Economic Inequality: A Book List

I was discussing economic inequality with a conservative… which, as always, is a masochistic activity.

I’m amazed how easily a conservatives dismiss such things. It isn’t just about the data, about whether correlation is causation. It’s hard enough to even get conservatives to look at the data, and so most debates never even get beyond blind dismissal of what conservatives don’t know and don’t want to know.

I truly do think the data is secondary, although the mountains of correlations do make a damning case. The reason I say the data is secondary is because the data isn’t necessary. The idea that vast economic inequality is bad should be commonsense. Just a brief perusal of countries with similar economic inequalities should make any American a bit on the uncomfortable side.

I know conservatives mistrust science and academia, even though that mistrust is rather selective in application. But when did common sense become the enemy of conservatives?

Maybe that is why the data is so important, after all. The data makes clear what is already obvious enough. Sometimes stating and restating the obvious is the best one can offer in defense of truth and morality.

In that light, I offer a list of books I’ve been perusing recently and also some that I was considering as possible reads. I hope many more people will begin reading books like these and that it will force the discussion into the mainstream, whether or not conservatives like it.

The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
By Michael J. Thompson

Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others
By James Gilligan

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!
By James Carville and Stan Greenberg

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class
By Robert Frank

Class Matters
By The New York Times

Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity
By Michael Marmot

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
By Barbara Ehrenreich

The Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009
By Sarah Burd-Sharps, Kristen Lewis, Eduardo Borges Martins, Amartya Sen, and William H. Draper III

The Measure of America, 2010-2011
By Burd-Sharps Lewis and Sarah Kristen

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide In America And Its Poisonous Consequences
By James Lardner (Author, Editor), David Smith (Editor), Bill Moyers (Foreword), and Jim Lardner (Author)

The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality and What We Can Do about It
By Timothy Noah

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future
By Joseph E. Stiglitz

Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up
By Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi

So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman

The Price of Inequality: Facts, Trends, and International Perspectives
By Kemal Dervis, Uri Dadush, Sarah P. P. Milsom, and Bennett Stancil

Winner-Take-All Politics
By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches
By Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard  Rosenthal

Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics
By Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do about It
By Chuck Collins

Economic Apartheid In America: A Primer On Economic Inequality & Insecurity
By Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel

The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy
By Key Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady

The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation
By Nancy Burns, Key Lehman Schlozman, and Sidney Verba

Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn
By Lawrence R. Jacobs

Faces of Inequality: Social Diversity in American Politics
By Rodney E. Hero

Latinos and the U.S. Political System: Two-Tiered Pluralism
By Rodney E. Hero

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
By Annette Lareau

The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide
By Barbara J. Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose M. Brewer, Rebecca Adamson, and Meizhu Lui

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
By Glenn Greenwald

The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackman

Wealth and Democracy: How Great Fortunes and Government Created America’s Aristocracy
By Kevin Phillips

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
By Larry M. Bartels

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America
By Martin Gilens

Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis
By James K. Galbraith

Inequality, Power, and Development: Issues in Political Sociology
By Jerry Kloby

Inequality Reexamined
By Amartya Kumar Sen

Public Health, Ethics, and Equity
By Sudhir Anand, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen

Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues
ByPaul Farmer

Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor
By Paul Farmer

The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health
By Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
By Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier
By Richard G. Wilkinson

Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (Federico Caffè Lectures)
By Samuel Bowles
Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success
By Samuel Bowles
Poverty Traps
By Samuel Bowles

The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality (Oxford Handbooks)
By Wiemer Salverda


Joe Bageant: On the White Underclass

I highly recommend reading Joe Bageant. I’m reading my second book by him, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, and I’m impressed by his insight.

He grew up in a poor white family living in rural Appalachia. His family and neighbors made their livings through subsistence farming. In the early to mid 20th century, most of these people moved to the cities where they became the poverty-stricken working class, that is when they could find work.

This is the white underclass that are rarely discussed by either liberals or conservatives, although the latter loves to rile up this demographic for political gain. This white underclass has little money, education, or opportunity. The only way they can experience the larger world is by enlisting in the military.


This interests me personally because this is where my mom’s family is from. Bageant’s description of his own family more or less describes my family on that side. The main difference is that my mom’s family moved to the cities a generation before Bageant’s family. Also, my mom’s family moved into more Northern Indiana and so was able to escape the much worse poverty of Appalachia.

