The vast majority of Americans appear to have re-learned the long-standing political dictum, “Elections have consequences.” Voters turned out in record numbers for last month’s mid-term elections – not just those determined to send a message of “resistance” to President Donald Trump, but also those signaling their support. The run-up to and aftermath of these elections offered numerous opportunities for commentary online, in print, live, and on TV. So, in this update I’m providing a (multimedia!) synthesis:
The country is divided between those who benefit from the global, digital economy, and those who don’t.
The European branch of the Aspen Institute unveiled its new-and-improved website the day before the election, and its launch prominently featured my piece, Two Americas and the lost center, which concluded:
One of these two nations clearly was winning the economic, cultural and political wars until recently; the other has predictably struck back with a vengeance. Both now believe, probably correctly, that they are in an existential struggle with the other where only one will survive.
There are, in short, two sides – but no center.
Democrats and progressives should be – but are not effectively – addressing the concerns of those left behind in this economy.
The weekend before the election, I was visited at my home by Bruce Hawker, a correspondent and producer for Australian TV traveling the US in the weeks leading up to the midterm election.
We’ll have to wait until early 2019, when Bruce’s documentary airs in Australia, to see exactly what I said (even I don’t recall). But I spoke on the same general theme a few days earlier at the University of Scranton, where I explained, in response to one question, my concern with progressives’ failure to address the economic anxieties of Trump voters. (As a bonus, here’s my 3-minute explanation of blockchain.)
Disaffected and economically disfranchised Americans have risen in revolt and seized political power on behalf of an illiberal and undemocratic ideology.
I wrote this piece for Aspenia Online, All Globalists Now, just after the election in response to President Trump’s closing theme framing the country’s choice as one between “nationalism” and “globalism”:
In sum, the supposedly-nationalist and anti-globalist movement is in fact global in scope and and transnational in organization. The foreign regimes that serve as its models and allies are the most violative of any today of the sovereignty and internal integrity of others. Their national cheerleaders, however, welcome these international models not only to guide but also, if necessary, to override US institutions in constructing a similar “nationalism”.
The print version of Aspenia is republishing this month my piece, Urbi et Orbi – previously published only in Italian – which similarly observes:
The tripartite division between producers, transformers and predators described above generated the same dynamic that we see in today’s populism, with the left trying to appeal to an urban middle class against an economically and politically predatory elite, with the conservative wing of that elite appealing, usually more successfully, to the producers in the exurban extractive economy by attacking the allegedly-parasitical professional classes.
Not surprisingly, this illiberal, anti-democratic movement is gaining and holding power by suppressing the exercise of democracy. My CNN debut came in this piece critiquing the Republicans’ increasing reliance on voter suppression as a means of holding onto power:
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg trenchantly observed in her dissent, however, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” It’s now also clear, to continue Ginsburg’s metaphor, that putting your umbrella away when it’s not raining, as Roberts would have it, is usually sufficient itself to provoke a cloudburst.
The majority of Americans, who are basically doing well, reject this ideology. History is on their side – but the country’s future could still go either way.
In The Wave Election, to be published by Aspenia later this month, I argue that “there is a slow-moving tide of history of which today’s events are merely a part – perhaps a frothing bubble, perhaps a cresting whitecap, on a larger, longer, slowly rolling wave.” The piece concludes with this warning:
The Trump phenomenon represents a powerful undertow running counter to the tide of history – a xenophobic reaction to an America moving in a more socially-liberal, more technology-centered, more globally-integrated and multicultural direction. That tide will keep rolling in, on larger and larger waves. But the undertow is always there, and can be deadly if you don’t pay it proper respect.
In the short term, I still give Trump a slightly better than 50-50 shot at re-election.
The day before the election, I moderated a panel of international experts in DC – as I had two years ago – to discuss what our election meant to others around the world. Virtually none of the foreign visitors in attendance expected Trump to be re-elected – while I did.
What do you think? As always, I look forward to your comments below.
And please check out the second annual Greater Good Gathering that I’m organizing in February in conjunction with Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and the American Academy of Political Science. Focusing on the ways that technology today can threaten a shared sense of “community” and the common good – or fulfill its original promise to help build them – the conference will feature tech executives, prominent journalists, leading academics on all aspects of the tech revolution from dating apps to cyber war, and top officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations. Register today, and spread the word!
I just wanted to share with you my most recent piece for US News & World Report, which is also, sadly, my last, as they’ve discontinued their Opinion section. Watch for news on my new writing outlets soon.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP last week launched an international trade war, hung up on Mexico’s president because he wouldn’t agree to pay for Trump’s border wall and announced he favored seizing guns without due process (a position from which he quickly retreated). These issues all have something in common (other than Trump) that goes to the root of what’s wrong in American politics today.
As discussed (here and here) during the 2016 campaign, both trade and immigration constitute a particular type of problem: Each benefits the larger society, raising the standard of living not just of the country as a whole but also of the majority within it. Yet both produce losers; various studies show, for instance, that immigration results in higher earnings for those with already-higher earnings – but lower wages for the lower-skilled.
Such “wedge issues” are used by politicians to drive Americans apart to the advantage of no one but these politicians. They are a means to exploit people’s misfortune by turning it into anger – and then turning that anger into votes. What they are not are exercises in building constructive solutions to problems, through compromise, consensus or common cause. And they are all traceable to the single watershed moment in which Ronald Reagan transformed American politics into the unrelenting exercise in selfishness that it is still today, when he asked Americans to vote on the basis of one question alone: Are you – not the country as a whole, or others, but you – better off today than you were four years ago?
Yes, politics is largely about self-interest, and even the Framers believed that a balance of self-interests, not messianic utopianism, was the central requirement of stable democracy. But the country’s leaders used to call us to a vision – even when the ultimate goal was individual freedom and self-realization – of an America greater than each of us individually. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” died with “Are you better off?”
Trump is the apotheosis of this morally-denuded politics. Has there ever been a human being so clearly interested in nothing but himself? Despite his faux populism, his agenda in office has been a mix of standard-issue tax breaks targeted almost entirely to his fellow plutocrats and banana-republic self-enrichment. Even his conception of “making America great again” is about atomized self-interests, not any notion of an “America” embracing all, or even most, of us, knit together to form a society: A “greater good” beyond individual grievance? Global leadership? Moral values? As Robert D. Kaplan recent wrote in The National Interest (by no means a liberal publication), “[Trump] has also, with his calls for protectionism and a narrowly defined American self-interest, voided American foreign policy of any real, uplifting purpose – another sure sign of decline.” We are, in short, a country losing its way morally, one wallowing wholly in self-interest.
Whatever Trumpism’s underlying themes of racial, sexual and economic resentments, Trump has chosen trade, immigration and the demise of extractive industries as his chisels to break apart American society precisely because, while these have generated tremendous gains for the U.S. as a whole, they produce a subset who pay the price for the overall advance. Morality – as well as a practical regard for political reality and social peace – suggests that some of the gains of progress be redistributed to its victims; this might, in fact, be regarded as the core of “progressivism.” But as Democrats have become the “Party of the Ascendant,” those left behind by the world economy – largely older, white, religious, conservative males with lower levels of education living in rural or exurban areas – don’t seem all that appealing, or deserving of solicitousness, to “progressives” nowadays. In lieu of adequate solutions, Trumpism has been left to exploit the resulting unfairness and resentment to tear down both broader progress and all social cohesion.
