From the monthly archives:

April 2021

Economic policy after the pandemic

by John Q on April 30, 2021

I’m racing to get a draft manuscript of The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, not helped by the fact that Biden keeps doing pretty much what I think he should do. More of the fold. Comments greatly appreciated, as always.
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Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Bruenig makes the case against an alliance of convenience between liberals and “woke” corporations against the threat posed to democracy by Trumpism . After acknowledging how desperate the situation has become, she presents the argument, to which I’ll respond bit by bit

Capital is unfaithful. It can, and does, play all sides. Many of the courageous businesses that protested North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” for instance, also donated to political groups that helped fund the candidacies of the very politicians who passed the bill.

This is the nature of alliances of convenience. When the Western Allies joined Stalin to fight against Hitler they had no (or at least few) illusions about him, and didn’t rely on him to keep his word any longer than necessary, or to refrain from undermining them in other quarters

It isn’t possible to cooperate with capital on social matters while fighting them in other theaters; capital can fight you in all theaters at once, all while enjoying public adulation for helping you, as well.

This simply isn’t correct as the Biden Administration is showing. Despite co-operating with capital on social matters,. Biden has proposed substantial increases in corporate tax rates and global action against corporate tax avoidance. In this context, it is the position of capital that has been weakened by the toxicity of its usual allies, the Republicans.

Setting aside the fact that capital can in a single moment be both heroic and diabolical — Amazon wants you to be able to vote, but it would prefer if you didn’t unionize — it is, incredibly, even less democratic, accountable and responsive than our ramshackle democracy. Capital rallies to the defense of democracy while aggressively quashing that very thing in the workplaces where its workers labor.

Again, this is what happens in an alliance of this kind. Fights over unionization go on, in parallel with an alliance over the right to vote. Once again, it’s the corporations who face the bigger problem here, with opportunistic Republicans pretending to back the rights of the workers.

I have no idea what to do about this other than know it for what it is. If it were ever the case that knowledge was power, it certainly isn’t so anymore: Knowledge is more widely dispersed than ever; power remains notably concentrated. But knowledge confers a certain dignity. It’s worse to be powerless and unaware than to be powerless and perfectly clear on where you stand.

This is a counsel of despair, without any real basis. Bruenig gives no reason to suppose that the fight for democracy can’t be won, even if it requires alliances between groups with interests that are otherwise opposed. But if the Republicans can be held at bay long enough to allow the passage of strong voting rights law, they will have to reform themselves or face permanent minority status. Getting to that point (for example, by winning bigger majorities in both Houses of Congress in 2022, then scrapping the filibuster) will be difficult, but not impossible

An important limitation of Bruenig’s analysis is that she treats “capital” as a unitary force. There is a sharp division between global corporations, with a long-run interest in the preservation of the rule of law under a democratic government, and the crony capitalists, epitomized by Trump himself, for whom the object is to extract as much as possible from the US economy, as quickly as they can.

Someone with more expertise than me could interpret all this in terms of the “fractions of capital” idea put forward by Poulantzas and others in C20. A search on those terms produced this piece in The Guardian, which covers some of those points.

How much is a trillion dollars?

by John Q on April 28, 2021

Updating an old aphorism, “A trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. But how much is a trillion dollars, really? Over the fold an extract from The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic.

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Republicans and the end of hard neoliberalism

by John Q on April 26, 2021

As I argued recently, the decline of soft neoliberalism in the US Democratic Party can be explained largely in terms of generational replacement. What about hard neoliberalism and the Republican Party?
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Sunday photoblogging: crane reflection

by Chris Bertram on April 25, 2021

Crane reflection

“Ye higher men, free the sepulchres, awaken the corpses! Ah, why doth the worm still burrow? There approacheth, there approacheth, the hour, — — There boometh the clock-bell, there thrilleth still the heart, there burroweth still the wood-worm, the heart-worm. Ah! Ah! THE WORLD IS DEEP!”

– F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So I ran another of those Twitterpoll thingies and it was decisive. Seven people voted, including one rubbernecker who likes to watch. And so the people have spoken! So I’m back to explaining jokes, like before. (Racking numbers like those, I should start a Nietzsche joke explanation Substack. Which is to say: webcomics is hard, kids. Like the King said, ‘comics will break your heart.’)

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Danielle Allen – a personal endorsement

by Henry Farrell on April 19, 2021

Danielle Allen phot

I imagine that many Crooked Timber readers are familiar with Danielle Allen – her book, Our Declaration, was the subject of a Crooked Timber seminar a few years ago. However, some people may not know that she is in the early stages of running for governor of Massachusetts. She is an extraordinary person, and would do extraordinary things if she were elected. I’m writing this both to endorse her (in a purely personal capacity – this is not a general CT endorsement, although I know that some other posters also know her and think she’s wonderful) and to suggest that if you agree and are in a position to, you should donate to her campaign.

