Hillbilly Elegy

November 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

I just finished J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy and have three thoughts to offer.

1. There is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility

Social mobility is an equaliser. If it’s easy to move from one social class to another then we might conclude that a society is fairly equal and meritocratic.

However, there is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility, and I mean all kinds of privilege: wealth, educated parents, a loving and stable family and a safe neighbourhood. I identify with Vance on some level because I’m also a child of poor migrants. But I’m incredibly luckier because the statistics were on my side. My parents, though poor migrants initially, are both tertiary educated. They value education and provided a caring and secure family home. Vance on the  other hand is the first person in his family to go to college; his father gave him up for adoption and his mother is a drug addict. He attributes much of his success to the love of his sister and grandmother and the fact that his grandmother (and when she was sober, his mother) cared about his education.

He admits that this is probably the only thing that changed his life’s trajectory. Otherwise he went to the same school, grew up in the same neighbourhood, witnessed the same fights and crises that other kids in his town saw.

Parents should love their kids, but I’m beginning to see that a loving and caring family is almost a privilege in those areas, because when everyone’s parents are poor and uneducated, kids with parents who are still willing to invest in them the only way they can (i.e. by providing a loving family home) will probably go furthest.

The problem is this: can you provide a stable home for your child when you’re a single-teenage parent? Will you love your kids if you’ve never known love from your own parents? Poverty is like a disease in these families; it gets passed down through generations.

2. Pessimism among poor, working class whites results from a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of their control

Vance is still figuring out whether the balance is in favour of the individual or forces outside of their control. He blames his mother for not being able to quit drugs but at the same time he admits that she grew up in a violent household. A lot of people he knew who failed did so because of their own choices, and he cites a guy he used to work with in a tile factory who eventually lost his job because he was always late to work and would take 1 hr toilet breaks. When he lost the job he turned against the boss and said he couldn’t be fired because he had a pregnant girlfriend to look after.

Yet at the same time Vance recognises that there are rarely any examples of happy families to look up to, and rarely anyone in the community to show a kid that if you study hard you will get somewhere. People are disillusioned with hard work because they don’t see the rewards, and they don’t feel like they can control their own lives. This leads to a high level of pessimism among working class whites. For example, working class whites are more likely to believe that their children will do worse than them, compared to African-American and Hispanic parents.

In the end, Vance says that a community can either empower people with a sense that they can control their own destiny or encourage them to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond their control.

3. Politicians have capitalised on this resentment

Politicians like Trump, Farage and Le Pen tap into this resentment and blame the white-working-class-plight on immigration, globalisation and a corrupt political establishment. People are call this the rise of populism, perhaps best defined as a type of politics that

scorns elites and experts. It supposes that the purpose of politics is to act on the will of the people, and it proposes simple solutions to complex problems that require serious and effective policy responses

In the end, these simple solutions are not going to help poor working class whites. We need to communicate that, instead of ignoring their problems because we disagree with its political manifestation. Schemes like vote trading undermine democracy and further belittles the political voice of what is already one of the most disempowered groups in America. We label them stupid, racist, sexist and homophobic. But we don’t recognise that they are just very poor, and no one has done anything about it for too long.

Chisholm Polling Booths

July 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

A while ago, I saw this blog post about the Bell St divide (a.k.a. the ‘Wall of Gentrification’) in the seat of Batman in Victoria, where the Labor and Greens vote was very close.

I thought it’d be cool to have a look at my own seat, Chisholm, which at one stage had 66 votes between the two major party candidates, although I think it ultimately widened to 2000+ votes.

Anna Burke, the previous member, only just won the seat in the last election. Perhaps she kept her seat because the community knew her (she’s been around since the late 90s and signed my primary school graduation certificate!). However, with her retirement announced, it was hard to see how Labor would retain the seat amidst growing Liberal support.

Anyway, a friend of mine who’s a data analyst was keen to practice his visualisation skills, so if you want to see how voters voted by booth in the Chisholm electorate here it is. The size of the bubbles represent the % margin.

Who are the Brexit and Trump voters?

July 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

Brexit and Trump represent the increasing destabilisation of mainstream politics. What’s going on?

The underlying issue: no wage growth

In public discourse, the Leave and Remain side largely battled it out over immigration policy, but the real underlying issue of Brexit is the poor economy.

The leave vote expresses the frustration of low-income earners. Britain’s productivity has dropped relative to other developed countries, leading to stagnant wages and living standards. Income gains have accrued to the top one percent and unemployment is concentrated amongst the less skilled. These demographics appear to match those who voted for leave.

Solving these issues require costly, long-term investments in education, training and research. It is much easier to blame immigrants and EU policy, and politicians have capitalised on this accordingly to curry favour with voters.

