Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Populism and the media

Don’t just ask why people are disenchanted with elites, but also why they are choosing the alternatives offered by snake-oil salesmen.

This could be the subtitle of the talk I will be giving later today. I will have more to say in later posts, plus a link to the full text (the writing of which distracted me from writing posts over the last week or two), but I thought I would make this important point here about why I keep going on about the media. In thinking about Brexit and Trump, talking about the media is not in competition with talking about disenchantment over globalisation and de-industrialisation, but a complement to it. I don’t blame the media for this disenchantment, which is real enough, but for the fact that it is leading people to make choices which are clearly bad for society as a whole, and in many cases will actually make them worse off. They are choices which in an important sense are known to be wrong.

Many will say on reading that last sentence that this is just your opinion, but in a way that illustrates the basic problem. Take Brexit. We know that erecting trade barriers is harmful: the only question is whether in this case it will be pretty harmful or very harmful. Some of this is already in the process of happening, as the depreciation reduces real wages. We also know that erecting barriers against your neighbours is extremely unlikely to be offset in any significant way by doing deals with countries further away. This is knowledge derived largely from empirical evidence and uncontroversial theory and agreed almost unanimously by economists.

The moment you reduce it to just another opinion, to be balanced by opposing opinions, as happened in the broadcast media during the Brexit campaign, you allow that knowledge to be ignored when critical choices are made.

A snake-oil salesman is not a perfect analogy, because those championing populist causes often have something to work on that makes some sense to the not very knowledgeable voter. [1] It could be the idea that immigration reduces access to public services, for example. But our media should help people avoid adopting solutions that are known to be wrong, rather than assisting the process by devaluing knowledge. For example, they could continually point out that most economists think EU immigration puts in more resources for public services than it takes out. 

There is another way the media can mislead, by establishing politicised truths, which I will discuss later on. Let me end with a link to a SPERI blog post I wrote to coincide with the talk. It is about the role of neoliberalism in the rise of populism. Although it draws from some of the points in the talk, it is quite separate. I basically argue in that post that a story that recent events like Brexit or Trump are a consequence of neoliberal ideas is potentially a mislabeling, because pushing globalisation is essential a liberal rather than a neoliberal idea. Instead I offer two concrete ways in which neoliberalism, and its emphasis on shrinking aspects of the state and deregulation, did indeed help bring about Brexit and Trump through austerity in the UK and deregulation of the broadcast media in the US.

[1] Postscript 24/11/16 Actually the analogy is better than I thought: see this great post from Chris.         


  1. I can only recommend anyone who hasn't read Stefan Collini's Blahspeak at the LRB from 8 April 2010 to do so.

    It begins:

    "Historians have a taste for labels that capture the character or spirit of a period – The Bleak Age, The Age of Equipoise or, in a recent work on the interwar period, The Morbid Age. It will serve early 21st-century Britain right if it becomes known as ‘The Aspirational Age’.

    To those who can use the word ‘aspirational’ without wincing, this might seem high praise. It connotes endeavour, making something of oneself, trying – as an older idiom had it – to improve one’s station in life. Glossed in this way, the term might seem blameless, a near universal human disposition, but in the past few years ‘aspirational’ has been used to pick out something more specific, something symptomatic of a particular moment in the development of social attitudes in Britain. There is now, according to some commentators, an ‘aspirational class’, rather uncertainly located within a traditional hierarchical social structure, but composed of people who probably had working-class parents, who hope to have professional or managerial-class children, and who want more of ‘the good things of life’. But they want, it is said, to attain these goals without taking on the trappings and snobberies that historically went along with moving into a higher social class. An edge of ressentiment lurks under ‘aspiration’, not the old ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ kind, which acknowledged social position while claiming it was not the whole of life, but a more relativist kind, confident that ‘no one has the right to say what someone else ought to do or think.’ Any other view of the matter is damned as ‘elitist’. As these attitudes assert and impose themselves, we are encouraged to talk not merely of an aspirational class but of an ‘aspirational society’ at once insistently egalitarian and aggressively competitive.

