Blame the Boomers
Mark Blyth’s State of the Union
The people’s economist Mark Blyth is a perpetual fan favorite for Open Source listeners. The Brown University professor, who never left behind his working-class Scottish roots, brings a vernacular wisdom and wit to his deep analysis of inequality, austerity, and popular unrest. He also often sees what the rest of us tend to miss. In 2016, he predicted both of the year’s major upset victories: the American election of Donald J. Trump as well the British vote for Brexit. You can listen to our own shell-shocked phone call with Blyth just after the Brexit vote here:
For all the gritty and scandalous detail in both scenes, he’ll keep telling you: it’s a malady in the money system, a global tsunami of populist resentment that’s driving events. And furthermore: at the start of 2018, that populism is still popular. Today, we couldn’t imagine a better guest to help us ring in this topsy-turvy new year.
So what’s the matter with the world today, according to Mark Blyth? He sees at least two major issues: class warfare and intergenerational struggle. The former problem is, in some ways, an old story—one which our party leaders have largely ignored for over the last three decades. The rhetoric of resurgent populism and nationalism are really just responses to deepening inequality in a rapidly globalizing world, as Blyth explains:
Has politics fundamentally changed because of Trump? No. Politics fundamentally changed because the people in charge basically ignored millions of Americans and what was happening to their standard of living their communities what was happening to the life chances and opportunities. [The people in charge] basically lived on the coasts and said to each other, “Gee isn’t everything swell?” And they got a really surprise when about 40 million of them said actually no we don’t like what you’re doing. … meanwhile, our “elites”— whether it’s Tony Blair, whether it’s the Clintons, or whoever has the means thinks “everything’s great, the new global economy! We’re all doing fabulous!” But you’re only doing fabulous because you only talk to each other. You only live in half a dozen places and you all have tons of cash so if you travel internationally everybody’s like you. You’re not a nationalist, you don’t have a national or local identity, you’re rich enough to be a global cosmopolitan and you can enjoy all of the fruits of globalization, but not everybody else can. Put that all that together and it’s self-explanatory.
The second major issue Blyth lays out is the hoarding of wealth by those who grew up and entered the work force during the so-called “golden age” of economic prosperity in America. So, if you’re looking for someone to blame, Blyth says, blame the boomers:
They’re not awful in the sense that they are awful people. They’re just following the incentives mean laid out to them in a free market system to accumulate as much assets as possible and leave it to their kids which means they hate inheritance taxes they want to pay a little marginal rates and they continually vote down things like bonds for schools bonds for subways Boston et cetera et cetera. So they’re acting in a completely understandable way which for them is individually rational but it’s just really crap for everybody else who come in behind them who can’t accumulate assets in the same way precisely because they’ve done that.
If you’re still eager to hear more from Mark, you can search the archives here on our site and find more than a dozen conversations with the scotsman stretching back to 2008. As always, make sure to drop us a note in the comments section below.
Brown University economist and author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.
Talmon Joseph Smith & Mark Blyth