Sometime around Barack Obama’s inauguration as president in January 2009, the
ran this cartoon in their Talk of the Town section:
The image suggests the possibility—the necessity, really, given the economic calamities of 2008—that Obama’s presidency would usher in a renewal of New Deal-style governance, updated for the 21st Century. Obama was being offered up as a new kind of old Democrat, an unapologetic liberal who would reject the centrist triangulations of Carter and Clinton and embrace bold, transformative governance.
But that’s not quite what transpired. When it came to economic reforms specifically, the innately cautious Obama kept at arm’s length any Rooseveltian ambitions; he sought to recover the American economy, to reform some parts of it, but not wholly reimagine it in the way FDR did. Always wary of accusations of overreach, Obama picked and chose his battles, rather than aggressively pursue a grand, sweeping agenda.
That’s not to say Obama was insufficiently ambitious; for all his paeans to bipartisanship, he did in fact reject triangulation. But his belief in the powers of persuasion, and his persistent appeals for cooperation and good faith bargaining, were countered by an opposition that proved more interested in his failure than any shared success. Ironically, Obama’s effort to skirt conflict resulted only in bad faith, obstruction, and frustration.
Joe Biden, of course, was first-row witness to all of this. He was the one who famously termed the Affordable Care Act—the one truly Rooseveltian achievement of Obama’s presidency—a “big fucking deal.” But at the end of Obama’s two terms, many liberals, perhaps Biden among them, felt that there was too much left on the proverbial table.
It may be one of the central ironies of our times that it will be Joe Biden, and not Barack Obama, who proves to be the transformative Democratic president of the age.
If you’re interested in going deeper on the FDR moment Biden is leaning into, there have been a number of good pieces in recent weeks examining just that topic:
While millions of words have been spilled on the subject, I’ve often thought the politics of Americans under the age of 40 are fairly easy to comprehend. To understand the political leanings and orientations of Americans born after, say, 1980, simply survey some of the major historical and political events of their lives up to the present: there’s September 11, of course, and the subsequent rush to invade Iraq; the aforementioned financial crash of 2008; the ascendance of Barack Obama (strongly supported by this demographic) and the reactionary backlash of Donald Trump (strongly opposed); and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, and all that it entails.
The backdrop to all of this was a political orthodoxy that first triumphed in the 1980s, and became entrenched in the decade following; it has many names, but I like market fundamentalism. Simply summarized, market fundamentalism argues that capitalism bears the fruit of human freedom, and that therefore full freedom demands a global capitalism unfettered from the stifling restrictions of interventionist governments. This new consensus found expression in grand repudiations of activist government; indeed, among the defining political statements of the age were unequivocal denouncements of fundamental New Deal principles.4
That rhetoric was made real in policy, and the results were not as promised.5 In the decades since, inequality soared, and social mobility stagnated; the combined costs of higher education, childcare, healthcare, housing, and transportation are crushing. One place where market fundamentalism and corporate profiteering completely captured government was Texas, which recently suffered a predictable and calamitous failure in what should have a mild emergency.
Given what we’ve witnessed over the past few decades, it seems sensible—more logical than ideological— that many Americans who are now in their political maturity have arrived at the broad conclusion that government has both the responsibility and the capability to be of greater service to its citizens. As the Biden presidency steers the nation away from the orthodoxies of old, many young Americans are feeling more hopeful about the future than in years past. For all the pessimism of modern times, there’s real potential in that hope.
When it comes to questions of morality and ethics, some market fundamentalists will argue that the market is inherently good, or that personal values have no place in a competitive arena. One hears similar appeals to cynicism in political discourse. But give me any economic theorist, and I’ll show you a moral philosopher as well.
In his new book Value(s), and in his new position as UN Special Envoy on Climate Action, Canadian banker Mark Carney argues that we have cruelly and unnecessarily sacrificed our moral selves at the altar of profit, that people serve markets when it should be the other way around. Carney’s CV reads like an arch capitalist’s: Harvard and Oxford for economics, Goldman Sachs, head of the Bank of England. But, like Joe Biden, he’s a good example of a person guided by experience and circumstance, and not dogma. You can read the opening of Carney’s book here; it begins, appropriately, with some words from Pope Francis to a gathering of the world’s foremost economists and policymakers:
“Humanity is many things – passionate, curious, rational, altruistic, creative, self-interested. But the market is one thing: self-interest. The market is humanity distilled. . . Your job is to turn the grappa back into wine, to turn the market back into humanity.”
