Does Populism Work?

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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91 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Fear is a greater motivator than civic duty, maybe.Report

    • Tracy Downey in reply to Jaybird says:

      Agree with this. Fear of class warfare, becoming slighted in a growing society, a new minority, forgotten by technology, . It truly depends on the messenger fueling the anger. Over the years, it appears that populist anger is now a business to profit And how to exploit until the destruction is run into the ground.Report

  2. Marchmaine says:

    My pet theory is that income inequality is a cultural failure, not an economic/regulatory failure. That is, recognizing that economic benefits are being captured disproportionately matters more than the potential economic “fix”. This recognition exerts cultural pressure to voluntarily (well, somewhat voluntarily) to distribute gains at least temporarily.

    The cultural argument can be both leftist/rightist simultaneously and often is. Of course there are laws passed and regulations promulgated etc. etc. But is has less to do with the laws/regulations themselves than the cultural mood.

    My counter-intuitive pet theory is that Leftist technocratic re-distribution schemes are preferred by the managerial class as the costs can be negotiated and “gamed” far more easily than populist cultural pressures.Report

    • bookdragon in reply to Marchmaine says:

      I suspect you are right in this. I came of age in the ‘Greed is Good’ 80s, with the overwhelming cultural message being that all that mattered was how much $$$ you made and if you trampled others to make more, that only made you even more admirable as a ruthless business genius.

      That mindset is like a bender that we’re only sobering up (and feeling the hangover) from now. I mean, it lasted well into the 00s, with GOP running against Obama even in 2012 on the platform of ‘Makers vs Takers’ with anyone complaining of income inequality being cast as one of the bad ‘takers’.

      Ironically, I think that phrase is going to get turned around in future election cycles to cast workers as the makers and the wealthy as the takers. It’s probably a necessary course correction at this point, but that message can be just a different kind of drug and we’re not careful it will be followed by another type of nasty hangover.Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    I will bring up that thing that everyone hates here. The racialized nature of American politics makes everything a bit more different and difficult here.

    Whether we like it or not, the Republican Party is overwhelmingly white and increasingly becoming the Party of White Identity. This has only increased since Trump’s Presidency with a few exceptions. This turns the Democratic Party into the National Unity Party of everyone who is not okay with what is happening in the GOP. But this leads to a wide range of political beliefs that possibly don’t belong together: You have AOC types, people who hope for a partnernship in BigLaw or consulting, Venture Capitalists, small-business owning moms who might want universal childcare but not high minimum wages, etc. It is hard to have a cohesive economic/populist party under these circumstances.

    The other issue is that populism can play out in Herrenvolk Democracy. A lot of polling shows that a really popular party might soak the rich and be racist and sexist as all hell. Trump was allegedly supposed to be that guy but the kind of economically populist, socially conservative parties never work out.Report

    • The GOP is an international outlier on economic issues, but not really social issues. And if we’re taking about economic issues, you’d think given what you say here the red states would have a higher Gini than blue.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

        The GOP is an outlier on economic issues but not to the extent that you think. Jair Barsolomo, Brazilian’s new populist-rightist President is being advised economically by a Chicago trained economist with full “neoliberalization” beliefs.Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          I’m confused, If he’s being advised into full “neoliberalization” beliefs… in what way is he a populist on economics?Report

          • Will Truman in reply to Marchmaine says:

            His populism is largely in the other sphere.Report

            • Marchmaine in reply to Will Truman says:

              Ok, then to clarify, are we calling Trump’s GOP an outlier on Populist economics? i.e. we’re saying that Trump is governing as a neo-liberal even though he campaigned as a economic populist?

              I mean, I can certainly see that a potentially good campaign wedge against Trump (either for a Republican or a Democrat)… but I’m trying to keep the plot on what a consistent Economic Populist looks like and does.Report

              • Tracy Downey in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Would Jeremy Corbyn suffice?

