Category: Political Economy

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An Introduction to “Rural-Proofing,” and Why We’re Unlikely to Implement It in the U.S.

I learned about the concept and practice of “rural-proofing” on my first trip down under, in 2010. It’s a term Aussie law- and policy-makers use regularly–especially at places like the Rural and Regional Law and Justice Conference, which I keynoted that year. Rural-proofing refers to the process of vetting proposed laws and policies to determine whether and how they will “work” in rural communities, a way of avoiding unintended consequences that might leave rural places worse off than they previously were–or (substantially) worse off than urban places.  You might think of it as an environmental impact statement, but with the focus on rural livelihoods rather than on the wider environment.  It uses rurality as a the critical lens in relation to a purposeful investigation into the consequences of a proposed law, policy or funding scheme.

Turns out it’s not just Aussies who do this rural-proofing thing.  You can find discussions of rural proofing in New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, too.  Here’s an academic paper that compares the process in the U.K. to that in Australia.  I especially like this New Zealand statement about the foundational tenets that support rural-proofing:

  • All people, no matter where they live, should have a reasonable ability to live, work, and to contribute to and be part of New Zealand society.
  • Rural people should have the same health outcomes as people living in urban areas.
  • Rural people should have access to services that are equivalent to primary health services in urban centres.
  • Primary care services in rural areas should be comprehensive, sustainable, provide continuity of care by the right person, at the right time, in the right place.
  • Rural communities should be resourced at a level that enables providers to provide the services required.
  • Rural people should have access to primary care services that will be accessible into the future.

The New Zealand document also address the “why” rural matters:

• 70% of merchandise exports

• Rural based tourism

• Rural access to healthcare

• Sustainable health services

• Maintaining quality services

I find the first two bullet points especially interesting because in my many years of studying rural people and places, I have often circled back to the conclusion that rural America will not get its due–by which I mean what its people need to flourish in light of its struggles to achieve economies of scale–unless and until it/we/they are able to convince urban America that rural people and places matter, that they are worthy and worth something, that rural and urban are actually interdependent.  (Think Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence theory).

What rurality is “worth,” of course, typically boils down to what rural folks produce:  food, products of extraction, rural recreation/tourism revenue.  These are pretty big deals, of course, but they are shockingly easy to lose sight of in contemporary political discourse.  This is a huge topic, and I won’t dig in further here except to note that I always chuckle at images of skyscrapers covered in gardens as the future of how we will feed cities.  We may be able to grow more food closer to cities and thus reduce the carbon footprint associated with agriculture, but the U.S. will not continue to play the role it now plays in feeding the world without vast acreage devoted to food production. Most of that acreage will continue to be in places pejoratively referred to as flyover states, in places which are by some definition rural.

Further, the thought of rural America “getting its due”( in the sense I assume is appropriate) increasingly looks like a pipe dream.  First, in spite of the fact that Trump played to rural America during his campaign, many are pointing out that he is now not only neglecting rural America, he is seriously and even actively undermining it.  Read Paul Krugman’s column focusing on the consequences of Trump’s budget for West Virginia.  Other analyses focused on agriculture and rural infrastructure under Trump are here, here and here.

But it is not only Trump and Republican neglect of rural America that concerns me.  Nearly as frightening these days is liberal/Democratic disdain for rural people and places.  Indeed, it’s a bi-partisan endeavor these days.  Bear in mind that Michael Katz, an economist for the FCC, said back in 2009:

Other people don’t like to say bad things about rural areas.  So I will.

The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided, from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.

As for the political economy of rural America in 2017, take this story from today’s Wall Street Journal:  Janet Adamy and  Paul Overberg report under the rather dramatic (but apparently justified) headline, “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’.”  The story recounts some seriously bleak data:

In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).

As discouraging as these data are many readers’ responses to the story.  I’ve taken some screenshots from Janet Adamy’s Twitter very lengthy feed about the piece:

 

These screen shots are nearly impossible to read, so let me highlight a few comments (other than some rural dwellers saying they didn’t vote for Trump):

Is anyone telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and lock up their addicts, or is that response for city dwellers only?

My response:  why, yes, that is exactly what I read J.D. Vance to suggest should happen in his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy.  I’m assuming lots of folks agree with him because the book has sold nearly a million copies and is still on the NYTimes bestseller list after nearly a year.  (My thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy are here, with links embedded to three others posts in the series here on Concurring Opinions).

This comment is representative of another thread in response to the WSJ story:

they all vote consistently against their own interests while demonizing progressives of all stripes. I can’t bring myself to care.

I see a lot of this “their own damned fault” rhetoric on social media (also applies to the white working class, with which rural populations have significant overlap, not least in the national imaginary).  I saw plenty of badmouthing rural folks and their livelihoods before the 2016 election (I wrote a whole darn law review article about it in 2011), but I’m convinced it is far more widespread now.  Indeed, a colleague asked me this spring why I was advocating for poor rural white folks in relation to environmental injustice episode.  The colleague explained his/her question:

 Some of these people were quite powerful in some domains, even exercising electoral power over California (and me) in the last election.

I understand the annoyance and agitation, but I’m not willing to give up on rural dwellers or the white working class–not yet anyway (huge topic; read my other work; more to follow…).

These comments suggest that liberals are not very sympathetic to rural folks and that a particular backlash against them is not only permissible, but may even be in fashion now.  All of this raises the question whether a critical mass of folks/leaders give a damn about rural Americans, never mind food production, extraction and (even!) our next foray into the rural and remote recesses for a wilderness experience (Yellowstone, anyone?  maybe the Great Smoky Mountains or the Shenandoah National Park if you are back east).

Nevertheless, assuming for a moment that we might care enough about rural America to engage in rural-proofing, let’s return to the New Zealand statement I quoted above.  This NZ policy document points up the fact that rural proofing is often discussed and done in relation to rural health initiatives (and here’s a tool for that purpose; read more here).  Yet the concept and practice need not be so limited.  Indeed, some of my earlier work, while not using the term “rural-proofing,” has illustrated the mis-match between federal law- and policy-making on the one hand and rural realities on the other.  In Missing the Mark:  Welfare Reform and Rural Poverty, I argued that “welfare reform” in 1996 didn’t “work” in rural places because of rural differences–in particular, limited job markets, lack of child care, and lack of transportation infrastructure/public transit that could actually get people to the jobs they were required to have in order to continue to receive welfare.

This is a topic that Adamy and Overberg pick up in their story today (quoting me, I’m pleased to report), and it’s one to which I’ll return in my next post, which will focus on rural labor markets in relation to this practice of rural-proofing.

