision of humanity persists.”

How successful was Hugo in initiating social change?  Bellos provides us with a short list of what policies were most important to Hugo.

“Allow offenders to reenter society after they have done their time.  For example, abolish the ‘yellow passport’ that makes it so difficult for Valjean to find food lodging and work in 1815.”

“Amend the penal code, so that justice might be tempered with mercy.  For example, do not send poor peasants to do hard labor because they steal bread to feed children.”

“Create more jobs for the uneducated masses.  Imitate M. Madelaine, for example, whose profitable glass bead factory gave dignity to Fantine.”

“Build schools for the poor and make elementary education universal and obligatory.  (This is the one policy that is proposed in eloquent and strident terms; it was also put into effect in Hugo’s lifetime by the ‘Jules Ferry Law’, passed in 1877.)

Bellos suggests that Hugo’s vision essentially came to pass and Les Misérables had much to do with it.   

“These four aims don’t add up to a ‘politics’, but they do lay out a pathway we can easily agree to be right because all these measures have been put into practice by governments of the left and right over the past 150 years.  We should not dismiss Hugo’s blustering confidence in the future improvement of society.  Nor should we underestimate the degree to which Les Misérables encouraged and maybe even accelerated its coming about.”

Given the immense and lasting popularity of Hugo’s tale, it would be difficult to argue with the conclusion that it had a role in tempering society’s attitudes and diminishing its divisions.  However, what is most striking about this Bellos’s narrative about social change and the betterment of mankind, is that the four policy thrusts encouraged by Hugo and the notion that the poor are not a different class than the non-poor are all currently under renewed attack in the United States.

The Tea Party version of the Republican Party, the one which controls congress and the presidency, has been explicit in dividing the country into “makers” and “takers.”  This is a small variation in meaning from Malthus’s description of the differences between the poor and the non-poor. 

If one marches down Bellos’s list of Hugo’s four policy requests, one discovers that they are no longer firmly established and the Republican Party is in the process of weakening the protections in all cases.  An ex-con like Valjean would be little better treated in our country today than he was in Hugo’s France.  Parole constraints and limitations on the rights of ex-cons to vote and receive public benefits are common across the nation, and employers continue to avoid dealings with those with a criminal record.  If one wishes to encounter mercy in our legal system it is to be found in our urban areas where crime rates are high but conviction rates are low.  In the rural areas controlled by Republicans the crime rates are low but vindictiveness leads to high conviction rates.  There has never been an explicit job creation program since the era of the Great Depression.  Rather, the economic goal of the Republican Party is to keep wages low rather than encourage wage income to rise.  Tax policy is focused on benefiting the already wealthy, with future transfers intended to flow from the poor to the rich.  Republican governors have come to view a college education not as a right but as a privilege—one to be enjoyed by the people who can already afford it.  Similarly, universal education at the K-12 level has long been under attack in the name of “parental choice.”  The goal is to take funds from public education and use them to subsidize private education—a process that will not end well for the poor.

And it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who, to his everlasting shame, changed our welfare policy from one in which all people have a right to some minimal level of support to one in which only those who work can expect to receive help from society.  This is probably the most regressive welfare legislation since the English began establishing those notorious poor houses.

Europe has better learned the lessons taught by Victor Hugo.  Meanwhile, the United States drifts backwards, trying to recreate the nineteenth century.


The interested reader might find the following articles informative:





Monday, May 29, 2017

Understanding Mass Incarceration in the United States

The phrase “American exceptionalism” is occasionally used in political discourse, usually to indicate an area in which the United States has deemed itself to be superior to other nations.  Unfortunately, there are a few areas in which our exceptionalism is not something in which to take pride.  One involves our propensity for throwing people in prison that has led to much discussion of “mass incarceration” as an issue.  Or rather, is it our propensity for committing crimes that is the issue?  John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law school, tries to address this question in his book Locked In: The True Causes of MassIncarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform.  Pfaff argues that one must understand the problem before one can arrive at a solution, and that understanding has eluded us because we have not examined the data on incarceration carefully.

He begins with some basic facts.

“The statistics are as simple as they are shocking: the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.  We have more total prisoners than any other country in the world, and we have the world’s highest incarceration rate, one that is four to eight times higher than those in other liberal democracies, including, Canada, England, and Germany.  Even repressive regimes like Russia and Cuba have fewer people behind bars and lower incarceration rates.”

“It wasn’t always like this.  Just forty years ago, in the 1970s, our incarceration rate was one-fifth what it is today.  It was comparable to that of most European countries, and it had been relatively stable all the way back to the mid-to late 1800s.  It was, in short, nothing out of the ordinary.”

It must be realized that crime is and has always been more prevalent than what shows up in crime statistics.  Illegal drug users are estimated to consist of at least 10 percent of the population—over 30 million people.  At any given time on an open highway, the majority of the drivers are exceeding the speed limit.  Enforcement of laws, therefore, is necessarily discretionary.  Someone decides how vigorously law breakers should be pursued and punished.  Pfaff argues that it is the attitude toward enforcement that has changed over the years and contributed significantly to what we refer to as mass incarceration.  Changes in laws and sentencing have received the most attention, but it has been the change in application of prosecutorial discretion that has driven increased incarceration.

Pfaff provides charts that tell a significant story.  Consider the history of crime rates (violent and property crime rates per 100,000 people).



Note the dramatic increase in crime rates beginning in the 1960s.  They would peak in the early 1990s at almost four times the rate of 1960.  Note also that the crime rates have been falling since the 1990s but they remain considerably higher than in 1960.

This chart provides the incarceration rate in inmates per 100,000 people from 1925 to 2014.



Although crimes began to increase in the 1960s, the incarceration rate didn’t begin to increase until the 1970s.  In fact, there was a dip in incarcerations just as crime began to increase.  This has been interpreted as an increase in leniency on the part of the justice system just as the public was becoming aware of widespread crime.  A tough-on-crime backlash would be an obvious response on the part of the public.  Significantly, incarceration continued to grow even as crime began to fall after around 1990, only leveling off and beginning to fall slightly in the past few years.

Neither the initial rise in crime nor its subsequent fall is well understood.  Pfaff does not dwell on possible causes of the decline, but does suggest that tough enforcement was not a prime reason.

“….recent experiences in many states make it clear that reducing prison populations need not lead to increases in crime.  Between 2010 and 2014, state prison populations dropped by 4 percent while crime rates declined by 10 percent—with crime falling in almost every state that scaled back incarceration.”

