Sunday, March 22, 2020


Weekend Roundup

I usually start gathering links with Matthew Yglesias's page at Vox. For a while I was putting his links up front -- back when he was writing a regular "most important stories of the week" feature -- but later I moved him back into alphabetical order. This week he wrote quite a bit, and I commented there with a few things I might have saved for an introduction, so decided to list him first.

One subject I didn't get to is business bailouts. Probably premature for that anyhow, although the option to postpone debt and rent payments, bankruptcy and foreclosure, is something that will be needed soon. Also, bridging loans, with various restrictions -- just enough to keep dormant businesses viable when/if the time comes to re-open them. I should also note that while I'm skeptical/hostile to short-term stimulus proposals, I do think it would be a good idea to start moving on longer-term efforts, like Green New Deal. One big problem with the 2009 stimulus package was the failure to include any infrastructure projects that weren't "shovel ready." (Reed Hundt's book, A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama's Defining Decisions makes this point.) We need a lot of infrastructure work going forward, and that needs to be factored into any recovery plan.

There's going to be an attempt to stampede Congress to pass all sorts of business bailouts, because that's the way the whole system is designed to work. You and I are lucky if we have representatives who even remotely care about us (given where I live, I'm especially unlucky in that regard), but business interests have scads of lobbyists looking for profit angles, and lots of politicians already in their pockets.

As this plays out, we would do well to recall what happened in 2008-09: we heard a deafening cry for help from the big banks, which unquestioningly had to be bailed out to keep the economy from collapsing. They indeed got what they wanted -- a $700 billion slush fund and much more through the Fed's back door -- and survived, quickly returning to profitability, even as the rest of the economy continued collapsing. And once the banks were safe, only the most marginal efforts were made to help anyone else. (The auto industry bailout was a comparatively paltry effort, saddled with stringent requirements the banks never had to face.)

I was sympathetic to the bank bailouts at the time, but dismayed by the failure to protect more of the economy, especially the workers who wound up bearing the brunt of the recession. Only later on did I see an alternative approach that should have been obvious: let the businesses fail, but protect the workers and other people at the bottom. Business would bounce back, and the change of ownership would ultimately be a healthy thing. That sort of turnover may be even more beneficial this time: when/if the economy recovers, it is almost certain to be changed significantly from the one before the crash, reflecting changed views of what matters and how we want to live. We may, for instance, find that we still need airlines, but not as many. The cruise ship industry is probably finished, and would that be such a bad thing? A much larger potential collapse is in fossil fuels: even before the crash, demand for coal was falling, as were oil prices, and both will fall further as recession lowers demand. Given how they contribute to climate change, I don't see any reason to encourage their rebound. (In fact, this would be a good time for a stiff carbon tax.) On the other hand, we may decide that we need to have health care systems for all, including some excess capacity even before the next crisis. The list, no doubt, goes on and on.

While it's easy to jot down what you'd like to see happen, it's much harder to even guess about how this crisis will play out in the minds and attitudes of people around the world. Will we learn and adapt, or flail about, trying to force the new world into our old minds? I can't help but wonder whether the panic over Covid-19 hasn't been preconditioned by the (mostly denied) fear of global warming. A large political segment seemed determined to ignore or even denounce the science of climate change, only to find themselves desperate for scientific direction when faced with the pandemic: there is something immediate and personal about the latter that climate change never triggered. (I'm reminded of the adage about there being no atheists in foxholes. It seems there are no science-deniers in emergency rooms.) The 2008 financial collapse, like previous recessions, could be written off to bad business practices and even to periodic cycles, but this one is a direct assault on one's worldview. No one can predict where that kind of psychic shock may lead.


Meanwhile, I've been plodding through Adam Gopnik's A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. I picked it up in the library, thought it might be interesting to read an unapologetic defense of liberalism. I grew up believing in what Louis Hartz called "the liberal tradition in America," only to find that self-proclaimed liberals in the 1960s had turned into pretty unsavory characters -- especially in their rabid anti-communism, most immediately evident in their support for near-genocidal war against the Vietnamese. At the time, there wasn't much of a conservative threat (Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964 but lost in a landslide), so I came to view "cold war" liberalism as the main enemy of fairness, decency, and justice in American politics. I read books like Kenneth Minogue's The Liberal Mind and Robert Paul Wolff's The Poverty of Liberalism (but no longer remember the specific critiques), and I delved further into Marxist critiques (not really of liberalism, but of its handmaiden, capitalism), and came to identify with the New Left (which was openly contemptuous of the Sino-Soviet orbit of Communist regimes, but more focused on our own world, especially of America's world-straddling hegemony).

But I stopped reading Marxist analyses after I left college, and while my practical political impulses never changed much, I've found myself growing sympathetic to liberal reformers over time, notably of Keynes in economics. Ever since I was a teenager, I've had a soft spot for utopian imagination, and I've often returned to that over the years, at least as teleology. But I lost whatever desire I might have had for revolution, and as I've aged have become increasingly willing to settle for liberal reformism, even in tiny. So I thought I might be open to Gopnik's formulation. Unfortunately, all he has to offer is a weird mixture of dashed hopes and anti-left vitriol. Regardless of whatever ideals liberals think they hold dear, their main function in politics today (and basically over the last 50-100 years) seems to be to castigate anyone who still believes that the liberty secured by a few in the great bourgeois revolutions of the past should be extended to everyone (i.e., the left).

I probably should have read David Sessions' review, The emptiness of Adam Gopnik's liberalism, before I wasted my time. Especially:

We might not have expected much more from Gopnik, but A Thousand Small Sanities' aimless joyride of free-associated clichés and its stubborn refusal to look at reality may indicate more broadly how little the American establishment has learned since the turn of the century. The climate crisis, more than anything, has highlighted the inadequacy of the liberal orthodoxy's self-congratulatory moderation and celebration of glacial incrementalism. It poses, in stark terms, the need for dramatic action and the inescapability of confronting the powerful interests behind the deadly carbon economy. The rapid degradation of the planet has made radicalism rational and incrementalism a kind of civilizational death drive. In this context, Gopnik's blissful ignorance reads not as comical but as deeply sinister.

The Democratic Party split in 1968 over the Vietnam War, with many of the hawks winding up as neoconservatives (a mostly Republican clan which still exerts powerful influence over today's Democratic hawks, especially the Clintons). Democrats are further split between middle class professionals and the working class base, with most successful Democrats (including Obama and the Clintons) gaining among the former while thanklessly banking the dwindling votes of the latter. In 2016 and 2020, those splits became clearer, with the left (dovish, mostly working class) rallying behind Bernie Sanders and the "moderates" (or merely cautious liberals, including hawks and/or professionals) ultimately flocking to Joe Biden.

Gopnik is an atavism in this split world, railing against a left that no longer exists in favor of an idealized center that is unable to accomplish anything (not least because their anti-left instinct keeps it from building a broad base, and because they are always willing to sell their reforms short). The key chapter in Gopnik's book is "Why the Left Hates Liberalism," but it should really be called "Why Liberals Hate the Left," where you could just as easily substitute "Masses" or "People" for "Left." But then it's hard to explain that without giving the impression that liberals are simply self-satisfied snobs -- dilettantes who imagine liking the idea of more people enjoying their comforts, but who hardly ever lift a finger to help them.


Some scattered links this week: