The silent majority and the ignorance of experts

Earlier this year, in that brief window between Donald Trump’s nomination and Bernie Sanders’ concession, a friend and I attended a panel discussion featuring a leading light from the Australian Labor Party. During the question and answer session, my friend asked of the politician:

As Donald Trump gets more popular, despite his abominable personal and business record, why does it seem that the American people are so willing to vote against their best interests?

To his credit, the politician immediately rejected the premise that voters were blind to their own interests. He suggested instead that voters knew moneyed interests—Trump included—had long exploited the system to benefit themselves. Accordingly, he argued, voters would turn to the candidate pledging to tackle income inequality, raise the minimum wage, clean up Wall Street, and get big money out of politics. And that’s why they’d elect the natural advocate of these policies: Hillary Clinton.

As a relative newcomer to US politics—and almost by definition a die-hard Bernie Sanders fan—my friend was puzzled by this apparent non-sequitur. Attempting to sound credible, I hastily back-filled a candidate explanation for his reasoning:

Centre-left parties know that they have to talk like Sanders but walk like Clinton. As much as I’d love them to elect Bernie, he’s simply too anti‑establishment.

History has proven that both the politician and I were at least half wrong. He had underestimated US voters’ preference for panache over policy substance, and I had underestimated their desire to appoint an anti‑establishment candidate, regardless of his political allegiance.[i]

Related image

In the 2016 campaign, female candidates were judged by their record. Male candidates were judged by their hair. #progress

A few months after this event, while the campaign that every centrist political commentator had predicted would precede an easy Clinton victory was careening off the rails, I attended a second, informal dinner with Labor staffers. Our conversation turned to the delightfully unpredictable business of interacting with the public, when one staffer spoke about those enchanting constituents who, in their calls to their MPs’ offices, could cite chapter and verse of the Labor Party’s platform.

While we scratched our collective heads to recall the last Labor government that pursued the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, an uncomfortable truth lingered above our meals: the ideals professed in a political party’s platform are almost inevitably conceded to the pragmatism of adversarial politics. Both major parties would agree that in the end, governing is done by hard‑headed governments. Any reflection of the high‑minded populism of the platform is generally a coincidence.

Meanwhile in the United States, Bernie Sanders had emerged after his elimination from the Democratic primaries clutching a new edition of the Democratic Party’s policy platform. The most progressive platform in Democratic Party history, Sanders insisted, would tie a Clinton presidency to the mast of ‘delivering for all Americans’. As it turned out, the Clinton administration didn’t even get the opportunity to let them down.

While in Australia we watch the dust settle from the US election, and contemplate the figurehead of a President Trump with his appointed underbelly of regressive Republicans, the two major parties are busily repositioning their brands. Both claim to have ‘learned lessons’ from Trump’s victory, but each leader echoes a different element of the President-elect’s message. Being Australian politics, our attempt to imitate the United States is half-hearted at best, but we’re still giving it a shout.

Malcolm Turnbull, in typically tone-deaf style, has thrown out the baby but kept the bathwater, shunning the populist parts of Trump’s package and settling for popularity within his own ­­party room by pressing on with ill‑advised tax cuts for (the two‑thirds of) Australian businesses (who choose pay them in the first place). Bill Shorten has sampled from Trump’s protectionist message, with his democratic remix asking of Australians ‘buy Australian, for Australian’ (workers). While this rhetoric perhaps inadvertently pushes Labor closer to the socialisation objective soon to be written out of its platform, it remains to be seen whether the party will resist the temptation to revert to its platitudes of ‘sensible government’, where one talks like Sanders but walks like Clinton.

Unlike the Coalition, the Labor Party has the political flexibility both to embrace a more comprehensive agenda that truly delivers for the majority and to shun, without contradicting its principles, the repugnant elements of a Trumpish campaign. If Australian voters are as mindful of their best interests as our earlier Labor politician argued that US voters are, then many Australians are likely to accept only begrudgingly the ‘deplorable’ elements of a Trump-style platform, that many centrist commentators consistently called out.

We are the…1 per cent?

And what of these commentators? Their arc runs in parallel to that of the major political parties. The press, too, saw governing as the province of governments, not of mavericks who were so audacious as to claim they were relinquishing ties to ‘the system’ and instead representing ‘the people’. For most of the press, all that stood between Clinton and the White House was the inconvenience of a democratic election.

