State of the Union

Robot Employment Survival 101

Fear not the rise of the machines? That appears to be the advice given by MIT economist David H. Autor in a paper he recently presented at the Kansas City Fed’s symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Responding to a significant uptick in economists’ concern over the effects of automation on employment, including the “stunning” results of a poll suggesting “that a plurality of mainstream economists has accepted—at least tentatively—the proposition that a decade of technological advancement has made the median worker no better off, and possibly worse off,” Autor suggests that it will be a lot harder to automate us all away than many journalists and expert commentators have indicated.

Autor argues that “Polanyi’s paradox,” whereby “We can know more than we can tell…” saves us from the threat of total automation dislocation, because there will always be jobs that rely on a variety of particularly human skills and tasks, skills and tasks that we can’t entirely explain to ourselves, much less to a computer. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi himself put it, “The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.”

While jobs consisting almost entirely of routine tasks, i.e. those easily codified into rules that can then be automated, have been and will continue to be replaced by machine labor, then, there is according to Autor a natural buffer to keep many people employed (if not necessarily well paid). In fact, Autor sees a significant opportunity for computer-enhanced human labor, for “tasks that cannot be substituted by computerization are generally complemented by it.” The construction worker, in his example, has to manage too many variables in a fluid environment to be automated away. However, he can be given a backhoe to replace his shovel, enhancing the productivity of his labor while making backhoe-trained workers more valuable than the merely shovel-ready.

This is a blue-collar example of “skill-biased technical change,” more traditionally described by Autor’s fellow MIT professors (and techno-employment pessimists) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee:

Technologies like robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, and automatic transcription have been substituting for routine tasks, displacing those workers. Meanwhile other technologies like data visualization, analytics, high-speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions of more abstract and data-driven reasoning, increasing the value of those jobs.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in their book a polarization of the employment market, where high-skill abstract-task intensive jobs are increasingly well compensated, and well complemented by machine labor. Low-skill Polanyi paradox jobs, like janitorial work and home health care, are also insulated from being automated away, but as Autor describes it, they are too well-insulated to even benefit from automation complementing their labor. Because their jobs require only the minimal amount of human reasoning that any competent adult can provide, their wages are depressed by the large supply of interchangeable labor. Middle-skill jobs, however, are nearly wiped out in Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s analysis.

Here, too, Autor finds some reason for more optimism. Read More…

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Eric Holder Puts Corporate Dope on the Table

HBO
HBO

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the latest in a series of massive, multi-billion-dollar settlements extracted from Wall Street’s largest banks as punishment for their role in the subprime mortgage bubble and bust that played a role in collapsing the economy in 2008. Charlotte-based Bank of America, paying for the sins of its own lenders as well as those of investment firm Merrill Lynch and subprime specialist Countrywide (both of which it acquired during the 2008 crisis), will be paying a record $16.65 billion settlement, including an also-record $9.65 billion in cash. This follows last month’s Citigroup settlement of $7 billion (including a then-record $4 billion in cash), and last fall’s $13 billion JPMorgan Chase settlement.

The numbers are truly eye-popping, and the repeated use of “record” has a nice, satisfying ring to it. But, just before the latest BoA settlement was announced, William Cohen denounced the entire exercise as “fine theater with the obvious caveat that nothing even remotely close to justice had been served.” Far from being impressed by the sums involved, Cohen sees the settlements as hush money, paid by Wall Street executives eager to keep the details of their worst behaviors out of the public eye.

The American people are deprived of knowing precisely how bad things got inside these banks in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and the banks, knowing they will be saved the humiliation caused by the public airing of a trove of emails and documents, will no doubt soon be repeating their callous and indifferent behavior.

Instead of the truth, we get from the Justice Department a heavily negotiated and sanitized “statement of facts” about what supposedly went wrong. In the case of JPMorgan, the statement of facts was 21 pages but contained little of substance beyond the fact that an unidentified whistle-blower at the bank tried to alert her superiors to her belief that shoddy mortgages were being packaged and sold as securities. Her warnings went unheeded and the mortgages were packaged and sold all the same.

