Trust leads to security leads to trust: The forgotten lesson that made a mess of 2016

“In the future, Americans — assuming there are any left — will look back at 2016 and remark: ‘What the HELL?’” American humourist Dave Barry wrote in his retrospective on 2016. “If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside.”

Likening it to “a choice between ointment and suppository,” the U.S. presidential election was Barry’s prime example of the mess that 2016 turned out to be.

“CNN told us over and over that Donald Trump was a colossally ignorant, narcissistic, out-of-control sex-predator buffoon; Fox News countered that Hillary Clinton was a greedy, corrupt, coldly calculating liar of massive ambition and minimal accomplishment.”

“And in our hearts we knew the awful truth: They were both right.”

The absurdities of 2016 extended beyond the United States. The British — mainly the English — voted in June to leave the European Union, despite the possibility of a renewed bid for Scottish independence (continued membership in the E.U., popular in Scotland, having been one of the factors that prompted Scots to vote against separating from Britain in 2014), and the unraveling of the hard-won Irish peace (Northern Ireland also having voted against leaving the E.U.)

In other populist revolts, the Austrian far-right came uncomfortably close to winning the 2016 presidential election, and recent polls showed Marine Le Pen, of the anti-immigrant Front National, running a close second in the run-up to the 2017 French presidential race.

The strange mood has even crept into Canada, where the presumptive front-runner for the leadership of the Conservative Party — the party which has governed Canada for half of the past 30 years — is Kevin O’Leary, a comically abrasive businessman turned full-time TV personality, with no political experience, who brandishes a spatula in a Dec. 24 YouTube video and vows to take it to Ottawa and “scrape all that crap out”. (To his credit, O’Leary has avoided the anti-immigrant sentiment of Kellie Leitch, the Winnipeg-born Conservative leadership candidate whose capacity for getting attention through mean-spiritedness has not so far given her lasting momentum.)

What is behind the bitter mood that made 2016 the year of Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen and the slowly rising weirdness of the Conservative leadership race?

The most probable explanation comes from the book Viking Economics by George Lakey, a retired professor and peace activist. In the book, he contrasts the sense of mutual security and trust that citizens of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland feel with the chronic insecurity of life in the United States — not to mention other countries, to varying degrees.

The United States operates a different economic model, which values insecurity . . . A family depends on a job that might disappear tomorrow; it lands in a feeble safety net; it has few prospects for finding another job as good or better. Small wonder that U.S. unions sometimes defend inefficient labor practices and outmoded organization of work, even though undermining productivity — whatever it takes to keep workers in jobs. In other words, compared with the high-productivity Nordic model, the U.S. insecurity approach creates an incentive to resist efficiency.

Lakey contrasts the American tendency to resist a social safety net with the freedom that a strong social safety net has given Nordic business owners to experiment with new ways of doing things, and to Nordic unions to accept and even welcome such changes.

There is reason to believe that the Nordic approach has secured positive results. The 2016 World Competitiveness Scoreboard places fifth-place Sweden and sixth-place Denmark just behind the third-place U.S. (and ahead of tenth-place Canada) in its ranking of the world’s most competitive economies. China and Switzerland took the top two spots.

And there is reason to believe that chronic insecurity takes a toll on people, and on their faith in democracy.

Andrew Wroe, of the University of Kent in the U.K., has carefully researched whether economic insecurity and anti-government sentiment are linked. In the case of the United States, he wrote in a 2015 commentary on the London School of Economics web site, the answer is “an unambiguous yes”.

As Jacob Hacker points out in The Great Risk Shift, the US government has deliberately privatised risk in the name of ‘personal responsibility’ by dismantling large parts of the social insurance system, and it has done so at a time when macro-economic changes have actually increased threats to economic security.

[. . .]

