The debate continues over whether Donald Trump's blue-collar supporters—virtually of them white—are motivated by economic anxiety or racial anxiety. I think the evidence is pretty clear that racial anxiety plays the larger role, but it's hardly the only role. Economic anxiety is real too.

The usual response is that this just can't be true. White men make more money than black men, which means they have less economic anxiety than black men. So why do they support Trump and black men don't? It must be racial animus.

But this is wrong. I've made this point before, but I want to make it again: economic contentment is largely related to change, not to absolute levels of income. A Chinese peasant who makes $10 per day lives in dire poverty. But if that peasant made $5 per day a few years ago and now has indoor plumbing, he's probably pretty happy. Things are getting better. On the flip side, an American manager who makes $80,000 has a pretty good income. But if he made $100,000 a couple of years ago, he's probably tearing his hair out. He built a life around his $100,000 income—mortgage payments, car payments, property taxes, insurance, etc.—and suddenly he has to cut back and probably go into debt. Life sucks.

This should be obvious. In the Middle Ages, pretty much everyone lived in grinding poverty by today's standards. Do we suppose that all of them were desperately unhappy? Of course not. As long as things were going the same as always, they were probably about as happy as us. But if a crop failed, they became desperate.

I've long thought that the single most interesting finding of behavioral economics is the fact that people respond to loss far more sharply than they respond to gain.1 In money terms, it's a factor of about 2:1. Even a small loss—in money, in status, in living standards—will cause enormous anxiety. And that loss can be relative as well as absolute.

I've posted the chart on the right before, and I can't guarantee that it's precisely accurate. But it's roughly correct, and what it shows is that every demographic has made economic progress over the past 40 years except for one: white men. Some of those gains might be small—11 percent over four decades for black men isn't much—but at least it's a gain. White men alone have lost ground. And more to the point, in relative terms they've lost lots of ground.

So is it plausible that a lot of white men feel economically anxious even if their absolute incomes are still higher than women, higher than blacks, and higher than Hispanics? Sure. What matters is loss, and white men have been losing relative ground for a long time. They've lost ground economically and they've lost status as well. White men used to be kings of the hill, but now they can hear the footsteps of other folks catching up to them. Economic anxiety, gender anxiety, and racial anxiety are all perfectly normal consequences of this.

1Needless to say, economists didn't really discover this. They just quantified it. But this dynamic has been obvious for a very long time to observers of human nature. Examples are legion, but here's one my readers might appreciate. It's from Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel, published in 1953:

It was the addition of status that brought the little things: a more comfortable seat here, a better cut of meat there, a shorter wait in line at the other place. To the philosophical mind, these items might seem scarcely worth any great trouble to acquire. Yet no one, however philosophical, could give up those privileges, once acquired, without a pang.

There's more after that. Just generally, though, writers throughout history have acknowledged that the humiliation which accompanies a loss of status is a very strong emotion indeed.

The way Washington works—in fact, the way everything works—is that people socialize; they develop relationships; and they often try to leverage those relationships to call in favors. We have laws and institutions to try to put boundaries on this kind of thing, but it's still ubiquitous. This is just the way homo sapiens is wired.

So now we have some more emails related to Hillary Clinton, and what have we learned? The crown prince of Bahrain wanted to meet with the Secretary of State, and in addition to making a request through normal channels he also talked to someone at the Clinton Foundation, who then called Huma Abedin. The meeting took place, which is entirely unexceptional since meeting with people like this is the Secretary of State's job. There's no indication that the extra push by the Foundation had any particular effect.

Another time, someone at the Foundation called Abedin to see if she could expedite a visa. She said this made her nervous, and the Foundation guy backed off.

On another occasion, a lobbyist who had formerly been a Democratic staffer asked for a meeting with her client, a coal company executive. Abedin blew her off.

We might yet find a smoking gun in all these emails. But so far, the trend is clear: lots of people talked to Huma Abedin to try to set up meetings with Hillary Clinton. Generally speaking, Abedin treated them politely but told them to get lost. That's about it.

If some of these efforts had succeeded, that would hardly be noteworthy. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time. What's really noteworthy about the most recent email releases is that they demonstrate a surprisingly high level of integrity from Hillary Clinton's shop at Foggy Bottom. Huma Abedin was tasked with running interference on favor seekers, and she seems to have done exactly that. There's no evidence at all that being a donor to the Clinton Foundation helped anyone out.

So tell me again what the issue is here?

Atrios says that 401(k) retirement plans have been a disaster:

The current system has failed, and the exciting plan to "fix" the failed system is run the same experiment, with minor tweaks, over for another 40 years and see how that works. Of course if you just grab your trusty envelope back and do The Math, the pittance people will save in these exciting new plans will be just that, a pittance.

This is a common view on the left, usually delivered with no evidence because it's considered so obvious that no evidence is needed. On the occasions when there is evidence, it's usually something about the stock market being in bad shape circa 2010.

So let's take a look at the evidence. I've put all of this up before, but not in one place. So let's collect it. Here's chart #1:

Retirement-age folks have done better than any other age group since 1974, and way better since 2000. So far so good. Here's chart #2:

This is Social Security's projection of median elderly income over the next 25 years. It looks pretty good too. There's no evident crisis in these numbers. And this is not from some think tank with an axe to grind. It's from the Social Security Administration's MINT projection, which is probably the most comprehensive look we have at all sources of income among retired folks. Here's chart #3:

This comes from the Center for Retirement Research, a decidedly liberal outfit. They've been a longtime proponent of the view that 401(k) plans are worse than old-style defined benefit pensions, but last year they revisited this question using better data. What they found is that for the past 30 years, pension wealth has stayed steady even as 401(k) plans have become more popular and DB plans have gone the way of the dodo (except in the public sector, where they're still common). In other words 401(k)s aren't a failure.

My final bit of data, sadly, doesn't lend itself to chart format, so we shall have to use words instead. In 2006, Congress passed the Pension Protection Act, something that most critics of 401(k) plans seem to ignore—or perhaps are blissfully unaware of. In the past 10 years, it's accomplished the following:

  • Allowed companies to automatically enroll workers (subject to an opt-out), thus increasing the number of people with 401(k)s.
  • Made 401(k)s more accessible to small businesses.
  • Increased 401(k) participation considerably among young workers and low-income workers, who need them the most.
  • Encouraged the use of lifecycle funds, the best type for retirement plans.

Put all these things together, and there's very little evidence for any kind of broad retirement crisis. Retirement readiness in America seems to be about the same as it's always been.

Does that mean everything is hunky-dory? Of course not. 401(k) fees are still too high, something that I'd dearly love to see Hillary Clinton address with new federal regulation. It's probably also true that old-style pensions were a little more generous for low-income workers than 401(k)s, though the evidence on this score is fuzzy. What's more, although retirement readiness is no worse than it's been in the past, it's not really any better either. In particular, folks at the bottom of the income ladder still don't participate much in 401(k) programs and rely entirely on Social Security, which is pretty stingy for low earners.

My answer to this is Kevin's One-Third-One-Third plan. That is, Social Security payments for the bottom third should be increased by a third. This would make a huge difference to the lowest-income workers, but at a pretty reasonable price. My back-of-the-envelope chicken scratchings suggest it would cost about $20-30 billion. That's politically within reason.

There's one other change I'd like to see, but I'll leave that for another time. In a nutshell, there really doesn't appear to be any kind of broad-based retirement crisis. 401(k) plans have performed decently and are likely to perform even better in the future. Our biggest retirement problem is with the lowest-income workers, and that could be fixed at a pretty modest cost if we could only muster the political will to do it.

UPDATE: I really wanted my plan to be called "One-Third-One-Third-One-Third," but I couldn't think of a third "One-Third." However, @Noman suggested raising the Social Security earnings cap to pay for my plan, and it turns out that an increase in the cap of one-third would raise roughly $30 billion. Isn't it great when a plan comes together?

So now it's the One-Third-One-Third-One-Third plan: payments to the bottom third should be boosted one-third by raising the earnings cap one-third. Take that, Herman Cain.

Housekeeping Note

I have to schlep up to LA this morning for—something. To be honest, I'm not sure what. It's a routine follow-up from my stem cell transplant last year, but the last time I did this nobody did anything useful. There were no tests. No questions that my regular oncologist hadn't already asked. No advice. No nothing.

So I don't really know what the point is. Nonetheless, off I go. There's no telling when I'll be back, but this is probably about it for blogging today. See you tomorrow!

UPDATE: Nothing new to report. We just reviewed all the stuff I already knew and then I got my latest round of baby vaccines. (After the stem cell transplant, all my immunities were wiped out.) So I'm once again safe from polio, rusty nails, and pneumococcal something or other.

But I guess I did learn one new thing. For the past two months I've been unusually tired, and sure enough, that turns out to be an effect of the maintenance med I'm taking. It also means it's not going away anytime soon, and might even get worse. Blah.

I have a dumb question. Hillary Clinton has been forced, via FOIA request, to release all of her work-related emails from her term as Secretary of State. Today we learned there may be more to come. By the time it's all over, we'll have something like 30-40,000 emails that have been made public.

So here's my dumb question: why has this happened only to Hillary Clinton? If FOIA can be used to force the release of every email sent or received by a cabinet member, why haven't FOIA requests been submitted for all of them? It would certainly be interesting and newsworthy to see all of Leon Panetta's emails. Or all of Condi Rice's. Or all of Henry Paulson's.

So what's the deal? Why has this happened only to Hillary Clinton?

As we all know, the loathsome Swift boating of John Kerry in 2004 worked a treat. So this year Trump supporters are engaging in Swift boat 2.0: a surprisingly overt campaign claiming that Hillary Clinton is seriously ill but covering it up. Sean Hannity has been the ringleader, talking it up almost nightly on his show. Rudy Giuliani joined the fun this weekend, and Katrina Pierson, the Baghdad Bob of spokespeople, suggested that Hillary has "dysphasia." Even the candidate himself has gotten into the act:

Trump has followed this up with references to Hillary not having the "mental and physical stamina" to be president—wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

This is all literally built on nothing. There's a video of Hillary slipping on an icy step outside a church a few months ago. There's a video of her making a funny face while talking to some supporters. That's it. Unlike Trump himself, Hillary has released a detailed statement from her doctor, and there's nothing wrong with her.

I know how tiresome it is to wonder how the press would treat something like this if it came from the other side, but, um, how would the press treat this if it were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign? My guess: it would be like World War III. They would be demanding proof, writing endlessly about how this "once again" raised trust issues, and just generally raising front-page hell over it. Which would be perfectly fair! But when Trump does it, it's just another boys-will-be-boys moment. Yawn.

Trump has done so many disgusting things that I know it's hard to keep track sometimes. But this ranks right up there, and he deserves brutal coverage over it. He's not really getting it, though. All the usual liberal suspects are on this, but the mainstream press has treated it like yet another occasional A14 blurb. Where's the outrage, folks?

Iran Tosses Out Russia For Blabbing Too Much

Last week Russia announced that it would start attacking Syria using bombers based in Iran. This produced a huge reaction both inside and outside Russia. Today Iran decided to kick out the Russians:

Iran's sudden reversal Monday showed that allies with a common cause, fighting against Assad's enemies, maintain diverse goals in the region. While Russian politicians indicated a long-term deployment, saying that warplanes stationed in Iran would conserve fuel instead of flying a longer route from the Russian Caucasus, Iranian officials made clear that they were unhappy about the publicity and being seen as a Russian client in the region.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan on Monday attacked publications of the Russian military press that reported the use of Iran's air base. “There has been a kind of showing-off and inconsiderate attitude behind the announcement of this news,” he told an Iranian television channel.

This is the Vladimir Putin/Donald Trump approach to world affairs: Boast endlessly about even small things, substituting braggadocio for substance. The problem is that the targets of your boasting probably don't like it much.

This is why quiet diplomacy is so often better than Trumpism. If you just want to feel good, then big talk is your friend. If you actually want to accomplish something, hard work and a willingness to keep your mouth shut are usually a better bet.

Here's the front page of the LA Times this morning. I have to say I'm impressed. Donald Trump gets a huge headline in the lead spot for spending—what? Two days? Maybe three? Anyway, two or three days without doing anything egregiously idiotic. It's like the way we lavish praise on a two-year-old for not throwing his food all over the kitchen.

According to the story itself, Trump gave a good speech! He ran some TV ads! He visited Baton Rouge for 49 seconds! The first was plainly aimed at his white base, not at the African-Americans it was putatively meant for. The second is the bare minimum that any presidential campaign is expected to do. And the third was transparent hucksterism. Still, he managed to avoid imploding the entire time. Good boy, Donald!

They Hate Us, They Really Hate Us

So I'm reading a Jay Nordlinger piece over at The Corner, and he's pretty unhappy with both Donald Trump and his new campaign guru, Steve Bannon. I'm nodding along as Nordlinger refers to some of the crude hatred that Bannon spews, when I come to this:

It occurred to me that the two phrases already mentioned — “turn on the hate” and “burn this bitch down” — are perfect mottos for the new GOP: the Trump GOP.

I thought of what Roger Scruton said to Mona Charen and me, in a podcast last year:

“I think that, in the end, there is something that unites all conservatives, which is that they are pursuing something they love. My view is that the Left is united by hatred, but we are united by love: love of our country, love of institutions, love of the law, love of family, and so on. And what makes us conservatives is the desire to protect those things, and we’re up against people who want to destroy them, and it’s very simple.”

Seriously? You think lefties are motivated by hatred of our country, hatred of our institutions, hatred of the law, hatred of the family, "and so on"? I know that liberals and conservatives don't see eye to eye on this stuff, but you've at least talked to a few liberals now and then, haven't you? The ones I know don't feel anything close to this way. It's true that there are some aspects of country/institutions/law/family that we'd like to change, but then again, that's true of conservatives too. Right?

Anyway, if this is truly what you believe, then it's a little hard for me to see much daylight between you and Trump. What's your real beef with him, Jay?

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 August 2016

Here is Hopper posing for a glamor shot on a gray-and-white blanket that matches her coloring. We call this look "Blue Squeal." She's not the most cooperative model in the world.

Hilbert deserves the same treatment, of course, but that will have to wait until I get hold of a Shamu-colored blanket.