This is exemplified in the current polarization over guns, as well, a point brought home by a Douglas High School student, Emma Gonzalez. Toward the end of her fiery speech with its refrain, “We call B.S.,” Gonzalez observed that the position of gun advocates appears to be that their rights to own guns outweigh children’s right to live. This has been a recurrent liberal argument since the Parkland shootings – but liberals ought to be wary of assertions that all rights must be balanced against other concerns: The rights to a fair trial, or against cruel and unusual punishment, or to free speech simply are not outweighed by governmental exigency or others’ sensitivities. Nonetheless, as I wrote after these shootings, most of us recognize and voluntarily concede non-governmental restraints on our rights in order to live in, and help produce, a functioning society with others. It’s called decency.
What’s striking about the gun debate today is the absolute unwillingness to seek the kinds of compromise necessary to a society, as opposed to an unwilling collection of individuals. We are no longer interested in anyone else’s perspective or anyone else’s rights. As Gonzalez summed up the situation, dismissively, “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!”
This phenomenon isn’t helped by Trump’s suddenly announcing that, as on so many other issues, the answer is to empower his own id and worry about constitutional rights later, if at all. We actually don’t need a Great Leader who believes that He Alone can solve our problems as a society – although that is an appealing solution to a growing, and scary, number of Americans. Rather, we need a society willing to solve its problems as a society.
It’s increasingly clear that we no longer live in such a world. We increasingly live, rather, in neighborhoods where no one disagrees, read news that doesn’t challenge our views, select our own definition of truth like we do our own music, and never have to adjust our preferences to those of anyone else. Neither politics, governments nor countries as we know them will last in such an environment. The question is whether such concepts as common good, or compromise, will.
At the end of each year, I write a think-piece about the state of the world and where things are headed. This year, I was asked to write a longer disquisition than usual by Aspenia, the Aspen Institute’s European journal.
That’s now out and you can read the full version – Welcome to the History of the Future – below, but if you don’t want to plough through all of it, here’s the “Reader’s Digest” version: Despite Francis Fukuyama’s famous pronouncement 30 years ago that we’d reached The End of History, “history is back with a vengeance.” Unlike in the past, “[t]he relevant battles, however, will no longer be those between the public and private sectors, or between one nation-state and another: they will be a contest between the virtual or territorial, cooperative or extractive, consensual or coercive, and connected or chaotic.”
Over the last decade, the economy has slowly transformed into one where “clean” cognitive-based industries have mostly banished “dirty” extractive industries and mechanically-oriented work; traditional gender roles and sexual norms have been overturned; formal apartheid has been crushed; liberal internationalism has been declared the only global social system; and traditional warfare (at least between developed countries) has been largely abandoned. It’s shocking to see all that suddenly falling apart at the very moment of its seemingly-unchallenged ascendancy – only if you don’t notice that that’s pretty much how history works. Liberalism is today’s spent force, while reaction is seemingly in the ascendance.
Nonetheless, the very developments driving this crisis pose serious long-term challenges to the alternatives to open, liberal, democratic societies, as well. The crisis of faith across the world is driven by emergent technologies and their attendant double-edged challenges. These will only accelerate in the next decade or two…. The ultimate resolution will likely produce new forms of government, economics and social organization as different from today’s as our world is from the Middle Ages. No one yet knows what these will look like.
How should we respond to this reactionary moment? As I wrote recently in US News & World Report, I spent a good part of 2017 meeting and talking with opposition figures from such repressive countries: Russia, Turkey, Venezuela. One of them – Andrés Miguel Rondón from Venezuela – wrote an article in The Washington Post, “To beat President Trump, you have to learn to think like his supporters,” that everyone should read. As Andrés forcefully concludes, “Trump’s solutions may be imaginary, but the problems are very real indeed…. Showing concern is the only way to break the rhetorical polarization.” I elaborated on this in How to Stop Creeping Authoritarianism:
I would reframe Andrés’ argument in one respect: It’s not a matter of “showing concern” – like George H.W. Bush’s infamous pronouncement, “Message: I care” – where it’s obvious that it’s simply a message and you don’t. Rather, it’s a matter of actually caring.
Liberals and progressives think that by definition they care; like some sort of GEICO ad, “it’s what they do.” But the prototypical liberal response to the challenges of the changing world – train people for jobs more like yours, tell them to relocate to places like where you live, and end their benighted existence by forcibly imposing on them better values more like your own – is by no stretch “caring.” … Rather, as I noted here a few weeks ago, that’s always been the program imperialists impose on the conquered. Since when have progressives ever thought that morally defensible?
Simply attacking Trump and ridiculing his policies is insufficient. You can say all you want that Trump is lying about bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs – it will have no effect: His voters already know this. People aren’t stupid: They know he’s lying. They like that he cares enough to do so – to pay attention to and respect their concerns, and elevate them to the center of his agenda. That’s certainly more than effete liberals do.
I’m not suggesting fighting disingenuousness with more disingenuousness – I’m suggesting the need for honest concern.
I then offered several economic policy prescriptions with which progressives can start – which you can read in the original – and concluded:
Trump hasn’t done and won’t do anything on any of these fronts — and the GOP certainly won’t, either. Instead of criticizing that — and ridiculing voters for not “getting” it — there’s a better solution: Do something about it.
That is, if, as a so-called progressive, you honestly do care.
As always, I welcome your comments below.
My pieces last year on:
Eric B. Schnurer
In the past year, the future has come into sharper focus. And it turns out, the future is … history. A quarter century ago, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that we had reached “The End of History,” with “history” defined as an age-old struggle between repression and freedom, exemplified by liberal democracy, free markets, and human rights. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, both the ideal and reality of freedom had triumphed, and the historic struggle of humanity was completed.
Now, it seems, history is back with a vengeance. The forces of authoritarianism, state-backed economic extraction, and violent intolerance are riding high, both across the globe and in an America that – at least in the Obama years – fancied itself as the liberal paradigm of the future. But the seeds of this seemingly-overnight reversal actually were sown well in advance, and the same, interrelated changes in technology, economics and ideologies mean that the age-old struggle continues. The relevant battles, however, will no longer be those between the public and private sectors, or between one nation-state and another: they will be a contest between the virtual or territorial, cooperative or extractive, consensual or coercive, and connected or chaotic. Welcome to the “history” of the future.
A NEW HOPE (AND CHANGE). Not so long ago, but in a country seemingly far, far away, the United States was a relatively homogenous place. It was not uniform, but it was relatively intermixed economically, socially, and politically (except, of course, in matters of race). Barack Obama’s 2008 election was not so much a departure, however, as the culmination of a large number of long-term demographic, political and economic transformations.
