Politics

Mankiw as Voice of the Reagan Era

Greg Mankiw recently published an Op-Ed. in the New York Times that provides a good illustration of the unstated economic assumptions of the Reagan era, as described in previous posts.

The Op-Ed. is entitled “When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher,” and it draws attention to the fact that economists’ work is “based not only on our understanding of how the world works, but also on our judgments about what makes a good society.” So: economists are both scientists, to the extent that they make falsifiable predictions about the economy; and political philosophers, in the sense that their work continues to be shaped by political and moral judgments in ways that natural scientists’ work is not. A fair enough point, as far as it goes.

But ironically, in the process of making this point, Mankiw illustrates something different. He shows the disparity between the relative sophistication of economics as a science and the relative lack of sophistication in many economists’ thinking as “political philosophers.” Mankiw’s credentials place him near the top of the economics profession in the United States. He can debate technical economic issues with a facility that few can match. But when he moves beyond these technical matters and into something like political philosophy, he loses that facility and appears blind to the unstated assumptions underlying his view of the economy.

In the central passage of the column, he writes the following:

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Politics

Bruce Ackerman and the Reagan Era

A quick note for anyone reading this blog who doesn’t come from a background in the law: these days, if you study American constitutional theory in law school, one of the major writers you’ll inevitably come across is Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School. I’m not sure how widely read Ackerman is in political science or American history programs. But in law schools, if you hear the argument that America has gone through a small number of fundamental constitutional transformations—above all, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and again during the New Deal—chances are the speaker inherited this idea directly or indirectly from Ackerman.

Since my thumbnail sketch of American political history also relied on there having been a fundamental political transformation during the New Deal, my account probably has some of its roots in Ackerman’s work. But based on what I’ve heard, Ackerman would disagree with the idea that the Reagan era represented the same kind of hard-fought, deeply rooted constitutional transformation that took place during Reconstruction and the New Deal. Instead, Ackerman’s latest book—which I haven’t read yet—may suggest that the most recent constitutional transformation took place through the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It’s probably not worth arguing over, but it seems to me—for the reasons stated in previous posts—that there are a lot of parallels between the political transformations of the New Deal era and of the Reagan era, even if the former were undoubtedly more consequential than the latter. And the Reagan era, as I’ve sketched it, fits well within the basic parameters of Ackerman’s model of constitutional transformation: a challenge to the legitimacy of a previous era’s understanding of the Constitution, a political struggle involving multiple branches of government, a battle for the public’s allegiance, victory by the challenger, and ultimate acquiescence in the transformation by former opponents.

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Politics

Adolph Reed Jr. on the Current State of American Liberalism

Adolph Reed Jr., a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a piece in Harper’s on the decline of American liberalism. For those of us without a key to the Harper’s paywall, Reed has been making similar arguments in other venues.

Many of Reed’s arguments echo this blog’s recent posts on the background of our current moment in American politics. In particular, Reed critiques “the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal”:

Most telling … is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

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Literature

Caro and Auerbach’s Homer

Another note about reading Robert Caro: one of the great things about his books is that they frequently offer thrilling brief histories of subjects that are only peripheral to his main biographical focus.

So, picking up The Power Broker, you might wonder: do I really want to read 1344 pages about Robert Moses? But you don’t have to. One section, for example, consists of a mini-biography of Al Smith, leading up to the moment when he became Caro’s patron and political mentor. Similarly, Caro’s Master of the Senate—the third volume in a biography of Lyndon Johnson—begins with a wonderful introduction to the Senate of the nineteenth century.

Caro’s technique reminds me a little of the “Odysseus’ scar” chapter in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach points out how when Homer introduces a new element in the story, he helpfully fills in all the necessary information that would allow the reader to understand its significance, even if this means pausing to interject seventy verses of background in an eighty-verse narrative. When Odysseus returns home and his housekeeper recognizes him by the scar on his thigh, Homer provides a flashback to tell us about the origin of the scar; when Robert Moses falls under the sway of Al Smith, Caro pauses to tell us the story of Al Smith’s life; when Lyndon Johnson becomes a senator, Caro pauses to tell us the story of the U.S. Senate… 

Everything is made external and brought to the surface for the reader’s benefit (in contrast to the way that external details have significance primarily as a prompt for internal meditations in some of Virginia Woolf’s writing, as Auerbach describes in a later chapter).

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Literature, Politics

Muckraking and Documentary Film

Thought for the day: I’m reading Robert Caro’s wonderful biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. At one point, Caro describes the central role that muckraking journalism played in fueling the progressive reform movement. It was not only that the journalists drew public attention to issues that had previously been hidden from public view. They also performed the more basic role of collecting facts in an era when government had for the most part not yet entered the fact-collecting business.

