Sunday, March 29, 2020

Institutional Politics

In National Review last month, I looked at the theme of institutional politics.
One of the central questions of American (and not only American) political thought is the dependence of self-government on broader cultural resources and some geopolitical infrastructure. That dependence was an animating topic of debates during the Founding, in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, during the New Deal, and, yes, even in movement conservatism in the 20th century. Different political orientations might emphasize different elements of this institutional importance, but concern with this topic can be seen across the political spectrum.

Across American history, policy played an important role in addressing those ends. Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, Henry Clay’s “American system,” Lincoln’s industrial policies, the Homestead Acts, the various investments in infrastructure and technology during the world wars of the 20th century — all these testify to the longstanding interest in using government policy to promote certain political ends. The goals of such policy efforts might vary, from ensuring an industrial base so that the nation can compete in great-power politics abroad to promoting a freeholding middle class at home. But these efforts all took seriously the role of certain institutions in promoting the public good and political liberty.
I thought this post could be an opportunity to look at (okay--write a string of observations about) some elements of this turn to institutions.

Yuval Levin's book A Time to Build takes institutions as its core.  According to Levin, institutions are "the durable forms of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures that we do together." Levin surveys various institutions--from government bodies to schools to media organizations.  He outlines the challenges they face and what could be done (especially from within those institutions) to make them function better.

In a column in First Things, R. R. Reno reflects on that Levin's discussion of institutions. One of the things he highlights is the way institutions offer a kind of groundedness for our individual lives:
We imagine we can go it alone, but in truth, institutions give shape, direction, and stability to our lives. We champion equality, but institutions require hierarchies. So we are pulled in two directions. We naturally gravitate toward institutions. Even the free-spirited establish informal fraternities; dedicated surfers and mountain climbers come together to celebrate shared passions. All the while, we don’t want to see ourselves as “joiners,” and we shy away from a strong vocabulary of loyalty.
For a model of atomized politics, all that matters is the individual or the state.  But an institutionally informed politics attends to those ways that institutions shape our lives as individuals. Moreover, it might seek as a public policy aim to shore up certain institutions and institutional networks (such as the family or industrial supply chains) in part because it holds that institutions have a tacit knowledge that is not easily replaced.

The latest issue of American Affairs has a passel of articles related to institutions, grouped under the heading of "Corporatist Models in America and Asia."  Michael Lind looks at the deeper trend of institutional alliances in American policy, while Gladden Pappin considers empowering certain institutions in calling for a 21st-century corporatism. Looking across the Pacific, David Adler and Reza Hasmath examine corporatist models for economic development in South Korea and China. Adler's piece, for instance, highlights the way that institutions as nodes of knowledge can lead to innovation (and how their loss can hamper innovation): as South Korea gained the ability to manufacture key technologies, the ability to innovate in those technologies soon followed. 

One of Mickey Kaus's great strengths is his contrarian streak. At a time when proponents of institutional politics seem to be gaining ground, he raises doubts about "corporatism." 
The main problem [with corporatism] is that it's inegalitarian in a very non-American way. Who says reporters get to be the eyes and ears of society, with a special "press privilege" (under one popular consitutional theory) that ordinary citizens don't get? Why do executives at Facebook, say, get included in tripartite talks but not other executives at other websites? Why do they make so much money, anyway? It’s one thing if they've attained their economic status through free and fair competition. It's another if they’re formally granted extra power because they're prosperous at the moment — thereby enabling them, in a corporatist order, to maintain their advantage into the future.
Corporatism inherently seems to create a bias in favor preserving that status quo -- of protecting the big boys in the room, especially if that's an arrangement that’s worked in the past. Is the Trump administration really going to break up Google on antitrust grounds if Google successfully designs the virus-testing website for 350 million people (something Google may or may not actually be doing)? We get all the inequality of capitalism, without the justification that it’s been earned in a market -- and without a competitive market’s ability to automatically adjust to new conditions, invisible handishly. That inequality’s all the nastier because it seems more permanent— reflecting your station in life, your role in the organism. It’s no accident corporatism was the economic model of … well, you know what it was the economic model of.
These are not insignificant objections. There's a risk that elevating certain institutional interests can be a way of encouraging sclerosis and self-dealing. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the post-World War II corporatist consensus began to unravel in the 1970s; the layers and layers of corporatist agreements combined with a shift in geopolitics made the American economy dysfunctional.

By favoring certain giant interests, corporatism can help cement a new quasi-aristocracy, and there's no guarantee that this newly empowered corporatist elite will look out for the common good. After all, the era of Too Big to Fail seems to have many corporatist elements for finance, and TBTF seems to have extended the negative effects of financialization.