                *asking for a friend.*Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Marchmaine says:

                @Tracy Downey … Good question. Thinking on it, Corbyn is sort of an odd duck. Where the Center Left/Right on the Continent have been losing ground to the Left/Right populists, Corbyn inherited the party from the collapse/in-fighting of the Blairite faction of New-Labour… but he’s more of an old-school Leftist. And therefore neither a Neo-liberal (Blairite) nor a populist of the leftist variety. As such, he’s very much out of step with trending politics, and I expect him to be a footnote in relatively short order.Report

  4. Chip Daniels says:

    “Populism” in practice seems to have almost nothing to do with any sort of economic system or class.
    It seems to mostly be a politics of cultural divide, where lines are drawn around the “Rightful People” versus some outgroup of hated interlopers.Report

  5. Brandon Berg says:

    Conjecture: Income inequality is cyclical. Populists come to power when it’s high, and it falls for unrelated reasons shortly afterwards.

    Alternatively, populists flush the economy down the toilet, and this hits the rich the hardest (in terms of income, not utility).Report

    • This certainly makes sense intuitively.Report

    • I might buy that. There’s an old saying that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. I think people severely underestimate how society rights its own ships.Report

    • Alternatively, populists flush the economy down the toilet, and this hits the rich the hardest (in terms of income, not utility).

      So, populism as the contemporary version of pitchforks and torches. One of Cain’s Laws™ covers this: “When too much of the population is denied access to too much of the available tech for too long, Bad Things happen.” In a still-functional democracy, populism. In other governing arrangements, torches and pitchforks.Report

    • James K in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      That could be it. Also, the article doesn’t say where they got the Gini data from, but I imagine it has to come from each country’s own statistics. If so, it may just be that populists are more inclined to falsify official data.Report

  6. California has one of the highest gini indices in the country; Utah the lowest. I think that makes the case that this is more of a cultural thing than a political thing.

    And populists can reduce inequality … for a while. Eventually, they run out of parlor tricks.Report

  7. Aaron David says:

    You have two poles in politics, what the people want on one end (call it populism) and what the ruling class or elite want on the other end. Control goes back and forth between the two as needs are met/not met by the second group, who is given power by the first group. Who is in each group politically changes over time, as nothing is constant.

    It is really not surprising that the Gini varies so little, as left and right politics are equal in this arc of populism to power. It’s like the waves in AC power, always coming, one right on top of the other.Report

  8. Pinky says:

    A decrease in income inequality is not necessarily good or bad. Does it accompany greater wealth or opportunity for the poor? Or was it the result of the rich losing income?Report

      • Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

        Sure. That could have been filmed at my branch meeting last month. But I reject your implication that forestalling temper tantrums is a greater moral good than providing greater opportunity for the poor.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

          (standing in smoldering wreckage)
          “Who could have seen this coming?”Report

          • Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

            That’s an evasion.

            I’ll grant you that people can be petty, and that people think they can gauge the value of another person’s job, and a bunch of other things that you’re not actually spelling out. None of this addresses the relative moral value of equality versus opportunity for self-actualization. Here’s a hint: your first step is to prove consequentialism.Report

            • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky says:

              The moral high ground is held by the researcher who impassively observes the events unfolding.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                The moral high ground is held by the person who notices and predicts outcomes correctly, rather than by the person who makes incorrect predictions but then says “well, I know how the world *SHOULD* work… besides, maybe the world does work the way it should and it just hasn’t happened yet!”Report

              • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                I don’t think the researcher or the accurate predictor hold the moral high ground. The researcher’s duty is to answer questions of fact, in search of a model that conforms to past results. Likewise, the forecaster uses a model that is supposed to predict future results. Neither of these acts implies morality. The only way they could is if we agree that one outcome is morally superior to another. (If we’re talking about policy results, that would imply consequentialism.)Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                The high ground is positional. Not absolute.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                When we all watch the video, do we see the angry monkeys as Trump supporters, angry at the social ostracism of the SJWs, or are they the OAC supporters, angry at a lack of economic opportunity?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                If I had to guess, I’d say that what we see is the Labor Theory of Value.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

              I don’t have to prove consequentialism.

              Which is good because consequentialism doesn’t work.

              The problem is that virtue ethics does work but it doesn’t *SCALE*. So we’re stuck with Deontology.

              But, and here’s the point, if people end up with the Deontology that doesn’t approximate Virtue Ethics, you’d have been better off with attempts at consequentialism with plainly explained “goodness” outcomes because, at least, that can approximate virtue as well before it disintegrates in the face of sufficiently persuasive deontology.Report

    • Reformed Republican in reply to Pinky says:

      I had the same question. You can reduce income equality and still make everybody poorer at the same time. You can increase equality, but also make everybody wealthier. Income inequality is not inherently a problem that needs to be fixed.Report

      • And that’s one of the reasons that red states fare better than blue states, I think: They’re less wealthy and so income is flatter along that dimension. This holds even if you are comparing smaller white states (Vermont vs Wyoming) or large multicultural ones (California vs Texas).

