Red families & blue families


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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39 Responses

  1. Great post E.D.! I would agree with almost all of it (and my disagreements are too minor to mention). The big question of course is, what do the social safety nets look like? There are some great ideas out there and from a conservative perspective I like the ones best that drive towards getting the person back on their feet.

    My oldest daughter was born when I was 19. Her mother got involved with a program here locally that paid for daycare so long as she was in college and making progress towards a degree (there were quarterly evaluations to maintain the assistance). I felt like it was a worthwhile investment in public funds and my daughter has had a much better life because her mother was given sensible assitance at a key moment in her life. If it had been a welfare check I’d hate to think of how that would have been different. It’s the old, “Give a man a fishing pole…” thing.Report

  2. Avatar RTod says:

    Fantastic post, ED.

    If I may, take one more cynical, and admittedly over-simplified step:

    Regardless of political stripe or philosophy, we are all for some safety nets for society at large, and against others. The ones we’re for: those that we use, have used, or suspect that under slightly different circumstances might/could have used. The one we’re against: the ones we are sure we would never, ever be in a position to use.Report

  3. Avatar Jivatman says:

    I think you are correct in one of the things you are getting at, the success of some of these economies, basically, The Nordic Countries +Switzerland, cannot be described in the simple manner of capitalism vs. socialism.

    After all, Switzerland’s overall taxation rate is 30.1% of GDP, scarcely more than the U.S.’s 28.2%.

    The fact is that many of these countries are simply far better managed is nearly every way. Taxation is often vastly simpler than the system in the U.S.

    Regulation often more streamlined – but fully enforced. Bush, contrary to popular characterization, did not really deregulate anything. He just refused to enforce existing regulations, except at the behest of his corporate donors against competitors. The truth, that even people like Elliot Spitzer has said, is that we don’t even really need more rules, we need rules to be enforced.

    After all, in a free republic, rule of law is the highest authority…

    Anyway, what, really, do these economies have in common? I hate to harp on this point, but the average population of Switzerland is 7.5 Million. For the main Nordic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland – average approx 5 Million. Two of the wealthiest of these – Norway and Switzerland – haven’t joined the European Union.

    Anyway, Sweden is an interesting case. Since about 1994, nearly all of the reforms that were undertaken and continue to be undertaken, involve economic liberalization, increase in choice, reduction in state monopolies of various sorts. Let’s go through a few of these

    1. According to the Wikipedia article “healthcare in Sweden”:

    “In Sweden the responsibility for providing health care is decentralized to the county councils and, in some cases, the municipalities. A county council is a political body whose representatives are elected by the public every four years on the same day as the national general election.”

    Yeah – this is extreme decentralization occurs totally *WITHIN* a country of 7.6 million, scarcely more than the 6.14 for an average U.S. state. And I never recall a libertarian saying they don’t believe states have the right to enact their own health care systems should they choose.

    Of course, American liberals tend to conveniently ignore this fact whilst promoting a socialized health care system which is 100% controlled and administered by the Federal Government.

    In fact, not a lot of European countries have such a model. Those that do, like Britain, tend to be moving away from it. Both Clegg and Cameron have plans to introduce various liberalization reforms.

    2. According to the Wikipedia article “School Voucher” In Sweden, the 1991-1994 government introduced a voucher system at primary and secondary school level, enabling free choice among public and independent schools (friskolor) in the community.

    The voucher is ‘virtual’ and worth the average cost for a place at a public school. Restrictions prevent private schools from charging top-up fees or selecting students, creating true equality of access. [10] There is no user charging involved at all or pupil selection, making it as universal as state schools.

    Over 10% of Swedish pupils were enrolled in private schools in 2008 and the number is growing fast. Sweden is internationally known for this innovative model that provides pupils with the opportunity to choose the school they prefer”

    Again, a fact scarcely noticed at a time where education in the U.S. needs reform more desperately than ever before. California has some of the worst schools in the country, it’s 8th graders are ranked 46th in the country. Worse than everyone but Alabama, Mississippi, and D.C.


    I think there really is a whole lot of room for the libertarian project. In fact, I’d say that in general, the developed world is beginning to settle more and more on some sort of unspecified liberaltarian consensus. Eastern Europe remains a more open question, though, as they’re still sort of “developing”. Political they are extremely economically liberal due to memory of communism, and things like flat taxes are common. In all likelihood, many of the ideas adopted will be successful and eventually adopted by more liberal countries. I believe diversity is a good thing.

    Bill Clinton was a good example of liberaltarianism – he, after all, use Milton Freidman’s Earned-Income-Tax-Credit idea and in general was very strongly pro-market, ect.