I’m reminded of what I wrote recently about political institutions being only as good as the people within them. I’d make the similar case for markets.
Internationally, the unfolding COVID tragedy in India exposes, according to the writer of the linked article, a “moral malnutrition” among the upper caste of that nation’s society:
Averting our gaze from the tragedies surrounding us, remaining divorced from reality, in our little bubbles, are political and moral choices. We have been willfully unaware of the ricketiness of our health-care system. The collective well-being of our nation depends on us showing solidarity with and compassion toward one another. No one is safe until everyone is.
Having recently received my vaccination, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which people interact with government, and how those interactions go a long way to shaping political realities. A person who feels that government is an impersonal, remote entity will view their society in a drastically different light than one who regularly encounters the supportive hand of a benevolent government. If your primary interaction with government is, say, paying federal income taxes once per year, or volatile encounters with armed police, then it’s inevitable you will feel (at best) estranged, and more likely, hostile, about government. But if ‘government’ means a vaccination shot administered during a pandemic, or student debt relief, or a tax credit that eases the financial stresses of raising a child, then you are less likely to feel estranged from that which is rightfully yours, a government that provides and protects, and, in general, acts in your best interest. It is no coincidence that citizens of the social democracies of Scandinavia and northern Europe consistently rank among the most contented and patriotic in the world.6
It will take years to have the proper perspective on The American Rescue Plan Act. To be sure, it is not sufficient on its own to repair the broken faith of good government in this country, but it represents the most significant piece of progressive legislation in my lifetime.
It’s been a while since I last published, but I did want to touch on Andrew Cuomo. If you have not already, read
Rebecca Traister’s masterful takedown of Andrew Cuomo in
. There’s the deep dive into Cuomo’s toxic environment, but that’s really only the surface-level text. More meaningfully, Traister frames all these personal transgressions and abuses as part of a larger failure of power and governance based not on service but on dominance. Traister makes a persuasive case that Cuomo and his inner circle’s pettiness, meanness, and performative toughness do not just victimize people within the insular world of New York politics, but that it masks poor governance, and thus has broad consequences for the entire public. In other words, being a bad person and being a bad governor are two sides of the same coin.
This passage of the piece describes the standard expectation of behavior in Cuomoworld (bolded text is mine):
This was how people in the administration were taught to behave, said Camonghne Felix. “You had to subjugate someone.” These are, of course, the strategies that reinforce capitalism and brutal political regimes: Authority is created and strengthened through the diminishment and depletion of others. Too often, those in power wind up spending more time performing muscularity than actually doing whatever it is they’re supposed to be dominant at doing. As Felix said, “The state gets trapped in this cyclical nonsense. You look up and see that nothing is getting done. And not only that: Things are getting broken.”
And because it’s too good not to include, this is Traister tying it all together towards the end of the piece:
For an awfully long time, we have accepted the indignities and mediocrity of brute white patriarchy as our only option, both because we couldn’t imagine better and because even the act of pointing out that it should be better felt futile. And so this kind of power could be petty, corrupt, threatening, skeezy; it could be handsy at weddings and harassing at the office; it could lie and cover up and be sent to jail and still it would be our norm and all we had to turn to in a storm, through a pandemic. We had to pin our hopes on it as a refuge from other, worse brutal white patriarchs. And so we learned to love it, to tune in to its daily briefings and allow its self-assuredness to wash over us.
Cuomo has so far eluded serious consequences, although one would think he’s finished in elected office whenever and however his governorship ends.
Incidentally, I recently screened an episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball for students as part of preparation for reading the play Fences. The episode begins with Mario Cuomo offering a baseball-as-life metaphor, which you can read and listen to here. I mentioned a while back that Biden’s convention speech reminded me of old style of politics that you don’t hear so much these days — East Coast, Catholic (Irish or Italian, most likely), at times terse and plain, at others poetic and aspirational. Mario Cuomo was an exemplar of this type and the proverbial apple falls quite far from that particular tree.