What is of most interest here is the interaction of the falling crime rate and the increasing rate of imprisonment.  Pfaff has concerns about the distraction caused by what he refers to as “the Standard Story.”  In that narrative, prison populations have been driven by the conviction of large numbers of non-violent drug users even though prisoners sentenced for drug-related offenses have never been much greater than about 20 percent of the prison population, and most of those were associated with crimes involving violence.  While reforming the handling of minor drug-related offenses is worthwhile and necessary, it will have little effect on prison populations.

“….a core claim of the Story, made perhaps most forcefully by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, is that our decision to lock up innumerable low-level drug offenders through the ‘war on drugs’ is primarily responsible for driving up our prison populations.  In reality, only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges—and very few of them, perhaps only about 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent.  At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime.  A strategy based on decriminalizing drugs will thus disappoint—and disappoint significantly.  Yet we see little to no efforts to reform the treatment of people convicted of violent crimes.”

The assumption that harsher sentencing laws has lengthened prison stays and driven up the prison population is also inconsistent with the data.

“The claim isn’t exactly wrong: by international standards our sentences are long, and if people spent less time in prison, obviously prison populations would decline.  In practice, however, most people serve short stints in prison, on the order of one to three years, and there is not a lot of evidence that the time spent in prison has changed that much—not just over the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, but quite possibly over almost the entire prison boom.”

Pfaff recognizes that private firms, the “prison industrial complex,” have incentives to push for actions that would increase prison populations, but he believes there are public stakeholders who have greater influence in maintaining incarceration rates.

“Private spending and private lobbying, however, are not the real financial and political engines behind prison growth.  Public revenue and public-sector union lobbying are far more important.  As states and counties have become wealthier, they have spent more on corrections (and everything else), and reining in that spending is much harder to do than limiting private firms’ access to corrections contracts.  Similarly, the real political powers behind prison growth are the public officials who benefit from large prisons: the politicians in districts with prisons, along with the prison guards that staff them and the public sector unions who represent the guards.”

Understanding the incarceration issues is complicated by the fact that there is no national system.  There is a federal justice system, but it only provides a small percentage of the prison population.

“It is easy to talk about the federal system, because it is a single entity with nationwide reach.  However, it is also a relatively minor player in criminal justice.  About 87 percent of all prisoners are held in state systems.”

“Owing to various legal and constitutional restrictions….the federal system focuses much more heavily on drugs than state systems do (half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug crimes, compared to 16 percent in the states).”

We have the appearance of state systems of justice, but in practice localities exercise their discretion in producing wildly different results.  It would be more accurate to say we have county systems of justice—and we have 3,144 counties.

“Punishment is highly localized in the United States, and state and county officials have tremendous discretion over who gets punished and how severely.  So while the US incarceration rate in 2014 was 498 per 100,000, states ranged from 169 per 100,000 in Maine to 818 per 100,000 in Louisiana.  Similarly, the US incarceration rate grew by 288 percent between 1978 and 2009 (its peak year), but the growth in individual states varied greatly: North Dakota and Mississippi, for example, experienced growth rates of 629 percent and 567 percent, respectively, while North Carolina saw a rise of only 85 percent.”

Policies differ from county to county within a state as well.  Rural areas generally have less crime but are more apt to demand punishment.

“Take New York, a state that has experienced one of the longest sustained decarcerations in recent history, with prison populations falling by about 25 percent since 1999.  This looks like a state success story, but the entire decline between 2000 and 2011 took place in just twelve of the state’s sixty-two counties, with the other fifty counties adding inmates to state prisons during that time.”

“A study of California made a similar finding, showing that differences in the number of people that counties send to state prison have little to do with differences in those counties’ crime rates and more to do with county politics.  High-crime but liberal areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco send relatively few people to prison, given their crime rates, while more rural, more conservative counties are inherently more punitive.”

And even within counties justice may not be administered uniformly.

“Urban prosecutors are elected at the county level, where political power is concentrated in the wealthier, whiter suburbs, while crimes disproportionately occur in the poorer urban cores with higher populations of people of color.  This segregation of costs and benefits is a racial story more than anything else.  Identifying prosecutorial aggressiveness as a driver of growth [in incarceration] does not necessarily require much consideration of race and punishment—but correcting it does.”

Pfaff disagrees with Michelle Alexander on whether or not the war on drugs is responsible for the surge in incarceration.  He does agree with her on the fact that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately targeted in the enforcement of drug laws.

“As in so many areas of criminal justice, there is a clear racial imbalance when it comes to those who are in prison for drug crimes.  The incarceration rates for drug offenses are 34 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic whites, 74 per 100,000 for Hispanics, and 193 per 100,000 for blacks.”

There is a racial imbalance as well within the general prison population, but not nearly as great as that for those convicted on drug charges.

“In 2015, the United States was 62 percent non-Hispanic white, 13 percent black, and 18 percent Hispanic.  Our state prisons, meanwhile, were 35 percent non-Hispanic white, 38 percent black, and 21 percent Hispanic.”

It is necessary to determine the cause of the drug conviction disparity.  Do blacks commit more drug crimes than whites, are they more easily caught (whites are more likely to exchange drugs in a home, while blacks and Hispanics trade more on the street), or are they targeted for enforcement as an instance of racial bias?  According to Pfaff, definitive evidence is surprisingly meager given the importance of the issue. 

“The little evidence that we do have points to enforcement choices as important factors in the racial disparities in imprisonment rates.  One of the only studies on the topic looked at results from a long running survey of 9,000 people who were twelve to sixteen years old when the survey started in 1997 (and twenty-four to twenty-eight when the last wave of the survey available to the authors was conducted in 2009.  It found that non-Hispanic whites actually sold drugs at somewhat greater rates than blacks or Hispanics, that the white/Hispanic disparity was driven primarily by the class-based public outdoor market problem, and that the white/black disparity appeared to be much more the product of deeper enforcement bias.”

Michelle Alexander did an excellent job of demonstrating how the “drug problem” was engineered to be conceived of as the “black drug problem.”  A real bias in enforcement appears to exist, and the way to reform leads to constraints on discretion in enforcement.

To address the growth in incarceration during the period of dropping crime rates, all evidence points to prosecutors and the unhealthy incentives to which they are subjected.  To begin with, most convictions occur at the local level, whereas prisons are generally funded at the state level.  Creating convicts costs money to the state, but not to the government that pays the salary of the prosecutor.  There is then no negative feedback to dampen the enthusiasm of over-active prosecutors.

