The Atlantic sadly features an article illustrating why rough times will be ahead even if, as is most likely, Trump goes on to lose.
Is the economy doing better today than before the Great Recession? Probably so. Is it doing uniformly better? A great big NO. In fact, it is instructive to examine the latest (data through Sep, 2016) report by Joint Congressional Economic Committee on state by state jobs growth. The pertinent summary table is copied and pasted below.
This is a bit more nuanced picture than simple “economy is doing great.” DC is doing great. CA and TX are doing great. OH and IL are not doing so great. In some sense, the economic map spells much trouble for Trump–his performance in several normally Republican states is humdrum, and they should happen to be states with good economy (e.g. Georgia and Texas). Interestingly (I’m prevented by nondisclosure agreement from showing the actual numbers), support for Clinton beyond the demographic variables is quite highly correlated with the economic performance by states: Clinton does much worse in states where the jobs did not recover much from pre-Great Recession levels, while outperforms the expectations in the states that have. Of course, this fits neatly with the Gallup study on support for Trump: while individual economic status is not a very good predictor of support for Trump, being in an area that is doing badly economically is.
This should not be a shocker: people don’t learn about the state of the economy by watching economic data, certainly not the national averages. Perhaps the nation, on the whole is doing OK or better, but the benefits do not accrue to you and your neighbors, quite frankly are irrelevant. Worse, they might be even more of a reason to believe that either the data is misleading (true, in a sense) or downright deceitful (false, but can you blame them?) In the recent years, inflation has been low, but not so in terms of fuel and food (which, of course, are kept out of inflation calculations). I’ve had the nagging suspicion that among those for whom food and fuel make up significant sources of expenditures (i.e. the poor and the elderly), inflation statistics are viewed with utter derision. And this is not just an academic concern: adjustments in Social Security (SSA) payments, for example, are tied to inflation, and ironically, those to whom SSA matters most, i.e. the poor elderly, the rise in food and fuel prices are most relevant. For them, the conclusion is inescapable: the economy is doing lousy and the “officials” are lying, for all intents and purposes, as far as they are concerned. (maybe not “lying,” technically, if they care that much–but disseminating “misleading” information is no different.)
To me, the attitude such as that undergirding The Atlantic article spells a dangerous abuse of data and statistics, made worse by the fact that practitioners do not seem to realize that they are abusing the data. That the economy is doing better on average does not mean that everyone is doing better: it is possible for the average economy to do better if you increase the everyone’s wealth twice while confiscating everything from all but one person and give everything to that last person. The deviations from the average change, for practically everyone, will be huge: negative for almost everyone and hugely positive for that one person. The “average” does not capture the reality in its entirety. If the deviations are huge, knowing the “average” is, if anything, misleading. From different perspectives, the reality looks different: if someone thinks the reality is different from what you think, that could easily mean that they see something that you don’t. Maybe they are not dumb. Perhaps it is you who are partially blind and you should try to see what it is that you don’t see in your data. But if the data is recruited to construct an argument for one side or another, trying to see what others see that you do not is not merely discouraged, it is practically forbidden–because your side must be right and the other side wrong. So if the economy looks to be doing well (or badly) but the others don’t see it, they must be lying and of ill-will. This is, I think, stupid and dangerous, quite frankly.
We don’t need to agree with the policy goals and preferences of the Trumpists. But it is critical that we recognize that they are coming from actual concerns that affect their lives, which, with an open-minded approach to the data, should be apparent. It’s worth remembering that Weber’s argument, about the bureaucracy, was much more than simply describing the “ideal bureaucracy,” but providing the context in which such bureaucracy was needed: in a more complex world (and today’s world is more complex than that 100 years before), everyone, regardless of their political viewpoints and orientation, needs good information about the “facts” to lay the ground for political debate. The mission of the “ideal” bureaucrat is not to shape the “political” outcomes but to ensure that the politics takes place on as factual and realistic basis as possible so that the outcomes, regardless of who wins, will be addressing real problems efficaciously, by providing as good an information as possible that any and everyone can use–and establish such professional reputation that no one can doubt the integrity of their information.
Wonkism, sadly, takes the trust in information for granted, and reduces the information to a state subordinate to scoring political points. For those who cannot evaluate information on its own merits, and for almost any “technical” information, that is practically all of us, the only thing that is obvious is that the information is being used to score political points, and for those who don’t agree with the politics, they are all “lies,” regardless of whether they are factually true or not. We need bureaucrats, of the Weberian kind, not wonks. For the upcoming election, that means that we need to use the economic and political data to see how the state of the economy is affecting the electoral patterns and hopefully do something about it to address some of the worst possible consequences, at least, not abuse it to score political points by claiming that Trumpists are lying hypocrites who “deserve” whatever they get. This is, I think, an even more urgent task especially if Trump loses, which is quite likely (and equally true even if he wins–I honestly don’t think even Trump himself understands the real sources of his support–which would multiply the tragedy were he to be elected). Trump may be gone (or in the White House), but Trumpists in the electorate will remain and their needs will not be understood, let alone addressed, if the status quo continues (that includes Trump, incidentally)/