The shadow of culture persists

A new working paper, Ancestry of the American Dream, presents some unsurprising results:

Income inequality and intergenerational mobility—the degree to which (dis)advantage is passed on from parents to children—are among the defining political challenges of our time. While some scholars claim that more unequal countries exhibit a stronger persistence of income across generations, others argue that mobility rates are unaffected by social equality and are equally low in most societies. We compare economic opportunity across U.S. areas populated by different European ancestral groups, and find a substantial variation that mirrors current differences across descendants’ countries of origin: mobility is highest in areas dominated by descendants to Scandinavian immigrants, lower in places where the Italian, French, or Germans settled, and lower still in areas with British ancestral origins. A similar pattern is observed for income equality, which gives rise to a gradient closely resembling the “Great Gatsby Curve” across European countries. We provide suggestive evidence that these differences arise mainly at the community level and that similar mobility patterns apply to the black minority population, so they are not simply a function of ancestral groups themselves being more or less mobile. A more plausible explanation is that cultural differences among immigrant groups gave rise to local economic and social institutions that are more or less conducive to mobility. Our findings suggest that present cross-country differences in inequality and intergenerational mobility are real and may have deeper historical origins than has hitherto been recognized.

Looking at county-level ethnicity data from the 1980 census as well as the income tax data that Raj Chetty uses, the authors found some interesting patterns in the “synthetic countries” within the USA:

The overall thesis that the culture immigrants brings persists for generations seems plausible.  In Not By Genes Alone Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson report data from Illinois where farmers of German-American background behave very differently from their neighbors of Anglo-American background when given the same conditions. Anglo-Americans behaved much more like homo economicus . They sold their farms when the market price was right. In contrast, the German-Americans would attempt to keep the farms within the family even through periods when it was not economically rational.

My point is that there are non-economic aspects of culture that may not be picked up by these analyses which have economic consequences.

1856 Republican vote as a proxy for Yankee dominance

The second issue is that not all Americans of “British” origin are the same culturally. Long-time readers know where I’m going with this. The argument in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is that English American New England Yankees are culturally very distinct from British Americans from the South, whose origins often range from southwest England to the borders with Scotland, as well as Ulster-Scots who arrived in the middle of the 18th century.

If you look at at the map within the preprint you see that Utah has a high fraction of British Americans, but its socio-demographic profile is more like the Upper Midwest, dominated by Scandinavians and Germans. The British Americans of Utah, of course, descend to a great extent from New England Yankees, as well as various Northern European immigrant groups converted to Mormonism by 19th-century missions. Though similarly socially and politically conservative, Utah Mormons are culturally very different from white Southerners. One way to describe it is that Utah Mormons have a lot of social cohesion and an orientation toward communalism. This is in line with their Yankee origins. Yankee migrants to the West organized their towns very differently from those from the South (to be frank, Southerners didn’t much organize their towns at all in comparison to Yankee rationalism and collectivism).

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Against Thomas Jefferson!

I was unexpectedly traveling on an airplane recently, so I had some time to read Michael Lind’s Land of Promise (I had just finished Peter Thiel’s Zero to One). Though with the subtitle “An Economic History of the United States,” it’s not a dispassionate, or frankly scholarly, take. Lind marshals a great deal of evidence, but it’s in the service of promoting a Hamiltonian or “developmentalist” view of American history, as opposed to a Jeffersonian or “producerist” perspective.

As such, Land of Promise steps into a debate that goes back to the early days of the republic, though modern interpretations are colored by own peculiar perspectives. One of the major problems with this debate is that it transcends contemporary political alignments. Today Lind is broadly to the Left (he was originally a neoconservative), but he stands strongly against the sort of arguments promoted by Matt Stoller in How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. Stoller is an heir to the populist tradition in the Democratic party which goes back to Thomas Jefferson, but famously crystalized under Andrew Jackson. In contrast, Michae Lind and the developmentalists are heirs to Henry Clay’s American System.

In What Hath God Wrought Daniel Walker Howe suggests that though Jacksonian populism was politically ascendant in the first half of the 19th century, with the battle over the Second Bank of the United States symbolic of the reputation of Alexander Hamilton’s vision, ultimately Hamilton and Clay’s ideas ultimately won the day. As Lind and others have pointed out Abraham Lincoln was explicitly an heir of Henry Clay, and the high-tariff Republican party of the 19th and early 20th century maintained the germ of developmentalism, even during the height of Gilded Age laissez-faire.

The “problem” is that today these differences between developmentalists and producerists are hard to map onto modern configurations, though the impulses remain with us. The post-World War II American consensus favored a gradual deemphasize on industrial policy and free trade, in line with producerist thinking, but also public investment in national projects, such as the interstate highway system or the internet, in line with developmentalist thinking.

I haven’t finished  Land of Promise, but it was written in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and before the chaotic Trump revolution of 2016. Lind’s argument seems to be that government and large private actors should act in partnership, with the former restraining the worst impulses of the latter. In ways the method here is not that different from what “business Republicans”/”donor class Republicans” would prefer. In contrast, someone like Matt Stoller is suspicious of bigness, oligopoly, and concentration of power, in classic Jeffersonian fashion. In this manner he actually shares a rhetorical pose with some populist conservatives.

As a modern person, I don’t know where I fall. The America of my youth, the Reagan-Clinton era, was dominated by a Jeffersonian-producerist rhetoric, if not always action. On the other hand, history generally suggests to me that a Hamiltonian-developmentalist paradigm is friendly to the facts of how the world is, as opposed to how it should be.

Three books to understand the “Dark Matter” of American History

Grand theories of history often have less utility than the claims they make for themselves. Marxism is a classic example.

But that does not mean that theories of history are useless. And arguably, Marxism is a classic example in this case too. Material forces and class conflicts can’t explain all of history, but they do explain some of history. Chris Wickham’s magisterial Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 suffers from its excessive materialist and economistic thesis, but it also benefits from this perspective, because it captures part of the answer.

Moderation in all things, and due consideration to the importance of viewpoints in coloring perceptions, are the keys to comprehension in my opinion..

Today in some quarters it is fashionable to reduce all of history to the interplay between white supremacy and nonwhite peoples, who are depicted implicitly as nearly supine “noble savages,” existing in an Edenic state of nature before the intrusion of European peoples. This is a silly viewpoint from a scholarly perspective, and some of the ideological implications are ones which I object to most strongly.

And yet that begs the question, how does one understand the forces of history? In the American context, I think it is critical to understand the elementary regional folkways which congealed into these United States, and whose “cultural DNA” echoes down through the generations. Much of this is implicit and invisible culture because it is the culture of white English -speaking peoples of British provenance (though not all were Anglo, such as the French Canadians or Hispanos of the southwest).

Recently, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is the best example of this sort of work, which attempts to trace the historical dark matter the skeleton beneath the flesh. A more scholarly and narrow treatment can be found in David Hackett Fisher’s expansive Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Finally, perhaps the most underrated and overlooked offering in this genre is Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America.

While Woodward focuses on all of North America, and Fisher more narrowly on the four folkways which extend from New England to the Deep South, Phillips’ integrates an American history with a broader narrative that shows the connections to events and processes occurring in the British Isles, and in particular England. The peculiarities of New England culture and economics, and their love-hate relationship to the British elites of the late 18th and 19th century, are critical pieces of the puzzle in explaining how the United States diverged from the United Kingdom, and, how the United Kingdom diverged from the United States.

If an understanding of population genetics allows one to decompose evolution and broadly biological phenomena into tractable analytic units, so an understanding of the elementary units of American culture, and their historical antecedents, shines a whole new light upon contemporary developments.