Art Carden  

What's the Correlation Between War Enthusiasm and Income?

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A popular saying during the Civil War was that it is a "rich man's war but a poor man's fight." On July 4, Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted:

One reply said "It's profitable for wealthy who send poor to fight for their causes."

I wondered on Twitter if this is true. Is war more popular among the very rich or the very poor? My prior was that war is more popular among low-income than high-income Americans. Casual observation suggests that relatively low-income rural and southern areas are more belligerent than relatively high-income parts of the country.

Samuel Wilson, God bless him, offered to do some heavy econometric lifting with the General Social Survey and posted his results yesterday. While he couldn't find a great measure of war enthusiasm, he was able to use a question that asked whether the US should "take an active part in world affairs" as a proxy.

Regression evidence runs against both our priors: the higher one's income, the more likely one is to answer that the US should "take an active part in world affairs." Wilson:

First off, note that Carden's tweet is crushed. Just annihilated. The sign on real income is positive and the beta estimate is pretty darn strong (relative to the other terms, of course). Mo' money, mo' intervention! A surprise upset! Now, I do have to admit that my priors were the same as the WMOE's: I expected higher income folks to be more wary of foreign intervention, but okay, I can accept that reversal.

I wouldn't be that dramatic, but as I told him via email, that giant sound everyone heard when I read his post was the sound of my priors updating. The result has moved me closer to agnosticism on this issue, but I still have a (now much, much weaker) prior that if the question were limited to war per se, lower-income respondents would be more enthusiastic. The US can "take an active part in world affairs" by being part of the UN, by giving foreign aid, and by doing a lot of other non-war stuff. Nonetheless, I would have taken the "slight negative correlation" side of a bet on the regression Sam ran, and I would've lost.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Steve Z writes:
The US can "take an active part in world affairs" by being part of the UN, by giving foreign aid, and by doing a lot of other non-war stuff.

This observation is why Wilson's results did not cause me to update my priors much. Even the use of the phrase "world affairs" bespeaks goo-goo U.N. / League of Nations treaty-passing to me, not boots-on-the-grounds blood-in-the-streets warfare. Higher income is correlated with listening to NPR and believing that we're all crunchy-granola connected; I'd imagine that it is this correlation the GSS question is picking up, not a belletristic tendency among those with higher income. I'm sure there are other GSS questions -- among the 5,000 or so -- that could be used to test this prediction. In short, while I admire Carden's candor, I wouldn't pay out on the hypothetical bet yet.

Hazel Meade writes:

Taking an active part in world affairs doesn't necessarily mean warfare. It probably means lots of diplomacy.

Poor people are less able to travel and therefore likely to be more parochial and nationalistic, and less concerned about the welfare of people in foreign countries. That could lend itself towards both isolationism and belligerence, both of which are observable.

Sam Wilson writes:

The only other proxies I found for war support were weak because they were either outdated or inappropriate. I completely agree that the regressions I ran did not adequately test for war support, but beliefs over the proper role of active foreign policy are also interesting to test. That's why I invoked Chris Coyne's work at the beginning of my post at Euvoluntary Exchange.

Jason writes:

"The US" is a proxy for "you".

Imagine if the question were

"Should you take an active part in world affairs?"
you would probably get the same result.

I would bet that personal feelings of significance in the world increases with personal education/income/wealth/might.

Why limit it to war enthusiasm? Why not ask if there is a correlation with income and violence generally?

Is it high income people who predominate at hockey and football games? Boxing and wrestling matches?

Foobarista writes:

I agree with Steve Z - this is not a good "proxy for war" question, but more of a "do you buy into the Nice Person Lexicon" that is a required part of any rich person's belief portfolio, particularly in big "blue" cities.

To show that this isn't a good proxy, do you think a "no" answer to this question would correlate with pacifism?

Frankly, people answering "no" are more likely to be nativists and nationalists, who figure that we should let foreigners rot.

Emily writes:

There is polling data on feelings about specific wars that has income variables. For instance, this 2003 poll on the Iraq war found no differences in support between the three income groups they used. http://www.gallup.com/poll/7699/blacks-postgraduates-among-groups-most-likely-oppose-iraq-invasion.aspx
I think looking at specific wars is more likely to be fruitful than something more abstract. It would also be interesting to look at whether war support changes more for specific groups in response to events, or whether there are differences in depth of feeling.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I agree with everyone else (but Art): 'active part in world affairs' is very ambiguous, from imperialism to foreign aid to joint global warming initiatives.

Chris C writes:

"Taking an active part in world affairs" means diplomacy to nearly everyone that I know, and is entirely different than waging war. That's more of a question of whether we should practice isolationism or not, not whether we should bomb places or not.

NZ writes:

I'm not on Twitter so I'm not an expert on this, but I have somehow come across two or three Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets, and they all seemed to have that crunchy activist flavor to them--and none of them had anything to do with astronomy. I know he definitely has a fanbase and they definitely are a type: white, male, 18-30, college educated, liberal, very active online.

Anyway, in the tweet quoted above Tyson is incorrect:

  • July 4th is a commemoration of American Independence from England, being situated not on any significant war anniversary but on the anniversary of the day Congress signed the Declaration of Independence.
  • "The Star Spangled Banner" was a combination of a poem ("The Defence of Fort McHenry") written by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed Fort McHenry withstanding an attack by the British and the music of an old English drinking song. The lyrics are the more relevant component here, and glorify not war or battle, but perseverance and national pride. To most people, the song simply relates a sense of national pride. Nothing to do with commemorating war.
  • With fireworks it's a similar story: while one could infer some allusion to the sights and sounds of warfare, fireworks are mainly set off at holidays because they're both visually and aurally unusual and thus are a useful way to mark a day to be set apart. They're also an entertaining spectacle.
  • The 1812 Overture was written by Tchaikovsky to commemorate Russia's successful defense against Napoleon. Tchaikovsky himself later disowned the piece, though this might be the one example where Tyson is technically correct: if you include defense against invasion as "war", the 1812 Overture does commemorate war.
  • Air shows, like fireworks, are more entertainment via spectacle than anything else. I can't speak for most people, but my impression at air shows was always "Wow. I wouldn't want to mess with a country that had these kind of machines." Thus, air shows convey a sense of deterrence against war to me. But who knows, for others it could be different.
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