Jun 7, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Although I was just a boy in the 70's, what I remember was the pervasive sense of national decline: Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC, urban crime, malaise, Japan, Iran. Listen to the 1979 hit from The Kinks: Catch Me Now I´m Falling. Compare the tone of the first Rocky in 1976 to that of the third in 1982. While the US has often seemed to be the land of plenty, the dream was for a better tomorrow. Today, the country feels tired and people on both sides of the political isle have lost faith in themselves. Mere abundance cannot replace that. Decline is back.

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Ran into this from your citation of my REAGANLAND. Great stuff!

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The scarcity mentality comes about because of high inequality. What isn't in abundance anywhere is relative prestige, and inequality means that those high up on the totem pole both 1. Have more resources to defend their relative prestige, and 2. Care more about defending it because the drop down the gap is big.

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Jun 8, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I would expect that Noah reads Miles Kimball regularly (his PhD advisor and sometimes coauthor). Miles had a post on 3 June in his blog which shared an essay from Gary Sargent Porter titled "Alternate Realities: Republicans vs. Democrats". The essay cogently argues that fear of change is an evolutionary biological trait that has allowed humans to survive over ca. 200,000 years. Fear of "the other" is part of our most primitive brain. Even now that survival is not a major issue in most developed countries periods of more rapid change trigger the same reptile brain response.

From Sargent:

Mormons, Jews, Japanese (during Japan’s war years), Germans (during the country’s war ---years), and many Christian groups today, depend on stories of persecution to unite the group. Even invented stories of persecution can unite groups by touching a part of the human genome. It is the threat, however remote, of total destruction. If a group is threatened, even preposterously, humans lose their capacity to think in rational terms.

Almost none of us is aware of the degree to which this happens.

Consider Fox News. All day long its messages are about ‘threats’ to the group. Each anecdotal story, repeatedly told, reinforces some threat to the group’s existence.

Trump’s messages also are about threats to the group. Rationality ceases. Preposterousness becomes truth as long as a threat is perceived.

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In her book "The Sum of Us:What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together" Heather McGhee identifies this scarcity mindset as constructed by plutocrats throughout American history so that they can keep the rest of us divided and fighting with each other. If we can over come that we get what she calls "the solidarity dividend." It's an interesting complement to the excellent arguments you are making here.

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One thing:

- Are you planning to spin this into further posts? I could see several, more detailed posts for each of the topics you've outlined here: college spots, housing, etc. I generally think the scarcity mindset, as you've stated it, is an unnecessary drag on the country, but I do think there is something to be said about certain aspects being zero sum - finite amount of college admission spots (could be expanded though), etc. Anyways, good post; hope to see more.

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Surely others are making these points more completely and coherently, but here goes. What we currently call conservative has a zero sum worldview. This is exploited ruthlessly by fabricating threats to their status (politics, wealth, safety, etc) for the financial benefit of a few (Fox, etc). They are a minority, no more than a third, but our unrepresentative system, such as the Senate, gives them excessive power. That's all.

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I really hate to hand it to Ross Douthat, but he was right on the mark back in the 2000s when he told liberals and leftists that if they're not fans of the Religious Right they're REALLY not going to be fans of the post-religious right.

People speculate on why the US has historically been way more religious than the rest of the West (with exceptions like Ireland, Poland, etc.) and in the end I think it's just the stabilization factor that being a member of a church/synagogue provides. With the exception of the mid-twentieth century the US, while definitely a wealthy land of opportunity, has always been a chaotic and paranoid place to live due to our high geographic mobility, then-high economic mobility (rags to riches and maybe back to rags), non-wartime crime rates, and willingness to charge head first into adopting disruptive technologies whatever the social cost if there was a buck to be made. (Among other things, I think this kind of culture also explains why Americans have a harder time with moderate alcohol consumption than lots of the world).

Although the religiosity of the US on-balance has been kind of a net negative, churches also provide community, civic engagement, a set of non-materialistic values, frameworks for self-improvement, and a positive orientation towards the future that I think is a lot more difficult for the ordinary American to find than, say, an ordinary New Zealander, South Korean, or French person.

When I was younger and more naive I thought that losing religiosity and churchgoing would lead to a civic renaissance in America. Haha. Instead, it started happening just in time for the algorithms to start herding us away from our neighbors and community towards fandoms, hyper-consumerism, and most dangerously bespoke conspiracy cults like Qanon. High earners in the wealthy liberal cities are becoming more alienated too, but I think they express it differently - you see more careerism and hedonism in the form of people becoming foodies or globe-hopping travel junkies. This is a recipe for mutual alienation, distrust, and eventually hostility. I'm from and live in Seattle, where I think a lot of this stuff is less apparent than in the rest of the US, but it still feels like a meaner, nastier place than it did in 2014 or even 2017. It really sucks.

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A number of problems here: I'll start with immigration, which does provide an overall economic boost but also comes with costs. The boost goes to the immigrants themselves and the people who employ them, for the most part. And the costs are borne by the majority of Americans who watch as their neighborhoods and schools are degraded, housing values where immigrants settle decline, medical resources are strained, jobs become scarcer and wages extend their long descent.