The first book I read by Joe Bageant was Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. I happened upon it by accident. From what I understand, Bageant may be more popular abroad than in his home country. Certainly, he is speaking a truth that the American MSM has little interest in.
The book Deer Hunting With Jesus woke my mind up like few books ever do. The topic wasn’t dissimilar to what Thomas Frank Tackled in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but there is a big difference between the two books. Bageant isn’t looking in as an outsider, isn’t studying the Appalachian people as a journalist or academic or economist. Bageant was able to portray these people, his people, as genuine human beings. They weren’t strange characters or mysteries to be dissected. They are just people struggling to get by, people trapped in their circumstances.
In reading that book, I immediately recognized my own family. I never before quite grasped who were my mom’s family or where they came from. I regularly visited Indiana as a kid, but I never lived there. Plus, my maternal grandparents were already a generation removed from the rural Hoosier communities of Southern Indiana and several generations removed from the Appalachia of Kentucky. Still, the Appalachian culture and dialect clung to them, even though it had lost its regional context.
I only knew them as working class whites, and the bias of my middle class Midwestern upbringing disconnected me from the Appalachian culture. But as Bageant makes clear, there is a lot more going on with working class whites than would first be apparent. Like most things in life, there is a long and complex history behind it.

I recommend Bageant’s writings to others because he offers a unique glimpse into the dark heart of America as well as offering a remembrance of what came before. In my endless readings, I’ve never come across any other author who quite as fully sheds light on this particular issue.

I would add that this isn’t just about America for this country is representative of the larger shifts that have happened all over the world. All countries have similar underclasses. And most of these countries have a history of subsistence farming that was common just a few generations ago.

Joe Bageant isn’t just a voice for an often unheard sector of society. He speaks as one who personally knows about this world hidden out in the open. He speaks as a member of this culture for this underclass has had a hard enough time understanding themselves much less explaining how they came to be that way.

Advance of Knowledge and Generations

Knowledge has advanced greatly just within my relatively short lifetime.

The internet, of course, has grown exponntially which has brought social media and alternative media. This has made knowledge more widely available and more easily accessible, but it has also opened up dialogue. If you write a blog post about some particular place (country, city, region, etc), it is qute likely that someone from that place or familiar with that place will respond in the comments. I find myself regularly interacting with people I would never have met prior to the internet.

There is also a general increase in data, especially demographics and polls. This partly is just because there are more organizations gathering data and naintaining databases. Computers have made it easier and cheaper to store data. Plus, companies offering data services have become profitable such as genealogy websites.

Even scientific data has become more accessible. The ease of data gathering now makes scientific research easier and cheaper. Along with adverisers, scientists have been sifting through the vast repositories of data.

It was the scientific angle that got me thinking. Every ideology and opinion is potentially a hypothesis to be tested. However, some ideologies predispose individuals to holding opinions of mistrust or even denialism toward scientists and others who gather and/or analyze data. Some people respond to new info with excitement and curiosity while others respond with fear and defensiveness.

Some of this is just personality differences. Whatever the cause, it creates a strange predicament for our info saturated modern society.

For most of human existence and civilization, humans just muddled along with no hope of learning much about the world around them. If you had an idea and the power to enforce it, you could create a religion or government and that was just the way it was. There was no scientifically testing of claims about someone’s idea being better than someone else’s. Jesus existed because the church said so and there were no academic historians to challenge that claim. A particular country was the best because the king said so and there was no scientist to do a cross-nationl analysis.

All of that has changed. There is no claim that has remained safe from questions and criticisms, from study and analysis. If you believe that some system is more efficient or some group more biased or whatever else, then it is your responsibility to prove it. However, there are some people who don’t like this. It makes me wonder what they are afraid of. Why wouldn’t a person want to know that their belief isn’t supported b the evidence? What is so horrible about changing one’s mind?

A new generation has grown up in this information age and they never experienced the world that came before. They are perfectly comfortable with all the information overload. They have more trust in science (and less blind faih in religion). As the older generations retire and die, what kind of world will the younger generations create in the coming decades?

What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

Let me begin with the typical right-wing view that the MSM is left-wing biased (which I’ve discussed before: here, here, here, and here; but this post will take a somewhat different viewpoint than those previous analyses). This complaint is a particularly unhelpful viewpoint in that it simplifies a complex reality. At worst, one could say some of the MSM has a liberal bias which is vastly different than saying all or most of the MSM has a left-wing bias.