    Politicians of all parties are committed to giving the aspirational society more of what it is thought to aspire to; indeed, an inflationary tendency in our public language has seen these objects of desire elevated to the status of a ‘right’. This is partly the verbal flotsam thrown up by the market populism of the Thatch-Lab pact of the mid-1990s. But it also has to be seen as evidence of a deeper shift in the ways we conceive of our social relations. The emphasis on ‘aspiration’ is one symptom of the abandonment of what have been, for the best part of a century, the goals of progressive politics, since, as an ideal, the ‘aspirational society’ expresses a corrosively individualist conception of life. Three recent semi-official publications throw some light on the relation between this conception and the reality of contemporary British society."

  2. What I often see is a desperate effort to try and deny any role mainstream economics has played in Trump and Brexit. Had history and engagement with social scientists been at the heart of the discipline, like any other social science, instead of relegated to the fringes we would understand a lot more about deindustrialisation and globalisation - including the sociology and the psychology associated with it. And the causality goes both ways: deindustrialisation has social causes as well as social consequences. The profession prefers to ignore knowledge from outside the discipline that cannot be incorporated into or expressed in terms of Model. It wants the subject to be self-contained, algebraic, and detached and based on a micro-foundation that does not get proper philosophical scrutiny. No wonder it was in no position to persuade the media or to present convincing and widely and deeply informed arguments to the general public and policy makers.


  3. In extremity of despair, any solution, no matter how unlikely, counterintuitive, or downright magical, is to be preferred over maintenance of the desperate status quo.

    The alternative to Leave was to do nothing, it offered no hope, no chance of salvation.

    1. But this is the same electorate that voted for a Conservative majority just a year earlier. No 'anythings better than what we currently have' then.

    2. An additional ~3,000,000 voted UKIP in 2015 as compared to 2010, quadrupling their share of the vote from ~3% to ~13%, doesn't that count in your mind?

      People are vexed because the Leave won, albeit quite narrowly, whereas perhaps they should be perturbed that it was even close and that there seems to have been quite widespread misoxenia in play.

  4. Simon, a well argued point as ever. I disagree a bit, I always dislike neoliberal, it is a just word to signal a mark of Cain. I do worry that we (rootless cosmopolitans, citizens of the world) find the idea of tribal identity so alien that we overlook it. It has never gone away but given the harm it caused it fell out of fashion. However, as 'independence' or 'taking back control' campaigns appear everywhere and have become the magic elixir of political success, I suggest this is the single biggest factor in where we are now. Its surges have dominated history as people's tribes have been reshaped.
    Distrust of the other (be they non-Scots (SNP), Europeans (UKIP), Spaniards (Basque), Non-white Christians (Trumpists)) along with some appeal to past greatness that can be remade if only the other were removed is the hallmark of these campaigns. Distrust the other chimes with our instinct but our rational self knows we no longer live on the African plains. Thus these campaigns are keyed into 'gut feeling' or 'truthiness' which by passes logical processing; this is by design since they contain objective nonsense in the modern world. It is however human nature and cannot be ignored.

    Is there hope, only that like overdosing on chocolate deep down it feels wrong. Somehow we all, most especially politicians (distinct from true believers) need to tap into the inner voice that whispers compassion, like fear of others, it is deeply rooted in our nature. For if we retreat from our fellow citizens as the other, we will assure they do the same. I am not religious but Christianity and Islam share as tenets the unity of mankind before their God and explicitly reject tribal identifies (they substitute a shared religious identity). There is something that we might learn from this I think, especially their emphasis on compassion for and togetherness with our fellow humans.

  5. Simon,

    It seems to me you are so stuck with the notion that globalization is good that you cannot accept that the people who voted for Brexit and Trump knew what they were doing but were merely duped by a neoliberal media telling lies about globalization. If what the media pushed did not accord with the lived experience of those affected by globalization, it would have had no impact. I really do think you are flogging a dead horse. Perhaps, you as a vociferous proponent of globalization, cannot bring yourself to accept that it has been the source of widespread pain in the West. You might say you get it, but I don't think you really do.


