How the Failure of “Prestige Markets” Fuels Populism

Prestige is in our genes. According to biological anthropologist Joseph Henrich, it evolved because we are a cultural species, in the sense that our individual survival depends on acquiring the knowledge that resides in the collective brain. We acquire it through imitation, but we need to decide whom to imitate. Numerous scientific studies have shown that we tend to imitate people who are perceived to have prestige, a sense that develops very early in childhood.

Henrich suggests that this is the outcome of an evolutionary game in which prestige is payment for the generosity with which the prestigious share their knowledge. We share alpha-male dominance with our primate cousins, but prestige – a form of “payment” that predates money, wages, and stock options – is quintessentially human.

While prestige solved a problem that has been with us throughout our evolution, it has had to interact with the technological changes of the past half-century. In particular, the rise of what economists call skill-biased technical change – the reliance of modern technologies on highly skilled workers – has led to growing wage differentials between skill levels.

In his new book The Future of CapitalismPaul Collier argues that this increased wage inequality has changed the self-perception of the highly skilled: their professional identity has gained greater salience than their sense of themselves mainly as members of the nation. Using a model of human behavior proposed by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton, Collier argues persuasively that the satisfaction conferred by one identity relative to another – say, the profession over the nation – depends on the esteem with which others regard that identity.

As wage differentials grew, and the highly skilled shifted the focus of their identity from nationhood to profession, the value for all others of maintaining their national identity decreased. The low-skilled were trapped in a less valuable national identity.

This dynamic, according to Collier, explains the vote for Brexit in Britain and the rise in right-wing nationalism in other rich countries: it is concentrated among lower-skilled inhabitants of more rural, less ethnically mixed environments where traditional national identity is still dominant. It also explains declining trust in elites: because members of the elite identify primarily with their more global professional identity, they are perceived as caring less about their reciprocal obligations with the rest of the nation. Delegating choices to experts is passé, because experts no longer care about the rest of us.

Rising wage differentials may destroy the equilibrium proposed by Henrich. If the prestigious are already very well paid, and are not perceived as being generous with their knowledge, prestige may collapse. This may be another instance of the incompatibility between homo economicus and community morality emphasized by Samuel Bowles in his book The Moral Economy: the self-interested, transactional behavior that defines the market is not acceptable in the family or the community.

The collapse in the prestige equilibrium can do enormous damage to a society, because it may break the implicit contract whereby society uses critical skills. To see why and how, look no further than what has happened in Venezuela.

In 2002, then-President Hugo Chávez’s left-wing populist rhetoric targeted the national oil company PDVSA. The company was already a state-owned enterprise, so nationalization was not the issue. For Chávez, the problem was PDVSA’s meritocratic culture: to succeed in the company, political connections were of no use. What the company valued most was the knowledge needed to manage a complex organization.

Social barriers to entry at PDVSA were low, because Venezuela had a 50-year history of free university education and decades of generous scholarships to study abroad, especially in oil-related fields. But once in, advancement was merit-based. A similar culture developed in the power sector, the central bank, universities, and other entities that were critical for state capacity.

The populist revolt equated knowledge with privilege and threw it out the window. When the merit culture was threatened, the company went on strike, and more than 18,000 workers – over 40% of the company’s labor force and almost all of its senior management – were fired. As a result, there was a spectacular collapse in the performance of the oil industry and, eventually, in all the other institutions affected by the war on expertise, leading to the catastrophe that is Venezuela today.

The lesson is clear. Given the requirements of today’s technology, dismissing expertise as privilege is dangerous. But because gaining expertise takes time and effort, it is not freely accessible to “the people.” The only way to sustain it is through an implicit prestige market: the experts are supposed to be generous with their knowledge and committed to the nation. Society “pays” them back by according them a social status that makes their position desirable, even if wage differentials are compressed, as they often are in the public sector (and were in Venezuela at the time of the lethal attacks on expertise).

The alternative to populism is an arrangement whereby experts demonstrate authentic public spiritedness in exchange for society’s esteem, as often happens with military leaders, academics, and doctors. A well-functioning prestige market is essential to reconciling technological progress and the maintenance of a healthy polity.

Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron

We can save our broken economic system from itself.

Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s regulatory “reforms,” which reduced the ability of government to curb the excesses of the market, were sold as great energizers of the economy. But just the opposite happened: Growth slowed, and weirder still, this happened in the innovation capital of the world.

The sugar rush produced by President Trump’s largess to corporations in the 2017 tax law didn’t deal with any of these long-run problems, and is already fading. Growth is expected to be a little under 2 percent next year.