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On Ree Dolly, J.D. Vance and Empathy for Low-Income Whites (or, What Hillbilly Elegy is Good for)

This is my fourth and final installment about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

One striking aspect of the wide-spread kudos heaped on Hillbilly Elegy is that readers do not seem put off by J.D. Vance.  That is, many (most?) readers appear to sympathize (for lack of a better word) with him, even if they cannot empathize with the circumstances of his upbringing and his struggle socially to transition to Yale Law.  When you consider how many outlets exist for poking fun at low-income, low-education whites, sometimes referred to as “white trash” (think:  Wal-Mart shoppers,  lots of reality television shows poking fun at the white working class, lots of hateful Tweets demeaning this group, the presumptive Trump voter), this attraction to Vance is surprising.  Is it really possible to “clean up” so well, so quickly?  I knew Yale law degrees were valuable, but Vance’s seems to be working miracles.

This generally positive response to Vance reminds me of a similar response to Ree Dolly, the 17-year-old heroine of the movie “Winter’s Bone,” which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2010.  If you saw the film and remember it, that is likely because Jennifer Lawrence starred as Ree.  Indeed, for this her breakout role,  Lawrence was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress. (The film was nominated for best picture).  Ree is the daughter of what would widely be considered a “white trash” family.  Yet she is nothing short of heroic as she courageously rises above the meth-making and hillbilly-version-of-organized-crime circumstances of her extended family.  She takes plenty of hard knocks–literally as well as psychologically–in the quest to prove her father’s death so that she can prevent loss of the (very modest and “trashy”) family home to the bail bond company that secured her father’s release after his last foray into the illicit drug scene.  Along the way, however, it is clear that Ree prioritizes the well-being of her younger siblings–and keeping her nuclear family together in the face of her mother’s mental incapacity and father’s death.  I recorded some of my thoughts about “Winter’s Bone,” Ree and our reaction to her and her milieu back in 2010 here and here.   The most salient quote from one of those posts follows:

Film critics have touted Ree as brilliant, a feminist heroine, a modern-day Antigone.  Like many film goers to whom I have spoken, they look past her trappings and her kin, and they see her value.  This is progress—but then, Ree’s character and courageous acts are exceptional.

A.O. Scott, in his summary of that year’s films under the headline “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” called Ree “exotic” and “an other.”  He wrote of many of that years protagonists (which included Mark Zuckerberg!):

What they all really want is entrée into the middle class, which is why these movies can set them up as objects of audience sympathy and identification.

So Ree is brilliant and we can sympathize and identify with her, while J.D. is compassionate and discerning.  (And if Ree is Antigone, what figure from Greek tragedy might J.D. be?)  I guess I’m surprised by these assessments because I grew up a little too close to where both of these “characters” come from.  As I have suggested elsewhere in this series of posts, maybe my response, my skepticism is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  (And to be clear, I feel contempt for neither Ree nor J.D., but my relationship to both is complicated by considerable familiarity with their milieu.)

Or maybe I’ve just heard so much denigration of low-income whites in my years as an academic that I expect the worst (at least in this regard) from liberal elites.  A number of scholars of socioeconomic class have observed that hillbillies, rednecks and such are the only “identity” group not protected by political correctness (see here, here and here, collecting sources; plus herehere, and here).  Given that it’s ok to engage in micro-aggressions (and worse!) against low-income, low-education whites, what gives for Ree and J.D.?  How can they be heroes?  Presumably because  both rise above their circumstances.  (Interestingly, both also remain loyal to parts of their families, despite those family members’ anti-social practices).

If we coastal elites have this capacity to respond with compassion to Hillbilly Elegy despite the provenance of its protagonist, maybe the book has some redeeming value after all.  Maybe it’s good for something besides satisfying our voyeuristic curiosity about the enigmatic Trump voter (and, of course, making J.D. Vance a very rich man).  Maybe, in fact, it’s particularly useful for educators–including legal educators.

In January, I participated in an AALS 2017 panel on “Cultivating Empathy.” I spoke about how the use of film excerpts in both my Law and Rural Livelihoods and Feminist Legal Theory courses helped to foster student empathy for low-income, low-education whites.  My law school, UC Davis, features an overwhelmingly left-leaning student body, and as a community we were nearly universally flummoxed by the outcome of the 2016 Election.  In a sense, our law school is its own echo chamber.  Yet I noticed that when I showed even brief excerpts from films such as “The Accused,” “North Country,” and “Winter’s Bone,” students responded with great empathy to characters like Sarah Tobias, Josey Aimes, and Ree Dolly–all low-income, low-education, working-class white women.   If we see these socioeconomically disadvantaged whites first as human beings and only secondarily as  (presumptive) Trump voters,  it’s not so hard to empathize with them, to process the stories of their lives, to “get into their heads” in some small way and to imagine having to make the very difficult choices they must make to survive, never mind thrive.

After that AALS panel, a  law professor who teaches at a state university law school in the midwest approached me and said he thought my plea for a more empathic approach to low-education whites could help him and his colleagues better understand their students, most of whom are conservative to one degree or another, and many who are Trump supporters.  Of course, not all conservative white voters are low-income and/or low-education (an angle on the 2016 election often lost on the media; see more here and here) but some overlap exists.  So, wouldn’t it be great if law profs could take their generally positive reaction to J.D. Vance and Hillbilly Elegy and use it to inform how they engage their own students who may be similarly situated to J.D. before he got that fancy schmancy Yale Law degree.  In this regard, we should credit Yale Law’s Amy Chua, who saw value in Vance as a student and mentored him while we was at Yale.  (One can’t help wonder the extent to which the sensationalism of Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother inspired similar sensationalism in Hillbilly Elegy, but I digress).

UC Davis Undergraduate Education has just launched a #firstgen initiative.  In its initial phase, the program encourages professors who are the first generation in their family to get a college degree to “out” themselves (as by wearing to class these cool T-shirts they have supplied to us) so that first gen students can find us, seek us out for mentoring.  The program also aims to educate faculty about first gen student perspectives, encouraging us to be transparent about expectations and grading, reminding us that not all of our students will have parents who can coach them toward success, who will understand the significance of opportunities on offer, let alone how to actively seek out those opportunities.  Among the startling figures that have come to the fore with this new UC Davis initiative:  42% of our undergrads are first gen, a number that no doubt reflects the enormous racial and ethnic diversity of California and our student body.  Further, more than 300 faculty members from across campus have self identified as first gen by joining an online faculty directory.  At an initial gathering, I noticed that many of them/us appeared to be non-Hispanic white, though perhaps that is a generational thing.  Our law school also has a #firstgen program in the works.  A few other law schools already boast these, and numerous undergraduate programs do, too (see more here, here, herehere, and here).

These “#firstgen” initiatives are important in that they remind us to see and assist  not only racial and ethnic minority students, but also would-be class migrants who are white.  We must be mindful of what all of these students need to succeed in a very different world than the one from whence they come.  White skin is not a magic tonic.  And as much as Hillbilly Elegy annoys me (see prior posts here, here and here for elaboration), if the book is good for something , that something may be cultivating empathy among those who can help aspiring class migrants–whatever their race or ethnicity, remembering that white people “have race,” too–to achieve the increasingly elusive “American Dream” via access to higher education.