        Which could also help explain the international. The populist countries are just poorer than their non-populist counterparts, controlling for everything else.

        Worth looking into.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Reformed Republican says:

        Income inequality is not inherently a problem that needs to be fixed.

        I’m not sure what work the word “inherently” is doing up there, but it seems to me that income inequality (and wealth inequality and power inequality) present real problems that we might as well call inherent to social systems. We see this play out in the US in what may be viewed as trivial ways – eg., professional athletes using their collective bargaining power to equalize the way profits are distributed – but it certainly seems generally (universally?) true that too much inequality gunks up a society’s political-economic gears. What counts as too much is always the sticky point.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Reformed Republican says:

        Thing is, making everyone poorer is faster, and it results in the wealthy being publicly flayed, which tends to satisfy the petty urges of the disaffected.

        Making everyone wealthier takes longer, and the rich never get what is coming to them, so people aren’t satisfied.Report

        • InMD in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          I’m not sure I agree. I think the idea that the people believe the rich should get whats coming to them varies widely across even similar cultures. I don’t think it’s meaningfully in play in the US (yet). This isn’t France where there’s this long history of populist anti-rich politics and social revolt. It isn’t even Germany or the UK where similar sentiments are well within the political mainstream.

          I think American culture has a high built in tolerance for rich people provided that the inherent advantages the rich aren’t perceived as destroying the basic integrity of our system. The existence of millionaires and billionaires don’t offend American sensibilities until they start overtly operating in a manner that looks like they’re subject to a separate system and set of rules altogether.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to InMD says:

            I think American culture has a high built in tolerance for rich people provided that the inherent advantages the rich have aren’t perceived as destroying the basic integrity of our system.

            I don’t know that this is true anymore.

            Well, maybe it is, but the first time I read that line, I elided the “the inherent advantages” part and read the line as “I think American culture has a high built in tolerance for rich people provided that the rich have aren’t perceived as destroying the basic integrity of our system.”

            And I’m not *SAYING* that the rich are perceived as destroying the basic integrity of our system… but I’d be interested in having that argument and seeing what we could hammer out. (There are definitions for “the rich” that are interesting and definitions for “the rich” that aren’t, after all.)Report

            • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

              And I’m not *SAYING* that the rich are perceived as destroying the basic integrity of our system…

              My suspicion is that Trump was elected in part because the electorate *already* believes the rich have corrupted our system, and voting for him (as a billionaire owner of government/society) was justified as the best/least bad/only corrective available, especially given his hostility to the establishment-oriented status quo.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                Give us an example of Trump’s hostility to the establishment-oriented status quo.

                Better yet, give us a few, and lets see if we can spot a common thread.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                His entire campaign was based on hostility to the status quo. Eg., he was 100% anti-GOP during the primary, socially, economically, politically. Less so in the general, but the seeds had already sprouted.Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Stillwater says:

                Other than words in his campaign, I don’t think he’s really delivered on his economic populism. And that’s perfectly fair game for 2020… I mean, assuming that his Chinese Tariffs don’t work – even though I’m reading just today in the Washington Post how China is ready to come to the table with concessions… so um, assuming nothing like that bears meaningful fruit.

                But the fact that he stole a march on the Democrats (and the Republicans) is still an embarrassment to the Democrats (and the Republicans), and not a failing of Trump.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                I know what he said.

                What tangible actions has he taken in his two years in office to oppose the establishment oriented status quo?Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                What evidence do we have to suggest that the average Trump voter cares even in the slightest about his economic promises?

                Exhibit A- he still retains his entire base of support, even while betraying every single one of his economic promises.

                Why is that?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                That’s a different topic Chip.