This is where we’ve descended to, but not where we have to stay. A progressive capitalism based on an understanding of what gives rise to growth and societal well-being gives us a way out of this quagmire and a way up for our living standards.

Standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century for two reasons:

  1. the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and
  2. developments in social organization (as a society, we learned how to work together, through institutions like the rule of law, and democracies with checks and balances).

Key to both were systems of assessing and verifying the truth. The real and long-lasting danger of the Trump presidency is the risk it poses to these pillars of our economy and society, its attack on the very idea of knowledge and expertise, and its hostility to institutions that help us discover and assess the truth.

There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.

America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.

Beginning with the Reagan era, economic policy played a key role in this dystopia: Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities. Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.

We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.

If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans making their living by driving.

The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.

If we had curbed exploitation in all of its forms and encouraged wealth creation, we would have had a more dynamic economy with less inequality. We might have curbed the opioid crisis and avoided the 2008 financial crisis. If we had done more to blunt the power of oligopolies and strengthen the power of workers, and if we had held our banks accountable, the sense of powerlessness might not be so pervasive and Americans might have greater trust in our institutions.

The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest. It is as fatally flawed as the notion after the fall of the Iron Curtain that we were seeing “the end of history” and that we would all soon be liberal democracies with capitalist economies.

Most important, our exploitive capitalism has shaped who we are as individuals and as a society. The rampant dishonesty we’ve seen from Wells Fargo and Volkswagen or from members of the Sackler family as they promoted drugs they knew were addictive — this is what is to be expected in a society that lauds the pursuit of profits as leading, to quote Adam Smith, “as if by an invisible hand,” to the well-being of society, with no regard to whether those profits derive from exploitation or wealth creation.

 

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Rise of Radical Incompetence

Like America’s president, Brexiteers resent the very idea of governing as complex and based in facts.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials.

Soon after entering the White House as President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon expressed hope that the newly appointed cabinet would achieve the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In Europe, the European Commission — which has copious governmental capacity, but scant sovereignty — is an obvious target for nationalists such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.

It is thought that Mr. Davis’s real grudge was with the unelected official, Olly Robbins, who had usurped him in his influence over the Brexit process. The problem was that Mr. Robbins is willing and able to do the laborious and intellectually demanding policy work that Brexit will require, while Mr. Davis is famously not.

.. But another byproduct of the anti-government attitude is a constant wave of exits. Britain leaves the European Union, Mr. Johnson resigns from the cabinet. The Trump White House has been defined by the constant churn of sackings and resignations. With astonishing hypocrisy, wealthy Brexiteers such as Mr. Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Lord Lawson and Lord Ashcroft have all been discovered either preparing to move their own assets into European Union jurisdictions or advising clients on how to do so. No doubt when Britain does finally leave the European Union in March 2019, they will distance themselves from reality once more, allowing the sense of victimhood and the dream of “sovereignty” to live another day. Meanwhile, someone has to keep governing.

Turmoil for Turkey’s Trump

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, whose success in getting away with obvious corruption by politicizing law offers a disturbing preview of how Trump may become the authoritarian ruler he clearly wants to be. Not surprisingly, Trump, who basically seems to like dictators in general, has expressed admiration for Erdogan and his regime.

.. Both also have contempt for expertise.
.. Erdogan has presided over an actual economic boom. Investors and markets don’t seem to mind the craziness at the top.
.. The fact that economic policymakers have no idea what they’re talking about doesn’t seem to make any difference.

.. run-of-the-mill policies like changes in tax law, even if they’re pretty big and clearly irresponsible, rarely have dramatic effects.

.. aside from fueling an unprecedented wave of stock buybacks, the tax cut is having little discernible effect, good or bad. There’s no sign of the investment boom advocates promised, but there’s also no sign that investors are losing faith in U.S. solvency.

.. Someone looking at U.S. growth in G.D.P. or employment over the past few years who didn’t know we’d had an election in 2016 would have no reason to suspect that anything important had changed.

.. Even if the quality of economic leadership matters a lot only during crises, you might expect markets to think ahead and incorporate the risk of badly handled future crises into stock and bond prices. Somehow, though, that almost never happens.

.. What we get instead are long stretches of complacency followed by sudden panic.

.. Rudiger Dornbusch): “Crises take longer to arrive than you can possibly imagine, but when they do come, they happen faster than you can possibly imagine.”

.. Although America borrows a lot abroad, it borrows in its own currency, which means that it isn’t vulnerable to a classic emerging-markets crisis.