Skip to content

Mail Time!

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Mail Time!

Hey all. Going to be away from this till December, but here's a Mail Time post to tide you over. As always, send any and all questions to Let's hop to it.

From Daniel:

I don’t have much substantial to say except that you consistently challenge me to think through the economic/cultural/political intersections in a lot of interesting directions. I’m a classic free market neoliberal shill (economics professor of course), but thankfully young (or contrary?) enough to have avoided infection with dumb WSJ brain (unlike most of the folks who taught me). So your perspective and insight really open up some new thought avenues for me.

I guess I didn’t mean to I ask for anything, but it occurs to me that I’m teaching a senior seminar with a series of one econ/finance paper per week this spring. Are there any papers or articles that come to mind that I should include? We have a bunch of econ majors for whom econ intellectual diversity runs the gamut from Greg Mankiw to like… Rothbard or Nozick. Is there anything you wish that kind of person could read? NBD either way - I’m not trying to get you to do my job for me!

A very, very good question. I went to policy school as a garden variety center-left liberal, and beyond stuff like Card & Krueger on the minimum wage – which I'm sure you already have thoughts about – I remember the literature on unconditional cash transfers and basic income nudging me further leftward a good bit. I don't remember what I was reading specfically, but this was back in 2015-2016, and there's been an explosion of journalism and writing for general audiences on the subject since then, obviously. I think you'd do a better job of trawling the journals for the very latest peer-reviewed research here than I would, but one recent experiment you might look at was conducted in Stockton, California. 125 people were given $500 a month, no strings attached. And researchers found, among other benefits, that those who received the money took on full-time jobs at more than twice the rate of a control group in the experiment's first year. Food for thought.

Right now, I'm reading a lot of research on labor rights, workplace democracy, and worker ownership for my book. It tends to be less technically involved than microecon on wages and income, so I'm not sure how interesting or useful it would be for the purposes of your class. But I really do believe that ideas like codetermination and worker ownership funds are on the next frontier of progressive policy discourse in this country, and you should get your students in on the ground floor of those debates. The Journal of Law and Political Economy just put out a special issue on power in the workplace; the papers in it frame some of the ideas I've been thinking through really well. "If You Don’t Like Your Job, Can You Always Quit? Pervasive Monopsony Power and Freedom in the Labor Market" might be a particularly good fit for your class; "Codetermination and Power in the Workplace" is a solid intro to that policy. Elsewhere, I'd also recommend "The potential benefits of employee equity funds in the United States." I'm very interested in hearing what your students think about whatever you choose, if anything.

Next: A little while ago, I wrote a brief thread on Twitter critiquing a column by Ross Douthat that argued, among other things, that liberals and the Democratic Party have flip-flopped on their support for our governing institutions and the executive state in the Trump era. Here's Douthat for context:

One of the master keys to understanding our era is seeing all the ways in which conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses. The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s — skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid — while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. The online right likes transgression for its own sake, while cultural progressivism dabbles in censorship and worries that the First Amendment goes too far. Trumpian conservatism flirts with postmodernism and channels Michel Foucault; its progressive rivals are institutionalist, moralistic, confident in official narratives and establishment credentials.

There's a lot to engage with here, but the particular point I made on Twitter is that Douthat overstates the extent to which mainstream liberals – which, like other conservatives, he refers to as "The Left" –  stood against institutions in the past. A narrow faction of genuinely left-wing activists and provocateurs hated The Man during the Cold War and rightfully so. But most liberal voters and Democratic politicians emphatically did not.

After writing that, I received an email from a reader who I believe would like to remain anonymous:

If you're up for it, I'd like to hear your own normative take on this twitter thread of yours. In other words, yes of course there has been an institutionalist side to the left-of-center, but is the current support for institutions among many American liberals good? I think it's fair for Douthat to wonder about how many people in American liberalism embraced Mueller time, after there was widespread liberal understanding that (to pick an example) the FBI tried to get Martin Luther King to kill himself. Tip O'Neill never understood the institutions of American domestic surveillance as a privacy nightmare, it's true. But a lot of American progressives did, until they didn't. And that's the point of the critique, and the question for the American liberal project going forward - should liberals just yaw constantly from disrespect and distrust of institutions to endorsing them, depending on who's in the White House?

