Brexit, Trump & economics

I’ve been asked to put my little Tweet-storm into a single place. I’ll do that here and expand only slightly on it. That means this blog is not a complete argument… feel free to suggest issues that need exploring further:

So here are some short thoughts on Brexit/Trump and economics. In particular what do the problems of parts of Greece, of Gary, Indiana, USA, of Bradford in the UK, Friedland in Germany and many other towns across Europe and the USA tell us about the voter backlash we see in the Brexit vote and in the support for Trump?

Fundamentally, these are all places where the economy just does not supply enough jobs for the local population. As a result, one of the things we see is that young and talented people who can leave, tend to do so, in pursuit of a normal economic life.

However, enough people are left behind, particularly enough middle-aged people, (who employers really aren’t interested in paying to retrain — we’ll come back to this point later) that it is clear that this isn’t just a problem of “the jobs and the people are in different places.” One of the reasons I name a bunch of towns from across the USA & Europe is to illustrate that this is a wide pattern. A further point to consider is that in many other areas of the world, where they don’t have our “first-world problems” they have another, parallel problem — significant parts of the population are still outside the mainstream “modern” (industrialised/specialised) economy. (Either in the black economy or supported by subsistence agriculture.)

When you put all this together it becomes clear that our “economic system” simply isn’t generating enough activity for number of people we have. Naturally enough, those who end up on the refuse pile aren’t happy about it. This shows through in all sorts of ways & anthropologists learn lots of interesting things about the ways anger feeds prejudice, violence and lashing out. But to see those as the root of story is just to miss the heart of the matter.

If the problems were in small patches, we could blame the people (as many do) for not building better lives for themselves, but it’s clear size of problem and spread around the world highlights a systemic problem. Whether we win or lose this round of politics, whether we beat off threat of Trump & hard Brexit or not, we need to face up to key economic issue of our time:

How do we arrange our economy to actually give at least most people a chance to participate in it?

An aside on the “middle-aged” — one of the thinking traps around this issue is to concentrate on the failings of individuals. The fact that we see businesses have no interest in retraining older workers shows that we in fact have a system level problem where the levels and kinds of economic activity we have do not require the numbers of people we, humanly as well as politically, need to integrate into our economic system. One might even propose this as a useful measure of “is this problem still systemic?”