DeLongToday 2020-10-16: Contemporary American Political Economy Through a Polanyian Lens
Today is a “history and political economy” day. I will present a framework for thinking about at least some of our current problems here in America. I am not sure this framework is right, or the most useful. But I do think it is definitely a candidate for those, and is definitely worth thinking about.
I am organizing today’s briefing in three parts, each part answering a question.
The first question is: The past hundred and fifty years or so has been progressive, in a material well-being sense, for humanity to a degree that is unprecedented, and would have struck all of our ancestors as astonishing. Why, then, are not people happier?
The answer I will give is that of the Austro-Hungarian-Jewish-American sociologist Karl Polanyi: that people care most not about things but their rights, and that the market-economic system that we have constructed offends what people regard as their rights in several deep senses. But that offense can be forgiven as long as material income growth is rapid enough and broad-based enough—equitable enough—to distract.
The second question is: Why isn’t this election a blowout, given that Trump has accomplished basically zero of what he ran on, and has offended and embarrassed more people than I would have thought possible?
The answer I will give is a Polanyian one: to some degree, under Trump the economy has in fact delivered material income growth rapid enough and broad-based enough, and to some degree, while Trump has not vindicated what his base regards as their Polanyian rights, he does acknowledge them—his base’s rights both to equality and to inequality.
The third question is: If Trump is defeated then things go back to normal, right?
The answer is no, they will not. First, there is a good chance that a McConnell-McCarthy Republican legislative caucus will do what the McConnell-Ryan, McConnell-Boehner, and Dole-Gingrich Republican legislative caucuses did to Obama and Clinton: try as hard as they can to make the Democratic president appear to be a failure, and if doing so requires that they make the country fail so be it—they think they can pick up the pieces after they retake power. Second, even if normal pre-Gingrich coalition-assembly politics resumes, the American political system is not set up to vindicate what I call people’s Polanyian rights, and is set up to draw maximum attention to those perceived rights that are being most violated.
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