Bryan Caplan  

The Most I'll Admit

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Since I think that most news is overblown fluff, I have little sympathy for the endless pieces about "What we've learned about the world in 2016."  Against the background of all of human history, 2016 taught us next to nothing.  If you just discovered that horrible people often gain vast political power with widespread popular support, you're in dire need of remedial history.  If you've just discovered that politicians' personalities matter at least as much as their policy views, you're in dire need of remedial political science.  If you've just discovered that demagogic appeals to national identity work, you're in dire need of remedial psychology.  I am only a messenger.

Still, if you compelled me to articulate what I learned in 2016, here is the most I'll admit.

1. American voters are at the moment even more irrational than I thought they were in 2015.

2. Republicans are at the moment even more nationalist than I thought they were in 2015.

3. Democrats are at the moment even more socialist than I thought they were in 2015.

4. My ability to discern human nobility is markedly worse than I thought in 2015.  I've probably always been this bad, but 2016 helped me see my limitations clearly.

5. While I'm confident we'll muddle through, my odds of a major disaster (nuclear war or something comparable) have risen from 1% to 2% for 2017-2021 (cumulative, not annual).

Since tomorrow is a major news day when people are even less interested in serious thinking than usual, I'll delay my next post until Monday.




COMMENTS (22 to date)
Mark Bahner writes:

What I learned in 2016 was that there's a yuge split in viewpoints between urban and rural areas in the U.S.

ee writes:

Come on Bryan, who did you misclassify as noble?? Name names!

Ethan B. writes:

"4. My ability to discern human nobility is markedly worse than I thought in 2015. I've probably always been this bad, but 2016 helped me see my limitations clearly."

same mayne

Ethan B. writes:

Is Vipul still noble in your eyes? I would hope so!

E. Harding writes:

I, on the contrary, think the risk of nuclear war has fallen significantly when Trump comes into office.

2016 taught all of us that a candidate from outside the political establishment and opposed by nearly all of it can thrive and triumph in a presidential primary -and win the presidency. That is a rarity in U.S. history. The last two anti-establishment major-party candidates, McGovern and Goldwater, lost in massive landslides in the general election.

Harold Cockerill writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Shane L writes:

I think I learned that politics is far more about tribal identity and less about actual ideological or principled differences than I'd thought. In 2016 we saw left and right switch sides on multiple issues with little apparent dissonance. Some were the culmination of slow shifts that took years, like the shifting attitudes towards the EU in the UK (Labour Party called for unilateral withdrawal in the 1980s, without any referendum, while the Tories were eager supporters of the Common Market).

Others took place over the course of a few months, like the comical flipping in attitudes by Republicans and Democrats towards Putin and Russia, as illustrated by this Yougov/Economist poll:
http://img.huffingtonpost.com/asset/scalefit_630_noupscale/58518cbb1800002c00e42a1e.png

The right are suddenly anti-NATO and calling for fair trade, not free trade. Left-wing veterans of the 1990s anti-globalisation protests have decided they liked globalisation after all. The right want deficit spending, the left are concerned about public debt. The left suddenly worry about economic consequences of populist policy, the right suddenly scoff.

In some cases this is a matter of different groups within left and right rising or falling in significance, but I have seen actual individuals changing their minds in conformity with their tribe, over the course of a few months!

On the one hand, this is promising for the possibility of cooperation as it means the ideological differences are not really that great and either side shares lots of common ground. On the other hand, it suggests they are both too mutually contemptuous to work together. If the main point of one's politics is to hurt the other side, even if it hurts your side too, I can't see much cooperation in the near future.

(Time will tell, though, I'm fairly unsure if this interpretation of events is correct. No bets with Bryan on this!)

dwb writes:

American voters are irrational!!! LOL

No: 1-Economists underestimated the adjustment costs of trade shocks. The fact that after 8 years, broader measures of unemployment and labor participation are still not at pre-recession levels itself is prima facie evidence of large adjustment costs in the labor market.

