Anoþer, Somewhat Different Elevator Pitch for “Slouching Towards Utopia”, &
FIRST: Another, Somewhat Different Elevator Pitch for “Slouching Towards Utopia”
Coffee with the incredibly learned and witty Bob Reich, who says—about my book <https://www.amazon.com/Economic-History-Twentieth-Century/dp/0465019595/>:
Brilliant, important. A tour de force, DeLong grabs political-economic history and wrestles it to the ground. You may disagree (I don’t buy all of it) but you won’t be able to let go…
He also says, wisely, that, for my book, I need an elevator pitch that directly hooks into the societal-scale problems potential book-buyers will be worrying about come September, and that would resonate with Terry Gross (not that I am that likely to actually get on “Fresh Air”).
Here is another try:
Start with the metaphor of the economic pie, and with the society-scale problems of baking, slicing and tasting. First you have a bake a large-enough pie—a pie so that there is potentially enough for all. Then you have to slice the pie—so everyone gets their share. Then people have to taste the pie—use their material resources to live a good life—be healthy, safe, secure, and happy.
Before 1870 the human technological level and ability to harvest natural resources was low relative to our population. Humanity could not even bake a large-enough pie. After 1870 things changed. Advancing science, turned into technology by industrial research labs, deployed at scale by modern corporations, and then diffused throughout the world by that magnificent crowdsourcing mechanism that is the market economy solved the problem of baking what every previous era would have seen as enough. And—since they saw the baking as the hard problem—they would be very surprised to see that the problems of slicing and tasting have flummoxed us. They would expect us to live in utopia, as we manifestly do not.
My Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the 20th Century is about how we solved the problem of baking the pie—and how we fumbled the solution to the problems of slicing and tasting. That is its big narrative sweep, with lots of subthreads, digressions, and anecdotes along the way.
What happened? This, I think, my book has nailed. Letting the market economy rip to solve the problem of making enough had consequences. You see, the only rights the market economy recognizes are property rights; and the only gospel it preaches is "the market giveth; the market taketh away: blessed be the name of the market".
People will not, and did not, stand for that. They demand, instead: “the market was made for man; not man for the market”.
Perhaps humanity, came close to an institutional-societal setup to tackle the problems of slicing and tasting. Post-WWII "social democracy" in the rich countries was a good try. But social democracy failed its sustainability test: society may not know what "social justice" is, but it knows that it manifestly does not consist of giving benefits to and making life easy for those it calls "undeserving".
And so the wheel turned. Here we are. Our current situation: in the rich countries there is enough by any reasonable standard, and yet we are all unhappy, all earnestly seeking to discover who the enemies are who have somehow stolen our rich birthright and fed us unappetizing lentil stew instead.
What do we do next? This my book punts. That is for a younger generation than my failed one to decide. Global warming, ethno-national terrorism on all scales from the individual AR-15 to the Combined Arms Army, revived fascism, technokleptocracy—I quail.
As John Maynard Keynes wrote back in 1924: “[That] assumes... a plan exists.... [But] we lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas.... No one has a gospel. The next move is with the head...”
Now to try to compress this down…
I warned you that my principal concern until September would be with flogging the book, didn’t I?
Other elevator pitches at:
Danny Quah: ’The one where Frank Fukuyama came to the Lee Kuan Yew School and spoke brilliantly…. Video at <https://youtube.com/watch?v=twCTRIPSBlk&t=8s> <
Very Briefly Noted:
Timothy B. Lee: Joe Biden Has a Smart Plan to Tackle the Housing Shortage: ‘The Biden Administration aims to boost production of manufactured homes…. The federal government is going to start using financial incentives—specifically, Department of Transportation grants—to encourage local governments to reform their land use regulations…. The Biden Administration says it will encourage these companies to underwrite mortgages to purchase manufactured homes… <https://fullstackeconomics.com/joe-biden-has-a-smart-plan-to-tackle-the-housing-shortage/>
Garrett Anstreicher & al.: The Long-Run Impacts of Court-Ordered Desegregation: ’Exposure to desegregated schools resulted in better academic and economic outcomes for Black children in the US South, but that Black children in the North showed little benefit from comparable integration initiatives… <https://voxeu.org/article/long-run-impacts-court-ordered-desegregation>
Twitter & ‘Stack":
Matthew J. Brown: ’Sure, the Bayes-Laplace rule of succession has been a good guide to the probability of future events based on past evidence in the past. But will it continue to be a good guide in the future?…
Dan Pfeiffer: What the Media Keeps Getting Wrong About Trump: ‘The story in 2022 is the strength of Trumpism the movement not Trump the man…
This strikes me as an important insight, and one that I failed to grasp over the past 40 years and that led me to be too pessimistic in the past about China's growth possibilities. The distinction is between (1) that phase of development that can be "turnkey" (simply moving over blocks of industrial structure from elsewhere), (2) that part which requires knitting together a high middle income societal network division of labor, and (3) that part which requires exploration of new productive possibilities. You can spend money like water inefficiently on investment and still succeed in the first. But investment financed by debt needs to be efficiently targeted in the second in order to avoid an ultimate nasty debt crash. And in the third? For that you really need an open society and a taught market economy. Or so I think now. I could be wrong:
