Intro. [Recording date: February 20th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is February 20th, 2020, and my guest is author Martin Gurri. He is a former CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] analyst and the author of The Revolt of the Public. Martin, welcome to EconTalk.
Martin Gurri: Great to be here.
Russ Roberts: Revolt of the Public was first published in 2014, which seems about 100 years ago. You summarize the central idea as: "The information technologies of the twenty-first century have enabled the public, composed of amateurs, people from nowhere, to break the power of the political hierarchies of the industrial age." Expand how you came to see that and what that means exactly.
Martin Gurri: Well, as you say, I was an analyst in CIA. I probably had the least glamorous job there. I didn't have my 00 [Double-O] license to kill or the beautiful girls. I was an analyst of global media, and for the earliest part of my career, that was very straightforward. There was a trickle of open information and every country had its equivalent of the New York Times, a source that set the agenda. So, if the president wanted to know how his policies were playing in France, you went to Le Monde or you went to Le Figaro. Just, literally, two newspapers.
Then things went haywire: just the world turned upside down. A digital earthquake epicenter, say, somewhere between Mountain View and Palo Alto, generated this tsunami of information that just swept over the world.
And, 'tsunami,' I think is a good word. Numbers can be boring, but sometimes they can be illustrative. Some very clever people from Berkeley tried to measure how the information of the world had developed, and they came up with the fact that in the year 2001, as you just tip into this era, that year produced double the amount of information of all previous human history going back to the cave paintings and the dawn of culture.
So, 2002 doubled 2001. So, if you chart that you do get something that looks like a gigantic wave; and I call it a tsunami. Now, for those of us who worked in CIA, that was like, 'Now what the heck do we do with this enormous amount of information? Where do we get our stuff?' But, what really mattered was the effect of the information in different nations of the world. We could see, as the tsunami swept across the world at different speeds in different countries, tremendously increased levels of social and political turbulence. And, the question was why? So, that was the seed of the book.
After I left government, the question that haunted me was the one that my CIA masters always asked, which was, like, 'So, what? Okay, so the people get--they start to write bad things about government in Egypt. So what? What are they going to do when the cops come? Hit them with their laptops?' That was an internal CIA joke: Are they going to hit them with their laptops?
Then you had the year 2001, and the year 2001 was--
Russ Roberts: You mean 2011?
Martin Gurri: I'm sorry, 2011. Thank you. The year 2011. 2011 is a year I call the Phase Change Year, where it really showed the effect of this tide of information could affect power. And you had, of course, the Arab Spring in the Middle East, probably misnamed. You had the Indignados in Spain. You had a revolt called the 10 People Revolt or Social Justice Revolt in Israel. You had the Occupiers here in the United States. And, these all had similar origin. So the question, now, was what was going on? What caused these eruptions from below?
And, to my thinking, it has to do with the kinds of institutions that we have inherited from the 20th century, from the industrial age. They're all--how many people are aware of Frederick Taylor? He's sort of a forgotten figure in history. But he was sort of the prophet of industrialism and scientific management. And, if you read his writings, everything happens from the top down: the top manager figures everything is going to happen, all the tools that you need, and essentially what everybody, every layer below you--and there are many, many layers below you--is going to do. Everything is scripted.
Well, our institutions, which we think or tend to think were created in the 18th century by the Founders, in fact are the product of the industrial age, and of political Taylorism, in essence. And, one of the things that they required, to maintain their authority--and they had, in their day, a great deal of authority: that they believe in expertise, they believe in science--one of the things that they were--the primary foundation was a monopoly of information in their domains.
So that, if you're in government you have a control over a certain set of government information. If you're in politics, you and the media, you as the politicians and the media share a certain set of information that nobody else had access to in the 20th century. Nobody talked back.
And, what that tsunami has done was destroy that monopoly. In brief, it has destroyed that monopoly; and it turns out these institutions can't seem to function without that and have lost their authority. Where, before there was a sort of instinctive reliance--the President says something at the age of JFK [John Fitzgerald Kennedy], somewhere between 70% and 80% of Americans trusted the government. Today, if you're the President, you are instinctively distrusted: somewhere between 20% and 30% today, trust the Presidency and the Federal Government.
So, I think it has been a crisis that these institutions have lapsed into. And, I think the elites that manage and inhabit these institutions have reacted pretty badly in the sense of not really being aware of what's happening, and trying to pretend that somehow the 20th century is still amongst us and that the internet and the web and the digital universe has never exploded around them.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think what I credit your insight with doing--and, again, it's important to remember that this is an insight that came a long time ago, 2014. And, we'll talk, I expect, about what has changed since you first came up with this idea.
But, I think when people first thought about this information revolution, they fundamentally--'they' meaning me, too--we fundamentally misunderstood it. I think we thought it was going to usher in this great flourishing of human knowledge. Which it has; which is a glorious thing. We realized, with the Arab Spring, that it allowed networks of individuals to coordinate in ways that they struggled to before.
But we missed the part that you saw. I think most of us missed it. Maybe most, maybe almost all of us missed it.
The part that you saw was that the tsunami, which normally we would say, 'Well, now people are going to have trouble figuring out where to find stuff because there's just so much of it.' And, then I would have responded, 'Well, things will come along to help people filter it.' That's what markets do. That's what a merchant order does that. Google doesn't just give you a random assortment of websites of that doubled information in, say, 2002--whenever Google came along, and I don't even remember now. It was a long time ago. But, search engines came along to help us filter it. We came to trust certain websites for our information. Maybe they weren't the New York Times, some of them still were, or the equivalent.
But, your insight, which I think is profound, is that it unmoored the credibility of the previous institutions--the media, the government, universities, the intellectual elites. It empowered people to find alternatives.
It's not obvious though, that that should have led to this strange collapse of authority at the centralized or elite level. What do you think explains that? Why did just the profusion, the tsunami-like aspect of it, lead to such a dismantling of authority and credibility and trust?
Martin Gurri: My take on that is: The institutions and the elites--politicians, journalists, academics--of the industrial age had a great deal of confidence in the assertions that they made. They spoke as scientists, or as social scientists, as experts; and they made a tremendous predictions. They claimed a lot of control over the economy, for example, over the natural environment. They asserted certain claims that could only be a sustained if the rest of us really didn't know the full picture. And, I think what that tsunami has done is strip them naked.
