08 March 2021
Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth
2020, Agenda Publishing, 208 pages,
Reviewer: Ian Bright
Anger plays a role in the way both individuals and societies make decisions. Furthermore, anger seems to have increased in many societies. Economics must change to recognise this and address the damaging effects of anger while also harnessing its positive elements. This short book of 176 pages by Eric
Lonergan, a macro hedge fund manager, and Mark Blythe, Professor of International Economics at Brown University, aims to address these issues in a way that can be understood by a general reader. To this end, it is written as series of short dialogues between the authors.
To understand the argument of the book more fully, it is useful to look more closely at how the authors define anger.
Anger is seen as taking two forms, moral and tribal. Moral anger is a “legitimate response to being ignored, a vocalizing of wrong-doing, and a call for redress and action. That is the anger we should be listening to and responding to.”(p22). Examples include the outrage of people in Iceland when the Panama Papers in 2017 revealed widespread tax dodging by the political and economic elite. The street protests of the “yellow jackets” in France in 2018-19 to a rise in the tax on diesel fuel that hit poorer commuters hard also qualifies. These protests morphed into a general rejection of the policies put forward by the political elite.
Tribal anger stems from membership of a group. Humans are almost hared wired to form tribes because “being part of a group increases your odds of survival. But, in a world of limited resources you need to decide who is in the group and who is not.…Most of the time we are not focussed on our tribal identity.… But if we think we are threatened, if we think that resources are becoming scarce, or if we are stressed – the minority of angry fans serves a function. They fire up the tribe for battle and keep everyone in line.” (p. 21)
Tribal anger differs from moral anger because it can be manipulated by unscrupulous people. It hijacks political debate and diverts attention from more important matters like wages, housing, healthcare and education. Further, tribal anger can build upon and distort moral anger. For example, President Trump recognised legitimate concern about deindustrialisation in the Rust Belt and then “shifted to tribal anger with images of walls to keep out marauding criminalized immigrants, in districts where racial tensions were elevated or nascent.” (p.25). The book notes there is nothing new in this. President Reagan’s trade wars against Japan and the European car industry in the 1980s is cited as an example.
According to the authors, “The challenge for politics today is to listen carefully to, and redress, the legitimate anger of moral outrage while exposing and not inciting, the violent anger of tribes.” (p. 9). The authors argue economics has failed to address this rise in anger because it has failed to address the factors that have left people and groups behind. Redistributive policies aimed at reducing wealth inequality are suggested. One suggestion is to widen ownership of assets beyond the very few by developing a national wealth fund through – amongst other things – taxing the super-rich and raising public debt. At current very low interest rates and negligible inflation, the fund could be used to finance a boom in sustainable investment that would benefit all in society.
It should not be surprising that in a short, non-technical book aimed at sparking debate there are many points where you could agree or disagree with the authors. My copy is littered with comments.
One aspect of the approach that leaves me uncomfortable is the division of anger into moral and tribal. There need not be a clean-cut difference. What may seem tribal to you may be vital to me. The authors recognise this in noting that tribal anger can be based on moral anger. However, it may also be possible that some may consider one issue, such as sovereignty in the Brexit debate, as a moral issue while others may consider it tribal. Further, some may be willing to knowingly accept losses so that they feel better. Does that qualify as moral or tribal anger?
The possibility that individuals will make decisions that leave them worse off should not be a surprise to economists given the lessons from dictator games. Further, the importance for the efficient running of societies of people feeling that they have a voice, and are not getting left behind or ignored, is a key element of Albert Hirschman’s 1970 book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty”. The loyalty aspect could be a nod to tribalism. More recently, Douglas Carswell’s 2012 book “The End of Politics and the Birth of Democracy” outlines how the opinions of many sections of society have been ignored by the political and economic elite.
When thinking about how to address those sections of society that have been ignored by the political and economic elite, the book leaves much undiscussed. If a key aspect of reducing anger is to listen carefully to people who feel they have been left behind, it may be necessary to reform some of our economic institutions so they are run less by technocrats. Paul Tucker’s 2018 book “Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State” details how this may be achieved. Others are also suggesting changes to organisational structures in society. Examples include calls for deliberative democracy from groups such as the RSA and the support by Pro-Bono Economics for the Commission on Civil Society.
Further, given the attention paid to how moral anger could be manipulated, some consideration should go the concentration of power in traditional and new forms of media. Challenging this is likely to prove difficult. The experience in early 2021 in Australia of getting Facebook to pay for media content is likely to be the first of many difficult negotiations in the future.
Whether the policies suggested by the authors will reduce anger is being tested now– at least to a small extent. There is a short chapter at the end of the book noting that it was going to press as the Covid pandemic swept the world. Governments were already beginning to spend more freely, austerity was being abandoned, and there was – and still is – the possibility of negative interest rates. A dual interact rate structure promoted by the authors had been adopted by the ECB. It remains to be seen if this tilt towards the policies favoured by the authors will persist once the worst of the pandemic is behind us. I am not optimistic. Some are already warning of high public debt and the UK government had to be shamed by a Premier League footballer into extending a free school meals programme. This directly affects the most vulnerable children and families in the country. They have had to rely on the voice of Marcus Rashford. These hungry people have every right to be angry.