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Rurality and “Government Retreat”

The New York Times ran a story yesterday, dateline Roseburg, Oregon (population 21,000), headlined “Where Anti-Tax Fervor Means All Government Will Cease.”  This is not exactly breaking “news.”  This story has been around in some form, with varying degrees of urgency, for about five years.  See earlier installments here, here and here.  The gist of it is that many rural counties in the West which rely on federal funding streams (e.g., PILT, Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act monies, covered by stories herehere and here), have seen those monies taper off and in some cases dry up.

I want to be clear before going further that the federal funding streams these counties rely on are not giveaways, at least by my assessment.  They are intended to replace, in some small measure, tax dollars the counties cannot generate because property taxes cannot be levied on federal lands, which comprise vast portions of the West.  (The existence of such extensive public lands is also associated with other controversies, of course; read more here and here).  The existence of public lands may also have an impact on other ways local governments might choose to plump up their public coffers (read more here and here), and the existence of these lands limits the ways in which locals can earn a living, as in the timber industry or in ranching.

As a result of these funding cuts, many nonmetropolitan counties–those least likely to have other funding sources (taxes on robust business enterprises, for example)–are  cutting critical services.  Most news reports to date have focused on cuts to law enforcement, which has cultivated some “informal justice”/citizens “militias” type activity.  But this NYTimes story focuses on cuts to other services.  Highlighted in the story and illustrated by a photo is the fact that Douglas County–at 5,134 square miles, more than 2.5 times the size of Delaware and nearly as large as Connecticut–is about to close the last of the 11 library branches it previously boasted.  The one in Roseburg, the county seat, will be the last to go.  Kirk Johnson, NY Times reporter based out west, reports that Douglas County residents recently voted down a ballot measure that “would have added about $6/month to the tax bill on a median-priced home,” a measure that would have saved the libraries from crisis and closure.

I could digress here into a long discussion about how critically important libraries are for all sorts of reasons, not least these days that–in my suburb and many other California locales–they accommodate many homeless people during the day, providing them a lifeline (the Internet) to identifying and getting services.  I know that my family and I use our neighborhood library on a weekly basis, even though I have ready access to a fabulous academic library.  A 2013 story about the particular benefits of libraries in rural communities is here, and broadband is a big part of the story.   A more recent library story out of rural northern California about the power of books in children’s lives is here.

But Johnson makes the point that libraries are not the only thing on the chopping block in Douglas County.  The failed library initiative is like many others in Douglas and neighboring counties (e.g., Curry and Josephine) that voters have rejected in the last decade.  Another very sobering illustration of the southwest Oregon situation is the fact that Curry County has only one full-time employee in the elections division of its clerk’s office and therefore may have difficulty holding an election this fall.  (I’ve documented here and here similar phenomena in my home county in Arkansas, another place heavily reliant on PILT because of the presence of public lands set aside as Ozark National Forest and Buffalo National River).

There is so much I could say about this particular rural trend to shrink government, sometimes to an extreme degree.  But I just want to make a few points in regard to theoretical legal geography regarding how spatiality and law are co-constitutive.   I have argued as a related matter that rural society and rural spatiality are co-constituting, as reflected in a less robust presence of law, legal actors, and other institutions and agents of the state in rural places.  I framed it as “space tames law tames space” in a frustrating feedback loop:  it is expensive for the state to do its work when the area to be governed is vast and when residents emotionally and intellectually resist vesting power (including via tax dollars)  in the state.  I would characterize this feedback loop as disabling, though I understand some rural residents of a more libertarian bent would see it as enabling–enabling the individual, that is, fostering self-sufficiency.

My argument about the relative “lawlessness” of rural and remote places has not been uncontroversial.  Lots of folks see small towns as the epitome of order and law-abiding-ness and have pushed back against my argument.  Yet it seems that my point is very well illustrated by this detail from Johnson’s article, which he offers as an illustration of “government retreat”:

It looks like the house on Hubbard Creek Road in Curry County, where owners went for more than 10 years without paying any property taxes at all because the county assessor’s office couldn’t field enough workers to go out and inspect. The house, nestled in the woods with a tidy blue roof and skylights, dodged more than $8,500 in property taxes that would have gone to support the schools, fire district and sheriff, because government had gotten too small to even ask. So things fall even further, with cuts to agencies that actually bring in revenue prompting further cuts down the line.

So there you have it:  a community envisages itself as not needing law, regulation and the state, so it underfunds government to such an extent that the state can no longer support itself and perform (m)any government functions.  This, in turn, further fuels the imaginary–and reality–of an anemic and unhelpful state.  The state is thus discredited, thereby further undermining the state’s ability to justify the raising of revenue or to do, well, much of anything.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  the state’s inability to be effective?  or the perception that it would necessarily be ineffective and a consequent decision not to fund it, thereby rendering it (more?) ineffective, unhelpful, and inefficient?

As for when a community goes too far in its retreat from public institutions…well, the defeat of the library tax crossed that line for some.  Johnson quotes a Douglas County resident, 54-year-old Terry Bean, a construction manager who supported the library tax, though he had opposed other local taxes.  In explaining his position he invoked another concept associated with rural livelihoods:  community.

There is conservative, said Bean, flicking a cigarette butt into the bed of his pickup truck, and then there is community. And people got them confused.

The library, he said, was something a person could use — for computers, if not for books — even if that person didn’t have a dime, and he still respects that.

And that, in turn, brings me back to my earlier point:  doesn’t everyone reap communitarian benefits from the public library?  even the richest of folks who may never darken its doors.

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The “Shock and Awe” Response to Hillbilly Elegy: Pondering the Role of Race

In my prior posts about Hillbilly Elegy (here and here), I’ve noted some reasons for my struggle to understand the overwhelmingly positive response to J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir.  Actually, positive is too general a descriptor.  There is often what I call a “shock and awe” character to the response, a “there are actually people like Vance and his family out there in America” response.  Who knew?  And who knew male seahorses gestate the offspring?  Who knew the Okavango River flows inland?  Who knew the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, excepting some small African tribes?  But I digress …

It’s not clear if this initial incredulity regards (1) the white socioeconomic disadvantage and dysfunction from whence Vance comes or (2) his meteoric rise from Appalachia to Yale Law School and on to Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital.  I’ve already opined on why we should not be surprised by the former, so in this post I’ll say more about the latter.

First, however, to illustrate just how over the top the media response to Hillbilly Elegy has been, let me quote a few reviews.  Bloomberg identified the book as “the most popular choice for best book of 2016.”  Ok, well, popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, but the venerable New York Times, my own media polestar, called the book a “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass.”  I’ve already explained why I don’t see it as discerning.  As for compassionate?  Maybe in the vein of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” but that doesn’t seem to be a thing any more–if ever it was.  I assume that The Economist reviewer would agree with me on the (lack of) compassion point because he concludes that Vance is a “conservative in the oldest and best sense.”  It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that this reviewer opines that “you will not read a more important book this year.”  In short, the reviewer falls hook, line and sinker for Vance’s tough love, personal responsibility prescription, calling it a “bracing tonic.”

