"Fear is Why Workers in Red States Vote Against Their Economic Self-Interest" is the title Robert Reich gives yesterday's post on his site. Reich starts by addressing why no one in West Virginia complained [I'm taking his word for it that no one complained, although I'm not sure how he knows] about dangerous chemicals getting into the water supply. It's because, he says, they worry about losing their jobs because they fear that enforcement of tough environmental laws might cause the businesses that use the chemicals to shut down.
That could be, but I think economists of pretty much all political stripes would more likely look at the fact that the damage caused by chemicals is a classic negative externality and, because it would be suffered with a small probability by a large number of people, few people would have much incentive to do much about it before the fact. Workers directly affected by potential job loss, after all, are probably a small percent of the number of people hurt by poisoned water.
But I want to address a different issue in Reich's piece: there's a tension, to put it mildly, between the title of his post and the content. When someone publishes a piece in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any newspaper, I don't pick on titles because I know that the author rarely gets to choose his title. But this is Reich's own web site. He is the one who chooses the title.
These three paragraphs give the gist of his argument:
For years political scientists have wondered why so many working class and poor citizens of so-called "red" states vote against their economic self-interest. The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion, and race.
I'm not so sure. The wages of production workers have been dropping for thirty years, adjusted for inflation, and their economic security has disappeared. Companies can and do shut down, sometimes literally overnight. A smaller share of working-age Americans hold jobs today than at any time in more than three decades.
People are so desperate for jobs they don't want to rock the boat. They don't want rules and regulations enforced that might cost them their livelihoods. For them, a job is precious -- sometimes even more precious than a safe workplace or safe drinking water.
Notice especially the last paragraph. Many workers fear that they will lose their jobs if various regulations are enforced. One might expect Reich to argue that this fear is unjustified. Earlier in the piece, he gives one instance where it turned out not to be justified. But that is not what he is arguing. He doesn't say their desperation is unwarranted. In fact, given his statement about companies shutting down overnight, he seems to think it's even more warranted than I do.
I would have thought that almost anyone looking at the issue, and certainly one who was once a Secretary of Labor, as Reich was, would think that having a job is in someone's economic self-interest. But Reich implicitly argues that it's not.