I mean, they are still experts, they still do know a great deal; but they are wrong a lot. And, that, you know, if you are an economist, I'd point you to the year 2008, where pretty much everybody tried to explain the fact that there was no conspiracy or no crime by saying, 'We never saw it coming and we have no idea what it was.' Okay, that was a pretty generic excuse given for why that happened.
Russ Roberts: Which should have ended the authority of economists forever. But it didn't. We're good for other things, too. But, your point is just that was a hammer blow to the credibility of economists, in some dimension.
Martin Gurri: I am here to tell you, Russell, that in my opinion it did end it. It did end the authority of economists forever.
I think right now being an expert gets you--just as, if you are not JFK, you are Trump or Obama--instead of getting the trust that a JFK would have evinced from you simply because he was President, not because of his person--you get distrust simply because he's President. And, I think as an economist if you say, 'Well, I'm an expert economist,' you are going to generate a lot of distrust in your audience simply by that fact.
Russ Roberts: Well, the example you used in the book is very powerful--which, of course, a lot of us paid attention to at the time. And, besides a lot of us, a lot of everyday people, not professional economists, paid attention. And when the stimulus package was passed it was forecast that without the stimulus package unemployment could get as high as--whatever it was--9%.
Russ Roberts: And, it turned out with the package, it got to 10-and-a-half.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, everyone is saying, 'Oh, it was just too small.' At the time, a lot of people didn't say that. They said it was--I have a vivid memory of Alan Blinder, very respected Keynesian economist saying, 'It's just the right size.' Well, it probably wasn't. Or, it wasn't relevant. We don't really even know that. We can't test it. But, that was an example of where credibility was lost. And, trust was lost--if it was there in the first place.
But, I think it's much deeper than that. Obviously, you know, you give the example of Walter Cronkite--Dan Rather would be another example--that's someone who lost credibility putting forward a story about George Bush that in years past we just would've said, 'Well, I guess he's right.' Instead, an army of amateurs uncovered that that as a story was flawed. There's so many examples like that.
Martin Gurri: That one is actually, I think, telling in the way that the institutions, the elites, responded to the fact that they had been caught out, because that's the famous New York Times headline that I have framed somewhere: 'Fake but accurate.' In other words, the story had been a fake but it was telling a truth. You know? So, it's like some greater truth that we're trying to tell you people down there at the bottom of the pyramid, and you're kind of bothering us with the details of what actually happened.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, I think we've come a long way since then. At that point it was like, 'Hmm. You mean Dan Rather can make a mistake?' I think a lot of people thought. Now we're in a world where journalists are, in my view, nakedly partisan in a way that would have been unimaginable in 2014, 2005, 2001.
Martin Gurri: Agreed. I mean, at the 2016 elections, I think, following the lead of the, New York Times which very consciously--I think I had a June or July article, I remember--where they said, 'You have to cover a man like Trump differently. He's dangerous.' That was a word that was used. And, I think the New York Times sets the tone for American journalism and everybody follows suit.
Russ Roberts: Now, we had Yuval Levin on the program recently--that episode hasn't aired--but in his book A Time to Build, which is ironically titled relative to your book which is--your book is about the urge of the public to tear down institutions. Yuval is very, I think, cognizant to that, but he's urging us to build. We'll eventually get to the idea of what we might do about the world we're living in, if we have time. But, in that book, what Yuval suggests is that institutions have lost their credibility because so many of the players within them, and even the ones who, so-called, run those institutions, to the extent they are top-down--many of them are not top down--the media is not top-down. Within an organization, you have an editor or a producer or a director of a news station.
But, within those organizations, within those institutions--that are not top-down in the generic, general--excuse me, general--sense, people no longer conform to the norms that used to exist. Those norms have been destroyed. Or, they're just not enforced anymore. And, as a result, people see their role in these institutions very differently than they used to.
What they used to see is, 'Oh, I have to seek the truth,' or, 'I have to--' in the case of a university, 'I have to educate the next generation.' Or, in the case of the politician, 'I have to seek out the public good.'
Now we know, in reality, this is a bit of a fantasy and there was always corruption. There's always people who free-ride on an institution and seek out their own betterment by taking advantage of the platform that they are in. But, Levin's point is that the overwhelming norm now is: Seek your own wellbeing. And, the institution is not so important.
He claims that they are--instead of being formative, they are performative. They're a place where the individual players perform to acquire followers, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. What's your reaction to that?
Martin Gurri: I completely agree. I completely agree with that. That is certainly how the public perceives the elites.
I don't like to get--I'm not a revolutionary; I don't want to hang the aristocrats from the lampposts. But, I have thought very deeply about our elite class. And, I mean that in politics but also, as you say, in academia, in the media, in entertainment and the arts.
Russ Roberts: The professions. We also have this phenomenon of doctors, lawyers, etc.
Martin Gurri: Exactly. All, top to bottom.
And, it just seems to me that the qualities--and, I think it's because the landscape has changed so massively--but the qualities that one would expect. I mean, what do you expect of an elite, right? You expect--'elite' is not an insulting word. Elite means you are the best. So, there is something about you that is admirable. In a healthy environment--and, this is a Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega, said, 'Preach this'--in a healthy environment, you look at the people at the top and you go, 'They embody a way of life that I, in my own way, would like to emulate.'
And, so you look at somebody like George Washington, that everybody was taught, almost even to my generation many, many years ago, that he was like the embodiment of honesty. Right? That he was the good--that would not tell a lie. You would look at somebody like Thomas Edison, who today would be treated--I watched Young Edison, a movie from the 1930s, I believe, or maybe the early 1940s, and then I watched Social Network right afterwards. And both of those guys were pistols. All right? Edison was a pistol. Zuckerberg is a pistol. But, in the 1930s movie, he's treated as somebody to emulate.
