Interview with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy

By: Pranam Dey

This interview was conducted before J.D. Vance spoke to the Buckley Program and its guests at the Omni Hotel in New Haven, CT on February 1st, 2017. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited from a longer interview.

J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and The New York Times and has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC. Currently, J.D. works as a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. Hillbilly Elegy is a #1 New York Times bestseller and widely considered one of the most important books of 2016.


Pranam: Kentucky, Ohio, the Marines, a degree from Ohio State summa cum laude in two years, and then Yale Law School here in New Haven. In the midst of this, when did you first think of writing Hillbilly Elegy? In the book, you talked a bit about meeting Yale Law Professor Amy Chua and how that influenced your writing this book.

J.D.: The first time I ever thought about writing a book was when Professor Chua encouraged me to do so. It’s worth noting that her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in early 2011, and so at the point when she’s encouraging me to write this book, she’s the biggest name in the publishing industry. Normally I would’ve dismissed it. I thought it was an outrageous idea, but the more that I talked to her, the more I thought, yeah, maybe I should be thinking about doing this. She introduced me to people in the publishing world and sort of greased the wheels to make it easier. But it really was her encouragement and the conversations that came from that. Maybe I would’ve still written a book, but on the same time scale? Probably not. It really kicked into high gear by late 2012; that’s when I really started thinking about doing it.

Pranam: So around the time of President Obama’s re-election?

J.D.: Yeah, I guess that’s right. It’s funny, I think maybe that was just such an expected event that it doesn’t even stick out that much in my memory. Now that you say that, I can’t think of where I even was when the election results were being tabulated.

Pranam: Why do you think this book took off the way it did? A book about a group of people who have often gone forgotten in today’s America, which is odd, given American history. Why do you think the struggles of this group, you called them hillbillies, have gone unacknowledged for so long? Though of course there have been some things, including works by Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and others, but none broke through the way your book did.

J.D.: One answer is that it’s very hard to actually appreciate the struggles of people you don’t see very often. This is a group that because of where it is geographically and because of the problems I write about in the book, it’s pretty easy if you’re working at the Washington Post or The New York Times or at one of these major journalistic institutions and have never really encountered these struggles in a personal way. It’s easy to not see the things that aren’t in your face. And that’s my guess for why folks were surprised about the things I wrote about in the book.

Pranam: I’m from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is in some sense very similar and yet very different. It’s a city that’s mostly white and where a lot of people don’t have college degrees, but the dynamics you described in your book don’t really apply to South Dakota.

J.D.: My sense of the central part of the country, the Dakotas through Texas, is that they’re different for a couple of reasons. One is that they’re less densely populated. Two, they’re regional economies that’re doing reasonably well, in part because they’re less densely populated. And agriculture is doing fine, right? The third thing that’s different in these areas that’s really important is that traditional religious institutions are actually still quite strong. So church attendance rates are still quite high. Other civic institutions are also doing a bit better than in places like Middletown, Ohio.

Pranam: In the book, you reference a couple of papers by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. I wonder what you think about another paper of his, published in 2016. The paper shows that for kids born in 1940, about 90% would, as adults, have higher incomes than their parents. For kids born in the 1980’s, that figure is only about 50%. That 40 percentage point difference is huge, but maybe not obvious to someone who grew up in, say, San Francisco.

J.D.: That’s a pretty significant problem. One of the things that I write about is that the white working class is cynical and pessimistic about their material outcomes but especially about the future. It’s a group of people who grew up as children really expecting the constant narrative of improvement to be present in their lives and their children’s lives. And even if it’s worked out for them, it really hasn’t worked out for their children. That sense of generational decline is a big motivator of both this political moment and some of the problems I write about in this book.

Pranam: There’s this challenge that you refer to for a journalist from the Washington Post or The New York Times trying to understand people so different from them. And even the best summary statistics and regression analyses don’t capture the full picture in the ways that a full-fledged narrative like Hillbilly Elegy does. But we also know that a lot of Trump voters are not necessarily low-income. There’s been some criticism on the Left that while there may be struggles, it would be worse if you were African-American or Hispanic. Yet your point about optimism is really interesting because the lack of optimism is much more pronounced in white working class voters than in other groups.

J.D.: I have two responses to that criticism that I’ve heard a fair amount from the Left. Not towards my book because the book isn’t about politics, but still. I’ve always resisted the narrative that the Trump phenomenon is a purely economic one. I actually agree with the criticism that the Left articulates that this isn’t purely an economic force. Where I tend to disagree is that folks will say that there’s this huge racism component to it. And my sense is that the economic thing is big, the racism thing is there but is much smaller, but there’s this broader sense of decline that you really have to understand and that is very obvious in the data. It may not be that average working class white person has lower wealth than the average working class black person. But rates of drug abuse are higher, rates of overdoses from drug abuse are higher. And this is not very well known. This generational decline that I talk about where you have this sense that things were getting better for me, but my children are worse off. That’s an economic thing that’s not purely measured in wealth or income. But this expectation that your children are going to be doing much worse than you is an important motivator. That’s one broad response to it. That sense of generational decline is much broader-based, and you don’t see it in the economic indicators.