One reason I am surprised by the glowing reviews (especially among left-leaning outlets) and the “millions sold” is that I would not have expected 21C Americans–particularly among the chattering classes (and I know a shocking number of law professors who have read this book)–to be so interested in a story of white class migration.  I thought Horatio Alger characters were a creature of history, that American dream, up-by-your-bootstraps narratives were yesterday’s news.  Didn’t our attraction to such delusional thinking fade once we discovered/identified/named white privilege?

In the world in which I live and work, white privilege is often referenced as if a magic bullet, a miraculous cure-all that permits people with white skin to achieve any and all that their hearts desire.  I often hear phrases like “white people’s problems” and “you’re white, you’ll be alright” tossed about casually.  At a minimum, whiteness greases the proverbial skids on the road to success, though we often treat it as much more potent than that.

Broadly speaking, the academy is highly attuned to structural racism and bias based on race/ethnicity–and appropriately so, in my opinion.  Peggy McIntosh tells us that the invisible knapsack of white privilege means that whites “can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which [they] can afford and in which [they] would want to live.”  (“[W]hich they can afford” is a rather important qualifier, no?)  Bernie Sanders told us during the 2016 primary:

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto.  You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

But this isn’t accurate, and surely–somewhere in the deep recesses of our memories and minds–we are aware of this inaccuracy, this failure to see or acknowledge white poverty.  Yet it seems to have taken Hillbilly Elegy‘s publication to surface that reality, however opaquely.  Still, how many of you have made the connection between what (I hope) you know about the existence of white poverty and the economic landscape depicted in this bestseller?

A majority of those experiencing poverty self-identify as white.  Yet like the academy, the media very often conflate our racism problem with our poverty/inequality problem.  See here and here.  The suggestion is often that black people are poor because they’re black, and of course there’s truth to that.  Trina Jones expresses the phenomenon eloquently:

Somehow . . . race and class become mutually reinforcing. Blacks are poor because they are Black and Blackness gets constructed as poor. That is, poverty becomes a constitutive element of Blackness. Blacks are not only lazy [and] intellectually and morally inferior, they are also poor.

So if we have conflated blackness with dependency, have we conflated whiteness with affluence, well-being, and independence/agency?  Arguably, yes.  And if we have done that, where does that leave low-income, low-education whites?  (This is a H/YUUUGE topic, of which I barely scratch the surface in this post).  If they slump or find themselves downwardly mobile or otherwise fail, we look away, ignoring or “forgetting” them (consider the headlines here and here).  If, like Vance, they ultimately succeed–if they become like “us”–we often discount that success by attributing it to their white privilege.

Given that tendency, isn’t it interesting that we’re so captivated by Vance’s story?  (Further illustrating that intrigue, did you know the movie rights to Hillbilly Elegy have been purchased and Ron Howard will be involved in making the film.  I can’t help wonder/worry what combination of “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dukes of Hazard,” “Honey Boo Boo” “Duck Dynasty” “Deliverance” and ???? will get depicted.  Plus, who’s going to play J.D.?  Sorry, digressing again).

Furthermore, would we feel the same about Hillbilly Elegy if Vance were our colleague?  (Btw, even friends and acquaintances who liked the book are telling me they are tired of seeing and hearing Vance on CNN; guessing it’s a good thing I don’t watch TV.)  What would it be like to have Vance on your law faculty?  Would that just be too awkward given how different he is from “us”?  What if he showed up, fresh out of Ohio State, as our law student?  (that’s a topic for a future post).  Maybe we relish Vance’s story, his success as a token and at a distance, but we can probably imagine what it would feel like to have him around in the flesh, too close for comfort.  We know he wouldn’t really fit in.  And maybe part of the reason legal academics (of all people) and other elites seem to savor the story is that Yale Law School is the ultimate icing on the educational cake.  Maybe we are attached to that “up by the bootstraps” narrative after all.  Maybe Vance affirms our desire to be engaged in–and to be the products of–a meritocratic enterprise.

And that brings me to another “race” question:  Would the Black/African American equivalent of Hillbilly Elegy have spent so many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list?   Or could/would such a hypothetical book–in an era when the Obamas’ autobiographies have been valued much more highly than prior U.S. presidents–leave Hillbilly Elegy in the dust?  Maybe so.  In fact, we may already have our answer to that question in Dreams from my Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance.   

Oh, and for the record, I love that book.  Really love it, as reflected in some of my ponderings about it in 2009.  Barack Obama is not only a much finer writer than Vance, I found his reflections more thoughtful, mature, nuanced (and maybe he had a better editor because I don’t recall him going on and on and on).  But I admit that familiarity breeds contempt, and Obama told me a story and introduced me to a world I didn’t already know.  Sadly, I can’t say the same about Vance.

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Local journalism as antidote to echo chambers and fake news

Have you noticed all the journalistic tourism to “Trump country” in the aftermath of election 2016?  A very recent example is here, and I have collected numerous stories in posts over at my own blog, Legal Ruralism, here and here.  Of course, some of these intrepid journalists were in places like southern Ohio before the day of doom (as here), and many of those have since returned to what I shall call the scene of the crime.  See more examples here and here.

My personal favorite for shoe leather effort and extraordinary insights is this piece by Alec MacGillis of ProPublica, “Revenge of the Forgotten Class,” published just a few days after the election.  It’s based on the author’s various 2016 visits to Ohio and Pennsylvania, right up to Election Day.  For what it’s worth, I see the best recent journalistic offerings about the working class–with the most compassionate reporting–coming from MacGillis, author of The Cynic, a biography of Mitch McConnell and  brilliant commentaries (including here and here), and from former bond trader Chris Arnade, who brought us this last summer.  Follow them for the real deal–if you have the stomach for it.

But what I want to focus on today is not so much this national reporting about poor and working class whites (who, incidentally, often overlap considerably with the rural folks I’ve been writing about for more than a decade).  While this reporting can be excellent, it often features a voyeuristic slant, an outsider-looking-in style that is framed in a “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” tone.  I want to focus on local journalism, especially in small town America, to consider the role of local and regional media in an era when we have become alarmed (justifiably) about the rise of fake news–as well as about the fiscal sustainability of smaller media outlets.

Having set the stage, let me remind you of some good news.  Eric Eyre of the West Virginia Gazette Mail just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.  The Pulitzer jury recognized Eyre for a three-part series revealing how pharmaceutical companies flooded rural West Virginia with opioids; one eye-popping fact:  “780 million pills, 1,728 deaths.”  Here’s an annotated excerpt:

“Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths,” it begins. It details what happens in places like Kermit, W.Va., where the population is only 392.

“There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town. Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.”

The series was a fabulous illustration of the paper’s motto, “sustained outrage.”  It was exciting to see a reporter in a “flyover state” gain such high-profile recognition.  It would be easy for the Pulitzer jury to overlook or dismiss such reporting, simply because of its provenance and its subjects.  That is, Eyre is not only writing about West Virginia–the butt of innumerable jokes as a state–he is revealing abuse of the downtrodden Trump voter, folks we coastal elites have little sympathy for or ability to empathize with (see my recent posts about Hillbilly Elegy for substantiation of the latter point).  Maybe when these Appalachians are presented as the victims of Big Pharma, we can muster some sympathy for them?

