Monday, February 19, 2024

Carpe Narrativium

President Lincoln with a serving of Salmon P.  Chase. "Tod" is a reference to Ohio governor David Tod, who declined Lincoln's invitation to take over from Chase as treasury secretary. Not finding a decent credit or even a damned date, but guessing 1864. 

Happy Presidents Day (Benjamin Dreyer says no apostrophe) to those who observe it, which my radio station did this morning by asking listeners to report whether they'd ever voted enthusiastically for rather than against a candidate in a presidential election, with a sense of excitement and hope. The response was overwhelmingly Democratic, which is a bit unusual on this show for this kind of topic, I thought, and mostly oriented to charisma, as you might expect, with references to John (and Robert Sr.) Kennedy and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, with a McGovern here and a Sanders there, and even a sweet warm tribute to Biden from a woman with Irish affiliations. But no McCain on the one hand or Trump on the other representing the love languages of Republicans. Perhaps it was hard for the Trumpies to make sense of the question, since what they love about their candidate is so tightly tied to the hatreds they believe he shares with them.

I kind of would have wanted to call in myself, or at least send in a text, just to illustrate for the public how it's possible to get emotional over an idea as opposed to an aura, and might well have tried, but I was in the shower. I was particularly stimulated because of the show's previous segment, an interview with the Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeyns, on her newly published book, Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth, which is just what it sounds like, an argument in favor of capping the amount of money an individual can control, like no billionaires, or Plato's proposal in The Laws that no citizen should be more than four times as wealthy as the poorest ones, although that turns out to be a bit spoiled in the details, as in his plan for a Cretan city to be called Magnesia, where every family will be granted an equal plot of land:

Two-thirds of the annual harvest of the land lot will be reserved for the members of the family and their slaves, and one-third is subject to compulsory sale to alien residents, that is, the metics, and foreign visitors. The reason for this regulation of distribution of the annual harvest is the fact that in Plato’s Cretan city the citizens are not allowed to work in any kind of profession of paid labour, which has to be done by metics. And as by the principle of ideopragy [sic: should be "idiopragy" meaning an extremely restrictive version of everybody sticking to their own thing] the citizens of Magnesia are not allowed to have more than one profession, that is, as farmers on their lots, they cannot become craftsmen or traders on the markets at the same time.

Yes, they've got non-citizens—slaves, and migrants (metoiki) as well—to whom the inequality rules don't apply. (By way of comparison, in the equally idealized Hebrew communities of Deuteronomy, migrants will be subsidized along with widows and orphans out of the taxes collected from landowners by the Levite priesthood/bureaucracy.)

Anyway, that, in point of fact, is what I'd have liked to have talked to old Brian about, as a bit of a limitarian myself, ever since the Occupy movement of 2011 followed by the appearance of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013-14. That was a big deal, though hardly anybody seems to want to talk about it any more except for a few economists. 

Nobody mentioned Piketty's name or the Occupy protests on the radio today (though Piketty has written a very nice blurb for Robeyns's book, as has our Substack friend John Quiggin, to whose blog Crooked Timber Robeyns has contributed), but the moment was colossal for me, and I waited a long time for a politician to start addressing it. That was Elizabeth Warren, who I voted for in the 2020 primary. Biden's plans in the campaign didn't talk much about the theory, but matched it in practical terms: he was calling for hikes in income, capital gains, and payroll taxes on individuals with incomes over $400,000, plus increases in corporate tax, to raise $3.3 trillion over the coming decade; and increases in the generosity of the Child Tax Credit and Dependent Tax Credit, at least for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, as a way of directly redistributing income from high to low. The latter would see incomes rise by 10.8% for the bottom fifth and 3.6% for the next fifth in 2021, while incomes for the top 99th percentile would fall by 11.3%. That's what I'm talking about! And that's why I was excited about voting for Biden. 

And of course other things, like his straightforward condemnation of the Trump administration's handling of the George Floyd protests—

“Look, the presidency is a big job. Nobody will get everything right. And I won’t either. But I promise you this. I won’t traffic in fear and division,” Biden said. “I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country – not use them for political gain.”

and of their catastrophic mistakes on the Covid crisis

As COVID-19 swept across our country, Trump bungled testing, leaving us with persistent shortages and delays even now. And, Trump inexcusably failed to get protective equipment to the heroes on the front lines of this fight, opting to side with corporate lobbyists instead of heeding Vice President Biden's call to fully invoke the Defense Production Act to mobilize our economy to fight the virus.... Even after months of abject failure on COVID-19, Trump still refuses to take the threat seriously, repeatedly claiming that it will simply "disappear" even as he and his allies attack public health officials and undermine the basic measures we need to control the virus.

    But every decent Democrat would have managed those things; it was the tax ideas that really got to me. I thought he was by far the most radical presidential candidate I'd ever seen with a chance of winning.