. . .[P]rior research demonstrates that political trust is vital to the good functioning of contemporary polities. One possible remedy for low trust would be to halt and then reverse the privatisation of risk by bringing the government back in. Comparative European data show that countries with more extensive welfare systems generally experience higher levels of political trust, possibly because welfare protects people against insecurity. However, the major progressive reforms that may help restore trust in the US are primed to fail precisely because trust is so low. Distrusting citizens, which constitute a large majority of all Americans, are less likely than trusting citizens to support major liberal reforms to the welfare state; indeed, they are more likely to support conservative alternatives that further privatise risk and, in turn, further increase insecurity. Such is the irony of the politics of trust.

Indeed, in 2014, three French researchers examined the relationship between the comprehensiveness of the social safety net in OECD member-countries and the degree to which the citizens of those countries trusted one another. They found that countries that were more polarized between trustworthy and untrustworthy — or “civic” and “uncivic” — individuals had the greatest difficulty supporting an effective social safety net.

Uncivic citizens, the sort who evade their tax obligations while seeking to extract all they can from social benefits, will support the expansion of the welfare state more strongly than civic citizens will, since they expect to benefit the most from it while shirking the costs. A rise in the share of uncivic citizens could thus increase the demand for a generous welfare state. However, an opposing force is also at play. Civic citizens will be less inclined to support high taxes if they expect to be surrounded by uncivic individuals who do not pay taxes and abuse social benefits . . . [But an increase in support] appears when everyone is civic. In this situation, all individuals strongly support the welfare state because nobody cheats on taxes and social benefits.

So, in short, what went wrong that gave the world the upcoming Trump presidency and Brexit debacle? A safe bet is that the U.S. and the U.K. fell into a “distrust trap”: a culture of economic insecurity, and resentment at feeling abandoned to fend for themselves by politicians who went on to live comfortable lives separate from the wider community, killed trust in politicians. Meanwhile, difficulty trusting fellow citizens made a strong social safety net that would ease their burdens unsustainable.

The lesson? Trust matters. With it, a society thrives. Without it, a society begins to fall apart.

Between 2005 and 2009, the World Values Survey asked people around the world if they felt that “most people can be trusted”. In Norway and Sweden, with their strong social safety nets and high levels of confidence in their parliaments, two-thirds or more of citizens agreed that, yes, most people can be trusted. In the U.S., however, only 39 percent considered most others trustworthy; and in the U.K., just 30 percent felt this way.

As for Canada: we were barely more likely than the Americans to trust our compatriots, with 42 percent of us considering most other people to be trustworthy. Never assume that a Donald Trump can’t happen here.

Sex and the American Voter

Academic writing has a long and proud tradition of being painfully dull and slow to get to the point, but perhaps that’s simply because no one was able to research whether there was a link between how people vote and their sex lives. Until now.

Finally, three researchers from three U.S. universities have successfully navigated the academic minefields of obtaining time and money and overcoming ethical objections to answer such questions we’ve all been dying to know the answer to, such as whether U.S. conservatives or liberals are more likely to make love in the missionary position.

The answer to that question, according to these researchers is: conservatives are more likely to prefer the missionary position. Their article, which appeared online in full-text earlier this week before being pulled behind a paywall, also found that social conservatives tend to have sex for the first time at a later age and to have fewer partners, yet are also more likely to be satisfied with the state of their sex lives.

U.S. liberals, meanwhile are said to be more likely to take part in “adventurous sexual behaviors (e.g., sex toys)”, and in risky behaviours, such as sex with a total stranger.

Fortunately, I was able to screenshot a particularly colourful paragraph from their findings this past week and post it to Twitter for a laugh before the paywall was imposed. Among the more salient bits:

“Those who gave more oral sex or received more oral sex are more conservative on out-group/punishment attitudes (anti-immigration, pro-death penalty, etc.), but more socially liberal (support gay rights, pro-choice, etc.)”

 

“Those who have more sex with a woman on top are also more conservative on out-group/punishment attitudes, more likely to [have voted] for Romney, but more socially liberal. Those who have more ‘doggy style’ sex are more conservative on out-group/punishment attitudes, but more socially liberal.”

 

“People who masturbate more are more liberal on all attitude dimension, self-report as liberal, Democrats and [as having voted for] Obama.”