Plus, as Margaret Sullivan pointed out in her mid-April piece in the Washington Post, “Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing.  And it needs saving.”  Sullivan quotes Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, regarding Eyre:

I so admire his dedication to the people of Appalachia, which he has approached not only as an excellent reporter but as a member of the community.

Speaking of journalists and publishers being members of a community, even more exciting to me than Eyre’s win was the recognition given Art Cullen of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer for Editorial Writing.  The paper, published twice weekly, is based in Storm Lake, population 10,076, the county seat of Buena Vista County, in the northwest part of Iowa.  NPR’s “On the Media” did this podcast on the Pulitzer win.  I delighted in reading this “take no prisoners” series of editorials, most of which boldly took on BigAg and Governor Terry Branstad in one way or another.  Among the issues raised were diversion of tax dollars that had been earmarked for school infrastructure improvements, used instead to clean up pollution attributable to the agri-industrial complex, as well as the fact that the Farm Bureau had stepped in to cover the county’s legal fees in relation to that pollution, thus creating a conflict of interest.  Cullen also took up the problem of school funding schemes giving rural schools short shrift.  The Storm Lake Times is a family affair (Art is the editor, his brother the publisher, his wife the photographer and his son a reporter), and one clearly adept at the use of FOIA requests.  This is the sort of advocacy every community–rural or urban–needs.  It is advocacy that asks hard questions of politicians, corporations, and other moneyed interests, journalism that looks out for the underdog.

I can’t even say that of the statewide newspaper in my home state, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  If its Twitter feed is any indication, the paper covers little more than automobile accidents and shootings.  In tandem with its publication last year of my op-ed about the risk of an industrial hog farm polluting the Buffalo National River (which runs through my home county) and sickening local residents, the Democrat-Gazette published an obnoxious editorial that suggested it was tired of the “he said, she said” nature of the “boring” debate over the industrial hog farm (which, I might add, was the first of its kind in the state, permitted without notice even to the National Park Service).  The editorial suggested–apparently tongue in cheek–that the concentrated animal feeding operation might “enhance” the river.  Geez.  Contrast that irresponsible stance with the Storm Lake Times concerns about agricultural ground water and river pollution and who will pay for its clean up.  No comparison.  The media really can make a difference, not least in our understandings of right and wrong–and, for that matter, science.

All of this reminds me of a change I’ve seen in my own hometown newspaper in the era of Trump.  I only noticed a few months ago that the Newton County Times was carrying the syndicated editorials of Dick Polman, a frequent critic of Trump, but apparently it was picking these up for its online edition as early as late 2015.  Previously, editorials were always written by the local editor, and they were virtually always about (very!) local issues, typically skirting controversies (like the industrial hog farm).  Letters to the editor were the forum where the county’s old-timers (typically conservative) duked it out with the newcomers (often more liberal/progressive), including the back-to-the land crowd that began showing up in that corner of the Ozarks in the 1960s and 1970s.

More recently, though, by publishing syndicated op-eds like “Moscow on the Potomac,” (by Polman) the Newton County Times is sharing (promoting?) views that are highly critical of Trump, even though a vast majority of the county’s voters chose Trump in November.  On the other hand, I’m also seeing the paper pick up op-ed columns like this one by Michael Reagan, President Reagan’s son.  Maybe the paper is playing both ends against the middle, but balance is better than blind loyalty to conservativism, especially when Trump is (apparently) the new standard bearer for it.

I’ll be interested to see if this newfound editorial balance in my hometown weekly (owned by Phillips Media Group, a regional chain) alienates long-time subscribers.  I’m reminded of this story last December about the high price a small-town Oklahoma newspaper is paying for endorsing Hillary Clinton for President.

In this era of liberal and conservative media echo chambers, I can’t help wonder what role local and regional papers might play in bridging the divide.  If they can help small-town folks appreciate the need for checks and balances on government–like the Storm Lake Times–that could be a good thing.  Ditto if they can be a voice for the needs and concerns of the common person, reflecting balance, telling both sides of the story, engaging empathically on tough issues.  Trump has given populism  a bad name of late, but a little populism from local media outlets could be a good thing, especially if they can leverage their trusted stance within a community to help explain complicated issues such as corporate greed that’s fueling the opioid epidemic (like Eric Eyre demonstrated), or the economics of free trade, the mid-to-long-term pros and cons of which are rarely self-evident.

If you don’t already do so, I recommend following some smallish, local or regional news outlets on Twitter or Facebook.  I have been following the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald for several months (see resulting blog posts here and here), along with the WV Gazette Mail, and it’s interesting to see not only the local news they report, but also what national headlines they pick up, including the political ones.  I also recommend the Daily Yonder, associated with the Center for Rural Strategies.  It’s been around a bit longer than my Legal Ruralism blog (we’re talking the decade plus mark) and has far more writers, readers, and a broader subject matter reach than I do.  If you don’t believe my admonition to take this forum folks seriously, see this recent feature on Nieman Lab.

In this highly polarized era, we need to look for common ground, and one way to do that is to educate ourselves about what concerns folks in rural America.  And if your instinct is to laugh at those things, try to keep the mocking and ridiculing to yourself.  I used to think that rural and working class folks weren’t paying attention to what coastal elites said about them.  Now, it’s clear they are… with the help of uber conservative outlets (and perhaps some Russian bots).  One thing should be abundantly clear to us at this point:  making rural and conservative folks the butt of our jokes isn’t going to get us out of our current political crisis.

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Hillbilly Elegy as Rorschach Test

I have already made clear in a prior post some of the reasons I am not a big fan of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance’s best selling 2016 memoir:  I think Vance is using his personal narrative to advance a neo-con agenda (and I will freely admit I don’t trust anyone who would work with Peter Thiel).  Further, I don’t think the book lives up the hype.

But lots of folks I know and respect do like the book, and they have been willing to defend it.  Following are my recollections of some of the conversations I have had about Hillbilly Elegy, most of them initiated by my friends and acquaintances rather than by me–for whatever that’s worth.  In any event, recalling these has me pondering the book as “Rorschach test,” that in which we can see what we choose to see.

Family, Luck and the Luck of Family.  When I opine that I see Vance takes too much credit for his success (which is not to say he deserves no credit) and focuses too much on the staple of conservative politics, “personal responsibility,” several friends have disagreed.  One said “No, he doesn’t take credit.  He says he got lucky by virtue of his stalwart grandparents who loved him” and kept him between the ditches (the latter part being my hillbilly paraphrase of what my friend actually said, which I don’t recall verbatim).  Ok.  Fair enough.  Yes, he appropriately gives his grandparents lots of well-deserved credit, and I relate to that.  I would never have made it to college or beyond without my mom and other key folks in my community who encouraged me and expected great things.  But family and friends as cheerleaders will not, alone, get you through college or graduate school–especially when they have never been there themselves and can rarely help you set appropriate goals.