    It’s hard to say where Obama goes. At this point it does seem that he is far more of a believer in federal solutions, such as his education plan. Perhaps a republican congress will make him more like Clinton.

    Freidman did, discover, after all, that deficits grow the least with e Dem President and a Rep congress.Report

    • Avatar Bull E says:

      @Jivatman, I think you have made some very good points here Jivatman. Social safety nets aren’t socialism when enacted and controlled at the local level. When most of the decision making process is done at that local level there are far fewer places for legislators to hide from bad decisions. Plus, the people are very much aware of who is doing what and are immediately affected by both good and bad policy. It also gives the particular communities more freedom to make changes that are particular to their to situation. I personally believe I would be far more inclined to support local “socialism” if the ability to control it were closer to home.

      One of my big complaints with the federal gov’t is the complete disregard of local autonomy. The problems or issues affecting Texas are far different than those of Delaware, yet the feds try to “fix” both with one law.

      The same problems exist on the state level. I recently have moved to NJ and I volunteered for the local clerk here. This gave me an opportunity to speak to the very progressive mayor about what the new governor has done. According to the mayor and administrator, one of the best things (the only good thing according to them) the governor has done is to stop the endless trail of superficial laws that are forced on the towns. These were usually irrelevant to the town but the laws forced them to use their budget to comply. That in turn caused them to have to raise taxes to make up for the lost revenue in enforcement or compliance with these laws from the capital.

      I think that is a small example of how bringing the legislative power to the lowest level possible is best for everyone.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        @Bull E,

        >When most of the decision making process
        > is done at that local level there are far fewer
        > places for legislators to hide from bad
        > decisions.

        I really don’t know that this is the case. Local politics seem to track about the same rate of “ZOMG are you freaking kidding me” as national politics. Your mileage may vary by state, of course.

        Not saying that it’s not a bad idea on the main, though. Even if the immediate results don’t change the voting/voter/politician dynamic significantly, there certainly is a lower barrier to entry at the local level and that can only be a good thing for the long run of politics.

        Real decentralization of powers would certainly enable politicians to tackle the military budget without committing political suicide, so that’s a plus.Report

        • Avatar Will says:

          @Pat Cahalan, I think that sort of thing would lead to a lot more hidden government; eg, those with ‘authority,’ ‘commission,’ or the like in the title, with members of little accountability appointed by political types.
          The other side of local control is that the investigative powers to expose any underlying graft are practically non-existent.Report

        • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

          @Pat Cahalan,

          I don’t trust local politicians at all. When I am at the voting booth I have no idea who they are. Frequently I don’t even know what party they are.

          The sheer anonymity that local elections feature combine with the fact that a small dedicated group can easily swing the election is why texas had such success screwing up text books for the rest of the nation. Non-sense like creationism on school boards comes directly from the stupidly local nature of the elections. We wouldn’t have the problem with a national board because we would have had the lawsuit and one it once. As it is now any school district that is slightly red and has a church runs the risk of electing morons who will get them sued because they can’t handle the science.

          Empirically people have more elections and candidate than they can keep straight. More candidates with more significance will not help.Report

          • Avatar Bull E says:

            @ThatPirateGuy, I believe, that if the power were more decentralized, then you would know these local politicians because they would be more important to you. As it stands, the federal elections carry far greater consequences so more people pay attention. If the authority were relinquished from the feds, then you would pay more attention to the local politics, as would the media.

            As far as some places teaching creationism, why does that bother you. I have known people ( in the military) who come from places that teach this. The ones who can read know its B.S., and I don’t mean bachelor of science. I think that there would be real dumb people even without creationism being taught. My point is that, with it decided on a local level it is kept to whatever hole in the wall town that votes for it. If you believe that having a national board would not be susceptible to similar group-think type stupid choices then you are somewhat naive.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        @Bull E, “Social safety nets aren’t socialism when enacted and controlled at the local level. When most of the decision making process is done at that local level there are far fewer places for legislators to hide from bad decisions. Plus, the people are very much aware of who is doing what and are immediately affected by both good and bad policy.”

