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Thursday, February 5, 2004


 A few people, students and others, have asked the buggy prof for an updated view on the Democratic primary races now that the field is being shaken out: Lieberman no longer a candidate, Dean saying he will withdraw if he loses Wisconsin, Kearney ahead, Edwards still in contention, Clark too. The first article on this topic appeared on January 22nd. What follows is a more updated view.

Lessons for Democrats Who Want To Win

Democrats who hope to win this and other presidential elections --- not to mention Congressional ones --- have to show that they're learned from their mistakes of the past, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when the public mood shifted noticeably and Democrats continued to choose candidates like McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis who were way out of step with it . . . somewhere out in left field. Jimmy Carter, note, was only a partial exception. A Southern governor, he came to the White House after public revulsion with the Watergate scandal and the machinations of the Nixon presidency: not only did Carter sweep in against a weak candidate, Jerry Ford, but the Republicans were slaughtered in the 1974 and 1976 Congressional elections. In office, Carter --- good man, wrong job (he should have been the head of the UN or Amnesty International) --- proved a thumping disappointment, both in domestic and foreign policy. His administration only reinforced the problems the Democrats had in finding an electable candidate until Bill Clinton, maybe the best campaigner in American politics since FDR in the 1930s, and of course another Southerner, was elected.

Had Al Gore used Clinton to campaign for him in 2000, he would have probably won at least one southern state and been president. The moral? No Democrat will be elected unless he can carry some or much of the South.

The Shift in Public Mood

How did the public mood change graphically by 1980? Easy to say: survey data showed that clearly, as did electoral results.

  • The public was increasingly and rightly worried about law-and-order, as violent crime surged and Democrats looked way too often as if they were more concerned about the rights of criminals and alleged poverty behind the surging criminality than about victims and the public's right to safe streets, parks, schools, and other public places.
  • Government spending had skyrocketed in social areas, including a rapid growth of new welfare programs --- hundreds of billions between Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the mid-1960s and the 1980 race that pitted Carter against Ronald Reagan. The promise of LBJ's Great Society was that the government spending would transform the poor among African-Americans and other minorities and turn them into solid middle class citizens. The results?

    • A sharp decline in two-parent black families --- the main reason for the black-white income gap: in blunt terms, two-parent black families earn the same as two-parent white families. In Queens, New York city --- a large established city of solid lower- and middle-class families --- they actually earn more. If African Americans earn on an average about 62% of white income, it's largely because two-parent families have become a distinct minority there. (In the early 1950s, there was not much difference between whites and blacks on this score: the percentage of two-parent families in both communities was close to 90%.)

    • Likewise, violent crime burst ahead for nearly three decades. So did drug use. The black homicide rate was at one point close to 8-10 times higher than among the rest of Americans: fortunately, it is now down to 5-6 times higher, still unacceptable, but at least an encouraging trend.

    • Illegitimacy shot ahead too, and did so precisely as overburdened, usually poorly educated mothers --- some in their early teens --- could get government support for raising families. No surprise. Any economist can tell you that if you subsidize something, people's behavior toward it will change. The denial of that for two decades by sociologists and others was based on faulty stats and wishful thinking. By the mid-1990s, a good scholar of left-wing inclinations found --- clearly and unambiguously, no matter how many times he processed his data --- that every 10.0% increase in welfare spending entailed an 11.0% increase in illegitimacy. He didn't like the findings; they were nonetheless solidly based. Fortunately, teen-age illegitimacy in the US did peak in the early 1990s and has been declining since, given a big boost by bipartisan reform of welfare in the Clinton era.

Fortunately, other trends in the African-American and Hispanic-American communities did improve: a large black middle-class emerged, and educational performance rose for kids with proper family and community-support. Hispanic Americans moved into the middle class even faster, not least owing to impressive entrepreneurial skills and an unusual hard-work ethos. There is also evidence, as we'll see in a moment here, that the school performance of Hispanic Americans begins to improve by the third generation of life here; but --- the key point that will also follow in that same moment --- the continued influx of large numbers of immigrants out of Mexico and Central America keeps the overall performance of Hispanic Americans from improving. That problem is multifaceted and includes the high drop-out rate before high school graduation.