The reason that I support her isn’t that she’s one of the finest academic political theorists of our age (she is; but that is beside the point). It’s that she is uniquely capable of bridging between a deeper understanding and the ordinary business of politics. I can’t think of anyone who even comes near to her ability to weave the two together to good purpose. She’s also someone who identifies problems and gets things done. And she has the kind of charisma that stems from deep moral seriousness combined with kindness and a real delight in other people.

The question is getting her to the place where voters can see who she is. This is a tough race – for starters, Democratic politics in Massachusetts is dominated by a well-oiled party machine. But it is far from impossible for her. A lot depends, as everywhere else in American politics, on money. Endorsements and political support depend on whether she can demonstrate that she has enough financial support from enough people. It helps that Massachusetts has donation limits that are lower than in many other states, making it harder for big donors to swamp the process. It also helps that her fundraising got off to a strong start, but a strong start isn’t enough on its own.

That’s why I’m asking that you donate, if you are a US citizen or a permanent resident, and are in a position to support her. If you want to find out about her campaign, you can get more information here. And if you want to find out more about how she helped shape the response to coronavirus, more details are here. There aren’t many people who have what it takes to potentially transform politics, if they get the chance. I believe she’s one of them.

Sunday photoblogging: car reflections

by Chris Bertram on April 18, 2021

Another in a series

Car reflections

I’m trying to get the MS of Economic Consequences of the Pandemic finished by May, while chasing a moving target. Over the fold, I return to a favorite topic of mine, the role of generational change. I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the silliness of most talk about generations, but in the process I’ve learned quite a bit about the nuggets of insight that can be mined by thinking in these terms.

Comments much appreciated. Happy for anyone to raise nitpicking points about typos. There are always plenty in my work, and even more when I’m in a rush. Of course, substantive criticism is always welcome and praise even more so.

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Testing the Tebbit Test

by Harry on April 16, 2021

You can still listen to Testing the Tebbit Test on BBC Radio 4 Extra in which Rajan Datar documents how many English people with ancestors who migrated from Asia, and maybe even from the Caribbean find the test deeply hurtful and offensive. This response is entirely apt — Tebbit must have known that it was hurtful and offensive, indeed that seems to have been the point.

I used to be flippant about the Tebbit test. It goes against the Englishness I was raised into. When I started watching cricket seriously, in 1974, India and Pakistan were the underdogs. I supported them against England, and, however naïve it sounds now, I assumed that everyone else in England did too. Supporting the underdog is what English people do (unless, possibly, the underdog is Australia, a contingency that hasn’t really arisen during my cricket-loving life). Quite independently I was taught that authentic celebration and enjoyment of the other side’s performance is intrinsic to both Englishness and the spirit of cricket. So, even in the cases, increasingly common as I grew older, in which England was the underdog and it was, therefore, consistent with my national identity to support England, that support had to be quite unenthusiastic.

In 1976 England’s captain Tony Grieg threw another consideration into the mix. I don’t believe Grieg was racist, or even bad (and, in retrospect, the Packer revolution was great for the sport), but when he said of the West Indies, in an accent which, at that point, I’d only ever heard from supporters of apartheid, that “we’re going to make them grovel”, he made it impossible to want England to win. Throughout the subsequent decade or so in which that extraordinary West Indies team dominated world cricket, I could never support England, even as underdogs, against them and, again, I didn’t see how any self-respecting English person could. (My dad took me to the day of the Oval test in which Richards made that magnificent double century, and cheered every boundary with delight). Yes, I longed for England to play well; but every WI victory was a small poke in the eye for the racists. Again, naïve it may have been, but racism, to me, seemed not only wicked, but also a betrayal of the kind of Englishness I’d been raised to.

The Tebbit test, then, seemed to condemn English people of Pakistani and Indian origin for behaving in exactly the way that any other self-respecting English person, wherever their ancestors came, from would (even if too few did). It was incoherent.

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So, I promised reflections on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Seuss, to complement my ongoing brilliant double-parody, with special reference to Seuss’ late ‘cancellation’ – the withdrawal of six books from publication. I did muse a bit on Twitter. The best metaphor for it is: Seuss is the Evergiven of kid’s lit. All right, I’ll resay it a bit.

Seuss: he’s so big, if he runs aground on something – like some racist drawings in If I Ran the Zoo – he’s tough to ‘refloat’. Seuss Inc. had a branding problem, therefore, with these old books. They are really old. It’s a testament to Seuss’ evergreen style that they still look graphically fresh enough that one is shocked that he let in the racist stuff.

So, as others have pointed out, it’s not exactly surprising that Seuss Inc. decided to spruce up the brand by clearing out old, off-brand stuff that isn’t spinning the dollars anyway.