JPMorgan’s CEO and famed finance guru Jamie Dimon reportedly made a personal call in the lead-up to a federal lawsuit being filed in order to bump his settlement offer by, ultimately, $10 billion dollars, hoping “the meeting would avert the lawsuit, which threatened to spotlight the bank’s questionable mortgage practices before the financial crisis.” The $13 billion was, the Times reported, half of one year’s annual profits for the bank.

Indeed, the Times followed up yesterday to show how even Bank of America was getting off lighter than the numbers might make it seem at first blush. “At issue is how much of the cost of the $7 billion in ‘soft dollars,’ or help for borrowers, the bank will bear under the settlement,” the Times said, as writing down principal on loans may have already been factored into BoA’s plans, or they may not even own the loans anymore, having sold them off in the infamous mortgage-backed securities. The investors who bought the bad bonds “note that the government promotes the settlements as punishment for dumping faulty loans on investors, but it devises deals that saddle investors with some of the costs.”

And in a rather perverse function of intersecting laws,

The actual pain to the bank could also be significantly reduced by tax deductions. Tax analysts, for instance, estimate that Bank of America could derive $1.6 billion of tax savings on the $4.63 billion of payments to the states and some federal agencies under the settlement. Shares of Bank of America jumped 4 percent on Thursday, suggesting investors believe that the bank could take the settlement in stride.

Moreover, the Justice Department and states began to get creative in their negotiations with BoA, Read More…

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Will the Panopticon Save Us From the Police?

Since the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer over a week ago, the idea of arming police with personal body cameras to record their on-duty actions has gained fresh currency.

German Lopez at Vox wrote, “If police officers were required to wear body cameras, questions about their conduct — like the ones that have arisen in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting — could be avoided.” Derek Thompson at The Atlantic  noted, “Although military technology has arguably given law enforcement an unreasonable amount of power, there is another piece of technology that could help restrain the militarization of America’s police in the future: a camera.” And Nick Gillespie of Reason insisted that “While there is no simple fix to race relations in any part of American life, there is an obvious way to reduce violent law enforcement confrontations while also building trust in cops: Police should be required to use wearable cameras and record their interactions with citizens.”

The idea is to attach small, portable cameras to police officers’ collars or sunglasses that can then provide objective evidence to be called upon to settle any disputes or complaints about misconduct. The California city of Rialto has been conducting a rigorous and increasingly high-profile police body camera experiment over the past couple years, and has found results to exceed what expectations even their staunchest advocates could likely have had. As the New York Times reported a year ago,

In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.

Officers had been randomly assigned cameras and instructed to turn them on for any encounter with civilians. The Times continued, “Officers used force 25 times, down from 61 over the previous 12 months. And those wearing cameras accounted for 8 of those incidents.” The Rialto police chief William A. Farrar observed, “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better … And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Yet even setting aside the natural privacy concerns raised by strapping recording devices to every patrol officer circumambulating their city’s streets, it is worth raising a smaller, subtler, but nevertheless potentially significant concern: the increasingly intermediated cop. One only has to glance in the window of a local patrol car to see the sprawling array of screens, keyboards, and communication devices designed to link the officer to all the information they could need. The problem being, of course, that the most important information the common cop needs still can’t be pulled up within his car: the knowledge gained from building relationships with those in the community he patrols.

That relationship-building is a core component of a police officer’s mission, and may be almost entirely divorced from the work he can get done on his car’s mounted notebook computer. It also requires a certain amount of discretion, getting to know a neighborhood’s warts as well as its virtues. The conversations that give an officer an accurate picture of the seedy but not destructive side of his citizens’ lives could very well be more difficult or awkward should the policeman’s sunglasses be rolling film.

Mark Steyn, in addressing the more expressly dangerous and frightening distortion of the police seen in the militarization of the Ferguson PD, gave some interesting and relevant history:

To camouflage oneself in the jungles of suburban America, one should be clothed in Dunkin’ Donuts and Taco Bell packaging. A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out – to let you guys know: We’re here, we’re severe, get used to it.