[Some Sidebar Clarification: The gap on an average between black and white students in educational performance is about 4 years, a trend that shows up before junior high school and remains that way through the 12th grade. That's an average. There are brilliantly gifted African-Americans and geniuses. Obviously. But given a bell-curve distribution of talents and IQ around a different mean, it follows that there will be fewer at the brilliant end of the distribution until school performance, a very complex matter, vastly improves. What are the main causal determinants here? They turn out in a wealth of studies, decades old by now, to be diverse and numerous: family background; individual talent and IQ count a great deal; so does internalized self-discipline. In recent research, peer-group influences and pressures loom large too. Then, too, what goes on in schools matters significantly: above all, classroom discipline and teachers' authority, demands, expectations, and skills. Still, except in unusual cases, formal schooling itself is an uphill battle if the other causal determinants of overall academic performance run strongly in the opposite direction. Spending more money appears to make little difference in outcomes.

On all this, the best recent book is Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, No Excuses: Closing the Gap in Learning, just out. Both are professors, one at Harvard and the other, Abigail Thernstrom, at the Manhattan Institute now . . . also a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights. As they show, schools can only do so much without effective family and community support for solid learning through 12 or more years of formal schooling.

As for racism as a causal influence here, it's something of a red-herring. How so?

For over a half century, to put it bluntly, racial discrimination and intolerance have markedly declined in American life, so much so that most of us seem to take pride, whether we're Democrats or Republicans, in having a black Secretary of State and National Security adviser. Both survey evidence and the rapid rise of the African-American middle class in the professions, business life, politics, local government, and in the police and military are clear here. So is the fact, clarified later in this commentary, that two-parent black families earn essentially the same as two-parent white families; if a gap in income between whites and African Americans persists, it's owing in large part to the sharp decline of the two-parent black family, something that emerged only since the early 1950s. Concerning all this, a piece of advice for those of you who are students, something you can take or not: you would do well to forget any bad indoctrination you get in ethnic studies and most sociology departments on these scores. They're at variance with serious scholarly work. That's one thing. For another thing, on social issues, both Hispanic and African-Americans are largely conservative. That includes law-and-order matters. You would never guess it listening to left-wing academics, but that's the case . . . so much so that, for instance, African-Americans were found in a survey taken after 9/11's attacks to be overwhelmingly in favor of profiling at airports and other sensitive public sites. Almost 70% favored it, compared to around 55% of whites. And all the prattle about gringo imperialism in Latin America can't conceal the fact that Hispanic-Americans are one of the most militarily distinguished groups in the United States, and have been for decades.

So why all the stress in parts of academia on racism?

The blunt answer: an intellectual con-job seems at work here.

Racism has declined to the point that those who want to blame the poor outcomes in parts of the Hispanic and African-American communities on it --- which ignores the big advances in both communities anyway --- have to resort to hidden forces as the causal determinants: AKA structural racism, mysterious and non-observable causes that are in the minds of those pushing the theory, nowhere else. Take just one instance. Good surveys of disciplinary problems in public schools, rural and urban, find that African-American students are involved 2.5 times more than whites and 5 times more than Asian-Americans. On the structural racist view, that's a sign of discrimination. Not according to good research. Several surveys, including interviews with teachers, show that African-American teachers actually have a more negative view of the behavior of their problem-students who are African-Americans than white teachers do. For those interested, the studies are cited at length in the Thernstrom book. As the Thernstroms also note, if white teachers are racist when it comes to disciplining bad behavior, why are they far more lenient with Asian-American kids than with white kids? Nor is that all. In the large the Chicago school system, to take just one school district, less than half the teachers are white, and the more numerous black students are in a school, the less prevalent they happen to be.