As Nader explained a similar distinction:

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

By ‘progressive’, Nader apparently means the same as what some would call a ‘left-liberal’. In this sense, such a distinction is clearly a reality. The difference here is between those who favor the status quo and those who are strongly and maybe even radically against it. Go even further to the left toward the actual left-wing (Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, left-libertarians, etc) and the difference is even vaster.

In a review of Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, a good explanation was given of what liberal bias means:

[T]he mainstream American corporate media (the big networks, the big newspapers, news magazines, etc)serve to uphold the interests of the elites in this country (political and economic). Chomsky and Herman acknowledge that we do have a “liberal” press, (what does it really mean to be ‘liberal’ in America today anyways?), but that the liberalness is kept within acceptable boundaries. Basically, the mainstream press may give a liberal slant on what the dominant institutions and systems are doing…but they will not question the very nature of the institutions and systems themselves.

For example, today’s Los Angeles Times (January 6,2003) had a page 2 story on the U.N sanctions against Iraq. Now, the typical reader may see the story, and figure that since the LA Times is even reporting on the impact of sanctions against Iraqi civillians, this is demonstrative of their ‘liberal’ leanings. However, the story leaves untouched the most crucial issues regarding UN sanctions against Iraq, such as:
1)the U.S. and U.K. are the sole countries who sit on the UN Secutity Council who refuse to lift the sanctions against Iraq, despite the pleas of the other member nations (such as Russia, France, China, etc).
2)UN estimates have put the death toll from the sanctions at nearly one million civillians.
3)Two consecutive UN Humanitarian Coordinators have resigned in the past five years in protest of the effect of the sanctions, with the first stating “We are in the process of destroying an entire society.”

Basically, the mainstream corporatized press will leave the most crucial questions unanswered, if they portray American power in a bad light.


Liberalism has almost become entirely equivalent with the status quo. It’s a strange phenomenon. This became evident to me in reading about Corey Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism. I discussed this theory with a left-winger who is highly critical of liberalism and, like Nader, tends to identify liberalism with its representatives in mainstream politics and media.

One insight has grown stronger in my mind. Corey Robin’s reactionary conservatives, according to their actual behavior, aren’t particularly interested in conserving anything and so their credentials as ‘conservatives’ is questionable. On the other hand, mainstream liberalism doesn’t particularly seem interested in liberating anyone or liberalizing anything. The former are reacting to the status quo and the latter are defending it.

Corey Robin makes the argument that conservatives have been reactionary ever since the conservative movement first began. Conservatism arose in reaction to a revolutionary era of radical politics, but conservatism wasn’t dedicated to defending the interests of traditionalism, of the old elites. Conservatives wanted a hierachical social order, just not the previous version found in the ancien régime. To conservatives, the old order had failed to defend society against radical revolutionaries and so needed to be replaced. In order to create a new order, they adopted the rhetoric of the left and adapted their methods to the purposes of conservatism.

This theory, along with other data, puts liberalism into a different context. Liberalism and conservatism are closely tied together. Liberals were also responding to the aftermath of radical revolution. However, instead of wanting to fight against it, liberals wanted to defend the public good that was achieved by systematizing democracy. This is how the United States began. So, this is how liberalism became the status quo of America and how liberals became the defenders of that status quo.

Saying that the American MSM has a liberal bias isn’t saying much at all. All of American politics and society has a liberal bias in this sense. Truth be told, Americans as a whole have a liberal bias, even though most Americans don’t identify as liberals:

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

In America, a liberal bias simply means a status quo bias. As the data shows, even many self-identified conservatives support standard liberal positions. When conservatives allege a liberal bias in the MSM, they are speaking a greater truth than they realize.

The conservative complaint simply expresses their complaint against all of modernity. The actual complaint isn’t against media bias but against the media not being biased in their favor… and that society in general isn’t biased in their favor.


The problem the conservative faces is this.

One can’t simultaneously claim that the MSM has a leftist bias and that big business media conglomerates are acting according to a functioning free market by giving people what they want. One or the other might be true, but definitely not both. If the MSM is giving people what they want, then it isn’t a bias being forced on viewers. If the MSM is forcing a bias on viewers, then people aren’t being given what they want.

There is an inconsistency here. They can hold onto their belief that the MSM is biased or hold onto their belief that the free market works, but they can’t have both simultaneously. The claim of a left-wing bias would mean that the MSM isn’t friendly to conservative issues such as related to business. This is a strange claim to make since MSM is all about business and very successful at that. In reality, the main bias of the MSM is making a profit. However, it is true that as businesses media companies will seek to promote their own business interests in the political arena. Certainly, the MSM as big business has absolutely no incentive to present a left-wing bias of Marxism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.

