Thomas B. Edsall July 7, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links.]
uncaptioned image from article
In his 1847 pamphlet, “Wage Labour and Capital,” Karl Marx made a point that
turns out to be relevant to the Trump phenomenon and the 2016 presidential
A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring160 years later, in 2007, Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell and an expert in
houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a
residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace,
and the little house shrinks to a hut
the field of “relative deprivation,” picked up the argument and suggested a thought
In it, you are asked to choose between living in a 4,000-squarefoot house
where all the neighbors have 6,000-squarefoot homes or living in a 3,000-squarefoot
house where all the others are 2,000 square feet.
The most common choice, Frank reported, was the 3,000-square-foot house.
Even though a 4,000-square-foot house has more room in absolute terms, the
3,000-square-foot house has more relative value compared with its neighbors.
In 2008, Frank’s idea was expanded by Thomas Leonard, an economist at
Housing is a positional good: we get additional satisfactionTrump’s white working class supporters — who provide somewhere between 58
from a larger house not only because a larger house is better in
absolute terms, but also because a larger house is better is
relative terms. That is, we get additional satisfaction from
having more house than the Joneses next door. Trouble is, the
Joneses are no different, and when they too work harder to
fund their own bigger house, our relative satisfaction gain
disappears. We are now merely keeping up with the Joneses.
and 62 percent of his votes, according to data from NBC and ABC polls — have
suffered a stunning loss of relative status over the past 40 years.
Their wages have stagnated or declined; the ascendance of minorities has
threatened their cultural dominance; and the growth of an increasingly large and
affluent upper middle class has pushed goods and services once viewed as theirs by
right beyond their reach.
As Frank explained in Vox last year:
The median new house in the U.S. is now 50 percent largerIn an email exchange with me, Frank observed that
than it was in 1980, even though the median income has grown
only slightly in real terms. Houses are growing faster than
incomes because of a process I call “expenditure cascades.”
For those who are not absolutely poor, the central economicThe problems of positional status and relative deprivation are fueled by income
question is, “Do we have enough income to achieve our goals?”
The answer depends to a significant extent on the spending of
other families in the community. Most families want to send
their children to good schools, for example, but a family’s
ability to achieve that goal depends on how much other families
are spending on housing. That’s because school quality is an
inescapably relative concept.
inequality, Frank argues:
A family at the median income level would reasonably aspire toIn effect, the increase in the resources commandeered by the over-class has
send its children to schools of at least average quality. But to do
that, it would have to buy or rent a house near the median of its
city’s housing price distribution. And that’s become
significantly harder to do.
pulled the rug out from under the once upwardly mobile white working class.
Housing is a key example of the rising cost of positional goods, but there are
many others. “Most families reasonably aspire to host a reception for their
daughter’s wedding that guests would remember as special,” Frank writes in the Vox
piece, but “the inflation-adjusted cost of the average wedding in the U.S. was
$31,000 in 2015, up from about $10,000 in 1980.”
A May 2015 Federal Reserve report provides a window into the financial condition of
many in the working class. It found that 47 percent of Americans do not have the
resources to cover a $400 bill for such unanticipated costs as a car repair or a health
emergency. They would be forced to borrow from friends of family, to sell
something, to go to a payday loan company or to add to their credit card debt.
For those in the bottom third of the income distribution, even essential
expenditures have become unaffordable: the $7,000 to $10,000 average cost of a
funeral, the $33,865 average cost of a new car, the $18,000 average annual cost of
Crucially important is the fact that rising inequality constitutes a double
whammy. It raises the cost of sought-after goods and it increases the economic gap
between the working class and the affluent, spurring nostalgia for what was (even if
what was really wasn’t).
This point was well put in an essay, “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” by Neil
Fligstein, a professor of sociology at Berkeley, Pat Hastings, a Ph.D. candidate at
Berkeley, and Adam Goldstein, professor of sociology at Princeton, which was
presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association:
Growing income inequality in the U.S. has meant that as thoseA September 2014 Demos study found that median white family wealth is
at the top are able bid up the price of valued goods like housing
and access to good schools, those in lower groups have
struggled to maintain their positions.
$134,000. Among whites in the working class, however — the bottom 32.1 percent —
the average net worth is $0.
In July 2014, USA Today estimated that in the United States, where the median
household income was $53,567, the minimum annual cost of living the American
dream was $130,357.
The diminished status of white working class men, however, is not limited to
dollars and cents. For some of these men, there is a less talked-about sense of status
displacement that stems from the surge of women, including wives, girlfriends and
daughters, into the work force. This has served to focus attention on the erosion of
the traditional male self-image as provider and protector.
By 2011, nearly a quarter of married women (24.3 percent) made more money
than their husbands. For working class white men, the economic ascendance of
women taps into what psychologists describe as anxiety and anger about “precarious
A Public Religion Research Institute survey in March found that half of Trump’s
supporters — more than any other candidate’s — believe that society would benefit if
“women adhere to traditional gender roles.”
Joseph Vandello, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida,
who has published extensively about “precarious masculinity,” wrote in an email:
Manhood is an uncertain, tenuous status and one that is easilyFor working class whites, Vandello wrote, the loss of their privileged status and
threatened; thus, men will often take compensatory measures
to restore or affirm manhood. In this case, manhood can be
affirmed symbolically through one’s vote or show of support to
a candidate who embodies manhood.
loss of manufacturing jobs go to the
core of what it means to be a man in our culture — being theDavid Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, told me by email that
protector and provider.
the practice among liberal interest groups of
highlighting group differences, cultures, etc. has contributed toThe result in the white working class, Geary argues, is to sharpen the us-versus-them
Trump’s appeal, especially given that white men are often
blamed for being oppressive or the source of many of the issues
character of politics.
You cannot consistently have different groups arguing forSteven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, shares Geary’s view that
equality, protesting etc. without creating an in-group, out-group
mentality — an evolved bias that is easily invoked —
within the U.S.
Trump supporters are, to some extent, responding to what they see as excesses on
the left. In an email, Pinker argued that Trump
has been inadvertently aided by the left’s history of heavy-handedMany of Trump’s supporters have been left behind, marginalized by the
policing of speech about race and sex known as
“political correctness.” Of course respect for women and racial
minorities is not political correctness — it is just decency. But
well-known excesses in the policing of speech have handed
Trump a gift: he can rationalize despicable attitudes as honest
reactions to political correctness. In this way he multiplies the
effectiveness of his taboo-shattering campaign. Supporters
don’t perceive him as merely publicizing their ugly private
beliefs; they perceive him as speaking truth to power.
economic, cultural and demographic transformations brought about by
globalization. Trump likes to assure these beleaguered voters that he will restore
their vanished status, but the reality is that his chaotic appropriation of right-wing
populism — its threats and its promises — is fraudulent, as bereft of value as his