Hillbilly Elegy

Appalachian Reckoning: An Antidote to Hillbilly Elegy?

Tasteless jokes abound on the internet, including one I recently read: “Did you know the toothbrush was invented in West Virginia? Anywhere else and it would have been called a teeth brush.” I chuckled before considering the misguided notion that it’s still OK to trash poor whites. Writing for NPR’s “Code Switch,” Leah Donnella explains …

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The Hillbilly Saga: Conclusion

The bottom line of J. D. Vance’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” is that far too many people from southeastern Kentucky are trapped in a hillbilly culture that stands in the way of their own success. As if that weren’t bad enough, hillbillies are discriminated against because people aren’t willing to distinguish between good hillbillies and bad …

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How to React to a Hillbilly

Last week we tried to imagine how Professor Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” would react if he saw a couple of hillbillies coming into his store. This week we’ll re-look at that situation, pretending that Kahneman isn’t a Nobel Prize winning professor at all, but a lowly department store clerk. …

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The Stubbornness of Culture

In 2013 J. D. Vance graduated from Yale Law School, an accomplishment he shared that year with the following fraction of his fellow Americans: 0.00000063. I deduced this remarkable statistic very simply, by dividing the number of students in the Yale Law School class (208) by the population of the United States, which, at this …

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Don’t Even Think About Crossing a Hillbilly

We’ve talked about several obstacles to success in middle class Ohio for migrants from southeastern Kentucky: they had horrible accents and they tended to dress funny. But the biggest obstacle was the most difficult to overcome: their behavior. As I’ve noted, Scots-Irish immigrants to America brought with them a constellation of characteristics. These included an …

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The Inscrutable Foibles of Hillbilly Talk

Although the parallels between my life and that of J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” seem flat-out astonishing, it’s actually the differences that are more interesting. Vance and I both started out with grandparents who migrated from southeastern Kentucky to the Dayton, Ohio area, and we ultimately ended up in pretty much the same place: Yale …

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Why Were Pittsburgh’s Scots-Irish So Successful?

If Malcolm Gladwell is right that the cultural legacy of the Scots-Irish explains the poor outcomes experienced by people in southeastern Kentucky, how do we explain the exceptional success of these same people in Pittsburgh? One answer to this conundrum is this one: “Cultural legacy explanations are garbage.” That’s the Politically Correct answer, but it’s …

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The Culture of the Scots-Irish

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  –Peter Drucker (supposedly) Whether or not Drucker ever said that, every corporate executive knows it’s true. No matter how brilliant a strategy might be, if the corporate culture is toxic, the strategy will fall as flat as soggy Cheerios. On the other hand, if the corporate culture is healthy, a …

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The Weird Parallels Between the Hillbilly Elegy Author and Me

I just completed a series of posts on Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a book that experienced an astonishing publications history—despite being 700 pages long and a hard slog—because it caught the exact tenor of the times. A very different and more accessible book that enjoyed similar popularity, and for the same reason, is …

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