 

“Those who engage in more S & M [were] more likely to vote for Obama, self-report as liberal and have more liberal social attitudes. People who engage in more hand-to-breast contact [were] more likely to vote for Romney, self-report as conservative, and be more conservative on out-group/punishment and economic attitudes.”

 

“People who kiss on the mouth more [were] more likely to vote for Romney, self-report as conservative and Republican, and be more conservative on out-group/punishment and economic attitudes.”

After Americans go to the polls Nov. 8 to elect a new president, after what has undeniably been the most wretched and embarrassing presidential race in modern history, a desire to have less politics and more cuddling would be entirely understandable. But let’s just hope those couples where one voted for Trump and the other voted for Clinton can patch up their differences.

“The relationship between sexual preferences and political orientations: Do positions in the bedroom affect positions in the ballot box?” by Peter Hatemi, Charles Crabtree and Rose McDermott will be published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal in Jan. 2017.

 

 

The economist who says Canada is headed for a credit crisis

Professor Steve Keen, of Kingston University in Greater London’s western suburbs, has made a name for himself as one of economics’ leading contrarian voices. He has criticized the idea that no one could have seen the 2008 global financial crisis coming as “balderdash“. He was one of the relatively few economists to favour Britain leaving the European Union; and perhaps less controversially, he sees the common European currency as “destroying Europe” and as something which “should never have started in the first place.

But Keen foresees problems in more places than just Europe. In an interview broadcast in late September on RT, the Russian government’s foray into 24-hour cable TV news, Keen discussed the rising risk of a debt crisis in China caused by the over-construction of new housing and office space. As he sees it, private debt and demand for credit has reached hazardous levels:

“The potential trigger is simply the level of private debt. Anything above 1.5 times GDP is enough to put you in the range where changes in credit have a large impact on your demand. Secondly, if your credit demand exceeds 10 percent of GDP, you’re in danger territory again, because, simply, stabilization of that rate of growth of credit, so that it grows at the same rate of GDP, will mean a fall in total demand in those economies.”

The more disturbing part of the interview comes when Keen sets his sights firmly on Canada:

“The most vulnerable economy apart from China on that front appears to be, of all things, Ireland — again! They’ve got themselves back in the situation; but that may involve their dodgy accounting and their dodgy tax records. But certainly Canada. Canada is the western developed economy that I think is most exposed to a credit crisis, and indeed using a different metric, that’s the country that the BIS [the Bank for International Settlements; a Swiss-based banking institution for the world’s central banks] identifies as the most likely one to face a credit crunch.”

Indeed, news watchers might have noticed that just this past week the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) issued its first-ever “red warning” for the Canadian housing market, noting that “high levels of indebtedness coupled with elevated house prices are often followed by economic contractions . . . The conditions we now observe in Canada concern us.”

One glimmer of hope that Keen sees for Canada is that the federal government’s deficit spending might turn out to be a good thing, by diluting the impact of any shock that comes along. Yet he also sees some risk from the possibility that those deficits might come under attack for political reasons:

“What worries me of course is when that credit crunch occurs, the political opponents to Trudeau will blame it on his deficit spending. But his deficit spending is one thing that’s attenuating how bad that shock is going to be. So, Canada definitely, Australia, Sweden, Norway, possibly Switzerland, there’s about 17 countries . . . but those are the major ones [facing a problem].”

The Jimmy John’s case: When doing what’s best for the organization means doing what’s worse for the economy

Usually, when you hear about staff being required to sign non-compete agreements as a condition of employment, it’s easy to assume that this only applies to the big-shots: executives, senior managers, people with intimate knowledge of corporate strategy, and so on, and surely not to a 19-year-old restaurant server or even a 24-year-old shift supervisor at a suburban fast-food outlet.

Think again. In a country where so many feel that “the little guy” is condemned to always end up with the short end of the stick that many have turned to Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders as would-be saviours, a news story appeared this past week that might just reaffirm their suspicions.

Illinois attorney-general Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit mid-week against Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, a Champaign, Ill.-based sandwich shop franchise, for requiring its employees until just last year to sign non-compete agreements. These agreements forbade employees from seeking employment with any other restaurant “that does at least ten percent of its business making sandwiches” within a two- or three-mile radius of any Jimmy John’s restaurant nationwide.

