More on the Missing Evidence of Anxiety

Not surprisingly, I found Ezra’s reply to my post on the demand for populism unpersuasive. Here’s Ezra:

Notice, here, that Will uses “life satisfaction” rather than anything directly related to the economic numbers for his point. That’s because the economic numbers are very bad for his point, But as Will — who dearly loves his “alternative status hierarchies” — fully knows, economic status is not the only determinant of life satisfaction. If you don’t have health care but are really happy with your attempts to restore the heat and spark to your marriage, you may be both satisfied and a populist!

Moreover, invoking current polls is completely non-responsive to Ross’s claims. Ross — and Alan Blinder, and everyone else — expect tens of millions of white collar jobs to come under pressure from outsourcing within the next few decades. If Will doesn’t think this will upset anyone, he’s got to construct a plausible theory as to why, not note that the Harris poll says many folks are satisfied with their lot now.

And this goes across the board. Will may not like the trends, but it requires some fancy libertarian footwork to argue that continually rising health costs, substantially stagnant wages, the enduring pressures of globalization, the decline of the corporate welfare state, and all the other forces buffeting the bottom 80 percent will elicit no response in the electorate. Indeed, it’s hard to argue they’ve not already done so.

Why cite numbers on people’s satisfaction with life and their assessment of whether their “life situation” has improved or will improve? Because Ross claims that middle-class Americans in fact are and are going to continue to be highly anxious about their economic condition. If people’s alleged economic anxiety is important enough to create a powerful demand for populist policies, you would think it would have some effect on either their life satisfaction or their evaluation of their “life situation.” But the evidence is that people are increasingly satisfied, and fewer people expect their life situation to get worse. Either increasing economic anxiety is a myth, or it is not sufficient to affect people’s evaluation of their satisfaction or prospects. Either way, it is difficult to see how it is supposed to drive demand for a middle-class populism. Ezra notably fails to address the troubled Jacob Hacker thesis on volatility, which seems to have been Ross’s main piece of evidence in favor of the existence of high levels of economic society. Should I assume Ezra thinks I’m right, and that there is no good evidence for an especially politically significant level of anxiety?

Indeed, Ezra proceeds, as he often does, simply by changing the subject. So now we are talking about the future and what people will be feeling. Ezra says people will be upset by outsourcing. But I was talking about evidence for economic anxiety and the demand for populism now.

Anyway, like Alan Blinder and all sensible people, I think lots of firms will be seeking less-expensive foreign labor, that this will have a significant effect on the jobs available to Americans, but also on the price of many goods and services (down) and on the incentives to acquire new and/or improved skills (stronger). This is going to make middle-class Americans wealthier, improving their objective economic security. Many people will surely be temporarily upset when the shifting incentives of the global market upset their usual patterns of work and life, very much as people in the Rustbelt were upset by the process of deindustrialization. But these changes are going to take place incrementally over decades, not all at once. At any time during the process, huge segments of the middle-class will be seeing significant improvements in their standard of living while other, smaller segments struggle to find new niches in the labor market.

I don’t believe I bear any burden to show that this transition won’t produce demand for populist policies. The positive claim, and the burden, is on the other side. Indeed, the sometimes dramatic dislocations of America’s transformation from a primarily industrial to a primarily service economy delivered two terms of Ronald Reagan, a term of George H.W. Bush, and two terms of Bill Clinton, while leaving the U.S. with historically low rates of unemployment, a leaner, more efficient, more productive manufacturing sector, lower taxes, scores of free trade agreements, etc. Ezra should explain to us why the anxieties of deindustrialization fell so far from delivering a populist politics.

I don’t deny that there are business cycles, and that the electorate’s economic anxieties rise and fall, or that politicians can ride a cyclical wave of economic discontent to power. I was replying to Ross’s suggestion that there is a long-term or secular trend toward increased middle-class economic anxiety, and that this is likely to generate a populist politics that could dominate politics for twenty years. Neither he nor Ezra has said anything more than fantastically conjectural on the point.

Last, what is populism anyway? I think of a politics that pictures the economy as a huge zero-sum game, sets social and economic classes against each other, and promises “the people” free stuff at the expense of some other, usually richer, people. Ezra adduces evidence from the recent Pew Political Typology that shows increased support for a bigger, more domestically activist government. I certainly don’t dispute it. But what does that have to do with populism, exactly? Is this shift in opinion Ezra identifies motivated by “people vs. the powerful,” “two America’s” stuff? Where’s the evidence of that? And, more to the point, if there is any evidence of it, where’s the evidence that it is driven largely by economic anxiety? Because that’s the specific point I was rebutting.

My guess is that some intellectuals get excited about populism because they thrill to the fantasy of riding popular passions to power and harnessing them to set in place their ardently desired policies. It is a thrilling, if repulsive, dream. The best evidence the dream does exist is the habitual evidential overreach of pro-populist intellectuals. A complacent electorate is routinely met with desperately table-pounding op-eds practically begging readers to be mad as hell. Any faint sign of traction, that the fickle mood of “the people” is turning their way, is greeted with bold predictions of an all-new politics! Our politics! Hope triumphs over reason, but, inevitably, hope is dashed.

There are also ups and downs and quick reversals, if not cycles, in political opinion. As Ross mentions in his article, just a year or so ago, there were still books rolling off the presses trying to explain why the Democrats are perpetual losers. Are Republicans wizards at “framing”? Are they more fluent in the visceral emotional language of politics? Have they gerrymandered themselves permanent majorities, destroying any chance of a real American democracy? I don’t believe it is even minimally reasonable to now think the tide of public opinion has semi-permanently turned. What I think it is safe to say is that the incompetence, corruption, and disastrously failed war delivered by years of Republican rule have powerfully soured many Americans on policies they identify, rightly or wrongly, with conservatives. Anyone making projections further out than the next election is just guessing, and usually wishfully. A big majority opinion seemingly in favor of a big policy change — in favor of social security privatization or nationalized health care, for example — can collapse in a matter of months in the face of well-coordinated negative political and media campaigns. Go ahead, Ezra, dream. But brace yourself.

So, again: What is the evidence that there is in the U.S. a secular trend toward increased economic insecurity or anxiety?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center