“Prosecutors get all the tough-on-crime political benefit of sending someone to prison, but the costs of the incarceration are foisted onto the state as a whole….That the alternatives—misdemeanor probation or jail time—are paid for by the county only exacerbates the problem.  For the prosecutor, leniency is actually more expensive than severity, and severity is practically free.”

Prosecutors are mostly chosen by election, with only four states directing that prosecutors be appointed.  The desire to be reelected generally means that a tough-on-crime persona and a healthy record of convictions are necessary to display to the voting public. 

Some mechanism has also led to an unexpected rise in the number of prosecutors even though the number of crimes and the number of arrests have fallen.

“….the number of line prosecutors (those who actually try cases) has grown significantly over the past forty years, but in a somewhat peculiar way….Between 1970 and 1990, violent crime rates rose by 100 percent, property crime rates by 40 percent, and the number of line prosecutors by 17 percent.  From 1990 to 2007, violent and property crime rates both fell by 35 percent, but the number of line prosecutors rose by 50 percent—a faster rate of growth than during the crime boom.”

It seems that prosecutors will do what prosecutors do, and state and federal laws and directives have armed them with a numerous tools that can be used to encourage a charged defendant to plead guilty and forego a trial, including underfunding defense for indigent defendants.

“Nearly 95 percent of the cases that prosecutors decide to prosecute end up with the defendant pleading guilty.”

“Prosecutors’ jobs may be almost unmanageable without a substantial degree of discretion.  At the same time, discretion always raises concerns, and prosecutors are the only actors in the criminal justice system who have successfully held on to almost all the discretionary power accorded to them.  Fears of racially motivated behavior and excessive leniency, for instance, have led to substantial restrictions on judges and parole boards, and similar fears of racial bias and misconduct have led to (lesser) restrictions on police as well.”

“There is no real reason for prosecutors alone to avoid regulation.”

This has provided the essentials of Pfaff’s description of our judicial system and how it has led to excessive rates of imprisonment.  The final third of his book examines steps that can be taken to correct identified problems.  Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet and progress will only come after a number of tweaks to the system.  Perhaps the most difficult part arises because the prison population is dominated by those convicted of a violent crime.  It will not be easy to convince people that there is a better way to treat a person with a violent crime record than by keeping him in prison as long as possible.  Pfaff can make that argument, but he realizes it will be difficult to win it.


The interested reader might find the following articles informative:










Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump, Democrats, and Trade

Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016 based on a number of promises as to what he would do as soon as he gained power.  Most of his enumerated actions frightened his antagonists on the left, but one actually aroused some interest on the part of his Democratic rivals.  Trump claimed that the US had been taken advantage of in the arena of international trade and this had cost the nation wealth and jobs over the years.  This is an assumption that had arisen in Democratic circles numerous times.  Could changing the rules of trade provide greater wealth and generate jobs at home?  Could Trump and the Democrats actually collaborate in a specific area?

First, some background is required.  The term “free trade” is thrown around suggesting that trade proceeds with little or no tariff imposed on imported goods.  The implication is that all countries are trading from the same basis and thus the system is fair in that all countries compete on a level playing field.  Unfortunately, free trade has never been fair, and it was never intended to be fair.  The first era of globalization was inaugurated by Britain, usually by sending warships to impose trade conditions on weaker nations.  The most egregious example was probably the “Opium War” with China.  Britain had contracted an immense taste for the teas of China and had generated a huge trade imbalance.  For trade to work properly, China had to balance the deficit by purchasing British products.  The only product the British had that would sell in China was opium made in British-controlled India.  Since China had made opium illegal, Britain declared war on China and forced it to accept whatever Britain chose to sell.  And that is how free trade came to China.

The first age of globalization was also the age of colonialism.  The plan was to take over a country or region and force the inhabitants to sell the occupying country natural resources and low-value goods so that the occupying country could then add value to those goods and resell them to their captive market at a profit.  The terms fair and free are entirely inappropriate for this type of arrangement.

The major proponents of free trade are the US and the British.  Neither of them practiced free trade until they believed they were strong enough to dominate some or all markets.  It took the US until the twentieth century before it felt capable of competing.  If one examines the paths to wealth taken by countries such as Japan and South Korea, one discovers that they also restricted trade until they were ready to compete.  The goal of international trade in the second period of globalization, the current one, is to be a winner.  The dominant countries, with the US being the prime example, have set up rules and regulations and agencies that promote them such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), with the goal of encouraging developing countries to adhere to policies that provide an advantage to the wealthier nations.

Given this background, viewing the traditional line espoused by economists on international trade with a bit of skepticism seems appropriate.

It is fair to ask what exactly has globalization and free trade done for the world.  Is the world a better place for it?  Branko Milanovic uses income as a measure of benefit and tries to answer that question in his book Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization.  In it he produced a graph that gained considerable notoriety as “the elephant curve.” 



This chart plots the percentage gain in real income (2005 international dollars) over the period 1988 to 2008 across the world.  The horizontal axis is the percentile of the global income distribution.  One can conclude that the incomes of low to moderate income people have increased over this period by what appears to be a significant amount.  There is a dip in income growth to approximately zero at 80%, followed by a steep rise at higher income levels. Globalization has helped the low income people of the world and it has benefited the wealthy of the world.  Who are those left behind as indicated by Milanovic’s point B?

“They are almost all from the rich economies of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).  If we disregard those among them who are from the relatively recent OECD members (several Eastern European countries, Chili, and Mexico), about three-quarters of the people in this group are citizens of the ‘old-rich’ countries of Western Europe, North America, Oceania….and Japan….People at point B generally belong to the lower halves of their countries’ income distributions.”

“In short: the great winners have been the Asian poor and middle classes; the great losers, the lower middle classes of the rich world.”

Milannovic’s conclusions are about what one might expect if one lives in one of the “old-rich” countries and has observed how fellow citizens have fared under globalization.  Some might even applaud these developments as a way of distributing wealth from rich countries to poor countries.  Milanovic provides another way of looking at the data that produces a critical insight.  The previous chart evaluated relative changes in income; the next converts those gains into absolute changes by providing a monetary value.



If globalization distributed income gain uniformly then every group would gain 5%.  In fact, most of the gain goes to those already wealthy: 19% to the top 1%, 44% to the top 5%, and 60% to the top 10%.  As a means of distributing income, globalization is extremely inefficient.  It seems best able to provide income to the already wealthy in both rich and poor countries.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this data is that whatever ill effects trade has had on the distribution of wealth, they are not unique to the US.  Consequently, if the US should pursue some new trade strategy that might be deemed beneficial domestically, all wealthy countries could follow the same path.  The international consequences would be enormous.

