The roots of southern conservatism

Why We Worry / History

It’s tempting for the Left to liken modern southern conservatives to Confederates and to explain their ideology as being the product of bigotry and “useful idiocy.” However, the politics of minimizing the government’s role in the economy and dragging against cultural change has origins that pre-date Fort Sumter.

In his book, “The Mind of the South,” historian W.J. Cash revisits the early southeast colonies and follows their development through to his day (1900-1941). From his research, Cash produces a profile of a typical man living in the early South. Of Scotch-Irish descent, he has fled war and pestilence back home to become a pioneer farmer in the New World. He is part of a thin settler population spread across a vast unfamiliar geography. He does not live in a Jamestown-like settlement; more likely, he works on a plantation or runs his own farm in the backwoods. Cash notes that the typical southern man is “reared to outdoor activity” and subsists directly from the land. Socially, he’s valued above the slave population and below the southern gentry and northern elites. According to Cash, there was relative parity among the settlers, though time proved to be a differentiator.

The early southern man is remarkably disconnected from civilization. All of his relatives live across the Atlantic, his neighbors are spread out, his plantation is a self-contained world and he’s under the occasional authority of a fledgling government. In his own realm, he rules over his wife, his children and any slaves he owns. Economically and politically, his defining trait is his self-sufficiency. 

Feeling self-sufficient engenders certain attitudes. Cash writes:

“More and more, as time went on, he would come to front the world from his borders like a Gael chieftain from his rock-ringed glen, wholly content with his autonomy and jealously guardful that nothing should encroach upon it.”

The southern man needed a government strong enough to protect his ownership, but he opposed growing its arms much longer. From the first generations in North America up until the American Revolution, southerners resisted paying taxes and were leery of centralized authority over their new worlds.

If we take Cash’s “typical southern man” and fast forward him through time, he steadily loses stature. He is left back during westward expansion. He is devastated in the Civil War. One by one his economic pillars — cotton, tobacco, manufacturing — crumble. The harsh dominance he held in gender and race subsides. At one time, he lived in isolation and lorded over his own small realm. Now he is integrated with the government, the infrastructure, the popular culture, and depends on an international economic system. He still looks leerily at authority, especially at Washington, but now what he desires is not to protect the life that he has, but rather to recapture the self-sufficiency he once had.

Is the GOP poised to win the Senate?

Why We Worry / Washington, D.C.

With the midterm election still eight months off, I hesitate to contribute, even in my small way, to speculation about how it will play out. The Perpetual Campaign has gotten so bad that House Speaker John Boehner recently warned us not to expect much lawmaking from Congress in 2014. Republicans are reinvigorated in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act and will not risk their election year unity by legislating on any potentially-divisive major issues, such as immigration reform, or any that would advance Obama’s agenda. This prompted Nancy Pelosi to ask: “Why don’t we just pack up and go home?”

US Midterm Election

Since there won’t be much legislation to discuss this year, maybe it’s only right to skip ahead to the elections. The current meme is that the GOP, in addition to holding on to the House, has a strong chance to win a majority in the Senate. The Democrats will be on a defensive footing this election cycle. Historically, the opposition party gains seats. More importantly, Democrats will be defending seven seats in states that Romney won, while losing two incumbents to retirement.

Republicans are convinced that the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act will tip the electorate toward them, so, accordingly, they intend to base the 2014 campaign around the healthcare law and little else — the third in a row. This is short-sighted. By election day, the healthcare exchanges will be 13 months old. There will have been another surge in enrollment ahead of the March 31 deadline. The buggy website will be a distant memory. As more Americans gain subsidized insurance and see improved standards, they will not offer them up for repeal.

The dreary state of the Republican Party must also be considered. The GOP doesn’t even try to hide their slavish devotion to the wealthiest sliver of the population, and it shows in their 66% disapproval rating. On almost every major issue, the specific policies they advocate have minuscule public support. They’ve alienated broad swaths of women, minorities (citizens and non), LGBTQ community members, the well-educated and the lower classes. Added to this, the party has internal divisions, with major donors fueling “insurgent” primary campaigns from far-right Tea Party candidates. Some Democrats will distance themselves from the ACA, but the party is far more unified and is at least advancing a popular agenda in many areas (e.g. higher minimum wage, public investment, pre-k expansion).