Quite apart from being intellectually bogus, the theory of structural racism --- however much it might be preached and poll-parroted by certain professors and publicists --- will do nothing to help overcome the learning-gap between ethnic groups until changes occur in family life, community support, school discipline and authority, and school expectations. The rest is wind-machine rhetoric . . . and what the Thernstroms rightly call "excuse-making".

Democrats would do well to shy away from any association with it. Nor is there any evidence that spending more money on schools will alone improve the academic performance of those who are doing poorly. Kansas City spent tremendous sums of money on urban schools, especially inner urban areas, for years and years. The result? Not one iota of improved performance. Improved performance, as the Thernstroms and others argue, come from maintaining good discipline in classrooms, setting solid standards, punishing trouble-makers, verifying the results of teaching, and finding qualified teachers. Even then, the Thernstroms --- despite spending some earlier chapters on the big problems of a poorly supportive family environment and peer-group pressures that denigrate serious learning --- tend to gloss over them. ]


Government Spending

Democrats have to be especially careful and responsible here, what with the party's reputation as big-spenders at taxpayer expense. Yes, all this whatever profligacy the Bush administration might be indulging in with the proposal to make the recent tax cuts permanent and begin, possibly, opening up prolonged structural federal deficits after the year 2009. At some point, Republican and Democratic politicians --- in any administration and whatever the hue of the Congress --- will have to decide which programs to fund or cut back, and what to do with taxes.

Remember here: whether economic efficiency or equity is at stake, not all government spending is needed or helpful, and the public will balk at higher taxes if they can. So we're back to asking which programs should be salvaged, which ones should be cut, which ones do we want to grow, and which ones ought to be ended once and for all? None of this is an easy matter. Economic analysis, however good, will always be diverse and ambiguous. That's one thing. Even more important, all politicians want to be re-elected --- a desire that can be rationalized in numerous respects, by the politicians themselves or by their supporters. Similarly, the heads of all bureaucratic agencies want to keep the money flowing in, whether or not they're actually serving any wider public interest.

As for the voters, they don't necessarily vote according to narrow economic interest, a result now verified in the US by numerous studies over the years. What do the studies show? Essentially this: insofar as economics counts, the public responds to two internalized concerns:

1) does the US economy look like prospering as an election approaches: if not, incumbents will be hurt, otherwise they will be helped.

2) and --- a fuzzy but discernible divide between the outlook of the affluent and less-affluent --- voters respond to what they understand about the complexities of economic life: their jobs, overall job-creation, and job security or insecurity; taxes, social security, and other government programs; the distribution of income and wealth and how fair or unfair it is; and the role of international trade and finance.

There are, remember, other motives at work in voting patterns besides economic ones, some conscious, others murkier. But to the extent economic concerns influence elections, it's not a matter of the public voting in response to self-interest, narrowly conceived.


The only Democrat I fully supported was Joe Lieberman, now no longer running for the party nomination. Unlike all the others save Dean --- at the opposite end of the policy spectrum --- he didn't waffle and straddle over Iraq; he continued to support tax cuts but said he would raise them back to their earlier levels for the very rich; he insisted that our country had to move beyond ideological polarizing and deal with concrete problems and challenges --- domestic and foreign --- in open-minded ways; and he stood and stands still for integrity and moderation.

Of the other candidates, Senator Kerry looks appealing, but his advisers better start preparing him for any vulnerabilities he has to Republican criticisms and attacks. Is he soft on law-and-order, a Democratic handicap for decades until recently? What does he mean by more consultation with allies --- a veto given to the French? What does he propose to do about illegal immigrants, at a time when polls show that 84% of Americans favor deporting them once they're discovered? What will he do to ensure our borders are controlled and terrorism reduced as a threat at home while preserving our civil liberties? Which programs will he cut, salvage, or expand, and how will they be financed? And --- given that Democratic activists are noticeably to the left of the Democratic electorate, never mind Independents and Republicans --- has he identified with cultural, social, and sexual causes that, as with earlier Democratic candidates in the 1980s and 1970s, left him at odds with the outlook and sense of morality, right or wrong, of the average American?