    1. I can only repeat the byline to the post. People may be angry with the impact of globalisation, but that does not mean you go for every quack that comes along. Brexit will harm these people, yet they believed it wouldn't. Why not examine why they held that belief?

      Now if you want to argue that globalisation did not improve most peoples lives, then you need to tell me why the overwhelming body of evidence that it did is wrong.

    2. Simon you need to start reading the political sciences, sociology, and anthropology. From the very beginning people in these disciplines knew that globalisation is a double edged sword. They know it has adverse effects on communities and that it is associated with marginalisation, alienation and important effects with regard to identity, power, and control. And it is not simply a matter of winners compensating losers. It is far from clear that globalisation has been beneficial on either a global or national level. For every China and Vietnam, there is an African country and a Middle Eastern one. For every London there is a Newcastle upon Tyne. For every successful case of export oriented development there is one that emphasised import substitution. You know some basic Marxian economics, surely. Labour must have a stake in the productive process. Are you familiar with Gunnar Myrdal? And historians have a lot to say. True the breakdown of trading systems in the 1920s were a big factor behind the Great Depression (perhaps more important than monetary and other factors). However the cause of these problems is also connected in the period of intensification of globalisation before WWI. Rather like financial crisis. Want to know how they happen- you have to look at what happened during the boom.

      Globalisation (international capitalism) creates dependencies, such as on imports, foreign capital and foreign labour, which while potentially beneficial in terms of economies of scale and resource allocation, are also potentially harmful and severely limit the corrective leverage of domestic policy makers.


    3. Simon,

      A majority of British people, a MAJORITY, voted for Brexit. It is too facile and self serving to argue that they have been duped by the media. This is not something that happened overnight.

      " Why not examine why they held that belief?"

      And your answer is that they were conned. Maybe they were conned by the globalization boosters.

      "Brexit will harm these people..."

      So you say.

      "Now if you want to argue that globalisation did not improve most peoples lives,"

      Which evidence, which people?


  6. Totally agree that "he said she said" neutrality is not neutrality at all.

    I think you're overstating your case in saying Brexit is known to be harmful, though. I agree it probably is - but there's lots of unknowns and assumptions in there. For *most* people it won't make much difference economically - they'll be a bit poorer, but in the things that affect happiness there'll be little difference. Perhaps the loss of wealth is outweighed by other things for people.

    To put it another way. You may be overstating the importance of GDP and fere trade i relation to happiness and well being.

    1. Not being able to get that hip replacement because of a year long waiting list. Do you think that does not affect happiness?

  7. As my old Bronx doctor, Seymour Tenzer, put it: "All these histories are bullshit -- I got punched in the chest; that's why I've got a lump."

    Trump's victory is down to the disappearance of the $800 job for the $400 job. That subtracted from the vote in the black ghettos – and added to the vote in the white ghettos -- both ghettos being far off the radar screen of academic liberals like Hill and O.

    I notice the white ghettos because that is me. My old taxi job (much too old now at 72 3/4) was “in-sourced” all over the world to drivers who would work for remarkably less (than the not so great incomes we native born eked out). Today's low skilled jobs go to native and foreign born who willing to show up for $400 (e.g., since Walmart gutted supermarket contracts). Fast food strictly to foreign born who will show up for $290 a week (min wage $400, 1968 -- when per cap income half today's).

    Don't expect the 100,000 out of maybe 200,000 Chicago gang age males to show up for a life time of $400/wk servitude. Did I mention, manufacturing was down to 6% of employment 15 years ago -- now 4% (disappearing like farm labor, mostly robo; look to health care for the future?)?

    6% union density at private employers = 20/10 BP which starves every healthy process in the social body = disappearance of collective bargaining and its institutional concomitants which supply political funding and lobbying equal to oligarchs plus most all the votes ...