This is not a small thing. The point about ‘the thin blue line’ is that it’s blue for a reason. As I wrote a couple of months ago:

‘The police’ is a phenomenon of the modern world. It would be wholly alien, for example, to America’s Founders. In the sense we use the term today, it dates back no further than Sir Robert Peel’s founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Because Londoners associated the concept with French-style political policing and state control, they were very resistant to the idea of a domestic soldiery keeping them in line. So Peel dressed his policemen in blue instead of infantry red, and instead of guns they had wooden truncheons.”

So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it’s not a fashion faux pas, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are.

When the police are moving around dressed as Google Glassholes, might they also be living a misunderstanding? Body cameras may ultimately be necessary to protect us from the police, and the police from themselves. But the Benthamite logic that keeps our present-day peace will be fundamentally different from that governing the polis-protectors of Sir Robert Peel.


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Hawks Call for Cuts to Israel Military Aid

As Israel ramps up its ground invasion and bombing campaign against Gaza, one might think that the Jewish state’s fiercest defenders here in the United States would be resolutely holding the line against any suggestion of reducing support to the IDF. Instead, Eli Lake reported this morning, many of Israel’s most prominent hawkish supporters are increasingly open to the idea of reducing or eliminating the billions of dollars in military aid that the United States provides Israel every year.

They have not changed their feathers, to be sure, but rather see a phase-out of aid to be in Israel’s best interests as they understand them. Noah Pollak, who runs the Emergency Committee on Israel, said, “The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have.”

Elliott Abrams, the former George W. Bush deputy national security adviser and “leading pro-Israel writer and policy analyst” told Lake, “My view is over time it would be healthy for the relationship if the aid diminished. Israel should be less dependent on American financial assistance and should become the kind of ally that we have in Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid.”

A consistent theme in these arguments is a desire for Israel to gain greater independence in recognition of its changed position from decades ago. David Wurmser, a former Cheney aide who helped author the 1996 “Clean Break” memo that also called for terminating U.S. aid, “said the idea at the time was for Israel to graduate from being a ‘tenuous project’ to a ‘real country.’” Naftali Bennett, the right-wing Israeli Minister of the Economy, said last year that “U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy. I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly … but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago.’”

Abrams noted that Israel’s booming economy (its GDP has doubled since 2000) and recent discovery of significant natural gas reserves has led to talk of a sovereign wealth fund for the country to invest its surplus moneys in, “but I do not believe a country that has a sovereign wealth fund can be an aid recipient.”

In many ways, these pro-Israel hawks echo the sentiments of skeptics of U.S. policy towards Israel, including University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer, who wrote in TAC in 2009 that “Both countries would be much better off if the Obama administration treated Israel the way it treats other democracies, such as Britain, France, Germany, and India.” There are obvious limits to that overlap, as Abrams worries that, “Were there a reduction now, it would be attributed to administration hostility to Israel and be seen as a weakening of U.S. support,” and so doesn’t want to see a reduction in aid until a more friendly administration is in place.

But the desire for Israel to take a more independent, self-sufficient place among the nations seems to be shared by hawks and doves alike, and is at the least worth keeping an eye on.


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Labor Union Brings Community Bookstore to Heel

Sex isn’t the only thing that will get New York City’s liberals hot and bothered.

Chris Doelib is an independent bookseller who owns a bookstore in the Morningside Heights neighborhood next to Columbia University. As the New York Times detailed in Sunday’s paper, Doelib self-identifies as “an extremely progressive liberal,” who “hung photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. above the cash registers … threw open his doors to local authors, provided a home for the Queer Book Club and created a weekly story time program for children (in English, Spanish and Mandarin).” Thus to many in the neighborhood, “he is a lanky warrior for the written word, celebrated for creating and sustaining an intellectual haven in the neighborhood for nearly two decades.”

