Book Review: The Wealth Paradox by Frank Mols and Jolanda Jetten

The Wealth Paradox: Economic Prosperity and the Hardening of Attitudes [Goodreads] is the right book at the right time. Short, succinct, and with hard data to prove their central thesis, The Wealth Paradox is worthy of a thoughtful read by policy makers, political operatives, academics, and in these troubled times, the general public.

The last few years have seen what Mols and Jetten declare in their preface to be a “perfect storm” in both Western liberal democracies and other countries that pretend to the democratic mantel. A combination of deep economic recessions and global crises have seen 21 million people earn the legal title of refugee and an estimated 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. A bit of political turmoil was bound to occur.

Readers might immediately think of Donald Trump’s populist rise in the United States in the frantic few months following the British choice to Brexit. Mols was one of very few political scientists to foresee the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. His rationale forms the central thesis of The Wealth Paradox: The rise of far-right parties and political movements are not simply attributable to the poor and dispossessed but also to middle class voters with some modest degree of wealth to protect.

There are others. News watchers could not have missed the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grab for dictatorial powers after transitioning from prime minister to president of that country. In the Philippines, strongman Rodrigo Duterte grabbed the presidency with his promises to murder drug dealers, street children, and, purely as a form of collateral damage, political opponents. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, like Erdoğan a former prime minister of his country and now president, went several times better by being prime minister, then president, then prime minister, and now president again. One must give him points for consistency.

All of these leaders were democratically elected. Something to notice is how close these decisions have been. Trump became the second Republican president in a row to lose the popular vote on his way to the White House. Putin won his first presidential bid in 2000 with 53% of the vote. Erdoğan won his presidential bid with in 2014 with 51.79%. Duterte won with a minority 39.1%. The referendum deciding that Britain should leave the European Union was passed with 51.89% voting to leave. In all of these cases and many more, a populist platform was adopted with nearly half of the electorates voting for the opposite.

Invoking [Godwin’s Law], it seems an excellent time to recall that at the time Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, he was head of a political party that had garnered a third of the seats in the German parliament by democratic means.

Why should people elect leaders who so often pursue unarguably unpopular policies, or who hold unpopular ideas? Mols and Jetten argue that enough middle class voters, those with above average incomes, do so in order to protect their own narrow interests. It is this point, and the data behind it, that makes The Wealth Paradox worth reading.

Recent votes in the Netherlands and France rejecting populist parties have left little time to celebrate. The combination of Byzantine political systems and continued strong showings by populist parties clearly show that history is not over. We may yet see a spread of their simplistic mixture of xenophobia and protectionism.

The authors of The Wealth Paradox are not, of course, the first scholars to note the connection between the middle class and populism, nor the odd (to the settled mind) desire to rip and replace an imperfect system with a new one.

The British historian George Dangerfield, writing in the 1930s about the pre-World War I actions of the Tory party then in opposition, made Mols’ and Jetten’s case for them. Dangerfield’s crisis resulted in the partition of Ireland and the mutiny of a portion of the British Army:

The Tory Rebellion was not merely a brutal attack upon an enfeebled opponent – that is to say, political; it was not merely the impassioned defence of impossible privileges – that is to say, economic; it was also, and more profoundly, the unconscious rejection of an established security. For nearly a century men had discovered in the cautious phrase, in the respectable gesture, in the considered display of reasonable emotions, a haven against those irrational storms which threatened to sweep through them, And gradually the haven lost its charms; worst still, it lost it peace. Its waters, no longer unruffled by the wind, ceased to reflect, with complacent ease, the settled skies, the untangled stars of accepted behaviour and sensible conviction; and men, with a defiance they not hope to understand, began to put forth upon little excursions into the vast, the dark, the driven seas beyond.

(George Dangerfield. The Strange Death of Liberal England. Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 122-3.)

Dangerfield could have been writing about today’s political challenges. We find ourselves coming off of an unprecedented post-war period of established security that, when buffeted by the “perfect storm”, resulted in rejection. It is little wonder that his book became the archetypal modern history.

Worrying, too, is the lesson learned by unrepentant socialist Christopher Hitchens. Visiting his literary superhero Jorge Luis Borges in his unhappy home in Buenos Aires, Hitchens read at Borges’ request Rudyard Kipling’s “Harp Song of the Dane Women” whose opening verse:

What is a woman that you forsake her
And the hearth fire and the home acre
To go with that old grey widow-maker?

so beautifully gets to the beating heart of the human male’s yearning for adventure, and the the acceptance of the accompanying risk. Hitchens was dismayed that his idol “heartily preferred” the “gentlemen” of the brutal and populist regime of Juan Perón who abused both his family and himself. Borges, for all his stunning illumination of human foibles, himself fell in his old age into a sort of populist Stockholm Syndrome.

Herodotus noted millennia ago how to react to those protective of their wealth. “Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end… Now if a man thus favoured died as he has lived, he will be just the one you are looking for: the only sort of person who deserves to be called happy. But mark this: until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky.” Those voting for populist leaders should carefully note the warning. Pursuit of short term interests must be carefully weighed with longer term consequences.

No, the The Wealth Paradox is not entirely new. It is up to date, well researched, and particularly timely.

The 191 pages of main matter make The Wealth Paradox a respectable size for an audience uncomfortable with lengthy prose. Forget War and Peace: One sometimes wonders how many years will pass before the last undergraduate slogs to the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at 55 pages, or the 64 pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No time have we in these days of Internet-connected pocket supercomputers for the massive 4,736 pages of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War. Even our academics must adjust to doling out words short enough to absorb during a commute or a visit to the toilet. But perhaps I simply suffer from last century’s skills. As Kurt Vonnegut so ironically juxtaposed his writing with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his geriatric romp A Man Without a Country, “I am windy”.

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