2- Freedom and self determination have value. People will very often choose to throw off the yoke of Washington in favor of local self determination (or: throw off the yoke of Brussels, or the "Global Elite"), even if there is a cost. People are conflating ordinary desire for local self determination with nationalism. The American DNA is to reject rulers in far away places even if it means fighting a war to do it. Most of the politicians who ran (Bush, Clinton, Kasich) all represented the Washington establishment. Cruz got the 2nd most votes in the Republican primary, he was almost as hated in D.C. as Trump.

The beauty of the American System of separation of powers is that it makes it safe to throw off the D.C. establishment from time to time. Trump will have to struggle hard to beat Obama's record of getting smacked down 44+ times at the Supreme Court. Obama thought he was legislator in chief.

The real answer to #1 is #3: "Democrats are at the moment even more socialist than I thought they were." The coup-de-gras was the Obamacare premium increases a few weeks before the election.

The reality is that Americans are far more rational, and have far more faith in American institutions than elitist economists.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm with Shane L on this.

The most depressing thing to me about this election year is the speed and ease with which conservative Republicans switched sides on free trade. As soon as Trump got into office, and in many cases, even sooner, Republicans began wafflings and inventing reasons why made our trade agreements were really bad ideas after all, and maybe there was something to this whole protectionism thing.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Suddenly, the interests of white working class males are the top of the concern list, as if that's the group of people in the most dire need of government assistance.

Worse yet, is the veer into the hard nationalist right on immigration issues. Republicans were always anti-immigration, but this year, they are adopting stances on immigration who arguments are imported wholesale from white nationalist movements on the extreme right. This comes from the apparent merger between the so-called alt-right (really a collection of white supremacist organizations) and the populist right. Suddenly they are espousing white identity politics and making anti-immigration arguments that Hispanics (who are Christians of European heritage) are just too different from us to integrate.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen much evidence that Democrats switch sides in the opposite direction on trade, although it could happen. If the D's suddenly got all free markety, that's a development I would joyously embrace. But the sanders thing shows they are more socialist than ever.

So, our choices are now between national socialists (Trump) and international socialists (Democrats). I suppose Time was right when it declared that we're all socialists now in 2008.

This was not a good year to be a libertarian.


Cullen writes:

@Mark Bahner

Having moved from Chicago to Central Illinois and back during this election cycle, I can absolutely attest to that. Both take for granted that their views aren't universal because of the echo chambers they live in. I will say that the city dwellers are much more oblivious to the existence of people who could disagree with them than people in the more rural downstate area - especially given the demographics of this state.

None of the political flip flops or table turns shock me. Disappoint me, yes, but not shock me. The Republican/conservative lip service to free trade and liberty are always tenuous from my perspective.

TMC writes:

@ E. Harding Trump has probably lowered the risk, but the Iran deal has raised it more. On balance, an increase.

@ Shane L I disagree.

1. The EU is very different than the EU of 1980. It has changed from commerce to significant control of the member states. Labor likes the heavy gov't aspect and Tories do not.

2. Correct about NATO and trade, but that's more Trump than conservatives in general.

3. I don't see a change on debt. Liberals still want to spend more and Trump is talking about unprecedented cuts in spending.

drobviousso writes:

Learned that some of those SoCon values I've been snearing at were maybe a lot more important than I gave them credit for. A bit more of stable families, public decorum, and faith in institutions (both public an private) seem like they might be pretty nice right now.

@Mark Bahner
Yep.

@Hazel Meade
Reread Mark Bahner's comments. We haven't approached anything like the "hard nationalistic right" as I'd recognize it from when I moved out of Appalachia about a decade ago. What we see no is an incredibly soft version of it. Wanting to build a wall and deport immigrants that commit crime is pretty milquetoast by comparison.

Still horrible from my libertarian perspective, but don't fool yourself into thinking that this soft nationalism is hard. There's a world of hard left.