Or he was, rather, until Doelib resisted attempts to unionize his store by firing several employees involved in the effort (saying they were management employees who illicitly voted in the union election).

Within a week, the Times reports,

…[m]ost of Mr. Doeblin’s remaining employees went on strike, picketing his two stores with the help of the union and its giant inflatable rats, and urging neighborhood residents to join in a boycott. The news spread on Twitter, in the local news media and on community email lists. Sales plunged.

The union in question, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, brought giant inflatable rats to their picket lines as they rallied a neighborhood against an independent community book store that had supported so many of its cherished causes over the years. The Times story then contrasts an expected lengthy, drawn-out battle between management and labor with what was in actuality a clean and speedy resolution.

As it tells the story, “something happened as Mr. Doeblin watched his staff protest, as he was peppered with questions while walking to work and as he fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls at his stores.” It wasn’t that he feared for the solvency of his business, or was frightened at the scale of opposition pouring out of the community he had served for so many years. Instead, Doeblin ”started to wonder where he had gone wrong.” After some perfunctory self-examination, he “agreed to rehire the four fired supervisors, provided that they agreed to give up their titles and return to hourly status for now. He gave a severance package to the fifth person he had let go and has agreed to recognize the union.” All this within a day of the giant inflatable rats being deployed outside his store.

As James Poulos articulated in his “Conservative Case for Unions,” ”unions wind up being the only way industrial workers can bargain effectively with the massive corporations that employ them. Unions exist because, without them, the path is opened wide to crony collaboration between big government and big business.” Given the enormous scales at which billion-dollar companies and trillion-dollar governments operate, unions can serve a vital organizing role in connecting wage-labor workers at similarly large scales.

An independent community bookstore staffed largely by Columbia University students, however, is the furthest thing imaginable from the circumstances that legitimate union activity. Here, the hand of organized labor was brought in to signal noncompliance with one of the tenets of contemporary liberal norms, so that the offender might be brought back around. And so he was.


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The Conservatism of New Urbanism

Responding to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s contention that the American left is intellectually exhausted, Noah Smith argues that one place liberals are stirring up new, progressive thinking is “the New Urbanists, which include prominent figures such as Richard Florida and a whole host of organizations working behind the scenes to transform American cities.” As Smith explains,

In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has seen relentless suburban sprawl, white flight and concentrations of poverty in inner cities. New Urbanism is looking to change all that, by encouraging walkable neighborhoods, adaptive redevelopment and less reliance on cars. Urban planning may sound like small potatoes, but it probably has more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs.

Urban planning can indeed have more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs (though urban planning is influenced by several federal government programs, it must be said). It determines the shape of our communities, and the patterns of our movement. Winston Churchill’s famous line that we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us may hold doubly true for our neighborhoods. And that is why New Urbanism is such an important conservative movement.

As Andres Duany, a founder of New Urbanism, explains in his book Suburban Nation, “The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history,” whereas

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system.

No less a conservative icon than Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich joined TAC‘s William S. Lind and Duany to present a report, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism,” in which they wrote,

On the face of it, it is hard to see why conservatives should oppose offering traditionally-designed cities, towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to post-war “sprawl” suburbs. As conservatives, we are supposed to prefer traditional designs over modern innovations in most things (and we do). We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop encourage traditional culture and morals. This should not surprise us. Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanists are liberal. It should also be noted and acknowledged that, as Smith says, “Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization — which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.” But once we set Richard Florida’s “creative class” pablum to the side, it becomes apparent that when it comes to New Urbanism, progressives are designing better than they know.

Update: TAC will have much more coverage of conservatism, New Urbanism, and cities, starting next week, in a project funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Stay tuned.

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Can Main Street Poach Talent From Wall Street?

James Fallows of The Atlantic has been touring the United States with his wife, stopping in small and mid-size cities to try and get a picture of what is actually working in American politics. He says they’ve found it in the nation’s mayors, who are exercising a strong hand of leadership to bring the best insights of urban planning and town development to their constituents, and revitalizing even economically stricken towns like former textile stalwart Greenville, South Carolina.