        I both second Pat’s comment – there’s lots and lots of room in local government for corruption, graft, and lack of accountability. I’d also point out that ‘Social safety nets aren’t socialism when enacted and controlled at the local level. ‘ is simply incorrect.Report

        • Avatar Bull E says:

          @Barry, There is plenty of room for corruption at the local level. There is room for corruption in your house, work, school… I simply meant that if the authority were more focused in local politics, then there would be more attention given to it.
          As far as the socialism comment, you are correct. socialism is socialism no matter where it occurs. I was more trying to point out that when the governing body of a population is on the lowest level possible it is far easier to choose which programs or “safety nets” will be enacted in your area. Further it becomes easier to escape the crappy or oppressive ones when you can move locally to avoid the jurisdiction. I think that decentralization ultimately gives the consumer (tax payer) more choices and better control. (Thanks for pointing my error.)Report

  4. Avatar Trumwill says:

    I want to collect my thoughts on the subject at large before commenting more completely, but I do want to comment on this:

    In Red states, traditional norms against birth control and co-habitation sans wedding rings, paradoxically leads to young people making unsustainable marital decisions that no longer succeed in the ways they did when cultural norms toward divorce and economic circumstances for blue collar workers were different.

    Premarital cohabitation does not lead to better marriage results. The numbers suggest that either there is no difference or there is a marginal difference in favor of non-cohabitation. If you don’t include those that cohabitate while engaged, the difference ceases to be marginal.Report

    • @Trumwill, I concur – the decreased divorce rate among themiddle and upper classes is really just because a lot of women married prior the 1980s got out of unhappy marriages and then the next generation got smarter about picking mates.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        @Mike at The Big Stick, there are also statistics available on premarital cohabitation that show no effect or a negative effect with cohabitation. None that I am aware of, however, that show a positive effect. I agree with you that wiser mate selection is a factor. I agree with ED that age and some “Blue State Values” play a role in that. Cohabitation, however, does not appear to factor in.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      @Trumwill, Is there a study on this that controls for wealth? I don’t know any upper-middle class or higher folks who didn’t cohabit before getting married, and given those folks have lower divorce rates in general, I wonder if there’s another class thing going on here.Report

      • @Simon K, Seriously? Out of the dozen or so couples my wife and I are friends with I only know of 2 that lived together before they got married. We didn’t. Still married. Cohabitation is extremely over-rated by a lot of folks. As I said earlier, people in those classes just generally have beter judgement about their mates. Also, owing to the fact that many of them witnessed divorce themselves, they perhaps take their choices a bit more seriously.Report

        • Avatar Simon K says:

          @Mike at The Big Stick, I live in the very bluest of all blue places and I moved here from Europe, so my sample is probably skewed. Still these studies don’t quite ring true to me – about 11 couples of my acquaintance cohabited before getting married (versus 2 not), and only 1 is divorced.

          I’m basically thinking that those surveys that find a negative correlation between marital success and cohabitation are probably not picking up a causal relationship that says “if you cohabit then get married, versus just getting married now, your marriage is more likely to fail”. What they’re getting is “if you have relatively poor judgement about your mates, you’re likely to have cohabited before you got married”. That I would believe. I you tried to control for various substitutes for poor versus good judgement – age, accidental versus intentional cohabitation, social class, serial cohabitors/divorcees, etc. you’d get no effect or a slight positive effect.Report

          • @Simon K, I think what the differences in our two experiences really shows is that among the middle and upper class cohabitation probably doesn’t make a difference one way or another.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill says:

              @Mike at The Big Stick, I think that’s probably right. My personal take on it is that if a couple is right for one another the timeline doesn’t matter much. Had my wife and I cohabitated, our likelihood of success would be just the same as it is now. And I think people that are wise in mate selection are likely to be so whether they cohabitate or not (or have a long courtship or not). In short, I think the notion that you have to live with someone to really know them or know that you’re compatible to be bunk.Report

          • Avatar Trumwill says:

            @Simon K, these types of statistics are typically looking at first marriages, so I don’t think serial divorcees are an issue. Some of the other factors you mention show up in the difference between success rates between those that are engaged when they premaritally cohabitate and those that are not. Basically, there is no difference.

            That seems pretty right to me. If you have already settled the “Where is this going?” question, it’s just a matter of sequence of events. The danger of premarital cohabitation exists more because those that do so sometimes back into marriage without ever doing a firm analysis of compatibility. And because one party or the other is unsure about things from the get-go and end up getting married by default.

            I am also skeptical of it because it can lead to a tremendous amount of wasted time without marriage ever occurring. That wouldn’t show up in the data, though. And it’s not an issue if you’ve already settled the question before you move in together.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill says:

              @Trumwill, I forgot to mention the numbers. For 2002, the difference between those that cohabitate while engaged and those that don’t cohabitate is 1%. If they move in together without cohabitating, it’s 11%.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        @Simon K, the study I most recently evaluated does not control for wealth. However, it does have data on education level and race. If you reallocate the two categories based on either of those demographics, it does not make all that much of a difference. The rates in the study are 66% to 61%. Based on the demographic data, the differences would be 66% to 64% based on education level and 64% to 63% based on race. Even if you add those together (which you shouldn’t because there is significant overlap), you still see a (very, very slight) negative correlation between cohabitation and successful marriage.