It’s Really Complicated.  When I told another friend that I think Vance takes too much credit for his success, she (a Harvard educated lawyer) said, “Oh no. What he is saying is that it’s all very complicated.”  Well, I can hardly argue with that.  Of course it’s complicated!  But this is sorta’ like Donal Trump saying health care reform is complicated or the North Korea situation is complicated.  Are you kidding me?  The fact that the world didn’t know it was “complicated” before J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy is, frankly, embarrassing.  (In this vein, read Alec MacGillis’s excellent piece in The Atlantic).  People living below, at, or hovering above the poverty line have very difficult lives–even if they are white (and I hope to return to the matter of whiteness in a dedicated way in a subsequent post).  Reports of what are now being called “Deaths of Despair” among low-education whites came out as early as 2013, such as here; among these is Case and Deaton’s high profile study in the fall of 2015.  We should know that these folks exist and that when they are able to escape the bonds of the low-income, low-education world, it pretty much requires a harmonic convergence–a small, multi-faceted miracle–every time.  It takes some combination of family support, mentoring, lucky breaks (which can include stable grandparents, like J.D.’s), sheer native ability, perseverance, grit and–yes–hard work.

Oh, I would argue that it takes “the state”!  Vance talks only vaguely of Pell Grants, government-backed student loans, or work study–or any other way that his family received any benefit from government policies, be they the EITC or food stamps or  … How about his public university degree from Ohio State?  the GI Bill?  In the last chapter, which is his policy recommendations chapter, he does refer opaquely to his grandparents’ Social Security, so there’s that.  Maybe I overlooked the structural stuff.  But for the most part, as Sarah Jones highlighted in her New Republic review, Vance writes as if the state is not an actor, either by omission or commission.  Really?  Can it be that the state was irrelevant to Vance’s class migration?  that all the state did for him is permit him to become a Marine and thereby bootcamp some discipline into him?  Is this absence of government what so many across the political spectrum find so appealing about Hillbilly Elegy?  Further, is it possible that the state can or should play little or no role in the plight of those left behind?

Memoir vs. Policy Manual.  When I told another acquaintance–a childhood  immigrant from Poland, a relatively recent University of Michigan law graduate–that I found Vance’s dalliance in policy matters annoying and regressive, she said she hadn’t really noticed, had skimmed over those parts.   She then allowed that the book probably worked better as a memoir than as a policy document.  I agreed.  But I was also somewhat puzzled that this white class migrant (her father was a truck driver, just like mine, and she, like Vance, had served in the military) had  been so taken with Vance’s narrative, his version of events.  Her own journey didn’t sound terribly different to his (though I assume the absence of extreme parental dysfunction and addiction)   That journey had, however, taken place in a major American city rather than a corner of Appalachia, which may have sufficiently differentiated it from her own to make Hillbilly Elegy interesting in her eyes.

Window into Another World.  A well educated, thoughtful and sage (yoga instructor, no less!) friend from an “old money” family back East asked me what I thought about Hillbilly Elegy.  Her book group was about to discuss it, and she said she felt the book was providing her insights into the value of relationships and people whom she would previously have dismissed as uncouth at best.  Specifically, she said that if she had met Vance’s cursing, gun-toting grandmother, she would have been entirely  disdainful–until she read the book, that is.  Hillbilly Elegy had helped her to see the value in Vance’s Mamaw.  I said, “fair enough, but read what I have written about the book,” and I passed along a partially written review.  It is self-serving to report, but my friend came back with, “yes, I can see your reflections on your upbringing are more mature and thoughtful than Vance’s. Nevertheless, I did benefit from Hillbilly Elegy as a window into another world.”  And this brings to the last of the exchanges that I will share …

Is Vance Seasoned Enough to be Publishing a “Memoir”?  As I have previously mentioned, not many written reviews of Hillbilly Elegy have been anything other than glowing.  In addition to the Sarah Jones review I have already cited and quoted, I have read very little negative commentary about the book.  Some of the few “bad” reviews I have seen were in the Daily Yonder, an online publication/blog of the Center for Rural Affairs (I know you are chuckling, but this is a serious outlet for rural perspectives and rural news).  They published three reviews, none of which was very flattering, and  two of which called out the inappropriateness (and perhaps even absurdity) of someone publishing a “memoir” at the age of 31.  One, Jim Branscome, a former managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former staff member of the Appalachian Regional Commission, quotes Vance’s own book introduction.

I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.

Branscome then summarily agrees with the statement.  In another review, Charles L. Baker, a native of Eastern Kentucky and retired CEO of Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency, expands on that notion:

J.D. Vance lacks the maturity to see the blind spots that trouble his book… The culture he blames for spreading failure gave him some of the values that helped him succeed.  And the government he says institutionalized poverty in Appalachia helped him find a way into the middle class.

Baker’s review–like that of Sarah Jones–reminds us that Hillbilly Elegy is not just the story of Vance’s escape from Appalachia, it is the story of the multitudes left behind.  (This, of course, is why CNN regularly brings Vance on to educate the viewing public about the supposedly quintessential Trump voters).  The book’s importance is as much or more in what it says about the failures of Vance’s people as it is about Vance’s “phoenix from the ashes” success.  Don’t doubt, though, that both aspects of the book have made it especially popular among conservatives and libertarians.  Vance gets to be the poster child for Reagan’s vision of the potency of personal responsibility.  Yet many of us who have trod that path are less likely to “lean into our own understanding,” much less take so much credit for our own success without also acknowledging the many structural handicaps that hold back our communities and families of origin.

As for Vance’s maturity, I acknowledge that a childhood and youth like J.D. Vance’s will prematurely age a person.  It’s an exhausting way to live, and that which doesn’t kill you will not only make you stronger, it will often result in what I shall call premature maturity.  Nevertheless, Vance, a few years out of Yale Law, is surely nowhere close to maxing out on wisdom.  I wonder how the decades to come might lead him to reflect differently not only on his own journey, but also on what his people need, on the array of factors that are holding them back, keeping them down. (You may have heard that, in recent months, Vance has moved back to Ohio where he will be using some of the fruits of his labor to start a foundation; I anticipate a run for public office in his near future.)

I am thinking it is no coincidence that the few naysayers about Hillbilly Elegy that I have managed to identify are mostly from the region, and some of us are class migrants.  (Other important reviews of Hillbilly Elegy from those in the region are here and here; Jedediah Purdy, who grew up in Appalachia and teaches at Duke Law reviews the book here, though he is more descriptive than critical). We see a greater role for the state in places like Appalachia and the Ozarks and, like Vance, we have first-hand knowledge of the milieu.  We see the structural barriers to not only getting to Yale Law School (and few from any place or milieu even aspire to that), but the ones that keep kids from getting through high school or enrolled in community college or securing a decent blue-collar living.

