Friday, April 6, 2018

The Psychology Behind Trump's Trade War

So Trump imposed his damned tariffs, and China, naturally, shot back with tariffs of their own - precisely targeted to impact on Trump's base. Never fear, though. Trump is threatening an additional $100 billion in shock-and-awe tariffs. That will show them! China, predictably, is prepared with a "major response".

Trump couldn't possibly be too dumb to spot the futility of all this, could he? The average fifth grader could easily grok where this is going. Trump's not a smart man, but could he really be this dumb? I have special insight into this phenomena.

Tl:dr: it's not a question of intelligence, and this is how humans historically always behaved.

Many years ago, I found myself in stop-and-go traffic, and the 18 wheeler behind me was twitchy and belligerent. He was right on my tail, which is not where you want a large truck to be in jerky, unpredictable traffic. I needed him to leave more space, so I lightly tapped the brakes to flash my stop lights at him. But he remained three feet from my back bumper.

Moving to another lane was not possible, nor was there a shoulder. So I waited until there was a bit more separation and I advanced and slammed my brakes, hard. And he slammed his, fishtailing a bit and screaming his hydraulics. It was a calculated risk. I knew his attention was riveted and twitchy. He was high-strung enough that, for all his other issues, his reflexes were primed. I was driving a crappy car (insurance money would have been welcome), this was happening at low-speed, and as a rear-ender he'd be in the wrong. His insurance would skyrocket and he'd lose his livelihood. He had much more to lose by hitting me. Not to say I actually wanted an accident, of course. If I gave him sufficient space - just barely - to stop (and left myself a bit extra in front to advance if he came too close), he'd stop. Painfully. And thus better appreciate the advantages of leaving some space.

We continued driving, and he closed in to my bumper once again. So I repeated. Twice. Each time, he snorted up his engine and stayed right on my bumper, never relenting, never learning. Finally, we reached an exit, and I bailed out.

None of this was remotely in his interest. I'd made things simple for him: if you don't want to chance a career-ending accident, it's unwise to hug the bumper of cars that might unpredictably stop. But his internal dialog was impervious to even this small nuance. He wanted to go and I represented everything that had ever impeded him. He gladly would have fishtailed a thousand times. In his mind, he was demonstrating backbone and exercising his better self. Engaged in holy war, he was staunchly opposed to letting The Enemy win. You fight me, I fight you.

Was he the stupidest person in the world? He was clearly no genius. But the problem was more of perspective. He was functioning from a reptilian perspective - pushing and pushing for gratification of momentary urges (he wanted to go, whereas all the assholes in front of him weren't going) with no higher level awareness whatsoever. A baby screams for food, and explaining mommy's flat tire en route home from the grocery won't impact that pique. There is no strategic thinking; the sole satisfactory answer is food now, or I will lash out in every conceivable way. If necessary, I will annihilate the entire world, and myself along with it.

 (That's the problem with technology; there will always be some someone who'd press that Big Smash button...and that person is also the most likely person to have risen to a button-pushing position. Just look at Trump himself. This is why there's likely no advanced life in the universe. Yes, Donald Trump explains the absence of advanced life in the universe!)

If perspective's frozen, even an intelligent person won't reason themselves into a higher perspective. Intellect and perspective are largely unrelated. People can't shift gears unless they want to.

But here's the good news. If the mindset I describe - the same mindset that makes Trump think each new volley in his trade war is really sticking it to The Enemy - seems grotesquely childish and patently irrational, understand that humanity functioned like this for its entire history. This is what humans do! Or did, anyway. They do it so little these days that it's no longer just a few wise souls who spot the folly, but everyday people, as well. In fact, most people can spot it. Even fifth-graders! And that's truly a spectacular evolution.

As I keep saying, the Trump era is the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah (which is not to say great damage can't be done amid this last gasp).

If things are getting better, and we're snapping out of our brutal irrationality, and Trump and his ilk are a mere last gasp, why do we feel so hopelessly miserable about our lot? As I wrote here, it's due to a collision of two phenomena:
1. As situations improve, dwindling remnants sting disproportionally (this is why Stephen Pinker's observation that violence is decreasing feels so counterintuitive; the remainder feels increasingly intolerable). So brace yourself. The better things get, the more sensitized we'll be, and the worse it will feel. Prepare to hate the rest of the ride up the curve of declining results to perfection.

2. One can understand American behavior much more clearly by recognizing that we are a bunch of horribly spoiled rich assholes. America has always been called a rich country, despite the poverty. But these days, even poorer Americans are ridiculously wealthy by world standards, and downright regal by historical world standards (just try to get a non-immigrant American to do anything for fifty bucks). And rich people are best characterized as princesses interminably vexed by their mattress peas. (Read the part about the "cheat codes" here.)


Richard Stanford said...

Its interesting to me that as China is modernizing many others seem to refuse to accept that fact. America is used to thinking of itself as the largest, most major #1 player in everything. When you get right down to it, we should have a trade imbalance with a country that has 4+ times our population!

Jim Leff said...

America is used to thinking of itself as the largest, most major #1 player in everything

But trade wars are ineffectual even when you're dominant. They encourage smaller countries to use weapons (tariffs) that it would otherwise not be in their interest to use. My chance of emerging unscathed from a fight with a 10 year old girl plunges if we're both holding sharp knives....though she'd never unilaterally risk wielding one.

When you get right down to it, we should have a trade imbalance with a country that has 4+ times our population!

I'm not sure I grok that, but my economics knowledge is pretty basic.

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