Full disclosure: I followed the US primaries as a quixotic, almost tongue‑in‑cheek Bernie backer. I believed—I believe—that in the US (and, to that same, faintly echoed degree, in Australia) the time has come for a ‘new New Deal’ agenda to be realised. Unlike a handful of Sanders die-hards, and along with my inquisitive friend, I was willing to transfer my entirely inconsequential support to Clinton, insofar as she adopted these policies as a comprehensive alternative to the true backwardness of Trump. But the biggest obstacle to Clinton’s election proved not to be the readiness of the American people to accept sweeping change, but the obsolete notions held by the Democratic Party and a complicit press about what constituted ‘electable’.

Thus the media followed in lockstep the Democratic Party’s march off the electoral cliff. As the officially endorsed Clinton campaign unfolded, I grew progressively dismayed by the Democrats’ relentless dilution of the agenda that Sanders and his movement had advanced, in the name of ‘electability’. But I was even more gobsmacked by the media’s oblivious cheerleading for a storyline and a heroine that looked boilerplate, sensible, and inevitable—notwithstanding the giddy lilt that commentators failed to stifle when replaying soundbites from that cheeky (but patently unelectable) Trump!

But in dismissing Trump’s candidacy out of hand, the mainstream media betrayed the same kind of superciliousness that pervaded a Democratic Party paying mere lip-service to Sanders’ plans for genuine change.[ii] The American people wanted Jack Daniels, but the press gang was cheering on the wowsers to serve Coors Light. Separate from any endorsement that it may have made, any media outlet that failed even to conceive of a Trump victory needs sincerely to consider its credibility, relevance the neutrality of its presentation. Unfortunately, if justifiably, many of Trump’s supporters need no encouragement to do just this.

Post mortems of the 2016 US Presidential Election have progressed through the Kübler-Ross five stages with respectable speed, from the denial that Trump could ever pose a threat to Clinton’s anointed run, to the acceptance that ‘conventional wisdom’ was a phrase conceived in irony by economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Fittingly, as media outlets and the party that Galbraith once advised now wander together through the wreckage of the US election, they are accompanied by a handful of economists humbly offering characteristically courageous omniscience-after-the-fact.

One rationalisation of Trump’s victory, it seems, is economic! Apparently, disenfranchised Americans had seen an economic system in which they were working (or looking for work) harder than ever, for ever-smaller recognition of their endeavours. Media-savvy economists have bravely suggested that underpaid, underemployed American voters were simply mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. If only there were a presidential candidate who pledged tackle income inequality, raise the minimum wage, clean up Wall Street, and get big money out of politics…

Here, though, another parallel appears. Even late-to-the-party economists would now acknowledge that if the Democrats and the mainstream media wish to remain relevant to the people they claim to represent and inform, they must acknowledge their errors and rewrite their raisons d’être. If history is any guide, they won’t. And if economists are any guide, they won’t.

Economists, both in their own right and because of their proximity to the political process, provide a useful case study about what to expect next from centre-left parties and the media. To borrow from Bobby Kennedy:

There are those look at things the way they are and ask why, but most economists look at the same things and tell you they could have explained that.

Even ‘to borrow from Bobby Kennedy’ is a lesson in how economists preserve their credibility by citing not the original source (in this case, George Bernard Shaw), but a more recognisable repackaging. Professional economists know that they must do two things. First, to maintain their standing among their peers, economists must shout from the shoulders of conventional wisdom. Second, to hold the esteem of the public, their shouts must remain steadfastly unintelligible.

Economics is by no means a settled field. Take fiscal policy: some economists will profess that ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity following a demand-driven downturn, while others will argue just as sincerely that such conditions call for immediate fiscal stimulus. The austerians stake out the turf war by likening a government’s budget to a household’s, while the ‘Keynesians’ are content to fight on these false premises. Not having read or understood Keynes in the original, they become Keynesians in austere clothing, and Harry Truman told us where that kind of transvestitism leads.

Very few ingredients are required to conduct a ‘respectable’ economic debate in the popular media. After the acceptance of a few logical fallacies, an infusion of deliberately obscurantist jargon, all that remains to be added are two parties, convinced of the absolute truth of their argument and content to talk past each other. It’s the kind of debate from which everyone—except the onlookers it might affect—walks away thinking they’ve won. It sounds awfully familiar.

