by on April 13, 2008 at 12:43 pm in Political Science | Permalink

You’ve probably already read or heard the remarks but here goes:

"It’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or
religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant
sentiment or anti-trade sentiment."

There you have it: some truth, some correct implicit moralizing, elitist scorn and condescension, some false implicit time series (guns and religion do not closely track economic decline), and some totally unpopular cosmopolitan sympathies.  The "they" is the clincher, a hypostatizing and vaguely offensive generalization, yet one which we are all prepared to make in different contexts.

By the way, here is John Lott meets Barack Obama, worth reading for the scene of the encounter.

I think increasingly that Obama is very much a rationalist, in both the good and the bad senses of that term. 

If I think about what makes me bitter, it is highway and roadway construction and bad airports and the attendant delays.  You can decide for yourself what that makes me cling to.

Ape Man April 13, 2008 at 1:10 pm

It is possible that economic insecurity would turn more people in small towns to religion. Ditto for feelings about immigration. I have certainly read that the great depression had that effect.

But anybody who knows us hillbillys knows that the richer we get, the more guns we buy. Conversely, I have seen guys sell the guns they did not need when times get tough.

In fact, a lot of guys will deliberately set out to buy guns as a store of value. When times are good, they buy them. When times get tough they sell them. This works out pretty well since guns hold there value well if you buy the right ones.

Of course, a true hillbilly will never sell the guns that he uses on a regular bases. But most guys only have a couple of guns they fire on a regular basis. The rest just stay on the rack and look pretty.

David Zetland April 13, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Obama’s comment makes perfect sense to me. When times get tough, people look for someone or something to blame besides themselves. Even when it is not their fault (steel-mill closures), they want to avoid the idea that they are part of a failure. (Look at the resurgence of Russian nationalism under Putin.) And no, it’s not surprising.

What to do about it? Hope for change? Fine. Take responsibility for oneself, dust yourself off and look for something to succeed in? Better.

Meanwhile, Hillary promises to take care of everyone: “They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.” No — I don’t think so. Hillary is placing herself as the religions solution: “Just vote for me and I’ll take care of you.” I doubt it.

BTW, I’m an elitist — grew up in SF, traveled the world, drink “proper” cappuccino, getting a PhD.

Stephen April 13, 2008 at 1:40 pm

I think it says that you cling to a heavily subsidized transportation infrastructure with consequences far more dire than a silly little tariff on steal.

Nati April 13, 2008 at 1:50 pm

The reason I have been reading this blog for a while is because u guys express some thoughful and fresh ideas. But this post seems something that can be written by those parrots on TV. Come on u are better than that.

joan April 13, 2008 at 2:33 pm

When I read the reactions to his comment I realized that the worst thing Reagan did to the Democratic party was not capturing the Reagan Democrats, but giving them the country club Republicans. It use to be that only a small minority of Democrats were elietist enough not find Obama’s statement offensive. It seems only one person in that room of donors realized that he was insulting the people who form the democratic base, and no one on his staff had enough sense to just say he misspoke because they all agreed with the statement.

Anonymous April 13, 2008 at 2:41 pm

This, along with the Wright episode, reveals Obama as a bit of a calculating opportunist who tries to be all things to all people. In other words: the very definition of a politician. He might turn out to be a very effective politician and a good leader, but there will surely be a backlash at some point, perhaps from the very people currently swooning at him as some kind of messianic miracleworker, whose expectations he cannot possibly fulfill, while those who will not have voted for him might grudgingly come around to concede some good points, like they did for Clinton with welfare reform and NAFTA. Perhaps he will be a Lula-like figure who can make the left swallow a little market or trade medicine.

Somewhat offputting however are the sort of people who expect to sweep to positions of power in his wake, not least his wife, who sometimes seems to be running for people’s commissar rather than first lady.