In the MSM, right-wing think tanks are cited as sources and have their representatives on as guests (I’ve even come across right-wing think tank representatives on NPR). Right-libertarians even have their own shows that are aired nationally. Heck, even the Russian channel made for American audiences has a libertarian host.

On the other hand, you’ll rarely if ever come across a left-winger on the MSM, whether as host or guest. You won’t see a panel of Marxists to analyze a campaign debate. You won’t see a socialist organization cited as a standard source in a major newspaper.

The argument of conservatives is that it ultimately has more to do with the issues discussed. The issues are seen as leftist and so any discussion is framed by simply bringing up such issues. This seems like grasping at straws to me.

Why is simply bringing up ‘environmentalism’ as a topic inherently a leftwing bias? How is it framing the discussion by the very act of discussing an issue that is relevant to everyone? If mentioning ‘environmentalism’ is framing, then why isn’t framing to have a business section but not a labor section? Why is it a leftwing bias to have a discussion of global warming that doesn’t include a denialist? Why isn’t a rightwing bias to not include a neopagan environmentalist or a anarchoprimitivist? Why is it a leftwing bias to not regularly report on rightwing politics such as fundamentalism and libertarianism? Why isn’t it a rightwing bias to not regularly report on leftwing politics such as atheism and Marxism?

The framing I care about isn’t just bias in the simple sense, although it includes it. In many ways, I do think the MSM gives people what they want. On the other hand, the MSM shapes what people want by controlling their choices. Not only are choices excluded, knowledge about those choices are ignored or dismissed. Framing is more insidious than the conservative view of bias. The problem is partly about how the elite control every aspect of life (through big media, big business, big government, etc), but this isn’t necessarily conspiracy. The power of frames is that even the promoter of frames ends up believing their frames, not unlike how the propagandist ends up using his own rhetoric to rationalize his actions in his own mind.
Still, it goes beyond even this. Framing is about culture itself. The framing of all of American society is liberal (which I first discussed in an extensive post about public opinion in terms of ideology, but there are two other posts where I discuss in more detail early regional history as it relates to different ideological traditions — here and here; also, an interesting post about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism in early American thought). American culture grew out of early radical liberalism such as Paine and Jefferson along with the less radical classical liberalism; the criticism and defense of markets, for example, both originally came from the left and both lacked roots in traditional conservatism. American culture also grew out of massive hypocrisy such as genocide, slavery and political disenfranchisement that undermined the ideals of that liberalism from the beginning (because liberals willingly compromised their own ideals, liberalism being undermined from within more than from without).
So, American culture has always been a combination of liberalism and hypocrisy, the two may be so intertwined at this point to be inseparable. Liberalism has been too often used to justify the failings of American society, liberals never allowing the perfect get in the way of the good which not unusually means that the theoretical goodness itself becomes questionable over time. My critcism of liberals often involves such hypocrisy.
Liberalism is the frame of American culture and so, at least in that sense, it is unsurprising that liberal framing could be seen in the MSM. Nonetheless, I don’t see why caring about the environment and environmental issues is a leftist bias. Considering we all live in and as part of environments, I’d assume that every American wants to see environmentalism (pollution, alternative energy, climatology, etc) discussed in the media.
Anyway, my point is that liberalism isn’t a frame invented by the MSM. It is simply American culture. Even American conservatives have mostly accepted the liberal frame in terms of embracing Lockean classical liberalism and so by default have also inherited the hypocrisy that goes along with it.
To get past the ideological debate, all we have to do is look at what the data shows. The fact is that conservatives, Republicans, and Fox News viewers are the most informed. But what is interesting is that they are more misinformed to the degree they are informed. So, those on the right don’t know whether they actually know what they think they know.
I shouldn’t even bother linking any of the studies showing this misinformed bias on the right (for there are so many of them at this point, enough studies that Chris Mooney wrote an entire book analyzing the phenomenon), but I will share one because it specifically is about the media. In the 2003 study Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, Fox News viewers were predictably the most misinformed whereas NPR and PBS audiences were the least misinformed. If there is a bias in public radio (and the non-rightwing portions of the MSM in general), it apparently is a bias towards accurately informing its audience or at least not a bias toward misinforming its audience to the degree of Fox News.
The problem is that those on the right think everything has a leftist bias. Along with the MSM, science has a leftist bias, higher education has a leftist bias, the government has a leftist bias, polling organizations have a leftist bias, and on and on. Everything that isn’t explicitly right-wing has a leftist bias, possibly even communist. So, it ultimately is an impossible debate to win. The conservative complaint isn’t based on objective facts in the first place and so can’t be changed through the presentation of objective facts. Any facts disproving the alleged bias will simply be considered as part of the conspiracy of bias.
As a side note, I thought I should give NPR credit for acknowledging its own biases, even if not the biases that conservatives would assume:
by Edward Schumacher-Matos
 by Edward Schumacher-Matos
Here are two very recent videos that analyze how the bias debate is presently playing out in the MSM:

