The comedian Bill Maher came close to defining Der Blödmann as "a whiny little bitch." However, James Surowiecki comes closer with his portrait of "a whiny little loser." The irony is that the man who beomoans losing and loss is the biggest loser of them all. If this is a (fair & balanced) case study in politico-economic theory, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By James Surowiecki
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
When Donald Trump appeared at the N.R.A.’s recent national convention, he had a simple message: Hillary Clinton “wants to take away your guns.” This was familiar rhetorical ground: warning of dire losses has been the core of Trump’s campaign. Free trade means that “we’re losing our jobs, we’re losing our money.” China’s trade practices amount to “the greatest theft in the history of the world.” We need a wall to stop illegal immigration because “we’re losing so much.” In Trump’s world, things are much worse than they seem, and it’s because American prosperity has been stolen: “We’re losing everything.”
Trump is playing to one of the most powerful emotions in our economic life—what behavioral economists call loss aversion. The basic idea, which was pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is that people feel the pain of losses much more than they feel the pleasure of gains. Empirical studies suggest that, in general, losing is twice as painful as winning is enjoyable. So people will go to great lengths to avoid losses, and to recover what they’ve lost.
Trump’s emphasis on losing is unusual: even in bleak times, American Presidential candidates tend to offer optimistic messages. But it has worked for him, because it resonates with what many Republican voters already feel. A study by the Pew Research Center last fall found that seventy-nine per cent of those who lean Republican believe that their side is losing politically. A rand survey in January found that voters who believed that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 per cent more likely to prefer Trump. Trump supporters feel that they, and the country, are losing economically, too. In the rand survey, Trump did better with the people who were the most dissatisfied with their economic situation, and exit polls from the Republican primaries show that almost seventy per cent of those who voted for Trump said that they were “very worried” about the state of the economy—as against only forty-five per cent of all voters in Democratic primaries.
There are a couple of surprising things about all this. The first is that, in objective terms, plenty of Trump supporters haven’t lost that much. We’re familiar with Trump’s appeal among white working-class voters, many of whom truly have seen wages stagnate and jobs dry up. But the median Trump voter is actually better educated and richer than the average American, as Nate Silver recently pointed out. A key point of Kahneman and Tversky’s work, though, is that people don’t look at their status objectively; they measure it relative to a reference point, and for many Republicans that reference point is a past time when they had more status and more economic security. Even people who simply aren’t doing as well as they expected to be doing, Kahneman argues, feel a sense of loss. And people don’t adapt their expectations to new circumstances. A study of loss aversion [PDF] by the political scientist Jack Levy concluded that, after losses, an individual will “continue to use the status quo ex ante as her reference point.” Trump’s promise is precisely that he’ll return America to that status quo ex ante. (“I love the old days,” he has said.) He tells his supporters that he will help recoup their losses and safeguard what they have.
The other surprising thing is that you might expect loss-averse voters to be leery of taking a risk on an unpredictable outsider like Trump, since loss aversion often makes people cautious: offered the choice between five hundred dollars and a fifty per cent chance at a thousand dollars or nothing, most people take the sure thing. However, loss aversion promotes caution only when people are considering gains; once people have sustained losses, impulses change dramatically. Offered the choice between losing five hundred dollars and a fifty per cent chance of losing a thousand dollars or nothing, most people prefer to gamble—the opposite of what they did when presented with the chance to win a thousand dollars. As one study puts it, “People are willing to run huge risks to avert or recover losses.” In the real world, this is why people hold falling stocks, hoping for a rebound rather than cutting their losses, and it’s why they double down after losing a bet. For Trump’s voters, the Obama years have felt like a disaster. Taking a flyer on Trump actually starts to feel sensible.
Historical parallels are always tendentious. But loss aversion has been instrumental in the success of authoritarian movements around the world. The political scientist Kurt Weyland has argued that it played a crucial role in the rise of such regimes in Latin America, where the fear of Communism drove putatively democratic societies toward the radical solution of strongman rule. Trump may not quite be an American Perón, but, to his supporters, his unpredictability is a selling point rather than a flaw. Hillary Clinton has recently been emphasizing what a risk Trump represents. That’s fine when rallying the Democratic base and appealing to genuine independents. But it will only make Trump more popular with those who already believe in him. When he says, “We’re losing our country,” it doesn’t sound overwrought to his supporters. It sounds like the truth. For them, Trump is the long shot who may come in and give them back all that they have lost. Ω
[James Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Surowiecki came to The New Yorker from Slate, where he wrote the Moneybox column. He has also been a contributing editor at Fortune and a staff writer at Talk. He has written The Wisdom Of Crowds (2004) and he edited the anthology: Best Business Crime Writing of the Year (2002). Surowiecki received a BA (history) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar. Surowiecki pursued PhD studies in history as a Mellon Fellow at Yale University before leaving Yale to become a financial journalist.]
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