Affordable family formation

Steve Sailer writes:

Based on the extremely similar results in 2000 and 2004, I [Sailer] had invented a novel and ambitious theory explaining why American states vote in differing proportions for Republican or Democratic candidates. My Affordable Family Formation theory isn’t about who wins nationally, it’s about how, given a particular national level of support, which states will be solid blue (Democrat), which ones purple (mixed), and which ones solid red (Republican). . . .

My basic theory is that Democrats do best in states with metropolitan areas where land for homes is scarce because they are hedged in by oceans or Great Lakes; while Republicans do best in inland areas where homebuyers can look around for homes in a 360 degree radius around job sites. I call this the Dirt Gap: Republicans are found more in areas with more dirt and less water.

This means that homes in inland areas tend to be cheaper because the supply of land within a certain commuting time is greater. In turn, cheaper homes mean that non-Hispanic whites tend to marry earlier and have more children, which means they attract family oriented people and their cultures tend to be more family-oriented, making Republican family values appeals more appealing there. . . .

Take a look at the Average Years Married between ages 18 and 44 among non-Hispanic white women in the 2000 Census. That’s a statistic I invented to be the marital analog of the well-known total fertility rate measure (which estimates from the latest available year’s birth behavior how many children a woman will have in her lifetime). Likewise, Average Years Married estimates how many years out of the 27 between 18 through 44 will a woman be married. The Average Years Married for non-Hispanic white women does a remarkably good job of predicting McCain’s (or Obama’s) share of the total vote across all races in the states.

Thus, McCain carried 19 of the top 20 states on Average Years Married among non-Hispanic whites, while Obama carried 18 of the 19 lowest states. The correlation coefficient was r=0.88 . . . By the way, this explains much of the Sarah Palin Hysteria: with her five children, she elicits the SWPL [“stuff white people like,” although when I looked at that website, it didn’t make any sense to me–maybe I’m not white enough??] whites’ secret dread that they are being outbred by the non-SWPL whites.

My thoughts:

1. The affordable family formation story makes a lot of sense to me; as we discussed in Red State, Blue State, it’s consistent with the red-state, blue-state distinction being more important among upper income voters (who are more likely to be buying houses and, I suspect, have more flexibility in deciding where to live) and it’s also consistent with these changes arising in the past thirty years, during which time we’ve seen huge housing price increases in coastal cities.

2. As Sailer notes (see also my scatterplots here), 2008 at the state-by-state level wasn’t much different from 2004, which in turn was nearly a replay of 2000.

3. I’m not so sure why he focuses on non-Hispanic whites, especially given that the Hispanic vote is increasingly important. I mean, I recognize that excluding minorities makes the statistical picture clearer, and so from a social-science perspective he’s explaining the data. A 90% correlation is indeed impressive. But then at some point I’d think you’d want to go back and put the minority votes back in to complete the story.

4. I’m skeptical about Sailer’s analysis of reactions to Sarah Palin. Why not the simpler story that she’s on the far right, and liberals don’t like that very much. Similar to the reaction that Republicans might have if Obama had chosen a running mate on the left wing of the Democratic party. I don’t really see how the children fit into this–I’d guess that a childless Palin with the same positions and qualifications would evoke similar attitudes.

Comments 3 and 4 aside, I think this is interesting stuff. See here and here for my earlier thoughts.

14 thoughts on “Affordable family formation

  1. Wait.. Steve "I'm a racist who can run an R script!" Sailer? Please. You have dropped as far in my estimation as the lackwits who engage with Megan McArdle as if she had a non-agitprop point.

    For shame.

  2. Sailer is somewhat race-obsessed, as you may realize from looking at his website.

    His "Average Years Married for Non-Hispanic White Women" stat doesn't seem to add much value over simple "Median Age at First Marriage," which I estimate to have an 85% correlation with Obama's vote share (and an 88% correlation with Kerry's).