        Keep in mind that I am not making an affirmative statement that cohabitation is damaging to marriage. I am merely taking issue with ED’s suggestion that the opposite is true. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder because so many people around me consider marriage-without-cohabitation to be somehow risky and premarital cohabitation to be the more responsible approach.Report

        • Avatar Simon K says:

          @Trumwill, That’s interesting, thanks. Thinking about it more, I’d expect a slight negative correlation based on what I said above. For those with good judgement cohabitation before marriage probably makes no difference of maybe has a tiny positive effect. But that’s outweighed by the fact that those with bad judgement are more likely to have cohabited before they got married.Report

  5. Avatar greginak says:

    Good stuff Eric. I admit i cringed when i first read about the article because the endless of dividing up of people based on a Red/Blue divide is tedious but also plays into political arguments shed more heat then light. However i think you have a good take on this.

    To be picky, there is actuatlly no program called “welfare.” What we call “welfare” is a variety of different programs, many of which are individually popular. There is a lot of room for technocratic management and improvement of those programs. I know some people complain about “welfare” being a disincentive to work, but frankly things are usually much more complicated then that, our welfare system is just not then generous and has been modified over the years to push people off. Even with that most people on “welfare” type programs, depending which you are discussing, don’t stay on forever, that has always been a minority.

    “some mix of free markets and strong social safety nets is the only way forward.” Yup, makes sense to me although apparently this makes us both socialists. Frankly i don’t there is truly much debate about this among a large, cross party swath of America, despite the endless hyperbole.Report

    • Avatar Will says:

      @greginak, I was thinking about this, because of the exchange in the last thread:
      Social stratification exists, and there is some movement (or potential movement, at the very least) while there is also some degree of stability within the overall arrangement.
      Now, there are several studies that show that the higher the highs as compared to the lowest of the lows within the overall structure, the more instability is introduced into the system; that is, the greater the distance from top to bottom, the more unstable the structure becomes.
      And so, there arises questions of how much stratification is desirable, what amount of stability/instability is sustainable or desirable, and ease of movement (which is most often presumed to be upward, though the possibility of downward movement is also a necessity).

      I being this up because initially I had thought that, perhaps, it was this ratio of high-to-low that would be the defining characteristic of conservative vs. liberal, or Red vs. Blue; that the Right would, in general, be more comfortable with the greater multiples, and the attendant instability and potential of movement within the system– basically the risk/profit thing.
      But were that the case, then surely I would be more of a liberal.
      Nothing inherently socialist in raising the lows a bit or in reducing the peaks, but I think that socialist rhetoric has been used both as justification and pejorative of such policies. Odd thing is that it seems to be a point where both sides agree, except as a matter of degrees.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    There is *very* little talk of ‘ridding ourselves’ of capitalism. Just very, very little.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      @Michael Drew,
      Well if we’re talking about the Dem’s then I’d ammend that to no talk. The down with capitalism bunch jumped ship for the Green Party’s coo-coo bananna ship along with Nader back in 2000.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        @North, Well, E.D. didn’t locate exactly where such commentary might exist, and was clear he referred to ‘theoretical’ discussions, so it’s fair to say it exists. But you identify the salient point, which is that it really doesn’t exist anywhere as a serious proposal, or in any quarters with any serious engagement with actual politics. That stands in stark contrast to those who deploy the rhetoric of ‘free markets’ – whatever their true convictions – routinely into mainstream discourse.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      @Michael Drew, The only people I know of who talk about “getting rid of capitalism” are anti-globalisation types. On close examination it usually seems they’re not so much opposed to free markets as to monopolies, exploitation and anti-competitive behavior.Report

  7. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Thanks everyone. I’ll try to have some responses up later today, time permitting. As you know, I’m pretty much blocked out of the site all day and have to use Black Magic to post. I do read every comment, however.


  8. Avatar A.R.Yngve says:

    Pregnancy is really an area of life where society and biology are not best friends…
    Society: “Financial and social security! Breed later!”
    Biology: “Breed now! It’ll only get more difficult later in life!”Report

  9. Avatar Dylan says:

    “… markets are here to stay as much as governments are.”