I actually saw this chart this morning that compared the suicide death rates, the alcohol-induced death rates, and the drug-induced death rates among white, black and Hispanic men. And the white men were just doing way worse by that metric than every other group. More suicides per share of the population, more drug-induced deaths per share of the population, more alcohol-induced deaths per share of the population. There’s this really interesting paper that [Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist] Angus Deaton did about rising mortality rates among middle-aged white men, largely driven by alcohol, obesity, and drugs. I agree that it’s not purely economic, but if you look at measures of well-being through a purely economic lens, I think you’re missing something going in our society that’s much broader and is very important.

Pranam: There was an interesting anecdote in your book where you mentioned how levels of familial instability in America were higher than in countries like France or Sweden. Do you have a sense of why that’s the case?

J.D.: Why that’s the case is a really important question. One of the themes that runs through the book is that I’m a bit agnostic about how we got here and about the root causes. I’m looking at this more through the lens of we got here, here we are, and here are the things that are happening. Here are the multigenerational ways they affect people. I’m agnostic about, for example, did poverty cause people to effectively form really instable families and then did those unstable families have self-replicating negative consequences? Or did they already have this “culture of poverty” that made them poor but also made their family situation so unstable. I really don’t have an opinion on that issue. I’m deeply agnostic about it. Now that we’re here, and we can see very clearly that rates of familial instability in the United States are much higher than similarly situated industrial economies, we should be worried about the consequences over the long-term because they’re very real and very identifiable.

Pranam: Let’s talk a little bit about Trump. Whatever else he may be doing, for a lot of people who voted for Trump, whether in Kentucky or Ohio or anywhere else, do you think that Trump will be good for them?

J.D.: His voters certainly feel vindicated. It’s something I understand a great deal because there was so little chance given to Trump by so many mainstream media outlets, so many pollsters and prognosticators who just thought he had no chance. There are very few opportunities when people in so-called middle America get to say “I told you so” to so-called coastal elites. I have very mixed feelings about the longer term question of whether Trump’s voters will benefit from him. Trump is definitely taking Republican policy in a less traditionally orthodox, supply-side direction, and I think that’s good. I also think the problems I write about are incredibly complicated and require sophisticated policy answers.

Pranam: What are some of these policy ideas that you’d like to see implemented?

J.D.: I’m actually a pretty big fan of reorienting America’s immigration system so that it looks a lot more like Canada’s or Australia’s. We seem to have an immigration policy that isn’t geared toward any particular outcome; it’s just a leftover of various policy changes that were made from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. I’d love to see an immigration system geared toward promoting an influx of high-skilled people who can create a lot of jobs. That’s one area where I’m a little optimistic that Trump will go in that direction.

I’m a fan of the idea that we really need to rethink how we approach post-secondary education, in a way that’s much more like how Germany does. More apprenticeships, more technical education. Let’s get away from this idea that everyone has to go and get a four-year college degree to have a chance at a middle-class lifestyle. I just think that’s such a bad idea.

Pranam: Haha, maybe everyone should just get a four-year college degree in two years like you did?

J.D.: Haha, well, yeah. But yes, I don’t see a lot interest in that issue for the Trump administration, but I think unless we get much better at training America’s workforce for a 21st century labor market, the problems that Trump worries about are going to be there. You can’t undo the job losses that have happened because of trade and automation. Automation has continued, and we’re sort of at the point where trade has caused all of the job losses it’s going to cause. You can maybe slow down the progress of automation and save some jobs in the process, but the idea that you can put millions of people back to work through better trade policies is probably completely ridiculous.

Pranam: You talked in the book about the importance of institutions. Belief in the media is currently at a bit of a low point. Congress isn’t particularly popular and neither is the President. One institution, however, that has managed to remain widely respected just about everywhere in America is the military. You were a part of it for four years. What do you think is the role of the military and opportunities it provides?

J.D.: I think that the military is really, really good for a number of different reasons. For kids who grew up like I did, it provides a certain amount of financial stability, it provides a certain amount of rigor, it provides a lot of the soft skills like how to prepare a professional uniform, how to balance a checkbook, how to shop for car.

Pranam: As you say in the book, to buy a Toyota and not a BMW.

J.D.: Right, exactly. I think that there’s something incredibly valuable about what the military does, and it will almost certainly continue to be the case that the military is especially well-staffed by working and middle class kids. The knock against the military that it’s primarily poor kids is not true; I was one of the poorest kids in the military. But it is certainly not primarily super wealthy kids either. It will contintue to play an incredibly important social role in helping working and middle class kids achieve some measure of stability and eventually upward mobility.

Pranam: Is there one thing that you wish students here at Yale knew about your book? Many have heard about the book and maybe seen your writing in the New York Times, but most, of course, haven’t read it.

J.D.: I think what I would like people to know is that the book ultimately argues that reason we don’t have great social mobility in the country is because of incredibly complicated and intersecting factors. To the extent that the book has been treated, even in positive terms, as a relatively simple and straightforward answer to the question that I tried to ask early on, that’s probably unfair. So I hope that people who haven’t read it will read it and appreciate that I think this problem is incredibly multi-factored.

Pranam: Thank you so much for speaking with The Beacon!

Pranam Dey is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and the Editor-in-Chief of The Beacon.