  3. Thanks. In response:

    1. Yes, if you go back 30 or 40 years, the price of the land a house was built on was a considerably smaller fraction of the total cost of a house, so there was less regional variation. Plus, there was still open land fairly close to major cities. For example, the San Fernando Valley within the City of Los Angeles still had farmland in the northwestern corner in the late 1970s. Houses in California thus were not noticeably more expensive than the national average until the boom that started around 1976.

    My fullest explanation of Affordable Family Formation's effect on

    2. One change from 2004 to 2008 I noticed today was that John McCain did best relative to Bush in 2004 in Scots-Irish states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. McCain is Scots-Irsh himself and is very much in the Andy Jackson Scots-Irish tradition of patriotic pugnacity.

    3. Why do non-Hispanic whites' demographics drive the overall state voting? For one thing, a big Hispanic influx tends to have different political effects based on the topography and housing situation in a state. Consider California and Texas, which account for about 60 million people between them, almost one-fifth of the country. California voted Republican in 9 of 10 Presidential elections from 1952 to 1988, but Democratic in the five since then. Obviously, the new Hispanic voters played a major role in that, but California whites have changed, too, to the GOP's disadvantage.

    Much of the white working class has moved out of California due to competition for wages from Hispanics. Much of the white middle class is gone, too, due to high home prices driven up by higher demand (including from immigrants) and due to less appealing public schools. (California's public school students now rank between 44th and 49th out of 50 states on the federal National Assessment of Education Progress tests.) Why pay a fortune for a house in California and then another fortune to send your kids to private school when you can get a better house in Utah or Texas for half the price and let the taxpayers pick up the tab educating your kids at a school with pretty good test scores? Other people who stayed in California might not have gotten married or had kids because they couldn't afford to buy a home, making them less susceptible to GOP family values appeals.

    In contrast, the GOP has taken firm control of Texas over the same time, in some small part due to white Republican families moving from California to Texas. The bigger point though is that there is so much non-mountainous, well-watered land in the gigantic eastern half of Texas, and so few political restrictions on developing it into subdivisions that home prices stayed very reasonable in Texas. In 2005, the median home price in the Los Angeles metropolitan area was an insane 12 times the median income, but in the Dallas region it was only 2.8x.

    In contrast, although California looks big on the map, the part that you think of as California! is just the thin strip of Mediterranean climate zone near the coast. That's mostly either full or completely locked down by environmental and land use laws (e.g., the beautiful countryside around San Luis Obispo). So, the supply of California housing is very slow to respond to increases in demand, such as when the Bush Administration juiced the housing market, so we had a catastrophically large housing bubble in California (which accounts for about half of the defaulted mortgage dollars in the country), while there was almost no bubble at all in Texas.

    For more on how the Dirt Gap divides Texas and California politically, see my 2005 article:

    4. The hysteria over Sarah Palin, pro and con, dwarfed normal political debate and didn't seem to have much to do with specific issues. (Did McCain-Palin actually have a platform? All I can remember is them being in favor of offshore oil drilling.) Instead, the two-month long Palin brouhaha seemed obsessed with more primordial questions: babies and sex. For a fuller discussion, see:

  4. The most interesting anomaly in this election, to my eyes, was the strong red countermovement among appalachians and okies.

    How does that correlate with A) red/blue rich/poor, and B) affordable family formation?

    Mr. Sailer's "pugnacious patriotism" point is (extremely) well-taken, but it steps outside the two analytical approaches.

    Further thoughts or data analyses from either of you on this geographic subset?

  5. Wcw, Kieran: The connections between Steve Sailer's political motivations and his theories (and, for that matter, the connections between my own political motivations and my theories) are worth commenting on, I'm sure, but I'm probably not the best person to do so. In this case, I'm more interested in the theories themselves and so it seems best to consider them at face value.

    Steve S.: It's striking how much these changes have arisen in the past thirty years.

    Regarding Palin, I agree with what you're saying about how people talked about Palin, but I think the ultimate driver of attitudes here was her political positions. I think if she was a liberal with 5 kids, the liberals would've loved her, and if she were an unmarried conservative with no kids, the conservatives still would've loved her.