                It’s like saying “I know you thought Bryce Harper was going post .320/40/120 but what did he deliver once he actually took office in right field.”Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                March, no he hasn’t delivered…Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Stillwater says:

                “I don’t think he’s really delivered on his economic populism. And that’s perfectly fair game for 2020”

                Which should make it pretty easy for the Democrats to out-populist him, right? You only have one job.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                Dems can outpopulist him for the liberal populist vote, sure. I think the general is going to come down not to competing populisms, but Dem policy proposals (nuts and bolts) and Trump’s populism (rhetoric). Forgetting about the role negative partisanship plays, liberal populists will likely vote Dem and conservative principle folks will likely vote Trump. The murky middle, where elections are decided, will have to determine whether they think Dem corruption/ineptitude is better or worse than Trump corruption/ineptitude. Seems to me, anyway.Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Stillwater says:

                @Chip Daniels… “What evidence do we have to suggest that the average Trump voter cares even in the slightest about his economic promises?”

                A few things come to mind:
                1. Economics is one vector of support, not the only.
                2. Despite not delivering Populist economics, the Economy (today) is humming along.
                3. The other party needs to make its case on why its economics are good populist economics, not economics for the meritocracy.
                4. I think there’s a general misconception on the Left that all leftist policies are definitionally populist… to which I’d say there’s a difference between Medicare-for-all and Medicaid-for-all, or shudder, VA-for-all. If you think you are saying M4A and people are hearing VA4A, that might be their error, but its your problem.
                5. The Left’s social positions are extreme and getting more so… that won’t be popular here, but I’m happy to point it out.

                There’s an election in 2020… if the Democratic party wishes to concede the power of a populist Economic message to Trump or fails to articulate how their “nuts and bolts proposals” are populist reforms… then laissez les bon temps rouler.

                Nobody’s promising you 100% of the votes… and heck, y’all got a larger plurality of the votes last time anyway… I can see why doubling down on everything looks appealing… it would look appealing to me too. So all I can ask is that you not screw up and lose to Trump a second time.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                No, it is exactly the topic.
                You stated that Trump has a hostility to the establishment, and I say that’s nonsense on stilts.

                At least..with regard to economics. In that regard, Trump is a bog standard establishment Republican, i.e., the exact opposite of populism.

                With regard to the establishment opinion on racial matters, I say he is a very direct challenge.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                If delivering massive tax cuts to the rich and savage cuts to social spending are acceptable to the Trump base, what could Democrats do to persuade them otherwise?

                Either they are feeling no pain from Trump, in which case we have no argument; Or they are feeling pain, but prefer it because it delivers something else they like.

                Either way, I’m unable to conjure up an argument to persuade them.

                Can you?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:


                No, it is exactly the topic.
                You stated that Trump has a hostility to the establishment, and I say that’s nonsense on stilts.

                Nope. I said My suspicion is that Trump was elected in part because the electorate *already* believes the rich have corrupted our system,

                “was”. Past tense. Refers to the campaign.Report

              • Dark Matter in reply to Stillwater says:

                Chip: Give us an example of Trump’s hostility to the establishment-oriented status quo.

                None of the powers that be wanted him. None of the Dems. The GOP even called themselves “NeverTrump”.

                Various members of the media had on-screen meltdowns after his election. Many of them still do. Every time the media attacks him and over reaches or predicts Nazism, it’s viewed as the establishment counter attacking.

                The establishment wanted (and wants) free trade. Trump wants those jobs in America. Similarly Trump doesn’t want illegals taking American jobs, thus both the wall and the establishment’s opposition to it.

                The Justice Department has that whole “Russia stole the election” thing which is probably going to be a HRC/Obama scam.

                If the lens through which you view the world is “establishment” and not “*ism” then Trump looks pretty good. Certainly it’s a struggle and he doesn’t always win but whatever.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to Stillwater says:


                Why do we care about the average Trump voter? We don’t need the average Trump voter. We need the marginal Trump voter. Big, big difference.

                And yeah, for a lot of them it’s going to be hammering him on tax cuts and economics. The argument basically being that Trump said he was going to look out for you and he didn’t. It may seem like “If the facts can’t persuade them there’s nothing we can do” but that’s pretty dumb. Fortunately, the Democratic Party isn’t that dumb. I don’t think.

                And for others it’ll be the cultural themes and whatnot. It will (or should) include a lot of the same things that didn’t quite work in 2016 but seems like it might have worked in 2018 and now with added angle of “Aren’t you tired of this?”… there’s a chance that some people who held their nose in 2016 are. There’s a bigger chance it’ll keep some of the traditional Republican voters who went third party in 2016 from “coming home”, which is the Democrats’ biggest liability at this point. If they can keep him to his previous 46%, they probably win (even if the strategy really shouldn’t begin and end there).Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                I only care about the average Trump voter to the extent arguments are made to claim they voted for him for reasons other than racial animus.