Republican Liberalism

I was looking at two scholarly books about the history of American ideologies. Both books are fairly recent (2007 & 2008) and both bring up a similar viewpoint about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism. I’ve never come across this view before and so it made me wonder what caused two different authors to write about it at around the same time.


The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
by Michael J Thompson
pp. 2-3, location 208

“My basic argument is that liberal and republican themes were wedded in the American mind at the nation’s founding. Both viewpoints saw an intimate relation between power and property, if not coevality with each other. Liberalism was a doctrine of individual labor and, by extension, property, and it sought to give independence to individuals, smashing feudal relations of dependency that were predominate before the American Revolution. Republican themes emphasized the need for the institutions of the state to ensure that inequalities in property—and by extension, power—were kept in check. Within the context of an emerging commercial society bent on popular government, the theme of economic inequality was therefore central. Both liberalism and republicanism—two doctrines that have traditionally been seen as oppositional in previous literature on American political history—were actually seen as two sides of the same coin. Both sought to confront inequality of property and political power, and each saw that this was a central concern in eradicating the vestiges of feudalism that were at the heart of the birth of the American republic and modernity more generally. But the real essence of the story is that these two impulses begin to differentiate over the course of American history as the economic context develops. The evolution of capitalism begins to chart a course for liberalism at the expense of republican themes. By the end of the twentieth century, liberalism becomes co-opted by capitalism, and republican themes of the past fade into the background. The result is an overall acceptance or at least toleration of economic inequality and the gross differentials in political and social power it engenders in contemporary American politics and culture. I contend that this has led to a reorientation of democratic life in America and that as long as economic inequality and politics are held separate, a more vibrant democratic culture and consciousness will not be possible.

“Indeed, the success of neoconservative and neoliberal thought over the last thirty-five years has had the effect of redrawing the boundaries of American liberalism. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the loss in mainstream American political discourse of one of the most crucial veins of American political thought, which ran, until quite recently, like a roiling river at the heart of American life. This vein is the politics of economic inequality”


Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns
by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson
location 1685-1700
“Working with these orientations, proclivities, and tools, these thinkers and actors powerfully transformed republicanism into political liberalism but did so distinctively. Their pathways to a common outcome were not identical. The formation and crystallization of political liberalism was not the result of a single line of development. Nor can its origins be identified with a seminal thinker, or even with one lineage or sheer acts of substitution.
“[ . . . ] republican failure to identify and secure a stable and enduring political center in the space between radical Jacobinism and reactionary monarchism. This disappointment prompted her liberal inventions. It was her dissatisfaction with French republicanism’s violence, fanaticism, and dictatorship, as well as her fears that republicans could not end the Revolution, that impelled her to explore such new political formulations. Republican traumas, in short, motivated Stael’s liberalism.
“[ . . . ] These various paths converged. At their terminus, constitutional liberalism existed; republicanism no longer was a freestanding alternative, but it did not disappear. Republican values, sensibilities, and orientations have survived as deposits that fused with, and became integral to, liberal politics. In light of this history, some of the most familiar, and often pejorative, dichotomies in today’s political thought, including the right and the good, interest and virtue, individual and community, make little sense. These oppositions are new fabrications that do not accurately capture the rich historical and conceptual relations between the two traditions. They contradict the most prominent aspects of liberal beginnings.
“Further, both republican nostalgia and liberal purity are revealed to be false alternatives. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it became apparent that the republican model was radically deficient. So it is worse than ironic that some leading thinkers today counsel a resurrection of what even leading republicans two centuries ago transformed and superseded, and for good reasons. It is respectively discomfiting that a good many liberal advocates have distanced themselves from the lessons taught by key founders. By contrast with often abstract and philosophical exercises, the thick and sturdy liberalism fashioned within and against republicanism was open and syncretic, not closed and exclusive.”


