Friday, January 27, 2017

The Uninspiring Antitheses To Populism

Many have written insightfully on the reasons that seem crucial both to understanding Brexit and the parallel populism carrying Trump into office. Richard Baldwin, Branko Milanovic, even Tom Friedman's latest shed much light on the political-economic fractures and their causes. Useful data analyses have teased out the statistics  past and present county-by-county or even town-by-town. There are those like Cambridge Prof Nicholas Boyle, who evaluates the nostalgic psychological shortcomings of the Brexit demagogues, their disciples, and sychophants, so ill-suited to the 21st century, and which might be extended to American exceptionalism. Some like Martin Wolfe and George Magnus are critical of incumbent elites for their accused culpability which allowed this to happen, and still others (like the itinerant Chris Arnade) take an anecdotal approach to give the neglected and the angry representative faces, and a narrative rarely heard. As a “front row” kid who hung (and whenever possible still hangs) with the “back row” kids, I find this illuminating and fascinating, though not specifically useful for understanding how and why our formerly enlightened democracies have descended into illiberalism and absurdist nostalgia.

Inequality, leftoutism, the cumulative impact of technological change and the social and economic globalization that have industrially-hollowed out swathes historical manufacturing, urbanization, immigration, stagnant real wages, diminishing affordability of housing (and the inflation in much of the aspirational basket of goods) exacerbating the effect of stagnant real wages, a Facebook Syndrome that makes it plain and clear how great everyone else is doing and  how crappy one's own life is, rapid technological change, the relentless demise of religion with no spiritual replacement or purposeful endeavor, increased longevity amplifying conservative share of population, as well as the cumulative under-investment (particularly in the US & UK) in public goods such as education, affordable housing, public transport and healthcare, all have a role in explaining the reasons less-astute people might find comfort in Populist ideas that someone else (like The EU) Is The Cause of My, Your's, and All of our Problems (and that Brexit BTW will be The Solution) or embrace the view that reversing almost every piece of progressive legislation and dismantling almost every multilateral trade, financial, social and legal infrastructure that over several generations we, ourselves, have helped build in the world, will somehow improve our lot, and contribute to OUR future prosperity AND Make America Great Again.

Beyond comprehension except when seen against the anti-thesis. First, let's take stock of the obvious: “Globalization” (in the broadest sense) is a powerful force in the timeline of history. It will likely continue whatever the length of the present populist interlude. As the world shrinks socially, economically, and politically, our problems (and solutions) are increasingly transnational. Global social and cultural convergence is, and will, remain rife. Technological change has been rapid and will continue apace.  Trade and international relations are, for the most part, not zero-sum. Winners and losers result from all of these processes. Overall, more people benefit – globally and domestically – than are hurt. However, people who are are hurt by these processes ARE undeniably hurt. Finally, and most importantly, attempts to arrest these processes wholesale will cause the people who are, and will be hurt, to be hurt EVEN MORE (along with many other people who wouldn't otherwise suffer). This encapsulates the prevailing reality of our world, and most thinking people should find the recap beyond dispute.

When it comes to political anger and resentment, there is little distinction between  big losers and little losers, or between real losers and those who only imagine. For doubt avoidance, I am NOT using “losers” in the pejorative deplorable sense, but rather as the opposite of winner.  One cannot ignore inclusion of the racists and xenophobes as losers, for they too suffer from  imaginary loss, either having lost, or in the grips of fear of losing their absolute and/or relative sense of identity, privilege, and entitlement, however absurd, bogus, stupid, deplorable one may judge these fears/feelings/sentiments. The last element are The Old People, with a biologic fear of change that monotonically-increases with age – as crucial to Brexit as to Trump.  The resulting coalescence between losers and old people together represent the most combustible of populist tinder  All it requires is the flame to set it alight – be it Brexit, Trump. Immigration, or any inflammatory otherism of one's choosing. Anything to avoid confronting the hard fact of loss. Any lottery ticket to hope – no matter how stupid or deleterious the premise might be to one's self-interest, or cynically-predatory upon one's ignorance. To the populist and the demagogue, this is The Opportunity – not The Problem.

