Tag Archives: Krugman

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

Sorry about that bad pun, but these day, even pathetic humor is a respite from the daily news…                                                                          
                                                                    
And speaking of the daily news–according to one recent report on the pandemic, new cases have increased by 84% in states that don’t require the wearing of masks, and fallen by 25% in states that do.
 
You might consider that a clue-just a small hint that we should trust science.

After all, those numbers would seem to confirm what all those doctors and epidemiologists have been saying: mask-wearing protects us (or more accurately, protects other people from being infected by those of us who are asymptomatic). Evidently, however, America’s tribal polarization has overwhelmed sanity.
 
The polls tell us that a sizable majority of Americans strongly favor measures to control the spread of the pandemic over efforts to “reopen” the economy. When those numbers are broken down, however, Republican voters disagree—prioritizing the economy.
 
Self-identified Democrats are significantly more likely to wear a mask and engage in social distancing than self-identified Republicans.
 
The polling reminds me of a survey I saw a couple of years ago—well before the pandemic—in which significant numbers of Americans who would not object to their children marrying across racial or religious lines strongly disapproved of the prospect of that child marrying someone of the opposite political party.
 
Talk about “identity politics”!
 
In today’s highly polarized America, an individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.
 
The fact of extreme partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe the science that tells us Covid-19 poses a genuine threat. Of course, there’s President Trump’s determination to ignore the threat—to insist it is an artifact of testing (!), or a Democratic “hoax,” but in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman offered a different theory, arguing that the G.O.P.’s coronavirus denial is rooted in a worldview that goes well beyond Trump and his electoral prospects. Krugman argued that Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the party wants to acknowledge.
 
“It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.”
 
As Adrian Bardon of Wake Forest University recently wrote in The Conversation, Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes, and engage in what political scientists call “motivated reasoning” to dismiss inconvenient or unwelcome facts.

In all fairness, this phenomenon isn’t limited to today’s GOP; the “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-GMO” activists tend to come from the left side of the political spectrum and are equally dismissive of science that doesn’t fit with their ideological preferences.
 
In his book, The Truth About Denial, Bardon reminds us that our human “sense of self” is intimately tied to our tribal membership and our identity group’s beliefs. We are all prone to engage in confirmation bias (what we used to call “cherry picking”), accepting expert testimony that confirms our prejudices and rejecting facts and data that contradict them.
 
Unfortunately, in some situations, ignoring facts can kill you. Or grandma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

How a cognitive failing explains why so many people reject the facts about the pandemic

Path Dependency And Political Naiviete

One of the lessons we should–but don’t–learn from history is that revolutions almost never succeed in replacing the systems being rejected with those that are more to the liking of the revolutionaries.

Revolutions can and do change the identity of the people in charge. The American Revolution got rid of King George and English authority, for example–but it didn’t change fundamental attitudes about individual rights, or a legal system based on common law, or  accepted ways of doing business.

Short of revolution, efforts to effect big changes in the way a society functions inevitably come up against social inertia and stubborn resistance to changes in habitual ways of seeing and doing. Paul Krugman–no apologist for neoliberalism–was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein, and explained why he supports the more incremental, less radical proposals on health care.

A lot of things we think of as being very left-wing are actually extremely popular — like higher taxes on rich people. But other things requiring ordinary middle class people to change aren’t ever easy to do.

Systems that are very different from our own on health care all have deep historical roots. There is enormous path dependence in policy. The systems that countries have on health care, retirement, and most other stuff has a lot to do with decisions that were made generations ago. And it’s very hard to shift to a radically different path. So incrementalism tends to rule everywhere.

Krugman points to polling that says that a public buy-in to Medicare is very popular, but a replacement of private insurance that is not voluntary is not.

The international evidence is that it’s just very hard for to make radical changes in social programs. The shape of them tends to be fixed for a really long time. US Social Security is widely held up as a role model of doing it right because we got it right at a time when things were still pretty amorphous and uninformed. On the other hand, our health care system is a mess because of decisions we made around the same time that left us with bad stuff entrenched in the system.

The operative word is “entrenched.”

Wikipedia begins its discussion of “path dependency” thusly:  “Path dependence explains how the set of decisions people face for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions they have made in the past or by the events that they experienced, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.”

Multiple studies of path dependence confirm that previous policy decisions that have since become “the way we do things” generate enormous inertia. Studies of welfare policies, especially, have concluded that significant changes can be made only in exceptional situations. (It isn’t only politics. Studies of how technologies become path-dependent demonstrate that so-called “externalities”–habits, really– resulting from established supplier and customer preferences can lead to the dominance of one technology over another, even if the technology that “loses” is clearly superior.)

It is one thing to compare the mess that is America’s health system with the far better systems elsewhere and acknowledge that we got it wrong. In an ideal world, we would start from scratch and devise something very different. But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a world and country where most people fear and resist change– even change to something that is clearly superior.

No president can wave a magic wand and effect overnight transformation. FDR and Truman both pushed for forms of national health insurance and failed. Nixon also favored it. President Kennedy supported Medicare and Johnson finally got that done in 1965–after the trauma of an assassination. All other efforts failed until 2010, when Obama and Pelosi (barely) managed to get the Affordable Care Act passed.  Even that compromised legislation triggered ferocious opposition, including bills that weaken it and litigation that aims to overturn it.

People who think we just have to elect a candidate who recognizes what a better system would look like, and empower that person to wave his or her magic wand and give us a “do-over,” aren’t simply naive. They’re delusional.

The question–as always–isn’t just what. It’s how. 

All of the Democrats running for President know we need single-payer. Not all of them are willing to acknowledge that we face enormous barriers to getting it done. And only one, to my knowledge, has outlined a plan to overcome path-dependency and get us from here to there.

That isn’t being “moderate.” It’s being realistic.

 

 

Red States, Blue States…And Death Rates

The other day, during a political discussion (these days, pretty much every discussion gets political) my youngest son wondered aloud whether it had been a mistake to win the Civil War. The red states of the South have been an economic drag on the blue states for a long time–they send significantly fewer dollars to Washington than they receive courtesy of blue state largesse.

My son was being flip, but his characterization of Red and Blue states wasn’t far off. As Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column in the New York Times, “the political divide is also, increasingly, an economic divide.”

Democratic-leaning areas used to look similar to Republican-leaning areas in terms of productivity, income and education. But they have been rapidly diverging, with blue areas getting more productive, richer and better educated. In the close presidential election of 2000, counties that supported Al Gore over George W. Bush accounted for only a little over half the nation’s economic output. In the close election of 2016, counties that supported Hillary Clinton accounted for 64 percent of output, almost twice the share of Trump country.

Evidently, however, we don’t just live in different economies–lately, we also die differently.

Back in the Bush years I used to encounter people who insisted that the United States had the world’s longest life expectancy. They hadn’t looked at the data, they just assumed that America was No. 1 on everything. Even then it wasn’t true: U.S. life expectancy has been below that of other advanced countries for a long time.

The death gap has, however, widened considerably in recent years as a result of increased mortality among working-age Americans. This rise in mortality has, in turn, been largely a result of rising “deaths of despair”: drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol. And the rise in these deaths has led to declining overall life expectancy for the past few years.

What I haven’t seen emphasized is the divergence in life expectancy within the United States and its close correlation with political orientation. True, a recent Times article on the phenomenon noted that life expectancy in coastal metropolitan areas is still rising about as fast as life expectancy in other advanced countries. But the regional divide goes deeper than that.

It turns out that the “death divide” Krugman is addressing is closely correlated with political orientation.

I looked at states that voted for Donald Trump versus states that voted for Clinton in 2016, and calculated average life expectancy weighted by their 2016 population. In 1990, today’s red and blue states had almost the same life expectancy. Since then, however, life expectancy in Clinton states has risen more or less in line with other advanced countries, compared with almost no gain in Trump country. At this point, blue-state residents can expect to live more than four years longer than their red-state counterparts.