Bush Problems

Bush has his vulnerabilities: the early mistakes made in occupying Iraq, the impression of favoring certain business interests like Halliburton that any intelligent adviser in the White House should have warned him about --- the General Accounting Office will soon be issuing a very detailed report here --- his failure to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and come down hard on arrogant corporate machinations during the accounting scandals revealed at the start of his presidency, and the to-ing and veering over taxes and budget deficits. The buggy prof himself, to repeat, is not worried about the deficits now or in the next three or four years. It's what will happen if the tax cuts are all made permanent --- contrary to initial commitments made by the administration --- and which programs will be cut and why.

That said, if the economy continues to boom and Iraq continues to improve --- and bandwagoning to the US, the dominant trend among friends and foes in the global system, goes on rolling --- Bush will probably be unbeatable unless there is some scandal of huge proportions uncovered.


Two Big Issues Besides Government Spending and Foreign Policy For All Candidates :

(i) Illegal Immigration

Bush is also vulnerable on illegal immigration. Call it what you want, his recent proposal is a disguised Amnesty program . . . something Americans in huge number don't want, especially in a period when the US continues, year-in, year-out, to absorb over 1 million new legal immigrants. What's more, there is nothing in the President's proposals that will deal with the long-term problems of illegal immigration from Mexico: the steam-hot demographic pressures building up in that country for decades now. More specifically, in the last 65 years, Mexico's population has exploded more than five-fold amid vast gulfs between the rich and poor in that country and continued corruption and nepotism on a dizzying scale. The outcome is graphic: millions of hard-working but poorly educated, even semi-literate Mexicans seek to move north because businesses here want cheap labor and affluent families cheap servants and gardeners.

Note that the forces at work here are push-and-pull alike. It isn't just the high-pulsating incentives within Mexico to move north that are at work. The pull-forces are those just mentioned too: certain businesses and affluent families want cheap labor. Both the push- and pull-sides have to be dealt with by intelligent policies.


If not, what will likely happen? Answer: a quartet of problems will get worse.

  • The wages of American citizens at the lower end of the income spectrum, including legal immigrants in that group, will continue to lag more than they should;

  • The welfare services in those areas like Southern California will be strained, and you can hardly blame poor and often exploited Hispanic immigrants from using them where they can.

  • Over time, given the poor school performance of Hispanic immigrants and their children --- despite a laudable hard-work ethos and a no less admirable entrepreneurial willingness to create small businesses (even a gardening one) --- we are creating a future underclass at a time when our country is rushing headlong, and far faster than any other in the world, into a knowledge-based economy where effective educational qualifications are the means of economic and social advancement.

That's why the analogy, often made, with Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th is misleading. Most of them, it's true, were poorly educated peasants when they left Italy, and their children's school performance here took two or three generations to improve. When it did improve, Italian-Americans moved up rapidly in economic well-being and in all the professions, with solid progress in educational performance. Today, those American who can trace their ancestry back to that immigration wave have a higher-level of income than the average American. But note: there wasn't an unlimited population explosion in Italy --- 3000 miles away in any case --- that kept sending one wave of new immigration after another. As the Thernstroms point out in their book, No Excuses, the continued influx from south of the border keeps the educational level of Hispanic Americans from rising on the average. That's the big difference with the earlier Italian immigration. [Irish-Americans, whose ancestors streamed here in the middle and late part of the 19th century also took two or three generations to adapt to American urban life. Their adaptation was especially traumatic, given the horrific circumstances back in Ireland at the time and the social problems that followed them here: violence, petty crime, and alcoholism among them. Even so, when the influx of immigration slowed down out of Ireland, Irish-Americans moved up rapidly in educational achievement and professional achievement too; and like Italian-Americans, their income today is higher than the average.]

And the remaining problem of illegal immigration --- the fourth member of the troubling quartet? Simply said, unless illegal immigration is controlled, the public will probably turn against legal immigration and demand that it too be severely constrained. A slow-down may be desirable. A large clamp-down won't be.

