ITHACA, New York – The first step in establishing an authoritarian culture in a country is to train its citizens to misread statistics. This is actually not hard to do; the rest is smooth sailing. Luckily for the United States, President Donald Trump will leave the White House in January before the curriculum could be completed.
To be sure, the Trump administration’s handling of the statistics and science of the COVID-19 pandemic severely harmed people’s health and the economy. But President-elect Joe Biden is expected to reverse many of Trump’s follies and foibles and boost the economy — starting with helping those on the bottom rungs of the income ladder, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
But with the dismal year of 2020 now past us, I want to dwell on a larger and harder task facing Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. With his narcissism and hypernationalism, Trump has not only polarized America, but also fueled right-wing authoritarianism around the world. And his supporters’ identification with him has spawned an obsession with material wealth to the neglect of basic human decency, empathy, and the environment, along with a xenophobic disdain for the “other” that should have no place in our globalized world.
Most hypernationalist citizens do not realize that they are excellent fodder for greedy and unscrupulous politicians and financial leaders. I have argued elsewhere that many of the goals we strive for in life are not innate cravings, as mainstream economics assumes, but rather “created targets” like sporting success. Nationalism also belongs in this category.
With this in mind, there might even be a business opportunity in drumming up excitement about how your country’s richest people are faring against other countries’ richest people. Whip up the competition through commercials and pliant reporting, and hypernationalist citizens will soon be waiting with bated breath to see if their country’s richest person will top the global list.
Then, once this excitement reaches a certain level, start a fund to which all citizens can contribute in order to boost their national champion’s chances. Whether or not they win the race, some of these very rich people will now be able to sit back and become even richer by the folly of their country’s nationalists.
These propensities are already at work in subtle ways, and are creating global strains that will continue to cause considerable damage unless they are reversed. For the sake of America and the world, the Biden administration must take up this challenge. The aim must be not just to make America genuinely great again (although four years of Trump have created ample scope for doing that). To put U.S. presidents’ global reach to good use and address some of the world’s ills, Biden should adopt an internationalist mindset.
In ancient economies based on hunting and foraging, people’s lives were defined by their tribal allegiances, and that worked fine. As our ancestors learned farming, and work became more specialized, they moved from those narrow loyalties to the broader categories of race and caste.
As economies of scale in production and manufacturing grew even greater and whole regions specialized in different kinds of economic activities, our allegiances broadened and changed again, and nationality became our pivotal identity. We learned to take pride in our country in the way we once took pride in our tribe, race, or other marker of identity and belonging.
Today, we think of racial or caste supremacy as shameful. And I believe that a time will come in the not-too-distant future when we will feel as embarrassed about national pride as we now do about white supremacy and caste- or religion-based cliques that exclude and exploit others.
We have reached a stage when we must learn to regard our human identity as the most important. Fortunately, philosophers, a few good politicians, and even some religious leaders have taken the view that racial, religious, and even national supremacy is morally unacceptable.
Quite apart from the moral urgency of elevating this larger identity, we are approaching a point in our history when narrow nationalism will no longer be viable. Globalization has advanced rapidly since the end of World War II, and the rise of digital technology over the last three or four decades has flattened the world even more. This economic globalization is no longer compatible with the political balkanization that hypernationalism underpins.
America’s foreign-policy record is not blemish-free. But America can be a catalyst if it actively engages with the world once again — and not with a view only to its own interest this time. Biden and Harris should show vaulting ambition and set their sights high. They need to restore America’s status in the world not for its own sake, but to make the world a better place.
Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank and chief economic adviser to the government of India, is professor of economics at Cornell University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ©Project Syndicate, 2020.
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