Under the agreement, the ban on working for even marginal competitors remained in effect for two years after leaving Jimmy John’s.

The non-compete agreement was almost certainly designed as a bluff to discourage staff turnover, not with the intent of actually enforcing it. Enforcement would have required:

a.) Keeping track of former employees’ whereabouts, or somehow finding out that the former employee had landed a job at Subway a mile and a half away, 15 months later (possible, but unlikely);

b.) Giving enough of a damn about the alleged breach to actually attempt to hold the former employee to the terms of the non-compete agreement (extremely unlikely for a low-wage job, and unlikely even in some better-compensated, mid-level jobs, if the path of least resistance was to just ignore the whole matter), and;

c.) If all else failed, convincing a court to enforce the agreement even though the courts have a history of overturning such agreements in all but the most serious of disputes.

Even Jimmy John’s conceded in a written statement that holding restaurant workers to non-compete agreements was a bit absurd:

“We made clear to the Attorney General that we would never enforce a non-compete agreement against any hourly employee that might have signed one. We offered to have our CEO sign a declaration to that effect, and pointed the Attorney General to an April 2015 ruling dismissing a federal claim against Jimmy John’s over the use of non-compete agreements, on the grounds that those agreements were not at risk of being enforced.”

Non-compete agreements are nevertheless popular. While the percentage of Canadian workers covered by non-compete agreements is not readily at hand, a White House analysis released just a month ago found that 18 percent of American workers are subject to restrictions on finding work elsewhere, including 14 percent of those earning less than $40,000 annually.

They even have their defenders. “Something strange is happening in the Beehive State,” law professor Nathan Oman wrote in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News this past March, as legislators were passing a new law banning non-compete agreements — a law Oman described as “a solution in search of a problem” and “a classic example of the legislative process run amok.” In defence of non-compete agreements, Oman wrote:

“In non­compete agreements, employees commit not to work for their former employers’ competitors if the employment relationship ends. This encourages employers to invest in their employees and share proprietary information. Everyone benefits, which is why employees and employers agree to the contracts in the first place.”

“In theory, such contracts could harm workers and consumers by giving monopoly power to employers. We solved this problem, however, more than a century ago. Like every other state, Utah law already requires that such contracts have reasonable limits on their geographic scope and duration. Indeed, any business that used them to monopolize a market would commit a crime under federal antitrust laws that have been in place since 1890.”

Others see non-compete agreements as being harmful to the overall economy even if they are beneficial for individual businesses by protecting secrets and calming competition.

On Twitter, I called the idea of requiring restaurant workers to sign non-compete agreements "asinine". Martin's response (in jest, I hope!) made my day. If you don't already do so, follow me on Twitter at @kevinmcdougald

On Twitter, I called the idea of requiring restaurant workers to sign non-compete agreements “asinine”. Martin’s response (in jest, I hope!) made my day.
If you don’t already do so, follow me on Twitter at @kevinmcdougald

A 2010 research paper by three academics from the MIT Sloan School of Management, the INSEAD global business school and the Harvard Business School found that non-compete agreements were economically harmful by encouraging former employees to move away in search of work and thus “stripping enforcing regions of some of their most valuable knowledge workers while retaining those of lesser value.”

“To the extent that one can draw normative conclusions from the above findings, policymakers who sanction the use of non-competes could be inadvertently creating a potential regional disadvantage. From a regional policymaker‘s perspective, the free flow of particularly high-ability talent to the best opportunities seems beneficial as long as it occurs locally . . . whereas such talented workers who take out-of-state jobs are a loss to the region. Regions that choose to enforce employee non-compete agreements may therefore be subjecting themselves to a domestic brain drain not unlike that described in the literature on international emigration out of less developed countries.”

