Thursday, January 5, 2017

Deep story, deep resentment

I recently made my way through Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016). In other words, I turned every page but read just here and there, lacking the patience to follow along with Hochschild’s investigator-on-a-journey approach and its predictable narrative markers: “As I take leave of the Arenos,” “as I take my leave,” “we climb back in his red truck,” “we climb into her tan SUV,” and so on. The core of the book may be found between pages 135 and 145, which present the “deep story” that informs the thinking of the Louisiana Tea Partiers whom Hochschild has sought to understand. You can also find the deep story in condensed form in this New York Times review.

Hochschild’s book helped me to understand something I have never understood: why it might be that so many people in my state-university-dependent town seem unfazed by and even gleeful about the effect of Illinois’s manufactured budget crisis on higher education — declining enrollment, hundreds of faculty and staff positions lost, maintenance and repairs left undone. “They need to live within their means,” “they need to work harder instead of protesting”: that’s the sort of stuff that shows up in comments in the local newspaper. It can’t be anti-intellectualism and distrust of academics alone that account for these attitudes: carpenters, clerical workers, electricians, groundskeepers, and janitors have also lost jobs in the absence of state funding.

I found a possible explanation of local attitudes in two of the “common impressions” shared by people Hochschild spoke with. One: ”A lot of people — maybe 40 percent — work for the federal and state government.” Two: “Public sector workers are way overpaid.” As Hochschild points out, these impressions have no foundation in reality. In 2014, she notes, “less than 17 percent of Americans worked for the government,” and that percentage includes all enlisted and reserve military personnel and all employees of federal, state, and local government, including teachers and hospital workers. Hochschild also points out that private-sector workers “earn 12 percent more than their public sector counterparts.”

A deep resentment of “government” and those it employs seems hard at work in my town. But it’s still remarkable to me that any resident of a town that depends upon a public university for its economic well-being would not be troubled to see that university in decline. It’s like cheering as your own house burns.

comments: 6

Chris said...

I think this resentment is extremely common, and I think the ultimate root of it is the weakness of the labor movement in the private sector. People with little or no leverage in the employment market (and consequently, low pay, few paid holidays, and inadequate benefits) resent the relative few who have what everybody ought to have. Whether they somehow blame public sector workers for their economic plight (which of course is what the Right tells them they should do), or whether they simply enjoy the prospect of having public sector workers humbled, isn't something I could answer.

Daughter Number Three said...

I agree with Chris.

Thanks for reading the book, Michael - I almost picked up a copy the other day but talked myself out of it, thinking of my gigantic pile of books to be read, and knowing that I think I've gotten the gist of it from reviews.

This is the key thing about resentment, based on incorrect information (or intentional misleading by people with money who control messaging, perhaps).

During the fight over union-busting in Wisconsin after Scott Walker came in, I remember pro-Walker people (relatives!) saying it wasn't fair that state workers had better benefits than regular people. When all the state workers have is the kind of benefits that any union member would have had in the past... it's a race to the bottom, which we all know benefits the 1%.

Or it benefits them until the whole infrastructure crumbles around them and they have to go off to Galt's Gulch to get away from the angry mob.

The Arthurian said...

Hochschild has the 17% number right. Here's a graph:
Blue line= Federal + state + local employees as a percent of all US employees. Not much more than 15% now.
Red line = Just the Federal employees as a percent of all US employees. A tad under 2%.
The tiny peaks visible every 10 years on the red line show the extra employment at Census time.
I didn't know that the "all employees" number includes military personnel.

If Hochschild is correct that private-sector workers “earn 12 percent more than their public sector counterparts”, it probably has something to do with inequality and concentration of income at the top. Those CEO salaries throw off the curve!

I worked with a guy who thought his wife (a teacher) made too much money. You can't expect people to be rational when the economy is as bad as it is these days. The funny thing is, most economists (the wrong ones) base their econ models on something called "rational expectations".

The Arthurian said...

As an afterthought, the 40% number is about right as a measure of Federal + state + local spending as a percent of GDP (not as a measure of government employment).

But that is a response to our economic problems, not the cause of them.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, everyone. I’ll add just one point: in my town, many of the complaints come from people who are fairly well-off themselves. Some are probably the same people who recently fought a 1% increase in sales tax to fund repairs to schools (with many exemptions to the tax: groceries, medicine, farm equipment, all vehicles). The opponents ran a well-funded campaign with mass mailings and robo-calls. But they lost — one piece of good news in November’s voting.

zzi said...

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