Douglas A. Irwin wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs, The False Promise of Protectionism, that assesses the policies that Trump has claimed he plans to implement.  Irwin is clearly dubious about Trump’s understanding of trade.

“In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump pledged that economic nationalism would be the hallmark of his trade policy. ‘We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,’ he said. Within days, he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), announced that he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and threatened to impose a special tax on U.S. companies that move their factories abroad. “

“Although Trump’s professed goal is to ‘get a better deal’ on trade, his brand of economic nationalism is just one step away from old-fashioned protectionism. The president claimed that ‘protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’ Yet the opposite is true. An ‘America first’ trade policy would do nothing to create new manufacturing jobs or narrow the trade deficit, the gap between imports and exports. Instead, it risks triggering a global trade war that would prove damaging to all countries.”

Irwin derides Trump’s approach as being “just one step away from old-fashioned protectionism,” but old fashioned protectionism has been beneficial to developing countries, particularly the US.  And the US is not the only country that feels a bit uncomfortable about traditional trade agendas.

“According to the WTO, the import restrictions imposed by G-20 countries since 2008 now cover a disturbingly high 6.5 percent of their merchandise imports. The rate at which new measures are being imposed exceeds the rate at which old measures are being removed, resulting in the steady accumulation of trade barriers. In January, citing “protectionist pressures,” the World Bank reduced its forecast for global economic growth in 2017.”

Irwin argues that protectionist moves “would do nothing to create new manufacturing jobs.”  He bases this claim on two justifications.  The first addresses the role of automation and improved manufacturing procedures in eliminating jobs.

“But the reality is that factors other than foreign trade are to blame for the country’s current economic woes. The share of Americans who work in manufacturing has fallen steadily since the early 1950s, mainly due to automation and productivity growth. The labor-force participation rate among working-age males has been declining since 1960. The stagnation in real earnings of men also dates back to the early 1960s. These trends started well before the era of deregulation and free trade in the 1980s and 1990s, let alone the “China shock” of the first decade of this century.”

No one would argue that over time the number of people required to produce a given quantity of an object will decrease due to various efficiencies.  However, trade contributes to job loss in a much more profound way.  Economists, in their ideal situation, would like production from a more efficient country to replace the less-efficient domestic industry.  In many cases this is what has happened.  Forgotten in arguments of economic efficiency is the fact that ceding manufacturing in a product line to another country also cedes to that country the associated technology, and future extensions of that technology.  We began making simple things in Asia because labor was cheap.  We now make complex things in Asia because that is where the required technology resides.

Yet not all industries are equal in a more strategic sense.  The Japanese and Europeans are correct in maintaining support for inefficient agricultural enterprises.  What country would be foolish enough to depend entirely on the good will of trading partners to feed its people?  Food sufficiency is not an issue for the US.  What about defense sufficiency?  Should we depend on others to produce our war making capability just for economic reasons?

Irwin also argues, counter to what some believe, that past experience has shown that trade restrictions have been ineffective.

“Why can’t trade protection be used to revitalize basic industries that have suffered? After all, some claim, in the 1980s the Reagan administration imposed many import barriers, which seemed to help domestic industries cope with increased foreign competition. Confronted with a large and growing trade deficit, the United States pressured Japan to agree to reduce its automobile exports, forced foreign suppliers to limit their steel exports, and negotiated a new arrangement that restricted imports of textiles and apparel. Because the economy recovered and employment grew, Robert Lighthizer, a trade negotiator in the Reagan administration whom Trump has tapped to be the U.S. trade representative, has asserted that Reagan-era import restrictions ‘worked’.”

But that judgment runs counter to the evidence.  In a 1982 report, the U.S. International Trade Commission found that most industries receiving trade relief were undergoing long-term declines that import restrictions could not reverse. Such measures did little to help companies, it stated, ‘either because so much of the firm’s injury was caused by non-import-related factors, or because the decline of imports following relief was small.' Four years later, when the Congressional Budget Office studied the question, it concluded, ‘Trade restraints have failed to achieve their primary objective of increasing the international competitiveness of the relevant industries’.”

Irwin then proceeds to point out all the bad things that followed from this attempt to manipulate the market.

“One should look back at the Reagan-era protectionism not with nostalgia but with regret, because it proved to be a costly failure. The restrictions on automobile imports raised the average price of a Japanese car by 16 percent in the early 1980s, socking it to consumers and handing billions of dollars to Japanese exporters. The limitations on steel imports punished steel-using industries, and those on textile and apparel imports raised prices for low-income consumers. When it comes to using protection to help revitalize domestic industries, the United States has been there, done that. It didn’t work”

It is not difficult to argue that the strategic interests of as large a country as the US demand the existence of viable auto and steel industries.  The domestic automobile producers eventually caught up to the Japanese in quality.  Just because an industry messes up and becomes economically inefficient, is not a reason to let it and the jobs and technologies it provides die.

Too many economic decisions are left in the hands of ideologues with a religious belief in the wisdom of markets.  Markets are there to be utilized and, if necessary, to be manipulated.  Every other country acts in its self interest, why shouldn’t we?  There is also the belief that markets are smarter than human planners.  We, as a nation, cannot have a strategic business plan because the markets will always be smarter than any planners.  That canard has been disproved many times. 

Irwin also resorts to the assumption that trade restrictions will hurt the poorest among us the most.  This is in spite of the elephant curve showing that trade and globalization have hurt the lower income people in our nation most.  Stagnating or falling incomes coupled with rising costs for housing, education, and healthcare are not balanced by the ability to buy cheap tee shirts.  

The point of this has been not to argue that Trump or the Democrats have a good plan for how to move forward, but rather to merely suggest that the current system of trade is not so perfect that it cannot be manipulated to ease some of the pain that is felt throughout the nation.  That pain is real and deserving of more attention than it has been getting. 

Trade may turn out to be an ineffective instrument to do what must be done.  If so, an explicit job creation plan must be implemented—and those who accumulated so much wealth from globalization will have to help pay for it.


The interested reader might find the following articles informative:




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Economic Development: Taking the Red State Low Road or the Blue State High Road

Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who was determined to understand why people in deep red states voted the way they did and what it was that drove the reasoning they used in deciding how to vote.  She chose to study a region in Louisiana that is home to the oil and petrochemical industries because she was particularly interested in determining why a people who lived in an area made toxic by industry would be dead set against environmental regulation.

