Why is Trump’s America upset?

Charles Murray recently wrote a Wall Street Journal essay arguing that, “Trumpism is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken.”  In particular, he says that increasing inequality since the 1970s has caused white working class culture to embrace Trump.  This is a theme he has previously studied in his 2012 book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”  He makes the dramatic claim that inequality has led Americans to lose their faith in freedom and individualism.  Murray also laments that working-class labor force participation, and marriage have declined since the 1960s.

Even though Murray is cherry-picking data to make the state of America look as bleak as possible, he doesn’t come up with much other than the rise in inequality.  For example, although marriage rates are down since the 1960s, the decline in marriage is partly due to the aging of America.  In particular, when the baby boomers were children was a time of few marriages in the late 1950s.  Their coming of age in the 1960s created a mini marriage bubble that Murray sees as the golden age of marriage.  Then in the 1970s, the baby boomers created a divorce bubble which was even more dramatic than the earlier rise in marriage. Since then, as the baby boomers aged, it was only natural for a smaller percentage of the aging population to get married.  That is a lot less worrisome than Murray makes it seem.  Plus the statistics for divorce rates tell the opposite story. They demonstrate a dramatic strengthening of marriage.  Divorce rates have fallen by almost half from their 1970s peak, so American marriages are lasting a lot longer than during the time Murray adulates.

marriages_divorces_per_capita (1)

Randy Olson

Americans still value marriage. According to Gallup, only 5% of Americans said that they did not want to get married, and upper-class Americans are still just as likely as ever to marry, but Brookings Institution research shows that marriage rates have dropped among the middle and lower classes (the bottom 65% of the income distribution).  They suggest that rising inequality is contributing to the decline in marriage.

Murray also laments the decline in labor-force participation for men, but the data in the graph below shows that the prime-age labor-force participation (purple line) is much higher now than in the 1960s which is the time Murray thinks was the golden age of work.  This is because women’s labor force participation (blue line) has risen dramatically since the 1960s and it more than made up for the decline in working men (red line) until 1999.

labor force participation

Total labor-force participation peaked in 1999 and it has only declined three percentage points since then.  That doesn’t look like the kind of end-of-work crisis that Murray thinks is fomenting a political revolution.

Other than stagnant median income and growing inequality, most statistics are much better now then 20 years ago. For example, a recent Vox article looked at CDC data which shows that America is doing better than ever on most measures.  For example, American teenagers are making much better choices than their parents’ generation did 20 years ago.  For example, if you were born in 1974, you would have been nineteen in 1993 and the following chart applies to you.  Your peers were behaving much worse in 1993 than today’s teens by almost every measure.

Teen behavior

20 years ago

(1993)

Today

(2013)

Regularly wear a seat belt

80.9

92.4

Ever tried alcohol

80.9

66.2

Ever tried a cigarette

69.5

44.1

Used a condom during last sexual intercourse

52.8

59.1

Ever had sex

53

46.8

Had sex within the last 3 months

37.5

34

Ever been in a physical fight

41.8

24.7

Drank 5 or more drinks in a row in past month

30

20.8

Smoke cigarettes

30.5

15.7

Seriously considered a suicide attempt in past year

24.1

17

Carried a weapon to school in the last month

11.8

5.2

Carried a gun in past 30 days

7.9

5.5

Had sex before 13 years old

9.2

5.6

Childbearing (% of teen girls)

2.4

5.6

Tried cocaine

4.9

5.5 (worse)

Tried marijuana

32.8

40.7 (worse)

Very few measures (like cocaine and marijuana use) have gotten worse.  Most measures, other than inequality have gotten markedly better, and those few that have gotten worse usually haven’t declined much. Here are more statistics:

Other Indicators

 20 years ago

(1993)

Today

(2013)

 Our schools are better.  NAEP Reading & Math
scores are higher.
Better
 Abortion rate per 1,000 women age 15-44  24 (in 2011)  13.9 (in 2011)
 Murder rate per 100,000 people 9.5 4.5
 Life expectancy 76 79
 Divorce rate per 1,000 population 4.7 (in 1990) 2.8 (in 2010)
 Heritage index of economic freedom
Murray asserts that Americans have less liberty,
but even Heritage data shows insignificant change.
76.7 (1995) 76.2 (2015)

The US isn’t alone in making progress.  Most important statistics show that the rest of the world has been improving over the past 20 years too.  But Americans are angry about the state of the world and whatever explains Trumpism, there are probably similar factors driving Democrats to support another anti-establishment outsider in Bernie Sanders. Americans weren’t looking for a political revolution 20 years ago when most things were objectively worse, so what has deteriorated since then besides rising inequality?

Perhaps the changing media landscape has been encouraging revolution too. The proliferation of media competition has also increased the sensationalization of news and its partisan fragmentation into separate echo chambers.  In the 1960s that Murray idolizes, almost all Americans got their news from common news outlets because there were very few national news services.  The national news outlets had to be moderate because they had to appeal to all political stripes to attract a wide audience.  Today, the Pew Research Center shows almost zero overlap between the audience of Rush Limbaugh and Democracy Now or Fox News and The Daily Show.  There was nothing like that in the 1960s.

Even more importantly, social media is amplifying the voices of passionate people much more than the calm voices that don’t generate as much attention.  Social media has encouraged activists to band together into like-minded social networks that can circulate stories and ideas independently from professional journalists.  Social media gave rise to political revolutions across the Arab League during the Arab Spring in 2011, so perhaps a parallel kind of force is shaping the presidential race into a revolutionary American Spring.   If so, then lets hope that the coming winter will turn out better than the Arab Winter was for Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, or Bahrain.

Update:

The home ownership rate is plummeting which may be another cause for concern, but it is mainly due to rising inequality.  Inequality suppresses the median income and drives up the price of housing in the cities where most Americans live because markets chase dollars and focus more on where the incomes are growing: the upper classes.  Their expanding purchasing power can cause gentrification that drives up average prices.  It was also artificially inflated in the 2000s by the securitization that caused the mortgage bubble.  Here is the FRED data.

 

 

 

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Posted in Inequality, Public Finance

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