He recently got a response from a small-city Midwestern mayor currently on military duty in Afghanistan, who told him that “There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them.” The young mayor went on to postulate that “The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government,” because it is increasingly becoming a place where people of talent and industry can get things done:

In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.

Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don’t know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.

I’d like to see some hard numbers before jumping all the way on the small city optimism bandwagon, but as Fallows remarks, “We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere,” where many of the people they encountered were driven by “the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success” (emphasis original).

I wonder, too, how much the utopian shine of Silicon Valley’s start-up culture might start to wear thin on practically minded people of talent, and how far Wall Street’s quantitative gymnastics might fall from the sort of meaningful work that can drive late nights for a purpose past the paycheck. Town renewal can be every bit as intellectually stimulating as credit-default swaps and big firm lawyering, with bookcases of accumulated zoning codes in need of a dramatic revamp customized to the needs of each place. That’s not even to mention the tremendous creativity and human capital needed to cultivate established interests while courting new businesses with, as Fallows puts it, “a conception of the town—people think we’re hicks, but we know we’ve developed something great—that depends on a series of specific achievements.”

So even if small cities and large towns can’t end up poaching quantitative whiz-kids from Wall Street, or steal blistering coders from Palo Alto, they may actually be able to do one better: attract great town managers.


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Hobby Lobby Has Won, But Have We?

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Hobby Lobby has won. The big box craft store’s lawsuit challenging the contraceptive mandate regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in its implementation of Obamacare had become seen as high-stakes test case determining the future balance between the religious liberty of conservative Christians and the mandates of sexual modernity. When the case was first heard back in March, Patrick Deneen weighed in here at TAC with a decidedly unorthodox argument. To Deneen, Christians relying on a big box retailer to represent them against a secular leviathan signaled “the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the ‘utopia’ of our modern economic disembedding”:

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. …

Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. … As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. …

How delicious he would doubtless find the irony of a “religious corporation” seeking to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. …

I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case. But we should not deceive ourselves for a minute that what we are seeing is the contestation between a religious corporation and a secular State. We are seeing, rather, the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the “utopia” of our modern economic disembedding—the absurdity of a chain store representing the voice of religion in the defense of life amid an economy and polity that values turning people and nature into things. Our entire economy is an education in how to be “pro-choice.” What it most certainly is not in any way, shape or form, is about helping us to understand our true condition as embedded human beings.

Scott Galupo responded to distinguish his position as “a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson.” On the Hobby Lobby case in particular, he invoked Yuval Levin and Garry Wills to contrast the Obama administration’s drive from a more appropriately modest accommodation:

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

Micah Mattix demurred from definitively judging Hobby Lobby’s particular moral merits, but criticized Deneen’s sweeping judgment against modern markets: Read More…

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Americans Aren’t Politically Polarized—They’re Sorted

College Republicans by Tobyotter | CC3

Two weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released a sprawling report on the relative politics of Americans, spawning a cottage industry of interpretative articles and posts sorting out just what “Political Polarization in the American Public” says about political polarization in the American public. The problem is, well, it doesn’t say much about it at all. As Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina expertly explains at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage, Pew didn’t measure polarization, that is to say, political extremes. Rather, they measured ideological consistency, according to a 10-question scale of their own construction:

Items in the Ideological Consistency Scale

Pew constructed a scale whereby respondents were scored -1 for a “liberal” response, and +1 for a conservative response, then all the scores were added up to obtain the political consistency scale. A perfectly consistent conservative would score a 10, a perfectly consistent liberal, a -10. Thus, as Fiorina notes, “people in the middle of the Pew distributions are not necessarily centrists.” A “middle” score of 0 would be obtained by a mix of answers, none of which have their intensity or extremity measured, and so would indicate heterodoxy, not moderation. I suspect few TAC readers (or writers), for instance, would score perfect 10′s.