In fact, immigrants tend to increase workers’ wages. The UK’s disillusioned blue-collar working class are actually losers of globalisation. Globalisation has meant that their job has been outsourced to other countries that can do it cheaper. Goods might be cheaper to consume as a result, but this can hardly make up for not having a job. Transition to new jobs has also been slow due to lack of training and education. Furthermore, unlike Australia, which has a strong union movement, labour markets in the UK are much more deregulated – a remnant of the Thatcher era.

Branko Milanovic’s work elegantly summarises this phenomenon. When we plot change in real income against global income distribution we get a clear view of which people in which countries are the most disenfranchised:


The vertical axis shows the percentage change in real income over the years 1988-2008. The 50th percentile of global income distribution represents the middle class in developing countries like China and India, they have experienced the greatest growth in real income. At around the 80th percentile is the working class in rich, developed nations like the US and UK. These people have not experienced any real wage growth at all.

Rise of the new Right

No major political party represents these people. The conventional Right (i.e. the Conservatives in the UK and the GOP in the US) represent the socially conservative and economically elite. The major left parties are increasingly differentiating themselves by being socially progressive. Protectionist policies, from either side of the spectrum, are no longer politically feasible given the amount of wealth that globalisation has generated, and the tendency for such policies (such as the Brexit leave campaign, and Trump’s ‘make America great again’ campaign) to align with racist and anti-immigration agendas.

The established Right is now juggling between rich people who want liberal markets and small government and working class people who want to feel middle class again. Trump, who represents a ‘new Right’ speaks to the latter, while his Republican colleagues speak to the former.

Similarly, the Left is also juggling between the blue-collar working class (now abandoning leftist parties for the new Right), and urban-dwelling, socially progressive university graduates with well-paid jobs. Jeremy Corbyn represents the interests of the latter, who have flocked to join the Labour party, but fails to gain traction with those struggling to survive in rural towns and villages – Labour’s traditional voter base, and the very people the party was set up to support. It’s telling that Jeremy Corbyn advocated to remain in the EU, yet a third of Labour voters voted to leave – perhaps enough disaffected voters to strip Labour of its major party status come the next UK election.

There is a lot of focus on the supposed stupidity of Leave voters and their support of new extreme right-wing parties, but the real question we should be asking is why are these people voting this way, and how can we make sure they aren’t left behind by globalisation?

An act of economic self-harm

David Cameron called the Brexit result an act of economic self-harm before promptly abandoning the sinking ship. The irony is that by voting to leave the EU, struggling working-class people have only made their lives harder. The fault lies with politicians who have ignored their needs, failed to explain their policies, and yet still capitalise on their struggles to gain political popularity. An unsympathetic and angry Remain constituency can only lead to further ugliness and division, while the real issues at heart remain unsolved.

Economic liberalisation is not to blame. Globalisation and neoliberal economics has led to greater wealth, a bigger pie, if you will. We shouldn’t be shrinking the pie, we just need to divide it more evenly.

Shows I’d rather watch than Q&A

May 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

These days I don’t watch Q&A because it often descends into pointless bickering. Questions are followed by very unhelpful answers. Sometimes politicians (particularly Labor politicians) issue rallying cries of social justice that only serve to win over the audience. Sometimes the hysteria that follows Q&A (e.g. the Duncan Storrar saga) really encourages me to avoid the show.

Q&A does sometimes have guests who manage to make a sensible point. Germain Greer for example, in response to a debate about raising the corporate tax rate, said that raising the tax rate doesn’t matter if Australia doesn’t have a way of collecting the tax. But most of the time it is politicians stating their position without engaging in the question or discussion. There is no thinking. This is why I don’t like Q&A.

What do I watch instead? I like shows where people actually engage with what other people say rather than just staking out a position. For this reason, I like Kitchen Cabinet. The light-hearted feel of the show might make it come across as shallow, but I think it’s one of the rare avenues where politicians can actually explain their view rather than just stake a position. And it gives a much more reasonable and rational account for why their public stance is the way it is. I particularly enjoyed the episode with Jacqui Lambie.

Another show I really enjoy is Insight (on SBS). One of favourites is the one on guns. Robert Brown, a member of the Shooters and Fishers Party who disagrees with current gun laws, is confronted with a Port Arthur massacre survivor, Carol. He is clearly upset and empathetic, but does not change his views. Even though I disagree with him, I still respect his stance and persistence. This is the kind of respect that I feel is lacking in Australian political discourse. People sometimes get confused between disagreeing with a point of view and disrespecting a point of view. All thought has integrity and this should be recognised.

Sillicon Politics

March 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

Following on from my previous post: I recently watched a Sillicon Valley documentary on SBS called The Hidden Face of Sillicon Valley and it got me thinking about the political position of Sillicon Valley executives.