I remember being surprised a few years ago to learn that the U.S. government made no attempt to measure the size of the economy until the Great Depression. (Simon Kuznets invented the notion of GDP while working to address this problem at the NBER.) But according to Caro, the lack of basic data-collection went even further than this prior to the progressive era. In the later nineteenth century, city governments did not even keep numerical track of their budgets—sources of revenue, amounts spent. When a municipal government discovered that it was unable to pay its bills, it would often simply issue some bonds.

It struck me that while newspapers are in decline today, there is a new form of muckraking that is on the rise, and could be compared to the progressive periodicals of an earlier era in some ways: documentary film. Just as powerful magazines like McClure’s regularly provoked policy reforms in the last Gilded Age, our current Gilded Age has seen several documentaries succeed in provoking changes in public attitudes. The first example that comes to mind is The Invisible War, which deals with sexual assault in the U.S. military. Apparently, the film drew Senator Gillibrand’s attention to this issue and played a significant role in bringing about the legislative responses. Other examples of surprisingly influential, muckraking documentaries would not be hard to find: Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove

So, even if newspapers can no longer afford thorough investigative reporting because the public stopped buying classified ads, maybe documentaries can partially fill the gap. And ironically, some of the same forces that have made in-depth newspaper reporting less economically feasible have made documentary-making more feasible. The same Internet that destroyed the classified section has created a new avenue for documentary film distribution through streaming video services.

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Literature

Why are defenses of the humanities so weak?

Every few weeks, I’ll come across an article diagnosing or lamenting the decline in the humanities, or the crisis in the humanities, or the collapse of English departments.

I’m sure there are already good, strong defenses of the humanities out there. But it seems to me that many of the ones I read are extremely wishy-washy. They’ll refer to the value of shaping the soul, or something like that—which is no doubt a good general label for the kinds of valuable things that humanistic study can offer, once one already understands what these things are. But it’s not a helpful label, because it’s too abstract. If you don’t already know, concretely, what the study of literature, history, philosophy, etc. can do for a person, saying that they can help shape young people’s souls will shed little light. No one who doubts the value of reading novels and poetry and Plato will be at all persuaded by someone saying things like: “They’ll make you a complete person, someone who is able to critically reflect upon her place in the world…”

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ll sometimes come across defenses of the humanities that fail by being too narrowly specific, or specific in the wrong way. To say that the world needs departments of English, Philosophy, or Art History because they help teach students how to write critically invites obvious objections such as: if the goal is teaching critical writing, why not just teach critical writing? Why spend so much time reading Milton? Similarly, the argument that the humanities teach the valuable skill of how to critically analyze cultural objects invites well-founded objections such as: what is the value of critically analyzing all of these cultural objects, in such great depth? Why do we need so many people to learn the history of film, or of medieval lyric? Sure, you might enjoy Bertran de Born, but a lot of people enjoy a lot of things. What is the value to society, or to yourself, of indulging and refining your enjoyment of aesthetic objects for four years?

(Actually, the argument that studying the humanities is valuable because it refines our aesthetic perceptions—makes us able to perceive subtle differences that we would otherwise have been blind to—isn’t an entirely worthless argument. But standing alone, I’m not sure it’s strong enough to justify the kind of commitment to humanistic study that defenders of the humanities wish to preserve.)

Also, combining these two justifications under the banner of “cultural literacy” doesn’t solve the problem. As J.M. Coetzee noted: “[i]f critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself?”

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Politics

Balkin on the Current State of the American Political System

Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, recently posted a new article that dovetails with some of this blog’s recent posts on the current state of the American political system. The abstract:

Today, America’s political system seems remarkably dysfunctional. Many people believe that our 225-year-old Constitution is the problem. But what looks like constitutional dysfunction is actually constitutional transition, a slow and often frustrating movement from an older constitutional regime to a new one.

Americans last experienced this sense of dysfunction during the late 1970s and early 1980s – the “last days of disco.” The New Deal/Civil Rights regime had gradually fallen apart and was replaced by a new constitutional order – the conservative regime in which we have been living for the past three decades. By 1984, few people argued that the country was ungovernable, even if they didn’t like President Reagan’s policies.

In the same way, our current dysfunction marks the end of the existing constitutional regime and the beginning of a new one. This new regime may be dominated by the ascendant Democratic coalition of young people, minorities, women, city dwellers and professionals that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Or insurgent populists associated with the Tea Party may revive the decaying Republican coalition and give it a second wind. As of yet, neither side has been able to achieve a successful transition, leading to the current sense of frustration.