                I see it as part of a concerted effort to conceal the seething hatred at the heart of Trumpism, to dress it up and pass it off as acceptable.Report

              • Dark Matter in reply to Stillwater says:

                I think the Dems don’t realize just how hard beating Trump is going to be. All the Presidential contenders entering the ring are doing so because they think he’s weak. He’s not. He’s disorganized, vile, and doesn’t care about a lot of things, but those are different issues.

                A sitting President, even Trump, is the safe/default choice. We will have had 4 years of no nuclear war, no outbreaks of nazism, no hyperinflation. Trump doesn’t have a primary challenger, the GOP will be unified. Trump is extremely popular with the base. The economy is humming along. He seems to have moved past his war on Free Trade.

                I’m not sure what the Dems run on other than “Trump is vile”, and we’ve already seen that doesn’t matter. Further, that’s assuming the Dems don’t make serious mistakes (they will) and they’re unified (they’re not) and that they’re not so far to the left to be unelectable (unlikely).

                Trump over punches. On election day we’re going to find significant amounts of the country were willing to say they disapprove of Trump strongly but they’ll vote for him anyway.

                My prediction is Trump wins, and this time even wins the popular vote. The Dems will run on socialism-will-work and Trump-is-Hitler and it won’t be close to enough.Report

            • InMD in reply to Jaybird says:

              To be clear I think it’s less true than it once was, especially post 2008, and that absent some watershed moments to the benefit of the middle and working classes it will continue to get less true. Or rather that built in high tolerance is not forever or unbreakable.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD says:

            I was speaking more generally. In the US, we retain enough distrust of the government that I think a hard line populist (seize the property, tax everything above $X until it screams, etc.) won’t fly, as everyone will just assume the power players have merely changed hands.Report

            • Marchmaine in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

              To be sure, Populism is a tent bigger than big so that it only really stands on the magic of being everything to everyone. But, even that said, those are extreme things that I’m not even seeing populists demand… Maybe Elizabeth Warren, but she’s assured us she is a capitalist, not a Socialist.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to InMD says:

            The existence of millionaires and billionaires don’t offend American sensibilities until they start overtly operating in a manner that looks like they’re subject to a separate system and set of rules altogether.

            The bank bailouts in 2008 were largely perceived as exactly that, and IMHO drove a lot of the populist revolt. They were the right thing to do; without them we might have had the Great Depression all over again, but it still rankles that the people who caused the problem didn’t suffer the consequences, while working people, who didn’t reap any of the benefits of the crazed financial markets, did suffer job losses and cuts in pay.Report

  9. Road Scholar says:

    GINI is a useful measure but it’s (necessarily) overly reductive in trying to express the shape of a curve in a single number. One big limitation in this kind of analysis is that, by design, it’s agnostic to the absolute level income or whatever is being measured. So two societies, one characterized by massive real poverty and a few very wealthy individuals can have the same GINI coefficient as another society where the masses are relatively well-off and there are a few fantastically wealthy people. (The advantage there is you don’t need to concern yourself wirh the effects of monetary inflation and currency exchange rates; doubling or halving the raw numbers has no effect on the GINI.)Report

    • Pinky in reply to Road Scholar says:

      This is the same conversation as calories on the other thread. It’s an indicator, and it may be helpful, but it’s not all-encompassing. During our Information Age, appraising the value of a piece of information is a necessary skill.Report

  10. Chip Daniels says:

    So apropos of the topic, today Trump delivered his proposed budget, which has massive increases to the defense budget, cuts to Medicare, and locks in tax cuts to the rich.

    So which side of the Populist/ Elitist divide do Trump supporters fall?Report

  11. DavidTC says:

    Why populist leaders would reduce income inequality is somewhat obvious. Populism isn’t a political position, it’s a specific form of…campaigning? It’s merely running for office by introducing ideas that are entirely outside the mainstream and critising the entire political system for barring these ideas.

    Sometimes these ideas are outside the mainstream for the good reason that they are really really stupid, like, epic levels of stupid. *cough*Brexit*cough* Sometimes they are outside the mainstream because they are literally impossible within the existing system, for example, the state-level ‘elect me so I can keep passing abortion laws that get struck down by the courts and ban gay marriage and demand Bible study in schools’ assholes have all hallmarks of populist rage. (And the nice thing about being entirely impotent is that they can’t fail the voters, so can _keep_ being populist, something that generally is impossible once in power.)

