The Economic Origins of the Populist Backlash

Americans understands very well what feels wrong – and there's a piece of U.S. economic policy that the establishment and educated elites haven’t been fully honest about, says Pia Malaney.\r\n

Pia Malaney: Within our market economy we think of us as having the ability to vote through our dollars. So it’s one dollar, one vote. But we’ve seen inequality in this country increase so dramatically recently that we are in some sense hearing some voices much more loudly than others. If you look at the percent of income that is going to the top one percent of our population in the last 20 years it’s doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent. If you look at the pay of CEOs compared to the pay of the average production worker it went from being something like 24 times the pay of an average production worker to being closer to 200 times. In many ways the voice of our working class Americans is no longer being heard at the same level because they don’t have as much control within that economy.

So they’re looking to what we can think of as another economy, a separate place to hear their voice which is our ballot economy. And we’ve always believe that our ballot economy represents one person, one vote. Of course we’re seeing changes in that too. We have come to understand very clearly the effects of gerrymandering over the last several years. We have seen, in this last election, the impact of the electoral college and what that does to the voice of the majority. And we also understand that when you have two senators from a state like Wyoming or from Vermont and two senators from California that, in fact, we don’t really have one man, one vote. But we have enough equality within that system that we actually were forced to listen to the voices of people who have felt disenfranchised in our market economy.

So what are these policies that have caused people to react in this way? Well we can think of just a few of them if we think about finance, integration, trade. Very often we have been told by the establishment that immigration represents a win-win for America. The trade represents a win-win for America. Well, let’s delve a little deeper into that. Is that really true? As economists when we think about welfare we’re very careful to think about ourselves as technocrats. So we don’t want to decide for a society what distribution within a society should look like. And so we have this notion of welfare called Pareto welfare. And we think of something as a Pareto improvement if you can make at least one person better off by making nobody worse off. As you can imagine this is somewhat difficult within a policy context. It’s very hard to find a way to have any policies that have no negative impacts on anyone but can make some people better off.

So we found a refinement to that, something we call Kaldor-Hicks where we look at the net benefit versus the net cost. And the idea is that we can have a net benefit and we can redistribute it amongst the losers. So we take whatever benefit we have to the society as a whole and we redistribute so that overall people are better off. Well then we have a Kaldor-Hicks improvement and we think of that as a welfare improvement.

Let’s look at what is going on in the situation of trade. So we know with trade that there are winners and there are losers. We also know that by the principle of comparative advantage that we’re going to actually have an efficiency gain. So you’re going to have some transfer where American consumers do better off because we have access to goods at better prices. And American producers maybe lose some of their resources because they can’t sell as much to our economy and they have to face a more competitive economy. And then we know that we also have this competitive gain. And if you add up the benefits and the costs you find that, in fact, we have an overall benefit. What we often here when we hear about trade is that it’s a win-win situation.

And what we’re really referring to is the fact that we have a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. Except we as economists understand that there’s one more piece to that – which is that I order for everyone to be better off we really need to find a way to redistribute that income away from the winners and towards the losers so that they’re compensated for their loss. 

Similarly if we look at immigration there are winners and losers. There are at least three things that happen when we increase immigration in this country. Wages go down as the supply of labor goes up. And as a result of that there is some transfer from domestic workers to foreign workers. There’s some transfer from domestic workers to domestic capital because the cost of wages has just gone down. And there is also an efficiency gain. So GDP does indeed go up as we increase immigration and it goes up by more than just the benefits to foreign workers and domestic capital. However, the incidence of the loss has just fallen on domestic workers and unless we can actually carry out the next piece of that which is the redistribution everyone is not winning from this. There are designated winners and designated losers.

So as economists we understand that there is a tradeoff between efficiency and equality. And we understand that any kind of redistributive policies that we undertake is going to have some cost in terms of efficiency which is the amount of welfare that we can actually provide to a society as a whole. And achieving maximum efficiency has very much to do with understanding what people’s choices are and allowing them to maximize their choices given whatever the constraint set is. Any time you have a tax or any kind of redistributive policy we’re changing the incentive structure by changing the price system. And so we’re introducing a distortion which is always going to have some kind of efficiency effect. We’re always in this position of needing to decide how much efficiency and how much overall welfare do we want to give up so that we can actually have a more equal society.

And this is the piece that ends up being more of a political choice than a technical choice. And it’s also the piece that’s very hard to get people to push through politically. Except that what we’re now seeing in terms of this populist backlash is that people are saying things have shifted maybe too much to one side. Maybe we need to rethink where we are in terms of this trade off. 

And, in fact, the establishment and the educated elite understands very well what feels wrong and they understand that there is a piece of this that we haven’t been fully honest about. It may not be a zero sum game but it’s also not a win-win. And I order to understand the message that we’re getting from rust belt America we need to understand what the real implications of these policies have been for them.


The election of Donald Trump wasn’t business as usual – it was a message from the Rust Belt, who in some sense have lost their economic voice. Voters in the region used the ballot in November 2016 to attempt to regain control over financial policies that were not designed to benefit them. Inequality in the U.S. has increased dramatically, and economists like Pia Malaney understand that if you do a post-mortem on major financial policies like trade and immigration over the last few years, it exposes where the populist backlash has come from. There are winners and losers in every economic policy, and in recent years the U.S. has been skipping the crucial last step: wealth redistribution. Malaney gives a detailed insight into the system of winners and losers the U.S finds itself in, and emphasizes the importance of understanding the real implications that policies have in different regions.

You should be skeptical when it comes to hyped-up AI. Here’s why.

These questions can help us think more critically about new developments in artificial intelligence.

  • The media often exaggerate and overhype the latest discoveries in artificial intelligence.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

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Impossible Foods
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