For the better part of a century, the Democratic Party had been the “Party of the People,” representing the interest of working class Americans against the more business-oriented Republicans; it was also a “big tent” party, embracing the disparate interests of conservative Southern whites, prairie populists, urban industrial workers, and, increasingly, racial minorities. (Even the Republicans were somewhat more heterodox than today, encompassing a large number of liberals, particularly on race, as well as far-right fringe elements.) But by a generation ago, Americans were beginning to sort themselves more rigidly by geography, with entire regions and even states largely devoid of one political party or the other. The same was true for such other socioeconomic factors as industrial composition, income distribution, religiosity, and lifestyle, all of which grew highly polarized and segregated by geography. Even while the nation grew remarkably more diverse racially and ethnically, it remained geographically polarized.
By the time of Obama’s election, the Democrats had been remade as a party of coastal, urban, well-educated, multicultural, and well-heeled elites. In contrast, and since Richard Nixon’s day, Republicans had been courting the white working class with appeals to a combination of economic, religious, cultural, and thinly-veiled (if that) racial anxieties. Whatever the emotional appeal, however, this Republican strategy didn’t produce any real support for “anti-government” policies favoring the elite – something Republican leaders didn’t realize until the Donald Trump phenomenon was upon them (and apparently still don’t realize now). The stage was set for both parties to lose their working class base – the Democrats to desertion, the Republicans to a hostile takeover. Moreover, while this analysis focuses on US politics, essentially the same can be said about developments elsewhere.
THE EMPIRES STRIKE BACK. The rising right-wing populism and authoritarian politics worldwide have engendered a continuing debate over whether these are driven by racism and other cultural concerns “or” by economics. In truth, these factors are intertwined.
For nearly two generations, the economy has been moving away from skilled human labor, shifting to cognitive skills at one end of the spectrum and unskilled or, increasingly, non-human labor (a product of the cognitive-skill industries) at the other. Over this period, manufacturing regions have been hollowed out and essentially isolated in country after country – just as agricultural regions were during the Industrial Revolution. Those regions connected to this new cognitive economy have prospered, become more ethnically and culturally diverse, and grown closer together while tearing away from their traditional hinterlands. It is as if the continents had been rearranged – just not physically. Economic inequality between countries has been decreasing. But economic inequality within countries – virtually everywhere – has increased.
And all that was before the Great Recession. The Great Recession was this century’s equivalent of the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth or Great War of the early twentieth – the shattering of the world order. Despite growing inequities, the post-Cold War world still supposed a meritocratic social contract under which those at the top at least cared about, and acted in the interests of, those below. The Great Recession destroyed what faith remained in that social contract: the elites – political, social and economic – not only acted in their own venal interest (both in bringing about the crisis and then in bailing themselves out at everyone else’s expense), but they also demonstrated that, when it came to running the world, they didn’t know what they were doing.
THREATENING DEVELOPMENTS. Not surprisingly, those on the outer fringes of these developments have viewed them as running counter to their interests; they see that those people benefiting from these developments (the elites) and their institutions – political, economic, cultural – decreasingly responsive to their needs. Democratic participation has been falling everywhere for some time, along with faith in government, the media, educational institutions, science, and even the idea of truth itself.
The technological changes underlying these developments are notably bringing radical disintermediation to virtually every industry. This makes the current technological revolution different from those of the past, which were centralizing and hierarchical. (The closest comparison might be the invention of moveable type, which made diffusion of knowledge less costly and more widespread, and eventually led to widespread translation of religious texts into the vulgate, the Protestant Reformation, the attendant birth of the nation-state, and the emergence of modern democracy.) Not only is such across-the-board disintermediating, democratizing, and distributing technology laying waste to industries (from publishing, broadcasting and music to real estate, retailing and finance), it is also necessarily changing the nature of wealth, war, and work – not to mention all forms of authority, including those related to expertise, or truth and meaning. It is erasing lines we have long drawn to make sense of our world, between the physical and ephemeral, ourselves and others, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, here and there.
Of course this is threatening to many. It has engendered a reaction: people are seeking refuge in strong states, territorial bulwarks, traditional values, ethnic demarcations, and even extractive (place-specific, non-virtual, low-cognitive) industries. Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy, an increasingly-statist China, and the resurgent theocracy of isis have all been held out over the past decade as competitive alternatives, even by many in the West. Authoritarian leaders and parties, riding the wave of working class anger, have seized power and entered government around the world. Trump’s shredding of democratic norms, his administration’s promotion of an ethno-state with impermeable borders, and his abdication of global leadership to Chinese and Russian expansionism, it’s the Indian Summer of empire.
RETURN OF THE JEDI? Serious contradictions abound in this rising global reaction, however. Phillip Bobbitt has observed that “terrorism” in every age is simply the mirror image of the corresponding state structure it opposes. Today, the contending alternatives to the emergent power structures of the twenty-first century all reflect the “New World Order” they ostensibly oppose.
The rebellion against globalism is, in fact, global; the counter-revolution against connectedness is connected. The worldview and underlying economic realities of angry young jihadists, aspiring neo-Soviets, Euro-skeptics, and militant alt-right extremists in the United States are not only all remarkably similar, they are also all quite aware of that. Indeed, they are slowly joining in common cause. The contest thus is hardly between the globally-connected and the parochial – it’s between two emerging global parties.
The “alt” groupings, moreover, are not necessarily politically authoritarian (although they are decidedly anti-liberal and at best apathetic about democracy). Like the radical democratizing and distributed nature of the emerging technologies underlying all this, those who oppose the global direction of recent decades tend toward decentralization and libertarianism as much as the fascism of the past. As has been widely observed, Trump needs his followers more than they need him, and the vast bulk of them seem just as aware as his opponents that he’s a hollow fakir. They don’t empower him for his views, but because he empowers theirs. In many ways, then, the anti-elite movements today – radically democratizing and globally connected groups that reject all leaders and institutions – reflect those very technologies that are shaping the world of the future and against which they are rebelling.
In fact, the strong statists are only hastening the decay of nation-states against which they’re reacting. This is evidenced in the still-simmering subnational revolts in the uk, across Europe, and in both multiethnic democracies and autocracies in the developing world including in Russia and China. Nor is the us immune: “Progressive” states and cities are already increasingly bucking the federal government, both domestically and on the international stage. In this era of discontent, the discontentment hardly stops with the state.
THE FORCE AWAKENS. The European elite has satisfied itself that this post-recession populist nationalism is receding. American liberals similarly console themselves with the belief that Trump cannot possibly win re-election with such abysmal approval ratings (they believe he only won to begin with because of our quirky electoral college system). But this is dubious: Trump’s base is unwavering in its support, while the demographics that most oppose him – the young and minorities – tend not to vote. And there’s an old saying in urban American politics, “You can’t beat someone with no one”; right now the opposition has no one. Not only is there no Democratic contender with the stature, gravitas, appeal and message necessary to improve upon Hillary Clinton’s electoral performance – there is no real Democratic raison d’etre.
In part, that’s because the late-twentieth century progressive program has largely triumphed. Over the last decade, the economy has slowly transformed into one where “clean” cognitive-based industries have mostly banished “dirty” extractive industries and mechanically-oriented work; traditional gender roles and sexual norms have been overturned; formal apartheid has been crushed; liberal internationalism has been declared the only global social system; and traditional warfare (at least between developed countries) has been largely abandoned. It’s shocking to see all that suddenly falling apart at the very moment of its seemingly-unchallenged ascendancy – only if you don’t notice that that’s pretty much how history works. Liberalism is today’s spent force, while reaction is seemingly in the ascendance.
Nonetheless, the very developments driving this crisis pose serious long-term challenges to the alternatives to open, liberal, democratic societies, as well. The crisis of faith across the world is driven by emergent technologies and their attendant double-edged challenges. These will only accelerate in the next decade or two. Advances creating new industries and occupations that generate tremendous wealth for many will also render obsolete large swaths of professions beyond the blue-collar jobs that have so far borne the brunt of change. Capital and credit will become easier to obtain and new ventures easier to launch, while the gains from these will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a limited few who own the algorithms that represent the new capital. The returns on other labor are likely to decline. Ubiquitous distributed technologies will make it easier for anti-liberal forces to penetrate and “hack” connected, open societies, transforming the nature and territory of conflict. At the same time, it will become easier for individuals to undermine oppressive, centralized systems and regimes and to form their own communities of choice.
THE FUTURE OF HISTORY. The ultimate resolution will likely produce new forms of government, economics and social organization as different from today’s as our world is from the Middle Ages. No one yet knows what these will look like. Hopefully – whether virtual or territorial – the cooperative will prevail over the extractive, the consensual over the coercive, and the connected over the chaotic.
What is certain, however, is that history is only just getting going again.
I’m back at the writing – and back in the USA – after a trip to Paris to moderate two panels on the recent French elections: one on “A Whole New France and Whole New World – Politics in the Age of Populism,” with political consultants from France, the US, Russia and Turkey; the other, called “Under Fire: What Role Did the Media Play in Shaping Opinion?,” with leading French journalists.
While there, I was interviewed by the head of the French foreign correspondents’ association, Fabrice Pozzoli-Montenay, about my own take on France’s elections. This led to my piece published this morning in US News & World Report. Here’s the main argument:
Most commentators, both in France and here in the US, have taken the results as an indication that the global anti-global movement has crested…. I think reports of the demise of global disruption are premature.
What will remain true regardless of who becomes France’s next president, however, is that the two parties that have traditionally dominated French politics have imploded[:] only one-quarter of voters sided with the two major parties combined.
The success of both Macron and Le Pen – whose “party” is actually more like a “movement” resembling Trump’s – casts into doubt not simply the viability of the two long-time major parties but, even more so, of parties generally: Political parties very well might be headed the way of newspapers, TV networks, record manufacturers, hotels, cab companies and countless other “authorities” and industry incumbents that were undermined or rendered obsolete by new technologies that make it possible to unbundle services, democratize their provision, and allow consumers to assemble their own personal bundles. Just as people are increasingly their very own news sources – both as consumers and producers – so, pretty soon, might everyone be able more-or-less to form their own platform and political party, or at least a party of one, that can merge with or secede from others at will….
The US political system – with its “first past the post” allocation of offices – militates against party fragmentation, let alone such “micro-parties,” and in favor of a stable two-party system, in a way that Continental parliamentary systems do not. Otherwise, does anyone doubt that Americans already would be deserting both the Democratic and Republican parties in droves? But such grassroots unrest is something that both parties are already experiencing, with little idea of how to address. [I]t very well may be … that the aggregating and mediating function of parties is just another casualty of the atomizing and polarizing force of the new technologies on society as we have known it.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump passed the 100-day milestone in his presidency. I was asked by Aspenia to comment on this from the perspective technology and the economy. The piece explores themes I’ve address repeatedly in the past year or so concerning the rising global disenchantment with the kinds of economic and social disruptions caused by the new digital economy – disenchantment that has led to the rise of Trump, Le Pen and other right-wing populist/nationalist politicians worldwide. But I believe this is only the opening phase of a larger political realignment:
As it turns out, the information industry is just as extractive as prior economies: In an interesting little book, Platform Capitalism, the British Marxist economist Nick Srnicek observes that data turn out to be simply another natural resource that our newer technologies have figured out how to extract, and how to extract value from, not unlike mining, oil drilling or agriculture before them. Meanwhile, like manufacturing, these IT industries are focused on how best to increase per-worker productivity and substitute capital for labor whenever possible. In a few years’ time, the jobs being lost to technology will be not only those of former blue-collar manufacturing workers – they also will include those of many who now consider themselves riding the crest of the New Economy wave, from Uber drivers replaced by self-driving cars to radiologists replaced by AI to composers and authors replaced by hit-producing bots. Many current Hillary voters will be joining the disgruntled Bernie and Trump supporters who see the Titans of Information as their threat.
Meanwhile, these Titans, despite their seemingly liberal politics, are proving little different from other Titans of Industry. They’re already finding common ground with the traditionally Republican wings of the Republican Congress and Trump Administration: They recently joined to repeal Obama-era prohibitions on reselling individuals’ online search histories – and just days ago the Administration unveiled its plan to eliminate Obama’s “net neutrality” rules, so that big players can further dominate the Internet. In the words of that noted political philosopher Peter Townsend: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Both the Disruption, and the Resistance, are just beginning.
You can read the full pieces here:
As always, I welcome your comments below!
It’s hard to believe we’re only three weeks into the Trump Administration. In that time, I’ve written three articles assessing how we got here and where we’re going; I’ll summarize the thrust here, but I hope you’ll follow the links to the articles and give them a read in the original to get the full argument. (That also helps my “metrics” and keeps my editors happy!)
On Inauguration Day, I published a piece originating in a conversation a few days earlier with my friend, Jimmy Cauley. Jimmy was the campaign manager for an obscure state legislator in Illinois who was elected to the US Senate in 2004, named Barrack Obama. Jimmy has been saying for a long time a lot of the same things for which J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, has been celebrated in the last year (except Jimmy’s a whole lot funnier). The conversation reminded me of a piece I’d written when Obama was elected president; I’ve raised similar warnings since about Democrats’ failure to address the concerns of white working class Americans. But I was surprised, when I went back and reread my 2008 diatribe, by the Republican response that year that completely foreshadowed the Trump message “by redefining who has been in charge”:
It really hasn’t been George Bush, the largely Republican Congresses, or the 7-2 Republican majority on the Supreme Court – it’s been a national elite of “cosmopolitan” types (you know, highly-educated, diverse, globally mobile)….
Of course, resentment of elites has a long history in America. What has changed, however, is that those who might have felt “bitter” about being left behind by the new economy in prior ages – Jacksonian Era frontiersmen, Southern planters and Western ranchers, underpaid workers in Pennsylvania steel mills or West Virginia coal mines – all voted Democratic, and the Democratic Party was unrepentantly proud to speak for them. Today, the Democratic Party increasingly consists of the well-educated, the worldly, the owners of the keys to the economy of the future – and it is at risk of losing interest in helping those it sees as “bitter,” unfathomably ungrateful, and not just inferior but frightening.
You can read the full discussion in The More Things Change.
Many fear a fascist takeover driven by such demagogic reaction. In Make America Hollow, I argue that “[t]he Americas Bannon and Trump envision are depressing, but not totalitarian: One is illiberal but not necessarily authoritarian, the other authoritarian but not necessarily illiberal. Both lead to a society embodying not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality.”
