Nerds. They’re everywhere. From the super-hot science duo on Marvel’s Agents of Acronyms™ to the endlessly sycophantic Silicon Valley tech media, society loves nerds, apparently, just as long as they are the right kind of nerd. This can be a rich nerd, a sexually attractive nerd defined by wearing thick-rimmed glasses, or a “will do stuff for me at work for free”-type nerd. Ideally, it would be all three, but society will settle for just one.
Nerds, and their political equivalent, Wonks (the very typing of the word makes me want to go join a monastery somewhere the internet has not yet polluted) occupy a hallowed place in the elite American psyche. While we used to think of nerds as the AV club Dungeons and Dragons Magic The Gathering professionals, the new “nerds” are basically the newest iteration of the valorized non-tangible producing professions that began with the original industrial white collar manager that became the advertising executive and, from there, the hedge fund manager. Today, it’s the “startup”-type person along with their media and political enablers that constitute a portion of the new aristocracy.
The new aristocracy has its own indicators. They can code. They can talk public policy, albeit in ambiguous buzzwords and useless charts. They believe in the strictest of libertarian technocratic meritocracy and the next food delivery app that also provides shiatsu massage via a contractor constantly under social surveillance through rating systems. Most importantly, they believe desperately in managing and perpetuating the status quo, because it benefits them culturally and economically.
This is the crowd that has mastered the secrets of the universe and not so subtly suggests everyone should simply outsource their thinking to the hegemonic value of “Data” and emissaries on earth, Analysts, ideally in capital letters like GOD or LORD. “Data” is their overarching answer to anything, inasmuch as it confirms their existing biases, but the analytical methodological selection is conveniently washed over, because, after all, acknowledging this would admit that there could be grounded disagreement with the Vox, 538 crowd, or startup networking crowd. There is no world in which well-founded disagreement is possible, only a world in which the Analyst’s interlocutors do not have “Facts,” an amorphous delineation of whatever curated indicators got spit out their most recent stepwise linear regression.
Take, for example, Ezra Klein’s post-election analysis that can be quickly summarized as “Economics Don’t Matter and Anyone Who Voted Against Clinton is Actually Just an Overt or Closet Racist.”
The belief that Trump is a predictable reaction to acute economic duress crumbled before the finding that his primary voters had a median household income of $72,000 — well above both the national average and that of Clinton supporters.
The idea that Trumpism arose as a response to a stalled economy collapsed as America experienced its longest sustained run of private sector job growth, and the highest single-year jump in median incomes, in modern history.
The idea that Trump was a reaction to failed trade deals and heavy competition from immigrants slammed into data showing support for him showed no relationship to lost manufacturing jobs and was strongest in areas without immigrant labor.
Setting aside my strident objection that lost manufacturing data didn’t have an impact on the 2016 cycle, for the Wonk class (still thinking of packing it all up and taking a permanent holiday to the arctic) overall net indicators like median income and private sector job growth should have an acknowledged grateful corresponding impact on everyone else’s lives.
If the voters don’t feel as if these things have a measurable positive impact on their lives, well then they are wrong and must be educated to the contrary to the tune of, “because of non-benefitted contracting laws you have Ubers that cost 50% less than a taxi!” or “interest rates on mortgages are 2.8% compared to 3% last year! You’ll save a thousand dollars in twenty years!” Similarly, if a mythological platonic form of a voter’s median household income has risen, then that’s a sign the Obama approach was the best.
In this case, it’s Klein’s awkward choice of indicators that belies his claim to non-ideological wonkishness (one more and Nate Silver is going to force feed me deficit-related pie charts in plastic tubes).
For those without a mostly-unused economics degree, “Private sector job growth” in the United States refers to the definition of employment so here’s what employment means:
[Current Economic Survey] employment is an estimate of the number of nonfarm, payroll jobs in the U.S. economy. Employment is the total number of persons on establishment payrolls employed full- or part-time who received pay (whether they worked or not) for any part of the pay period that includes the 12th day of the month. Temporary and intermittent employees are included, as are any employees who are on paid sick leave, on paid holiday, or who work during only part of the specified pay period. A striking employee who only works a small portion of the survey period, and is paid, would be included as employed under the CES definitions. Persons on the payroll of more than one establishment are counted in each establishment. [emphasis added]
If you work five jobs for fifteen hours individually to pay the bills, each job is a “private sector job” that has grown and included in Klein’s “private sector job growth” category. The reason he used job growth rather than analyzing whether or not people are employed is because unemployment has held relatively stagnant. Even still, though, under the current employment definition, there’s no accounting for non-benefitted contractor work that hoover money from things like rent towards things like overpriced healthcare plans or medication. This also sets aside the fact that underemployment isn't really covered at all in his happy world where a frequently variable interest rate based student loan time bomb isn't set to go off after Wall Street wises up to second go-around of hot potato with collateralized debt obligations.
Set aside his choice of indicators above for a moment, though, and two things become immediately evident. First, why does Klein think that national-level data helps anyone analyze a general election victory intrinsically defined by state and county level information? Second, why would anyone think that comparing Republican primary voters to national election voters is a valid approach to analyzing the economic voting incentives 2016 general election?
You can just hear it in the Vox/538/Slate crowd’s public appearances. The sneering disdain for the public on things like rural community displacement or anxiety about the cost of living. If the Data says something about you and you do not feel it to be salient in your life, then you are wrong about yourself and need to just have access to the Data, almost always preceded by the word “Actually…” At best, you’re an outlier in their model, but, more likely in the Wonk (uh oh...) mindset, you’re just entitled, flawed, unwilling to move, harmed by provincial politicians, or non-competitive in some way that prevents you from appreciating the economic gains articulated by the Data. Hillary Clinton lost, they say, because voters are racist and stupid. The former accusation is overt and the latter implied in public and and stated explicitly in private.
But this is the thing about the broader political and economic culture of the United States, the aristocracy thrives off the manufactured complexity caused by the systems they themselves created. Wall Street creates a massive hierarchy of fixed-income derivatives in every credit-based market from the tranches on a collateralized debt obligation and collateralized debt obligations-squared to credit default swaps. Health insurance markets come up with Orwellian language like “premiums” and “deductibles,” along with artificial price lists on prescription drugs and hospitals overcharging everyone to accommodate the insurance firms. State bureaucracies bloom to accommodate and regulate these complex financial instruments and in so doing create new opportunities for more white collar parasitism in fields like tax advisory and corporate litigation like frivolous patent suits. The United States legislates more through protracted court battles than any other developed country in the world for precisely these reasons.
In the middle of all of these billion-dollar industries sits artificial complexity and those who profit from it. If you had to summarize the past forty years, the most adroit way to explain it would be to simply say that those who can sit patiently and memorize the artificial vernacular of professional services have systematically robbed those who actually deliver real value, tangible or intangible, to create personal wealth. When people who understand that they’re dealt a raw deal are upset about the state of affairs, though, they just fail to understand the Data or the value that these industries provide.
The best examples of this phenomena on the business side are food delivery apps. As Leah Finnegan so adroitly pointed out, the system had been perfect since the advent of phone-based delivery. You pick up the phone, call a usually underpaid and grumpy person, tell them what you want, and a guy shows up with your food. Now, though, these venture-capital gobbling socially avoidant tech guys decided that their personal aversion to talking to strangers could become a major market (and they are right). Food delivery apps have insinuated themselves into every aspect of the low and mid-range restaurant industry, which is known for its amazingly slim margins and poor pay for its workers. In exchange, the app company, which neither creates the food nor gives it to you, but functions as a text-message-forwarding broker, decides it deserves 20% of the transaction cost. No value created, but a whole lot of wealth siphoned from an otherwise entirely functional industry and creative industry.
That’s the real tragedy of the new politics and economics of the United States. Creating something new is an occupation of the poors or joyfully impoverished artistic types. Barack Obama extolled the value of a two-year trade education while his daughter worked with Lena Dunham and planned to attend an Ivy League institution and his own government offered unpaid temp jobs (formerly known as “internships”). The aristocracy demands that its members be the masters of the status quo and the artificial superstructure of the economy all while parroting “innovation” and “disruption.” Neither Vox nor Ernst and Young want to actually improve anything through actual disruption. Each incremental decrease in efficiency or contrived and unnecessary increase in complexity presents a new avenue for the slavishly bookish to explore, master, and take glee in lording over others. So the next time an “expert” comments that you shouldn’t expect to be able to afford your birth control informs you that you don’t have the Facts, respectfully tell him to fuck off.