There are a number of possible explanations: blue states expanded Medicaid while most red states didn’t, for example. The gap in educational levels is probably implicated as well; better-educated people tend to be healthier than the less educated, for a number of reasons.

Krugman also notes differences in behavior and lifestyle that affect mortality. (Although obesity has dramatically increased all across America, obesity rates are significantly higher in red states.)

Krugman references–and debunks–conservative explanations for the death divide:

Conservative figures like William Barr, the attorney general, look at rising mortality in America and attribute it to the collapse of traditional values — a collapse they attribute, in turn, to the evil machinations of “militant secularists.” The secularist assault on traditional values, Barr claims, lies behind “soaring suicide rates,” rising violence and “a deadly drug epidemic.”

But European nations, which are far more secularist than we are, haven’t seen a comparable rise in deaths of despair and an American-style decline in life expectancy. And even within America these evils are concentrated in states that voted for Trump, and have largely bypassed the more secular blue states.

Although he doesn’t mention it, I’d also be interested in seeing a comparison of gun deaths in Red and Blue states.

Actually, conservatives like Barr inadvertently make a point: culture and values matter. Just not the way they think.

 

 

Air We Shouldn’t Breathe, Water We Shouldn’t Drink

Yesterday, I posted about the shorter-and-longer term consequences of Trump’s assault on various policies and norms. I noted in passing that the next administration–assuming it is Democratic (if it isn’t, the America we grew up in is gone)–will need to reinstate numerous environmental safeguards before it can address the critical threat posed by climate change.

Paul Krugman has laid out the dimensions of the Trump administration’s assault on basic environmental protections. Here’s his lede:

Given what we’ve seen in the impeachment hearings so far, there is literally no crime, no abuse of power, that would induce Republicans to turn on President Trump. So if you’re waiting for some dramatic political turn, don’t hold your breath.

On second thought, however, maybe you should hold your breath. For air quality has deteriorated significantly over the past few years — a deterioration that has already cost thousands of American lives. And if Trump remains in power, the air will get much worse, and the death toll rise dramatically, in the years ahead.

Krugman clarifies that, in referring to air pollution, he isn’t talking about the greenhouse gases driving climate change. He is addressing the issue of pollutants with a much more immediate effect. That includes, as he points out,  “fine particulate matter,” the small particles that make the air hazy.  Those particulates pose a significant health hazard, because they penetrate deep into the respiratory tract.

The good news until a few years ago was that thanks to environmental regulation the concentration of fine particulates was in fairly rapid decline. The bad news is that since 2016 this kind of pollution has been on the rise again, reversing around a fifth of the gains since 2009.

That may not seem like a big problem, but estimates are that even this relatively small rise  led to almost 10,000 extra deaths last year.

If deaths don’t concern you (!), perhaps the economic cost of rising pollution will. A study Krugman cites puts it at $89 billion a year. As he notes, even in an economy as large as America’s, $89 billion is a pretty big number.

And things are poised to get much worse. The Trump administration is working on new rules that would effectively prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from making use of much of the scientific evidence on adverse health effects of pollution. This would cripple environmental regulation, almost surely leading to sharply worsening air and water quality over time….

Why is this happening? As many observers have pointed out, failing to act on climate change, although it’s an indefensible crime against humanity, is also in some ways understandable. Greenhouse gas emissions are invisible, and the harm they do is global and very long-term, making denialism relatively easy.

Particulates, however, are visible, and the harm they do is both relatively localized and fairly quick. So you might have thought that the fight against dirty air would have widespread, bipartisan support. Indeed, modern environmental protection began under none other than Richard Nixon, and retired E.P.A. officials I’ve talked to describe the Nixon era as a golden age.

Krugman says the GOP has become the party of pollution.

Why? Follow the money. There’s huge variation among industries in how much environmental damage they do per dollar of production. And the super-polluting industries have basically put all their chips on the Republicans. In 2016, for example, coal mining gave 97 percent of its political contributions to Republican candidates and causes. And polluters are getting what they paid for….If Trump doesn’t succeed in destroying our democracy (a big if), his most damaging legacy will be the vast environmental destruction he leaves behind.

Krugman’s column centered on air quality; recent EPA rollbacks pose an equally serious threat to the nation’s water supply.

How corrupt do you have to be to value your bottom line over the health of your children and grandchildren?

 

Red Myths, Rural Realities

Paul Krugman recently looked at the effects of Trump’s policies on rural America, and found–to no sentient person’s surprise–that the effects have been disastrous.

Economists, reports Politico, are fleeing the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Six of them resigned on a single day last month. The reason? They are feeling persecuted for publishing reports that shed an unflattering light on Trump policies.

But these reports are just reflecting reality (which has a well-known anti-Trump bias). Rural America is a key part of Donald Trump’s base. In fact, rural areas are the only parts of the countryin which Trump has a net positive approval rating. But they’re also the biggest losers under his policies.

As Krugman points out, whatever Trump’s campaign rhetoric might have promised, his actual policies have been aligned with (okay, dictated by) Congressional Republican priorities–what Krugman calls “G.O.P. standard”: big tax cuts for corporations and rich people, accompanied by cuts to the social safety net.

The only real deviation from GOP orthodoxy has been the tariffs, and Trump’s evident belief that trade wars are “easy to win.” Even the farmers who have been a reliable part of Trump’s base are beginning to recognize that they will bear the brunt of the substantial injuries caused by those wars.

As for the tax and social safety net cuts…

The Trump tax cut largely passes farmers by, because they aren’t corporations and few of them are rich. One of the studies by Agriculture Department economists that raised Trumpian ire showed that to the extent that farmers saw tax reductions, most of the benefits went to the richest 10 percent, while poor farmers actually saw a slight tax increase.

At the same time, the assault on the safety net is especially harmful to rural America, which relies heavily on safety-net programs. Of the 100 counties with the highest percentage of their population receiving food stamps, 85 are rural, and most of the rest are in small metropolitan areas. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which Trump keeps trying to kill, had its biggest positive impact on rural areas.

It is fair to suggest that many rural Americans are unaware of the variety of ways in which Medicaid expansion and other social programs support farm country; some of those benefits are indirect (which doesn’t mean they aren’t critically important). The impact of the tariffs, however, is hard to miss.

What about protectionism? The U.S. farm sector is hugely dependent on access to world markets, much more so than the economy as a whole. American soybean growers export half of what they produce; wheat farmers export 46 percent of their crop. China, in particular, has become a key marketfor U.S. farm products. That’s why Trump’s recent rage-tweeting over trade, which raised the prospect of an expanded trade war, sent grain markets to a 42-year low.

If Trump succeeds in plunging us into a full-blown trade war, which certainly seems more likely than not, Krugman says American imports and exports will both shrink — and since farmers rely disproportionately on exporting, they will be the biggest losers.

The harm being done to rural America by Trump leads to that perennial question: why do so many of the people bearing the brunt of his ignorance continue to support him?

Krugman delicately suggests that it has to do with “cultural factors”–by which he means hostility to immigrants and resentment of coastal elites they believe look down on rural America. (What Krugman calls hostility to immigrants is, if the research is to be believed, part of a much larger and more ingrained hostility to non-whites and non-Christians.)

Krugman thinks that rural America’s support for Trump may start to crack as the negative effects of his policies become too obvious to miss. I’m less sanguine.

When we so-called “elitists” talk about “voting ones interests,” we are almost always referring to economic interests. When I listen to Trump supporters–when they post angry diatribes on Facebook or are interviewed for a new program–what I hear is a very different view of what constitutes their interests.

Economic reality be damned. Trump voters are defending their vision of America, and that vision is white, heterosexual, and fundamentalist Christian. So long as they believe Trump is hurting people who fall outside that narrow category, he’s their guy.