There’s an interesting asymmetry between the two possible political futures that Balkin highlights. One is defined by demographics (Obama’s coalition), the other by ideology (Tea Party-style populism). This fits with my sense, articulated in previous posts, that Obama has failed to articulate an ideology that could displace the “small government” vision of the Reagan era. Obama is not a transformative president in that sense. He has a newly coalescing electoral coalition, but no vision of government to coalesce around—other than opposition to the Reagan era vision. And nothing new has come from the right to displace the Reagan era vision either: the Tea Party continues to rally around the idea of small government as the source of freedom.

All of this is why I would like to see the American left move beyond the Reagan era and come up with a new vision of government backed by concrete projects—whether like this one, and backed by projects like this, or based on some other set of guiding principles. The demographic soil for a new era in American politics has been tilled, but no one seems to have ideological seeds on hand.

The rest of Balkin’s abstract after the jump…

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Politics

First note on specific policies: a guaranteed minimum income

The idea of providing a guaranteed minimum income to every American currently lies outside the ever-shifting window of politically plausible policy ideas. But it is hardly a fringe proposal. Various public thinkers from Friedrich von Hayek to Martin Luther King Jr. have supported the idea.

There are a variety of good practical arguments in favor of providing a guaranteed minimum income, including that it would decrease economic inequality and all of its negative externalities; strengthen families, since poverty is one of the greatest contributors to family breakdown; encourage investment in personal capital, innovation, and risk-taking, because all of these are more likely when a person is not faced with uncertainty about basic economic needs; and be more efficient than the tangle of programs that currently make up the safety net. The limited empirical evidence regarding guaranteed minimum incomes also seems to suggest that their disincentive effect on work is not as serious as might be feared.

What interests me, however, is the way that a guaranteed minimum income fits together with the post-Reagan-era vision of government sketched in previous posts. The key is recognizing that because of the centrality of the price mechanism to the efficient functioning of markets, wealth inequality in and of itself represents a non-self-correcting source of inefficient outcomes—a “market failure.”

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Politics

Specific policies: some preliminaries

The goal of the preceding posts on politics has been to start thinking through what it would look if a progressive today tried to write the kind of book that Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom: a general vision of government capable of displacing the discredited Reagan era vision of “small government” as good government, alongside a number of specific policies that illustrate how the vision could be made concrete.

An earlier post arrived at a first sketch of one possible vision: moving beyond the false opposition between government and markets, as well as the largely irrelevant and outdated opposition between big and small government, and instead framing economic policy decisions as a democratic choice between different forms of government action. Faced with an economic problem, we could ask ourselves not whether government should intervene—after all, government is already inextricably involved in all aspects of the economy—but rather what kind of government action would best serve our democratically chosen goals.

At this point, one option would be to say that a progressive response to Capitalism and Freedom need go no further. We could say: the progressive goal should simply be to make our democracy work, encourage the public to choose deliberately between the use of direct government action and indirect government action through markets, and let the chips fall where they may. In other words, focus on the democratic procedures and let the economic substance take care of itself.

But we can also go further. Like Friedman, we can assume that freedom will be one of our democracy’s primary political goals, and we can turn to specific illustrations of policies that would best fulfill the goals of freedom within the context of a post-Reagan era progressive vision of government.

In a few of the subsequent politics posts, I’ll start attempting to connect specific economic policies to the overarching vision of good government as not necessarily “big” or “small” but democratic and focused on freedom.

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Politics

Negative freedom, positive freedom, and opportunity

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished “negative” and “positive” liberty. In Berlin’s distinction, the former is the classical liberal ideal of freedom from government coercion, while the latter is the communitarian ideal of collective self-determination.

There is a related but even more basic distinction between two kinds of liberty that might be called “negative” and “positive”: negative freedom from government prohibition, and positive freedom to do something, to achieve some aim. A person who has no money is free in a negative sense to buy a loaf of bread, because there is no government prohibition on the buying of bread; but this person is not free in a positive sense to buy the loaf of bread, because he is not able to do so. He cannot choose to buy the bread. Likewise, we all have the negative freedom to become the CEO of Goldman Sachs, because no law prohibits us from doing so; but we lack the positive freedom, because we lack the practical ability to make the choice.

It is sometimes assumed that the American political tradition embraces only “negative” liberty from government coercion, and not the “positive” liberty to achieve one’s aims in life. But a case could be made that the ideal of “opportunity,” a central pillar of American political culture, implies a notion of positive freedom.

When the ideology of the Reagan era speaks of “freedom,” the response should be: freedom to do what?

If the 1960s called for negative freedom from social and cultural constraints, and the 1980s called in a confused way for negative freedom from economic constraints, then perhaps some coming decade can be the time when the positive freedom of Americans finally becomes the focus of our political life.

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