There's a lot of talk these days about the "big lie" associated with Trump backers' challenge to the 2020 election results. Well, "big lies" aren't confined to the political right. Perhaps the biggest lie of the past century was the lie that opening the door to more immigration in the 1960s absolutely under no circumstances would ever change the ethnic and racial makeup of the country, which at the time was 90% white and 10% minority. Now we're at 60% white and 40% minority and headed quickly toward a so-called majority minority future. If the well-established pattern of the past few decades is sustained -- and there's absolutely no reason to believe it won't be -- that future will be one of incessant tribalistic hostility in which the "scarcity" mindset the author laments will only grow worse.

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One underrated influence here is the extent to which the Emerging Democratic Majority thesis (more complex in original form than in its usual understanding) poisoned the well on immigration with the GOP. Aside from being factually incorrect, it’s becoming one of the most damaging ideas in political discourse and plays to the left and right’s worst instruments.

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What's wrong with the United States?

Since the 2016 election, it's a question that's been asked in a thousand different ways but not yet answered satisfactorily. A third of the country is still in thrall to an ignorant and corrupt sociopath who has nothing but contempt for them. 74 million people voted to keep Trump in office. His adopted party abandoned even the pretense of staying true to its old dogmas. Somehow we've reached a point where Republicans can just shrug at an armed attack on the Capitol, the perverse logic being that if multiracial demonstrators are allowed to take to the streets to demand changes to improve policing and criminal justice, then de facto Klansmen and Klanswomen can storm the Capitol to overturn democracy while sending scores of police to the hospital and leaving the hallways smeared with their feces and dripping with their urine.

What is wrong with the United States? I don't know. The scarcity mindset seems symptomatic but not diagnostic of the root cause or causes. The Civil Rights Act was passed more than a half century ago — why can't we move on? Women now outnumber men in law schools and med schools — why can't we move on? My gut tells me that the mood at large in the country may be analogous to the guy who thinks, "If I can't have her and the kids, then nobody's going to have them." That's dark, but then what the Republican Party is gearing itself up to do in 2024 is dark, too.

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Correlation, causation. In contrast to the view offered below by our British friend, it is possible to see that the white majority in the US did experience a period of broadly rising prosperity after the fin de siecle "closure of the frontier", in the period of the height of the New Deal consensus. The postwar baby boom occurred during this period, also.

So what actually precedes the turn towards scarcity thinking in the US in the 1970s? Well, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, as well as women's liberation and other rights movements. In response, activated white reactionaries from the South and rural Midwest were organized politically into the conservative movement through the Southern Strategy. A change precedes and has the ability to cause a change. There is no more disruptive change in white supremacist America than efforts at Black freedom.

This conservative movement nationalized the traditional white Southern political mindset and political style, which *is* based on a mercantilist, quasi-capitalist/quasi-feudalist idea of material scarcity and scarcity of esteem. Only white planter elites had either in the Old South, and they have sought to (re)impose that structure on the entire country in the wake of the CRM.

Myself, I think all of this reflects much more poorly on the US than the centuries-long overall trend of falling birthrates in the West interacting with the finite size of the middle latitudes of North America, but mileage varies.

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It really is kind of mysterious why the sense of crisis/chaos is so elevated now. If you look at it factually, as you have done, there really isn't enough there to explain it. We are certainly no more racist than we were in the past, things have vastly improved in fact. Income inequality is up but everyone has more than they used to, it's just that the wealthy have gotten much more.

To me it is more like we have a crisis of self hatred. One thing about Reagan you didn't mention is that he made Americans feel good about being Americans again, whatever else you thought about him. The worst thing about the left is that they are so negative about us.

Trump and all are completely bonkers and getting worse, these are people in a defensive posture who feel under attack, who believe everything they believe in is being taken away from them. They are getting more and more dangerous.

One real crisis I can point to is that character is getting worse. It's a crisis of lying, elevated by Trump and now the mainstream media, one just cannot trust anything you hear. People are lying and exaggerating more and more.

No one seems to have a vision of what can pull us together, we have been shattered into pieces more and more, some will blame identity politics, but then give us a vision of America we can latch on to if you think that.

Anyway, thanks for writing and not getting sucked into all of it, someone needs to stand outside and try to evaluate honestly what is going on and I think you are doing that.

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I think we're missing a dimension here....there's survival vs self expression, but there's also individual vs collective.

America is becoming extremely individualized...all the stuff you mention - guns, NIMBY - are all about me over the collective.

The scandi countries we know have a strong sense of collective and that allows them to tolerate high degrees of self-expression too. Frankly, there isn't much to self-express when 90% racially homogeneous.

I also don't put a lot of value in WVS, especially given in 2021 America is exporting its culture via netflix to every country on earth.

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It is this idea that growth is good, and not just for having more stuff good, but also for easing the sense of zero sum competition and improving social trust, that I think the left often misses when it wants to complain about business and free markets. Now maybe growth isn't the highest good, but it is important and matters in folks day to day lives and a lot of of folks on the left seem to think wanting more growth is greedy, evil, or exploitive. The GOP under Reagan I think "got" this.

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In part the scarcity mindset is due to our adoption of the Musical Chairs Theory Of Economic Justice (http://critiques.us/index.php?title=Musical_Chairs), which basically says winner takes all and the rest of you are losers who get nothing.

If you are not a First-Class Citizen (http://critiques.us/index.php?title=Corporations), you are a musical chairs loser. The rich have done what crackpot sovereign citizens have dreamed of: they have made themselves legally immune to many of the liabilities that ordinary citizens have, through the distinction between corporations and themselves. Which is why it is so rare for a corporation owner or board member to go to jail for corporate crimes.

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