Today’s rise of populism and loss of economic opportunity

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor, now UC Berkeley professor, and Friend of Bill (Clinton) wrote about how he found he agreed with the basic points of Tea Party supporters:

For example, most condemned what they called “crony capitalism,” by which they mean big corporations getting sweetheart deals from the government because of lobbying and campaign contributions…The more conversations I had, the more I understood the connection between their view of “crony capitalism” and their dislike of government. They don’t oppose government per se. …Rather, they see government as the vehicle for big corporations and Wall Street to exert their power in ways that hurt the little guy. They call themselves Republicans but many of the inhabitants of America’s heartland are populists in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan.

Eliana Johnson, a conservative columnist at the National Review, made a similar observation on NPR:

I actually think Donald Trump is really an embodiment of blue-collar frustration with what are really a bipartisan elite consensus on a number of issues that Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree on. One is free trade, and you see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders taking similar positions there reflecting frustration. Another is immigration, where Donald Trump is an ardent opponent of letting more immigrants into the country. And I think you see the far left and the far right coming together on that issue. And so Barack Obama is certainly an embodiment of elite Washington opinion, but it’s really, I think, frustration among the grassroots of both parties about issues, really, that Republicans and Democrats agree on and where they feel they are not getting a hearing.

The first question is what is at the heart of the frustration among the white middle-class that is at the core of the Tea Party, and support for Donald Trump. Essentially the white middle class sees that the social compact that guaranteed a comfortable life style with little uncertainty by simply working steadily has come apart. The Great Recession accelerated a trend that was already gaining steam as unemployment and underemployment for older white men increased. Job security for a group that historically has enjoyed the greatest job security is disappearing. And they’re angry about it.

The next question is what is at the core of this trend. First a digression into what we do for “work.” Typically we can divide up what we work on into three areas: making things used by other people, directly serving people, and creating ideas and concepts that people can enjoy or use in the other two work areas. There are physical limits on the value that any one worker can create either in manufacturing or in services. A factory worker can produce only one car at a time and a consumer can buy and use only one car. A coffee barista can serve only one customer at a time, who in turn can only drink one coffee at a time. Nobel Prize winner William Baumol identified this “cost disease” 50 years ago, but he was focused only on services versus manufacturing. He observed that technology could help the factory worker make a car faster, but it wouldn’t be much help for a coffee barista.  But he hadn’t considered the role of workers who create ideas and concepts, simply because this wasn’t a big part of the economy then.

With the advent of computers and the Internet, along with other mass media, it’s now possible for a “worker” such as an entertainer, an athlete, an investment banker, or an app programmer, to create a “product” that can be consumed by millions with no limitations on how many can buy and use that product at one time. Distribution of the product is now almost costless. As a result, a single worker can create huge amounts of economic value single-handedly. That’s not the case with either manufacturing or services. The workers in the ideas and concepts industries can now command extraordinary salaries. Bay Area tech workers are earning an average of $176,275!

Who are these tech workers? Not older white middle class men with a high school education or less. Instead economic value is accruing to the younger, college educated (particularly in STEM fields) and the “middle class” is disappearing. The supporters of the populist causes and the demagogues who exploit those opportunities are those being left behind by this radical transformation of the economy.

The same thing happened at the turn of the twentieth century as the nation moved from an agrarian economy with a 38% of its population on the farm to an industrial powerhouse. William Jennings Bryant thrice ran for President as a populist, in his time railing against the gold standard and calling for “free silver.” His supporters were the farmers being left behind by rapid economic change.

As was the case then, the older dominant labor force working in traditional, stable industries today are not well equipped to adapt to the coming of disruptive changes. They have been extolled as the core of a virtuous workforce, as was the case with farmers then, so they have become part of the American pantheon. Just watch any pickup truck commercial. They understood the social compact as putting in a 40-hour week being sufficient to deliver a comfortable lifestyle. These workers understood that they wouldn’t have to change their careers or learn new skills to live the “American dream.” Unfortunately, that was a false promise. (We can’t really expect that everyone should understand how the economy works–at least not without major changes in our education and media systems.)

Now they look for “easy solutions” of the type long offered by politicians, and they are not disappointed by the offerings. Blocking immigration, imposing trade restrictions, and creating opportunity are all buzz word solutions without real substance or a likelihood for success in solving their problems (and may make the problems worse.)

The change a century ago led to economic benefits that few would dispute improved the well-being of most Americans; we would not have wanted to freeze the proportion of the U.S. economy devoted to agriculture. The final question then is what should be the appropriate policy responses to mitigate these harsh effects on a group that long enjoyed a favorable position in our economy while allowing for another beneficial economic transformation?

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3 thoughts on “Today’s rise of populism and loss of economic opportunity

  1. Pingback: An answer to Brexit & Trump: Rebuild our infrastructure | Economics Outside the Cube

  2. Pingback: On Mankiw: The shrinking pie slice | Economics Outside the Cube

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