Ex­perts failed us – and Pres­i­dent Trump will be the result

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS - John Rap­ley, a long-stand­ing Gleaner colum­nist, is a political econ­o­mist at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge. His next book, Twi­light of the Money Gods (Simon & Schus­ter) will be pub­lished in 2017. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com and jr603@cam.ac.uk.

TWO DECADEs ago, as I was fin­ish­ing my post­doc­toral fel­low­ship in de­vel­op­ment stud­ies, I left Ox­ford to move to Ja­maica. When col­leagues asked me why on earth I was leav­ing a global knowl­edge epi­cen­tre for the ‘prov­inces’, I replied that I didn’t feel I yet un­der­stood de­vel­op­ment suf­fi­ciently to write the text­book I’d just been com­mis­sioned to pro­duce. Field trips, I told col­leagues, were fine for gath­er­ing data, but I felt that in or­der to un­der­stand what de­vel­op­ment meant, I had to live it.

So off I went, pack­ing up my young fam­ily. Over the com­ing years, drawn deeply into Ja­maican so­ci­ety by my chil­dren, who grew up there and taught me how to un­der­stand such things as cricket, I spent lots of time in church halls, at civic meet­ings, on the ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, in board­rooms and on gar­ri­son streets, lis­ten­ing to peo­ple’s sto­ries. Through the lives of oth­ers will­ing to in­struct me, I got a sense of what de­vel­op­ment meant. I picked up the wis­dom of com­mon folk and Trump sup­porter David Ramirez of Long­wood, Florida, re­acts as Fox News an­nounces Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump would win Ohio, on elec­tion night, Novem­ber 8. learned that some things that seemed per­fect in the­ory had no ba­sis in re­al­ity.

Among my new col­leagues in Ja­maica, mine was not an un­usual ca­reer path. But to the col­leagues I’d left be­hind, it was ca­reer sui­cide. With the in­for­ma­tion revo­lu­tion un­der way, we were all daz­zled by the new search en­gines, dig­i­tal data­banks, and al­go­rith­mic searches the In­ter­net made pos­si­ble. Most of my old col­leagues were con­vinced the future of schol­ar­ship lay on­line, and in advanced mod­el­ling, and that they would be able, in their great seats of learn­ing, to per­fect their sciences in ways that had never be­fore been imag­in­able. What, they asked, could the mus­ings of, say, an il­lit­er­ate farmer pos­si­bly teach me that would re­place what I was now miss­ing in the world’s best sem­i­nars?


I tried to im­press upon them that im­mer­sion in my sub­ject led me to see things I would never have oth­er­wise no­ticed. I could see a tide of re­sis­tance build­ing against neo-lib­eral glob­al­i­sa­tion – I had lived through the gas ri­ots, af­ter all. I could de­tect a pat­tern of spec­u­la­tive bub­bles which in­flated, one af­ter an­other, as hot money took ad­van­tage of fi­nan­cial in­te­gra­tion. I could see how these bub­bles were work­ing their way up a global chain and to­wards the de­vel­oped world.

But when I pub­lished a book in 2004 pre­dict­ing that a ma­jor economic cri­sis lay ahead in the West, and that the re­volt against neo-lib­er­al­ism would spread there as well, I felt a bit like Cas­san­dra. The West­ern econ­omy was hum­ming, house prices were ris­ing, and no less an ex­pert than Alan Greenspan was re­as­sur­ing Amer­i­cans that home prices would never fall. The best re­search, by No­bel Prize win­ners, proved my pes­simism wrong.

Yet, even though the ex­perts failed cat­a­stroph­i­cally to fore­see the 2008 crash, their self-con­fi­dence re­mained in­tact. Had they got out a bit more, into the streets, let alone the ghet­tos, they would have seen how much au­thor­ity they had lost.