Michael Foody April 13, 2008 at 2:47 pm

I want to reiterate that Obama expressed that people vote against “their economic interests” and on culture issues because they don’t trust government to do anything about their economic interests. This is probably true and not offensive. Of course I think they are probably kind of right on this issue.

Lott’s findings on concealed weapons sort of amuse me, he found concealed weapons to have a weak crime deterrent effect, others doing different math found a weak crime increase from concealed carry, but I think the take away is that concealed carry doesn’t make much difference at all. I think Obama is one of the most anti gun candidates we have seen, and that probably doesn’t mean much since I doubt that he will make it a priority.

M. Hodak April 13, 2008 at 3:03 pm

This flap is just evidence of how small this election has become in terms of the actual differences in the candidates. According to my principle of “Conservation of Outrage,” politicians and the media have to maintain a constant level of outrage in every news cycle. If someone bombs a market in Pakistan with dozens of deaths, then outrage is easy. Politicians and news readers can simply talk about it with facial expressions signaling deep concern. If the only thing that happens in a given news cycle is that someone gets their toes stepped on, the soreness of that toe is treated on par with the destruction of the Pakistani market, and all its carnage. The “deep concern” look remains the same.

Obama just stepped on someone’s toe.

A Berman April 13, 2008 at 3:08 pm

“Obama’s comment makes perfect sense to me…BTW, I’m an elitist — grew up in SF, traveled the world, drink “proper” cappuccino, getting a PhD.– David Zetland”

Ok, let me spell it out for those people who are too educated to see the problems here:
1) The implicit assumption that views about guns, religion, and immigration that differ from yours don’t have any intellectual merit, but are simply a response of (non-Phd, uneducated) people towards their economic circumstances.
2) The implicit assumption that views about guns, religion, and immigration are tied to “antipathy towards people not like them.”

Plenty of religious gun owners who are anti-immigration are smart, thoughtful, and educated. Refusal to engage them at the level of ideas as opposed to smugly psychoanalyzing them is a hallmark of the latte-left, and has been even before lattes became popular.

jim April 13, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Obama is morally repugnant. I’d prefer a President who doesn’t overtly despise a majority of the citizenry. The man has an ugly soul.

Michael Foody April 13, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Bob, the debate on Lott’s handgun analysis is too complicated for me to do it service in a comment. Look up John Lott in wikipedia the bibliography to get a sense of what is going on.

As far as Obama’s remarks I would urge people bothered by the comments to read the paragraph that proceeded the troubling comments, I’m not saying that it will fix the problem for you but I feel this is a case where context softens the problem a lot. I’m sure if you are fair you won’t come away thinking he despises people, but the remarks are probably still a bit condescending.

When it comes to smugly psychoanalyzing people, this happens all the time, look at welfare causing dependence and the break up of families, etc. I am not saying it is right, but I am saying that this stuff happens all the time. “They hate our freedom”

anon April 13, 2008 at 4:49 pm

“It’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.”

Anybody wonder who the “people who aren’t like them” are in this sentence? Is this an implication that Obama is having trouble with the Pennsylvania working class because he’s black?

Colin Danby April 13, 2008 at 5:09 pm

Thanks student for posting that — what we are seeing here is an effort at empathy, at figuring out where people are. In a place like Ohio “free trade” means “I lose my job” and neither HRC nor BHO was prepared to try and distinguish one from the other if it meant losing votes.

Thanks Ape Man for the discussion of guns as savings instruments! There’s a paper in there somewhere… The larger political point is that in the last election, apparently a lot of people in PA thought Kerry was anti-gun, despite his public protestations and ostentatious duck-killing. “Cling to guns” was not artful, but there is something going on there.

jim April 13, 2008 at 5:16 pm

How is Obama going to unite the country when he holds us in so much disdain? The man is a known racist. An unrepentant liar. And an unapologetic anti-American. He’s morally unfit to be a dogcatcher.

a student of economics April 13, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Bruce: Before you jump to, and perpetuate, false conclusions, here’s what Obama actually said in the very same answer:

“That’s…there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today – kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing.

Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it.”


“I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background — there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical.”

That doesn’t sound stereotyping, or racist or disdainful. On the contrary, his point was to challenge racism and stereotyping. It’s too bad that a candidate can say thousands of unscripted, yet thoughtful words, and the punditry simply zeroes in on one poorly phrased sentence and play “gotcha!” misrepresenting the whole point of his comment.

dpirate April 13, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Hei Lun Chan – Like father like son. John McCain Sr was a 4star Admiral who married a society gal oil heiress. Meanwhile, Cindy McCain is worth over 100M$ according to CNN ( This is hardly the life of the working class, POW or no POW.

A Berman – It is you that misunderstand. Both of your bullet points are agreedly wrong, but also not at all what Obama was saying. Simply put, what he said was that since no one in politics gives a shit about the poor’s economic status, that it is a non-starter. Therefore they (we) will vote according to the secondary issues such as immigration, religion, etc, because then at least we get someone who partially represents them. What is implied is that it is the economics that is ultimately important, but disregarded.

This is just another “I didn’t inhale” and “I invented the internet” flap that people react against because they are so willing to think badly of others instead of bothering to investigate the veracity of it for themselves.

Bob April 13, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Michael Foody, well I looked up wikipedia, and it didn’t contradict Lott’s position at all. The only research that seemed to provide a contradictory position were in law reviews, that means non-refereed publications. I asked you for whether there were any refereed publications. Given how strong your claim was, I thought that you might actually know something about this debate, but apparently you don’t. What I see there leaves Lott’s point unchallenged.

If you do have some relevant information, please provide it. Lott’s book Freedomnomics has a nice discussion on this research, and I have gone through the papers that he lists as claiming that there is no effect of RTC concealed weapon laws on crime rates. If he has missed some research that isn’t referenced in any of those research papers, please tell me.

Randy (Internet Ronin) April 13, 2008 at 7:24 pm

It seems to me that at every opportunity you cut Obama lots of slack that you are not prepared to provide others.

Bob April 13, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Michael Foody, it is true that the paper by Plassmann and Tideman is refereed and it is critical of Lott’s methodology, but this paper provides absolutely no evidence that any type of violent crime rate rose after right-to-carry laws were enacted. See here for a copy:

They conclude at the end of their abstract: “such laws appear to have statistically significant deterrent effects on the number of reported murders, rapes, and robberies.”

Michael Foody April 13, 2008 at 8:47 pm

Fair enough, It has been years since I have been in school and have since lost access to all the databases. If that paper does not find differently then I will be unable to do what is asked. In the same class I recall papers that found differently some may not have been refereed. At this point in my life I am unable to point you to any papers if any exist.

nivek April 13, 2008 at 9:15 pm

During the Republican debates, at least the two I saw, questions regarding the respective candidates gun ownership served as something of a litmus test. Obama’s rhetoric may smack of elitism, but it’s hardly a hypostatizion to suggest that Republican voters tend to emphasize issues pertaining to gun ownership and religion. That Obama believes working class voters emphasize second amendment and immigration issues at the expense of labor and healthcare is nothing remarkable at all. It’s an oversimplification that may rub libertarians the wrong way, but it ought to be considered for the way contrasts Clinton’s cheap demagoguery.

John Thacker April 13, 2008 at 9:41 pm

If I think about what makes me bitter, it is highway and roadway construction and bad airports and the attendant delays.

I certainly hope you weren’t trying to go north on VA 28 towards Dulles (after taking 66 W). The Willard Road interchange construction is nasty. Take the toll road instead, if you can. Dulles’s problem includes its bad air traffic control system; they don’t handle weather very well, as this past Friday showed.

Colin Danby April 13, 2008 at 11:08 pm

“Being what you’re not,” as context should make clear, means asserting an identity or cultural habitus that’s really not you. I hold no brief for Obama’s pandering over free trade, but that’s a vice of a different kind. I have no idea what you mean re Wright; BHO’s position there seems clear and matches what he has been saying going back to his autobiography.