Anyone who knows me knows that I value truth greatly. My respect for, even idealism of, truth has always been clear to me.

I’m not entirely sure why this is so.

I suspect my parents teaching me honesty is part of it and, of course, my dad having introduced me to the life of the intellect. But it seems to go beyond just those factors. There is something about my personality or my life experience that has caused me to value truth more than even my dad who spent much of his life in academia. As a conservative Christian, he would probably put before truth any other number of values: love, obedience, service, etc. Most people would put something or another before truth… which is to say that most people would rather assert their preferred values as truth than to value truth itself.

I don’t personally know any other person who puts as much emphasis on truth as I do (not to imply that I live up to my own ideal). Even my life-long best friend doesn’t think about truth in the way I do, although he comes closer than most people. My desire for truth at times can be a visceral impulse, something felt at the core of my being. I experience life and look out upon the world through the lense of truth-seeking. It truly bewilders me that others don’t share this inclination, this way of being in the world.

Truth as a value often seems out of fashion. We live in an age where righteous fundamentalism competes with skeptical relativism. It has become the norm for all sides to question truth as a value worthy of respect, especially in terms of the Enlightenment. We have collectively loss faith in truth, that it exists or can ever be known. Instead, doubt has become dominant and pervasive. Truth has become a mere personal issue. There are just claims of truth, but no shared sense of truth or even shared value of truth.

Yes, people argue over what is true. But such arguments have increasingly become battles of rhetoric. As a society, we’ve become cynical. Psychological insight has taught us how weak is the human mind. Simple reverence for truth is beyond most people these days. It sounds nice, if a bit naive. With propaganda and advertising, we are always looking for the angle, the spin, the manipulation. Claims of truth seem loaded, potentially dangerous even.

The Nazis knew their truth. The communists knew their truth. Islamic terrorists know their truth. And conservatives like Bush jr know truth in their gut. Or on the other end of the spectrum, New Agers know their own version of truth. People who claim truth are to be considered with suspicion or maybe just seen as simpleminded. Truth has become nearly synonymous with blind faith and dogmatic righteousness. In the media, truth is decided by whichever side wins.

There are so many competing claims of truth that we’ve forgotten how truth has a closer relationship to questions than answers. To question is to be weak. People who question don’t become powerful, wealthy or famous. Even in academia, it is the preson who proclaims a new theory or interpretation who gets attention from his or her peers. To question without offering an answer seems dissatisfying or boring. It is an argument between people declaring opposed truths that is exciting, that gets attention. Pick a side and fight for your team or else stand alone on the sideline as the valiant skeptic demolishing other people’s truths.

There is a new kind of lifestyle truthiness. You look for the truth that fits your life, rather than conform your life to truth. Claims of truth are how you know which group someone belongs to. There is Christian truth and Atheist truth, Republican truth and Democratic truth. Every group has their experts. Other experts are mercenaries who work for the highest bidder, usually think tanks.

I try not to fall into too much cynicism because the ensuing despair can be paralyzing. I have faith in truth, if faith can be used in this way, but I don’t have righteous certainty about any particular truth.

In my understanding and experience, the discussion of truth certainly isn’t about rhetoric or talking points or dogma. It isn’t even about philosophy and rationality, not ultimately at least. I see truth as a basic human experience. We may be confused about truth, change our minds, and be deluded more than we’f prefer. Still, the desire for truth is there and it can’t be denied.

Ever since the Axial Age, humans have become transfixed by the notion of ‘truth’. Revolutionary thinkers showed up on the scene and told their fellow humans that wisdom and knowledge matter more than kinship tribalism, more than obedience to authority, more than rule of law and tradition. This was when the seeds of modern civilization were planted. These seeds eventually grew into the Enlightenment. And now we live in an era of science. Truth as a value has become the background of modern society. We take it for granted which is why it is so easy to be cynical about it.

It is strange how the value of truth has played such a major role in social development. There seems to be something in human nature that corresponds to the notion of truth. Even before the Axial Age, peopl had various views of what ‘truth’ meant, even if they don’t correpsond to anything that we now recognize as truth. The moment humans could speak and draw cave paintings, the human desire for truth was off and running, although rather blindly at first.

My own sense is that truth as an idea and ideal touches upon the archetypal. There is an experience of a truth, a desire of truth that precedes any particular claim of truth. Truth-seeking matters because it springs from an impulse deep within us.

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

In response to a post by Chris Mooney about Jonathan Haidt, I’ll compare and contrast The Righteous Mind and The Republican Brain. But I’ll begin with a more broad comparison.


I’ve read both Haidt’s book and Mooney’s book. I’ve also read some of George Lakoff’s books (most specifically relevant is Moral Politics). I’ve read as well a fine book by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics), of which I highly recommend. There are other authors and books I could mention, but I won’t for simplicity’s sake. 

Of these four, the book by Hetherington and Weiler was the most satisfying as an overview of what scientists presently know about ideology and polarization. The other books, in comparison, only sample this vast field. However, Lakoff’s book was most satisfying in offering the most generally useful framework (useful in explanatory power and useful in fairly describing both sides).

Going by a different standard, the books of Haidt and Mooney probably would be the most satisfying to the general reader. Both of them are good at clearly communicating what is otherwise complex and sprawling. It can’t be doubted that Haidt and Mooney have in combination brought this debate to the public in a way that hasn’t been done previously, although Lakoff must be given credit for paving the way.

For the rest of this post, I will solely focus on Haidt and Mooney.


Personally, I prefer Mooney more than Haidt.

It’s not that Haidt fails in formulating an interesting hypothesis but it certainly requires more research and, I would add, better research. Mooney presented himself as being more intellectually humble in two ways. First, he remained closer to the research itself whereas Haidt constantly speculated and philosophized. Second, he was more upfront in acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties which probably is the reason he wasn’t prone to speculate and philosophize.

Mooney doesn’t attempt an overarching theory like Haidt’s moral foundations theory, instead just following the evidence. Mooney put forth some possible explanations, but he never formalized them into a singular inclusive theory. Mooney’s approach opens up discussion by not claiming to have it figured out. Haidt, on the other hand, can come off as too certain of his own research and arguments.

It’s surprising that Mooney doesn’t perceive the difference between his work and that of Haidt. It was Mooney’s book, among others, that helped me understand the deficiencies of Haidt’s approach.

The best example of this is the issue of research methods (the debate about which unfortunately doesn’t get enough attention in books directed at a more general readership). Haidt has relied on self-reports which are notoriously unreliable whereas Mooney presented reasearch that went way beyond self-reports. Haidt’s self-report research is useful as a preliminary step or else when corroborated by more reliable methods, but such research by itself isn’t adequate for the type of overarching theory he wants to prove.


Related to this, I kept noticing how selectively Haidt used evidence.

It looked like he was often seeking evidence to fit his pet theory instead of a theory to fit all of the evidence, not that he was necessarily doing this intentionally and consciously. Such cherrypicking would even be expected from one part of his theory. Maybe he doubts the human capacity for objective reasoning based partly on self-observations. Or maybe based on the assumption of human unreason he felt it would be ineffective to appeal to the reasoning of his audience.

Considering the data intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the book, it wasn’t hard for me to find holes in Haidt’s arguments. He needed to do a more wide-ranging survey of data before presenting a theory. This, of course, assumes he wanted to present a rational defense in the first place (i.e., a logical argument that is fair and balanced). I suspect he was intentionally emphasizing persuasion more than reason which would make sense considering that is what he should do according to his own theory.

This does make his arguments challenging to analyze. The standard he was using to make his arguments probably aren’t the same standards I hold to in my own valuing of reason. It seems somewhat pointless to rationally analyze a theory that doubts the validity of rational analysis.

Let me make one thing particularly clear.

I don’t doubt his motives per se. I’m sure he has good intentions. In fact, it is because of his good intentions that, as a moderate or centrist or even right-leaning liberal, he wants to understand conservatives and wants to communicate in a way conservatives will understand. This is praiseworthy as a motivation but not praiseworthy in how Haidt acts on it, at least in the case of his book. Persuasion used to doubt reason is a very dangerous thing.

Haidt ends up bending over backwards to reach out to conservatives. He tries too hard to bring conservatives to his side and so as a consequence he is willing to sacrifice treating liberals fairly in his analysis of moral foundations, going so far as to dismiss large aspects of liberal morality and thus defining his entire theory according to conservative beliefs and values. In doing so, he cherrypicks the evidence which distorts his presentation and biases his argument.

Ironically, this causes his book to fail according to Haidt’s own standards. Instead of acting as a bridge over the divide, he simply switches from a former liberal bias to a conservative bias. This switching of biases doesn’t in any way achieve balance or promote mutual respect and understanding.


Haidt falls into the typical liberal trap of “The Cult of Centrism”. The most famous example of this can be found in the mainstream media’s love of false equivalence.