LD Bottorff writes:

Professor Caplan,
Regarding your first sentence, I am totally in agreement. I learned a lot of things in 2016, but very little of it came from the news, or the outcome of the election.
This was a good post. The responses are mostly thoughtful and far less rancorous than many discussions.
Regarding human nobility, I ask, are people still adopting needy children? Are people still supporting private and church missions that help people in poor countries? I think they are. I find much human nobility, but I'm not looking for it in my newspaper or on the news channels.

Matt Skene writes:

We just got the craziest protectionist rant in history from our new president. Still sure we'll muddle through?

Thomas Hutchesoon writes:

The voters are no worse than I thought but the ones who seem most mistaken about the benefits from trade were unfortunately distributed geographically.

James M. writes:

@Hazel Meade

Totally agree with you about free trade. Trump actually used the p-word today during his inaugural address.

Melor Yakov writes:

Caplan seemingly defines "rational" as agreeing with his world view and any deviation from his world view is "irrational".

Arguably, people have completely rational reasons to want to pause or slow immigration and Trump would be a completely rational voting choice, just not aligned with Caplan's view.

"This was not a good year to be a libertarian."

I view myself as a libertarian and I would disagree with you. Many libertarians fully support immigration limits. Famously Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and of course, Peter Thiel.

Even in this econ blog circle, Kling has stressed that the issue of immigration is primarily not an economic one. Tyler Cowen, while generally supporting much less limits on immigration, seems sympathetic to the resistance.

Foobarista writes:

For most people, fixed "principles" are luxury goods.

Unless you're very comfortable with your life, you'll support things that are seen to help you, and oppose things that are seen to hurt you.

For things that don't seem to affect you directly, principles may come into play, but often popularity and moral narcissism also have a strong influence.

Weir writes:

Suppose we were talking about wealthy fans of occupational licensing laws, or wealthy fans of zoning laws, or of raising up other barriers-to-entry that specifically benefit us wealthy tourists instead of them, the rural hicks.

The appropriate word would be greed or selfishness. We call it nationalism when other people vote for the same kind of lousy policies that we love, sure, when it makes life easier for rich people like us. But that's inconsistent. Poor people are selfish, same as rich people. We don't call it nationalism when we do it. We don't call ourselves populists. But feather-bedding is everywhere. Rent-seeking is universal.

Rich people aren't going to stop insulting poor people, but that could be a lesson. We could stop berating other people for being subhuman scum. We could stop saying "you didn't build that" to people who went ahead and built something despite all the barriers that we put in their way.

Deploring people isn't persuading them. Threatening British voters with World War III and Great Depression II for voting against the EU's wine lakes and butter mountains, against the EU's tariff wall, the wall that the EU erected between Britain and the outside world, for voting against the EU's crony-crafted regulations on vacuum cleaners and vaping: The argument in support of the EU's subsidies and diktats and tariffs was shut up. And it wasn't persuasive, coming from people who openly despise people who aren't like them, those people who make up the nation, that nation that we seasoned tourists are yet to visit.

Josh Wexler writes:

2% for nuclear war or something comparable in the next 4 years?!! I'll take that action!

The last time nuclear bombs were dropped was in a war that killed ~3% of the human population- bout 210mil w today's world pop. Presumably, since there is a lot more nuclear weaponry nowadays, and WMDs are far more likely to be used by non-state actors, we'd expect a nuclear war to consumer a greater % of lives.

But I'll be sporting and lay you 50-1 on 210mil war related deaths being the over/under btw today and 1/21/2021. America must be involved in the war (tho that's pretty much a given for a war of that scale). You have the over, I have the under. My $5k to your $100 USD?

mico writes:

What Trump has told the electorate is that he is going to bring jobs back by imposing trade barriers on China, because that is an argument they will buy.

What Trump is actually going to do is hold a bonfire of taxation, regulation, and government departments.

Trump is doing exactly what a libertarian would do who has read your book and cares about winning politically rather than exchanging ideas with other intellectuals.

Matt Skene writes:

Trump isn't pretending to support protectionism. He's been making protectionist claims since before he was running for anything. He's just an average mercantilist. He's opposed to freedom in all its forms. He's the least libertarian candidate possible.

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