Bannon’s conformism is not that of Stalin’s Russia, but of the roughly-contemporary Peyton Place; his vision of America is one – socially, economically, politically, religiously – out of an idealized 1950s…. Matt Bai paints a similarly dispiriting picture in a recent piece asserting that Trump – like other contemporary demagogues – is less Orwell’s 1984, with its “vision of fascist repression,” and more Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, “with [its] trivial, substanceless society.”
Where Trump and Bannon come together “is not the creation of a fascist state, but rather the opposite: The hollowing out of the state as a viable institution.” That, of course, is a subject I write about frequently. Please read the whole piece for more.
Like all demagoguery, much of Trumpism is driven by misrepresentation. Rather predictably, President Trump has chosen a Supreme Court nominee who claims to be guided by the intent of the Framers; as the apparently-rare liberal who actually agrees with conservatives that the Constitution must be “strictly construed” according to “the intent of the Framers,” I’ve got news for them: That doesn’t mean what they think it means.
[T]he Constitution has been amended many times – sometimes in fashions that dramatically changed its meaning. For all intents and purposes, the post-Civil War 14th Amendment represents a new Constitution, fundamentally altering the balance of power between the states and the federal government. It’s debatable that all those 18th-Century guys in white wigs, whom self-described patriots today like to single out, believed in a largely denuded federal government – the motive for many, like Alexander Hamilton, in creating the Constitution was precisely the opposite – but the 19th-Century Framers of the 14th Amendment clearly did not.
You can read the full discussion at A Constitutional Reality Check.
Easy links in this update:
As always, I welcome your comments below!
This week saw President Barack Obama’s formal farewell – and further revelations about what Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Donald Trump portends for the future.
In A Legacy of Hope but Modest Change, published in the Aspen Institute’s Aspenia Online, I tried to provide a balanced assessment of Obama’s tenure, focusing on, in my view, the “two defining accomplishments of Obama’s presidency,” his response to the financial crisis of 2008, and Obamacare.
In the stimulus, as in everything to follow, Obama was intelligent yet uninspired. Most economists, and certainly those amongst Obama’s own advisors, argued for an even larger stimulus than the one he ultimately embraced; the “small-c conservative” argument – advocating caution because of political difficulties – prevailed with him then, as it did often thereafter.
But Obama also “left the details of the stimulus to Congress – which promptly loaded it up with pork-barrel spending,” which “debased the entire concept to the public, reduced its economic efficacy, and in fact resulted in a lot of waste. It also meant that, despite the administration’s own mantra of not wasting a crisis as a chance to accomplish major change, the stimulus package became merely a huge but uninteresting example of textbook Keynesian economics in action rather than a truly transformative event.”
Most crucially, the Great Recession was not simply the bursting of a speculative bubble: It represented a “phase transition” from the booming late-20th century economy to the new economy of the 21st century, which will eliminate large numbers of existing occupations and life-paths – like the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, except at about ten times the speed. … Obama’s stimulus plan reflected his understanding of the importance of this new economy, but his obliviousness to the fact that it was not an unalloyed good, in that half the country essentially would be obsolesced by it in their own lifetimes, caught between a recovery that would not reach them and a future that would not include them. The foundations for the coming, deepening division – and the politics of 2016 – had been laid.
A similar pattern followed with Obamacare:
[T]he main problem with Obama’s push was that it took his eye off the only ball that should have mattered at that point – the negligible economic recovery…. Ultimately, as with the stimulus, Obama did not care as much about the details as about making the history books. But the massive reform gave fodder to Middle Americans who believed they were being asked to pay for Obama’s (and liberals’) greater interest in the poor. Again, the battle lines of 2016 were already forming.
So, what comes next? “The recent news sounds basically like a technologically-updated version of a Cold War-era political pulp thriller,” I wrote in Putin’s War on Information in US News: “The evil Ruskies undertake espionage and disinformation efforts to create a chaotic American election, spend years cultivating a useful stooge easily manipulated by flattery, greed and sex to help spread divisive views about US foreign policy, and then along the way suddenly realize they actually might get him elected president. All of this, however, concerning as it is, is neither novel – unless it turns out that Trump was actually colluding with Russia all last year – nor, even then, the real threat.” So what is the real threat? Putin’s desire
to return to a world predating the New Economy with its increasingly-liberal political norms and social mores … (the unconfirmed private intelligence reports underlying the latest Trump revelations assert that Russia’s “TRUMP operation should be seen in terms of PUTIN’s desire to return to Nineteenth Century ‘Great Power’ politics anchored upon countries’ interests rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War Two”)….
Putin has marketed his regime as the defender of traditional social values (including religious fundamentalism and vehement opposition to homosexuality), traditional national prerogatives, and traditional (heavy) industrial economies – more-or-less a return to the Good Old Days of the 1950s. … Does this sound familiar? Of course it does.
What Putin has realized, more than anyone else, is that this hated New Economy rests entirely on the ubiquity of information, and that is its point of weakness. Putin’s war on information – and, unfortunately, it’s not his alone – is a wager, like many before, that there’s a thin line between liberalism and chaos. Those are the stakes at issue here.
You can read the full analysis by clicking on the article titles above. Meanwhile, buckle your seatbelts.
As usual, I welcome you comments below!
In the two weeks since Election Day, I’ve been trying to explain to various audiences what I think it all meant. Just before the polls closed that evening, I moderated a panel of experts from a half-dozen countries on what the election would mean for the rest of the world. As I discuss in a piece out today in US News & World Report, “The New Old Nationalism,” the Russian pollster on the panel
made an interesting comment to me in advance of our session: Russian citizens have more sympathy to Trump, he said, because he is an “American nationalist, not globalist.” Not that long ago, “an America nationalist” would have been a damning epithet coming from the Kremlin, basically a longer version of the word “imperialist.” Now, it’s … something that both foreigners and “conservative” Americans alike embrace[:] They see global economic and social integration as … a perversion of the rightful natural order, in which different peoples hold discreet territories, separated by walls.
… All of this – the tribalism, the illiberalism, the eternal struggle – its proponents would say, is simple realism. It is, in any event, the “alt” view of the future that the 2016 elections (and those coming in 2017) are elevating to global policy. I believe that, in the long-run, it’s a view that will lose. But in the long-run, we’re all dead.
One of my greatest regrets about 2016 is an article I didn’t write: When I returned from a European conference in May at which the dynamic duo of Kristina Wilfore and Stephanie Berger presented polling data on attitudes toward women, I began to write a piece predicting that misogyny would become the central fact of this campaign. My editors persuaded me to split the resulting diatribe into two parts, one of which became the first of several I’d write on how Hillary Clinton needed to overcome some of this by addressing the concerns of white working class men – but the argument on the coming wave of misogyny got sidelined, at least during the campaign. After the piece I wrote a few weeks ago complaining that discussions of “morality” have been largely hijacked by the subject of “sex,” the folks at Aspenia asked me to expand the argument for an issue on “Women & Power”; an abridged version was published online yesterday in Italian – until the English version is published, you’ll have to make do with this synopsis, building off Newt Gingrich’s outburst late in the campaign to Megyn Kelly: “You are fascinated with sex, and you don’t care about public policy”:
But the description – fascinated with sex, don’t care about public policy – might best fit the American public as a whole. One major subtext of the 2016 election has been sex and America’s ambivalent relationship with it…. Issues involving women and power – whether political leadership, their broader place in society, or their preponderance on the receiving end of all forms of violence from the physical to economic exploitation and poverty – aren’t really about whether they are strong or intelligent or emotionally stable enough to lead others or to protect themselves. They are, rather, about women’s position as gatekeepers of men’s access to the reproductive process – and sex – and men’s desire to wrest away that control for themselves.