Despite pretensions that its standard theory is ‘science’ and its policy is akin to ‘engineering’, economics resembles the inexact, non-science of politics more closely than its practitioners would care to admit. And, like in politics, it’s not always the quality of your argument or the primacy of your sources that fosters your success as an economist, but your bravado, your pedigree, and ‘who you know’ (to put into a reference section).

Economics establishes certain rules and conventions (the American Economic Association conference is a must), which create insiders and outsiders. Insiders who heed these norms, though they might disagree with one another, care less about the disagreement than they do about their invitation to the debate: once inside, they can quote the Kennedys and discuss balanced budgets with abandon. Insiders can crow about a Great Moderation as it unfolds, about having solved the central economic problem of preventing depressions, and revel in the unprecedented rise in GDP, ignoring outsiders’ warnings about the unequal distribution and precarious sources of this income, until a Great Contraction arrives. At this point, insiders can claim with all the naked naivete of a Clinton‑backing media outlet that ‘no one saw this coming’, before trumpeting their newfound interest in inequality, while both rediscovering the wheel and continuing to ignore the barrow pushed by insiders who hadn’t talked about anything else throughout the whole sorry affair. Because, according to the insiders, outsiders in the economics profession, with their nerdy preoccupation with Keynes in the original, their unfashionable attention to distributional issues, and their disarmingly populist conclusions, might as well not be practicing economics at all.

Perhaps due to the success of economics in remaining incomprehensible, the public might be unaware that the discipline faces a similar crisis as that of the major political parties and the mainstream media. Erstwhile outsiders are gathering around Fortress Economics, threatening to make its often-antisocial mantras—that the government should rein in spending and aim for budget balance even amidst chronic unemployment, that an unemployed person hasn’t searched hard enough for vacancies that don’t exist, that your wage reflects, by definition, the additional contribution you’ve made to output, and that free trade is an unalloyed force for good—accessible to and contestable by the layperson. As in the political arena, some maverick economists are shysters in it for the money, while others have simply read more, or more relevant volumes, than insiders preoccupied with being palatable (read: electable). Worryingly for the economics establishment, some outsiders are even well‑credentialed, such as Sanders advisor Stephanie Kelton, who holds a PhD from Cambridge, and who can tell you that the mechanics of fiscal policy aren’t so much mythical as mundane, but that, still, almost everything you’ve heard about a government budget constraint is incorrect.

This doesn’t mean that everyone should get a solid gold house and a rocket car. But it does mean we could get rid of mass unemployment without much of a fuss.

The triple tides in the major political parties, the mainstream media, and the economics profession find common cause in an increasingly fractious and—though Trump himself might be reluctant to admit it—a better educated populace. The public are sick of being condescended to by a class of professionals who resent rather than represent them, who confine their public interactions to party platforms with planned obsolescence, to tweets that remain unheeded, or to derisive claims of economic illiteracy.

While a case has been made elsewhere about the ignorance of experts—the disdain that blue‑collar workers hold for professionals—the reciprocal contempt that professionals hold for the people they profess to represent is the far more invidious ‘ignorance of experts’. At some point, the political class decided it was reasonable to turn the existential question often asked of them: ‘yeah but what have you done for me lately?’ back onto voters. The media adopted this condescension, and insider economists have never known any attitude different.

Although the insiders from the economics profession deserve the demise that awaits, economists are correct in assigning economic motives to the actions of the ‘silent majority’. ‘The people’ demonstrably desire change, but it’s change from representative democracies that are neither. It’s change from being molested by fork‑tongued technocrats with slippery jargon promising efficiency dividends, productivity payoffs or fiscally orderly houses, but in reality delivering job cuts, wage freezes and endless exasperation. Ironically, economics can offer some guidance to its co‑accused in politics in the media, in the form of one of its fatuous first principles: ‘incentives matter’. The voting, viewing, and value‑adding public don’t need politicians, the media, or economists as much as these professions need the public. And, all at once, the experts are starting to catch on.

[i] Before you protest that ‘Hillary won the popular vote’ and better reflected the will of the majority, I don’t care. The structure of the Electoral College is the least of the Democrats’ worries. Trump, the most unpopular Presidential candidate of all time, shouldn’t have even gotten close.

[ii] Before you protest that ‘Hillary won the Democratic nomination’ both by popular vote and upon aggregation, I don’t care. Sanders, a little-known Senator from Vermont, with almost no media coverage, and with SuperPAC funding one one-hundredth the size of Clinton’s, shouldn’t have even gotten close.

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