Of course, the excesses of neoliberal atomization have also undermined the vitality of the American economy, and new, market-dominant behemoths in finance and tech have also formed. (Arguably, part of an institutionally-informed economics would also seek to police institutions that grow too vast and anti-competitive. This has been a major theme of Matt Stoller's work.)

Perhaps there's a way of threading the needle of looking out for key institutions or sectors without also entrenching a managerial elite, or at least having enough churn that this managerial elite is not entirely closed. Certainly, certain institutional investments in things like telecommunications infrastructure could benefit a variety of stakeholders. A tight labor market could be a vehicle for strengthening individuals workers as well as unions, which could then gain more bargaining power within bigger corporate institutions. "Buy American" provisions for certain federal purchases could be a way of preserving some manufacturing institutions within picking specific companies.

Maybe another way of looking at institutional politics would be to say that, over the course of history, the United States and other nations bounce between empowering institutions and weakening them. Centralization and diffusion work in a push-and-pull process. The middle of the 20th century saw considerable institutionalization, but the last part of that century witnessed the dispersion of many of those energies in the name of empowering certain individual efforts. Now, we may be experiencing a return to more institutionalized politics (something the COVID-19 pandemic could easily accelerate).

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Fixing the COVID Relief Bill

Senate Republicans are working on a measure to provide economic relief for the coronavirus crisis. I thought I'd write a brief post here on how this bill could be improved, particularly the cash-benefits portion. The phase-in and front-end means-testing provisions could both be stripped from the bill to make it more pro-worker and efficient.

  Here's an outline of the cash-benefits element of that bill:

Over at NR, Robert VerBruggen explains how the phase-in works:
To use the tax-wonk term, the benefit “phases in” at lower incomes, because it’s based on tax liability. To put it bluntly, poor workers can see their checks cut in half, and Americans with hardly any income will get squat.
So the COVID relief bill could give reduced cash benefits to many poorer Americans.  How many? AEI's Kyle Pomerleau has one estimate:
This seems to be a significant policy mistake. The coronavirus crisis is inflicting pain on Americans across the economic spectrum. It makes no sense that poorer Americans should receive less assistance during this time, especially because this is not a normal recession. Instead, this massive economic pain is being inflicted by federal, state, and local governments in the name of public health. Mitt Romney and Josh Hawley have pushed back against this effort to reduce aid to poorer Americans. We'll see if their efforts are successful.

Means-testing (the phase-out) poses its own problems.  This means-testing is based on a person's 2018 tax bill. Why should the fact that someone did well eighteen months ago mean that he or she should get less aid now? Moreover, front-end means-testing further complicates the bill and could create more delays in getting relief money into consumers' hands.

If members of Congress really are concerned about means-testing, back-ending it could be more efficient. For instance, Congress could impose a one-year tax surcharge of 0.5% on incomes over a certain threshold; this surcharge would dissipate after $1200 (or whatever the COVID cash benefit was) had been collected through it.  This would lead to wealthier Americans paying back their COVID cash benefits, but that payback wouldn't occur until taxes were due in 2021. It would put more cash into the economy now and would be more transparent.  (And that's if you think means-testing is even a worthy aim; David French thinks it isn't for this bill.)

As I wrote in NR today, the coronavirus crisis is a time of intense economic disruption, and it demands considerable civic solidarity. Equal cash benefits to compensate for the pain inflicted by this crisis could be a way of reinforcing that solidarity and providing needed economic stimulus.

(In addition to those policy reasons, there's a political reason why Congress should support more blanket benefits: the optics of providing less aid to poorer Americans during this tumultuous time are absolutely terrible.)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Working Politics

The editorial team at the Ripon Forum invited me to contribute an analysis of the political effects of populism to their latest issue.  I argued that both the British Tories and the Republican party might have an opening for a sustainable governing majority if they can cement their standing among working-class voters:
Brexit and populist American politics differ in key respects, but they share some common political contexts. Both were informed by a broader alienation from the political establishment, which has led to an appetite for change and for outsider political figures. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, the traditional parties of the left have loosened their hold on working-class voters in the wake of cultural and economic changes.
Populist-sympathetic voters have a mix of policy preferences. In the United States, they are often skeptical about high rates of immigration and the current architecture of global trade. Far from doctrinaire free-marketeers, these voters support a vigorous welfare state and are open to government regulation of large corporate interests. Even if many of these voters do not embody every element of social conservatism in their private lives, they also resent “politically correct” efforts to police speech and stigmatize social traditionalism....
British politics reveals some potential opportunities and pitfalls for Republicans in 2020. An increase in working-class support was essential for President Trump’s victory in 2016 and in some down-ballot congressional races. After two elections supporting Barack Obama, blue-collar counties in the Rust Belt and elsewhere swung to Donald Trump. In 2018, however, many suburban voters turned against the Republican Party.
Republicans in 2020 need simultaneously to keep some of their traditional supporters in the suburbs while also expanding their reach among the working class in rural, suburban, and urban areas. With the right policy and messaging strategies, they can do both.
You can read the rest here.