In case all this leaves you unduly depressed headed into Thanksgiving – at least, any more so than most people I know already are – I argued in my main assessment of the election itself that you shouldn’t be, although not perhaps for the reasons most people might think:
Yes, there are some authoritarian, reactionary people amongst both Trump’s supporters and his advisers – but that’s not the majority, amongst either them or the rest of the American public. So put on your big-boy pants….
The future belongs to the decline of the nation-state. That sounds just as scary to liberals as it does to the reactionary, anti-globalist “nationalists” of Trumpworld. The real challenge for progressives is whether greater equity can be created within, not ignoring, this reality. Trump’s victory ironically provides the opportunity to explore the possibilities today rather than, as would otherwise be the case, sometime later this century in (as I described here just before Election Day) an even more troubled environment.
You can read the full piece, “Party Will Be Irrelevant,” here. As always, I welcome your comments. Meanwhile, a Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Which will it be?
Veterans of campaign work know that the slowest day of the year is, ironically, Election Day with its long wait for the results. For those of you counting the hours to poll closure, standing at a polling place waiting for voters to show up, or simply trying to find someone with exit-poll results or the latest turn-out rumors, here’s some reading material to while away the time. My last pre-election piece ran Friday in US News, and, in it, I pulled together my thinking over the past year on the future of government, the Trump phenomenon, Brexit, my visits to six countries and meeting political leaders from several more, and evolving technologies. If you want to know what happens starting tonight when the polls close, here’s my best guess:
Looking back at the turn of the 22nd century, the collapse of the nation-state system, which had existed for roughly 400 years, now seems obvious and long-overdue. But historians agree that the critical point, when the outcome went from unimaginable to unstoppable, was the disputed United State election of 2016, which ignited what has come to be known as the “Disunited States” Period.
Rumblings had been coming for decades: The collapse of empires throughout the 20th century. The increasing frequency and severity of global financial crises. The rise of nonstate challengers to the major states. And the geometric growth of technologies that simultaneously undermined the two defining elements of the “modern” nation-state – control over (1) the monopoly of force, and (2) a defined geographic territory.
Together, these changes had opened up a wide cleavage between two broad classes globally, cutting across traditional national borders: the so-called “Globopolitans” – sometimes denounced in the ensuing wars as the “elites,” but really people of all economic backgrounds in the interconnected global metropolitan centers, where incomes generally were rising – and “Remnants” of the less globally integrated regions of every continent, whether within single countries (like the interior of the former United States) or across multiple countries (like the Middle East or Horn of Africa). Differences in income levels between countries had narrowed – but incomes within them severely diverged worldwide. Globopolitans, regardless of location, saw a world of opportunity growing ever wealthier and more equitable; the Remnants saw a world of stagnation, widening unfairness and, perhaps as importantly, “cultural extermination” due to post-modern global change.
Remnants believed their salvation lay in eradication of this globalist threat through a return to earlier cultural, economic and national structures. They failed to recognize, at least initially, the twin ironies of their anti-globalist grievances: This actually connected them with similarly aggrieved peoples globally – the gods they worshiped and cultures they defended may have differed, but the worldviews were much the same. And it triggered the ultimate destruction of the traditional “nations” on which their traditionalist ideological agenda became increasingly fixated.
Working class revolt, fueling populist politics of both left- and right-wing varieties, simmered across Europe and other regions to a lesser extent in the wake of the global financial crisis that struck in 2008, but the first clear flare was the surprise “Brexit” vote in Britain to leave the European Union in mid-2016. This was hailed as the triumph of traditionalist, nationalist values over a condescending globalist elite – but it led in quick succession to the break-up of first the United Kingdom, then of England itself: Globopolitan London jettisoned the anti-globalist regions holding it back, pegged its currency to the American dollar and reunited informally with Scotland, Wales and Ireland to rejoin the European economy. In many ways, this presaged the (typically) larger and more violent developments in America.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election was widely perceived to be the nastiest in well over a century, with underlying themes of fraying racial, sexual, religious and national identity. But most historians today ascribe the uprising, and ensuing crack-up, to the tectonic economic forces described above.
The actual winner of that election was lost to the historical record in the disorder that followed. But we do know that the results were so close that they triggered months of unrest, refusal to accept defeat by the losing side and bitter paralysis of the government. In a notable departure from the country’s long-standing norms, both presidential contenders were subjected to post-election prosecution and ended up jailed. A deep, worldwide recession resulted, exacerbating the underlying tensions even further.
If you want to know what “happened” after that … click here to read the rest of the piece. Whatever you do, exercise your right as an American: Get out and vote! And as for the results, register your prediction below: Which tie will I being wearing on Wednesday?
Throughout the summer and fall, I’ve been trying to address the serious economic issues underlying the anxiety and anger dominating this year’s presidential campaign. I’ve gotten through some of these intended essays – you can read them in prior posts like The Future of Work and The Great Realignment. And I have a few more to share with you this week. But I keep getting interrupted by the campaign itself.
I know, we all say we don’t want to see anything more about this campaign – but we say that about all those car wrecks, too, don’t we? As I emailed my editors at US News & World Report last week when Donald Trump amped up his claims that the election was rigged: “I wish this guy would stop saying insane things so I could go back to writing about other subjects.”
In any event, I was impelled to dash off another fairly personal piece, revisiting my earlier days in government and law, fighting real election rigging. My conclusion:
[T]here’s always the threat of election cheating. But in our system (unlike, say, Russia’s), it’s thankfully rare. It’s not voters doing it. It’s not hordes of minorities voting illegally but, most often, large numbers of minorities being denied their right to vote legally. And to affect the presidential election outcome would require either a conspiracy larger than the entire U.S. Army, or a discreet, targeted area and a much closer vote count in a pivotal state than we are likely to see in Pennsylvania or any other state this year.
You can read the full argument in The Sorest Loser. But fortunately, before that, I was asked by the Aspen Institute to address the real costs and benefits of two of this year’s hot-button issues: trade and immigration. In the shorter, online piece, US economic dilemmas: immigration, inequality, trade and the budget, I argued that “The nationalism, nativism and xenophobia given voice by Donald Trump are understandable reactions to the global changes that are harming many working-class Americans. They are not, however, intelligent responses to them. That’s because they miss the real problems driving employment and wage declines for (essentially) non-college-educated, white males outside the country’s thriving coastal economies.”
[T]he real challenge from global trade comes not so much from the existence of cheaper labor abroad as from US companies moving jobs there to take advantage of it. Both nominees this year offer unsatisfying solutions to this problem. Trump has claimed, to great fanfare, that he will simply prohibit firms from doing so. How? By fiat? By turning the US into a business gulag from which companies are prohibited to escape? Not happening. Clinton starts down the more promising path of tax reform to change incentives and “claw back” some of the advantages in abandoning American workers – but her “exit tax” is unwieldy, limited, and unlikely to help. Instead, there is an older and simpler approach: taxing all revenue earned from Americans and crediting companies for all investments – plant and equipment or wages and benefits – made in Americans.
