America's scarcity mindset

Is our society turning into a zero-sum competition for survival?

“This land was made for you and me” — Woody Guthrie

“I’m all right Jack, keep your hands off of my stack” — Pink Floyd

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980. Like all Perlstein books, it’s excellent and you should read it. Anyway, one of the things that really jumps out about the Carter years is the way scarcity and pessimism (which is just anticipation of future scarcity) made the country more selfish. The oil crises of the 70s created absolute chaos, with gunfights at gas stations and violent trucker strikes. It’s not hard to see how that era led to the every-man-for-himself attitude of the conservative 1980s.

But the crazy thing is that America seems to be falling back into this scarcity mindset. Only this time, the shortages are almost entirely of our own creation.

Stephen Covey, the self-help author who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, coined the terms “abundance mindset” and “scarcity mindset”. Basically he means that some people going around thinking of the world as a set of positive-sum, win-win situations, while other people go around thinking of everything as a zero-sum competition where you’re either a winner or a loser.

Meanwhile, the political scientist Ronald Inglehart came up with the related idea of “self-expression values” vs. “survival values”. Survival values, which supposedly come about because of economic scarcity, include ethnocentrism, xenophobia, fear of disease, and a hunger for authoritarianism. Sounds a lot like Trumpism, but I think you can also see echoes of this in various leftist ideologies and spaces.

The World Values Survey keeps track of these values, and it’s interesting to see how the U.S. has evolved over time. Here’s the map of countries from 2008:

You can see that while we were more traditionalist than most other rich countries, we were also very high on the “self-expression” end of the scale — about the same as Australia, New Zealand, or Denmark. This is basically the classic view of the U.S. — a bit religious, but a very open and tolerant society. Now check out the map for 2020:

The difference is striking. It’s not clear what the absolute change has been (it looks like the variables might have had some renormalization between 2008 and 2020), but the relative position tells the story. The U.S. is way to the left of other English-speaking countries, having shifted strongly toward survival values and away from self-expression.

I don’t know how much stock we should put in this particular psychological survey. Various polls in 2017 and 2018 showed that Americans supported immigration and diversity more strongly than ever (though that may have just been a way of saying “fuck you” to Trump). But there are lots of anecdotes that suggest to me that the World Values Survey isn’t wrong, and Americans have become more focused on survival, security, and selfishness, especially since the pandemic struck. For example:

What’s causing this wave of distrust and focus on survival? What are Americans fighting over? This isn’t the 1970s — there’s no historic oil shock, no rampant inflation. Yes, the Great Recession was hard, but we bounced back — the mid and late 2010s were the best time for wage and income growth since the 1960s, especially at the bottom of the distribution. The pandemic was hard, but thanks to generous relief bills, income and consumption actually rose. Where’s the scarcity?

In fact, I see material scarcity in several important areas.

The first and most important of these is housing. From the 1950s through the early 2000s we built out the suburbs, sprawling out into open land. Big houses for everyone! Then that process reached its natural end, as people discovered that exurbs were just too far out. The era of housing abundance came tumbling down in the housing crash, and housing construction has never recovered. As rents have soared in desirable cities, NIMBYs have emerged all over the country with unparalleled ferocity to prevent new housing construction.

And this NIMBYism is very bipartisan. Liberals and leftists are just as enthusiastic about keeping newcomers out of their neighborhoods as the most conservative white-flight suburbs. Here’s an example I saw just today:

Remember, America’s housing shortage has only a little to do with physical costs, and was not imposed on us by another country or a natural disaster or a change in technology. It is a scarcity crisis entirely of our own making. Because people don’t want their neighborhoods to change, politically powerful local homeowners put enormous pressure on their city governments to refuse to build housing, and so nowhere ends up building housing.

Another big fight is the battle over higher education. The news is filled with stories about corruption scandals at the Ivy League, racial discrimination at the Ivy League, legacy admissions at the Ivy League. Tuition at good schools has soared over the years, reflecting both the availability of subsidized student loans and an increased demand for top-college diplomas; this has led to bitter political battles over student loan forgiveness, free college plans, and so on.

But again, this scarcity crisis is entirely artificial! The number of Harvard diplomas is limited not because Harvard doesn’t know how to increase its enrollment or build a satellite campus; it’s because Harvard severely limits its number of students in order to pump up its prestige! Meanwhile, the schools that are actually providing good value for money to huge numbers of up-and-coming working-class and middle-class Americans are cheap state schools like CUNY and Cal State. (In a parallel trend at the K-12 level, Americans spend their time fighting bitterly over gifted classes and selective high schools, while largely ignoring the need to improve education for the average student.)

Another example of artificial scarcity is the anti-immigration movement, which has come to dominate the consciousness of the political Right. With America’s population set to stagnate, and immigrants providing huge economic value to our nation on a variety of fronts while integrating successfully into American culture and committing very little crime etc. etc., it seems like a no-brainer that we should be taking in a lot more foreigners. Remember, even with one billion Americans we’d only have the population density of France. And yet due to the dogged, bitter opposition of a now-dominant faction of the GOP, we’re unlikely to do that. We’re creating an artificial scarcity of talent and of young people.

But perhaps the biggest battleground, and the most egregious example of an artificially scarce quantity, is American-ness itself. It’s possible to see the entire recent era of unrest since 2014 as a battle over who gets to think of themselves as “the Real Americans”. Are White people the Real Americans, or Black people? What about Asians and Hispanics? Obviously it should be possible to just say that all Americans are Real Americans and that all Americans belong here. But we have chosen not to do this.

So America has created artificial scarcities of tangible goods like housing, education, and access to the country, and intangibles like a sense of belonging. Not all of our scarcities are artificial, of course — high-paying jobs at top companies like Google are limited due to the superstar firm phenomenon. But for the most part, the things Americans are scrabbling to take from each other are things whose supply we have chosen to limit.

I’m not saying that this artificial scarcity is the only reason America has shifted toward survival values like personal violence, ethnocentrism, and distrust. But I think it’s a contributing factor. We’re taking a country that should be a land of plenty, the ultimate positive-sum game, and we’re turning it into a zero-sum game.

I feel like we shouldn’t be doing that.

I’m an optimist because I think America has a lot of advantages going for it — new technologies that promise a productivity boom, scientific and corporate institutions that proved their worth in the pandemic, an open society, and a general culture of hard work and honesty. But a land of plenty is only a land of plenty if we allow it to be.