What does “hold himself out as a post-politician candidate” even mean? What *exactly* has BHO said along these lines? Definitionally anyone who has made a career in elected office is a politician. Sounds like you’re setting up a double bind, Jody.

Colin Danby April 13, 2008 at 11:37 pm

I’m one of BHO’s small internet contributors myself, Adam, for some of the reasons you state.

Foobarista April 14, 2008 at 1:12 am

The klunker in the Obama quote was the notion of “clinging to religion”. After all, Obama’s most recent scandal was about his church. The opiate-of-the-masses notion of “clinging to religion” isn’t something someone who goes to church for anything other than careerist purposes would say.

Travis April 14, 2008 at 1:20 am

I would say the delays make you cling to your blackberry.

Jacob Oost April 14, 2008 at 1:58 am

It’s pretty sad when faux pas become major controversies while a candidate’s unwavering support for infanticide goes unremarked…..

John Lott April 14, 2008 at 2:51 am

Actually, Barkley there is a paper by Jeff Miron and a book by Joyce Lee Malcolm that you might find of interest. Jeff’s paper appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics. He had data on a wide range of countries, though it was purely cross-sectional, and I prefer using panel data where possible because it is some much easier to effectively account for geographic and time differences. Interestingly, if anything, he finds slightly lower murder rates with less strict gun control, though whether he shows statistically significant results depends upon which version of the paper you look at.

Joyce’s book looks at murder rates in Britain over a thousand years. She shows that their murder rates were extremely low before they had any gun laws and gun ownership was extremely widespread. I agree with you about the low murder rate in Switzerland (though Jeff doesn’t have that in his data set) despite its very high gun ownership rate, but there are also other countries such as Israel. My book, The Bias Against Guns, has some international evidence that you might find interesting.

The bottom line is that the claim that there is a positive relationship between guns and murder rates is usually due to a selective sample of countries.

Slocum April 14, 2008 at 7:49 am

If you often feel free to travel in your automobile where the dastardly road construction bothers you (I take it you do own a car), and by air where they horrid queues offend you (you feel you shouldn’t have to wait with the rest of the cattle?), then by “they” he isn’t talking about you. He’s talking to and about people who, if they want to post a comment on the internet, have to go wait in line at the public library.

This is really nonsense.

Seventy-five percent of poor people in the U.S. own cars (and I’m talking about people who meet the government definition of poverty — not lower middle class people). And as for internet access — a computer capable of net access can be had for literally nothing (large numbers of older but perfectly functional computers — all capable of internet access — are disposed of every day). And basic dial-up internet access can be had for $5-10/month (and a majority of poor Americans have cable TV — which costs a lot more than $5-10/month).

This poor huddled digital masses trope needs to retired along with John Edwards’ fictional shivering girl whose family couldn’t afford to buy a $10 coat at Walmart (or a $2 coat at a resale shop).

Tom April 14, 2008 at 10:09 am

“At this point in my life I am unable to point you to any papers if any exist.
Posted by: Michael Foody at Apr 13, 2008 8:47:00 PM”

Good to see someone own up as Michael did, and at some point, we all should.

VS. Bob”: you sound a lot like a John Lott sockpuppet.
Posted by: bartman at Apr 13, 2008 10:48:55 PM

AND bart,
I agree about the Sock Puppet. Smells like it. Barkley Rosser.

rod April 14, 2008 at 11:32 am

No, it’s not true that whenever one uses the word “they” one is distancing or distinguishing oneself from the other. If one is in California and asked about people in Pennsylvania, it is clear and common to use the pronoun “they” in reference to the people in the other state, whether they are family, friends, or voters. But just as a test, please in all your studies of consumers use the word “we” for the rest of your life.

carlo April 14, 2008 at 12:04 pm

I don’t think crime is the whole story. What about deaths because of involuntary accidents with weapons? That will not show up in the murder rates but it should be computed in the impact of looser gun permits.