Read the full piece for the policy details. Meanwhile, the longer piece I wrote for the print journal Aspenia expands on this discussion and also addresses the related subject of immigration. You can read the full piece, Facts and Myths on Immigration, below. But here’s the “money quote,” combining several points I’ve been making the last few months:
[T]he real problem confronting the disenchanted voters flocking to Trump’s anti-immigration banner is not immigration…. These angry voters … are not “conservative” and they’re not anti-government, and that’s why traditional Republican leaders have lost them to Trump (who advocates an activist government that protects entitlements – not, unlike, say, Juan Peron). They want government – just for themselves.
But then how does America pay for these expensive programs as the retired population grows? Well, unlike virtually any other country, we can – and will – grow our workforce, increase the number of young workers supporting each retiree, provide more low-cost caregivers for the aging population, increase the level of economic activity through innovation, and generate higher tax revenues to pay for it. What’s the secret weapon?
As always, I would love to know your thoughts. Feel free to leave your comments below.
by Eric B. Schnurer
(From print journal Aspenia)
Colorado – besides being home to the Aspen Institute, Aspenia’s parent organization – is a beautiful state spread across the high plains that ramp slowly up to mile-high Denver, its capital and largest city, and then into the majestic Rocky Mountains heaving upward and hurtling downward again for hundreds of miles westward. There’s a saying in Colorado politics: A developer is someone who wants to build his mountain cabin this year; an environmentalist is someone who built his mountain cabin last year.
The allure of the American Dream and the desire to close the door behind oneself once attaining it are two sides of the same coin. Americans have long prided themselves on being a country of immigrants – and have for just as long feared immigration and attempted to shut it off for those coming next. Most Americans today would find it surprising to hear that there once was tremendous opposition to, and prejudice against, such newly-arriving supposed-undesirables as (more or less in order) Germans, Irish, Italians, other Southern Europeans, and Slavs. On the West Coast, in particular, an influx of Chinese immigrants to work the railroads and goldmines of California fanned anti-Chinese hostility. Jews, of course, were objects of fear and enmity throughout the great immigrant waves after the 1848 European revolutions and the years leading up to the Russian revolution. In World War II, Japanese-American citizens were herded into concentration camps over misplaced fears about their loyalty.
All prior waves of immigration, which made the US what it is today, were met by strident political reactions. In the 1850s, an expressly anti-immigrant party was formed, calling itself the American Party, but it is better known to history as “the Know Nothings”: Party members were instructed to say they “know nothing” about the secretive group when asked – leaving a legacy of “Know-Nothingism” that serves as a recurrent and apt epithet in the US to this day for those with similar views. It has been reflected throughout the nation’s history in immigration restrictions aimed at arrivals of particular ethnicities and nationalities, based on assertions that their religious and cultural differences made them a threat to the nation’s values and precluded assimilation, or that they were taking jobs from “real Americans.”
Obviously, such attitudes continue today. A poll just before the Republican convention this past summer found that most white Americans were skeptical of immigration – as were Hispanic Americans, the longer they had been in the US: the same urge to close the open door behind oneself.
Nevertheless, the US today is the greatest nation of immigrants in the world, with 47 million – roughly 20 percent of the world’s immigrant population. (The US immigrant population roughly doubles if you include birthright citizens – immigrants’ children, lawful or not, born on US soil – a status that the US and Canada, alone in the developed world, recognize.) Similarly-large, continental nations like India (2.3 percent), Brazil (0.8) and China (0.4) lag far behind – as do such countries in the news for their relative immigrant-friendliness as Germany (#2 in the world at 4.9 percent) and Canada (3.1). Most Americans learn as children the lines from the poem, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus – “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty in 1903, at the height of the country’s greatest immigration wave: It is a national point of pride.
And yet the argument persists in every generation: Are immigrants destroying America?
Like all ideological arguments, each side believes the statistics support the position they already hold. The data are fairly clear-cut, however, if a bit more nuanced than the usual black-and-white debate allows. Virtually all studies show that immigration boosts the economy, at least in the aggregate; in fact, the Congressional Budget Office found that the failed attempt at immigration reform a decade ago would have increased Gross Domestic Product by 1 percent per year and created an additional 3 million jobs by now.
But that’s in the aggregate. The argument about whether immigration undercuts wages for “real Americans” turns out to be more complicated: A Federal Reserve Bank economist found a slight increase in wages for professionals – but a slight decline (less than 1 percent) for manual workers. Another economist similarly found a decrease in wages among low-skilled workers – an effect that was stronger in cities where there were more immigrants and amongst workers with lower skills – but increased wages for high-skilled workers. Yet another study concluded that immigration raised wages of native-born Americans but reduced those of existing immigrants, because these new immigrants take the places of their predecessors.
In sum, immigration is a major driver of the US economy overall, and particularly in the vital technology start-up field: Immigrants found start-ups in America at a higher rate than the native born – although the percentage of Silicon Valley start-ups due to immigrants has declined markedly from a majority (52%) in the decade through 2005, to “only” 44% since then due to immigration restrictions. But the benefits – as with everything – are not uniform: The top of the pyramid benefits greatly; low-skilled workers – including other immigrants – suffer, however.
As for the largely non-economic arguments against immigration, though, there is scant evidence to support them. Do immigrants cause crime? The answer is a resounding “no,” at least as to violent crime; there is some evidence that immigration can be associated with a small amount of property crime – largely related to poverty – but its costs, at less than $1 billion annually, are dwarfed by the economic benefits. How about the specter of Islamic terrorism and the imposition of sharia law that haunts so many on the right? Muslims appear, in fact, to be more assimilation-oriented than most – with 70 percent becoming US citizens, compared with only 50 percent of other immigrants. A 2011 study by the Pew Foundation found Muslims to be “highly assimilated into American society,” with 80 percent expressing satisfaction with their adoptive country. The FBI says that it gets most of its tips about radical Muslims from … other Muslims.
In fact, it’s the exception that proves the rule: One community – a neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, known as “Little Mogadishu” – has produced one-quarter of all American recruits to ISIS; it is noteworthy for its poverty. On the whole, however, the Muslim community in America is quite comfortable: The Center for Immigration Studies – a non-partisan think tank whose board includes leading conservatives – reports that “Muslim immigrants of recent years boast exceptionally high levels of education” and that “Muslim Americans proudly say that theirs is ‘the richest Muslim society on Earth,’ and they are right; more than that, it may be the most accomplished.” In short, in the US Muslims are far more assimilated than in Europe – and have produced far fewer terror attacks and markedly fewer ISIS recruits, as a result. America’s assimilationist ideology in fact helps it.
So are Donald Trump’s angry supporters wrong to be angry? No – but their anger against immigrants is misplaced. Trump’s vote is heavily concentrated amongst older white men, particularly those with lower educational levels. This demographic feels itself under assault: Whites no longer dominate the country (although, in reality, they remain a majority and, even after slipping below majority status in another decade or so, will still make up by far the largest racial group in the country). Christians feel persecuted (although 83% of Americans self-identify as Christians and Americans are well-known as the most church-going population in the developed world). Men are losing out in the workplace (even though the top positions at the largest corporations are still overwhelmingly held by men).