    And sometimes those barred positions are ‘workable’, in that they theoretically can be accomplished and society could keep functioning, but mainstream politics deliberately excludes them. This can be good or bad, depending on the policy and why it’s being excluded.

    For example, we’ve previously excluded open racism as a policy in mainstream politics. (All racism must be moderately disguised, or at least have some deniability.) And then Trump ran on a platform of that. A populist platform.

    Likewise, we’ve excluded pretty much the _entire_ left as an economic position in mainstream politics, to the point that the mainstream _Democrat_ economic position is basically center slight-right…and we’ve recently had quite a few populists taking an anti-mainstream position there.

    Note just having positions that are outside the mainstream doesn’t make you a populist. I would argue that Elizabeth Warren, for example, doesn’t really sound like a populist. Whereas Bernie Sanders does. And AOC, honestly, doesn’t to me, or is trending a fine line. I get why people are calling her a populist, but her attacks leftward are not really…important enough to qualify. YMMV.

    Likewise, Trump wasn’t a populist for trying to build a wall and reduce immigration. Plenty of Republicans have proposed that sort of thing, hell, you can find Democrats who did. He was a populist because he attacked the entire system, left and right, basically claiming they were operating for something other than the good of the people, that they were somehow trapped by not being allowed to be open racists, and only he had a solution. *That* is populism. It’s a method of campaigning based on ‘the system is broken and so it’s ignoring these good ideas. Ones that I will implement when elected’.

    So to figure out why populism would, on average, result in less income inequality is pretty easy: Because an obvious failure mode of democracies is ‘rich people buy governments, and then exclude from political consideration anything that would impact them’. And thus, in response, a populist will show up complaining about that, and if they get elected, they tend to do something about that.Report

  12. George Turner says:

    I would posit that what we want to avoid is having current economic winners write rules that ossifies everyone’s current position so the pecking order isn’t further adjusted, so the rich and powerful can stay on top indefinitely. That’s a very common outcome when the rule of law is weak or non-existent and rule by force is the norm. It’s pretty much the whole basis for inherited monarchies.

    Yet it’s also not good to go after the accumulation of capital because that’s how parents who make good decision pass wealth to their children, and if people can’t do that then what’s the point of working or building anything?

    What we’re dealing with is the Pareto power-law distribution, which in part says that wealth will have a very unequal distribution. That’s not because of capitalism, that’s because of the nature of creativity, competence, and industriousness, and probably first showed up about the time we started hunting game or making clay pots.

    There are areas where it won’t have much of an effect, where productive output correlates to pounds of meat on task, such as chopping firewood or digging ore with picks and shovels, and that’s part of what Marx focused on, thinking capitalism is the problem. If coal miners should all get paid the same because they produce pretty much the same output, why should the mine owner be piling up the cash?

    But try applying that logic to a remotely creative enterprise, keeping in mind that figuring out where to put a mine and how to run it requires lots of creativity and competence, unlike, say, collecting firewood off the forest floor, a field where you won’t find many business moguls because competence and creativity aren’t required. Everyone just wanders out and collects downed wood with pretty much equal skill, and they don’t need planning, infrastructure, and management.

    As you get into fields where competence, talent, and creativity are the dominant factors, you get very unequal distribution curves, even where the biological basics are virtually the same.
    Take music. We’re all built for equal competence at it. Within a fairly narrow range, we have the same vocal apparatus, the same ability with language, the same hand-eye coordination. But we don’t earn equal incomes as musicians. The vast majority of the population could only possibly make money at it because people would pay them to stop trying.

    The percentage of the population who could get paid to play at even a small venue is really rather tiny, and the number who could get signed to a record deal or fill an arena on a world tour is freakishly small. You could probably name a good many of those, and that’s on a planet of 10 billion people who in theory are very equally equipped to become a singing legend or guitar hero.

    If you looked at IRS tax forms sorted to show income from playing music, you’d see a staggering inequality. The same is true of art. If you started from both ends of the distribution curve, how many starving artists’ incomes, a measure of output value, would you have to add up to equal one Andy Warhol? Is this because artists and musicians are all right-wing uber capitalist autocrats, or is it because talent and competence in a particular creative field have wildly unequal distributions?

    The left, in thinking the problem is capitalism, is trying to solve the wrong problem. The income distribution problem is due to the Paretto distribution and shows up in every form of social organization, including Marxism.

    But capitalism doesn’t limit us to just the one curve. We have tons of rich people who aren’t artists and musicians. Yes, we have professional athletes, too. But even in athletics, where the fastest person isn’t that far above average, completely unlike art and music, we don’t pay everyone at some rate linearly related to speed. The average teen girl can run the 100 meter dash about 73% as fast as Usain Bolt, but they’re not going to make 75% as much as his Forbes estimated $34 million in income.

    That’s because simply running isn’t actually worth anything, at least remotely like what an athlete can make, but winning at something interesting is. If you were running a delivery service in Manhattan, the pay calculus would be quite different, and Usain might get paid about the same as the teen girls. So he doesn’t work as a runner for a delivery service, though he’d probably be happy to star in a commercial for one – for a ridiculous amount of money. And keep in mind that he’s just a sprinter, not a capitalist plutocrat in pin stripes plotting to depress the wages of teen girls.

    And then of course we have the rest of the economy that accounts for all the non-entertainment income. In each little sector there’s a Paretto distribution, because under capitalism, if you can’t find your niche, you can make a whole new niche. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did that. Some guy in New York put a pair of coffee urns and paper cup dispensers on his backpack and started making six figures working the morning rush hour at the subway station. I don’t know what he does the rest of the day but the short answer is that he could just watch TV because he’s created a more lucrative hourly niche than most of the Ivy League graduates rushing to their Wall Street jobs.

    So in every state, there are countless niches and countless Paretto distributions, and the variance between average state incomes often is due to simple geography, as people are free to move around or replicate new ideas going on in other states, such as frozen yogurt, overpriced coffee, or Uber.

    Populism rises when people get the feeling that the elites in charge are dumber and more self-serving than everyone else. If the emperor has no clothes, why the heck is he still emperor? Who are those goofballs around him, and why do we feel they’re screwing us?

    The Tea Party was a populist wave aimed at the country club GOP, who seemed more concerned with their own perks and the DC cocktail circuit than what was affecting main street or the jobs down at the plant.

    The Democrats are currently having a socialist populist wave from hipsters in Brooklyn who can’t understand why barmaids with international studies degrees don’t make as much as UN diplomats or Usain Bolt. That’s not going to spread much further than Brooklyn, but it might gut their party nationally if their centrists fail to rein it in.

    I think part of what’s driving them is that whenever the people at the bottom of the Pareto curve are doing really badly, social unrest follows. The French and Russian Revolutions were exactly that.

    To avoid those bad things we have all sorts of charity and government aid programs, and those will always be with us because not everyone is going to be very productive in a technologically sophisticated economy. There are many people who are too hard to train, or who have other serious physical or emotional health issues. Some hard-core socialist regimes have addressed the problem by simply eliminating such people, but that’s off the table as a moral or civilized solution and can’t really fix the problem because the talent distribution curve will always have a bottom, even in Sweden, and even in Lake Wobegon.

    Normally white urban elites, who seem to be the core of the far-left movement, would be the last people fomenting socialist revolution. But now they’re buried under massive student debt because the universities who kept feeding them fantasies about socialist utopia were
    simultaneously driving them into the abject poverty of having massively negative net worth.

    On paper, ignoring potential future income, they’re worth vastly less than homeless people, and they probably have some innate sense that something must be very wrong. So they want people who aren’t going to an elite college to pay the way for those that do, I suppose on the notion that the non-college graduates at least aren’t under water with debt. The demand that high-school graduate assembly line workers should pay for the factory owner’s Harvard or Boston College degree is quite a leap, and it’s not going to fly. But it could spark an entirely different populist movement of older, centrist Democrats who might rebel against domination by socially elite Brooklyn hipsters demanding free stuff, more stuff, and more free stuff.

    Time will tell.Report

  13. Dark Matter says:

    The graph on that website shows what data point belongs to which leader. Venezuela is responsible for many of the most extreme data points, maybe enough to move the curve.

    So yes, Venezuela has shown it can reduce inequality, and yes, it wasn’t done by redistribution. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is it was caused by the rich fleeing the country as the economy burned down. Currently Venezuela has little or no food or power. They may hit the point of cannibalism.

