Category: Economies

2019 In Writing

I did a lot of writing this year. This is a brief list of some of my favorites. My book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, came out. It got some pretty great reviews. You should buy it. I began writing for The New Yorker Online, which has been a joy. My first piece was on political converts, men and women who make the journey from one ideology to another, and why the move from left to right has mattered more, over the course of the last century, than the move from right to left. My second piece was on Eric Hobsbawm, a Communist and a historian, and how his failure at the first made possible his success at the second. […]

On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian: Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: […]

Neoliberal Catastrophism

According to The Washington Post: Former president Barack Obama gently warned a group of freshman House Democrats Monday evening about the costs associated with some liberal ideas popular in their ranks, encouraging members to look at price tags, according to people in the room. Obama didn’t name specific policies. And to be sure, he encouraged the lawmakers — about half-dozen of whom worked in his own administration — to continue to pursue “bold” ideas as they shaped legislation during their first year in the House. But some people in the room took his words as a cautionary note about Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, two liberal ideas popularized by a few of the more famous House freshmen, including Rep. […]

Adorno in America

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world. The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? To the extent that question has been asked, it has traditionally provoked […]

On that dreadful Brexit movie

We saw that Brexit movie on HBO last night. God was it dreadful. Set aside the fetish for elite movers and shakers behind the scenes, the conspiratorial mindset of master manipulators of public opinion. (It’s kind of a weird moment where everyone across the spectrum seems to have their own versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.) What was most grating about the film was how utterly familiar and clichéd was the lead character Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was the mastermind behind the Leave campaign. In Benedict/Cummings, we get—inadvertently, I’m quite convinced: self-importance; failed attempts at oracularity that wind up being platitudinous; incomprehensible scribbling on the white board, meant to signal that we’re in the presence […]

Love and Money: On Keith Gessen’s “A Terrible Country”

The title of Keith Gessen’s new novel is A Terrible Country, but the novel is less about a country than a city: Moscow. Not just Moscow as a city in its own right, though the city is very much a character in the novel, but the experience of Moscow by an American millennial, Andrei Kaplan, a 30-something academic in flight from his failures in Brooklyn, failures of love and work, family and friends. A Terrible Country, in other words, is the anti-Brooklyn novel. If the Brooklyn of the public imagination is the place where young intellectuals move to make their lives among writers, journalists, academics, and artists, public lives that happen out of doors, in parks and readings and rallies and talks […]

Freedom and Socialism

The New York Times asked me to write something on socialism and its current appeal. I did, and it’s running as this weekend’s cover story in The Sunday Review. Here are some brief excerpts: The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival. … The stories of […]

Conservatism and the free market

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers. The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse. But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this. Here’s the National Review on my book: At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored. And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and […]

The Waning Hegemony of Republican Tax Cuts

Vote on the Reagan Tax Cuts of 1981 House: 321-107 (131 of those 321 yes votes are Democrats; one Republican votes no) Senate: 89-11 (37 of those 89 yes votes are Democrats; one Republican votes no) Vote on the Bush Tax Cuts of 2001 House: 240-154 (28 of those 240 yes votes are Democrats; no Republican votes no) Senate: 58-33 (12 of those 58 yes votes are Democrats; two Republicans vote no) Vote on the Trump Tax Cuts of 2017 House: 227-205 (none of those 227 yes votes are Democrats; 13 Republicans vote no) Senate: 51-48 (none of those 51 yes votes are Democrats; 1 Republican votes no)

Clarence Thomas’s Straussian Moment: The Question of Slavery and the Founding, and a question for my political theory and intellectual history friends

A question for the political theorists, intellectual historians, and maybe public law/con law experts. The question comes at the very end of this post. Forgive the build-up. And the potted history: I’m writing fast because I’m hard at work on this Clarence Thomas book and am briefly interrupting that work in order to get a reading list. In the second half of the 1980s, Clarence Thomas is being groomed for a position on the Supreme Court, or senses that he’s being groomed. He’s the head of the EEOC in the Reagan Administration and decides to beef up on his reading in political theory, constitutional law, and American history. He hires two Straussians—Ken Masugi and John Marini—to his staff on the […]

Trump Everlasting

I’m glad I’m not a journalist. I don’t think I could handle the whiplash of the ever-changing story line, the way a grand historical narrative gets revised, day to day, the way it seems to change, week to week, often on a dime. Or a $1.5 trillion tax cut. In my Guardian digest this week, I deal with the media’s memory, taxes, the state of the GOP, judges, sexual harassment, and leave you at the end with my assessment of where we are. Here’s a preview: Last week, after the victory of Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s senatorial election, the media began reporting that the Republican party was facing an epic disaster. Citing insider talk of a “political earthquake” and a “party in turmoil,” the Washington Post anticipated a […]

If taxes are the thunder of world history, what kind of history did the GOP make this past week?

Schumpeter famously said that taxes are the “thunder of world history.” So what kind of history did the Republicans make this past week? Here I am in The Guardian, answering that question with four takeaways on the GOP tax bill. The piece is a kind of digest of some of my posting on social media this past week; increasingly as some of you have noted, I’m doing more of my posting on social media rather than on the blog. If you’re not on Facebook and/or Twitter—and who can blame you if you’re not?—you’ll have missed these posts, so The Guardian piece is a good digest to look out for.

Forty Years of The Firm: Trump and the Coasian Grotesque

In his classic article “The Nature of the Firm“—which I wish would be put on the list of required reading for political theorists; it really should be in our canon—the economist R.H. Coase divides the economic world into two modes of action: deal-making, which happens between firms, and giving orders, which happens within firms. Coase doesn’t say this, but it’s a plausible extrapolation that making deals and giving orders are, basically, the two things businessmen know how to do. In the last year, it’s occurred to me, on more than one occasion, that Trump is a Coasian grotesque. Making deals and giving orders: that’s all he knows how to do. Except that he doesn’t. As we’re seeing, he’s really bad […]

The Democrats: A party that wants to die but can’t pull the plug

Yesterday, I noted my exasperation, in the face of the economic desperation of the younger generation, with the Clintonites in the Democratic Party. Young men and women are drowning in massive debt, high rent, low pay, and precarious jobs, and what do the Democrats have to offer them? In today’s Times, Chuck Schumer, the highest elected official in the Democratic Party, gave an answer: Right now millions of unemployed or underemployed people, particularly those without a college degree, could be brought back into the labor force or retrained to secure full-time, higher-paying work. We propose giving employers, particularly small businesses, a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs. This will have particular resonance in smaller cities and rural areas, […]

The Millennials are the American Earthquake

This is a super-fascinating article for multiple reasons. First, it turns out millennials are even more like the 1930s generation than we realized. Not just in their politics, as Andrew Hartman recently argued, but also in their economic practices. Having come of age during an epic financial crisis, they’re now staying away from the stock market, and putting their money in savings accounts—the equivalent, during the Depression, of stuffing your dollar bills in a mattress for fear of there being a run on the banks. These little gestures signal deep cultural shifts that are ultimately really important for politics. My generation was raised to think that the stock market was our savior. Fuck pensions and Social Security! You can’t trust the state or […]

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill: English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache…The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself… William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy: In this work I have attempted to treat Economy as a Calculus of Pleasure and Pain… I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the […]

Trump’s Bermuda Triangle: Obamacare, Taxes, and the Debt

I’ve got an oped in the Times today on the GOP meltdown over Obamacare. While pundits and journalists focus on the problems of personality (Trump’s or the GOP’s as a whole) and policy (the Republican bill was a terrible bill, the assumption being that Republicans somehow never pass terrible bills), of timing (the GOP should have waited to do healthcare until after they dealt with taxes, an analysis that gets things backward) and tactics (Trump negotiated badly, Ryan led badly), the real story, I argue, is deeper and more structural: Movements long ensconced and habituated to power — such that when their leaders are out of office, their ideas still dominate — get out of that practice. They lose touch with that external reality of […]

What we’re hoping for with the Obamacare repeal vote: that the rage of the GOP will overwhelm its reason

I totally understand—I especially understand—the desire not to be over-confident that the GOP will fail to repeal Obamacare tomorrow. (Although the Unfreedom Caucus did announce about an hour ago that 25 of its members directly told Trump today that they would not vote to repeal; that right there, if they stick to their position, is enough to sink the bill.) And I genuinely have no idea how this is going to go down tomorrow: the bill could pass, it could fail, it could be postponed a few days, though Ryan has said he won’t do that. So no predictions from me. But we all should be clear about whence whatever hope we might have for tomorrow’s outcome comes: not from a sense that the GOP […]

Trump’s Budget and the Fiscal Crisis of the State: Something’s Gotta Give

The Washington Post has a good article this morning on the response on Capitol Hill to Trump’s budget. The big news is that the biggest opposition to Trump’s budget is coming from—it’s almost getting predictable, at this point—not the Democrats but the Republicans. Some of President Trump’s best friends in Congress sharply criticized his first budget Thursday, with defense hawks saying the proposed hike in Pentagon spending wasn’t big enough, while rural conservatives and others attacked plans to cut a wide range of federal agencies and programs. The bad mood among Republican critics was tempered by a consensus that the president’s budget wasn’t going very far on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers reminded everybody that they ultimately control the nation’s purse strings. “While […]

The real parallel between Hitler and Trump

I’ve been reading David Cay Johnston’s excellent book The Making of Donald Trump. And without mentioning or even alluding to Hitler or fascism, the book raises an interesting—if unexpected—parallel about Trump’s and Hitler’s rise to power. One of the themes in a lot of the historical scholarship about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s is how Hitler and the Nazis were able to take advantage of the systemic weaknesses of Weimar: the cracks in the political structure, the division among elites, the fissures in the parties, the holes in the Constitution, and so on. What Johnston narrates, in almost nauseating detail, is how Trump’s ascension to wealth and fame and power—long before he makes his 2016 run for the presidency—is dependent […]