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...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nothing Cures Populism Like Populism

Though skeptical by nature, I tend towards the optimist. The infectious idealism of my mother is difficult to quash. I would like to believe that sound reasoning, so-called sensibility, could sway, teach, influence, impact, attenuate, educate ameliorate, moderate and contribute towards the evolution in the opinions of those under the influence of angry populism. But it can't.

If, like Jimmy Stewart's "It's a Wonderful Life" one could go back in time with the knowledge one has now, what would you tell the people of early 1930s Germany? of 1930's Italy? 1917 Russia? 1975 Cambodia? 1979 Iran? Would you plead with each of them NOT to make the mistake they were each about to make? Each of these shit-shows of suffering most importantly burned Populism as their fuel. Each sold a set of ill-suited solutions to what were mostly mis-diagnosed or the wrong problems altogether. Yes, each had their own issues of place and time, but in all of them, the whim of The People was usurped by the demagogue who history has judged very unkindly...for millions of irreparable irreplaceable reasons. So, of course you would plead, like a Cassandra, with your perfect knowledge of the future that you have seen with your own eyes. You would do everything in your persuasive powers... 

The thing is, in each of those situations, they, i.e. The People, would've all told you to fuck the fuck-off before they trampled your gonads, cut them off, and fed them, and the rest of you, to the dogs. The thing is: you can no more intervene to stop populism once it's left the station, any more than you can tell your kids not to do the stupid shit they will want to do, and are going to do. They can not, will not, believe you or obey you – certainly not because you know better. It is beyond their capabilities when otherwise possessed, be it by FOMO, ideology or mere wishful delusion. Of course, as a parent, (or well-reasonably well-trained, mature, observant non-dogmatic macroeconomist) with more knowledge YOU probably do know better. It's NOT the parental aspect that makes you know better since THAT confers no god-given right. It's the knowledge and experience. Yes, yes, I know that it sounds arrogant. It reflexively causes the: , "who the fuck are YOU that YOU know better, you smart-ass?" response, or the devilishly cleverly dismissive smarm of Michael Gove Fucking experts, right? One needn't spend too much time defending the role and value of so-called experts, as the idea that somehow one would embark on cancer treatment via advice from a KFC clerk, or have one's dry rot treated by your hair stylist is absurd. Moreover modernity IS complex and getting more so every day. The common (and reasonable) response to this challenge is to consult those wiser than you. Young people who ignore informed advice have the excuse of a still-developing forebrain in one's youth. Mature citizens under the sway of populist delusion have no similar excuse The abuse-to-come will be self-inflicted be it from a natural predisposition to conservatism or authoritarianism or any of a multitude of behavioural biases that prevent reason from entering their thick and stubborn skulls, or responding to new information it reveals itself and changes .

And so the young will do what they must do. They will learn the hard way. “Learn by experience” is their catchphrase, and as a parent, I can only only hope that with any luck mine will prove sufficiently less stupid than is required to teach them their lessons without mortal endangerment to themselves or others. But for the entranced masses for whom Populist rhetoric is the panacea - feeling as if it will cure all their ills (and asthma too!), I can only pessimistically suggest that “nothing cures populism like populism”. It is not coincidental that both Germany and Japan, poster-children for the Last Populism are emerging as the present beacons of liberal enlightenment, while the USA & the UK, the two countries who've not experienced the perils of demagogic populism in modernity have slid dangerously far towards the illiberal abyss – dismissive of any and all warnings that there even IS an abyss. 

The only ray of hope I see is that it numerically remains a 50/50 divide. But this is offset by the reality that the levers of Power are in the hands of The Populists. This is true in legal and administrative halls of government, in the media and mediation of information, and the direct instruments of law & order as expressed through the police, intelligence services, and home guards. This makes it feel as if Populism is more numerically ascendant, and makes expressions of opposition and dissent not only more challenging, but physically, economically and mentally more perilous. 

Of course, I think we should and must fight in all spheres, and not shy away from the inevitable battles ahead, in whatever forms of protest and dissent are available. But I am privately resigned that people possessed by Populism, will only learn from their own bitter experiences (or worse carnage of neighbours and loved ones) what are its true costs...