Meanwhile, however, the economic position of these voters has stagnated and declined – and most rapidly in the last eight years since the advent of the Great Recession. So it is easy to see how the correlation of this decline with larger demographic and cultural changes – most obviously of all, the first black president, potentially to be succeeded by the first woman, book-ending the Supreme Court decision last year declaring gay marriage a constitutional right – provides an easy leap to causation. The fear these cultural changes are engendering are hardly unfathomable – or new: In his speech at the 1968 Republican Convention nominating Richard Nixon – upon whose campaign Trump is explicitly modeling his own – Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, declared, “We are a nation in crisis. Right now change rules America. It’s time for America to rule change.” But all these changes are themselves part of a larger tectonic global shift, of which non-Caucasians, immigrants, foreigners and even liberals are not the cause.
The angry working class is right to be angry about jobs and wages: Their jobs have been – and continue to be – threatened. But it’s not because a bunch of immigrants have come over here and taken those high-paying manufacturing jobs. It’s because those jobs, to the extent they still exist, have been shipped overseas. Yes, US jobs are threatened by lower-paid foreigners – but those abroad, not in the US. Trump even hinted at this in his apocalyptic acceptance speech at the Republican convention in July, when he declared that he not only would restrict immigration and renegotiate trade deals, but also would stop US companies from moving their operations abroad. Of course, it’s not entirely clear how he could do that – or what major corporate leaders, most of them Republicans, would say about such a thing.
American workers deserve a platform that combats their real problems. But the real problem confronting the disenchanted voters flocking to Trump’s anti-immigration banner is not immigration – after all, while relatively downscale, these are not the workers at the bottom whom the studies find losing out to low-paid immigrants – or even trade. It is the hemorrhaging of the former manufacturing jobs that paid relatively low-skilled and lightly-educated workers relatively well. Yes, renewed trade restrictions would drive back up some of the wages in these areas, at least in the short term – but they would hurt long-term demand for their products by reducing US access to foreign markets, and would increase the cost-of-living for Americans across the board. Again, trade benefits America in the aggregate; it nonetheless hurts many individual Americans. These workers would – and increasingly will – be coming out on the short end of the economic stick anyway, however, as the value of manufacturing jobs decays relative to other fields requiring newer skills and higher levels of education, and as businesses find themselves more able to substitute capital (in the form of technology and robotics), more cheaply, for workers.
So the world’s direction – as Trump portrays it – is indeed grim for these voters. But there’s one further challenge that the economically-threatened Americans drawn to Trump’s rhetoric face; fortunately, it’s one that America is uniquely positioned to overcome: As in all developed countries, the US faces a burgeoning fiscal problem over the next three decades as the older generation – the core of the Trump vote – enters its final, and extremely expensive, years. Conservatives generally call for meeting this challenge by cutting their expensive “entitlement” programs – mainly Social Security and Medicare. Good luck with that: It’s their own constituency now that depends on these programs – hence the Tea Party’s simultaneous demands for the federal government both to repeal Obamacare (which expanded health benefits to the poor and young) and to “keep its hands off” their Medicare: These angry voters – both in the US and in Europe – are not “conservative” and they’re not anti-government, and that’s why traditional Republican leaders have lost them to Trump (who advocates an activist government that protects entitlements – not, unlike, say, Juan Peron). They want government – just for themselves.
But then how does America pay for these expensive programs as the retired population grows? Well, unlike virtually any other country, we can – and will – grow our workforce, increase the number of young workers supporting each retiree, provide more low-cost caregivers for the aging population, increase the level of economic activity through innovation, and generate higher tax revenues to pay for it. What’s the secret weapon?
In the last three weeks, I’ve grown increasingly saddened about the state of American politics and have begun writing increasingly personal articles about it. These aren’t about policy issues – they’re about deeper concerns over the direction we’re headed.
In my last update, “My Old School“, I mentioned a piece I wrote about a recent visit to my old high school. This brought back memories of various student government battles from decades ago – the productive results of which were still visible decades later. As I wrote in that piece,
Back then, we talked across belief structures about real-world results – and, as a result, improved conditions for most of us…. In almost all cases, compromises were achieved based on practical realities, not dug-in positions, on even the most controversial issues. Adults and adolescents, jocks and nerds, overachievers and slackers – they all understood one basic fact: Like it or not, we were all there together.
The next week, in “A ‘Genius’ like Trump,” I addressed the New York Times story on Trump’s $917 million tax deduction. In my view, most commentators focused on the wrong aspects of this story. Sure, it’s rather shocking that anyone could run up a nearly $1 billion loss – in the casino industry! – and then claim that his business chops are his main qualification to be president. But there’s nothing wrong, let alone illegal, with writing off that loss on your taxes – or carrying it forward for as many years as necessary to balance off profitable years. It’s a valid part of our tax code – particularly for the help it provides start-ups, the major creators of jobs in our economy. Rather, what really – and personally – offended me about Trump’s operations was how he restructured after he made such bad decisions that they cost him $1 billion:
When the recession hit several years ago, I faced an unpleasant choice: Suffer a loss on the year equal to about three years of profits, or lay off most of my employees. For better or worse, I believe that the way to make a business work is to stand behind your employees when times are bad. I took the loss…. The business recovered, enough that I was eventually able to sell it – and I preserved the jobs of all my employees and contractors as a condition of the sale.
According to the Times story, in contrast, Trump’s genius involved stiffing his creditors, laying off more workers than other Atlantic City casinos, shorting his contractors, driving the equity of investors down to about 0.5 percent of what it had been and then restructuring his operations so that, when all around him lay in ruins, Trump was able to pay himself $45 million a year for continuing to preside over this disaster and then shelter that income from taxes, perhaps completely. The billion-dollar pain cost others around him – his lenders, investors, vendors and employees – most of their incomes from the same venture. But not him. And that’s the kind of genius most of us will never be.
Last week, of course, brought the continuing revelations about Donald Trump’s treatment of women, and the execrable second debate. As I wrote on Friday in US News, in A Morality Test for Leaders, what’s wrong extends far beyond Trump’s misogyny – bad as it is – to encompass something I hinted at in the two prior columns: our entire abdication, as a society, of true concern for morality, in large part, I argued, because we’ve allowed “the hijacking of ‘morality’ in recent years to concern nothing but sexuality.” I asked, “What’s the real disgust at” Trump’s or Bill Clinton’s behavior?
For most, I’d assert it’s not a Puritan revulsion to sex: It’s the extent to which these purported leaders care about themselves more than others. Authorities from Hillel to Jesus to Kant point to this (Golden Rule, anyone?) – not sexual discretion – as the central issue of morality….
The relevant moral question is the degree to which those who seek to lead in fact care about Something Greater Than Themselves…. [T]hat’s the test of morality that we ought to demand of our leaders – and the discussion we ought to be having. We have abdicated that discussion on all sides, however, which is what I find most dispiriting about the World Wrestling Federation spectacle that our presidential election has become.
If you want to know what I think that means as to the choice we face in the voting booth next month, you’ll have to read the piece.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts. Feel free to leave your comments below.