[…]

“…[E]nforcement of non-compete agreements might act as a brake on labor pooling in two ways. First, regions that allow firms to enforce non-compete clauses against ex-employees drive some of their most highly valued skilled workers out of the region, decreasing the local supply of talent. Second, the interorganizational mobility of those workers who remain in the region is lower when non-competes are enforced. Given the role of labor pooling as a microfoundation of agglomeration, we should therefore expect more clustering in regions such as Silicon Valley where non-competes are unenforceable.”

This was supported more recently by a U.S. Department of the Treasury report which found that, while non-compete agreements can protect trade secrets and thus encourage innovation, reward employers for spending more on employee training and reduce staff turnover, they can also lead to lower wages, cause people to leave the careers in which they are most productive, and slow productivity growth.

The Treasury report recommended, among other things, that employers be dissuaded from requiring non-compete agreements unless there is a high probability that they could and would be enforced (i.e., not frivolously or as a bluff, as in the Jimmy John’s case) and requiring that employees continue to be paid at partial salary by their former employers in exchange for agreeing not to seek employment with competing organizations.

The Jimmy John’s case, and the evidence above, suggests that it might be a good use of legislators’ time in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere to limit the use of non-compete agreements. While those in the business and legal communities might see such agreements as useful from their point of view, it’s a benefit that comes at a cost to the wider community. It’s also an example that there’s a gap between what’s good for business (or labour, which has made its own case for competition-limiting measures at times) and what’s good for the economy. The two are not always the same, or even compatible.

Demographic shift putting dream of lower taxes, balanced budgets and no cuts out of reach

By all indications, Manitoba’s provincial election on Tuesday is going to result in the election of the first Progressive Conservative government since 1999, with Brian Pallister being sworn in in late April or early May as Premier of Manitoba. As Pallister and his cabinet settle in to office, they will go through a ritual that all new governments go through: briefings by department staff who will explain the cold, hard realities that they will have to deal with as the excitement of winning an election wears off.

One of those cold, hard realities to be anticipated will be an update on how changing demographics will affect the province’s finances. The heavy influx of immigrants into Manitoba in recent years paints a picture of a young province; but the population data tells a different story.

Statistics Canada periodically updates its population projections for each Canadian province and territory, and its projections of population by age are sobering.

Over time, the balance between working-age Manitobans aged 15-64 and retirement-age Manitobans aged 65-plus has been shifting. Forty years ago, in 1976, there were 6.1 working-age Manitobans for every retirement-aged Manitoban.

Thirty years ago, in 1986, it was 5.3. Twenty years ago, in 1996, it was 4.8; rising slightly to 4.9 in 2006.

But despite the arrival of younger immigrants by the thousands, that ratio has resumed its decline over the past 10 years.

Currently, there are about 4.4 working-age Manitobans for each retirement-age Manitoban. And according to Statistics Canada’s M1 –medium-growth, 1991/1992 to 2010/2011 population trends, in just 10 years time, there will be one less person on the working-age side of the balance than there is today — or 3.4 to 1.

The change is expected to continue in this direction into the mid-2030s, when there will be three working-age Manitobans for every retirement-age Manitoban.

Number of working age Manitobans per retirement-age Manitoban by year. Based on Statistics Canada's Projected population, by projection scenario, age and sex, as of July 1 -- M1 medium-growth, 1991/1992 to 2010/2011 scenario.

Number of working age Manitobans per retirement-age Manitoban by year. Based on Statistics Canada’s Projected population, by projection scenario, age and sex, as of July 1 — M1 medium-growth, 1991/1992 to 2010/2011 scenario.

Why does this matter? As people retire, their spending changes. If you’re a working-age person, think of what you spend your money on today: transportation to and from work, food, clothing, shelter and income taxes.

Now think about how that would change if you were a retiree. You wouldn’t need to drive around so much (or buy a car or fill it up with gas as often). You would likely eat out less; you wouldn’t need neckties or dress shirts anymore except for special occasions; you may very well never be in the market to purchase a home ever again.

All of which means you’ll be paying less in sales taxes, even if the rates stays the same, and less in other government fees and taxes. That includes income tax, since you’ll be earning less. (As you can see below, the average Canadian household in which the designated “reference person” was aged 55-64 years in 2014 paid $18,220 in income tax. But when the “reference person” was aged 65 or older, average income tax payments dropped by more than half to $7,851.)