Electoral politics have taken on a new, grave character since the GOP veered hard right post-2008. Ten years ago, the differences between the two parties were far narrower. Now Republicans promise an ominous agenda. Economically, it’s based on domination by the rich. Internationally, on the reflexive use of force. Socially, on regression. The expansion of Republican power would further threaten the well-being of the nation. Hopefully, it can be staunched.

Describing the American South

“The cumulative product of historical and geographical incidence appears to characterize the [Southeast US] region somewhat as follows: as to resources — superabundance; as to science, skills, technology, organization — deficiency; as to general economy — waste; as to culture — richness, with immaturity and multiple handicaps; as to trends — hesitancy and relative retrogression in many aspects of culture.”

(Howard Odum, University of North Carolina Press, 1936)

The above quote is a small sliver from a 600-page study of the Southeast  Southern Regions of the United States. Rich with data and sweeping in scope, in its time it was the definitive text on the South. If Howard Odum’s eighty-year-old summary of the region were applied to our time, it would be hard to argue with very much of it.

Per capita spending on public libraries in 1929.

Per capita spending on public libraries in 1929. Click to enlarge.

Falling unemployment rate masks troubled NC economy

NC unemployment rate

NC State Capitol – Raleigh.

Why We Worry / Raleigh-Durham Bureau

In remarks at the end of his first year in office — the first year of the Republican supermajority in Raleigh — Gov. Pat McCrory cited the state’s tumbling employment rate (down 2.1% for the year) as proof that his policies are improving the NC economy.

“At times we had to endure short-term pain for long-term gain,” McCrory said, referencing a range of controversial policies that have generated intense opposition, embodied by the Moral Monday protest movement.

But the dropping unemployment rate masks a troubled state economy. Since January, NC has actually lost about 8,000 jobs, and the labor force has shrunk by 118,234 (2.5%).

In an interview with Why We Worry, Allan Freyer — an economic analyst for the NC Justice Center — said the labor market is still struggling to recover. “The big factor here is that most of these drops in unemployment are not related to job creation. They are related to people who can’t find work giving up and dropping out of the labor force altogether,” Freyer said.

A major piece of the Republican agenda has been to make deep cuts to the unemployment insurance program (UI). Early in the year, they slashed maximum benefits by 35% ($185 per week) and shortened their duration. The reforms also caused NC to lose eligibility for $700 million in aid from the federal government. In addition to repairing state finances, this policy was supposed to spur job growth by discouraging dependence on government assistance.

Freyer dismissed the notion that reducing UI could mend the labor market. “There are no respectable economists who think that cutting UI benefits improves the economy or decreases unemployment. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “People who receive UI take a little bit longer to find a job, but they are typically hired at salaries closer to what their old job paid them. It’s bad at a macro level to have over-skilled workers take low-wage jobs.”

NC employment falls in 2013

Why We Worry / Raleigh-Durham Bureau

Since Governor Pat McCrory took office in January, the unemployment rate in North Carolina has dropped from 9.5% to 8.0%. Though still a far cry from the 5% rate in January 2008,  the drop suggests a significant improvement in the job market. In a speech earlier this week, McCrory seized on the rare positive headline and credited his administration for the lower rate.

Considered alone, however, the unemployment rate is misleading. When you consider the labor report as a whole, it actually reveals a negative employment trend in NC. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 29,000 fewer people employed now than at the beginning of the year. During the same period, the labor force shrank significantly — by 110,000 (2.3%). These numbers indicate that the rate has declined, not because new jobs have been added, but because unemployed workers have left the labor force and are no longer counted as officially unemployed. Of the jobs that are being added, most are in low-wage sectors of the economy.

In his speech, McCrory attributed the falling unemployment rate to “tough decisions” made by the Republicans, such as slashing unemployment insurance benefits, cutting taxes on the wealthy and rejecting federal subsidies to expand Medicaid. Apart from the specious premise that the job market has significantly improved, the argument that these cruel policies would ease the labor crisis is thin.

NC labor force

The labor force has declined since January 2013.

Telling prison from school

PrisonSchools Cartoon


Source: Jeff Parker, Florida Today

Highlights from Gov McCrory’s NC budget

Why We Worry / Raleigh-Durham Bureau

Governor Pat McCrory (R—NC) released his first budget proposal this morning, outlining spending recommendations for 2014 and 2015.

Left-leaning North Carolinians braced themselves for the announcement, fearful of the influence of McCrory’s budget director, the ultra-conservative Art Pope. The good news is the news isn’t all bad. The budget calls for increasing infrastructure development, state savings and new teacher hires, and it allows for a 1% bump in compensation for teachers, state employees and retirees. This reinforces the idea that the new governor is at least more moderate than the NC legislature.