Democrats who do nothing on these scores that's credible --- in the hope of winning more Latino votes in the future --- will be vulnerable to attack. Likewise, Republicans who continue to hope they can continue importing cheap labor while their families --- and those of affluent Democrats and Independents --- go on getting low-wage servants, will be vulnerable to counter-attack by Democratic candidates who develop an intelligent policy here.


(ii.) Job creation is another problem.

The economy is booming: all the recent reports on service sector business, manufacturing investment and profits, an improvement in the balance of payments current account (trade), and fast GDP growth of a non-inflationary sort.

What remains disappointing is job-creation. Unemployment peaked last spring, 20 months into the recovery after the 2001 recession: 6.3%, now down to 5.7%. Nothing surprising here: it took 15 months for jobs to recover from a much higher unemployment rate after a similarly short and shallow recession in 1991 --- though that was slow enough to topple Bush-Sr's re-election chances. Since last spring, job creation according to one widely followed measure --- the Bureau of Labor's monthly survey of 400,000 business payrolls --- has still been derisory. We need to do better. And all the more so because there has been an unfortunate tendency --- catered to by most Democratic candidates --- to blame business outsourcing and Chinese and Asian exports to this country for the lackluster employment situation.

What we need is a Democratic candidate who will show far more concern than the Bush administration has for those workers in manufacturing --- and now programmers and others whose job in information and telecommunications are being threatened in the Internet era by transfer abroad --- that the government will aid them, given that they've done nothing to deserve their lay-offs, while talking candidly to them and the American public that in a globalizing economy full of technological flux, even turmoil, more and more outsourcing of jobs is inevitable.

  • Permanent protection not only is a poor program, it's self-defeating: once you protect one industry, say steel, other industries that use those products as inputs suffer too. Good studies showed that more jobs were lost in the US economy during the 18-20 month-era of steel protection than saved in steel. We have the highest productivity in the world, and the highest standard of living, and productivity is continuing to steam ahead at remarkable and encouraging rates. One reason: the enormous competitive pressures within the US economy and from outside it.

  • Some temporary protection --- safeguards against import influxes --- can be used if it's in conformity with WTO rules and show that in two or three years the industry given it will be more competitive. That will invariably require lay-offs too.


What we need besides such limited use of safeguards are three things:

  • We need to accelerate better trade-adjustment assistance for laid-off workers, including the recent program, already tested successfully, that workers know what's best in their interests and will find their own retraining for new jobs: either in formal education or in job-training financed by business. What workers need is income-support to that end. The new labor department program pays the difference between what the workers were earning when laid-off and their current income --- either on new jobs or in formal educational training or in business-financed ones --- while they get retrained and search for better opportunities. Incentives are the key here. The program ends after a certain period: say, 18-24 months.

  • Politicians need to talk candidly to the US public and say that such changes in the job-market are inevitable: if anything, they will accelerate in a globalizing economy and our own information-based domestic economy. Fortunately, Americans show an unique willingness to start anew, move around, and look for new jobs and careers. Many even are eager for this. What they need is assistance of the sort just mentioned.

  • And politicians need to devise a program for halting the influx of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America that is adding to low-wages in the US economy, even poverty, while straining the social services in the most affected areas like Southern California. An effective guest-worker program can be instituted for, say, agricultural workers if there are no Americans willing to take that kind of backbreaking job. The jobs should have at least minimum wages of the legal sort, decent housing, and decent access to schooling and health treatment. At the end of the contract, the workers have to return to Mexico or Central America. How to ensure this? A third of their wage can be kept in separate, interest-earning bank accounts that the workers can't have access to until they are resettled in their home countries.

Will they nonetheless try to return? Many, maybe most, might not if they can use the saved money for starting businesses at home: remember, Mexican workers here, to single them out, are enormously hard-working and willing to start businesses. If, however, they try to come back illegally, that is a problem of ensuring effective border controls; and it is simple demagogy to claim that we can't do this. The problem is a lack of political will: on the part of Democrats (and some Republicans) chasing after Hispanic votes in the future, and businesses and affluent families looking for cheap employees.