Michael Pettis: The Only Five Paths China’s Economy Can Follow: ‘China’s overdependence on investment by entities that operate under soft budget constraints hasn’t always resulted in a rising debt burden. China began its reform period in the late 1970s after five decades punctuated by the Second Sino-Japanese War, civil war, and Maoism, all of which left the country hugely underinvested in infrastructure, logistics, and manufacturing capacity for its level of social development. Until the mid–2000s, while the Chinese economy remained underinvested relative to the capacity of Chinese businesses and workers to absorb investment productively, most investment tended to be productive. Even with a substantial and rising amount of wasted investment, which showed up in the staggering amount of nonperforming loans in China’s banks that were cleaned up between 2000 and 2010, China’s high investment levels were nonetheless productive in the aggregate and resulted in rapid, sustainable growth. By 2006 to 2008, however, like every other country that has followed a similar high savings, high investment growth model—most notoriously the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, Brazil during those same decades, Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps a dozen other countries—China seemed to have closed the gap between its level of capital stock and the level that its workers and businesses could productively absorb, after which China’s debt burden began to rise rapidly…
The abstract argument for billionaires is that the alternatives to billionaires are fast talking likely grifters on the one hand and bureaucracies on the other, and that there are certain kinds of explorations of the possible societal entrepreneurial and organizational space that the latter to simply cannot attempt. Hence you need a mix. Billionaires those become the pioneers who wind up with arrows in their backs. That, however, does not say that you need many billionaires, and it does say that the billionaires you do need are those who are driven monomaniacs who will then bankrupt themselves, rather than prudent stewards and accumulators of wealth.
A more concrete argument for billionaires is that they have a lot of social power, and if any powerful group puts them in the bull's-eye, they will use that social power to try to hold what they have and so wreck the place:
Charlie Stross: The Impotence of the Long-Distance Trillionaire: ‘Are there any valid reasons to put up with billionaires?… Personal wealth has an upper bound beyond which the numbers are meaningless…. [Yet] they probably feel about as helpless in the face of revolutions, climate change, and economic upheaval as you and I… accustomed to having their every whim granted, merely for the asking… [but] they can’t insulate themselves from objective reality, although they can pretend it doesn’t exist and buy their very own luxury apocalypse bunker in New Zealand. So they’re likely to succumb to brutal cognitive dissonance at some point…. I can’t see any good reason to let any individual claim ownership over more than a billion dollars of assets—even $100M is pushing it. Can you?…
Swapping out Netflix for Microsoft is surely right. But I am not at all confident that the Faamgs will be back. The plague years may well have been their zenith:
Robert Armstrong: The Faangs Will Be Back: ‘the Faangs are now technically the Faamgs…. Netflix is a media company…. Microsoft’s multiyear re-emergence as a cloud computing power…. Why do the Faangs matter so much, and why should we be alert to a chance to buy them at a discount? To start with, they represent a fifth of the S&P 500, with a market capitalisation of $7tn. As they go, the market will (largely) go. Further, huge companies should be able to use their market position and abundant resources to defend their margins in tough periods such as the one we are sliding into now…
Not just a demagogue, in Rothbard’s view: a racist demagogue: African-Americans needed to be blamed, and cast as the enemies of the real people to be despised, degraded, and oppressed. For the people could only be united against the Establishment if there was an explicit enemy, and the Establishment was too nebulous to be a good enemy, in Rothbard’s view. And from Thiel’s perspective, since he is part of the Establishment making the Establishment as such the enemy of his movement is just too dangerous:
John Ganz: Letting the Beast Out: ‘In the early 1990s, the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard—a favorite of Thiel’s crony Curtis Yarvin and other techno-fascists—articulated his theory of “right-wing populism:” “The basic right-wing populist insight is that we live in a statist country and a statist world dominated by… Big Government, Big Business, and various influential special interest groups. More specifically, the old America of individual liberty, private property, and minimal government has been replaced by a coalition of… Old Money financial elites (e.g. the Rockefellers, the Trilateralists); and the New Class of technocrats and intellectuals, including Ivy League academics and media elites…”. Rothbard… a demagogue a la Joe McCarthy or David Duke was needed to shock and “short-circuit” the system…. Trump’s appeal to the “working class” is precisely a form of cultural politics in the same way. He usefully divides “the real workers,” based on the old idealized 20the century image of the working class, from the “underclass” and their allies in the “professional-managerial class…
I think that the very sharp BWW's view is clouded by his referring to Republicans as being for or against Trump. It is no longer about Trump. It is about Herrenvolk non-democracy:
Benjamin Wallace-Wells: The Strange Post-Trump Politics of the Pennsylvania Republican Primaries | The New Yorker: ‘I asked Costello, who is forty-five and had been widely discussed as a potential candidate for Senate or governor, whether there was still a path for an anti-Trump Republican. “When I looked at the race, that was my thesis,” Costello said. “And I think it will hold true.” But it was hard to ignore that Costello, as well-positioned as anyone in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, had decided not to run in 2022.…