A lot of other people are thinking (and have long been thinking) about a mode of conservative policy that speaks to the needs of working families.  The launch of the new policy shop American Compass shows the growing interest in and policy-related potential for such an effort.

Oren Cass, one of the founders of this effort, calls for an "economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity."  That emphasis on protecting family, community, and industry reflects longstanding conservative concern with promoting and protecting some of the mediating institutions of society.  Moreover, Americans have long believed that government policy does indeed have a role in supporting such institutions.

Cass elaborates on what this vision would entail:
Unlike the prevailing orthodoxy, conservative economics will take seriously the effects of social and market forces on each other. It will concern itself with the pernicious effects that high levels of economic inequality can have on the social fabric, the market’s functioning, and people’s well-being, regardless of absolute material living standards. It will give weight to the value of diffuse and widespread investment, not just the value of agglomeration. It will consider the benefits that locally owned establishments bring to their communities alongside the benefits that hyper-efficient conglomerates can deliver. It will insist on recognizing the importance of non-market labor performed within the household and community, rather than assuming that the higher monetary incomes in a society of two-earner families must indicate progress.
For one way of contextualizing some of the challenges facing working families, see also Cass's new report on the Cost of Thriving Index, which reveals how certain expenses (especially health insurance) are putting more pressures on American households.

Of course, the status of pro-worker policies within the Republican coalition is a matter of some dispute.  Reportedly, some elected Republicans are considering an effort to expand guest-worker programs.  I've long been a critic of such programs as undermining civic integration and economic opportunity, and, in National Review this week, I explore some of the ways in which expanding guest-worker programs could undermine some key economic and political aims:
A tight labor market helps the paychecks of individual workers and their families, but it also provides other civic benefits. This demand for labor encourages an expansion of the labor pool, providing opportunity to those whose resumes might be otherwise ignored. Criminal-justice reform is a chic topic in the Beltway right now, and one of the biggest ways of helping those with criminal records integrate into American society is to have a tight labor market. Such a labor market will encourage employers to invest more in training their workforces, expanding opportunity for those with and without college degrees. Conversely, guest-worker programs can often be vehicles for undermining the bargaining power of American workers.
As Mark Krikorian notes, "the genuine difficulties some employers are having in finding staff have to be weighed against the beneficial social consequences of a tight labor market. Everyone agrees that stagnant wages for blue-collar workers and low labor-force participation are problems."

So it looks like the debate will continue.

(Speaking of debates: For WGBH, I analyzed the Ed Markey-Joe Kennedy primary debate earlier this week--and what that debate reveals about the underlying tensions of American politics. It doesn't quite fit in with this post's broader theme of working-politics reform on the right, but I wanted to give it a shout-out...)

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Populism, Quo Vadis?

Earlier this week in National Review, I found some affinities between contemporary "populism" and the founding of neoconservatism:
Having been youths during the Great Depression, many neoconservatives were essentially supporters of the welfare state, but they also diagnosed some of the ways in which the welfare state could undercut its supposed aims. The Public Interest, a major neoconservative organ, was stocked with articles about how some Great Society welfare efforts might end up not ameliorating but rather entrenching poverty.
However, the neoconservatives were emphatically not proponents of laissez-faire. Not only did they often support robust government efforts; they also had deeper reservations about the dynamics of the market. Irving Kristol famously mustered only two cheers (not three) for capitalism. While the material wealth produced by capitalism was in many ways a good thing, the endless pursuit of profit could also degrade traditional communities and sap important moral virtues. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell offered a sociological elaboration of this theme; the elevation of consumerism in an age of American plenty could undermine the virtues, including prudence and discipline, that a successful market economy requires...
When Hawley denounces the political vision of an autonomous “Promethean self,” that sounds rather like two cheers (or maybe one and a half) for capitalism. Just as neoconservatives looked at an American economic and political system under increasing pressure in the Sixties and Seventies, many of those sympathetic to a “populist” or “nationalist” correction see in the contemporary United States signs of disappointment and socioeconomic strain. In the 21st century, economic growth has slowed by many measures. Deaths of despair have skyrocketed. Partisan rancor and dysfunction hold the Beltway in their grip. Political radicalism, from socialism to the “woke” left to the “alt-right,” has gained new currency in some parts of the public.
These trends have left a black mark in the lives of many Americans. But they also might augur ill for liberal democracy and a market-based economy. Policy reforms to correct them can be less a flight from liberty and more a way to make the practices of liberty sustainable, a theme that has pervaded accounts of liberty in America from Hamilton to Tocqueville to the neoconservatives.
You can read the rest here.