[Sidebar clarification The Bureau of Labor uses two different cross-checking surveys to estimate unemployment. One we've mentioned: monthly surveys of 400,000 businesses of all sort and their payroll trends. The other is a monthly survey, based on random sampling techniques, of households. There is a gap between them, which first emerged in the recovery after the 1991 recession and has appeared again. In a word, the household survey shows lower unemployment that would bring the rate down from around 5.7% toward 5.2 or 5.3%. Why does the gap exist? Apparently, as the Bureau itself notes, it hasn't included lots of new small start-up businesses, whether one-person or several, and won't be able to do that until more time goes on.

A further complication arises too. The Bureau's household surveys also probe whether someone not in the work force was in it recently. If so, the surveys then ask why the person dropped out. Some simply retire; others are discouraged and stop looking. That would raise the unemployment rate from 5.7% to over 9.0%.

But note: the complication doesn't end there either. Some of those who dropped out entered the work force in the last 1990s during the boom era, specifically to take advantage of the rapid rise in wages --- not least at the bottom of the income distribution (the lowest quintile). In many urban or suburban areas, unemployment was so low that the minimum wage being offered was double or in some cases almost triple the legal threshold. At the other end of the wage-scale, retired executives also came back into the work force with big enticements. Unless we get far more detailed knowledge, we can't be sure what the numbers of discouraged workers really signify, though almost certainly the majority are people who, in the slow recoveries after 1991 and the 2001 recession, couldn't find the kind of work they were looking for, and the reasons why they might not take jobs either elsewhere in the country (say, for family reasons) or jobs at a lower wage or in a different occupation.]


Replies: 2 comments

Yah, in '96. Al Gore also would be President if he had won New Hampshire, which was pretty close. I'm not sure, but other than Florida, which I would call an anomolous situation, almost a "Perfect Storm", I don't think Gore was closer to winning any Southern state than he was to winning N.H.

Perot effect: I may be being pedantic here, but exit polling at the time showed that if Perot wasn't in the race, Clinton would have won anyhow. Of course, the counter-argument is that if things were different, they'd have been different. If Perot wasn't in the race adding to Bush (Sr)'s woes by targeting mainly him, perhaps Bush the Father would have overcome Clinton.

But the "Perot Effect" took on significance in Republican circles and because of polls in the late '90s that showed that if people had it all to do over again, they'd have re-elected Bush. But in real life we never step into the same river twice. People had gotten over their anger at Bush sr. by then - possibly the way they'll get over their anger at Bush II - too late to do him any electoral good.

As for this election, looking at state-by-state situations it's hard to see a Southern state where Kerry has as good a shot at a pickup as he has in N.H. & Ohio. Ohio in particular is a Bush soft spot.

Posted by Porphyrogenitus @ 03/10/2004 06:26 PM PST

The times, they are a-changin'. At least in the sense that, however a Democratic candidate won in the past, a Southern Strategy is unlikely to be one that will win for them on the margin: winning Southern states won't win them an election they wouldn't win otherwise (*ahem* Clinton. Clinton would have won even without his Southern victories). Ohio & N.H. are better targets for Dem pickups in a close election.

I post about it here.


Thank you for the comment.

Still . . . if Gore had won one southern state in 2000, he would have also won the electoral vote. Presumably, you're talking about the 1996 Clinton race: he was the incumbent, the economy was booming, the country was at peace, and he faced a weak candidate. In 1992, Clinton needed to win several Southern states to win the White House. Even then, Ross Perot's third-party vote siphoned off mainly Republican voters from Bush-Sr.'s support.

Even Howard Dean, in a clumsy manner, recognized the need last fall to court Southern Democrats or potential Democratic voters. His patronizing references reflected, among other things, poor political judgment that eventually proved to be his undoing in every primary race so far.

Posted by Porphyrogenitus @ 02/10/2004 10:39 PM PST