Michael Foody April 14, 2008 at 12:59 pm

I appreciate the clarification.

rich April 14, 2008 at 2:49 pm

“He’s talking to and about people who, if they want to post a comment on the internet, have to go wait in line at the public library.”

Really? Nobody in rural Pennsylvania can get on the internet from home? You spend a lot of time there?

uh, RJ, the issue is not access it is COST. Not everyone can afford a computer, and a monthly charge for an ISP.

I myself am on a dial-up line, with an 8 year-old computer (Windows ME !), and I do NOT have cable TV (or a cell phone).
And I am middle-class.

jorod April 14, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Obama can fix the airports for you. They are reconstructing O’Hare Airport for $15 billion. A new airport would have only cost $6 billion. Talk about productivity and efficiency…!!!

Slocum April 14, 2008 at 4:04 pm

uh, RJ, the issue is not access it is COST. Not everyone can afford a computer, and a monthly charge for an ISP.

Nonsense. A functional used computer can be had for free (or nearly free). Dial-up internet can be had for the cost of a fast-food meal ($6/month).

I myself am on a dial-up line, with an 8 year-old computer (Windows ME !), and I do NOT have cable TV (or a cell phone).
And I am middle-class.

If you are truly middle class but have neither cable or a cell-phone, that is by choice not necessity. The statistics show that a majority of Americans below the poverty line have cars and cable TV. If those people do not also have basic computers and dial-up net access, that, too, is by choice rather than necessity.

meter April 14, 2008 at 4:16 pm

“Also, don’t you think the shooters would just use knives to kill people? What about baseball bats? Are you gonna outlaw baseball bats? In some countries, people who throw stones are branded terrorists. Are they going to outlaw stones?”

For you, yes. Clearly, thinking isn’t your strong suit: don’t want you to hurt yourself around sharp objects.

Barkley Rosser April 14, 2008 at 5:12 pm

I have just done a quick look at the data. It is less clear there is much of a relationship
regarding accidental deaths, but there looks to be a strong relationship between suicide rates
and gun ownership rates by region of the US. I have just done a back-of-the-envelope estimate,
which I am sure John Lott would be able to critique (where is the panel data???), but it suggests
that if the US as a whole had the same rate of gun ownership as the lowest region (NY plus NJ),
the US might have on the order of 15,000 fewer suicides per year. This is a crude estimate, but
this is also a pretty substantial number.

meter April 14, 2008 at 7:13 pm

lxm, you have to understand that for (certain) libertarians and limousine liberals compassion is extended only to those in faraway lands – it’s the exoticism that stokes these heretofore alien emotions.

When it’s rustbelt jobs facing extinction, it’s market manna from heaven: those that are phased out thru no fault of their own should adapt and seek out “better, more productive” sources of income – you know, like IT startups or mortgage origination or something.

RJ April 14, 2008 at 8:46 pm

“RJ, the issue is not access it is COST. Not everyone can afford a computer, and a monthly charge for an ISP.”

You were broad brushing as much as Obama.

John Lott April 15, 2008 at 12:31 am

Dear Barkley:

You can download a draft of Miron’s paper here. The consistently statistically significant results in Table 7 were cut in the final published version of the paper (that is what I was referring to when I wrote “though whether he shows statistically significant results depends upon which version of the paper you look at”). Also, if you didn’t pick up on it before and you are asking about the comparability to my results, my point about panel versus cross-sectional data still stands, and I think that cross-sectional data tends to be biased against finding a benefit from guns.

As to the nonlinearity, I guess that I would point to the increases in murder and violent crime rates that we have observed in every place from Ireland, the UK, Jamaica, DC, and Chicago when handgun or gun bans have gone into effect.