There's a bigger tradition of diagnosing the limitations (or de-stabilizing tendencies) of democratic life not in order to end it but in order to make it more sustainable.

In his review of R. R. Reno's Return of the Strong Gods, Samuel Goldman offers a related reflection. Reno, he writes, believes in the importance of deep roots (in family, faith, and community) for the human psyche. We all crave these roots. For Reno, modernity and the "open society" model of the postwar consensus risk cutting us off from this essential foundation.
For one thing, [such a model] is too thin and rationalistic to provide the meaning most of us crave. A few people might be satisfied by the lesser goods of peace and prosperity. Many more are attracted to forms of community that offer greater fulfillment because they demand more of their members. Although he opposes so-called identity politics as another kind of idolatry, Reno recognizes its appeal. If the “open society” does not offer citizens a strong political purpose, it is inevitable that they will seek it in race or sexual orientation.

Second, openness can become an ersatz religion. Rather than a pragmatic strategy to avoid the worst, the refusal to make and enforce judgments is now seen as a virtue — perhaps the only one. Reno is not alone in recognizing that the terms “toleration” and “diversity” have become liturgical affirmations of a new moral orthodoxy...
...The real danger, he argues, is not the appeals to traditional morality, religion, and nationalism that provoke elite liberals to hysterical warnings of fascism. It is the refusal of any sacrifices to the strong gods, which invites them back in new and potentially violent forms.

Reno’s populism is based on a strategic calculation comparable to the one adopted by architects of the post-war consensus. In a world devastated by an excessive devotion, they promoted disillusionment and restraint. In a society that fosters weak loyalty or reverence, Reno encourages the reenchantment of the world. “Deprived of true and ennobling loves,” he concludes, “people will turn to demagogues and charlatans who offer them false and debasing loves.” 
Goldman implies that Reno's project may less be about throwing over "liberal democracy" (he doesn't want to end elections or throw religious dissenters in prison) and more about nurturing those deeper roots of the sacred in order to counterbalance some of the tendencies toward atomization.

This highlights one of the complexities of contemporary discussions of "populism" and "nationalism." Some see in these movements the project of overthrowing a "liberal" order characterized by civil liberties and democratic governance, while others see in them the possibility of correcting some elements of established orthodoxies in order to make the practices of liberty and democracy more sustainable.

Certainly, many of those idenitified with "populism" and "nationalism" these days are themselves profoundly sympathetic to the institutional principles we associate with "liberal democracy."  Josh Hawley doesn't want to repeal the Bill of Rights, for instance.  In the beginning of The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony makes clear his fundamental support for the inherited norms of political liberty; he thinks that the national model is a vehicle for preserving those norms.  Indeed, Hazony argues that political transnationalism might itself be at odds with those things that make liberal, democratic life possible.  The idea that a certain ideological rigor can undermine the practices of democracy is not confined to "postliberals," either.  One of the themes of Bill Galston's Anti-Pluralism is the way that a fierce neoliberal reaction against populism could itself pose a threat to pluralist norms and institutions.

None of this is to say that certain forms of "populism," "nationalism," and "postliberalism" might not actually be hostile to the practices of democracy and civil liberties.  (I tend to think that a lot of "-ism" talk actually obscures some deeper complexities and differences.)

And there is, of course, the second-order question of whether some of the concrete policy solutions offered by populists will actually address those tensions within the heart of (broadly speaking) "liberal" life.

But this does suggest that part of the task of statesmanship for a regime with robust protections for civil liberties and democratic elections might include attending to the deeper social textures and cultural capital that make those things possible.  That project of attention has a long lineage, from the American Founders onward.

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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Correction politics

Two pieces this week, and a common theme.

One looks at Marco Rubio's recent speech on an industrial policy.
In current debates on the right, proponents of neoliberal economics (especially on trade) have often joined forces with those who want to defend the “liberal international order” (or who wish, in any case, to maintain a proactive American foreign policy). In some ways, this alliance makes sense. Many view President Trump as the central question in American politics, and he has trumpeted his criticism of the post-1989 consensus on both foreign and economic policy. Moreover, American policymakers pivoted to international “free trade” agreements as a key element of geopolitical strategy in the aftermath of the Second World War.