    And they weren't just campaign promises, either; after the election, as the incoming administration began preparing its 2021 agenda, they worked closely with Warren and her Pikettyan advisers Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman to craft a plan of even greater scope, the original "Build Back Better". Not that Biden could have brought it to reality, with the obdurate senators Sinema and Manchin determined to prevent it, but it was such an inspiring list of ideas, and he really did get a good deal of it done, as I've been arguing all over the place. 

    And just today, surfacing at Brad DeLong's site, some extremely convincing evidence of how it's been working so far to decrease economic inequality:

    The chart from a recent post by Arindrajat Dube at Project Syndicate, "Credit Bidenomics For Rising US Wages".

    It's not a lot, but it's real. The first time since the 1960s that real wage inequality in the US has declined over a substantial period. And that's why I'm eager to vote for him again, too.

    Which is in turn why I keep harping, if you'll forgive me, on the Biden-is-old frenzy. I'm just this side of seeing it as a conspiracy:

    Shitheads like Cenk Uygur too, for that matter. Is this whole thing a trick to replace Biden with an attractive, well-spoken, otherwise unimpeachably liberal tax-hater?

    Heather Cox Richardson, as it happens, celebrated Presidents Day with a piece on Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election year 1864, when he looked like he was in real trouble—no polling in those days, but there was a wide belief he was going to lose, not because he was too old, but because the war was going very badly, and the party's radical wing felt he was moving too cautiously, both on the prosecution of the war effort and the  were plotting to replace him with the treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase. He fought that challenge off in June, but another one was rising from those who thought Lincoln was too radical himself:

    Thurlow Weed, New York’s kingmaker, thought Lincoln was far too radical. Weed cared deeply about putting his own people into the well-paying customs positions available in New York City, and he was frequently angry that Lincoln appointed nominees favored by the more radical faction.

    That frustration went hand in hand with anger about policy. Weed was upset that the Republicans were remaking the government for ordinary Americans. The 1862 Homestead Act, which provided western land for a nominal fee to any American willing to settle it, was a thorn in his side. Until Congress passed that law, such land, taken from Indigenous tribes, would be sold to speculators for cash that went directly to the Treasury. Republicans believed that putting farmers on the land would enable them to pay the new national taxes Congress imposed, thus bringing in far more money to the Treasury for far longer than would selling to speculators, but Weed foresaw national bankruptcy. 

    Even more than financial policy, though, Weed was unhappy with Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which moved toward an end of human enslavement far too quickly for Weed.

    While the Union Democrats were converging on a still more conservative candidate, General George McLellan, whose supporters

    rejected the new, popular measures the national government had undertaken since 1861—the establishment of state colleges, the transcontinental railroad, the new national money, and the Homestead Act—insisting on “State rights.”

    Needless to say, Lincoln did win that election (partly by pulling in a Democrat as vice presidential candidate, Andrew Johnson, which now looks maybe like not such a great move), as the war finally turned around (people loved the state colleges and the railroad and the Homestead Act—the inflationary Greenback was not so popular). 

    Cox Richardson's apparent insinuation, that maybe Joe Biden might still pull it off, isn't outlandish. Inflation is under control, in spite of last week's blip. Russia is terrifying, with their murders and space nukes, and Trump can't stop offering them "whatever the hell they want". The threat of a national abortion ban at 16 weeks is real. There's a Do-Nothing Congress that makes the 1948 Republicans look normal. Infrastructure is nevertheless getting built, good jobs are still plentiful. There's been real reform on assault weapons and drug prices. Biden's conduct in Israel will look infinitely less awful if his bet pays off and his alliance with the hostage families defeats Netanyahu. Forgiven student loans add up to $37.7 billion and there's more to come. Trump will have at least one criminal conviction, hopefully two, before November. Kamala Harris gets more and more visible and she's looking great.

    Obviously it's not a sure thing, and obviously it's scary. Trumpism informed by the lessons they learned since the last round is a horrible danger. Maybe we should start organizing against the threat, to the civil service and the Justice Department. What Democrats should stop doing is pinning our hopes on a deus ex machina, or a miracle constitutional provision, or a savior out of the blue; we have to learn how to live with the situation that exists, and enjoy whatever advantages it offers. Biden's qualities as president, whatever the polls are saying, are among the advantages; he's really good at it. If voters aren't clear about that, tell them. Biden should tell them too, no doubt, and media should report it when he does. If they refuse because they'd rather concern troll, call them out! This garbage from Nate Silver shouldn't pass without criticism:

    Biden is doing whatever he can to seize the narrative, maybe it's not good enough, though I think the press ghosting him is a bigger problem than that. Don't throw up your hands in despair. Do whatever you can. Thus spake the poaster.

    Cross-posted at the Substack.

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