Average annual spending by Canadian households, by age of designated "reference person", Canada 2014

Average annual spending by Canadian households, by age of designated “reference person”, Canada 2014

The number of households in Manitoba (and throughout much of Canada) in which that “reference person” is one of those lower-spending 65-plus retirees is going to continue growing much faster than the number of younger, higher-spending households.

That’s going to put a bit of a squeeze on government finances, and on the businesses that sell those things on which spending drops the most in retirement: department and business-wear stores, restaurants, auto dealers, gas stations, realtors and so on.

Among the few areas where spending is higher among 65-plus households than it is among the 55-64s: direct health care costs, by $211 per year at the national level.

With that, the governments of the next 20 years will need to deal with a world where satisfying the dream of a balanced budget every year, no tax increases and no controversial cuts is an increasingly difficult task.

April 19 election likely to end NDP’s long run in office

On April 19, Manitobans will go to the polls to elect 57 members of the provincial Legislative Assembly. That election will either turn the governing NDP into an opposition party in the Legislature for the first time since 1999, or, in the unlikely event that it is re-elected, into a statistical oddball.

Governments go through a life cycle. They start off fresh and new, even exciting sometimes. But, the longer they live, the more battle-weary they become. Sometimes a periodic shake-up and the introduction of new faces prolongs their lives, as it did for the long-running Alberta Progressive Conservatives who governed that province continuously from 1971 to 2015.

More often, however, governments find themselves running into natural limits on how long they can govern before the public tires of them.

Where are those limits? To figure that out, I looked at the life span of 41 Canadian provincial governments entering office after Jan. 1, 1960, and which left office prior to Jan. 1, 2016. By “government”, I mean a continuous period of party-rule. Thus, the current NDP government in Manitoba would count as a single government, even though it has been led by two premiers: Gary Doer (1999-2009) and Greg Selinger (2009-present).

The average lifespan of a provincial government during that time was 9.8 years, dropping to 8.9 years if one excludes Alberta’s 43.7-year Progressive Conservative government as an anomaly. This suggests that a government enters a vulnerable period as it approaches a decade in power, a time when voters might be looking around for something fresh.

This is further supported by looking at the “middle 50%” of governments, by filtering out the shortest- and longest-lasting 25 percent on either side of the continuum. Continuing to exclude the Alberta PC Anomaly, only one-in-four governments lasted less than 6.1 years, while only another one-in-four lasted longer than 11 years. This points to the difficulty (though not impossibility) of knocking off a first-term government, and the rapidly declining odds of survival after a decade in office.

Now let’s look at the extremes.

With the Alberta PC Anomaly still excluded, the bottom five percent of governments lasted up to 3.9 years before being thrown out. This includes Pauline Marois’s ill-fated 2012-14 Parti Quebecois government in Quebec, and Dave Barrett’s 1972-75 NDP government in B.C. The once-powerful Union Nationale’s 1966-70 Quebec government also finishes just above the cut.

At the opposite extreme, the longest-living five percent of governments lasted 16.1 years in office, these being the Progressive Conservative governments that ran Newfoundland and Labrador from 1972 to 1989 and New Brunswick from 1970 to 1987. The 1991-2007 Saskatchewan NDP government finishes just slightly below the cut. (I’m still excluding the Alberta PC Anomaly, as you can see.)

If making it into the top five percent of government lifespans represents “extreme old age”, the Manitoba NDP government crossed that threshold in about mid-November 2015.

It should be cautioned that elections can produce surprises, and that even improbable events — as a fifth term for the Manitoba NDP government would be — still happen once in a while. But these events are just that: improbable.

If the NDP loses the April 19 election, as they likely will, its old age and the desire to refresh things a bit will have played as much of a role in its downfall as the provincial sales tax increase, the party’s internal discord, and its weakening of internal discipline since 2011; though the public’s feelings about the latter three things will determine how deep a cut it takes in its seat count, and the party’s odds of staging a comeback in four years.