However, in some other ways, there might be some tensions in this alliance. In many respects, the economic trends of 2001 to 2016 undermined the ability of the United States to continue as a ballast of the post-1945 geopolitical order. The extended slowdown in economic growth since Y2K has shrunk the size of the American economy relative to the rest of the world, and the social turmoil accelerated by the disruptions of the neoliberal economy makes it harder for the United States to realize long-term geopolitical goals.
A new effort at policy reform could be a way of reversing some of these destabilizing trends and place the US economy and geopolitical position on firmer grounds.

The other gives a quick analysis of the results of the new parliamentary elections in the UK. We can draw some parallels between American and British politics these days, but there are some significant differences, too:
There are obvious lessons here for American politics. As working-class voters migrate to the Republican column, the GOP will probably have to do more to represent blue-collar concerns in its policy platform. (In many respects, it looks like this lesson hasn’t been learned yet.) A radical swing to the left — especially on cultural issues — could pose a danger to Democrats in 2020. Many suburban voters are suspicious of Trump, but they are also repelled by plans to abolish private health insurance and impose radical “wokeness” upon the nation as a whole.

There are, however, some major differences between the U.K. and the U.S. here, too. Boris Johnson was able to make a novel alliance, simultaneously appealing to populist sentiments while also appearing as the champion of constitutional normalcy. The through-the-looking-glass world of recent years has presented many surprising inversions, one of which is that many members of the political establishment have themselves succumbed to the very constitutional pyromania of which they accuse populists. In the United Kingdom, establishment resistance to honoring the 2016 referendum ensured an extended constitutional torment. The British public (and observers abroad) witnessed month after month of parliamentary paralysis, as MPs voted not to leave without a deal, and then against every deal that was offered.
While the Trump White House has often leaned into disruption, Johnson instead offered a Tory victory as a way of moving past the constitutional chaos caused by Remain intransigence--"Get Brexit Done."

And what's the common theme? It's that reform can offer a way of lessening the risk of political radicalism. The radical disruptions of the high-neoliberal paradigm are fueling extremist forces on all sides. A kind of correction (one that reinforces national solidarity and shores up the working and middle classes) might end up draining some of the force from such polarizing movements.

Revealingly, this is a point raised by Dominic Cummings, one of the top strategists for Leave and for Boris Johnson, in a 2016 interview:
"Extremists are on the rise in Europe and are being fuelled unfortunately by the Euro project and by the centralisation of power in Brussels. It it is increasingly important that Britain offers an example of civilised, democratic, liberal self-government."
Andrew Sullivan has also echoed this point in his writings on the British election and Brexit.  Here's a snippet from his recent profile of Johnson:
[Johnson] has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

As Rubio, Josh Hawley,* and others have implied, taking on the challenges of reform can be a way of preserving certain certain key values and democratic practices.

(Speaking of Hawley, check out Charles Fain Lehman's recent profile of him.)

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Not-So-Uncommon Good

A few days ago in National Review, I looked at some possible affinities between the "common good" and the market economy:
In many ways, though, liberty and the common good can be allied. Civil and economic freedom can contribute to the common good, and attention to the common good (while noble in its own right) can also be instrumental to the preservation of our liberties.
Though some sectors of the post-liberal Right and Left have soured on the idea of “capitalism,” much could be said on behalf of this system for contributing to the common good. It has slashed poverty across the globe, and, as Benedict XVI has suggested in Caritas in Veritate, the diversity of employment opportunities provided in a market economy helps open up the realization of individual gifts. For all the faults of the high neoliberal era (and there are many), it has also helped lift hundreds of millions out of crushing poverty. One needn’t be a radical utilitarian to think that this is a considerable accomplishment. The birth of the industrialized, modern market has helped nurture a modern middle class, one of the bulwarks of stable democratic governance.
You can read the rest here.*

Toward the end of the piece, I outline various reforms that could speak to the common good and provide more opportunity for an integrated body politic: immigration reform to tighten the labor market, efforts to cut medical costs, an infrastructure program, and so forth.  We live in a time where people like to lean into polarization, where relatively minor differences are extrapolated into gaping canyons.  But it seems to me that many elements of "common good" reforms would be quite compatible with the mainstream of policy norms--including on the right.

Contrary to some public mythologies, it's not socialism to offer policy corrections in order to help strengthen the hands of workers.  (I mean, Calvin Coolidge specifically called for policy efforts on trade and other areas to drive up the wages of American workers, and I don't think most people would call him a socialist.)  And anyone who wants to call Reagan a political success would have to acknowledge his own agenda of policy interventions in the economy (from buttressing Social Security to import quotas on foreign vehicles).  Some folks seem to suggest that the GOP needs to jettison Reaganite policies in order to succeed in the 21st century, but it seems to me that many aspects of the Gipper's actual record could offer some inspiration to proponents of more populist or "common good" reforms.

