The real class war is within the rich

An academic blames ‘elite overproduction’ for political turmoil in the west

Janan Ganesh

In the west, graduates have multiplied faster than the number of elite jobs they might have hoped to fill © Steven Senne/AP

Americans are living through the restoration of their deposed oligarchy. 

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated a Treasury secretary who used to chair the Federal Reserve. 

His choice for secretary of state is another Ivy Leaguer and fixture of Washington. His top economic adviser is an executive at BlackRock.

At each stage of their lives, these individuals saw off an unknown number of also-rans. Most MBAs never shine on Wall Street, just as most Washington lifers never land a West Wing desk. Not quite elite, yet too successful for sympathy: imagine their pique.

Peter Turchin, the academic of the moment, does more than that. He quantifies, cross-refers with other variables and arrives at a theory. Of all the reasons adduced for the political strife of our time, few are as novel as his stress on “elite overproduction”. 

Graduates have multiplied faster than the room at the top, he says, with the “lawyer glut” being especially gross. 

The result is a stock of nearly-men and women whose relationship with their own class sours from peripheral membership to vicious resentment. If this coincides with a bad time for the general standard of living, there is an alliance to be formed between these snubbed insiders and the more legitimately aggrieved masses.

After some acquaintance with Mr Turchin’s work, it is not just Donald Trump’s rise to the White House that takes on a different cast. So too does Brexit. There were never enough working-class whites in the UK’s deindustrialised towns to form a national majority. 

The campaign had to peel off lots of ostensibly rich people, both as voters and as leaders of the movement. The nation’s prosperous Home Counties voted to leave the EU. Liverpool, the poorest big city, voted to Remain. It was hard to credit the sense of grievance among asset-rich baby boomers on the mean streets of Hampshire.

Nor does the theory exhaust its usefulness with the populist right. What is woke culture if not the howl of a generation of underemployed humanities graduates? Since Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, the right has deplored the substance of what the young are taught. “Critical theory” and the politicisation of the west’s literary canon cause particular anguish.

But the problem may be the raw numbers of students, not the precise flavour of their indoctrination. There are only so many jobs for them in publishing and the news media. There are only so many seats in Congress. If postmodern theories vanished from campus, would this surplus of frustrated graduates really just go about their lives as room-temperature liberals?

Prof Turchin is a member of no fewer than three departments at the University of Connecticut. “Cliodynamics,” his polymathic effort to give the study of history some of science’s quantitative rigour, is prone to over-reach. 

But one need not ride with him all the way to see that his core insight, the narcissism of small differences, recurs over time and space. It was not the most impoverished people in France who overturned the ancien régime. It was those several tiers above, held back by class rigidities from the pursuit of their happiness.

If Prof Turchin is right, there is a reckoning on the way for liberals, but a far larger one for their populist enemies.

The first group has to accept that one of its civilising glories — the expansion of higher education — also had perverse consequences. Without a corresponding growth in glamour jobs, it stored up resentment that was always going to find public expression. 

It is a pan-western problem but the fallout is worse in the US because university can indebt people so monstrously there.

Still, liberals can at least trim the academic-industrial complex over time. For populists, the Turchin theory implies a much less fixable problem. If their movement unites the not-quite-elite and the Hillbilly Elegy classes, no governing programme can serve them both. The more time that populists spend in power, the likelier their irreconcilable interests are to show through.

The past four years have underscored the quandary. Had Mr Trump governed as an economic populist, taxing the rich to build infrastructure, he might have won a second term. 

But he would also have forfeited the Fox News anchors, the lavish donors, the high-income voters: people who liked him because he scandalised those slightly above them in the US prestige league. 

They are not the same as those who voted for him as deliverance from real hardship. Formal government exposes the incoherence of the populists. 

Their recourse, says Prof Turchin, lest we relax, might be the politics of the street.

The Stimulus Compromise Is $908 Billion Better Than Nothing

The Senate’s plan is flawed. Doing nothing would be much worse.

By The Editorial Board

         Credit...The New York Times

Americans urgently need Congress to deliver a fresh round of economic aid. Millions of people who lost jobs in the spring are reaching the end of their unemployment benefits. 

Many have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments. Many do not have enough to eat.

A wave of good news about vaccines offers reason for hope that the coronavirus pandemic will loosen its grip next year and that economic growth will accelerate. That makes it all the more important to build a bridge allowing people to get through the winter months.