(On a side note: I wouldn’t recommend the documentary. It felt like a montage of failed attempts to get in contact with Sillicon startups, with the documentary then trying to insinuate something dodgy was going on from the fact that they were being ignored by Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.)

Sillicon Valley CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg are advocates for marriage equality and other socially progressive ideals. This places them left with regards to the dimension of social and political equality.

In terms of the degree of government control (another dimension of political belief), Sillicon CEOs are more likely to be right-of-centre. A good example would be Airbnb and Uber, they will pretty much infiltrate a city first and then become incredibly combative when regulators step in. They also tend to be more aggressive defenders of free speech.

A friend of mine said this generally aligns with their commercial interest. Sillicon start-ups cater to customers with socially progressive views (in general), but their wealth is best left outside of government control.

Libertarians vs Liberal

March 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

What’s a Libertarian? And is it different to being a Liberal?

I used the word Libertarian once, and someone thought I was referring to right-wing conservatives. But if Libertarian just means one who wants to protect liberty then how can that be exclusively attributed to either side of the political spectrum?

Some people might think protecting liberty means less intervention by government. Others might think protecting liberty requires government to step in and regulate banks, markets, welfare and so on so that everyone is equally empowered and has the same access to opportunities.

A while ago I came across a new variation of the term – a latte-sipping Libertarian. Rather than referring to right-wing conservatives, it refers to socially left-leaning intellectuals.

Which sounds very much like the wikipedia entry for ‘Liberal elite’:

…a pejorative term used to describe politically left-leaning people, whose education had traditionally opened the doors to affluence. It is commonly used with the implication that the people who claim to support the rights of the working class are themselves members of the upper class, or upper middle class, and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect.

Personally I find it more useful to think of being liberal as a multi-dimensional concept. You can be liberal on several fronts – the degree of government control, the degree of social and political equality, and the degree of economic freedom.

Someone who is a liberal with regards to government control likes little government intervention. Government should be small, with most services privatised.

A liberal in terms of social and political equality means someone who wants equal social and political rights for people of different races, genders, sexual preferences and so on.

In terms of economic freedom, a liberal likes free market. This dimension might alternatively be conceptualised as a subset of government control.

A democratic socialist for example might be liberal in terms of social and political equality, but less so on government regulation and intervention, and perhaps also economic freedom.

A conservative might be liberal in terms of being anti-government and pro free markets, but not liberal with regards to social and political equality.

My thoughts on ‘Rich Dude becomes PM’, backstabbing and Gillard

September 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

An article on The Daily Life appeared which alleged that Australia will forgive Turnbull for backstabbing Abbott in a way Gillard never was, because Turnbull is male and did it second. I disagree, although this is just my personal view on the matter. While I believe that Gillard was, in many instances, criticised differently because she was a female prime minister, I think that the way I (at least) perceived the Labor spill had less to do with gender biases and just more to do with the political context.

Maybe I paid less attention to politics during the Labor leadership spill, but I remember being very surprised when Gillard challenged Rudd. Perhaps I wasn’t following the polls, if I had, I would’ve known that Rudd was trailing. Interestingly, I don’t follow the polls now either, but I don’t have to follow them to know that Abbott is very much disliked by the nation. I put it down to the fact that on camera, Rudd looked and sounded like a much more able politician and legitimate leader than Abbott. So, first and foremost, it felt like Gillard had deposed someone whom I thought was capable. On the other hand, Turnbull has just deposed someone whom I always thought was incompetent.

Secondly, besides trailing in the polls, Rudd had lost the support of his party because of his authoritarian working style. I never realised this until after the spill. While party members might feel this keenly, the rest of the electorate doesn’t have this insight. In this sense, I felt a bit blindsided by the spill. On the other hand, Abbott had clearly failed the people, and his party openly gave him six months to turn things around before his leadership would be challenged. It’s probably easier to forgive something you can foresee.

Thirdly, this is not Turnbull’s first leadership challenge. His intention to be the Liberal party leader has therefore always been present (and I imagine this is where most of the ‘it always meant to be you’ comments are coming from). This is probably why some people have called this a ‘frontstab’ rather than a backstab. On the other hand, Labor worked really hard to market Rudd and Gillard as the dream team in the 2007 election, for this reason, I always thought they supported each other, which makes Gillard’s leadership challenge hard to reconcile.

Naturally, this is the second leadership spill and Liberal is in the lucky position of being able to learn from Labor’s mistakes. I also think however, that part of the reason why Australia sees Gillard as a backtabber is because the Liberal Party did such a good (and relentless) job of selling that notion. Labor Party, take heed.

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