    It might seem like nitpicking, but when did markets (the sum of all voluntary exchanges) not exist? It would seem as if you had a definition of market limited to what the linked summary describes as “The Cash Nexus” which is nothing more than one small part of the broader definition of a market, and hardly free at that.

    As far as governments go, I do believe that at some point they did not exist and I hold out hope that such a time might come again in the distant future. I’d personally recommend you not resign yourself to being ruled.

    It would seem you are trying to find a solution using the current breakdown of politics espoused by the media… I find that it makes your train of thought much harder to follow when you insist on saying things like:

    “while it’s true that capitalism and liberalism have led to unheard of levels of prosperity, there is no way to separate the success of markets and the success of modern, liberal democracies when we discuss what has caused this prosperity. Indeed, more than likely it is a combination of all of the above.”

    Is there any indication that capitalism and liberalism have indeed lead to these unheard of levels of prosperity? I’ve never heard this claim backed up. Surely there have been egalitarian societies before ours that did not result in unheard of levels of prosperity.

    I would say that as far as forms of government go, none can explain our age of abundance. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a social system (especially, IMHO, one as toxic as nation-states) leading to material abundance.

    We happen to live during the historical period where we have discovered how to tap into our planets reserves of resources (particularly our energy resources) at an unprecedented rate. And when those start to deplete (hint: they already have) we will see our prosperity go with it.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:


      I worry about that too. Which is why I think that if we were smart we’d be poring massive resources into finding sustainable, with acceptable side effects replacements for our current energy systems.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      @Dylan, Dylan, we didn’t just (ding!) “discover how to tap into the planets resources”. We founded societies that provided comparatively reliable stable environments (liberalism) and then we embraced systems that employed our populace in the immensely time/labor/energy intensive pursuit of learning how to tap the resources of the planet and deploy them in a manner that resulted in a mass improvement of the wellbeing of millions of people.
      In essence markets were how we tamed the globe. And liberalism was why (because we weren’t busy killing each other over minor differences of opinion for instance).

      As for the first part of your post, I’d invite you to identify an earlier era where so many people have lived more happily and prosperously than the current one. This isn’t some blind rah-rah all is perfect mantra and goodness knows improvements are needed but I do think the trajectory is an upward sloping one.Report

    • Avatar Kyle says:


      Surely there have been egalitarian societies before ours that did not result in unheard of levels of prosperity.

      Well there was that one time on Caprica…

      In all seriousness, I think this is an interesting point but to some degree I also think you can use the trajectory of the democratic west and the autocratic not-west to case study how comparable levels of technological advancement relate to social/governmental design.

      That said, I think the expansion of capitalism/capitalism-lite into societies without a tradition of classical liberalism certainly will have some interesting results w/r/t your point/concerns.Report

  10. Avatar Simon K says:

    This is very interesting, ED. I’ve been tempted on occasion to call myself a welfare state libertarian. It has the advantage of annoying nearly everyone, but the disadvantage that no-one knows what I mean.

    Essentially I’d be very comfortable with a completely free market provided there was a basic, non-discriminatory, universal safety net in place to make sure no-one was in absolutely desperate straits. Negative income tax always seemed quite attractive to me – just make the standard deductions and exemptions refundable and away you go.Report

  11. Avatar John David Galt says:

    I’m for “safety nets” for everyone, except possibly convicts so dangerous they should never have been let out of prison. And I think many libertarians feel the same way. The difference between my view and the leftist view is that I want the safety nets to be run by voluntary organizations, people like the Red Cross and United Way. Not only are those groups *much* more efficient at getting help to the needy, they also have both the experience and financial incentive to prevent cheaters and slackers from flooding them and rendering them ineffective (as Alinsky instructed his followers to do to the welfare state). When necessary, these private charities can keep track of abusers’ history and ban them, or even profile and discriminate against them. Welfare bureaucracies seldom have either the will to do these things or the political ability to keep doing them.

    This is simply yet another case of government being inefficient and incompetent.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      @John David Galt, Except there is no evidence of private charities being able to replace the public safety net. I don’t know where your evidence is for private charities being more efficient comes from, most likely because there isn’t any or being able to replace the public sector. And i say that as some one who has worked for national charities, a state gov, federal grantees and small local mental health centers. Each have there own strengths and weaknesses, but they are in no way interchangeable.

      Most conservative talk about how little incentive various gov bureaucracies work is , at best, simplistic generalizations and minor slurs. I’m sure this will be a major surprise, but people have various types of motivations: personal, monetary, moral/ethical, etc. People who work for gov bureaucracies, and i have known many in various places, actually have ethics, desires to effectively help people and drives to be good at what they do. Those are actually powerful motivations.Report