To see what this means in practice, look at the following graphic, frequently reproduced in the coverage of the Pew Report:

Understandably, many see the separation between the two sides, and assume that Americans are moving further apart on issues. What the graphic actually shows, however, is that Americans are becoming more ideologically consistent with their co-partisans. Republicans are becoming more consistently Republican, and Democrats more consistently Democratic. As Fiorina describes,

Prior to the 1980s the Republican Party had a significant liberal wing and the Democrats a significant conservative wing. … Today partisanship, ideology and issue positions go together in a way they did not in the mid-20th century. Issues and ideology used to cross-cut the partisan distribution, now they reinforce it. … The net result is parties that are much more internally homogeneous than was the case a generation ago.

While some may breathe a brief sigh of relief that Americans, on average, generally occupy the same middle ground as they did a generation ago, these sorting changes may in fact be much more politically pernicious than mere extremism. As Noah Millman has discussed periodically, the decline of the pro-life Democrat and the pro-choice Republican has not necessarily been beneficial for either political cause. Instead, it binds the fortunes of abortion policy to nearly every other political issue, so that abortion policy is dependent on the political state of economics, or foreign policy debates. And with less heterogeneity within the parties, there is less reason for politicians to try to cross party lines in the first place: there’s no one waiting for them on the other side.

As the report notes, most Americans are not very ideologically consistent, and heterogeneity is still widespread. But because of the partisan sorting of the past decades, Fiorina says, “The unsorted and inconsistent middle still exists, but it has no home in either party.”


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Tech Can’t Escape Geography After All

Are conservatives doomed to forever miss out on the booming innovations of the tech sector? That’s the question Alexis Madrigal asks at The Atlantic in response to an admittedly startling survey result from Pew that only 4 percent of consistent conservatives (by their counting) would ideally like to live in the city, compared to 46 percent of consistent liberals. The Pew report is very interesting in its own right, and I hope to engage it at length next week, but Madrigal’s projection of a “new digital divide” between urban, tech-savvy liberals and rural, disconnected conservatives merits consideration on its own, for how simply it explodes one of Silicon Valley’s favorite myths about itself.

The networks comprising the World Wide Web have frequently been ascribed the power to “destroy geography” by connecting people and knowledge from across the world in a democratic marketplace of ideas. Enthusiasts of online education gush about the potential of Massively Open Online Courses to put a master teacher in every living room across the country, so that a Montanan farmer’s boy can learn artificial intelligence from the same Stanford professor as a student sitting in Palo Alto. Telecommuting enthusiasts see the potential of working from home to connect skilled workers with employers across the country without any painful dislocations. The democratic meritocracy of the tech industry, it is said, will allow good ideas to bubble to the top wherever they may originate. Why, then, are the biggest tech companies all coming out of a handful of major cities?

And as Madrigal notes, “It’s not just that the latest round of hot companies are deciding to headquarter in cities like New York and San Francisco; it’s also that many of these companies make sense, for the most part, only in urban environments.” Uber, the ride-sharing app recently valued at around $18 billion, relies on dense concentrations of people that can be served taxi replacements at sufficient volume to keep its drivers engaged and available. It also relies on people not already having their own car with them, a particular feature of cities. Madrigal also notes that one of the seemingly science fiction technologies most likely to become a reality, self-driving cars, “require detailed, expensive, and regularly updated maps to operate. For that reason, those vehicles will almost certainly deploy in cities first, and maybe only in places where enough people drive to make the investment in mapping the area worth it.” It is unlikely that any near-term future will see charismatic Baptist preachers in the rural South urging their parishioners to “let Google take the wheel.”

As George Packer noted in the New Yorker last year, and Ellen Cush explored expertly in “The Bacon-Wrapped Economy,” the tech industry is great at solving the problems of 23-year-olds in San Francisco, because it is largely composed of 23-year-olds in San Francisco. While there are genuine breakthroughs occurring in distributed finance in developing economies brought about by the advent of cell phones in rural villages, most of the tech industry is not concerned with getting Togolese farmers the best price for their yams, or making small towns more livable. Read More…

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