Hochschild visited with many Louisianans over a period of about five years trying to gain understanding.  She presented her findings in the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  What she learned about their Tea Party leanings has been discussed in Strangers in Their Own Land: Republican Voters in the South.  The attitudes toward industry, religion, and the environment have been discussed in Louisiana Turns Itself into an Industrial Sacrifice Zone.  Hochschild proposed that what she observed in Louisiana in terms of economic development was a consistent red state strategy—the low road—which could be compared with a blue state strategy—the high road.  This latter subject will be the topic here.

Many of the people Hochschild met had been residing in essentially the same area for generations.  The association with place—and environment—was very strong.  It was very important for them to continue to inhabit the area in which they had grown up.  For that to happen, it was essential that jobs be created.  In fact, they were willing, begrudgingly, to allow their environment to be plundered in order to obtain jobs. 

This is the reasoning Hochschild saw in play in Louisiana.

“The logic was this.  The more oil, the more jobs.  The more jobs, the more prosperity, and the less need for government aid.  And the less the people depend on government—local, state, or federal—the better off they will be.  So to attract more oil jobs, the state has to offer financial ‘incentives’ to oil companies to get them to come.  That incentive money will have to be drawn from the state budget, which may lead to the firing of public sector workers, which, painful as it might seem, reduces reliance on government and lowers taxes.  It is a red state tactic.  But the paradox is that it goes with being a poor state with a lot of problems.”

Hochschild discusses this paradox with Paul Templet “a PhD in chemical physics” who taught at Louisiana State University and for four years was head of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.  Templet was asked if the welcoming of oil companies had reduced poverty.

“’No,’ he answers, Louisiana was poor before oil came, and we’re poor today—the second poorest in the U.S.’  In 1979, 19 percent of Louisianans lived below the poverty line; in 2014 it was 18 percent.  In addition, ill-schooled poor people of any race find it hard to get the kind of highly skilled permanent jobs oil brings in.  And oil hadn’t improved the schools—they are financed by local property taxes, which are higher in rich areas and lower in poor ones.”

But if the oil industry brings in high paying jobs, shouldn’t that lead to economic growth and higher income for residents?

“One defense of oil jobs was that they were highly paid and that salaries would ‘trickle down’ through consumption that increased jobs and wages of other workers.  But did it?  ‘Not much,’ Templet says.  That’s because oil wages don’t trickle down; they leak out.”

A number of factors lead to this leakage.  Most of the oil and petrochemical industries are either foreign owned or located elsewhere in the US.  Profits are then generally distributed elsewhere, with dividend recipients most likely enjoying the social amenities—such as good public schools and a healthy environment— provided by more advanced countries or those available in the blue states.  Just because an executive builds a chemical plant in a poor region of Louisiana, that does not mean she wishes to live there herself, or force many others to live there either.  Those who could bring real wealth into the state stay away. 

When a plant moves to Louisiana it generates a large number of jobs—temporarily.  Skilled craftsmen are required for the building of the plant, but because Louisiana does not provide those skilled workers, most of them are imported from outside the state, or outside the country.  Less-skilled workers are also needed, but companies prefer to use even lower paid workers than they can legally employ in the US if they can get away with it.  Most of the earnings of both classes of workers leave the state.

“The industry is highly automated.  To build a petrochemical plant, you need many construction workers for a temporary period, and then their job is over.  To run a petrochemical plant, you need a small number of highly trained engineers, chemists, and operators to keep watch over panels of gauges and to know what to do when there’s trouble.  Then you need a few repairmen…”

“But a fracking boom was on, and maybe that meant more jobs coming in.  According to the 2014….Southwest Louisiana Regional Impact Study, some 18,000 jobs, a small portion of them permanent, would open up by 2018.  But seven out of ten of these jobs would be filled, the report said, by workers from outside southwest Louisiana.  Many companies would recruit professionals from around the world.  Construction workers building the ‘man camps’—barracks within enclosed encampments—were Mexican, people said.  The man camps would house 5,000 pipefitters, an undisclosed number of them Filipinos on temporary visas.  Filipino workers have worked for over a decade on oil platforms in the Gulf.”

What Hochschild saw in Louisiana is an example of what is referred to as a low-road strategy, one that is common in red states.  It involves eliminating union representation of workers as much as possible, keeping wages and taxes low, and removing any regulations and procedures that might be inhibit businesses from doing exactly what they would like to do.  This strategy has worked well over the years throughout the South as a means of luring industries away from other parts of the country.  But for it to continue to work, wages must be kept lower than other regions in a kind of race to the bottom.  And in feeding incentives to industries, the states necessarily cut back on social benefits for its citizens.  The state is in effect weakening itself and becoming more submissive to the will of the corporations.

Hochschild’s source, Templet, provides this perspective on Louisiana..

“As companies squeeze favors out of the state, he argued, the more urgent its citizens’ needs for good schools and hospitals, the less the poor are able to use what opportunities exist, and the more atrophied become other sectors of the economy—which further concentrates power in the hands of oil.”

If this is the low-road, red-state strategy, what might be the high-road, blue-state strategy?

“The ‘high road’ strategy….is to stimulate new jobs by creating an attractive public sector, as California did in Silicon Valley and Washington State did in Seattle.”

This implies a strategy that keeps wages high enough that people can live without public income support, investing in good public schools, healthcare, a healthy environment, and effective infrastructure.  These things of course are all expensive and require significant revenue from taxes.  They also come with a host of regulatory constraints on businesses.

It is difficult to conjure up two more diametrically opposed views of the path to economic development.  How well do they work?  Hochschild provides us with some data.

Let’s begin with some big picture considerations.

“Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment.  On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states.  Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua.  Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.”

The willingness to tolerate pollution in the name of economic development was not a Louisiana attribute; it was a true red state  marker.

“….a startling 2012 study by sociologist Arthur O’Connor that showed that residents of red states suffer higher rates of industrial pollution than do residents of blue states.  Voters in the twenty-two states that voted Republican in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008—and generally call for less government regulation of business—lived in more polluted environments.  Residents in the twenty-two Democratic states that generally favor stricter regulation, he found, live in cleaner environments.”

This is what one might expect from attitudes about government regulation.  But how has this affected economic development.

“A 1993 study that compared states’ ratings on strictness of environmental protection with indicators of economic health (overall growth, employment growth, construction growth) over twenty years found that stronger environmental standards have not limited the relative pace of economic growth.”

“In a 2001 study of new air-quality regulations for manufacturing plants in the Los Angeles area, researchers reported no evidence that local air-quality regulation, among the strictest in the nation, substantially reduced employment.”