    Steve R.: I would guess that, within these counties that shifted to McCain, it was still the richer voters who were going more Republican and the poorer who were going for the Democrats. It's tough to separate ethnic from economic factors, especially since economic attitudes often have an ethnic dimension, and vice-versa.

  6. Andrew writes:

    In this case, I'm more interested in the theories themselves and so it seems best to consider them at face value.

    Silly Andrew! For people like wcw and Kieran, the theories themselves are irrelevant. All they need to know is that nasty Steve Sailer is behind them. If you keep on treating non-PC theories honestly, I am afraid that you will make Keiran's head explode. Beware the power you wield!

  7. Hey, guys–I don't want to get caught in the middle of a snarkwar!

    Our red-blue book discusses the ideas of David Brooks, Thomas Frank, and . . . Steve Sailer, among others. Part of the nature of this research is to take journalists seriously, and it turns out that many of the journalists working in this area have clear political perspectives. I have no problem with people commenting or even snarking on these perspectives; it's just not what I have to offer here.

  8. No worries, Andrew. Kane's gleeful misrepresentations notwithstanding, I don't think there's any inconsistency in honestly assessing whether these ideas are supported by the evidence while also understanding/acknowledging what's motivating their proponents — contexts of discovery and justification are of course different. (Honestly, "non-PC theories"? Is it still 1990?)

  9. For a hypothetical control case on the relevance of Palin's children – if Obama had chosen Nancy Pelosi (a woman with five children and seven grandchildren) as his running mate, I don't think this would have energized the "family-oriented vote" for Obama in the same way that Palin may have for McCain.

    As for the SWPL that Steve Sailer doesn't understand, I think he's missing the fact that "white people" in the context of that blog means approximately "rich/upper middle class urban liberal white people".

  10. Kenny,

    I think the liberals in the Democratic Party would've been very happy with Nancy Pelosi. But they were already happy with Obama so they didn't really need to be any happier. But I think the conservatives in the Republican Party would've been pretty upset at a San Francisco liberal. I doubt the five children would've helped at all there.

  11. I think the ultimate driver of attitudes here was her political positions.

    I think that the ultimate driver was about people thinking that she either was a "person like me" or "not a person like me." She hasn't governed from the far-right in Alaska; her most notable accomplishment is breaking up a pipeline deal that the previous (corrupt) Republican governor had signed and making a new one less generous to the oil companies with the enthusiastic support of the minority Democrats in the legislature, and opposed by elements of the Republican party. Her biggest detractors in Alaska politics are Republican legislators. Nor has she pushed social issues, contrary to the mass of ridiculous emails that went around.

    Of course, there are several other possibilities. One is that Republicans and Democrats in Alaska are both quite socially conservative, and so while she's a moderate Republican (including her economic views) in Alaska terms able to work with Democrats well, she's far-right on a national scale. Another possibility is that both Democrats and Republicans attributed views to her (and believed forwarded emails) that simply weren't true.

  12. It's striking how much these changes have arisen in the past thirty years.

    It is striking, but I go to Ed Glaeser's research for part of this explained in terms of housing. There's a debate about how much of this simply coastal cities running out of room, versus how much is voluntary and caused by zoning, land-use, and growth-management laws. Simply considering DC, there are zoning laws here that prevent people from building up and increasing density as well.

    Current homeowners always have incentives to restrict additional homes, whether to increase their home prices, maintain views or surroundings that they like, or simply to keep the place as it was when they moved in, since they liked it then. Unincorporated areas provide a safety valve, as the owners of empty land allow more development. Some areas, as in parts of New England, have little to no unincorporated areas left. Other areas, such as in California (which pioneered this along with Hawaii in the late 60s) have regional growth management. This allows cities to prevent development that would occur in the surrounding areas, again keeping prices high.

    Of course, with a lower elasticity of supply, home prices shoot up, but can also crash down if demand weakens. (In some areas, housing can still be built, but it happens much more slowly. Since the supply reacts slowly to demand, this means that prices shoot up more while waiting for increased supply, and then crash once it becomes available.)

    We should expect housing bubbles to become even more frequent in the future.

Comments are closed.