And if it wins and becomes one of the top one percent of governments in terms of longevity? Well, hopefully you will have placed and won a bet, as the government will have beaten the odds in a way that few Canadian governments ever have.

The rising number of non-voters: Too much stress hormone, too little love hormone?

If you live here in Manitoba, there is a good chance that you returned home this week to find a “Sorry we missed you!” message hanging from your door knob courtesy of Elections Manitoba, whose enumerators have been out preparing the voters list for the April 19 provincial election.

As that date approaches, there will be not just plenty of discussion about the parties and the candidates, but also about the turnout. In the 2011 election, 56 percent of enumerated voters ended up casting a ballot, representing 46 percent of the province’s adult population.

Much of the discussion about the decline in voting has focused on voter apathy, busy modern lives and the possibility that more people would vote if they could do so more conveniently. But last May, this blog looked at a new angle unearthed by some accidentally obtained evidence: that making people think about politics is nearly as bad as unemployment in terms of making those people feel worse about their lives. To recap the findings of Angus Deaton from Princeton University’s Center for Health and Well-Being:

“People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.”

More recently, I came across additional research that suggested that feelings of stress and of being under threat, either directly from others’ political activities or as part of life in general, could be a factor in lower voter turnout.

When people feel happy, secure and relaxed, their bodies are under the effect of a chemical called oxytocin, not to be confused with the similarly named drug oxycontin. Oxytocin is known as “the love hormone” for the role it plays in mood improvement and human bonding.

When they feel miserable, threatened and defensive, their bodies are conversely being flooded with cortisol. Cortisol is known as “the stress hormone” for its role in preparing the body for either a fight or to flee the situation.

Several years ago, five researchers from the University of Nebraska and Rice University performed an experiment to test the hypothesis that people with higher levels of cortisol in their system — the “fight or flight” chemical — were less likely to vote.

To do this, they collected saliva samples from more than 100 people before and after being put into a stressful situation, and then compared their cortisol levels to their actual (not just self-reported) involvement in political activities. Indeed, they found that people with higher levels of cortisol in their bodies were less likely to be voters:

“These analyses provide strong confirmation of our prediction that cortisol is inversely related with political participation . . . [and] that people with high levels of cortisol in non-political situations are significantly less likely to vote in elections. This effect is over and above the effects of standard demographic variables such as age, education, gender, and income, of political variables such as strength of partisanship, and of personality variables such as self-reported neuroticism.”

Thus, instead of “simply telling them that it is their civic duty to vote or browbeating them into joining civic organizations”, the authors suggest a “nuanced and targeted” approach:

“For some individuals, a lack of involvement in politics is traceable to insufficient resources (Verba, Scholzman, and Brady 1995) but for others the cause may be a physiological constitution that makes politics appear pointless and undeserving of the stress that is likely to accompany it.”

[. . .]

“To take a specific example, consider the intriguing finding that, on average, voter turnout increases if it is made likely that neighbors will find out whether an individual voted (Gerber, Green, and Larimer 2008). It may be that high cortisol individuals would be less easily shamed into going to the polls since their reason for not voting is unrelated to social shame—or a lack of resources, for that matter. The more general point is that specific strategies for enhancing turnout are likely to be differentially successful depending upon cortisol levels and other physiological data.”

But at the same time, they caution against trying to tamper with the human body:

“Politics is only one part of life and taking extreme steps to get people involved in politics may not be worth it if medical and psychological welfare is adversely affected . . . Cortisol levels are part of a complex, interrelating package of physiological variables. Altering one of these variables without considering the implications for physiology generally is likely to be a source of disruption and potential problems.”

Part of the puzzle of voter turnout might be to figure out a way to take the stress and sense of alarm out of politics; though this won’t be easy, as fear and pressure have long been vital (and shamelessly used) tools for politicians of all ideological stripes. But another possibility worth considering is the possibility that the level of voluntary voter turnout might be a partial indicator of whether a city, province, state or country is predominantly a snug-and-happy oxytocin-driven one, or a vulnerable-and-threatened cortisol-driven one.