In the US elec­tion, vir­tu­ally all the pro­fes­so­ri­ate and ‘pun­di­toc­racy’ scoffed at the Trump can­di­dacy, just as they had at Bernie San­ders’ chal­lenge to Hil­lary Clin­ton in the Demo­cratic pri­maries. They dis­missed the in­sur­gent can­di­dates as throw­backs to a for­got­ten past: San­ders and Trump did no data an­a­lyt­ics, they had al­most no con­sul­tants, they es­chewed tried-and-true tech­niques of me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion for gi­ant ral­lies, they ne­glected tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing, they op­er­ated by gut in­stinct. All they had were sim­ple tales in which their lis­ten­ers emerged as heroes.

The polls showed Trump los­ing, and the ex­pert bet­ting mar­kets over­whelm­ingly called it for Hil­lary. Through­out the cam­paign, ex­pert af­ter ex­pert trun­dled out the re­search to show that over­whelm­ingly, the ev­i­dence pointed to the im­prac­ti­cal­ity and even out­right danger of Trump’s cam­paign prom­ises. And they were right.

But what the ex­perts couldn’t un­der­stand is that political de­bates are sel­dom won by facts. They’re won by sto­ries – by the nar­ra­tives that give mean­ing and pur­pose to peo­ple’s lives, nar­ra­tives told by sto­ry­tellers who lis­ten to what the au­di­ence is say­ing so that they can write them into the tale be­ing told.

So en­am­oured had the ex­perts be­come with their com­puter mod­els that they missed these de­vel­op­ments un­fold­ing right un­der their noses. But if they had been more like Ja­maican schol­ars, had they been spend­ing time in com­mu­nity cen­tres and church base­ments and le­gion halls and formica-coun­tered din­ers, lis­ten­ing to peo­ple’s sto­ries, they would have long ago picked up the anger that had been build­ing across Amer­ica for decades.

Above all, they would have seen that their sci­ence had failed to give or­di­nary peo­ple the pos­si­bil­ity of writ­ing per­sonal lifesto­ries that were go­ing to have happy end­ings.


Some of those life sto­ries were racist. We know that. But lest we write off the Trump phe­nom­e­non as merely a ‘white­lash’, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that it is not only the white work­ing class that has suf­fered harshly un­der the ne­olib­er­al­ism we were as­sured was the best sci­ence.

The black work­ing class has been dec­i­mated over the last two decades. The so­ci­ol­o­gist Michelle Alexan­der has noted that if you add all the black males who got locked in prison as a result of Bill Clin­ton’s crime bill to the sur­vey group, the in­crease in black house­hold in­come trum­peted by the Clin­tonites would be pretty much wiped out. And along the way, mil­lions of sto­ries of hope were turned into tales of woe, de­spair, and ap­a­thy.

If in­stead of looking at the ag­gre­gate data, re­searchers had spent time in in­ner-city com­mu­ni­ties, they might have picked up what all the Clin­ton team’s polling missed: de­spite the threat of a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who openly en­cour­aged racism, younger black vot­ers, like so many other Amer­i­cans, had lost faith in the ex­perts who claimed to rep­re­sent them.

From those to whom much is given, much is ex­pected. Ja­maican in­tel­lec­tu­als are in­cul­cated with this sense that the quid pro quo for their rel­a­tively priv­i­leged ex­is­tence is that they must serve their com­pa­tri­ots. The best of them never talk down to the peo­ple they meet, too busy as they are lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries.

For the quiet revo­lu­tion to be­gin in West­ern coun­tries, the quiet revo­lu­tion that will un­seat the pop­ulists like Don­ald Trump, Bri­tain’s Nigel Farage, or France’s Ma­rine Le Pen, the ex­perts will have to go out into the world, to get their feet wet and their hands dirty, to ap­pre­ci­ate that they don’t know it all – to be, in short, more Ja­maican. They will then once again learn that some of the best in­sights they will ever get will come from or­di­nary peo­ple’s sto­ries.


John Rap­ley

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