    ... votes: notice? 45% take 10% of overall income -- 45% earn $15/hr or less -- a lot of votes.

  8. I actually agree with your analysis but your conclusion (that if they were presented with the facts sensibly they would decide differently) is based on the implicit assumption that economic issues are paramount. But where is the evidence for this?

    Economic issues are important to the vast majority but they are not everything and it would seem that the "not everything" part is quite important. It is not just a matter of "it's just another opinion" it's a matter of the parameters of the discussion as a whole.

    Immigration is the obvious example. You are doubtless right in your conclusions and I would not quarrel with that but the economics are not everything and I suspect that even if you had very good communication on this issue and people understood the economics they might still vote against immigration because of the effects on the local community etc..

  9. When you say that we know about the costs of erecting trade barriers could you point us to some good reviews of the evidence please? Also do you consider restricting the free-movement of capital as a barrier to trade?

    Do we know of the benefits outside models that make assumptions about perfect competition, full-employment, perfect information etc.? How do these ‘benefits’ hold when the removal of barriers is always accompanied by the free movement of capital and the worship of ‘liquidity’ – which only cements it’s advantage over labour as profits are hoovered up and shifted offshore.

    What too, if the removal of trade-barriers is accompanied routinely with ever-more draconian intellectual property (rentier) restrictions?

    Further, to state so simply that ‘we know that trade barriers are routinely harmful’, assumes that there is no benefit for their use to restrict import of sweatshop goods or from chronic polluters to name just a couple of reasons why they might be required.

  10. 'We also know that erecting barriers against your neighbours is extremely unlikely to be offset in any significant way by doing deals with countries further away. This is knowledge derived largely from empirical evidence and uncontroversial theory and agreed almost unanimously by economists.'
    It is those tariffs and distance that mean that no-one over here owns Chinese-manufactured stuff like smartphones, i-pads, or rubber balls. And why there is no pigment (almost entirely made in Asia) in ink any more so everything is in plain packaging these days.
    Oh, hang on... what was that about selling snake oil?

    1. And this is why we have experts, who go beyond this kind of argument, and consistently find that distance still matters. Sure distance is not prohibitive, when wage differences are large enough or because of climate. But what researchers always find is that transport costs are still an important factor.

      But who needs experts when they get in the way of a really bad policy.

  11. Fairly recently, when watching a TV documentary about German soldiers fighting in Normandy, it occurred to me that half of them hadn't even voted for Hitler in 1933, after which Germany stopped having democratic elections for quite a while. I've never known though about the other half, those who had voted for Hitler. Were they, by 1944, beginning to regret their decision to vote for him ? With the Russians moving westward, the Allies moving eastward as their bombers gained the upper hand over Germany, there was an awful lot of evidence that Hitler's approach to Germany's problems was the wrong one. Did support for Hitler remain firm as the other half ignored this evidence and believed the Goebbels' propaganda? How "hit-you-in-the-face" does evidence have to be before you stop believing the propaganda?
    Are we in a similar situation today? Your November post entitled "Trump: misleading the people" contained a "share of income going to the top one percent" bar-chart showing English-speaking countries holding the top five places in the mini-league of twelve in the bar-chart. The USA and Canada both have access to Fox News, the UK has "The Sun" and Australia has, I believe, "The Australian". And yet surely Norway and Denmark, say, have right-wing tabloids equivalent to "The Sun".
    What is it about English-speakers that makes them so relaxed about inequality? How "hit-you-in-the-face" does the evidence have to be? Certainly the UK electorate in 1997 had so much evidence that it couldn't wait to end 18 years of neoliberal Conservative government, despite the many newspapers telling them not to----apart from, crucially, "The Sun". For non-UK readers, this newspaper is a high-circulation tabloid which in 1997 had given over 15 years of support to the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. A year or so before 1997 it did an about-turn and switched to supporting Labour and its leader, Tony Blair.