It is heartening that legislative leaders in both parties say they want a deal before heading home for the holidays. A $908 billion proposal advanced by a bipartisan group of senators offers a reasonable starting point. It’s not enough money, but Republicans are refusing to do more, and Democratic leaders have concluded that some aid is better than nothing.

President Trump now appears to have lost interest in leading the country. But President-elect Joe Biden has stepped into the void, repeatedly urging the necessity of an aid deal and rightly arguing that Congress can do more next year.

“It’s just the start,” Mr. Biden said on Friday. “Congress will need to act again in January.”

The need for aid has been obscured to some extent by the rise of the stock market and by seven consecutive months of job growth. But stocks are owned mostly by the wealthy, and the jobs gains need to be placed in the context of the enormous job losses in the early months of the pandemic. 

Even after those months of job growth, the share of Americans who have lost jobs and have not found new ones is greater than in any other year since World War II.

We are climbing out of a hole so deep that we’re still farther down than we’ve been before.

Nor is it sufficient to rely on coronavirus vaccinations to revive economic growth. Bringing the pandemic under control is a necessary precondition for recovery, but it won’t happen soon enough to protect millions of workers and businesses from experiencing deep damage to their fortunes. 

Some of that damage, like the closure of a business or the loss of a home, may not easily be reversed even once it is safe for people to return to something like normal life.

In the early months of the pandemic, the government took strong and effective action to limit the economic fallout, pumping trillions of dollars into the economy. But the flow of aid has been dwindling since the summer, and several programs are on the verge of ending.

About 12 million Americans are currently receiving federal unemployment benefits under pandemic programs that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The federal government is sending weekly checks to roughly 7.3 million freelance and contract workers who are not eligible for standard state unemployment benefits. It also is sending checks to 4.6 million workers who have exhausted their eligibility for state benefits.

In normal times, cutting off benefits is intended to encourage people to look for work. In the midst of a pandemic, with few jobs available and public health authorities urging people to stay home, that amounts to mindless cruelty.

The end of a patchwork of restrictions on evictions and foreclosures threatens to expose millions of families to eviction. According to the Census Bureau, 6 percent of homeowners and 16 percent of renters reported in mid-November that they were behind on their rent or mortgage payments.

Businesses also need help, particularly as state and local governments impose a new round of restrictions. The number of small businesses nationwide was 29 percent lower in November than at the beginning of the year, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights project. Without federal aid, many more restaurants and stores simply will not survive.

The consequences extend beyond a few months of pain. Rebuilding is much harder than preserving. As businesses close, there are fewer jobs for workers to reclaim. Workers who lose their homes may be forced to move — away from former jobs, schools, communities.

It is worth emphasizing that there is no substitute for congressional action. State and local governments lack the resources; unlike the federal government, they cannot run deficits.

The Federal Reserve is engaged in a wide-ranging effort to support the economy by making it cheap and easy to borrow money, but the painfully slow pace of recovery following the last recession provided an object lesson in the limits of relying on low interest rates.

Investors are eager to lend money to the federal government, and borrowing costs are low. Those raising concerns about future interest payments on federal debt tend to compare the burden with the present size of the American economy. 

But as the economists Jason Furman and Lawrence Summers argue in a new paper, it makes more sense to compare future payments against future economic output, and by that measure, the burden looks a lot less scary. 

There’s no guarantee of future growth, of course, but that’s the point: Invest in economic recovery now, and the nation’s debts will be easier to pay tomorrow.

The compromise now on the table is flawed. It does not provide enough help for state and local governments or for workers. In addition to providing necessary financial help for businesses, it includes a twisted provision providing special legal protections to businesses that fail to protect their workers. But there is no obvious benefit in turning it down.

Millions of Americans are suffering. The situation is deteriorating. Send money now.

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

The Institutional Crisis and COVID-19

By: George Friedman

In “The Storm Before the Calm,” I wrote of two crises coming to a head in the 2020s: a socio-economic crisis and an institutional crisis. The latter has hit us like a hurricane.

There is a distrust of American institutions that crosses ideological lines. A quarter of voters, including half of Republican voters, believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. 

In 2016, there was a widespread belief that Russian meddling helped Trump win the election. Other parts of the theory held that Trump had made a deal with the Russians or was being blackmailed by them. 

This seems to derive from claims by the losers and so was dismissed by the other side. 

But they argue the same thing: that democratic institutions are corrupt and are not to be trusted.

Most interesting is the symmetry. The claims regarding Trump and the Russians had their origins in the Democratic National Committee hack and the Steele dossier, and then expanded outward. 

Many Democrats still think that the claims are true. The current claims regarding the stolen 2020 election originated with Trump himself and will likely be accepted by Republicans for a long time. 

For all I know, one or both claims are correct. What is certain is that the public finds it possible to readily believe the most extreme claims.

This is what an institutional crisis looks like. The most extreme claims of corruption become readily embraced by one faction and condemned by another. 

The belief that the presidency is corrupt becomes the framework of political life.

This goes beyond the political. I have written about the crisis of expertise, of experts who know their own field brilliantly but cannot comprehend the consequences of their actions beyond that field. 

The American government after World War II was built on the sanctity of expertise. 

That principle has since come under challenge in many areas, where the myopia of the experts undermined its depth.

The COVID-19 pandemic drove the point home. There were those who invoked the authority of medical experts as paramount. There were those who argued that, absent a cure, the solution the experts submitted – masks and social distancing – was only marginally effective and ignored the devastating economic and social consequences of the solution. 

There was no clear institutional authority that could strike a reasonable balance.

The institutional crisis inevitably generated a political one. The political system split between those who accepted the rigors of the medical solution and those who were unwilling to pay the price for the medical solution. One faction saw the threat of the virus as cataclysmic. 

Others saw the short-term cure as worse than the disease. The first side demonized the second, the second began to see a deliberate assault by federal institutions on individual liberty. 

Politicians naturally jumped on one side or the other, thereby intensifying the mutual hostility between factions, and made this an overriding political issue.

Perhaps the most interesting point of the institutional crisis are vaccines. In a limited sense, vaccines are not trusted, especially among well-educated groups hostile to what they see as unnatural remedies. With COVID-19, that has become a much larger and broader array of distrust. 

The traditional right-left division dissolves here. What exists are those of all ideologies who are eager for a vaccine and those of all ideologies who will refuse to take it. 

Skepticism of the government’s integrity and competence had been a Republican issue since the New Deal, even as the party became more powerful. 

Support for government utility had been a Democratic position, even as it lost control of that government. Now a movement that professes a new but not yet clear ideology has emerged, and its primary position is that the institutions that govern can’t be trusted. 

In other words, we are seeing the emergence of an anti-institutional movement that does not map to traditional politics. And it emerges at the heart of the current institutional model: the assumption that expertise defines what ought to be done.

The last institutional shift occurred during the Great Depression. It concerned the role the federal government should play in the American economy. 

The current shift raises the question of the very competence of the federal government in solving problems that go beyond the scope of any one area of expertise. 

Just as the Depression transformed the political system, so too will this crisis. What is clear is that COVID-19 has raised the question of institutional competence sooner and with more anger than I expected. 

The division now is the competence of experts in one field to make decisions that involve many. 

Along with it is the failure of the politicians to referee this issue, choosing instead to exploit it by either worshiping experts or treating them with contempt.

America Passed the Trump Stress Test

After four years of President Donald Trump's contempt for established political norms, it is tempting to say that American constitutional democracy has suffered long-term damage. But, as the 2020 election showed, the institutions of American democracy have emerged even stronger.

Eric Posner

CHICAGO – The all-but-completed US presidential election has upset a range of lurid predictions. We were told that ballots would not be counted, voting machines would be hacked, state legislatures would order electors to defy the will of the people, armed thugs would intimidate voters, and riots would erupt – with the police taking the side of the “law and order” president. 

President Donald Trump, true to form, has indeed refused to concede, accused Democrats of fraud, and challenged the election in the courts. But he has no realistic prospect of remaining in office after Inauguration Day.

Those arguing that Trump’s post-election behavior amounts to an attempted coup d’état are misreading the situation. Trump’s refusal to concede means nothing. His legal challenges are frivolous and have been swatted away by courts. He has lost.

While many Republican voters tell pollsters that the election was stolen, hardly any of them have taken to the streets or pursued tactics that one would expect from people who truly believe that democracy has been subverted. There has been no Hong Kong-style uprising. Trump’s attacks on American institutions are largely a form of political performance art.

It is tempting to say that Trump has nonetheless damaged the US electoral system, and American constitutional democracy more generally. The basic claim – repeated with extraordinary frequency over the past four years – is that Trump has subverted certain “norms” that are crucial to the functioning of democracy. 

These unwritten rules ensure that the two main political parties cooperate, that the will of the people is respected, and that politics does not degenerate into violence. If a president flouts or attacks these norms, they will disintegrate, making democracy impossible.

This worry was certainly legitimate. But, paradoxically, Trump’s attacks on American democracy seem to have strengthened rather than weakened it. Consider the election. Political scientists have lamented for decades that too few Americans vote or bother to pay attention to politics. 

Yet voter turnout this year as a percentage of the eligible population was the highest it has been since 1900. Despite the hardships and constraints of the worst health crisis in a century, people donated money to candidates, argued with each other online, and organized on a massive scale. Notwithstanding the conspiracy theorizing, polarization, and persistent sense of turmoil, these are signs of a healthy democracy.

Similarly, while Trump has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people,” often criticizing various journalists by name, major media outlets have flourished. Print and digital subscriptions to The New York Times, one of Trump’s chief “enemies,” have soared, from three million in 2017 to seven million in 2020. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all enjoyed record ratings in 2020. Nor is there evidence that journalists or commentators have suppressed stories or opinions because they feared government retaliation.

The judiciary, another frequent target of Trump’s criticisms, has also maintained its independence. In addition to rejecting Trump’s baseless election challenges, judges have dealt his administration defeat after defeat. 

Trump’s efforts to deregulate the economy, while applauded by conservatives, have been blocked by courts in the vast majority of cases brought before them – and far more frequently than with previous administrations. Courts have also interfered with many of Trump’s signature efforts to limit illegal immigration, in some cases sharply criticizing the administration. 

And while Trump has moved the judiciary to the right, the judges he appointed appear to be taking their jobs seriously.

The larger point is that violations of norms do not always succeed; often, they expose flaws that can be ameliorated through the democratic process. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the norm against serving more than two terms, the norm was codified in the US Constitution with the Twenty-Second Amendment.

And even when violations of norms cause them to disintegrate, that’s not always a bad thing. In many cases, the norms reflected past practices and had outlived their usefulness. 

In retrospect, the presidents who violated them seem farsighted rather than retrogressive. In the nineteenth century, presidents violated norms that prohibited them from campaigning while in office (which was considered undignified) or from appealing directly to the people (rather than working through Congress). 

These norms disintegrated because earlier notions of elite governance lost their purchase on the polity as democratic ideals strengthened. Political norms, like moral norms, are powerful precisely because they cannot be destroyed by a few prominent people. When they erode, it is because they conflict with emerging principles or new political realities.

By contrast, Trump’s attacks on competing power centers in the US political system mostly served to remind people why these power centers are so important in the first place. Trump himself seems to have understood this, considering that his attacks were merely rhetorical. 

As far as we know, he did not take concrete actions to undermine the press or weaken the courts – for example, by ordering investigations or prosecutions, or pushing legislation that could hamper their activities. 

Nor did he use law enforcement or other government processes to harass Democrats or other political opponents, as much as he might have wanted to. His incendiary rhetoric backfired – costing him important votes among Republicans and stimulating massive turnout from Democrats, while doing little to harm his targets. 

Americans’ confidence in public institutions, as measured by Gallup, appears not to have declined over the course of the Trump administration (though a downward trend long predates him).

Trump probably hoped (and continues to hope) that by attacking the election, he could sway Republican politicians, judges, and others to overturn the outcome. Perhaps, if enough voters took to the streets, and enough officials calculated that a grateful Trump would award them with future sinecures, these officials would have delivered for him. But that didn’t happen.

The main reason it didn’t happen – aside from the fact that nearly all electoral officials performed their roles with integrity – is that Trump is not a popular president. Given that he lacked the political support to win the election, it is not surprising that he also lacked the political support to overturn the result.

It will be a long time before historians have fully assessed Trump’s impact on America’s constitutional democracy. Clearly, his term in office has exposed some serious shortcomings, probably the most important of which are the outsized influence of ideologically extreme voters in the presidential primary process, and the excessive role of money in politics. 

But American democracy remains strong – at least for now.

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is the author, most recently, of The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump.