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The populist turn

January 18, 2017

Despite the benefits of global capitalism, the changes it brings vary by nation and group within nation. Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut offers this explanation of current politics:

Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders. The ‘1 percent’ becomes ‘2 percent.’ Or even more. … from 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as ‘elite overproduction.’ … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

Doug Muder writes a good post on the dangers of populism. Vox speculates on the neurological nature of normalcy, and the risks that come from normalizing behavior formerly seen as beyond the pale.

I’m a bit skeptical of explanations like Turchin’s, not only because of the inherent problems in such models, but because I see as much or more support for Trump among those who are upper income earners, as I do in those less well off. Branko Milanović offers a similar argument, in the form of an elephant graph. There may well be something to the notion that unequal advance stirs the political waters, even riling those who are doing well. Those in the elephant’s trunk may not feel it. An argument for these models is that the same shift seems to be happening on both sides of the Atlantic, reflected in the Labor Party’s decline.

Sarah Treem wonders if her new daughter will have as much freedom as she did. That is less likely now. Middle-aged Americans have enjoyed decades where civil liberty generally advanced. It is strange to ponder the future, and think that we may be at peak freedom.

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