April 27, 2017

A Hypothesis about Working-Class Rage

Patrick Marren
Principal

There have been many ideas about why working-class folks hate political elites, especially liberal ones, these days. I'd like to add one more: prediction.

Prediction is universal among political actors and commentators. And it is universally futile. No one can predict the future. Yet all pretend they can, partly because they don't understand that there might be alternative approaches that will better prepare them for that future. 

Educated liberal elites really take it in the neck for being wrong about the future, even though there's a very good case to be made that they do a better, or maybe just a less-atrocious, job of predicting than conservatives do. (Remember the Clinton 1993 tax hikes that were going to destroy the economy? How Obamacare was going to destroy job creation? The pre-2008 Bush tax cuts that were going to create permanent shared prosperity and "The Ownership Society?" The "cakewalk" in Iraq?) 

But liberal elites seem to implicitly promise that they know better, because they went to Ivy League schools and have had their career tickets punched at all sorts of establishment institutions to which middle class Americans generally don't have access. 

Also, liberal elites tend to act as though they KNOW what the future will bring, and to reject other, less "educated," opinions as lesser and ignorant. 

And this may be part of their problem. When you not only say you know what the future will bring, but also disparage those who disagree with you as dumb, you will not be cut much slack when you are sometimes wrong - or maybe worse, are right about things that turn out to be less relevant (like the unemployment rate, when the real measure might be quality of jobs created vs. jobs destroyed, especially in key swing states). 

Meanwhile, even if your opponents have an objectively worse record on prediction (remember the Obama hyperinflation? the Obama stock market crash? the Obama second 9/11?), if voters think that YOU think that THEY are dumb, they will reject you and all you advocate. "If you're so smart and things are so great, and what you predicted should happen has happened, why am I still so miserable when you're telling me I should be grateful?"

A larger problem may be that our society has developed an unhealthy appetite for prediction. I've talked about this before (see my column from after the election). Rather than accept the fact that we cannot know what the future will bring, and adjusting by imagining the full range of plausible futures and preparing for as many eventualities as possible (hint hint scenarios scenarios), we would much rather PRETEND that "experts" can predict the future. Because that gives us the opportunity to barbecue said experts when they inevitably turn out to be wrong, and then to turn to other experts who we will pretend can predict the future, whom we will in turn pretend can predict the future until THEY turn out to be wrong, and whom we can then in turn barbecue.

Maybe in the distant past this worked fine. Maybe the pace of change was slow enough so that our "experts" could predict where the prey animals would be migrating to and when, and when sunlight would be shining directly through Stonehenge and what that meant. But now change appears to have accelerated past the point where we can predict the future values of the variables we have, up to now, depended upon to succeed. In fact we may not be able to even predict what those variables will BE in the future. The entire form of our predictive "equation" may well change. 

In the face of such radical uncertainty, and the obvious failure of elites to predict or deal with the sudden dearth of working-class livelihood, the natural human reaction appears to be not to do scenario planning (sadly for us scenario planning consultants), but rather to retreat into tribal groups, curse everyone who thinks we're wrong (or worse, dumb), and double down on the same stupid doomed prediction game, which will in turn guarantee a never-diminishing fund of blame and recrimination against our enemies who predictably fail to predict correctly. It's a breeder reactor of strategic failure.

It's difficult to imagine a way out of this standoff. Scenario planning is a rational and useful approach to planning for the future. But it fails to feed our deep human need for scapegoats. EVERYONE is inevitably wrong when they predict, according to scenario planning, not just those we WANT to be wrong. "Liberal elites," still less "conservative elites," can't simply say to America, "I guess we underestimated the complexity of reality up to now, but you can trust us from now on because we're going to develop qualitatively and quantitatively distinctive yet plausible multiple scenarios," because the electorate seems to demand the projection of certainty, and admission of error is, increasingly in this social media-driven political hellscape, a ticket to oblivion.

Until our politics rewards an honest humility, instead of cocksure tribal arrogance, we may be in for some tough times as we continue to opt for false certainties over more complicated truths. Something like scenarios SHOULD be the way that all serious problems of future uncertainty are tackled. But in comparison to the mountains of crude numerical projections employed in government and private sector budgeting, and the even cruder type of ideological prediction done by pundits and politicians, scenarios barely amount to a molehill in all of human history. Perhaps it's because, by their nature, they cannot be reduced to numbers in a spreadsheet. (If your "scenarios" can be contained in a spreadsheet, I'll bet you you're doing them wrong.) In a very real sense, scenarios have hardly even been tried.

Expertise is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Because expertise is inevitably based on past experience. Strategy is the anticipation of things that will render past experience irrelevant. Strategy is not relying on your current algorithm to extrapolate into the future; it is finding the next algorithm.

If "liberal elites" (even ones as educated and honored as, say, Paul Krugman, who, like him or not, has a demonstrably less atrocious record of punditry than many of those who detest him) insist that their expertise guarantees they can predict the future in detail, and stake their political fortunes on that proposition, they may find themselves in deep trouble again and again, losing elections over and over and being left wondering why.

Comments  | 

Charles Thomas
...a breeder reactor of strategic failure - an awesome turn of phrase, Patrick! Unfortunately, it captures all too well a dynamic we are witnessing every day.

Thoughts?