What I’m Watching: I’ve only seen the first episode, but the new documentary on PBS on the Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is an absolute must see. It’s also a tough watch, as it directly confronts the most painful injustices of the American criminal system, and offers a reality check to those of us who aspire to real change on just how difficult actually pursuing reform can be.
Speaking of just having seen the first episode, I’ve seen and enjoyed the first installment of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a new six-part documentary by filmmaker Adam Curtis. You can watch it on YouTube; it’s difficult to describe, as it’s very fragmented and scattered, but basically it’s one person’s attempt to make sense of the world as it is experienced in modern times. It reminds me of another famous BBC series, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing from 1972. At the opening of the first episode, this epigraph from anthropologist and anarchist activist (!) David Graeber appears:
The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it something we make. And could just as easily make differently.
While I wouldn’t describe myself as an anarchist, this statement strikes me as a good summation of what has emerged as the thesis of this blog over the past year.
I also just watched Season 1 of The Knick, the Cinemax series that originally ran from 2014-16. It’s a good companion piece to Gotham, the history of New York tome I’m nearly finished with. As I wrote about before, so much of New York City’s history was determined by sanitary and health conditions. That’s evident in The Knick, a very worthy New York story.
What I’m Listening To: I’m loving “The Rest Is History”, a history podcast hosted by British historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. In 45ish minute episodes, they take on topics and questions ranging from Communism to Pompeii to the meaning and purpose of history itself. The hosts have a wry and self-effacing rapport that makes each episode enjoyable. And they do not shy from finding contemporary relevance in their historical topics. The show is particularly good when you can hear the hosts discovering new ideas, and formulating positions on issues and events that they may not have previously articulated. In some recent episodes, Sandbrook found himself arguing that politics is culture war, and always has been, and always will be. He put that argument into writing here.
Bookmarked Tweet of the. . . last several weeks:
One final word: The Super League: Like millions of others, I was enthralled by the drama of the spectacularly failed launch of the European Super League. The whole sordid and bungled affair resonated not only because of the global popularity of European soccer, but also because it seemed to so perfectly embody the economic tensions of the 21st Century, much of which I mused on above. You had American private equity, Saudi and Russian oligarchs, and Spanish and Italian powerbrokers all conspiring to consolidate their power over a game that historically has been both working class7 and, with its structures of promotion and relegation, egalitarian.8 It all sounded so familiar: mega-rich clubs, often foolish and reckless spenders, often outclassed by smaller, smarter clubs in spite of enormous economic disparities, collude to impose a new top-down order on the game, in the process freeing themselves from any real consequences that might arise from actual competition. I was particularly bemused by the premise offered by these “super” clubs that the wealth accrued by the new league would somehow (you guessed it) trickle down to benefit even the smallest of clubs in the domestic leagues of the different footballing nations9. One could not help but be thrilled by how poorly it all came off, how every faction in the sport—players, managers, fans, media—came out violently against the proposal, and how within 48 hours you had humbled billionaires offering recorded statements of contrition. But real consequences for their transgressions? I wouldn’t bet on it. But at least we can all be sure that the emperors of the world’s most popular sport are in need of some new clothes.
I will once again posit that Lincoln’s observation “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me” is probably the wisest statement any political figure has ever made.
He also benefits from being white. Obama would never admit it, but I suspect he tacitly believed there were limits on just how bold and transformative the first Black president could be.
The unmissable historical parallel would be JFK and LBJ.
“The nine scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” (Reagan); “The era of big government is over” (Clinton); in England, Tony Blair distanced Labour from its more socialist origins.
A cynical person might say that the results were exactly as intended: a radical redistribution of wealth from the middling classes to the top. Whatever the intentions, this is what has happened.
“The evidence shows that people’s morale improves when the government acts,” say the World Happiness Report’s editors.
With England specifically, clubs are tied to towns and cities, and often neighborhoods within cities. Historically, cricket was the sport of the Empire, polo the sport of the aristocracy. But football belonged to working class ‘clubs,’ and players and fans today remain overwhelmingly working class.
In theory, anyway. The gap between the biggest clubs and the ordinary ones is extreme, and does need to be reformed.
Exactly how was left up to the imagination.