I was going to call this post “Can’t we all just get along?” Which is, for those of you too young to remember the 1991 Los Angeles riots, was the plea uttered by Rodney King on television during those riots. And then I was going to begin this post by answering that question “No, we can’t.” But then I remembered Obama’s 2008 slogan.
David Axelrod (you know, the guy who ran Obama’s now legendary 2008 Presidential campaign) wrote a brilliant piece in the New York Times about the rise of Trump a month ago, about how Trump is a kind of response to Obama. What’s the thing Obama can’t do? Be angry. He’s gotten more emotional in the last year or two, but in the beginning any show of anger was strictly verboten. Because he’s black, and people freak out about angry black men. Trump, by contrast, is angry. His whole campaign is about anger. His supporters are angry, and they support him because he gives voice to that anger.
Yesterday I was pretty surprised to find myself agreeing with David Brooks’ column – I am always surprised when this happens, whatever the subject – about the emergence of anti-politics. His analysis was really spot on:
“Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.
Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.
This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy.”
Here is a quote I came across on the ‘book, from an activist (who graduated from Stanford Law School), who is not a friend on Facebook; taken a thread on his wall (more on that in a moment) –
“No disrespect to anyone. I have no beef with Hillary supporters. I just think they should get out of the way and let young people claim their future instead of trying to will a 20 year old political vision (pragmatism appealing to a divided electorate clustered around some sense of moderation) back into existence after a paradigm shift that has given ideologues wider room than in the past.”
As a Hillary supporter, there’s nothing I can say to that. There’s nothing to discuss. He is supports Bernie because, for him, Hillary is totally unacceptable in any leadership position. And he links to articles that support that thesis. Glenn Greenwald, who never much liked Obama either, wrote the article at the top the thread. He argues that Democrats need to nominate Bernie over Hillary, because Hillary cannot win in a general election against Trump. I find it hard to believe that Greenwald cares about the Democratic party. He hates Hillary because she’s a neoliberal. Then there’s another article he links to further down in the thread about how Hillary is a terrible candidate.
If the best argument for Bernie Sanders is that Hillary Clinton is a liar, a racist, unpopular, or in some other way a bad person that you should not trust, then why should I bother voting Democratic at all? Heck, why should I even vote? If the protesters are to be believed, politics is just a corrupt game of exploitation.
Even more importantly, if Hillary is such an evil witch, why has Sanders himself said, over and over and over, that he respects her? Why would any of Sanders supporters build up a campaign demonizing mainstream Democratic politicians if they are going to end up relying on them for organization in the general election? How is that supposed to work?
If Sanders is the nominee, I will support him and vote for him. I think the debates so far in the primary have been really good, both for the candidates and for the party. The debate between the heterodox economics community and the establishment left has been especially interesting. Having come out of a heterodox economics program, I am familiar with many of the names in the discussion, and the dynamics of the debate. Gerald Friedman, who did the analysis of Sanders’ economic proposals that tipped off the debate in the first place, is a Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which is sort of the premiere heterodox program in the United States. The economics department down at University of Missouri, Kansas City is probably the biggest rival to Amherst – in particular, Randy Wray’s modern monetary economics has attracted the attention of donors and helped build the graduate program there.
The role of donors and endowments in academia is not especially well understood in the broader public. There’s an implicit assumption that universities are just regular business firms, supplying “education” to meet the market demand of “students.” The reality is, of course, far more complicated. In the post-war era, economics departments became a kind of political battleground. Paul Samuelson, who wrote the dominant economics textbook of the middle part of the 20th century, was a Professor at MIT. MIT was a major recipient of Federal grants, because the government needed lots of highly trained scientists and engineers, and MIT was very good at training them. Hence, MIT became very influential. Samuelson, who in his prime was an almost miraculously smart guy (I always get a little gauzy over super intelligent people, not being one myself), studied up on thermodynamics and tons of math, and incorporated some of the insights gleaned into what came to be called the Samuelsonian neo-classical synthesis, which basically took Keynesian macroeconomics and attached it to Marshallian neoclassical microeconomics. This is partially why economics is still taught as “macro” and “micro” – although lately that distinction seems to be getting pretty tenuous.
In the 1970s and 80s, economics departments in the US underwent a kind of transformation, as the rise of Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas, and the Chicago School of economics began to edge out the Samuelsonian paradigm. You can find discussions of this all over the literature today, in lots of different versions. Part of what happened was that conservatives began to take over the journals, and excluding papers they didn’t like. Another part of what happened was that non-neoclassical academic economists (institutionalists, development economists, Austrians, and, of course, Marxians) were pushed out of economics departments and into other departments. By the 1990s very few economics departments had anything but neoclassicists teaching economics.
Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about “big data” – which feels to me like a modest extension of the Real Business Cycle research program – with the new dominant paradigm supposedly emerging from Stanford. The university certainly has a large and growing endowment capable of extending their influence (Phil Knight of Nike just gave them $400m). They’ve got the Hoover Institute connecting them to conservative political interests, and the Silicon Valley tech giants to lend them credibility not only on Market Street but in the Mission as well (those are San Francisco references – Market is the Financial district’s main drag, while the Mission is the formerly working class Mexican neighborhood now overrun by hipsters). On the other hand, Stanford Economics Professor (and Hoover Institute fellow) Michael Boskin wrote in a recent op-ed:
Just because a Professor is conservative does not mean his students will be as well. Robert Solow (among many others) was a student of Schumpaeter at Harvard, and he turned out okay. And Keynes was the student of Marshall. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound to me like Stanford is especially interested in progressive ideas or social justice. If the future of economics is coming out of Stanford, I do not feel encouraged. But then again, I am biased towards pessimism, so maybe I’m just confirming my own expectations.
This post has been written over the past 18 hours or so, and I need to finish it up so I can go watch the election returns coming out of South Carolina. But before I hit publish, I want to return to politics briefly.
Looking ahead to the summer, I have a feeling that this year will be a real scorcher – and I mean that metaphorically. Niche positions seem to be turning into trenches. A factional war will be ugly and highly destructive, but that is what I see coming for both Democrats and Republicans.
The anger of the anti-establishment seems to be growing. Its a very dangerous time in American politics. And if there’s any direction that all this is pushing me personally, I feel like it’s towards Christ. The more anger and fear I see, the more I feel like what I need to do is focus on loving my neighbor and stop worrying about what they might say or how they feel about politics. And I’m pretty sure I have friends that might read that and think “Wait, what?” The thing is that I don’t like being angry about politics. It makes me think and feel things that I don’t like, that don’t seem useful on reflection. And there doesn’t seem to be much alternative to angry politics right now. Not that Jesus has got a lock on peace – there are plenty of folks out there, religious and non-religious, committed to love and peace and dialog.