Monday, January 9, 2017

On Economics, the Golden Globes, and Geographic Clustering

The recent presidential election is still an important topic for discussion among my friends, and obviously others as well, as Meryl Streep demonstrated during her Golden Globes speech last night while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award:

Streep argues that she and other celebrities need to use their power and privilege to fight Trump, who himself used power and privilege to bully. This group of wealthy celebrities who vehemently oppose Trump are perhaps one of the many groups people have used to argue that Trump's election was not about economics. However, Ben Casselman from FiveThirtyEight insists that we stop saying Trump's election had nothing to do with economics: it did, just not in the way people initially thought:
Economic hardship doesn’t explain Trump’s support. In fact, quite the opposite: Clinton easily won most low-income areas. But anxiety is a different story. Trump, as FiveThirtyEight contributor Jed Kolko noted immediately after the election, won most counties — and improved on Romney’s performance — where a large share of jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. And while there is no standard measure of economic anxiety, a wide range of other plausible proxies shows the same pattern. According to my own analysis of voting data, for example, the slower a county’s job growth has been since 2007, the more it shifted toward Trump. (The same is true looking back to 2000.) And of course Trump performed especially strongly among voters without a college degree — an important indicator of social status but also of economic prospects, given the shrinking share of jobs (and especially well-paying jobs) available to workers without a bachelor’s degree.

The role of economic anxiety becomes even clearer in the data once you control for race. Black and Hispanic Americans tend both to be poorer and to face worse economic prospects than non-Hispanic whites, but they also had strong non-economic reasons to vote against Trump, who had a history of making racist comments. Factoring in the strong opposition to Trump among most racial and ethnic minorities, Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.

The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support. “Trump Country,” as my colleague Andrew Flowers described it shortly after the election, isn’t the part of America where people are in the worst financial shape; it’s the part of America where their economic prospects are on the steepest decline.
This morning, a friend with whom I've discussed the election a great deal, sent me an article published in the Economist several years ago, which offers another - though not mutually exclusive - explanation, and may explain why myself and others who did not support Trump were so surprised by the number of votes Trump was able to earn. It's a similar phenomenon to what playwright Arthur Miller commented on in 2004: "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?" The answer is geographic clustering:
Americans are increasingly forming like-minded clusters. Conservatives are choosing to live near other conservatives, and liberals near liberals.

A good way to measure this is to look at the country's changing electoral geography. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the “Big Sort” does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighbourhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighbourhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you've heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.

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