“A 2002 study also analyzed the impact of environmental regulations on four industries that generate significant pollution—and might therefore be expected to suffer losses from the effects of environmental regulation.  In two of the four industries researchers studied (plastics and petroleum), the net employment impact of the environmental regulations was small but positive, while in the other two industries (pulp and paper, and iron and steel) there was no statistically significant impact.”

“….a 2008 study found that investments in environmental protection create some jobs and displace others, but that the net effect on employment is positive.  In fact, environmental protection is itself a major sales-generating, job-creating industry.”

Environmental protection depends on the development of new technologies.  The states that invest in education and encourage technology development will be the places that benefit from environmental regulation, while the states that promote low wages at the expense of educational development will lose.  It seems the red states acquiesce to a program of accepting the pollution needed to produce the objects blue states desire and then paying the blue states to provide them the technology with which to mitigate that pollution.

Environmental pollution is not the only issue related to strategies for encouraging economic development.  It seems the red-state strategy of providing incentives to industry has generally been counterproductive. 

“A 2010 study, based on analysis of national surveys of 700 to 1,000 local governments from 1994, 1999, and 2004 that tracked the use of business incentives over time, found that governments that rely most heavily on incentives may face more intergovernmental competition, stagnating or declining economies, and lower tax bases.  For such governments, business incentives may contribute to a cycle of destructive competition.”

The decision to provide incentives to industry means that funds will have to be withdrawn from some other areas.  This sets up competition between education and other social services for diminishing resources.  Couple this with a willingness to allow industry to set low wage scales and you have created a situation where workers will have an increased need for those diminished services—a kind of race to the bottom.

Several studies have demonstrated that the blue-state strategy of demanding “living” wages and providing the educational opportunities to make workers skillful enough to justify those wages is the appropriate path to follow.  Consider this study of the construction industry: The Economic, Fiscal, and Social Impacts of State Prevailing Wage Laws: Choosing Between the High Road and the Low Road in the Construction Industry.  It provided these conclusions.

“Prevailing wage legislation is part of a broader set of interrelated institutional arrangements that promote a strong construction industry and a thriving middle class, including a stronger emphasis on apprenticeship training, skilled workmanship, workplace safety, increased access to health insurance and retirement security.  Prevailing wage laws support a high road economy by establishing the underlying legal framework for a construction industry that provides the skills needed to build quality infrastructure for a growing, technologically-sophisticated, and competitive economy. By fostering an economy with a strong middle class, prevailing wages promote sound public sector budgets at all levels of government.”

“Legislators have a choice between this construction industry high road and the low road that leads to less training, lower quality workmanship, more waste and inefficiency at the worksite, higher levels of poverty, increased taxpayer burdens, and reduced economic activity.”

A study by the International Economic Development Council, Creating Quality Jobs: Transforming the Economic Development Landscape, examines case studies of places that attempted to improve local economic development.  The locations were as varied as Tupelo, Mississippi and San Jose, California.  The conclusion was that the high road is the path to pursue.  A skilled work force is the basis for job development and economic growth.

“The conclusion that emerges from an assessment of these cases is simple (with complex solutions)—a more volatile and dynamic economy is driven increasingly by the skills of people. The cases indicate that indeed aligning skills and jobs is now sine qua non for economic development. This is the heart of the transforming landscape of economic development.”

Hochschild is drawn to the conclusion that the red and blue states, taken together, form a cooperative industrial ecology—but one that benefits the blue states more.

“As sociologist Richard Florida notes, ‘Blue state knowledge economies run on red state energy.  Red state energy economies, in their turn, depend on dense coastal cities and metro areas, not just as markets and sources of migrants, but for the technology and talent they supply.”

“Indeed, Louisianans are sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system.  Left or right, we all happily use plastic combs, toothbrushes, cell phones and cars, but we don’t all pay for it with high pollution.  As research for this book shows, red states pay for it more—partly through their own votes for easier regulation and partly through their exposure to a social terrain of politics, industry, television channels, and a pulpit that invites them to do so.  In one way, people in blue states have their cake and eat it too, while many in red states have neither.”


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Louisiana Turns Itself into an Industrial Sacrifice Zone

A common assumption is that industrial progress and the improved welfare of humanity provides sufficient benefits that certain geographical areas must be “sacrificed” for the greater good.  The manufacture of products demanded by the modern economy causes pollution and ill health for both humans and the environment; therefore both may need to be sacrificed on occasion.  Wikipedia provides this definition of a sacrifice zone.

“A sacrifice zone is a geographic area that has been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment. These zones are most commonly found in low-income and minority communities.”

We are not necessarily discussing minor environmental or health issues here.

“The concept of sacrifice zones was first discussed during the Cold War, as a likely result of nuclear fallout.”

Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was disturbed and puzzled by the increasing political polarization within the nation.  Being comfortably imbedded in a liberal enclave, Hochschild had little opportunity to interact with the engaged members of the other party, and assumed that those with opposing political views would be equally isolated from contrary opinions.  She decided she must meet with red-state people and try to understand where their beliefs came from.  Ultimately, she settled on Louisiana as the place to set up shop.  Her findings are recorded in fascinating detail in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Louisiana seemed like a logical place to study the Tea Party phenomenon.

“In the 2012 election, in the nation as a whole, 39 percent of the white voters voted for Barack Obama.  In the South, 29 percent did.  And in Louisiana, it was 14 percent—a smaller proportion than in the south as a whole.  According to one 2011 poll, half of the Louisianans support the Tea Party.”

Louisiana is also a home for the oil industry and the many associated chemical processing plants. Sections of it merit the label of sacrifice zone: Yet the state is also the home of people virulently opposed to government regulation of industry.

Hochschild was particularly interested in learning why people who were so injured by environmental pollution would be so adamantly opposed to environmental regulations.  She referred to this contradiction as the “great paradox.” 

“Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment.  On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states.  Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua.  Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.”

Louisiana would be the place to come for understanding.  Hochschild’s findings concerning political leanings were discussed previously here.  The present topic will be attitudes relevant to economic and environmental issues.

It seems that the acceptance of industrial devastation must require at least tacit acquiescence of both politicians and the affected inhabitants.  The situation in Louisiana seems to combine a misbegotten political ideology with what Hochschild refers to as a “least resistant personality” on the part of the residents. 

She points out how the political environment has changed over time.

“In the last Louisiana oil boom, from 1928 to 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Louisiana governor Huey Long, the progressive demagogue—the Kingfish as he was called—taxed oil companies, using that money to put a ‘chicken in every pot,’ give out free textbooks to children, create evening literacy courses for adults, and build roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools.  Long curbed homelessness and poverty.  Before succumbing to the lure of oil money himself, Long embraced the ideal of an activist government that lifted the poor and added to the common good….And were he alive today, very few Louisianans would vote for Huey Long.”