In the latest print issue of NR, Ramesh Ponnuru makes a similar point in thinking about the issue of "common good" capitalism:
As the examples of the Presidents Bush suggest, though, there is by now a long history of Republicans’ attempting to create a governing majority for conservatism, or just to win elections, by softening its devotion to limited government and markets. Running in 1980, Ronald Reagan took care not to present himself as Barry Goldwater redux: He was not a threat to Social Security or Medicare, and his tax cuts would generate enough growth to avoid a painful retrenchment of the welfare state.

Later came Pat Buchanan’s “conservatism of the heart” — complete with frequent invocations of Franklin Roosevelt’s line about the occasional faults of a benevolent government paling beside the constant ones of “a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference” — and Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

As unusual as he is in many respects, as much of a jolt as he has given to the political system, Trump fits this pattern. He did not change a comma of Republican orthodoxy on social issues. But he ran as a Republican who would protect the elderly from entitlement cuts and manufacturing workers from imports.
I don't mean to obscure some of the important theoretical divisions here, and I think that coping with the disruptions of globalization will likely require a wide range of reforms.  But I also think it's worth remembering that some of these reforms have a longer lineage--and that making some of these reforms might be a way of averting more radical changes.

(*In this Twitter thread, I link some other pieces discussing "common good" controversies.)

Monday, July 8, 2019

Identity and Difference

Over the past week, I read Francis Fukuyama's 2018 book, Identity, so here are a few scattered thoughts about it ("scattered thoughts" being one of the prime modes of blogging):

The shadow of The End of History and the Last Man (an oft-misunderstood work) hangs over much of Fukuyama's work, and Identity is no exception.  Using the concept of "identity" as a lens, it explores elements of the modern condition that may keep a polity or even the whole globe from "getting to Denmark"--that is, to a market-oriented liberal democracy.  Fukuyama offers a tripartite account of the human soul: reason, desire, and thymos. According to Fukuyama, "thymos"--"the seat of judgements of worth" and the cause of a craving for recognition--poses certain challenges to liberal modernity.  While "isothymia" is "the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people," "megalothymia" involves "the desire to be recognized as superior."  For Fukuyama, both valences of thymos are implicated in contemporary politics of identity.

After laying out this division of the soul, Fukuyama surveys evolving notions of identity, from the Protestant Reformation to Rousseau to contemporary therapeutic culture.  If you want a more in-depth discussion of the stakes of identity for Fukuyama, you could check out this interview he did with Matt Lewis. But, briefly, he argues that the demand for recognition by members of previously marginalized groups is part of the process of the demand for the universal recognition of equal dignity within liberal modernity.  Fukuyama is broadly sympathetic to such demands, though he also fears that the emphasis on identity politics as purely slicing and dicing the polity might end up undercutting some of the norms necessary for defending a liberal society--moreover, it might inspire a backlash.  In the final chapter, Fukuyama offers a variety of suggestions to try to confront some of the challenges of identity, such as a more democratic central governing body for the EU, mandatory national service in the US, assimilationist reforms to immigration policy, and an emphasis on creedal national belonging.

I might not necessarily agree with everything in Identity, but it does offer a thoughtful survey of some of the forces that have influenced contemporary notions of the self.  Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self plays an important role here, but this book more broadly bears a Hegelian stamp.  Hegel's account of evolving shapes of human consciousness seems an important theoretical frame for Identity, and Fukuyama has long acknowledged the influence of Alexandre Kojeve, one of the most influential 20th-century interpreters of Hegel and one of the founding proponents of the European Union.  (Speaking of Kojeve: The Strauss-Kojeve debate about tyranny remains, I think, rewarding reading.  Of particular note these days might be the theme in that debate about the role of sovereign states. In his "Restatement" to Kojeve, Strauss defends the idea of the world being populated by independent regimes: "the coming of the universal and homogeneous state will be the end of philosophy on earth.")

With the neoliberal order being increasingly embattled, some have doubled down on postnational tendencies.  Others have instead emphasized the importance of the nation for maintaining liberty.  Fukuyama falls into that second camp.  In the twelfth chapter, he outlines the various ways that an "inclusive sense of national identity" helps free societies function: it helps provide physical security, non-corrupt government, economic development, public trust, and a social safety net.  He goes even further: "The final function of national identity is to make possible liberal democracy itself."  The "social contract" of liberal democracy requires citizens to believe that "they are part of the same polity."  It's a popular thing these days to pit "liberalism" against "nationalism," but that headline-generating quarrel should not obscure the way that sovereign nations have proven important vehicles for the defense and exposition of liberty (as it is often understood).

