When “It’s the economy, stupid” falls short

I read the news today, oh boy. For some clear thinking if not reassurance, I recommend an essay by Yascha Mounk at Project Syndicate, in which he surveys various people’s takes on the recent global political instability, and comes down fairly hard against the economists’ argument that all this stuff is the result of stagnating incomes. Here is a condensed excerpt, though the whole thing is worth reading:

In what sense are politicians as different as Trump, Erdoğan, and French National Front leader Marine Le Pen connected? Does the anger that has set so many countries’ voters against their political establishment have common causes – and, if so, are there common remedies that can halt the rise of populists? …

According to Bill Emmott, former Editor of The Economist, the reasons are straightforward: “the interests of ordinary people have been subordinated to those of the elite.” … Harvard’s Dani Rodrik agrees, arguing that “the internationalization of markets for goods, services, and capital drives a wedge between the cosmopolitan, professional, skilled groups that are able to take advantage of it and the rest of society.” …

The problem with these explanations is the mismatch between the root causes of popular anger and the form this anger takes in most countries. Supporters of Trump or the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders may blame free-trade agreements for eroding job opportunities; but the bulk of their energy and anger is directed not at prevailing economic orthodoxy, but at social policy. The defining feature of their political brand is hatred of immigrants, not of the World Trade Organization. …

Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister of Germany, has a more radical view of the economic causes of an essentially cultural rage. He argues that the “White Man’s World” is under attack from the “globalization of labor markets, gender parity, and the legal and social emancipation of sexual minorities.” Immigration is the “issue that brings that prognosis home (not just metaphorically) to today’s angst-inspired nationalists.”

Fischer’s view helps to explain a puzzle identified by Daniel Gros, Director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. If losses from globalization “account for the rise of populism, they must have somehow intensified in the last few years, with low-skill workers’ circumstances and prospects deteriorating faster vis-à-vis their high-skill counterparts.” But “that simply is not the case,” Gros shows, “especially in Europe.” While the economic transformations of recent decades help to explain falling trust in existing political institutions, it is facile to assume that it is primarily globalization’s immediate losers who support the populists, much less to expect that an upswing in the business cycle will halt the populists’ rise. …

The most optimistic observers emphasize that the costs of globalization stem from politics, not economics. As J. Bradford DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley argues, income stagnation was caused not by globalization, but rather by politicians who have “failed to implement policies to manage globalization’s effects.” … But if such desirable policies exist, why should our political systems, having failed to pursue them in the past, be able to do so now?

In my view, the choices facing us in the next decades may be far starker than the optimists admit. There are three reasons why attempts to shore up living standards are unlikely to stem the populist threat: the right policies might not be adopted; even if they were adopted, they might fail to redress economic grievances sufficiently; and, most important, even if they did redress economic grievances, they would not necessarily defuse the culturally-based anxieties of many citizens. As Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann emphasizes – and as the Brexit vote clearly showed – the “sense of ‘us’” is more important to many people than achieving greater success through integration with “others.” …

This implies that redistribution and compensation of globalization’s losers will not be enough, and that liberal democracy is likely to become an increasingly unstable political compound.

I find this convincing albeit somewhat depressing. I think it’s pretty clear that the Trump phenomenon is mostly about white identity politics rather than economic issues, and that the Brexit vote was also mostly about English nationalism rather than economic issues. Greg Ip’s recent column has a good summary of research on anti-immigrant sentiment, and how it is in fact driven mainly by national identity rather than economic issues.

The benefit of an economic explanation of the populism/nationalism/whatever thing that is going on in so many different countries is that it can unify what is being explained: all these events are manifestations of the underlying trends in the global economy. I’m don’t find the economic explanations that convincing, but the alternatives are admittedly more complicated. If the working-out of national identity issues is central, as it indeed seems to be, that makes it harder to explain in terms of a cross-country phenomenon.

So I don’t have the unifying field theory for all this, but I do think it’s worth thinking more about how to understand nationalism. One basic conclusion is that politics is not in fact economics by other means, but actually about politics. And there is no more crucial political task than defining the nature and boundaries of the political community. Reflexively looking for the hidden economic interests underlying a political position is a Marxist fallacy if there ever was one–invoking “it’s the economy, stupid” is not always the smart move.

One Comment

  1. This is a thoughtful post. You do not provide further answers – I do not mean it as a criticism at all but as an observation: there are no answers, even if it is more plausible that it is all about nationalism (‘us’) vs. them rather than anti-globalisation.

    If the identity resurfacing is the real ‘issue’ or ‘angst’ of the day, then what is its driver – incipient and long-term – and why? What form and shape will it take and how will it spread and how can it be stopped?

    Do people withdraw into their cocoons (identity) when they perceive a shortage of spoils (economic growth?)? If so, are the roots not economic again?

    Thanks for the link though.


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