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Angrynomics: a review

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Summary:
Picture the typical angry voter. If you’re like me, your image will not be a twentysomething saddled with huge student debt, extortionate rent and a dull job but rather some russet-trousered gammon with no real complaint. Much as I liked it, this is one issue I have with Mark Blyth’s and Eric Lonergan’s Angrynomics. “People have every right to be pissed off” they write, “but please, be pissed off about the right things.” For me, though, our politics is characterized by too little of what Eric calls “legitimate public anger” and too much tribal anger. (The book is written as a dialogue between Eric and Mark, which is nothing like as annoyingly twee as you might expect). This, I suspect, reflects some important cognitive biases. One the one hand, several of these cause people to accept

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Picture the typical angry voter. If you’re like me, your image will not be a twentysomething saddled with huge student debt, extortionate rent and a dull job but rather some russet-trousered gammon with no real complaint.

Much as I liked it, this is one issue I have with Mark Blyth’s and Eric Lonergan’s Angrynomics. “People have every right to be pissed off” they write, “but please, be pissed off about the right things.” For me, though, our politics is characterized by too little of what Eric calls “legitimate public anger” and too much tribal anger. (The book is written as a dialogue between Eric and Mark, which is nothing like as annoyingly twee as you might expect). Angry

This, I suspect, reflects some important cognitive biases. One the one hand, several of these cause people to accept injustice: a status quo bias, resignation, the just world illusion and so on. But on the other, as Ben Friedman showed, recessions make us more intolerant of outsiders and cause increased solidarity with “our own” – hence the rise in tribal anger since the financial crisis.

Whilst I’m disappointed with their failure to explain why we have the wrong sort of anger, Blyth and Lonergan are surely bang right to see that many western economies have suffered a massive political failure:

We have an abject failure of policy. Rather than presenting a major programme of economic reform, the global political elite has offered nothing substantive, instead choosing either to jump on the bandwagon of nationalism or insist that nothing fundamental is wrong…The political classes - bereft of ideas – are now desperately peddling old ideologies and instincts, or pursuing bizarre distractions like Brexit.

This problem is not confined to the UK and US. Blyth and Lonergan are rightly scathing about the response to the euro crisis.

Another thing I really like are their policy proposals. These are usually the weakest sections of many economics books, but not here. Tougher bank regulation, a National Wealth Fund (using low government borrowing costs to buy equities from which to pay dividends for all), dual interest rates and the option of central banks writing (pdf) everybody a cheque are all fine ideas well advocated.

But, but, but. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from recent years it is that the quality of an idea and the chances of it being adopted by politicians are two different things.

Our problem is not a lack of good policy ideas. We’ve plenty of these: to Blyth and Lonergan’s list we might add a green new deal, citizens income, universal basic services, job guarantee and worker coops among others.

Instead, our problem is that our political-media system functions as a device for selecting against good ideas and in favour of charlatans and grifters. Like Blyth and Lonergan, politics and the media distinguish between righteous anger and tribal atavism – but they do so to favour the latter. And too many in the Labour party connive in this: it’s strange how “legitimate concerns” are always about immigration rather than poverty wages.

I’m not sure, then, that the problem of anger in politics can be solved merely by economic policy ideas. These have little chance of adoption without a political revolution to establish institutions and modes of debate which select for good ideas rather than against them. We need, therefore, forms of deliberative democracy. These – and I fear only these – would enable the sensible policy ideas of Lonergan and Blyth.

But this raises a question. What chance do we have of such reform, given that our existing institutions serve extractive capitalism so well by diverting anger away from its proper target?

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