And there's another point about identity here, too.  In the final paragraph of this volume, Fukuyama notes that "identity" is a double-edged concept: it "can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate."  It would be a mistake to walk away from this book thinking that Fukuyama wants to end "identity politics."  Instead, he wants to foster a form of national identity to balance out and complement other forms of identity.  (A similar point might be raised about Mark Lilla's Once and Future Liberal--he criticizes the left not for mentioning identity-related issues but instead for failing to give sufficient attention to forms of civic identity.)  As I've written before, one of the ways of addressing some contemporary identity-related tensions is to recognize the mutability of some of the identity silos that seem so solid to contemporary observers--and to realize that there can be robust forms of civic belonging that also recognize the diversity of human experience.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The "Socialism" Trap

At National Review, I look at the case that Republicans may be walking into a political trap if they allow attacks on "socialism" to crowd out an affirmative policy message.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Yearbook Politics

In some ways, the rise of yearbook politics is a tribute to the norms of the meritocracy.  Schools play an important role in meritocratic sorting, so it is perhaps unsurprising that many in the media and political classes (citadels of the meritocracy) should think that yearbooks are a valuable mechanism for moral sorting.  Just as someone is always a graduate of Harvard or Stanford or wherever, someone's yearbook stands as an indelible testament of who he or she is.

However, there's something profoundly limited about reducing someone to a yearbook profile from decades ago.  Such a reduction presumes that a person can't change; moreover, it also presumes that a person's yearbook profile is a sufficiently revealing document of who a person was even then.  In reality, human beings are complicated.  Well-intentioned people do offensive things all the time, and it would be morally absurd (and intellectually naive) to reduce a person to a single unworthy incident.  Also, people do change, which is why it can be a troublesome enterprise to say that someone's representation of themselves from decades ago represents who they are today.

The vulgarized predestination of yearbook politics might gratify moral vanity, but it's less clear that it serves the purpose of either ethical rigor or a responsive politics.  A politician's record in office (including his record of rhetoric) is far more relevant to the public interest than a yearbook from a lifetime ago.  A society that does not admit that people can change and rejects the possibility of moral improvement is one that will have a hard time sustaining republican self-governance. Character matters, but recognizing the full import of character means recognizing complexity and possibility.

Yearbook politics also points to a wider danger in our politics.  Many in the leadership class have expressed more interest in conducting moralistic inquisitions than taking on the responsibility of confronting the challenges of the present.  The constant refrain of "that's not who we are" might be comforting, but serious politics demands much more.  Earlier this week, I wrote about the importance of magnanimity for sustaining civic liberties, and I think that point still applies.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Varieties of the Liberal Experience

In National Review today, I have a write-up of Helena Rosenblatt's new book, The Lost History of Liberalism:
Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism is an important work of scholarship, a survey of the varieties of “liberalism” in the past two centuries. At a time when defenders of “liberalism” fear that their ideological enemies have the winds of history at their backs, Rosenblatt offers a helpful reminder of the diversity within the tradition of “liberalism” and of the ways that certain variants of liberalism can end up undermining its promise. Those who champion liberalism have often seen it as an embattled worldview (particularly on the European continent), but they have also sometimes inadvertently supplied arms against it.Rosenblatt offers “a word history” of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism.” As she notes at the outset, their meanings are deeply contested. In France, “liberal” is associated with “favoring ‘small government,’ while in America it signifies favoring ‘big government.’” Self-professed “liberals” call for extending the welfare state, while others claiming the same title argue that it’s an unjustified restriction on liberty. The Lost History of Liberalism is intellectual history, not ideological polemic, so Rosenblatt does not set out to determine which faction counts as the “real liberalism”; she seeks instead to explore the complexity of the tradition.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Finding Common Ground

In National Review, I explore the idea of a "party of the nation" as reconciling both populists and their critics.

Friday, December 14, 2018

RIP Weekly Standard

(In light of the announcement that The Weekly Standard is being shuttered, I offer the following appreciation. I've long enjoyed the magazine as a reader and--to my great fortune--as an occasional writer for it. So, in the paragraphs below, don't expect any gimlet-eyed, cynical analysis. Instead, prepare yourself for the soft-focus glow...)