Long’s approach is contrasted with that of recent governor Bobby Jindal who went out of his way to take money away from social services and education in order to pay for the incentives provided companies to encourage them to settle in his state.

“During the eight years Bobby Jindal was governor of Louisiana, he fired 30,000 state employees and furloughed many others.  Social workers increased their caseloads.  Child abuse victims were for the first time spending nights at government offices.  Since 2007-2008, in the nation’s second poorest state, Governor Jindal had cut funding for higher education by 44 percent….Given cuts to the state’s judicial branch, in which eight out of ten of the accused rely on public defenders, lawyers had been laid off, and the accused languished in jails….their names on waiting lists with thousands of others, no lawyers to defend them.”

“Jindal had cut corporate taxes as well as individual taxes and he had spent $1.6 billion in ‘incentives’ to lure industry to the state, offering companies ten-year tax exemptions.  Jindal had sold state-owned parking lots and farmland, potential sources of revenue.  He put the state’s hospitals in ‘business-friendly’ hands for which costs proceeded to rise.  He had gambled that oil prices would rise and companies would reap taxable profits, and he had lost.”

“….Jindal’s successor, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards, reluctantly announced in March of 2016 that in order to address the “historic fiscal crisis,” the state would need nearly $3 billion—almost $650 per resident—just to keep up regular services during the next sixteen months.”

Most of the Tea Party supporters Hochschild talked with had voted twice for Jindal because he “promised to enact their values.”  However, they did admit that he had left the state in a “shambles.”  They are against taxation and regulation and view social assistance as an unnecessary evil.  They viewed Jindal’s efforts to bring in new businesses, even if they provided low-wage jobs and polluted their environment, as good things.  They seemed to have Hochschild’s “least resistant personality.”

Back in 1984, California wanted to build a waste facility that would provide a difficult environment for any living nearby.  It would be noisy, smelly, generate a large amount of traffic, lower property values, provide few jobs and would likely produce unhealthy levels of pollution.  The thought was to learn how to convince any who might dwell in the neighborhood that they would be enduring something that was worth the discomfort.  A study was commissioned to Cerrell Associates, a consulting firm, that provided a completely different perspective.  The report was written by J. Stephen Powell.

“The plant manager’s best course of action, Powell concluded, would not be to try to change the minds of residents predisposed to resist.  It would be to find a citizenry unlikely to resist.”

“Based on interviews and questionnaires, Powell drew up a list of characteristics of the ‘least resistant personality profile’:”

·         Longtime residents of the South or Midwest

·         High school educated only

·         Catholic

·         Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism

·         Involved in mining, farming ranching (what Cerrell called “nature exploitive occupations”)

·         Conservative

·         Republican

·         Advocates of the free market

Hochschild concluded that most of the people she met in Louisiana fit “some or all” of these characteristics.  Those that would be willing to resist were a quite different class of individual.

“Those who resisted the oil industry fit a very different profile—young, college educated, urban, liberal, strongly interested in social issues, and believers in good government.”

This list of characteristics of the “least resistant” provides a template with which to evaluate the Louisianans Hochschild encountered and to try to explain why they acquiesce to the sacrifice of their land.

Louisiana certainly meets the educational requirement for a candidate sacrifice zone.

“When the big oil companies first came to Louisiana in the 1940s, 40 percent of adults in Louisiana had no more than a fifth-grade education, and its citizens were the least likely in the nation to move out of state.”

The building of oil and chemical plants has done little for the state.

The Measure of America, a report of the Social Science Research Council, ranks every state in the United States on its ‘human development.’  Each rank is based on life expectancy, school enrollment, educational degree attainment, and median personal earnings.  Out of the 50 states, Louisiana ranked 49th and in overall health ranked last.  According to the 2015 National Report Card, Louisiana ranked 48th out of 50 in eighth-grade reading and 49th out of 50 in eighth-grade math.  Only eight out of ten Louisianans have graduated from high school, and only 7 percent have graduate or professional degrees.”

It would seem that being a sacrifice zone is not a onetime thing.  The conditions that allowed the corporations to take over the land must be maintained.  The poor, undereducated, least resistant people must continue to be poor and undereducated, and unresisting for corporate prosperity to continue.

The federal government rushes in trying to help—for which it receives no credit—but merely ends up providing a tacit subsidy to the corporate owners.

“Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help.  In truth, a very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states—in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent—do come from federal funds; $2,400 is given by the federal government per Louisianan per year.”

Next, consider the first entry: longtime residents of the South or Midwest.  Many of the people Hochschild talked to had been residents of small towns where generations of family members had resided in the same area.  This produces a community with entangled relations, both familial and social.  Some will find such an environment comforting and supportive; others will find a place “where everyone knows your name” to be stifling and wish to escape.  Most of her Louisianans fell in the first category.

If you live in a city, you soon realize that a city cannot function without a strong and effective government.  The trash must be picked up on time; traffic must move on schedule; there is only the government to rely on for the care of the homeless and misfortunate.  In a small town, many of these functions either lose their significance or can be handled through social networks.  Government can be seen as an intruder—especially if it is incompetent government, the kind Louisiana seems determined to produce.  Consider the attitude of “Mike.”

“Even if the government helped people—and he didn’t think it did much—government should never, Mike felt, erode the spirit of community.  He had grown up in a dense circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, all within walking distance from each other….Now in his sixties, Mike felt happy to live in a community as close and cooperative as the one he had known as a boy.”

“It wasn’t the simple absence of government Mike wanted, it was the feeling of being inside a warm, cooperative group.  He thought the government replaced that.”

This feeling for the place in which they live is emotionally powerful.  Small towns can be difficult to maintain in a changing economy.  The promise of a factory bringing in jobs to help keep the place going can be a much stronger motivator than the inconvenience of a little pollution—especially when everyone you listen to tells you not to worry about it.

It seems a candidate place for a sacrifice zone requires people who are unlikely to move no matter how bad it gets.

It is interesting that when Hochschild chose to write a section about the effect religion had in forming attitudes in Louisiana she chose to also consider the effect of media.  Both their churches and their sources of news contribute to a narrative that must be recognized if the Louisianans are to be understood.

It can be difficult to understand how important church is in the lives of the people Hochschild met.