Here is one point that has been missed in a lot of the discussions, back and forth. Namely, five out of the six books that have been ‘cancelled’ (except for The Cat’s Quizzer) follow the familiar Seuss ‘story within a story’ formula. It’s all happening in some lunatic kid’s head, after page 1 and before the last page. But this kid is adorably innocent, eager to grow and ‘go get ’em!’ so his dreams are harmless and no doubt he’ll grow up fine and strong, a pillar of his community! But when the kid is this sort of paradigm little white boy from the American suburbs, in the 50’s, the world from his point of view is obtrusively normed as the sort of place where HE is the center, rightfully. It’s all a show for him. It produces a sour Cecil Rhodes in shortpants mood when he’s off stripping the rest of the world of beasts and resources, to build whatever the hell he’s dreaming.

Obviously Seuss is, himself, poking fun at the kid, who has such stereotypical visions of ‘funny foreigners’ at his beck and call. But the fact that he’s poking fun doesn’t fix it.

A kid is small! A kid should be able to dream of conquest without being a threat to anyone.

But Seuss isn’t small. Seuss is huge.

So these white boy idle dreams of conquest run heavily aground in the canal of ‘National Reading Day’, also known as ‘Dr. Seuss Day’ (because it’s his birthday, March 2.) You can’t ask every kid in America, in 2021, to indulge a white reverie of conquering Africa or Asia or the Middle East, and having a bunch of natives as your servants. (In a sense, it’s just like Mr. Sneelock in If I Ran The Circus. In his dream, Morris McGurk imagines making Sneelock do all sorts of crazy stuff – ‘I’m sure he won’t mind.’ That’s funny. But it’s not funny if it gets crossed with ugly racial stereotypes. That’s just history, folks. The past isn’t the past.)

I think five of the six ‘cancelled’ Seuss books are harmless for kids of all sorts. Except for Zoo, which is way over the line, and it’s amazing it took this long to pull it. But once you are viewing Seuss that way, through an ‘is this iffy?’ lens, it’s not too surprising the other five got swept up, too, in the corporate image clean-up. It’s a shame. A lot of people have been like ‘who’s read these old minor Seuss titles?’ Well, I say Seuss was at the height of his graphical and inventive powers in the 50’s. These are his best books, in a lot of ways. McElligot’s Pool is the most beautifully done – the watercolors. On Beyond Zebra is super clever, and the Circus book is lonely without it’s racist friend, the Zoo book. What are you gonna do? (Reforming copyright law to let these old titles go would be good, but that ain’t gonna happen.)

Anyhoo, I’m going to talk about something else today. (But I really gotta write my magnum opus ‘Seuss cancelled?’ thumbsucker someday. Ideally, after everyone is so bored by the topic that only a few read it.) [click to continue…]

Twigs and branches

by John Q on April 11, 2021

(Overdue again!) Another open thread, where you can comment on any topic. Moderation and standard rules still apply. Lengthy side discussions on other posts will be diverted here. Enjoy!

Note: Unfortunately there appears to be no way to turn moderation off selectively, so the discussion here will be a bit slow. Still looking into options.

Sunday photoblogging: sparrow

by Chris Bertram on April 11, 2021


Sunday photoblogging: flag

by Chris Bertram on April 4, 2021


I spend yesterday reading Emily Kenway’s excellent The Truth About Modern Slavery (Pluto Press, 2021). Kenway, a former advisor to the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner has her sights set on one of the most pernicious moral panics of recent years, espoused by right-wing politicians and “radical feminists” alike and used to legitimize a range of policy interventions, but particularly the hardening of borders, increased surveillance and, in relation to the sex industry, the “Nordic model”. Kenway’s argument is that the “modern slavery” industry, leveraging a parallel with actual slavery that is unjustified, promotes a focus on practices of coercion and exploitation that are represented as exceptional and abusive and as contaminating a system of labour and employment that is otherwise well-functioning. It leads to a discourse that emphasises the rescuing of victims from the evil gangs that exploit them and obscures the fact that the everyday operations of capitalism and the nation state generate the the conditions under which people make choices, often freely and rationally, to accept pretty horrible conditions, because those conditions are, for them, the best ones on offer. The book is very much focused on the UK, but readers elsewhere will certainly find parallels in their own countries.

Kenway is very good on the way in which the very same politician who have made “modern slavery” into a crusade have also been the ones who have increased the precarity that marginalized workers and irregular migrants experience. At the same time as May was issuing declarations on the subject, she was pioneering, as UK Home Secretary, the Hostile Environment that made it far more difficulty for migrants to get employment in the regular economy. Kenway highlights the ambigious status that workers at the sharp end of this discourse have: victims, if they are found dead in a trailer or “rescued” from a brothel; perpetrators and immigration offenders if they emerge from a trailer alive. The book is very up to date, but since its publication Priti Patel, the UK’s new Home Secretary, introducing a yet more restrictive immigration regime has complained that “illegals” are “abusing” the modern slavery protections in order to remain in the UK. So it goes.
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