To everyone else, this is the problem. For there are no solutions for bringing steel mills back to the Monongahela Valley, or the textile mills back to Lancashire. New or growing automakers will not lay their roots in Detroit whatever the rhetoric. The economic geography of these regions former success, not accidental to their waterside location, has moved on. Other forms of modern economic geography networking based upon knowledge are now ascendant, and they are not along the Calumet or in Aliquippa. Supply chains are increasingly global, and digital. Tobacco farming is on the wane. Coal is enroute to ignominy. Even Pit Traders are the stuff of nostalgic history. For these losers, there is no anti-thesis that can compare against the  rhetorical demagoguery of populism's “Make America Great Again” or to a lesser extent, Brexit's “Take Back Control”. None. It can't.  The chain of dependencies that ripple out from now-hollowed-out industrial heartlands further diminishing opportunity. One could lay blame – on aloof Grosse Pointe managers, short-sighted capital unwilling to invest, raiders, predators, etc. but it will serve little purpose. Eddie Lampert did not kill Sears. He just profited from it's demise. Historically, the winners helped cushion the blow of the losers, if not explicitly then implicitly, though less so since the drubbing of Walter Mondale for hinting of at a need to raise more revenue. Historically, people moved. Sometimes across borders. Sometimes across oceans. Who, and what remained, rarely thrived without something miraculous. There is no divine entitlement to having a prosperous income where there is no prosperity.  Even the Crusades were as much about men seeking their fortune as anything else. Life IS tenuous. Earning a superior income without copious luck or patrimony IS hard. The reality, for those losers who've lost, or are in the process of losing decidedly is not one of hope and optimism, whatever MAGA promises.

The winners and those of us just plodding along, can do what we can do. Some will say it has not been enough...and they will almost certainly be right in comparison to what might have been done, or what we, as a nation, can afford. What we can do is, we can allocate resources and effort to improve education for modernity. We can re-educate those with out-dated or redundant skills. We can provide universal, and mobile healthcare coverage to allow people to move more easily. We can provide a reasonable social safety net for those unwilling or unable to move. We can support emergent business with investments in infrastructure that may facilitate their growth. We can attentuate the tax system to incentivize long-term investment for those enterprises that remain. None of these involve militaristic rallies, gimmicky hats with empty platitudes, blaming others for the changing fortunes of modernity's impact or for the  mis-fortune of our economic geography, or for some, our own poor decisions - be it substance abuse or hedonism. Most importantly, none of these things we can (and should do!) penalize the opportunity and futures of the overwhelming majority of citizens, or their hopes and aspirations, beyond realistically and progressively sharing the burden of adjustment to modernity of those less fortunate. Rawls would likely approve and suggest nothing different. Those are the plain and not-too-pleasant realistic alternatives that are before us, that other peoples on this earth are wrestling with, and doing their level best (or not) with which to come to terms.

Unfortunately, this depiction of reality will not win elections. This version irrespective of it's veracity, is not inspirational, but pragmatic. It is not intentionally dark, nor does it, or should it portend hopelessness or despondency. Resourceful people and regions can reinvent themselves. They can overcome adversity, with vision, investment, fortitude resourcefulness (not necessarily in that order). They can do this by looking forward to the possibilities of the future  – NOT backwards to a nostalgia that will not be resurrected no matter how many trade agreements are shredded, new minorities persecuted or patriotic hymns sung. If anything, these new people, these immigrants are your hope – our hope - not our villains  They were the reality of our past. They are the common bridge between the past and the future.

As difficult as it is to counter the siren calls of Populism, we, the majority, must take responsibility our failures. We must accept that we have been unable to outline a future and attendant policies any more inspiring than:
“It sucks for you, but not as bad as it could suck with the Populist narcisstic misogynist idiot” .

Or leaving aside the ad hominems:
 “Yes even though it sucks for YOU, at least with us and our “policies”, there is a non-zero probability it won't suck quite as bad for your kids".