    1. Here's a reply to my own post. I'm not sure if Simon will run into legal problems if I mention that Fox News and "The Sun" are part of Rupert Murdoch's empire. Mind you in the UK we are spoiled for choice when it comes to off-shore billionaires with off-shore tax arrangements running our newspapers.

  12. I agree very much with Simon but even supposed globalization is good for you, what about democracy?
    We all know economy is between a buyer and a seller so when u say that barriers are harmful whom do you refer to exactly?

  13. errata I actually agree with Henry

  14. Where the 'desperate for change' argument breaks down is that the same people (presumably) who voted for Brexit voted Conservative a year earlier, while Trump voters were also voting Republican (in fact I understand the Republican down ticket vote was significantly stronger than the Trump vote). Voting for Conservatives and Republicans, the champions of globalisation, neoliberalism, big business, the super rich and the status quo generally, and also the parties which have been running the government in their countries for the past six years (and more), cannot be a desperate cry for change - unless of course voters are profoundly irrational and ignorant, a possibility not remotely to be ruled out.

    There are no doubt many complex causes for both votes, but I believe the notion that 'economics' in any form is the driving force behind them is wrong. Objections to globalisation are not objections to its economic impact, but to its apparent favouring of foreigners over natives. Immigration is opposed not because it has deleterious economic, or even cultural, social or security, effects, but because it again seems to favour outsiders. Any economic, cultural, social and security impacts are just post hoc rationalisations (which isn't to say there are no good arguments against unlimited immigration - just that they haven't been made). Nationalism, and tribalism generally, are the main drivers of both votes, and people are perfectly happy to endure economic pain if their tribal desires are met ("guns will make us powerful, butter will only make us fat").

    This combines poisonously with the anti-expert zeitgeist - it has long been fashionable to look down on career politicians, but it is ever more fashionable to sneer at experts in all fields ("ivory tower academics") - indeed they form one of the many brands of 'elites' that we are encouraged to hate (tellingly, the economic elites get away scot free). The internet too, which was supposed by optimists to be a great force for good by democratising knowledge, has served primarily to polarise by putting people in easier contact with those who agree with them, to undermine reliable and authoritative sources of information, and to democratise misinformation and ignorance. Now anyone with an internet connection and a bit of spare time can consider themselves an expert in any field, and have a ready audience among the like minded.

    With the passage of time people are willing to forget that the last time tribalism was the driving force in the world it didn't turn out too well. We may yet come to think that tens of millions dead in two world wars was getting off lightly.

  15. The snake oil problem is nothing new. It's perhaps just that the taste has changed from that preferred by elites to a more populist one. The public arena is already full of charlatans in pressure groups, special interest groups, public committees, pseudo-charity campaign groups, quangos, NGOs, etc etc... all offering to solve the problems of our time: climate change/racism/sexism/homophobia/third world poverty/inequality/religious intolerance etc etc... All in return for a fee for themselves and their clients/cronies. All sufficiently vaguely defined to make their value intangible and their mission open ended. All of such critical and perpetual importance as to require indefinite funding despite the absence of cost benefit.

  16. I see a confusion here between aggregate benefits to the economy (roughly increased GDP) and benefits to the individual voter. If voters are not benefiting for whatever reason why should they vote for policies that (according to correct expert opinion) produce aggregate benefits?

    Also, voters can only choose between alternatives on offer. No one offered them reduction of inequality, some guarantee that they personally will benefit from economic growth, etc. in fact it appears to me that austerity implies a lack of confidence in benefits from openness.

    Regarding neo-liberalism, I do think it is to blame. Liberals will promote openness but also care about distribution. The neo-liberal consensus has taken distributional concerns off the table.

    Of course the proposed solutions are snake oil. But this is arguably preferable (for neo-
    liberal elites) to addressing distributional issues -- or even having them become central to the discussion. To what extent this was conscious, versus just an unspoken consensus on the boundaries of acceptable discourse, I do not know. The personal emails of media owners would shed a lot of light on this question.


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