Thoughts on the theme of fragility at the close of a very tough year

December 31st, 2016 at 9:58 am

As 2016 stumbles towards the finish line, it seemed timely to offer a few reflections on a tough year from the perspective of political economy.

For myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone, reflections on 2016 can be summed up in one word: fragility.

Hard-fought gains that we considered, perhaps naively, to be on their way to becoming solid parts of our policy architecture are likely to be destroyed by the incoming president and Congress. Obviously, the Affordable Care Act is at the top of the list, but it’s not alone. There’s financial market reform (Dodd-Frank), the overtime rule, progressive tax changes, the protection of vulnerable classes, including immigrants, minorities, and women, along with a spate of rules pushing back on climate change.

But this theme of fragility goes well beyond individual policy measures. It extends to fundamental institutions including democracy itself. I’m sure political scientists can do better, but my working definition is a system of majority rule that takes input from reality to make necessary course adjustments in the interest of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable.

The fragility of every link in that chain is glaringly obvious. Fact-based analysis is more threatened than I’ve ever seen in my long career of empirical analysis. Our media institutions, mainstream and social, seem not only unable to deal with this breakdown, but at least on the social side, the incentive to pursue clicks and views overrides that of pursuing truth.

For the second time in a mere five presidential elections, the winner lost the popular vote. This is not simply a violation of majority rules in some abstract sense. It is a threat to representative democracy, and as such, it is at the root of the fragility with which we’re currently faced. Political institutions are poised to make lasting changes—think of the courts—that may well work against inclusiveness, opportunity, and even the pursuit of happiness, health, safety, and justice of the majority.

The opposite of fragility is robustness. What is yet to be seen—the big, existential question of 2017—is whether our institutions are robust to the threats that confront them. Democracy, like a jetliner, is replete with safeguards against crashing, but planes do fall out of the sky. Can the media and the analytic community find the road back to Factville? Can they/we hold the new administration accountable for the promises Trump made to the part of his electorate that’s been left behind? Can the Congressional minority block the threats to the vulnerable that appear to be coming from the unrepresentative majority?

The coming year will begin to reveal the extent to which our democracy, our nation, is robust to these threats. In coming months, we’ll learn just how fragile we—that’s the inclusive “we,” not the top 1 percent, not the politically connected, but those with the least power and clout—really are.

In fact, I and my colleagues will be documenting precisely these developments through this lens, while fighting to boost the robustness and stabilize the fragility. So stay tuned, and happy new year!

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5 comments in reply to "Thoughts on the theme of fragility at the close of a very tough year"

  1. nobody says:

    I have no idea at this point. Trump will bring change. Some good, some bad. I’m going to embrace the good and ignore the bad for the time being. Call it survival instinct.

    Trump is correct on trade. I’m going to focus on that. I suggest you do the same. We’ve been waiting for this, and let us embrace it.

    • Gerald Scorse says:

      “Trump is correct on trade.” In the large, maybe (e.g., trade agreements such as NAFTA cost American job losses in manufacturing). As with most issues though, trade is a complicated, many-sided issue. The tariffs that Trump has talked about could bring about a trade war, and do we really want to “embrace” that?

      • nobody says:

        gerald, it is a lie. we don’t face a trace war. it is the big lie that corporate power has portayed.

        • Gerald Scorse says:

          Of course we don’t *yet*, but we might if Trump follows through on his threat of tariffs on imports.

        • Smith says:

          No, you weren’t paying attention in class. One of Trump’s best lines. “I can’t start a trade war because we already have a trade war, and we’re losing, big time.”