Trump is only a sign of our times

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY SE­BAS­TIAN MALLABY

Sit through any tech con­fer­ence these days, and the gap be­tween sci­en­tific op­ti­mism and our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal pes­simism is ex­tra­or­di­nary to be­hold. There are speeches on gene si­lenc­ing, which prom­ises break­throughs in the treat­ment of de­men­tia; on plant-based beef sub­sti­tutes, which could re­duce the bovine boost to global warm­ing; on com­put­ers that will screen your skin for can­cer and your re­frig­er­a­tor for dwin­dling milk. But vot­ers across the Western world aren’t cel­e­brat­ing these ex­cite­ments. To the con­trary, they are fu­ri­ous.

We have been here be­fore, of course. On Carnival Day in 1497, the Do­mini­can friar Giro­lamo Savonarola piled the trap­pings of Re­nais­sance progress — hereti­cal books, provoca­tive paint­ings, im­ported baubles sym­bol­iz­ing glob­al­iza­tion — into a tow­er­ing heap in Florence’s cen­tral pi­azza and set fire to the lot. Re­call­ing that first Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties in their new book, “Age of Dis­cov­ery,” Ox­ford thinkers Ian Goldin and Chris Ku­tarna note its weirdly 21st cen­tury irony. Savonarola de­nounced moder­nity. And yet, like Don­ald Trump or the Is­lamic State, he also ex­ploited it, spread­ing mass pro­pa­ganda via the new com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy of the print­ing press.

Some the­o­ries of Trump­ism — or of Aus­tria’s Hoferism or Bri­tain’s Brexitism — em­pha­size vot­ers’ mis­for­tunes: con­ven­tion­ally mea­sured, mid­dle-class in­comes are stag­nant. But this the­ory of pop­ulism’s rise is not fully con­vinc­ing. Stan­dard mea­sures of in­comes leave out the eye-pop­ping ar­ray of stuff we don’t ac­tu­ally pay for — the tech­no­copia of free In­ter­net search­ing, mes­sag­ing ser­vices, selfie apps, ex­er­cise pro­grams, YouTube videos and so on. What’s more, pop­ulism af­flicts coun­tries where even con­ven­tional mea­sure­ment shows progress. Poland and Hun­gary have both seen gross do­mes­tic prod­uct per per­son roughly triple since 2000. But both coun­tries are in the grip of pop­ulist strong­men.

A more con­vinc­ing the­ory of pop­ulism is that it can some­times be the prod­uct not of stag­na­tion but of progress — par­tic­u­larly the sort of progress gen­er­ated by the dis­rupters of tech­land. Like mi­gra­tion or glob­al­iza­tion, fast tech­no­log­i­cal change is both pos­i­tive and dis­ori­ent­ing; it clut­ters life with mi­nor stresses, like be­wil­der­ing TV re­motes and dual-key pass­words, but also with ex­is­ten­tial ones, like the specter of in­tel­li­gent robots steal­ing all the jobs. Of course, the grum­bling about these costs may be il­log­i­cal, given tech­nol­ogy’s huge ben­e­fits. But peo­ple aren’t log­i­cal. Af­ter the 2008 cri­sis, it be­came a cliché to lament the ir­ra­tional­ity of fi­nan­cial traders and to point sagely at the hu­man bi­ases that be­hav­ioral economists iden­ti­fied back in the 1970s. Guess what: Vot­ers are no dif­fer­ent.

In­deed, the bi­ases iden­ti­fied by be­hav­ioral economists tell you plenty about Trump. Why are his back­ers so re­sent­ful of a world in which in­comes, prop­erly mea­sured, have prob­a­bly done re­spectably? Well, a clas­sic be­hav­ioral game in­volves of­fer­ing a player $1 on the con­di­tion that an­other player gets $9. Even though a “ra­tio­nal” ac­tor would ac­cept the $1 gain in in­come, most real peo­ple re­sent oth­ers do­ing bet­ter, and they feel that re­sent­ment pas­sion­ately enough to re­ject an of­fer that would make them bet­ter off. So it may not be enough that tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances help al­most ev­ery­one. For tech to be broadly wel­comed, it has to spread its ben­e­fits at least some­what evenly.

Then there is the strange mat­ter of peo­ple’s at­ti­tude to loss. Be­hav­ioral eco­nomics finds that peo­ple suf­fer “loss aver­sion” — they fear los­ing $10 more than they cel­e­brate a gain of the same size. This helps to ex­plain why Trump’s sup­port­ers fear threats more than they wel­come op­por­tu­ni­ties — whether these arise from mi­gra­tion, glob­al­iza­tion or tech­nol­ogy. At the same time, how­ever, “prospect the­ory” sug­gests that, once peo­ple have suf­fered losses, they will gam­ble reck­lessly to re­coup them. This in­sight is usu­ally wheeled out to ex­plain why in­vestors hang on to stocks that have lost value, or why los­ing foot­ball teams at­tempt “Hail Mary” passes. There could be no greater Hail Mary gam­ble than vot­ing for Trump.

Af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the world re­sponded with re­forms to avert an­other crash. Now, given the pop­ulist cri­sis, the world needs a re­sponse of an equiv­a­lent size. Poli­cies that pro­mote growth and ef­fi­ciency must be bal­anced with poli­cies pro­mot­ing fair­ness and se­cu­rity. Just as banks now hold more cap­i­tal, even at the ex­pense of their re­turn on eq­uity, so so­ci­ety must be pre­pared to tax more pro­gres­sively, curb run­away ex­ec­u­tive pay and fix the gaps in so­cial safety nets. Schemes such as wage in­surance, which pay sub­si­dies to dis­placed work­ers when they move into lower-pay­ing oc­cu­pa­tions, may seem daunt­ingly ex­pen­sive. They are a lot less ex­pen­sive than elect­ing pop­ulist fire­brands. Se­bas­tian Mallaby is a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions and a Wash­ing­ton Post Global Opin­ions con­tribut­ing colum­nist.


Sup­port­ers of right-wing Aus­trian pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Nor­bert Hofer gather on May 22 in Vienna.


Sup­port­ers lis­ten to Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump dur­ing a rally Fri­day in Fresno, Calif.


For­mer Lon­don mayor Boris John­son takes part in a Vote Leave, Brexit Bat­tle Bus tour on May 17 in Stafford, Eng­land.


Mem­bers of a youth or­ga­ni­za­tion demon­strate against refugees in the cen­tral square of Slu­bice, Poland, on May 7.

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