In the 2016 election cycle, Democrats seem to have neglected these people and what government can (and should?) do for them.  Indeed, Hillary Clinton hardly showed up in rural America.  If liberals think Hillbilly Elegy represents some “gospel truth” about low-income, low-education whites, they may well continue down the current path of self-destruction, failing to prioritize races in rural places with large white working class populations (read more here and here).

In closing this post, let me return to Sarah Jones of the New Republic, because I can’t sum up my feelings about the election of 2016 and what working class whites need and deserve any better than she did (emphasis added):

By electing Trump, my community has condemned itself to further suffering. … Our schools will get poorer and our children hungrier. It will be one catastrophic tragedy out of the many a Trump presidency will generate. So yes, be angry with the white working class’s political choices. I certainly am; home will never feel like home again.

But don’t emulate Vance in your rage. Give the white working class the progressive populism it needs to survive, and invest in the areas the Democratic Party has neglected. Remember that bootstraps are for people with boots. And elegies are no use to the living.

I’ll be returning soon with more thoughts on other important issues that Hillbilly Elegy brings to the fore.

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On Donald Trump, J.D. Vance, and the white working class

Thanks for the opportunity to guest blog here at Concurring Opinions. Though I am a law professor on a law faculty, I plan to spend much of the time and space afforded by this blogging invitation to write more about politics and culture than about “law” in a narrow sense. Indeed, a great deal of my scholarship over the past decade has drawn heavily on politics and culture, and I’ve even had the opportunity to engage in some political punditry post-Election 2016.  I plan to write some posts about rurality, yes, but I’m also going to write a series of posts about low-income, low-education whites, a population with which we as a nation have a newfound fascination following the election of Donald Trump, who drew considerable support from this demographic segment. I hope readers will provide some feedback on these musings, as I am engaged in ongoing, more substantial writing about this population as a critical race project, exploring what is at the particular intersection of white skin privilege with socioeconomic disadvantage and distress.

I’m going to begin with some musings on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins 2016), a book that has been widely reviewed—and nearly as universally praised—since its publication early last summer. If you think you’ve read all you need to know (or all you can stand!) about this bestseller, bear with me.  I’m not going to join the resounding chorus of praise you’ve you already consumed regarding Hillbilly Elegy.  Further, what I find interesting about the book is less its content than the elite, coastal reaction to it. (Yes, fellow law professors, when I say “elite,” I’m talking about us, you and me, along with the media and other privileged institutions of the narrating classes/interest public.)

Let me preface my comments by outing myself as a class migrant and a hillbilly. Vance grew up in Appalachia; I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, both high and/or persistent poverty white regions. I’m a first generation college graduate (and, as a law graduate, a first generation professional), and I’m not sure if Vance also is, given that his mother was a nurse.  Nevertheless, we’ve both migrated from being low-income, low-status whites to being higher status whites, largely by virtue of access to and consumption of a great deal of higher education.

Shortly after Hillbilly Elegy was published, one of my former law professors asked me, only partly tongue in cheek, if I had written the book—then quickly added, maybe “you should have written it.” (This makes for an interesting reminder that I was apparently not class passing very effectively back in law school). You get the idea: my own life story shares many similarities with Vance’s (though I’m two decades older, and upward mobility for po’ folk has declined over the 20 years that separate me from J.D.), sans the elite law degree (my J.D. is from the University of Arkansas, Vance’s from Yale).  This latter distinction may be quite significant in any number of regards, and I hope to return to that point in a subsequent post.

While I have reflected on my own class migration in some law review articles (here and here), I did not reach for the brass ring of a popular press book contract. So, alas, J.D. Vance is a millionaire, best-selling author who appears regularly on television as everyone’s  favorite “white trash ‘splainer” and I continue to toil away in the obscurity of my Ivory Tower.  All of this means, among other things, that if you think I’m too hard on Hillbilly Elegy, you can write it off as sour grapes.

Let me begin, though, by telling you what I liked about Hillbilly Elegy. First and foremost, before I started reading it, I loved the fact that someone had written a book about this milieu—my people, too, I assumed—and that the media outlets I consume (mostly liberal, all elite) were paying attention to it. I sent lots of affirming Tweets, cheering on the new book.  Second, once I finally started reading the book, I found that the memoir parts (as opposed to the social science blurbs and policy suggestions) of the book rang authentic, so much so that I found myself both laughing and crying at the tales of Mamaw and Papaw. I, too, grew up in a family of straight-talking folks who often expressed themselves in colorful language, delivered at high volume, sometimes with guns. Many of the vignettes resonated strongly with me based on my own hillbilly upbringing.

Third, I thought Vance provided an occasional insight into his people, who seem closely akin to “my people.”  For example, Vance talked about their attitudes toward Obama, noting, among other things, that “[h]is accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive they’re frightening…he conducts himself with the confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was meant for him.” With this passage Vance contrasts the knowledge in his Ohio community—a realization that hit at about the time “Obama came on the scene”—that “the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.” (p. 191).  Ah, yes, meritocracy, shmeritocracy.  Guinier refers to The Tyranny of Meritocracy, a title that speaks volumes.  “Meritocracy” has actually come to be for only a select few, and they are not by and large the children of Appalachia and the Ozarks.  Read more here.

My read is that Vance is opining that the disaffection of the white working class is not so much about race as the mainstream media seem to have concluded. It is more about a growing sense that working class whites’ prospects are declining, and this has happened more dramatically as elites have come to dominate both the Democratic and Republican parties.  I also give Vance credit for calling our attention to white working class distrust of the mainstream media—even before the election made it an undeniable force. Indeed, Vance notes–months before the election of 2016–the significance among hillbillies of Alex Jones and others who perpetuate what we now call “fake news.” (p. 192)

Yet contrary to many reviewers’ opinions, I did not find Hillbilly Elegy especially well written—even acknowledging that it would take extraordinary skill to write about a life permeated by such sensitive and stigmatized matters, e.g., domestic violence, drug abuse, gun toting grandmothers. Nevertheless, a much stronger memoir of a low-income, dysfunctional white family and the author’s escape from it is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ (1998). A much more compassionate depiction and far more incisive commentary about this milieu can be found in Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007). Among tales of class migration, Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (2005) is superb. I don’t recall those books garnering nearly as much media attention as Hillbilly Elegy, but that may be because the one thing Vance got most “right” was his timing.

So why have so many reviewers been complimentary of Vance’s writing? I have two theories. First, reviewers may be surprised that anyone who grew up with so much childhood and adolescent trauma—in Appalachia no less—is capable of writing a solid sentence, let alone a solid paragraph.  (Yes, I’m suggesting a best selling memoir should require more than that).  Alternatively, reviewers may give any graduate of Yale Law School a free pass—that is, Vance may enjoy a presumption that he is a good writer because he earned a law degree at Yale. Vance does in the book’s latter chapters acknowledge the extraordinariness of his elite education and the doors it opens (chapters 12-13).