It’s odd that Mooney doesn’t see this problem in Haidt as he is otherwise fully aware of this problem among liberals. Haidt wants to be reasonable or at least appear reasonable, but it is this very namby-pamby liberal impulse that ends up making him blithely unreasonable.

Mooney interestingly gives a slight nod to this fact at the end of the post in which he praises Haidt. Even so, he somehow concludes that Haidt essentially agrees with his book. This perception of agreement is shown even more clearly in another post by Mooney. I get the sense that there is more disagreement than either wants to let on… probably for reasons of presenting a strong defense against the naysayers both have faced. I also get the sense that Mooney just wants to stay on good terms with Haidt and so feels compelled to defend him against the criticisms Mooney would more objectively apply to a stranger.

Here is from the post linked above at the beginning of this post:

“I have differences with Haidt myself. Most importantly, I think the research he’s surveying–and the research he himself has done–adds up to a much tougher conclusion about political conservatism than he is willing to lead with (if you read between the lines, though…).”

So, the trick is that you have to read between the lines in order to discover what Haidt really meant. Methinks this is being overly generous.

I would argue that this problematic for any number of reasons.

Readers shoudn’t have to guess what an author actually meant, especially not in a book describing scientific research. Mooney didn’t write in such a convoluted or opaque manner. If Mooney is correct that Haidt wasn’t communicating as clearly and directly as he could have, then this is a major failing of his writing style if not a failing of his entire line of reasoning.

Furthermore, why does Mooney assume he knows Haidt’s secret thoughts and subtly implied meanings? One could read all kinds of potential meanings between the lines. Maybe Mooney is simply wanting to believe Haidt agrees with him more than he does and so is reading into Haidt’s bok something that isn’t there. Maybe Haidt wrote precisely what he meant to communicate without any hidden messages to be deciphered.


This leaves me a bit confused. I’m not sure what Mooney ultimately thinks about Haidt’s book.

If we take the conservative bias away from Haidt’s argument, then we would have a very different theory than what Haidt presents. It seems Mooney would like to reinterpret Haidt’s book according to his own image. I’d be fine with rehabilitating Haidt’s theory by removing the problematic parts, but I doubt Haidt would like this as he doesn’t see those parts as problematic.

Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

I was perusing a book I’ve had for a while, Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel.

I don’t think I’ve written about it before, but it is an interesting book that fits in with much I have written about. The following passage comes from the last chapter on culture, and in reading about it I was reminded of some previous thoughts about Midwestern culture. It took me well into my adulthood before I could grasp this Midwestern sense of community-mindedness.

Unfortunately, the authors don’t go as deeply into the origins of this cultural difference. They don’t consider, for example, the larger history of ethnic immigrations (in this context, the Scots-Irish culture of Appalachia and the Northern European culture of the Midlands). Nonetheless, the data and analysis they offer is compelling.


“In the Evangelical Epicenters it’s not just that there are many adherents; it’s that they come mostly from one particular faith tradition. Nearly half of the people who live in these places are members of some kind of Evangelical Protestant church, all of which share the key belief that faith and salvation are highly personal experiences.

“That affects the local culture. Congregations here tend to be communities unto themselves, concerned foremost with the care of their own members. One pastor in our representative Epicenter of Nixa told us that his church doesn’t have as much to give the greater community because there is so much need within his own congregation. That attitude is clearly shared by others: Nixa is full of churches and congregations, but they don’t tend to organize into larger interfaith groups. That more personal understanding of God and religion may also have something to do with those places’ attitude toward governing, which tends to put individual rights first.

“Tractor Country, which looks a lot like the Evangelical Epicenters in terms of its vote, has a very different religious makeup. These small communities are a mix of different Christian sects. The percentage of evangelicals here is a fraction of what it is in the Epicenters, even though Tractor Country has roughly the same number of religious adherents. These communities are mostly mainline Protestant, with a significant population of Catholics, as well. In general, these mainline churches are more open to ecumenical dialogue. They also tend have greater top-down organization than the evangelical denominations that predominate the Epicenters. It’s easier to coordinate churches that have built-in power structures: It involves talking to fewer people.

“Working together is an important part of life in agricultural Tractor Country. In our representative community of Sioux Center, people take an active interest in their neighbors’ lives, helping out when they need to. In Sioux Center, a town of 6,500 people, many of whom are members of one or another offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church, money is raised with relative ease and bond issues are passed to build things for the larger community. Here the community comes before the congregation.”