The bad news is that most state agencies will face cuts. Most notably, the University of North Carolina system will face funding reductions of $143 million. At the same time, McCrory calls for repealing the Estate Tax, which would deprive the state of $54 million per year and would only benefit the richest sliver of the population. And of course this is only a proposal — and an early one at that. With the Republicans holding a supermajority, it’s hard to imagine the budget moving anywhere but further right.

Budget highlights:

  • Increases the State Repair and Renovation Fund by $300 million, with an eye towards infrastructure development.
  • Reduces funding to the UNC system by $143 million.
  • Cuts most state agencies/departments by 1-3%.
  • Teachers, state employees and retirees would receive a 1% increase in compensation.
  • Repeals the estate tax at a cost of $54 million per year.
  • Increases the state’s Rainy Day Fund by $400 million.

The death of newspapers (as we knew them)

Why We Worry / Media Desk

We all know that newspapers are struggling; still, reading the data behind the decline is shocking, and looking at the charts is frightening. Newspapers as an industry have posted advertising losses for 25 consecutive quarters. The readership now prefers the Internet, so papers publish extensively online. While content translates well to digital, advertising does not. Ads command far less than they do in print. Since 2007, for every dollar newspapers have gained in digital ads, they’ve lost $55 in print ads. Hence, total revenue has dropped by about 75% since 2000.


The loss of revenue has caused major contractions — staff cuts, consolidations and less frequent publishing — leading to the worry that we have less information about the world around us. National issues will always be covered, but not necessarily the unsexy local issues that, when added up drip by drip, have a tremendous impact.

How much information are we actually being deprived of? The contemporary United States is a society saturated with more text and Media than we can sort through without the assistance of aggregators and compilers. The fall of professional journalism has coincided with a revolution in self-publishing, whether from citizen journalists filing reports, influential figures disseminating comments or regular people sharing their miscellaneous images, videos and thoughts.

Our population, with recording and publishing technology constantly in its pockets, has undoubtedly plugged some of the informational gaps that newspapers have left. But while we have eyes everywhere, we have few that are trained. The death of the newspaper industry isn’t the same as the death of journalism as a practice, but if there are no resources to train and fund reporters, it could be the end of professional journalism.


How Sequester cuts would impact North Carolina

Why We Worry / Raleigh-Durham Bureau

The Sequester cuts may be small relative to the overall national budget, but if Congress does not prevent them, they will be coming in the context of prolonged economic stagnation, as well as recent significant cuts and severe budget shortfalls on the state level.

For North Carolina, new cuts would be particularly painful. The state’s economic recovery has trailed the nation’s, with official unemployment at 9.2% and official poverty at 17.5%. The impoverished are already threatened by the Republican supermajority that has slashed unemployment benefits and is attempting to shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the workers.

According to The White House, the Sequester would cause cuts to education ($41.8 million) and an array of public services in NC. The military sector, of huge importance in the state, would lose $140 million, and 22,000 of its employees would be furloughed.

Key points from The White House memo on Sequester cuts in NC:

  • NC will lose about $25 million in funding for primary and secondary education. The state would also lose $16.8 million for educating disabled children.
  • 22,000 Department of Defense employees would be furloughed. Army operations would be cut by $136 million, Air Force operations by $5 million.
  • NC would lose $5 million in funding for environmental protection, including air, water and wildlife programs.
  • Nutrition assistance for the elderly would be cut by $1.5 million.


North Carolina will lose approximately $25.4 million in funding for
primary and secondary education, putting around 350 teacher and aide jobs at risk. In addition
about 38,000 fewer students would be served and approximately 80 fewer schools would receive

Naming the crisis

Why We Worry / Economics Desk

It’s incomplete to call what we’re experiencing in the US an “unemployment” crisis. The problem is not just that there aren’t enough jobs available but that the existing jobs are low quality. New jobs put the unemployed to work, but these jobs are being created in a climate where workers have weak leverage, so they offer lower wages, decreased benefits and tenuous security. College students fight for unpaid internships until they graduate and fight for paid internships with no benefits. Though the worker today is more educated and more productive, his labor and his time earn him less. His economic interests are under constant attack from half of the political establishment, and in the other half he finds a fair-weather friend. Unless he’s one of a rare few, he does not enjoy the backing of a union.

These conditions have interlocking roots and together describe the larger crisis: the Labor Crisis.