This is the third of five pieces in an occasional series, derived from recent interviews with scholars at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts.
The health of any nation’s democracy can’t be separated too far from the health of the nation’s economy. The United States has been, for a long time, a wealthy nation, but we do have ups and downs and constant tensions over whether our wealth is reasonably well distributed or concentrated too heavily in too few hands.
Economic grievances, well-founded or just widely perceived, are a breeding ground for political turmoil, including in the U.S. election of 2016. White working-class males, who over much of recent history had been part of the Democratic coalition, became one of the key elements of the coalition that elected Donald Trump president, and polling continues to show that they are a key element of his coalition going into 2020. Whether or not Trumpism has really made their lives better, white working-class males remain a key part of his electoral coalition.
As part of a series of interviews I had last summer with University of Minnesota scholars, I asked professor Fatih Guvenen for help in understanding Trump’s appeal to that demographic.
Guvenen, the Curtis L. Carlson Professor of Economics, focuses on issues of income and wealth distribution at a level of granular detail and complexity that will blow your mind, if you let him get rolling, as he did one recent day when I asked him about how changes in wealth, income and even social status help explain how changes in wealth and income patterns have interacted with voting patterns over recent history.
Changes and misunderstandings
“There has been a huge rise in wealth inequality over the past 40 years,” he said, but it is often oversimplified and misunderstood, and both the changes and the misunderstandings can pack a political punch.
“The U.S. economy is growing. But we have a decomposition. Not everyone is getting the benefit. We know where the money goes. It goes to the top 1 or 2 percent. And, more than in the past, the money goes to women.” He refers here to a decades-long pattern of women entering the workforce, and more recent breakthroughs of women into many high-paying fields formerly dominated by men.
“But the median male, these guys are getting less and less…. Tens of millions of white males are poorer than their fathers were. And they heard nobody [in the political realm] speaking to them or about them.” Guvenen said. “During the same time, by the way, a woman’s lifetime income went up by 60 percent.”
Some Democrats railed against Wall Street and the high pay of CEOs and rising concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent. But the explanation for the decline in the wealth and status of working-class white males wasn’t fundamentally about CEO pay or Wall Street excesses, Guvenen said.
“If you took all the gains from the 1 percent and distributed it to the whole rest of the population, everyone would get two or three hundred dollars,” he said. “I’m not the friend of the CEOs,” Guvenen said, but their pay was not what was driving the decline in wealth and status of white working-class males.
Promised to bring jobs back
Along came Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, which referred vaguely back to a time when working-class jobs paid good wages and rising wages, and said that those good jobs had gone away, and, most especially, that Trump was going to bring them back.
Everyone has grievances, and many grievances are linked to a perception that some category that includes them is being discriminated against or is having problems that no one seems to care about, Guvenen said. Immigrants, people of color and other ethnic minorities, women — these are all groups that have issues that members of those groups think should be attended to. Those grievances and ways to address them are regularly discussed.
But America’s white working-class males have seen their status and incomes declining. They feel aggrieved about the change in their power and status over recent decades. And they don’t like it. But no one was talking about their grievances. And it is, almost literally, killing them.
He referred me to a famous paper written a few years ago by scholars Ann Case of Princeton and Angus Deaton of USC, which found that life expectancy has been rising for almost all groups across the industrialized world since the 1990s. But the exception has been middle-aged white males in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less.
‘Deaths of despair’
Their life expectancy has been falling, in part by increases in what the paper called “deaths of despair” — death by drugs, alcohol and suicide. Driven by those trends, Case and Deaton found, “mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015.”
I asked Guvenen whether he believed Trump’s policy prescriptions were likely to deliver for this group, which did so much to elect him president. He said no. Mostly the policy ideas don’t address the real reasons that certain classes of U.S. jobs have become less remunerative, or have disappeared.
Undocumented immigrants do not work in high-wage factory jobs. So a wall on the border, even if it stopped the traffic, wouldn’t help laid-off factory workers get their high-wage jobs back. “You can find some small examples where someone might get some benefit out of not having to compete with an illegal immigrant for a job. But those instances are small and few compared to the big picture of what is causing those workers to feel downward pressure on their incomes, their status and the quality of life,” Guvenen said.
Far more Americans face job loss or downward pressure on wages for reasons that don’t match up well with Trumpism. For example, said Guvenen:
“I used to live near Pittsburgh. All those steel mills. Thousands of jobs. Where did those jobs go? Mostly not to China. To automation. To technological change. A few years ago, Blockbuster stores were a huge business that employed tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. There were over 25,000 blockbuster stores in the world. Where did those jobs go? Not to China. Those jobs disappeared” when the DVR technology for watching movies at home became obsolete.
Products made better, cheaper in China
There’s more reality to the Trumpian argument that good-paying U.S. factory jobs, like furniture manufacturing jobs in North Carolina, have migrated to China, Guvenen said. But the reason those jobs migrated is that “in China they make the same thing, better, for a fraction of the price.”
If most economists agree that the Trumpian solutions cannot restore the lost jobs, why has that key white-working-class-male demographic decided that Trump can bring back the “great America” that worked for their fathers?
Said Guvenen: “Suppose somebody has a very dangerous illness that’s going to kill them, and it seems that there is no cure for it, and then someone comes along and says ‘I have a magic potion to cure you.’ You want to believe in it.
“So, Donald Trump used some of the right keywords. He talked about manufacturing decline, which yes, is declining. But it’s declining pretty much everywhere in the world. Well-understood dynamics explain it. But if you are a 50-year-old auto worker, it’s very hard for you to retrain for another occupation that will help you maintain your income. You want to believe in something that deals with your situation.
“I think it’s like many populists we have seen in history. You offer very simple prescriptions. First you diagnose the problem. And then you keep talking about it over and over again so the person feels worse about it. And then you offer some magic solutions. You say: ‘I’ll impose tariffs. I’ll tax those U.S. firms that have moved manufacturing jobs abroad.’ And, because economics is complicated and because people are desperate, they are inclined to say, ‘Yes, that will work.’”