Does Science Bear Any Responsibility for Today’s Political Discontent?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Not long ago, a friend and former classmate of mine from Yale sent me an email asking whether I had “a sense of how [the 2016 presidential election] will shake out.” I told him I would provide an answer in my next APS News column. So I’m on the hook.

But before I get to the narrative, here’s a bit of a teaser. Our nation’s obviously sour mood has a lot to do with the impacts of science and technology.

Now back to my friend, Eric’s, email. He preceded his question with several of his own observations: Hillary Clinton is still fighting to put the Benghazi issue behind her; the more Donald Trump says, the less presidential he seems to be; and Bernie Sanders, in Eric’s view, has fallen short in demonstrating that he has the experience needed for the presidency, at least in foreign affairs.

He might have noted that neither Trump, who is still leading the pack of GOP establishment canditates, nor Ben Carson, who is jockeying for the number one outside slot, has had a drop of electoral experience. And Sanders, a 73-year-old policy wonk from Vermont who hasn’t shed a shred of his Brooklyn accent and calls himself a democratic socialist or just a plain old socialist depending how the mood strikes him, is running even with Clinton in New Hampshire and nipping at her heels in Iowa, according to a spate of recent polls.

It’s also Trump, Carson and Sanders, all anti-establishment outsiders, who are drawing the biggest crowds wherever they go. Yes, it’s still four months before the first primaries, and voters probably haven’t truly focused on the 2016 election. But, in more than 45 years in politics, I have never seen such an astonishing set of public preferences. What is going on?

A new Economic Policy Institute report provides a possible clue. Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel, the report’s authors, took a hard look at the impact of productivity, defined as economic output per unit input (e.g., labor and capital); on a typical worker’s compensation. What they detail is profoundly disturbing.

Bivens and Mishel trace the history of productivity and compensation from 1948 to the present. During the first 25 years, hourly compensation fairly tracked gains in productivity, rising 91.3 percent during that period while productivity, driven in large part by technological advances, rose 96.7 percent. But from 1973 through 2014, while productivity continued to soar, rising another 72.2 percent, compensation grew by a paltry 9.2 percent.

In short, during those four decades, the average worker stopped benefitting from science and technology’s largess. But corporations did not: their profits rose dramatically, and their stock prices soared. Between the beginning of 1973 and the end of 2014, for example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, adjusted for inflation, rose 216 percent.

Although the average worker did not benefit from increased productivity, the average CEO did. With executive compensation ever more tightly tied to stock price performance, CEOs, who in 1960 earned roughly 30 times what their workers did, now take home about 300 times what their employees do.

As Thomas Picketty documents in his 2013 bestselling tome, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the rich have been getting richer, while everyone else has seen takehome pay and wealth stagnate or decline. To be sure, scientists are not responsible for that outcome. But the technological advances and innovations their research has generated have been a large part of the productivity-enabling mechanism, as economists Robert Solow, Michael Boskin, Edwin Mansfield and Paul Roemer have each concluded.

Innovation and the productivity gains it spawns need not result in growing income and wealth disparity, as the period 1948 to 1973 amply demonstrates. But avoiding the disparity requires public policies that enable a larger fraction of the population to participate in the benefits that accrue. Clearly, those policies are absent today.

In the last 45 years, many politicians in both parties have accepted the propositions that markets are self-correcting, and that technological change is a universal good. But with the average family less well off than it was a decade or two ago, those propositions may now be striking a discordant note with the average voter.

Most Americans today have either lost a job or know someone who has lost a job due to technological change. Assembly-line workers have lost out to robots; green-shaded number crunchers have lost out to computers; and tens of thousands of service-sector workers have seen their functions offshored thanks to the telecommunications revolution. Voters want their elected officials to fix what they see as a rigged and broken system, and so far, they’re not happy with the performance.

The 2016 election may well be a tipping point where the average voter shouts, as Howard Beal did in Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay “Network,” “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And in today’s context, that voter will say, “Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Bernie Sanders, any one of them will be better than the establishment figures who have dealt me the losing hand.”

The danger for the science community is that disillusioned voters could begin to direct their ire at the progenitors of the technological changes they see as harming them. If they do, the road ahead for American physics could be a rocky one.

On a populist landscape, it is imperative that the science community make the case that research is not simply a benefactor of the rich and entitled. As part of its civic responsibility, the science community must work to promote public policies that bring the benefits of research to everyone. If the community fails in that mission, public support for research will inevitably ebb, to the detriment of American science and to America in general.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

November 2015 (Volume 24, Number 10)

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Articles in this Issue
Neutrino Oscillations Nab Nobel Prize
Nuclear Physicists Look to the Future
House Science Committee Queries Astrobiology Researchers
The Physics Bus: Coming to a Town Near You
Q&A with TV Science Advisor and Planetary Physicist Kevin Grazier
Undergrads Share their Research at Optics Meeting
U.S.-­Brazil Young Physicists Forum
Einstein’s House in Bern: Joint EPS-­APS Historic Site
Physical Review Fluids
New Editor­-in­-Chief at Physics Today
This Month in Physics History
Education News from APS
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Washington Dispatch
The Back Page
Inside the Beltway