Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Party in the USA like it's 1999 (or maybe 2011)

I'm a little late to the Doomsday Preppers party, but I hope you'll forgive me the sin of consuming my pop culture a few years behind the curve. If it ain't on Netflix streaming, I don't see it. So I'm still slogging through the first season on my second monitor as I have Stata open in front of me with my absurdly ballooned copy of the General Social Survey (GSS) fired up for some hot-and-sweaty margins in ordered probit.

Part of what's been occupying my mind lately is the claim that immigrants will bring with them intolerable culture and customs and will work to wreck the frail version of Western Civilizations we diligent Americans have carefully preserved in our living Constitution and our shared beliefs. In other words, I'm curious if the freedoms of association (and non-association) United States citizens enjoy with each other extend themselves naturally across international borders. This curiosity leads me to think about the culture space that exists among native-born US citizens and compare it to what immigrants are likely to bring with them. Edge cases like the ones presented in the show suggest that the range of subcultures within the US is massive, and to me at least, at least as alien as anything you'd be likely to find abroad.

What I've gotten from the GSS, at least on questions that relate to cultural issues, is a dash of cosmopolitanism and small-scale focus among immigrants, with much less concern about national politics. Immigrants want freer immigration policy and better bus service. They're not especially concerned with race relations. They think the US should have a smaller military footprint internationally and are worried about urban problems, but are comparatively indifferent to corporate tax rates and executive compensation. The responses I've checked are consistent with the hypothesis that immigrants lean towards "epistemic humility", which is a five-dollar (adjusted for inflation) way of saying that they don't claim to know much about or have strong opinions over issues they've not personally encountered*. I know that the folks on the show are pretty far from a representative sample, but the sorts of weird, speculative "reasoning" offered by the show's participants as justification for their end-of-the-world preparations range from the not-entirely-unreasonable (Yellowstone eruption) to the ludicrous (magnetic pole shift) to the downright laughable (China recalling US sovereign debt). But even though the participants have gone to logical extremes, many of them share a feature with native-born GSS respondents: they care about issues distant in both space and time. One episode in particular featured a home where the husband was preparing for a pandemic (this lies on the reasonable end of the plausible-scenario scale), and his highly skeptical wife was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. She'd actually had firsthand experience fleeing horror, living in caves, eating bugs, the whole deal. I adored that segment, as it mirrored nicely some of the findings I've captured in the GSS.

Perhaps one unintended benefit of allowing more immigration is that the folks who would chose to move to the US would tend towards the sort that are less infatuated with fairy tales and delusions of grandeur. A little more community focus, a little less abstraction about national greatness might be the ticket to a more practical, less delusional constituency. Not all cultural spillover effects are potentially negative, people.

*for questions with related salience variables, immigrants report consistently lower rates. For others, there's a higher propensity than the native population to prefer the status quo.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?