Or how about:

"Well, at least with us in power, there might be some medicare and public transport when you get old and you *might* be able to drink the water. But don't count on that prosthetic knee..." 

Maybe this is better?:
"No really, believe me, just believe me: those scary looking dudes hanging down at the local weren't foreign...they just look foreign. And besides, they really won't hurt you"  

All this is pretty bleak compared to inane but hopeful  platitude of  "Make America Great Again".
One last attempt:
"Honestly...we'll do the very best we can and we will try very very hard not to enrich ourselves at your expense because we actually do care about policies that will help us in the future be the best we can be..".

Whatever HRCs flaws, this lack of an inspiring narrative wasn't her  fault. Progressives have been stymied continuously on so much social legislation that addresses the interests of the losers, and/or helps cushion their loss – from  education, and housing to progressive taxation. If and when we emerge from what is setting up to be the greatest self-inflicted episode of self-harm seen in the modern era, I sincerely hope that pragmatic sanity will help us try and solve our common problems with integrity and common sense and decency.In the meantime, I challenge all of you to define the positive narrative to address the challenges we face. Failure to do so could result in an even longer dark winter of discontent...


robert said...

I don't normally push my own pieces, but I wrote a piece on the economic drivers behind populist movements that you might enjoy:

Thanks, Robert

F said...

Good to see you again. I'm 61 and woke in the middle of last night and lying there tried thinking of a president I've felt proud of. The only one was Kennedy, but there wasn't much choice given the circumstances and my age. Eventually I fell back sleep, but still don't have an answer

goodtimecharlie said...

I am huge admirer of your blog and this piece of yours is an excellent example. However, although it's true that Brexit is fraught with downside risks to the UK economy, with few likely economic upsides, there are good reasons for its necessity nonetheless. The vast majority of UK voters and politicians are in favour of the club that we joined: an alliance of advanced West European countries bound together in a free-trade customs union. But our Continental partners pushed on with a different vision: a nation called Europe within which Britain would be merely a "member". Worse, it has become clear that the power driving the new EU Nation would be centred on Berlin and Frankfurt with its Admin Centres in Brussels and Strasbourg so as to save face for the French. This is an intolerable drift towards a European political configuration that Britain fought two great wars in the 20th Century to prevent.
Furthermore, the EU is not democratic and may soon not even be liberal. The lack of democracy is not only evident in the fact that EU laws are almost entirely manufactured by faceless and overpaid bureaucrats. Even the apparent democracy of the EU Parliament is a sham. In the U.K., for example, an MEP is chosen by the Party List form of proportion representation. The latter guarantees that the actual MPs close to top of those list will become elected. The selection is made by a few Party Managers and thereafter hardly any potential voter has any idea or interest in who is meant to be representing them in Brussels. In other words, it's a stitch-up. Thereafter, the MEPs need to no work, they oft n pay their partners as PAs and generally live it up (often with their mistresses whilst in Strasbourg and Brussels). Pay and pensions are high. It's corrupt and unreformable.
David Cameron didn't want Brexit, he just sought some help from Merkel, Hollande and The EU to get some control of the UK's borders. And why the hell not? But he got nothing. Therefore, I would suggest, if this is a cock-up, those responsible are not the British. In particular, a bit of foresight from Merkel would have avoided it. Sometimes there is more to geopolitics than just trade and economics. Otherwise, why should Britain not have caved to the Germans in 1939?

"Cassandra" said...

Thanks for sharing the link to your formidable piece. Had you not parted with normal practice, I'd have been robbed of its discovery. I am sympathetic to your view, for all the reasons you've cited, that much/most/the majority of painful convergence is past. The tragedy will indeed be (IMO) if the Populists cause global polities to meaningfully retrench from globalization, just at the nadir of discomfort.
Please email me or PM me on Twitter. I'm an old acquaintance of 1 of your partners.

Dakar said...

Having an AFL-CIO president praise a new R president during his first week in office after 8 years of a D speaks volumes about the state of the D party and its relationship with the working class.