“People speak of children not as ‘going to church’ but as being churched.  And this is said with the same pride as others might say ‘highly educated’ or ‘well mannered.’  Church in Louisiana—usually Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, or Pentecostal—is a pillar of social life.”

Churches in other circumstances have been sites of social revolution.  In the world Hochschild entered, they were the place to go to gain the strength to endure what had befallen you, not to make you angry enough to fight back.

“Word from the….pulpits seemed to focus more on a person’s moral strength to endure than on the will to change the circumstances that called on that strength.  The service offered a collective, supportive arena, it seemed, within which it was safe to feel helpless, sad, or lost.  As in an hour of therapy, the individual drew strength from support to endure what had to be endured….Another grief-stricken parishioner, mother of an ill child living in the highly polluted town of Mossville, told me, ‘I don’t know how I could have gotten through this without my church.’  As for altering the pollution, poverty, ill health, and other things that had to be endured, for many that lay beyond the doors of the church.”

It is difficult to worry about things like climate change and ecological damage to the earth when you hope—and expect—that the present earth will no longer exist.  She shares with us the beliefs of one Louisianan named Madonna.

“….Madonna believes in the rapture.  According to the Bible, ‘The earth will groan,’ she tells me, ‘and earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, rain, blizzards, strife will occur, and the earth is groaning.’  Drawing from the books of Revelation and Daniel, Madonna believes that within the next thousand years, gravity will release the feet of believers as they ascend to heaven, while non-believers will remain on an earth that will become ‘as Hell’….After the rapture, the world will end for a time before Christ creates it anew and begins a new thousand-year period of peace, Madonna explains.”

“Madonna attended two years of Bible College in Mississippi and explains, ‘This is not what you would learn at your university, but mine is a true belief.’  This belief offered her a graphic image of the creation of the earth in seven days.  It put the age of the earth at six thousand years.  The City of Heaven, she told me, was a cube 1,500 miles square, divided into 12 bejeweled stories, each 120 miles high with gates, the largest one of pearls.”

Environmentalists believe that what humans are doing to the earth is a long-term problem.  To the religious who expect the earth to end—perhaps in their lifetime—what humans are doing is a short-term issue that is rather irrelevant.

“Across the nation, many share these beliefs with Madonna.  According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 41 percent of all Americans believe the ‘Second Coming’ ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ will happen by the year 2050.”

Hochschild’s experience in Louisiana also makes clear that we cannot begin to understand the residents of that state without taking into account the effect of Fox News.

“As a powerful influence over the views of the people I came to know, Fox News stands next to industry, state government, church, and the regular media as an extra pillar of political culture all its own.  Madonna tunes into Fox on the radio, television, and internet….Fox gives to Madonna and others the news.  It suggests what the issues are.  It tells her what to feel afraid, angry, and anxious about.”

“All news programs address our emotional alarm systems, of course.  But with talk of a ‘terror mosque’ at Ground Zero, of the ‘left’s secret immigration plan’ to wipe traditional America off the face of the earth, of Obama’s supposed release of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of his supposed masterminding the massacre at Fort Hood, Fox News stokes fear.  And the fear seems to reflect that of the audience it most serves—white middle- and working-class people.  During the series of police killings of young black men, Fox reporters tended to defend white police officers and criticize black rioters.  It defended the right to own guns and restrict voter registration, and it continually derided the federal government.”

And, of course, Fox News leads the pack in condemning those who they claim would kill jobs by worrying about the environment.

“None of the people I talked to one-on-one, off and on, over five years used the extreme language I heard on Fox.  George Russell, a Fox commentator, spoke of the ‘green energy tyranny.’  Business anchor Eric Bolling referred to the EPA as ‘job terrorists’ who are ‘strangling America.’  Fox News Business Network commentator Lou Dobbs commented in 2011 that ’as it’s being run now, [the EPA] could be part of the apparat of the Soviet Union.’  One woman’s favorite commentator, Charles Krauthammer, compared the rise in EPA air quality standards to an ‘enemy attack’ on America.”

We come now to the final requirements that are necessary to make people willing to allow their region to become a sacrifice zone: conservative Republican advocates of the free market.  In order to appreciate the zest with which whites in the South switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, one must understand the degree to which whites in the South maintain, however tacitly, their racist traditions.  Hochschild makes it clear that her Louisianans support the notion that whites occupy a privileged place in this country.  Their fury is aroused not by political or financial manipulation, but by the notion that their place of privilege is being eroded by a federal government that encourages people with different colored skin to succeed when they themselves are not getting ahead.  This is the narrative that the Republican Party encourages using Fox News to spew incendiary content to its viewers.  While the left views conflict as being between a small wealthy elite and everyone else, the right views the main conflict to be between middle class whites and the poor.

“For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither a factory floor nor an Occupy protest.  The theater of conflict—at the heart of the deep story—is the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive.  Government checks for the listless and idle—this seems most unfair.  If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a ‘fair share’ of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’  For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right it is down between the middle class and the poor.  For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector.”

Hochschild recognized that the political logic involved in governing a red state generated a trend in which poverty, lack of education, and ill health were inevitable consequences.

“[In Louisiana] The logic was this.  The more oil, the more jobs.  The more jobs, the more prosperity, and the less need for government aid.  And the less the people depend on government—local, state, or federal—the better off they will be.  So to attract more oil jobs, the state has to offer financial ‘incentives’ to oil companies to get them to come.  That incentive money will have to be drawn from the state budget, which may lead to the firing of public sector workers, which, painful as it might seem, reduces reliance on government and lowers taxes.  It is a red state tactic.  But the paradox is that it goes with being a poor state with a lot of problems.”

Low wages are inherent in and necessary to the red state logic.  When that is combined with low public spending you end up with Louisiana and states like it. 

When a plant moves to Louisiana it generates a large number of jobs—temporarily.  Skilled craftsmen are required for the building of the plant, but because Louisiana does not provide those skilled workers, most of the workers are imported from outside the state, or outside the country.  Most of the earnings of these workers leaves the state as well as most of the profit made eventually from the facility.  What are left when the plant operates are a few highly skilled positions, often held by workers from outside, and a few lower skilled jobs.  Louisiana gains some in turns of income distributed, but not enough to overcome the lower property values inherent in sacrificing one’s land and the decrease in public services provided—such as education and health maintenance.

The goal of southern politicians has not changed for hundreds of years.  It is to allow the process described above to continue.  It is necessary to keep wages low and keep workers fixated on their place within the social landscape.  As long as the system has kept whites ahead of people with darker skin the system has remained stable.


The interested reader might find the following article informative:



Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged