The so-called United Kingdom is proving that right now.
The Brexit vote is a warning. It shows what can happen if income inequality becomes too large, and leads people to believe in demagogues.
The same trends that caused this catastrophe are alive in our own country. They were alive in the Bernie Sanders campaign, whose British analog is Jeremy Corbyn. They were alive in the Brexit campaign, the American analog being Donald Trump.
There are ample reasons to believe that “it can’t happen here.” The UK is far more native-born than we are, the voting population 87% white instead of 62%. Their experience with immigration is fairly new, going back only about 70 years to the end of the empire, and their willingness to take some of its refugees. The experience with mass immigration is even newer, and they are much closer to the “atom bomb” ISIS dropped with the Syrian refugee crisis last year.
Immigration is why America does not face the demographic time bomb Japan and China are facing right now. Over the next few decades, these countries are going to age out, creating crushing burdens of parents dependent on their children’s work. That won’t happen here because immigrants are mostly young, and can carry the load.
Another reason why it won’t happen here is technology. While there are some British technology companies, most sold out before they got very large. As a result, England is an importer of technology, taking its side-effects along with some benefits, but getting none of the resulting capital appreciation. There is no British Zuckerberg, no British Page, or Bezos. There is not even a Craig Newmark. Certainly there is no Bill Gates.
Since the Great Recession, educated people have been doing very well but most Americans are educated. The UK has reserved higher education only for a few. Most people outside London are not educated. And, as I said, it’s getting older faster than we are. The Brexit vote was one of those “take your government hands off my NHS” moments, less-educated people selling out to demagogues because the arguments of the left were overly sophisticated.
That’s true here, too. The Trump and Sanders people are saying versions of the same thing. They are complaining that all the gains of the technology era are going to a very small number of people, those who work in technology, or have had enough money to invest in it.
The way to change that is to find other things to spend money on beyond pure technology, or at least to spend things that are augmented by technology. This is the great market responsibility technology is failing to live up to.
It’s not like there aren’t jobs that need doing. Our infrastructure sucks. Many areas are woefully short of housing, and present construction technology – sticks to five stories then costs go flying – is inadequate. There’s a planet to save, and there are millions of jobs that can be created in saving it. We need better food, made closer to consumers. We need to create urban environments where animals, not just humans, can live.
If the technology industry is unwilling to invest in these things, then the industry must at least support policies that will allow someone else to invest in it. The people, for instance. That’s what government is in a democracy, the people. Instead, they are allowing democracy to be led to the slaughter by demagogues.
Maybe they don’t care.
They didn’t care in Britain, not enough to do anything about it anyway. The City voted remain, but it didn’t step up to provide any jobs to the rest of the country, which revolted against the City’s dominance and voted leave. The City figures it can always pack up and leave itself if the going gets rough. It’s all on the cloud anyway. Frankfurt is nice, so are Amsterdam and Paris. Geneva might be interesting, as might Hong Kong or Singapore.
As to what happens in Britain itself, it’s in for a world of hurt. Northern Ireland will move toward reunification with Ireland, and Scotland will demand a new referendum on independence, very loudly. Theresa May, who supported remain, will become Prime Minister, and Jeremy Corbyn will be replaced by someone more full-throated on remain, maybe Tom Watson. Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Scottish Nationalists will create an alliance aiming at a new election, and their candidates will win by-elections whenever they occur. Eventually, either May will slow-walk the issue into oblivion or, as the economic damage continues to increase, enough of her members will revolt that a General Election will be called, one that EU-oriented candidates will win decisively.
But, as I said, there will be enormous economic pain. The British pound is already down more than 15% from where it was before the vote. That means vacations are already more expensive, and prices are going up in the shops and at the gas pump. Unemployment is going to rise, and government services will be cut. The people of north England will feel lied-to. Meanwhile, violence against immigrants will increase, causing investment to drop.
This will continue to grow until the UK relents. Or the UK will break up, violently or nonviolently. The era of England will end. It will become another trouble spot, much like the countries it now looks down upon, and when its people try to emigrate they will be treated just as the English now treat refugees.
It gives me no pleasure to write any of this. Many of my best friends are English. My favorite football team is English but what has happened in football itself should have clued Englishmen in to what was happening more generally. It has become a foreign preserve, the rich, indolent, and corrupt of the whole world flocking to buy its teams in order to keep their money away from the local tax man, and their bodies away from the revenge of their own people.
The man who now owns my team, for instance, has been implicated in actual slavery. The owner of Chelsea is a Russian oligarch, the new owner of Aston Villa is a Chinese oligarch, and the owners of Manchester City are Arab oligarchs. The only team I know of now owned by Englishmen, West Ham United, has succeeded thanks to enormous handouts from the government, specifically the stadium built at taxpayer expense for the 2012 Olympics.
England has voted to go down. It’s going to be relegated, out of the First Division of nations, maybe into the second, and maybe into the third. It can recover and stay in the second if it reverses course, but the humiliation in that case will be enormous, and it will never get back into the top flight. Or it can keep going the way it’s going and eventually fall out of the league altogether.
Fortunately, Americans have too many immigrants, too much diversity, too much technology wealth and too much luck to go that way. But be warned. If you are not actively engaged in democracy, at every level, it CAN happen here.
Democracy is your responsibility. Take it, or lose it.