If, as Emerson said, an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man, The Weekly Standard combined the witty iconoclasm of Bill Kristol with the rigorous reporting of Fred Barnes.  It had an impressive stable of staff writers, who could do everything from political profiles to policy explainers to techno-fad eviscerations (see, for instance, this Matt Labash piece on Google Glass).  A host of regular contributors--including Charlotte Allen, Harvey Mansfield, and William H. Pritchard--supplemented this in-house crew. A lot of careers were started at the magazine, and, I hope, those careers sustained at that magazine will be able to continue elsewhere.

The Weekly Standard played a leading role in public affairs.  Taking a hawkish stance, it rallied for the Iraq War and, later, the surge.  It was a crucial advocate for the eventual Republican vice-presidential nominees in 2008 and 2012.

But the contribution of a magazine of ideas is not just about influence over public policy--it's also about fostering an exchange of ideas.  While many obituaries will portray The Weekly Standard as a "neoconservative" or "anti-Trump" publication, it hosted a variety of views and Trump was only a dominate presence in the last few years of its run.

It served as a testing ground for new ideas from a variety of angles, and its editorial vision was open to heterodoxy.  For instance, the 2005 Ross Douthat-Reihan Salam essay "The Party of Sam's Club" called for the GOP to be more attentive to working-class interests; this piece was a forerunner of the reformocon (and maybe popucon?) movement.  Ten years later, The Weekly Standard featured as a cover story a case for the political insights of Donald Trump written by none other than Julius Krein, who would go on to start American Affairs (a journal that has helped prompt new thinking on a host of foundational questions).

Though I've so far emphasized the political side of The Weekly Standard, I should also note how solid the book section was.  It featured rigorous reviews that not only summarized a book but set it in a broader intellectual conversation.  To its intellectual credit, that section was the opposite of clickbait.

One of the core insights of conservatism is that institutions matter.  You don't have to agree with everything that appeared in its pages to think that The Weekly Standard played an important role as an institution for fostering serious debate about public and private life.  A time of tabloid hysteria makes the loss of any such institution even more painful.  This doesn't mean that other institutions won't rise to take its place.  The talented folk in the orbit of The Weekly Standard will, one hopes, find new opportunities. (And, though I've been talking about ideas, livelihoods are at stake here, too--and opportunities for other employers to recruit some top-class talent.)  Mourning has its limits, but, in due measure, it can be an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of what is gone.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Manufacturing Growth Up

Trade and manufacturing have been big political battlegrounds recently.  So I thought I would look at the number of manufacturing jobs generated by year and found a few interesting things.  By one measure, 2017-2018 has seen the strongest growth in manufacturing jobs since the 1990s.

The change in the number of manufacturing jobs from month to month is very noisy (there might be a big swing up followed by a decline in the next month).  Also, we are months away from having data on 2018 as a whole.  So, in the chart below, I look at the percentage change in manufacturing jobs year over year, by month (so, for instance, how much the number of manufacturing jobs changes from June of one year to June of the next).

This chart shows how miserable manufacturing-job numbers were from from 2000 until early 2010; within that period, the number of manufacturing jobs was either treading water or sinking in almost every twelve-month interval.  Starting in April of 2010, the U.S. began actually to gain manufacturing jobs, and 2010 to the present has begun the slow process of trying to rebuild from the manufacturing collapse of 2000-2010 (we still have millions fewer manufacturing jobs now than in 2000).

Another thing stands out in this chart: Starting in May of 2018, the United States began having a year-over-year growth of manufacturing jobs of over 2 percent.  From May of 2017 to May of 2018, it was around 2.1 percent; from June of 2017 to June of 2018, it was 2.2 percent (and so forth).  As this chart suggests, the last time the United States experienced this kind of manufacturing-job growth was in the mid-90s.

Looking a little closer at the past few years reveals something else.
By early 2017, the rate of job growth in manufacturing had begun to slip.  In fact, manufacturing jobs were lost in half the months of 2016, and there were fewer manufacturing jobs in December 2016 than there were in January of that year.  This changed in 2017; since January of 2017, there has been only one month of job loss in manufacturing, and the overall growth has been much more vigorous.

A few provisional thoughts arise from this:
  • Manufacturing was already on an overall upswing when Donald Trump became president.
  • But it had begun to decline at the end of the Obama administration, so it's not clear that Trump inherited the best manufacturing growth from Obama.
  • Manufacturing has grown at a relatively aggressive rate in the past 18 months, at a pace unmatched in the past 20 years.
  • The continued strong rate of manufacturing growth in 2018 suggests that the current trade negotiations between the United States and many its principal trading partners has not yet inflicted great pain on the manufacturing sector's employment picture as a whole. (This is distinct from its effect on other employment sectors.)
(The underlying data for these graphs come from FRED; the calculations are my own.)