    And that graph shows this as an outstandingly great thing. This seems like a methodology problem.

    My interpretation is that GINI, and inequality in general, measures both good and bad things. One guy owning everything where everyone else is a slave is a bad thing. One guy building a successful Trillion dollar business is a good thing.Report

  14. LeeEsq says:

    OT but politically related. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit moves to unseal the documents in the Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal. If these documents get unsealed, there are going to a be lot of powerful names on them.

  15. FortyTwo says:

    When someone’s example of a good society is Venezuela, I’m going to assume there’s a problem. This is why the word socialism doesn’t mean anything anymore. There’s a huge gulf between, say, Medicare part A (hospitalization) for all and the state nationalizing entire industries, but the term is applied to both.Report

  16. Kolohe says:

    This is a tough thing to study. I’m not going to immediate dismiss the academic work of Team Populism, but there are just so many confounding factors in trying determine cause and effect (or even merely decent correlation) in this. Taking a snapshot of 40 different countries at various different times over the past few years – it seems to me almost impossible to put the apples next to the apples and the oranges next to the oranges in that fruit basket data set.Report

  17. Jaybird says:

    Warren is saying some interesting stuff about breaking up the monopolies (or “monopolies”) in tech.

    Here’s the crazy thing, though: Facebook removed one of her ads in which she said that she thinks that Facebook needs to be broken up. (Good Lord. How dumb is that? Seriously, it’s like Facebook is *TRYING* to get congress all up in.)

    If she plays her cards right (and she has not done anything even half as dumb as the DNA test results since the DNA test results), she might be able to transform into a Team Good Populist.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

      It won’t help the optics, but Facebook really does have a policy about talking about Facebook on ads.


      • Jaybird in reply to Will Truman says:


        And there was a law against campaigning within a certain amount of time when Citizens United wanted to put their show on PPV.Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

          Is this where we point out that all TOS are basically self-serving? Including where we voluntarily gave up all of our interests in our own privacy?Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

            Sure. But make that obvious and, next thing you know, there will be calls to have the government “do something”.

            Say what you will about Bill Gates, but at least he knew to start dumping lobbying money and PAC funds into the black hole that is DC.

            Good luck, Bezos. Let’s hope that HQ2 ain’t too little, too late.Report

    • j r in reply to Jaybird says:

      (Good Lord. How dumb is that? Seriously, it’s like Facebook is *TRYING* to get congress all up in.)

      Isn’t it more likely that whatever process Facebook has for removing ads with their logo is automated or at least done by people far enough away from senior management and the government affairs folks that it might as well be automatic?

      And if that’s the case, then seems more than likely that Warren’s folks knew this and put it up the ad for the sole purpose of it getting taken down.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to j r says:

        Well, here’s where we are now:


        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          Flash in the pan?

          I dunno.


        • j r in reply to Jaybird says:

          Jaybird, as sometimes happens, I’m don’t know what your point is. You asked what Facebook was thinking. They probably weren’t thinking anything, because the process is probably automated or close enough to automated that no one particularly high up in FB’s food chain made a specific decision to pull Warren’s ad. I can’t say for sure how it works, because none of the stories that I’ve found on this bother to report on it.

          So, if you point is that politician’s will demagogue and that our credulous media will mostly just amplify claims without providing much in the way of background or analysis, then you are correct.

          By the way, the last line of the Politico story speaks volumes (which is probably why it’s the last line):

          The ads were limited in size and reach, with each costing under $100, according to disclosure details listed online.


          • Stillwater in reply to j r says:

            Facebook just banned Zero Hedge articles from posting or being shared via links.

            To be sure, as a for-profit enterprise with its own unique set of corporate “ethics”, Facebook has every right to impose whatever filters it desires on the media shared on its platform. It is entirely possible that one or more posts was flagged by Facebook’s “triggered” readers who merely alerted a censorship algo which blocked all content.

            Alternatively, it is just as possible that Facebook simply decided to no longer allow its users to share our content in retaliation for our extensive coverage of what some have dubbed the platform’s “many problems”, including chronic privacy violations, mass abandonment by younger users, its gross and ongoing misrepresentation of fake users, ironically – in retrospect – its systematic censorship and back door government cooperation (those are just links from the past few weeks).