Politics, Tribes, and Stupid Words

I often like to say that politics is the art of marrying public ideology to private agendas. Some of my acquaintances think this is too cynical. After all, most people seem to have real political opinions, often very strong ones, without any private agenda at all. Sometimes this is true even among the political class. No one should doubt that Roger Ailes truly despises liberals, and did so long before he built Fox News into a conservative powerhouse and made millions in the process.

Opinions, political and otherwise, are rarely the result of research and reflection. That is undoubtedly why they so seldom change. Everyone seems to have a narrative of how the world works, invariably bolstered by experience. Some people may mellow with age, or with greater security. Others are what they are, and always will be, only more so with passing years.

Certain endeavors, such as science and engineering, are about ‘what’. Politics is about ‘who’. More specifically, it’s about who is on our side, who constitutes our tribe, and who is against us. Conservatives see their enemies as liberals who tax and spend and take their guns away. Liberals see the wealthy as coldly united in taking advantage of everyone else, and other conservatives as duped by demagoguery over guns and gay marriage into voting against their own interests.

Before you can have common enemies you must have a tribe, and this is why politics is personal. We automatically identify preferences and traits in people we are comfortable with, and equally in people who disturb us. If your iPod is stuffed with hip-hop, there will very likely be a large gulf between you and devotees of the symphony.

Tribes do not have to be hard and fast to be real. If you make a lot of money as a business owner, chances are you socialize mainly with people who are not your employees. But your employees will likely coalesce into their own varying social groups. A small group of women from the assembly shop will probably bond much more easily than a larger coed group ever could. Tribes of football fans seem to find a great deal to get emotional over that strikes most other people as completely pointless.

The heated public debate surrounding ‘entitlements’ is filled with facts and figures and projections, and yet very few people are ever truly animated over data. Probably not even actuaries. The heat comes from something else.

Last week I pointed out that we are a society of two-earner households (and sometimes more), and entitlements are the (admittedly flawed) social insurance that makes that possible. But entitlements disproportionately benefit the poor, and this rankles many in the tribes of the quite well-off with vivid images of no-earner households.

It isn’t hard to see why. One can find (or imagine) many examples of people who are reasonably content in conditions that others would find intolerable, say a middle-class teenager sprawled in a bedroom that would be immediately sealed and condemned by OSHA, were an inspector to stumble upon it, or the local health department. Or a strapping young man living off his girlfriend’s pittance of a wage. Or an ageless vagrant snuggling all night in a filthy corner of an alley with a bottle of something indeterminate but alcoholic. Why not someone perfectly employable, if only at minimum wage, spending her days vegetating comfortably in front of a television set purchased with her welfare check? How many of the ‘down-trodden’, one might ask, remain that way out of acquiescence?

Of course, where one tribe sees acquiescence, another sees defeat. It’s easy to imagine the workings of a market economy relentlessly separating the able from the less adept, the energetic from the ill, the naively honest and caring from the serenely unscrupulous, and tossing those of lesser pecuniary accomplishments onto the scrap heap, to rot.

Human beings, and some other mammals, sometimes have a way of dealing with problems that is shockingly counterintuitive:

There seems to be a very human trait, when faced with overwhelming adversity, to feel abused, misunderstood, or just plain cursed. To lash out, and then close up and shut down. To lay oneself down and wait to die. It’s so deeply ingrained that it must be a product of evolution. Maybe as a signal to the group of danger. Maybe to conserve energy, until the storm that is outside your control passes.

(The Blind General)

Nearly twenty years ago these opposing tribal views converged into a battle over welfare, with the result that a very complex politician by the name of William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, otherwise known as Welfare Reform. And it was a battle. Three senior officials of the Clinton administration resigned over it.

The law ended Aid for Families with Dependent Children, and created Temporary Assistance to Needy families, then tagged as Workfare. It’s effects were doubtlessly painful for many, perhaps sometimes unjustly. Yet they also provided some vindication for the conservative view.

Data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve

Data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Clink to enlarge.

(You can open a clearer version of this chart in another window. Welfare recipients were, and are, divided approximately evenly among white, African-American, and Hispanic. The selection of data was made according to what was readily available.)

  • Black line – The percentage of the labor force represented by women.
  • Blue line – The labor force participation rate of all women 20 years and older.
  • Red line – The labor force participation rate of African-American women 20 years and older.

From the end of the Second World War, American women made up a larger and larger portion of the labor force (a source of tribal – er, cultural – friction well into the ’70s and ’80s), until men and women were working in approximately equal numbers. But the labor force participation of African-American women – already high – ramped up even further with the elimination of AFDC and the introduction of TANF. A tantalizingly similar pattern seems to emerge in the labor force participation of all Americans over 25 years of age but with less than a high school diploma (the lower purple line), who were presumably over-represented on the welfare rolls.

In contrast, the upper pink line shows an opposite trend for Americans over 25 with at least some college, and this contrast tends to bolster the view that  it was ‘Workfare’ that was at least partially successful in achieving it’s stated purpose of getting welfare recipients, largely single mothers, off the rolls and into the workforce – and some of their dependent children as well, although it is true the law probably forced many of these to give up on school.

For liberals, the law’s apparent effects on rates of poverty, even among minor children, are the most confounding. There weren’t any. The rates had begun to trend downward well before the law was enacted, almost certainly the result of the Clinton economic expansion, and continued that way for some years after TANF went into effect. Poverty has risen since the ’00s, as work at an hourly wage has generally become less and less remunerative, but that is another problem altogether.

The ‘A’ in TANF stands for ‘Assistance’, and this came in the form of things like cash and vouchers, childcare, transportation, subsidies to employers, training, and tax credits. By all accounts, the assistance (albeit “Temporary”) was, and is, crucial, that stopping the welfare checks might not by itself have done much to put people to work.

One lesson from this is that if  you pay people not to work, even a pittance, a number will take you up on it. Another is that many people, if perhaps not all, stuck in seemingly intractable life situations, can be helped from government support, and even if their personal lives don’t get any easier the evidence suggests their children often end  up on a better path. (For example, this article from USA Today.)

But perhaps the larger lesson is that the word ‘entitlement’ is a stupid one, probably a vestige of distinguishing programs requiring specific appropriation from those based instead on eligibility. We need to understand these things as insurance, for society as well as individuals, and debate them accordingly.

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