22 Dec The Year Populism Was Right and the Experts Weren’t
Two thousand and twenty has been an odd year. A year on which more books, unqualified articles, and uninformed opinions will be voiced than possibly any other year in the history of our species. Then again, we all have megaphones of various sizes these days ‒ and access to blogs and Twitter and newsletters and informational overloads such that this year’s informational misuse is not exactly an achievement.
In one sense, the year has been a turning point. For decades, the chattering classes ‒ politicians, journalists, authors, academics ‒ have bemoaned “populism” as a political force. While a contentious term and not quite clear to whom it really applies, it is mostly used as a slur for politicians calling for things with which the speaker strongly disagrees. A more concrete description includes a) a claim to represent the “real people” instead of the fake elites that the establishment protects (this is a sentiment that all democratically elected officials share and so they’re all more or less populist) and b) wanting to act very quickly to solve what the populists and the “real people” see as some immediate danger.
In the last twenty years or so of horrified indignance against populists in the West, these dangers have variously been immigration, Chinese competition, the European Union, or the bankers, but could in principle be anything that concerns “the people” and something that its current leaders aren’t addressing.
In 2020, that external force became a virus. A virus that at first seemed to be magnitudes more dangerous than others of its kind, but on closer inspection is more like a garden variety of seasonal colds and flus that we used to yawn at.
Instead of investigating, debating and contemplating, as establishment politicians have pretended to do for the last decades, the world’s leaders overwhelmingly jumped into high gear; they did what elected officials were accused by “populists” not to have done before, which is acting. We must do something, as The Politician’s Syllogism goes, and imposing all sorts of invasive policies on people is something ‒ so it therefore must be done!
The pandemic, writes The Economist in a leader piece for its Christmas edition, “is impervious to populist denials,” so let’s engage in some so-called denialism.
Everyone Is Wrong
In a London Review of Books essay from last year titled ‘Can the Poor Think?’, Malcolm Bull remarks on some awkward misses by the expert establishment in recent times:
“It has become clear that it is possible for experts to be completely wrong about matters of real importance: the presence of [Weapons of Mass Destruction] in Iraq before the Second Gulf War; the stability of the world economy before the 2008 crash; the probability of Trump’s winning the US election. So why should they not also be wrong about climate change, the desirability of vaccination, and the consequences of Brexit? These aren’t unreasonable questions.”
Anyone who has read his Hayek, or Bill Easterly’s 2014 denouncement of the development economics and aid industry, The Tyranny of Experts, is at no odds to understand why. Poorly structured systems select experts that don’t receive enough feedback from reality and don’t bear the consequences of their actions.
For a few years after the thoroughly surprising (to elites, anyway) victory of Trump and Brexit, the chattering classes were all on this. The New York Times promised to cover all of America and include a diversity of opinion ‒ a promise that lasted for about three years ‒ and posh authors wouldn’t stop writing books about those that globalization left behind. Post-truth ran the world, they explained, and nobody really seemed to care for the facts or nuance of any matter.
Arrived March 2020 and the experts sounded the alarm. This virus was uniquely suited to harm us: “This was the Other that justified a once-in-many-generations national emergency that required an end to our way of life.” Fatality rates were allegedly magnitudes higher than other coronaviruses; asymptomatic spread was everywhere, so we must contain even the healthiest of us; masks don’t work but we mandate them anyway, and even those experts who first openly rejected them were overruled by symbolic-minded politicians who wanted desperately to act.
Only the discarded populists, the Nigel Farages of the world, or the paranoid libertarians could possibly object to government overreach in such an important time. Everyone else got in line and we all panicked. When politicians and health professionals imposed all these ever-changing rules, most regular people presumed that there was something to them. Surely those in charge wouldn’t mandate anything this drastic if it weren’t working or unless they knew what they were doing…?
Little did we know about the appalling nature of government ‒ or perhaps we knew but momentarily forgot.
And the ordeals got worse and worse and worse, while the virus did its own thing, entirely unperturbed by whatever measures the experts invented to conquer it. The longer the farce went on, the more the people started to ignore them: almost as many Americans travelled for Thanksgiving as usual, despite our overlords publicly chanting against it. Societies developed this game where officials made grandstanding speeches before they themselves cheated the very rules they imposed; the rest of us cheated the rules too, whenever we got a chance: ignore masks when nobody sees; go outside even when we’re not allowed to; have friends over when nobody noticed; visit the park or the countryside even when prohibited; hold mass protests if your woke issue is important enough.
In the face of overwhelming evidence against their pandemic policies, the establishment stuck to their story, misinterpreting reality as the cases and deaths came down in the late spring and summer ‒ an outcome that seemed to prove that the public campaigns against the virus worked. Never mind that the curves reversed themselves before policies started “working” and that they didn’t do so more rapidly in jurisdictions that tighten the noose the most.
Deep down 2020 has taught us that officials don’t have a clue, that they don’t control what they pretend to control, and that their measures aren’t targeted to or calibrated for stopping the spread of a virus.
The Digital Vindication
Or take another bottom-up invention, derided by the establishment it sought to overthrow: Bitcoin, the infamous cryptocurrency that ‘expert’ economists love to deride. Its returns this year ‒ 380% from its March low, 230% for the year as of this writing ‒ put its dollar-price way above its ridiculed “bubble territory” from 2017. Just like the programmers and oddballs and aficionados always said.
As a monetary technology, bitcoin still suffers from the flaws those of us trained in monetary economics said for the “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” that Satoshi intended. But the narrative shifted markedly in 2020, and Wall Street institutions and corporate treasuries ran head over heels to get a piece of this un-inflatable and censorship-resistant technology. A portfolio hedge against crazy governments and central banks of which we had many.
Bitcoin’s return this year is rivalled only by Tesla’s 700% rush, another pooh-poohed asset run by an eccentric outsider and fueled by passionate followers. This too is a kind of underdog story where non-experts strongly believed in something that the experts routinely ridiculed, and that 2020 seems to have slowly vindicated.
What combines these stories are victories for the downtrodden and humiliated. In financial markets, in technology, and in politics the laughed-at crazies seem to have been right all along ‒ and the experts, the establishment, and the incumbents turned out to be more mistaken than anyone could have imagined. And all accompanied an external enemy whose appearance uprooted old alliances and revealed deeply held beliefs.
Perhaps these vindications are short-lived and will all end in tears. Perhaps the brief vindication of populists and underdogs will come crashing down. We’ll see. But for now, the “Aye”s have it.
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