As to your concerns about letting permitted concealed handguns on campus, show me an example where your concerns have arisen either on campuses or elsewhere. There are about 5 million permit holders and only small areas where guns are banned in right-to-carry states. Do you see the types of problems you fear in those areas? In Colorado or Utah which have laws letting permit holders carry guns on campus or other schools around the country that also do so, have there been problems that you can point to? Do you think if a problem occurred that it would get a lot of publicity? You might find these two op-eds here and here of interest.

Barkley Rosser April 15, 2008 at 3:19 am

I meant to say 10,000 or more persons per year.

gappy April 15, 2008 at 10:04 am

If anyone needed further proof that Obama is the Messiah, this is it. His three-line sentences are subject to more hermeneusis than Jesus and Mohammed combined.

More seriously,in the context of the entire sentence, Obama’s message is not so elitist. It would have been had it implied that rural voters are stupid, ignorant or both. In fact, bitterness and frustration, and even hatred, can be very rational reactions. To think they cannot be is in my view a very strong assumption on human nature, one indeed that assumes that if you are sentient you cannot behave “badly”. This is platonic-socratic intellectualism.

Barkley Rosser April 15, 2008 at 5:27 pm


I am at Feel free to send me some stuff, but not too much.

I am not aware of any problems in Utah, and I am less bothered by teachers having guns
than I am by students. I have done some checking, and there is a general complaint about
much of the literature due to problems of autocorrelation, but I do not think this is the
venue for getting into all kinds of econometric messiness. But it all does throw doubt on
a lot of studies, including some of the panel data ones.

Regarding suicides, I would say that the cultural issue is much more important than it is
for the homicide issue. So, Japan has few guns but lots of suicides, as its culture actually
approves of hara-kiri under appropriate circumstances, while our culture is very anti-suicide.

This leads to the oddity that while the gun-homicide relation is weak or negative within the US
it is closer to being positive globally, Miron notwithstanding (and I have noticed that they left
out a rather important variable that I suspect would undo their results), the gun-suicide relation
looks stronger within the US and much weaker globally.

Regarding Miller et al, you complain that they used “only” six other variables. But that is more
than Miron used, and his variables are very fuzzy as he himself admits. Indeed, you stress studies
about gun control and things, but measuring “gun control” is very fuzzy. Measuring home gun ownership
is a well-defined continuous variable, and the relationship between that and suicided, especially gun
induced suicides, looks pretty strong and robust within the US, if not across countries.

Jamie April 15, 2008 at 6:51 pm

I’m confused? The American people and the media are so intent in dissecting every little word these canidates say but are unwilling to do any self reflection? While Obama was making a sweeping generalization, it was a well oberved stereo-type. Maybe he was a little out of line, but not out of touch. I just spent an entire 4 months of studying world religions with some deeply small city Christians who are Black and not too well off. Bitter and frustrated (and very ultra Christian) would be an understatement in describing the group I was with. Perhaps not the greatest sample of the whole small-town mentality, but it is easy to see where Senator Obama was coming from. It’s almost (well it is) the same as stating all politicians are “slick”.

jonathan Wheatley April 15, 2008 at 9:41 pm

Isn’t it interesting that Obama can talk about what he believes black Americans are feeling bitter about, and no one thinks it is presumptuous or condescending? Considering that although his parents are African, and American, neither is African-American, so he is not descended from American slaves. if he talks about the feelings of black Americans, he is doing so as an outside observer, to some extent, isn’t he?
So why are some of the folks in Pennsylvania so sensitive? Is it because they don’t care for compassion coming from a privileged black man?
I don’t know, just asking.

Aaron April 18, 2008 at 5:59 am

“Resolved from Hanover Township, Lancaster County, June 4, 1774; that in the event Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and to our rifles.”

But they were just bitter about the mill closing, I guess. Google Pennsylvania Rifle and Pennsylvania Dutch and you’ll see that this is a longstanding cultural tradition that predates the mills closing down.

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