Here's the response I emailed back:

As I wrote in that thread, I do think terminology matters here, if only to maintain some clarity as to exactly who or what we're talking about. I'm as guilty as anyone else of using "progressive" very loosely, but I think it really does meaningfully confuse things in this case. I think Douthat is trying to suggest Twitter social justice activists and, like, Laurence Tribe share a coherent perspective on American institutions now that differs from a shared perspective they or their analogues would have had in the past; I just don't think that's true at all. Left of center in American politics, I think we have – and maybe have always had – a very small band of outright leftists who are generally skeptical of institutions, a larger, more amorphous group of progressives to their right, and a much, much larger group of increasingly liberal Democratic partisans that dwarfs the other two. You might find some flip floppers among leftists and progressives, sure, but I think the group of real interest here – because they've been pushing the institutionalist line more loudly and consistently than the other factions in the post-Trump era, because they're the largest and most representative of the left of center for the purposes of macroanalyzing What's Going On in American politics right now – is the Democratic partisans. The Maddow watchers, the Mueller Time people, etc. They're older, they're relatively well off, and they're Very Concerned about what they heard on NPR this morning.

Again, I think that constituency has always been largely supportive of American institutions. When I wrote, in response to a reply to Douthat, that they would have been Cold War liberals 40-50 years ago, someone else reminded me – given the age of, like, the median MSNBC viewer – that many actually were. But there have been points where their support for institutions has seemingly wavered – the 70s, as I mentioned, the Bush era, etc. Even in those periods, though – and I concede you probably remember the Bush years much better than I do – I don't know that they moved seriously into anti-institutionalism. Partisan Democrats were upset about wiretapping under Bush, but I don't think that motivated real and durable opposition among most to the national security state in itself; most Democratic politicians went out of their way to avoid giving the electorate that impression. There were critiques of specific ethical and legal lapses and, yes, Democrats did convince themselves that the executive branch would be more trustworthy if Democrats were running it. But whatever we might think about that stance as a matter of substance, I don't think it's a point of ideological inconsistency. "We'd be better off if guys with our values, views, and commitments were running the Justice Department, and I'd be willing to trust them with more power if they did" seems to me like both a coherent stance and the one most Democrats have generally adopted under Republicans, for better or for worse. Now that their guys do, they like it more.

Normatively, is trust in the underlying institutions – the respect for them that I'd argue mostly survives among Democrats even when they lose – good? Blind trust is never good and I think mainstream Democrats are overly reverential about practically everything. But we need laws and means of enforcing them; I think there are political norms we violate at our peril. When they or our laws are violated, I think that the public is owed at least a real effort at ethical justification that we might debate and think about after the fact. Trump and his crew lie instead. None of what he's been impeached or investigated for can be plausibly defended; he thinks mounting a plausible defense of his actions is beneath him because he fundamentally doesn't believe in or care about democracy. So I strongly supported Trump's impeachment and I think he should be prosecuted now. It is terrible that the FBI tried to get MLK to kill himself. I do not believe those are adequate grounds for establishing that federal law enforcement agencies shouldn't go after politicians for violations of criminal law. I'm writing a book about abolishing the Constitution, yes, but I envision the transition as a gradual process – between here and there we have to deconstruct the infrastructure we have thoughtfully because it's the only thing holding the country together.

All of that said, I think and have written for years now that Democrats are insufficiently skeptical of institutions in themselves and that their faith in the capacity of institutions to resolve what are fundamentally political questions is naive. You cannot prosecute and sanction your way out of the task of political contestation; beyond thinking impeachment was the right thing to do, I also thought, more importantly, that the impeachments presented opportunities for Democrats to craft a broad and damaging narrative about the GOP and the conservative movement as a whole. They didn't do that, and it's a shame.

That's all I've got, folks. I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

A Song

"Thanksgiving Theme" – Vince Guaraldi Trio (1973).

I'll be celebrating the late Charles Schulz's 100th this week and for the rest of the holiday season. I hope you will too. Bye.