Russ Roberts: And, admire.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, and admire, yeah. In the Social Network, Zuckerberg is treated like a jerk, essentially. Both were probably both things; but it all depends on what you want to look at. I think the public right now looks at the fact that these elites seem to be totally self-serving, seem to be very distant, seem to exist to get away from them. The point of arising in the pyramid is not to achieve something good, to pursue the national interest, for example. It's to get rid of you, the public.
Russ Roberts: But, again, don't you think there's some sense in which we've fooled ourselves, before--that our Presidents of the past, which were certainly viewed much less cynically, our athletes--you know, there was a famous memoir, Ball Four, written by Jim Bouton, a baseball player--
Martin Gurri: I've read it--
Russ Roberts: where he peeled back the curtain from sports players who--we had this idealized version--is some of this, just this natural cynicism that arises from--I guess you could argue it's just more information that we didn't have access to before. But there was a code that sports writers didn't reveal the behavior of athletes outside the playing field--or of Presidents in the case of the media.
And, now every emperor is naked, you could argue. And, I'm not sure how much of that has to do with the digital age. It's a trend that started well before it.
Martin Gurri: Well, I think it has very much to do with the digital age because, yes, the trend to negativity started before the big tsunami; which was probably unfortunate because it was a prevalent mood when that tsunami hit. And so it just kind of compounded it.
But, I mean, that phenomenon that you're talking about, it's kind of interesting that different countries are in different places in that progression now. If you look at France, France just had a scandal. Because part of what happens--
I mean, I call this elite class, the Harvey Weinstein elites, because they have this strange way of living that seems so unusual and bizarre to an ordinary person. And, the candidate from the ruling party, En Marche, in France that was running for mayor of Paris has had a sex scandal, basically a sex video that went public. Right? Now, in France--here, of course he would walk the walk of shame and apologize--in France, there is outrage. They still believe that we should never even be talking about this. And, the man who released the tape on the web--because that's what happens now--has been arrested.
Russ Roberts: That's a complicated example because there's a privacy issue there, and some could argue.
I think the more interesting case would be something like, say, the Gulf of Tonkin with LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson] or the weapons of mass destruction--where a story, a narrative, that came out of the power of Washington, D.C turned out to be either a lie or simply an error. Or both.
And, it's a--something, going back to the 1960s, changed in America. And, not just in America, around the world, about how we view the people that we used to admire, our heroes, our idols, and so on.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, I agree. But, I disagree that there was a privacy issue. I'm sorry: the reality of the world--that's an elite thought. The reality of the world is if you make a naked video of yourself with a woman, it's going to get out. And, if you are dreaming about privacy, you are dreaming that you living in the 20th century.
Russ Roberts: Well, there are some different rules, I agree.
Martin Gurri: And, he was campaigning on family values, which I guess--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, another challenge.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to go back to 2011, when the events that you write about really provoked your thinking. We saw a set of, you might call them uprisings, in Egypt, in Spain, and in Israel for a variety of reasons. What people thought was going to happen from those kind of uprisings didn't really much happen. We also mentioned Occupy Wall Street. In fact, you could argue that to some extent, as you've all been talks about it, they were theater. They were a form of--'entertainment' is too strong a word, but they weren't action. They were simply a display on the part of the participants.
Now, Egypt was very different. Egypt led to the fall of a 30-year dictator who shocked people. And, we thought, 'Oh, this is the first domino.' It's almost the last domino.
So, talk about what you saw in 2011 that provoked you to think about information as the stimulus to these changes, and why they turned out ultimately to be much smaller, at least on the surface, than met the eye.
Martin Gurri: A major difference in the age of the tsunami when you have these revolts--these revolts of the public--from what I experienced when I was a younger man is that: the public avoids organization, disdains ideology, has no interest in programs. And, in fact, if you look at what the public is--and that's probably an important thing to get down to the table--I grew up in the era of mass media when there was a mass audience, and I was part of that mass. And, to me, it was always kind of like a gigantic mirror which, all of us in America, you could see ourselves in there. And, we knew that everybody else was there, too.
That mirror has fallen and shattered. And the public now inhabits the broken pieces on the floor. There is no real public. There are many. Just saying 'public' sounds stupid.
So, I'm going to keep talking about the public, but understand many. Many, and mutually hostile.
So, how do you get people to essentially sacrifice their lives in a place like Tahrir Square on behalf of an anti-Mubarak protest? How do you get people in Tel Aviv--and there are hundreds of thousands--to protest for social justice, they thought?
Well, you basically focus on what you are against. You focused, laser-like, on what you are against. And you are against the status quo. And, once the status quo turns to you and says, 'You got me. I'm ready to negotiate. What do you want?' Silence. Because the public has no organization. It has no ideology, it has no programs, no leadership.
So, the public can only--I think somebody called it a tactical freeze. I forget who it was who said that. Once you start this protest, whatever you are protesting, that's what you're stuck on. All right? I don't remember who said that, but that is not original with me.
And, so you, in the end, have a situation in Egypt, for example, where the protestors managed to engineer the overthrow of Mubarak. I think really the army stepped in and said, 'You got to go, old man.'
But, in the end, the landscape wants to happen, nothing. Because there was no program. There was some assumption of democracy was going to happen. So, two big institutions, the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood, fought it out for the next five years or so. So, it was the opposite of what the crowd in Tahrir Square, the protesters, had intended.
Russ Roberts: I just have to mention, because it comes to mind as you're talking: I think we're both old enough to remember 1968 in Czechoslovakia, certainly Tiananmen Square in China, where there were massive movements really before the digital era. Obviously, there were revolutions before the digital era. These era, these are of a different nature though. And, what I take you to be saying is that they are incoherent. And, I don't mean that--it has a negative pejorative sense that shouldn't be there. It's that nothing coheres. It's just a frustration that's coming, and therefore there's nothing to replace that, the status quo, necessarily even when it's successful.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. Ortega would call them invertebrate: they have no backbone that holds them up against the institutions.
Yeah. I get asked a lot, 'Well, what about 1968 and all those protests?' And, alas. I was a young man in those days. I'm giving myself away. And, my memory was, those radical groups were tiny, little hierarchies. They pretended that they were all brotherhood, they were all equal, but there was always a little group of people who organized the demonstration. I actually partook of several of them. There was always a little group. And the violent people, like the Weathermen, were exceedingly organized and showed up--
Russ Roberts: You're talking about America now in the 1960s--
Martin Gurri: Yes. Yeah, 1968, specifically. All that changed. But, it was true everywhere. I mean, it was--I mean, the Red Guards in China were organized. These were not spontaneous groups that just kind of decided to do, you know, 'Let's go have a protest, now.' No. These were essentially revolutionary groups or little mock-versions of the status quo. They were little hierarchies who were sitting there trying to occupy the space that the big institutions were occupying. So, and that had been the way all the way back. I mean, if you look at the--
Russ Roberts: Certainly the Bolsheviks were certainly the same thing.
Martin Gurri: I was just going there. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: People like to think it was a mass uprising. It was a coordinated uprising by a small group of very skilled revolutionaries who were coordinated among themselves, but some did manage to get the crowds out.
Martin Gurri: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about Israel for a minute, because I know a little bit about it, and I think it tells us something about the United States today, or at least I want your reaction to it. The Israeli protest was provoked initially by high housing prices. It's hard for Americans, I think, to understand Israel, because, first of all, it's physically very small. Its population is quite small. It's about seven million people right now. There are two major cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They have very different character. If you are a young person, unmarried, not religious, you want to live in Tel Aviv. And, housing prices, rental rates for apartments, are very high there. That's the nominal cause of this movement.
Now, as an economist, I step back and I say, 'Well, the Israeli government owns a huge portion of the land in the state of Israel. They regulate it with incredible restrictions that makes it really hard to build things.' And so you get high housing rates.
And, the response, which you mention in your book of how these really, the government, responded, was a study--a committee was put together, a study came forward and the result was, 'Oh, we need to subsidize housing for, maybe, lower income people or whatever,' which of course drives up the price of housing even further.
It also should be mentioned that Israel is a thriving economy --enormous amount of opportunity there relative to its neighbors, enormous opportunity relative to what it was 20 years before.
I mention that because--we're here in the United States, unemployment is 3.5%; incomes have been rising. You can debate whether they are--how much of it's been gained by people at the top versus the middle. I don't think there's any doubt that the gains in the middle are not zero. You can debate whether they're large enough.
And, yet somehow we have a reaction to that that is, to me, like the Tel Aviv reaction, a little bit out of line with the underlying facts.
There was a study--not a study but a survey by Gallup recently, and something like 90% of Americans are content with their situation. This was viewed by Twitter--Noah Smith posted on Twitter--this was viewed as mildly left of center.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, I know him.
Russ Roberts: So, the people who follow him and who saw that said, 'Well, this obviously couldn't be true. We know--' and some of them said, 'Well, 10% of 330 million is 33 million unhappy people.'
But, it was just way too high for most people. Because, there's a feeling of malaise and disillusionment and alienation that seems immense. And I'm sure it felt that way in Israel at the time. It feels that way here. It doesn't seem to be consistent with, quote, "the facts." What's going on there?
Martin Gurri: Well, that's a really good question. And, you can prove that wound, I guess you would call it. There are many different ways. I'm sorry to tell you, my take on what you have just said is something that I have actually argued for, which is: whatever that malaise is, it's not economic. It's not economic. Israel was booming when those protests hit. Chile spent--I mean, they had these vicious, vandalistic protests, burned down like I think $1 billion at least worth of damages. And, the spark was they had increased mass transit fare by 30 pesos, which is about 4%.
And, what they say, the protester says, 'It's not about the 30 pesos. It's about the 30 years,' meaning 30 years previous. In the 30 years previous to those riots, Chile had gone from a dictatorial poor country to a democratic--the most affluent country in Latin America.
So, my take, and we can get into that a little deeper if you want, is that whatever this is, some places might have some economic flavoring to it. The Yellow Jackets in France belong to a certain class, and they feel like they're not being treated right. But, even with them, it's not primarily about economics.
Russ Roberts: There is a big theme of nihilism, annihilism in your book. Why don't you expand on that? That is not, obviously, economic. What do you have in mind?
Martin Gurri: Well, I mean, if you are the public and you have this sense--and to me, if I would say, what is it--if you take all these protests, and I've studied them all--and you have to go read what they say because the elites do want it to be economic. And, they want it to be socioeconomic, so, 'there's a lot of white people who feel like they're being left behind' and all of that.
But, if you will listen to what the actual protesters say, they are very unhappy. They're very angry about the distance between themselves and the elites, and they feel like the elites have failed. And, they feel like that failure has something to do with incompetence, it has to do with corruption. These are people who are self-serving and feathering their own nests. So they fail me, not because they're trying and failing, but they fail me because I don't care. They're being elected. They are my neighbors when I elect them, they look just like me; and suddenly they go to the top of the pyramid, they dress different. They become Harvey Weinstein in some horrible way.
So, let me just finish here. As the public organizes--and, as I said before, it can't organize with an organization, it can't organize around an ideology or a program--it just organizes in being against these things.
There comes a point where you either have to transact with reality or you decide, 'Well, the established order is so corrupted, destroying it is progress. It's a step forward.' And, I think many people have crossed over that line. And, that's what I call nihilism. The idea that destruction, and sometimes even violence, is a form of progress.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. A friend of mine, who is one of the smartest people I know, said that he was voting for Trump because he's going to destroy everything. And, I thought, 'The historical track record of that is not good.' That, what replaces it is often not attractive.
Certainly Brexit has some of this flavor. The elites, in responding to Brexit, said things like, 'It's going to lower growth. But, you know, whatever.' And, I thought, 'Boy, that is misunderstanding, I think, what's fundamentally going on.'
And, I think you're right, that there is a natural tendency to look at pocketbook issues as the driving force. You can't ignore them. But, what's striking to me is, at a time of incredible wealth--and, again, you can debate whether how widely it's shared and the role of inequality. But, I think there's a sense--what I take from your book and what I also sense more generally is: There's a sense of betrayal that the public feels from the elites. And that--I love what you say. It's not, 'And, therefore, give me this.' It's, 'Therefore, you've got to go.' And, I don't--and they don't--we, they--I don't know who we are. The public doesn't seem to--the players don't seem to care so much about what will replace it. And, as you point out, they certainly don't have a program to replace it. They just want something different.
And, that's such a strange situation for a democracy, it seems to me, to be in. It doesn't bode well for the future.
Martin Gurri: The public won't take yes for an answer. I mean, that's one of the really strange things about this development. In Israel, that we were talking about, they formed that commission. Netanyahu, give the man credit. Of all the--
Russ Roberts: Besieged leaders?
Martin Gurri: Yeah, besieged presidents and prime ministers that--because these things erupt out of nowhere. I mean, nobody has sense that they're coming. And, it literally within a few days, you have a million people in the street and the elites are asking, 'What the heck is this?' Well, his reaction was, 'Let's form that committee and let's go talk to them.' Well, of course--
Russ Roberts: 'Them,' meaning the protestors.
Martin Gurri: The protesters, yeah. So, the protesters, like, 'Who is them?' They have no leaders. They have no spokepersons. So, the protesters who were divided between those who said, 'No, no, no, no, no. We don't even talk to the government. We just want to change the system,' in some completely unspecified way that 'brings about social justice.' There was a lot of talk about 'social justice,' never specified. I mean, social justice meant that the people who had apartments in Tel Aviv could live closer to where they worked. That was as far as I could tell.
This was the affluent class, by the way. This was the Ashkenazi, affluent class. It was--the golden youth of Israel was in revolt because their apartments cost too much money. Okay? It did not include--and, that's another feature of these revolts--they do not include marginalized people; they do not include minorities. If you looked at Occupy, there was hardly any minorities in that. They tend to be very middle class, very main-whatever the ethnicity is that you're talking about.
In Egypt, in Tahrir Square, it was the educated. There was the golden youth, the educated young people of Egypt, who had been connected through the web. There was just enough connection in Egypt you could put a few hundred thousand people in the street. These were not the poor, the downtrodden.
So, in Israel, they went to them and said, 'What do you want?' And, they said, 'Essentially, I don't want to talk to you.' Or they talked to them, just a half of them talk to them. And, then whatever they came up with said, 'No, I don't agree with that. You use still corrupt dealings there.'
They have what I describe as a sectarian approach to politics. Sects are very pure, are very virtue-oriented, and dealing with the great world there is somehow sinful. The center is sinful and I, in my border sect, am a pure person.
And, that is invariably what you find. They cannot take yes for an answer. The Yellow Jackets in France, everything they have asked for they've gotten and then a whole bunch of other stuff. Okay? And, they're still out there. They're still out there.
Russ Roberts: You talk about in the book the difference between the center--which is sort of the hierarchical top-down group--versus the border--the people on the edge who are emergent, different groups rise up at different times with different flavors but no one's in charge of them obviously. I'm reminded, as I have been in the past, on here, on the program about Yeats poem, "The Second Coming": 'The center cannot hold.' You're a avowed pro-democracy person.
Russ Roberts: Are you worried about the future of democracy? Let's start with the United States or in the West more generally. It seems to me at risk.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. I actually have probably overdone Yeats in my writings. I mean, I support that I should shut up with Yeats.
My answer to your question is: Not yet. I feel that there's a fairly obvious way--I mean, we changed in the 20th century from, essentially, an 18th century democracy to an industrial age democracy. That happened.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, an agrarian economy, much more rural. We became a industrial, urban place.
Martin Gurri: And, all the hierarchies that we're now talking about are falling apart and losing authority were, at that moment, adapted to that particular social and political environment very neatly, I think.
So, it is not an impossibility that we can reform our system. I am a reform freak. I'm not a revolutionary. I think the point, to me, of revolution that did any good--the American Revolution wasn't really a revolution in my book.
But, reform, I think, would mean flattening the pyramid. And, we now can do that--country, a tiny little country--
Russ Roberts: Explain. What do you mean by flattening the pyramid?
Martin Gurri: Well, okay. How many layers of us are there between you and the President of United States of America? I mean, I worked in that hierarchy and I have no idea, but it's--
Russ Roberts: It's a lot of them.
Martin Gurri: It's hundreds of layers. Do we really need every one of those? Do they all serve a productive function? Do they really sustain an edifice that is the best we can have given their situation today?
And, I think the answer is No. I think when people look at the government, they don't see the government. They see the layers, the layers of bureaucracy between them and the people who actually decide things.
Well, I think a lot of those can go and I think the internet can help. And, I think if you look at a little country Estonia that has essentially digitized many, many of its government functions and gotten rid, therefore, of a lot of its bureaucracy, that's one way you can go.
I think there needs to be something more fundamental than that, or let's say, less structural than that. And, that gets back to the Yuval Levin point, which is: there is something broken with our elites today. As is almost--wanders into an area which I find very tricky, which is morality. All right? But, in the end, politics is determined by morality, by what we think is right and wrong.
And, I think our elites--and I have thought about this very carefully: Our current elite class is broken. It's just broken. They have lost a sense of what it means to be an elite, which is: You give up a lot more than you get you.
Go back and see how happy George Washington was to go back to the farm. It was like the happiest thing that happened to him. He could now do whatever the heck he wanted to. When he was President, every moment of every day he had to calibrate: How should I behave in a way that is responsible and fitting for my office? Right? Well, nobody thinks that way anymore. And, I think--maybe we don't want George Washington anymore. White periwigs have gone out of style, and maybe that serious institutional model is not what we would use. But some equiva lent of that. And, that just means we need new people. We need new people.
Russ Roberts: Have you seen The Crown</ em>?
Martin Gurri: You could not pa y me money to see that movie.
Russ Roberts: So, I would have thought myself in that group as well, and yet I have watched all three seasons that have released so far. I have no interest in the British royalty; and yet I have enjoyed it immensely for a whole bunch of reasons. I mean, it's beautifully done and the dialogue is superb and the acting is tremendous. And, the production values are off the chart. I mean, it's an unbelievable achievement.
But, I think one of the reasons--there's two reasons that goes beyond gossip, although it may struggle in the next set of seasons to do that. But, one reason it goes beyond gossip is that, first, it's about the diminishing of Britain's power in the world and the fact that the Crown has to confront that alongside the secular, the politicians.
But, the other part of the show you've really hit on, which I think is quite important, which is the Crown is a responsibility. It's a privilege, and a responsibility. It's not a prize. It's not like, 'Oh, I wish I could be that person.' It comes with tremendous restrictions of duty and responsibility. And this requires trade-offs that not everybody is comfortable making. And, people have left the royalty in different ways, who tried to; we know about that.
But, I think your point that, that elite status had to be earned through sacrifice has died.
Now you suggest we need to get better people. I think that's unlikely. It seems to me we need better incentives. I don't know how we get there from here. Do you have any thoughts on that? How are these institutions going to be rebuilt? How are we going to regain something like that?
Martin Gurri: I think better people--that's like marrying somebody and hoping they change. You know? That's not going to happen. Different.
Russ Roberts: So, what do you mean? Oh, different.
Martin Gurri: Different. And, I think different in the sense of--because there are two elements, I would say, to what you would call the elite breakdown.
One of them is obviously in behavior. And, honestly, you should know if you are going to be in a position of great visibility, that whatever you do is going to come out. It's just going to come out. Nothing stays behind closed walls any more, so behave in a way as if everybody was watching you no matter what you're doing, even in your bedroom. So, that's number one.
Number Two is the rhetoric. The rhetoric of the elites today is really something. It is really something. For a Hillary Clinton to say that 'Half of Trump voters are deplorable people' in kind of a abominable way, racist and so forth--for a politician to say that, that's a remarkable thing.
Well, in France, when they had the yellow vest, basically the top Parliamentarian for the ruling party said, 'The problem is: our policies are too sophisticated.' They said, 'And, people don't understand them.' So, there's a sense that, you know, you're dealing with these yahoos out there who are completely ignorant of your expertise and scientific training.
And, so, I think when I talk about different, people who have been raised on the web talk different. They don't talk that way. All right? There is an awareness because when--you only say that when you're not--you're not going to be looking at a deplorable in the eye and say, 'By the way, you are deplorable.' People who have been raised in the web know that they're looking at their audience in the eye, and that the audience is going to explode right back at you if you use the wrong kind of rhetoric.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't agree with that. I think actually it might go the other way. I think there's a willingness on the part of the media, political leaders to call the other side deplorable more readily, because it signals virtue to their followers.
I feel like we've become, on the Left and the Right, increasingly disrespectful of people who don't think the way we do. I see that on both sides. And, I see the web amplifying that tremendously.
Now, part of the way it does that is through anonymity, right? The ability on the web, at least in theory, to be anonymous is part of that.
But, there are plenty of people I follow on the web, who have named accounts on Twitter, who say things that are just disrespectful of people on the other side, on the Left and the Right. And, I think a democracy can't handle that very well. I think about Sebastian Junger's book, Tribe, which we talked about on this program; and how, if it's all us and them--the way he said it, which I think is spectacular, is: if you think that the other side is betraying your country--which I think right now is the world we're in; it's not just in America, it's in England, it's all over the world--if you think your political opponent is betraying the nation, you're essentially accusing them of treason. Which historically has merited the death penalty.
And, a lot of people, I think, are increasingly comfortable with the fact that they don't deserve a voice. I don't know how democracy sustains itself in that environment.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. I don't disagree with that. You are asking me how it can change and I'm pointing to some possibilities. The incentives are in the other direction.
And, that would add another layer to that even, which is--a couple of layers.
One is that in the internet, if you are a moderate, who is going to pay attention to you? You need to shout. And, the angrier your shout is, the more pronounced your profile, and the more you can find somebody on the other side who shouts back at you, and engage in these kind of like--I don't believe in Right and Left right now. I don't believe in Republican and Democrat. I think we've fractured. We're fractured in these war bands. And they're like something out of the barbarian age where they go looking for, you know, combat that will earn them undying fame. Which, of course, in the digital age is more like brief attention, right? That's the equivalent.
But, the incentives are all for that. There's no question about that.
The second part is: Our society has changed very drastically, so that a lot of importance, a lot of existential meaning is freighted down on politics. Okay? Religion seems to be, you know, less of a thing. Locality and community, less of a thing. Even family, when you think about it, is way less of a thing. These are the things that we used to get our meaning from.
So, I think when you find these eruptions of powerful emotions--I think Arnold Kling says one thing the web has done is broken down the distance between the small world we live in and the big world that we don't really see. It's in the small world that all our powerful emotions are linked to--our significant others, our families, our religion, our community. Now we're focusing all of that on politics. And, if in that mood you find somebody who you disagree with it's not just, 'Well, you go your way and I'll go mine.' It's like, 'You are kind of violating the principles of my religion now.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think that's very true, or at least I'm drawn to that. I don't know if it's very true or not. It's hard to know whether it's true. It's a nice narrative.
Martin Gurri: Yeah, actually I've been trying to--that is--I agree with you 100%. I can't prove it. It is one of those things--that, that existential side to the Revolt of the Public is something that, if you can think of a way to prove that, because I've been rooting around in my research. But, that is what seems to be happening.
Russ Roberts: What is true is what you said to start with: All of these previous institutions are fraying. Family is clearly fraying, the traditional family, whatever you want to call it. Many, many fewer young people are getting married. Fewer people are staying married. At any point in time, there are fewer married people. They are having fewer children. Church attendance is down.
Now, there may be a pendulum. Both those things may come back. But, right now we're at a time where, as you point out, the things that traditionally gave people meaning, a sense of self or whatever you want to call it, tradition, are not what they once were.
And, I'm drawn deeply to David Foster Wallace's observation that everybody worships. His glorious graduation commencement address speech, which we'll link to, where he says 'Everyone worships.' So, worship is something that's stood the test of time. He says if you worship money it will betray you. If you worship beauty, it will betray you. Worship higher--something higher than yourself, not yourself. And, that's a deep insight.
I think, to some extent, politics is something higher than ourselves. I think people aspire to a transformation, a utopian transformation, a messianic transformation, through the political sphere that they used to use the religious sphere to satisfy.
But, that's cheap talk.
I want to take a different approach that you take in the book, to expand on, which is something that I found myself being drawn to. And, listeners know I'm religious; but in addition to that I also feel besides that withdrawal from the--politics is not my religion, is a better way to say it.
At the same time, you know, after I wrote my book on Adam Smith, which I think came out in 2014 if I remember correctly, which is in the middle of this unmooring of the world turned upside down, I used to joke with friends. I'd say, 'I feel like going back to 1759. I really enjoyed it there, hanging out with Adam Smith and the The Theory of Moral Sentiments.'
And, you write the following. You say,
The most effective alternative to the steep pyramid of industrialized democracy isn't direct democracy on the Athenian model, or cyber democracy in the style of what El-Hanim's Facebook page.
He was an Egyptian farmer, right? A mobilizer.
Russ Roberts: You continue,
It's the personal sphere, the place where information and decisions move along. The shortest causal links to the extent the choices are returned to the personal from the political. They can be disposed directly in the light of local knowledge as part of an observable series of trial and error. Personal success can be emulated and replicated. Personal failure will not implicate the entire system.
That certainly echoes Nassim Taleb's view about scaling. We've over-scaled democracy. We ought to move to something more like Switzerland.
But, it also has a, unfortunate or not, and to the eyes of many, a sense of abdication.
I really do want to sit under my fake tree like George Washington wanted to do and cultivate the people closest to me, and be a good soul, and be kind, and loving, and patient, and less egotistical.
Most people find that unsatisfying. They want something grander. They want to destroy, or they want to transform, or they want to build. They want to get on the barricades. Do you think there's a potential attractiveness to that model that you're espousing?
It could be combined with a civil society model where we do help people beyond ourselves through charities, foundations, and other things. But it seems to be very much of not of our time. Your view and mine, which I share are views, that we should be more personal and less political, doesn't seem to be selling very well.
Martin Gurri: Right. It's not just being personal rather than political. I would say what's happening, and this is now a statement of fact; and then I will--I don't like to weigh myself down with a lot of values because they tend to confuse me, the things that I want to happen versus what actually I'm seeing, but I'll overlay some of that.
A statement of fact is: We're fracturing. I think the industrial world was one of these gigantic agglomerations of humanity. Literally hundreds of millions of people were brought into history who had lived these marginal existences that nobody had paid attention to.
And, that was done through these mass systems, which performed very well for their day. Some of them went haywire like the mass movements, like for example the Fascists and the Bolsheviks.
But, mostly it worked.
We had--I think proceeding even the digital era we had reached maximum aggregation. Probably when the Soviet Union split apart was the moment where suddenly that cohesive, where you're either our side or their side--glue was gone and things started to fall apart. But, for sure, right now we're in a moment where nations are splintering. So, people are talking about Brexit and the Brits leaving the EU [European Union]. But, you know what? The Scots want to leave.
Russ Roberts: Scots are next. California might be next.
Martin Gurri: California is out there. That's exactly right. California sees itself as an alternate state to a Trump-dominated federal government. The sanctuary cities believe they're like little city states who can accept or reject federal law, national law. The parties are really just a very loose conglomerate of these war bands, these networks I was talking about before.
So, I think the reality is we're living in that world, so how do we make that world democratic and as least vicious as we can?
And, I think it's by empowering--I mean, particularly in the United States, a lot of our locality is political. The United States and California, for example.
So, the more you empower localities--the cantons. I say somewhere in the book in one possible future every democracy is Switzerland. That's not a particularly attractive model to me, personally. But it is a model and it is, I think, fitting this kind of fracturing moment that we happen to be living through; and I think we're going to be in. And, by the way, I think we're in the very early stages of this. We're in the very, very early stages of this. This is going to outlast me, probably you. I don't know, even my children. This is--when you think about the printing press, for example, and the ripple effect it had--I have a friend, probably the smartest tweeter on Twitter, called Antonio Garcia Martinez, who says if you had gone to the 30 Years' War--and, you know what the 30 Years' War, it was the most horrendous war that had hit Europe to that point, depopulated Germany for several generations afterwards, all fought over tiny religious differences.
Russ Roberts: 17th century, right?
Martin Gurri: 17th century. Right.
Russ Roberts: And, it's with the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648.
Martin Gurri: Correct. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Appreciate the compliment. Trust, but verify. Okay?
Martin Gurri: Yup. So, if you had gone to that conflict where some people are walking around with books that say, 'God the Father is this,' and some other people are going with books that say, 'God the Father is,' something slightly different, 'I'm going to kill you now.' Right? And, you asked them what have been the consequences of the printing press, they would have said it's horrible. 'It's a horrible technology. It's caused a slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people.' No,w I would like to think, and I've had some pushback on this, but I believe that the printing press was the most liberating technology that ever existed--in the long run.
Russ Roberts: No doubt about that.
Martin Gurri: In the long run.
Russ Roberts: Or until this one, at least.
Martin Gurri: Right. We're now in the short run of the digital tsunami. Okay? And, it looks horrible. It looks like the 30 Years' War only not nearly that bad--let's put it that way.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's true.
Martin Gurri: So, I feel like we need to take a step back and look at this technology as: we're in the beginnings of it, it's going to continue. And it's not--in my opinion, I am not a believer in vast impersonal forces--it's going to be up to us how it ends up.
Russ Roberts: So, I've said on the program that I'm a little worried about civil war in the United States. And, when you say that you feel like an idiot because of course there'll never be a civil war. But things change. And, things you didn't anticipate happen.
And, one solution to that, one way to avoid that, which I hadn't really thought enough about is to break up the United States without fighting. A secession of California, New England, the South, the Midwest, those four because I think of those as sort of four nations--that had, maybe, a free trade zone, we'd be a more peaceful place.
Of course, one of the challenges of that kind of solution, besides that it violates what used to be our religion in America: that we we're a one nation under God and the actual civil war of the 19th century was fought to preserve it--which was horrifically bloody. I think about 500,000 people died for that idea. They weren't dying to fight slavery. That was, fortunately, a positive side effect which took another 100 years to get right. But, the problem is, is that there's not just, say, the coasts versus the middle or the South versus the rest. It's urban, rural. There's no easy way to fix this problem, I think, for America. And, I think this idea of what we are, which Trump is the manifestation of, not the cause--I think he is the manifestation of an unease there--not clear how that's going to play out.
Martin Gurri: No. But, okay, now we're talking about something way beyond my expertise and I'm about to just give you speculative opinions.
Russ Roberts: I'll take it.
Martin Gurri: Great. Okay. As I think I told you earlier, I myself am an immigrant. I come from Cuba. I don't believe that you could find 100 Californians and put them in a room and say, 'Do you want to not be Americans anymore and just be Californians?' I don't believe that's going to happen. I don't believe it's ever going to happen. I do believe you can cede California the kinds of powers that states and localities used to have before the industrial moment when power was centralized, so powerfully, so strongly. And, allow them to have their version of being an American. And, maybe here, the rest of us in Virginia will have our version of being an American. And, the Texans will have theirs and the Floridians will have theirs.
But, in the end there are many threads that mean we're still American. I mean, we still have our culture which is shared. You have to come from the outside to see the many, many things. That's the sad part. It's: you see the many, many bonds that bring Americans together. Most Americans don't see them. They just don't see them. But they're there. And, I don't believe--as I say, I couldn't prove this if you put a gun to my head, but I don't believe you could find 100 people in California who would say, 'I'd rather be a Californian than an American.'
Russ Roberts: Well, that's today. After the third Trump Administration, they might feel differently. But--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah, it might be a larger group, but tell me--let's close on: I like that optimism. Is there any reason to think that this disillusionment, is the way I think of it, with institutions, will end in a--I mean, there's two paths. There's this decentralized path, this pushing of the flattening of the pyramid, pushing of power down to different levels and layers.
The other route is the centralized path, which is just historically what has happened. Someone comes along who says, 'I'm going to fix this mess.' That person is usually charismatic. The United States, I've always believed until recently, that the United States was immune from that kind of--that the Constitution would hold. I joked about a third Trump Administration: That's of course unimaginable. We've never--we have this beautiful thing in America, the peaceful transition of power. There are a lot of people out in the political sphere today, it's not just Donald Trump, but on the other side as well --whatever that means, the other side--who I think are not going to easily give up power. That lack of respect is so large. So I think we're headed into really unchartered waters there. And, the institution of U.S. governance is also frayed. Give me some reasons for being hopeful, if you can.
Martin Gurri: Well, I don't know that I'm in that business ; but I think disenchanted is the way I would describe the public's view of government.
And, if you remember, there was a moment when nature was disenchanted. People used to think that it had fairies and that you could do spells or prayers and you could influence natural events. And, science came and said, 'No, I'm sorry. That was a very beautiful story. But, in fact, none of that happens.' And, then we could deal with science or with nature as it really is. Right? And, okay, that's the way it is. I mean, if you want to have illusions about fairies, you can have them; but you deal with it the way it is.
The same thing has happened to government with that digital tsunami and all the institutions . All of them: the media, the academia, everything. They have been stripped to the point where the public has disenchanted all those stories that they could solve joblessness, that they could impose economic equality. All the things that have been claimed, we now see they don't know how to do any of these things. There's a disenchantment.
What we need, again I go back to my new elite class that we need. We need an elite class that is the equivalent of the scientific class when the first disenchantment happened and says, 'I can't promise you what is not true. I can say we will try this. I can say we'll do trial and error in this direction, and that's my policy. But, if it goes wrong, we'll fix it.' Versus some global, 'I can promise you paradise, elect me.'
Russ Roberts: And, a pony.
Martin Gurri: Paradise and a pony. 'And, by the way, I'm going to make your life meaningful, because you will be part of this semi-cultish thing.' So, I think, there is--I have hope. I mean, the next generation, which is my children's generation, I have questions about; but in the end reality imposes itself. It's nice to be young, but in the end you have to be realistic. And, I think there is a way of being a politician and getting votes where you are addressing a disenchanted audience; and you're doing so by being humble and by being honest. So, I guess we go back to morality, right?
You're telling people, 'We can start to do this but, in fact, we don't really know how to get there 100%, so that's going to be a twist and a turn, because that's the way everything human ever goes.' So, that would be my little speech.
Russ Roberts: Well, usually I'd end there, but I can't resist quoting a beautiful line from your book; and I'll let you react to this and then we'll close. You say, "Politics is nothing like baseball. In the end, the most persuasive story wins, not the highest score." How do you reconcile that with what you just said?
Russ Roberts: I love that insight. It's a fantastic--it goes against everything I used to believe about public choice and politics, but I think you're right.
Martin Gurri: Yeah. Well, I mean--
Russ Roberts: In[?] history.
Martin Gurri: Persuasion is something that I studied very deeply, both when I was in government and afterwards. Persuasion is a tool. I mean, the persuasive story can be a realistic story or it can be a fantasy story. Great oratories have taken a real situation--you go back to Pericles's Funeral Oration, when the Athenians were basically burying their best young people during a plague and a war, and he made it all seem worthwhile. He persuaded. I mean, that oration has lived to this day because it was--he showed how democracy, even at a terrible moment, made all those sacrifices worthwhile.
There are people who can do this. They can persuade us without necessarily violating reality or promising a pony, or who knows what else. Right?
And, I'm not persuaded that, in a digital age for sure, after we get past this horrible 30 Years' War moment, when both--see, right now the elites are not digital. The elites are still living in the 20th century. They desperately want to get back there. Okay? I mean, they are stuck in the muck of reaction. And the rest of us are in the digital age. At some point, just generationally, that's going to change, and you're going to have both elites and the public in the digital age.
And, not to say that that will be utopia, because it most certainly will not be, but I think then you get to the point where the people who are trying to persuade are aware that at any moment anything they say that is not true is going to be the lead on the web. It's going to be the viral thing that goes on the web. So, you've got to say, 'This is reality, and this is what I'm going to do, and this is what I think can happen.' And, it's not necessarily what will happen, I don't ever make predictions. I do not. I worked for CIA and prophecy was their business model--and we don't want to go there. But, it can happen. I am always short-term pessimistic, long-term optimistic.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Martin Gurri. His book is The Revolt of the Public. Martin, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Martin Gurri: Hey, this was fun.