Hillbilly Elegy is also made less readable by Vance’s distracting practice of peppering policy prescriptions (e.g., food stamps (SNAP) are bad because poor white folks abuse them (p. 139); unregulated payday lending is good because it gives poor folks choices (p. 185)) awkwardly amidst his first-person narrative. Sometimes these are accompanied by social science or other evidence to bolster a point, or to explain the psychology of a phenomenon he has experienced by virtue of his traumatic upbringing. Sarah Jones, writing in the New Republic, called the book mostly “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” (Indeed, I recently published an essay arguing that our nation increasingly views these two populations similarly, showing no more sympathy (or empathy) for poor whites than for poor blacks.) Even more problematic, to my mind, is Vance’s use of those myths to advance a regressive policy agenda.

In my next post, I’ll return with a more substantive critique of Hillbilly Elegy–and, implicitly, a commentary on the book’s fans.

Post-Neoliberal Higher Education Policy

The Obama Administration made at least two major contributions to higher education policy. It cracked down on some for-profit colleges, taking on a consumer protection role largely missing from the Bush years. Donald Trump is unlikely to continue that initiative, and may roll it back.

Obama also encouraged income-based repayment (IBR) of student loans. It appears that “the repayment plan proposed by candidate Trump is not too far from the current repayment plans already in existence”–but few know exactly how the policy will play out once a new set of think tankers and lobbyists take over the Department of Education (DOE).

I surveyed higher education finance policy in 2015, in a piece for the Atlantic. I felt at the time that the Sanders plan was by far the best, and that Clinton’s plan could lead incrementally to a better higher ed landscape. However, over the summer I co-authored a longer article on the foundations of higher ed policy with Luke Herrine, Legal Coordinator of the Debt Collective. Herrine does both scholarly and advocacy work. In a project organizing for-profit college students to obtain debt discharges, he saw some of the worst bureaucratic failures of the current DOE.

The same concerns I’ve expressed about health policy also dog education policy. Extreme complexity and baroque targeting of aid make it hard to sustain political support. Just as private insurers have done as much to undermine as to implement the ACA, the servicers at the core of DOE’s student loan management have serially failed the students they are supposed to help.
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Rebuilding Health Care Policy from the Ground Up

whatourdemocraticparty

Campaign Flier from the Wright Patman Archives (via Matthew Stoller)

The signature progressive initiative of early 21st century America–the Affordable Care Act–is about to be gutted.  In 2009, I agonized about whether to support it. In the last paragraph of a bloated blog post, I concluded:

By passing this reform bill, Democrats will jettison whatever “populist” credentials they once had, opting instead for an early-twentieth-century “progressive” vision of technocratic alliance between corporate and government experts. . . . We’ll commence an endless argument (read: notice and comment rulemaking and subsequent administrative adjudications) over what constitutes an adequate baseline of coverage. . . . But the fundamental victory of reform–the national commitment that no one should have to choose between death or bankruptcy when confronted with a serious illness–will also endure. The tragic paradox is that the Democrats can only achieve this great cultural and ideological victory by becoming identified with the very interests that only they are willing to confront.

I was right about a few things: it was a Pyrrhic victory, the backlash was brutal, and virtually every indignity or imposition concocted by private insurers in the past seven years has been blamed on “Obamacare.” But I was wrong about the most important points. The rulemaking and adjudications will end. The Trump/Ryan/McConnell approach to health care will leave Obamacare in the dustbin of history. And when it does, it will impose on millions of Americans exactly the situation they faced pre-ACA: choose between death or bankruptcy when confronted with a serious illness.

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In October, Larissa MacFarquhar published a thoughtful essay on “The Heart of Trump Country.” One supporter of the President-elect said:  “When you hear about illegal aliens getting benefits and you have people here starving to death and can’t get nothing, it’s just a slap in the face. When you start talking about bringing in refugees and when they get here they get medical and dental and they get set up with some funds—what do we get?” Here’s Obamacare’s answer:

Under the terms of the ACA, if you are unemployed, or if your employer’s insurance is unaffordable (defined as an individual plan (not a family plan) costing you over 9.5% of income), you can buy insurance on the exchange. You can choose plans from one of four precious metal tiers (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum), with varying actuarial values (60 to 90%). You’ll pay premiums, but you’ll also get sliding scale subsidies based on how high your income is above the poverty level. You will probably also need to pay co-pays, coinsurance (a percentage of each bill), and deductibles, up to some percentage of your income specified by statutory out-of-pocket maximums. (Just be sure not to incur out-out-network costs that don’t count toward out-of-pocket maximums.)

But you can get cost-sharing subsidies to cover some of that expense, based on a sliding scale slightly different than the premium assistance tax credit scale. Just be sure to shop carefully on the exchange, because some plans have narrow networks–that is, they may not cover the physicians or hospitals you normally use. In fact, you may have to drive 20 or 50 miles to find a physician in the network–the rules on network adequacy can be hazy. Note also that, in a narrow network, if you have a surgery, it’s possible out-of-network physicians or other personnel may attend, and you could be on the hook for the whole amount they charge–unless your state has a “no surprise billing” law.

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Rethinking the Political Economy of Automation

The White House recently released two important reports on the future of artificial intelligence. The “robot question” is as urgent today as it was in the 1960s. Back then, worry focused on the automation of manufacturing jobs. Now, the computerization of services is top of mind.

At present, economists and engineers dominate public debate on the “rise of the robots.” The question of whether any given job should be done by a robot is modeled as a relatively simple cost-benefit analysis. If the robot can perform a task more cheaply than a worker, substitute it in. This microeconomic approach to filling jobs dovetails with a technocratic, macroeconomic goal of maximizing some blend of GDP and productivity.

In the short run, these goals appear almost indisputable–the dictates of market reason. In the long run, they presage a jobs crisis. As Michael Dorf recently observed, even though “[i]t is possible that new technologies will create all sorts of new jobs that we have not imagined yet,” it is hard to imagine new mass opportunities for employment. So long as a job can be sufficiently decomposed, any task within it seems (to the ambitious engineer) automatable, and (to the efficiency-maximizing economist) ripe for transferring to software and machines. The professions may require a holistic perspective, but other work seems doomed to fragmentation and mechanization.

Dorf is, nevertheless, relatively confident about future economic prospects:

Standard analyses…assume that in the absence of either socialism or massive philanthropy from future tech multi-billionaires, our existing capitalist system will lead to a society in which the benefits of automation are distributed very unevenly. . . . That’s unlikely. Think about Henry Ford’s insight that if he paid his workers a decent wage, he would have not only satisfied workers but customers to buy his cars. If the benefits of technology are beyond the means of the vast majority of ordinary people, that severely limits the ability of capitalists and super-skilled knowledge workers to profit from the mass manufacture of the robotic gizmos. . . . Enlightened capitalists would understand that they need customers and that, with automation severely limiting the number of jobs available, customers can only be ensured through generous government-provided payments to individuals and families.

I hope he is right. But I want to explore some countervailing trends that militate against wider distribution of the gains from automation:
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