Category Archives: Books

What Is This White House Burning?

By James Kwak

Loyal blog readers have surely noticed the new left-hand sidebar of the blog and may be wondering what this “White House Burning” thing is about. I wanted to give you a bit more background than the jacket flap copy you can read elsewhere.

You don’t have to know a lot of American history to know that the War of 1812 began two hundred years ago. Yet I doubt there will be much celebration, since it’s not a war we’re particularly proud of, like World War II, nor is it one that is particularly controversial, like Vietnam. Its most famous moment is perhaps the burning of Washington in August 1814, although it also gave us the phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours” (Commander Perry, Battle of Lake Erie), the words to the national anthem, and the political career of Andrew Jackson, victor at the Battle of New Orleans.

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State of Nature

By James Kwak

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, some of which I’ve mentioned here: The Submerged State by Suzanne Mettler, Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (finally) by David Landes, Exorbitant Privilege by Barry Eichengreen, and a pile of books on the national debt and deficit politics. (Despite moonlighting as a blogger, I find books more satisfying than the constant stream of newspapers, magazines, and blogs.) But my favorite book I’ve read in a while is Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by the historian Richard White.*

For some people, most notably Rick Perry but also much of the conservative base, the late nineteenth century was the golden age: of the gold standard, no income tax, senators elected by state legislatures, and, most importantly, little to no government “regulation” of business. White shows what that world was really like.

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What Government Aid?

By James Kwak

Earlier this year I wrote about a paper by Suzanne Mettler that included a survey showing that a large proportion of beneficiaries of government programs insist that they have never been beneficiaries of any “government social programs”—60 percent for the mortgage interest deduction and 44 percent for Social Security retirement benefits, for example. This provides ample evidence that “keep your government hands off my Medicare” is not a fringe opinion.

Recently, I read Mettler’s book, and there’s more to the story. One of her arguments is that hiding government programs in the tax code undermines the democratic system because it obscures the role that government plays in society. There were two quantitative examples I thought were particularly revealing.

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The Smugness of Unintended Consequences

By James Kwak

After my post on Corey Robin’s new book, a friend recommended Albert O. Hirschman’s Rhetoric of Reaction. As the title suggests, the book is about the rhetorical style of conservative thought dating back to Burke. Hirschman identifies three common tropes: perversity (that great-sounding progressive idea you have will have the opposite of its intended effect), futility (that great-sounding progressive idea won’t change anything, because you don’t understand the fundamental laws of the world), and jeopardy (that great-sounding progressive idea will destroy some other thing that we all agree is valuable, making everyone worse off in the end). Hirschman doesn’t dwell on this specific point, but it’s obvious that, similar to the argument Robin makes, these rhetorical devices can only exist in opposition to some progressive reform movement.

I thought the description of the contemporary form of the perversity thesis (e.g., welfare programs create poverty) was especially good. “Here the failure of foresight of ordinary human actors is well-nigh total as their actions are shown to produce precisely the opposite of what was intended; the social scientists analyzing the perverse effect, on the other hand, experience a great feeling of superiority—and revel in it” (Belknap Press, 1991, p. 36). This seems to me an accurate description of why the Economics 101 ideology is so powerful. People get a sense of superiority from owning counter-intuitive theoretical insights—even if those insights are wrong.

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Edmund Burke and American Conservatism

By James Kwak

It has become a truism that modern American conservatism is revolutionary in the sense that it seeks to overturn the established order rather than to preserve it. “Reagan Revolution,” “Tea Party”—the very names for the movement announce that is about more than defending the status quo. In the conservative worldview, America (or “Washington,” or the “mainstream media,” or some other powerful stratum) is dominated by a liberal-intellectual-academic-bureaucratic-socialist-internationalist (pick two or more) elite that must be overthrown. So in at least a mythical sense, conservatism is about restoration, which is something very different from “conserving” what exists today.

When did this happen? According to one view of the world, to which I have been partial in the past, there was once an ideology called conservatism that really was conservative in the narrow sense: that is, it counseled maintaining existing institutions on the grounds that radical change was dangerous. The Rights of Man and the Citizen may be great, but soon enough you have the Committee of Public Safety and the guillotine. On this reading of history, conservatism became radical sometime after World War Two, when it gave up accommodation with the New Deal in favor of rolling the whole thing back, ideally all the way through the Sixteenth Amendment.

In The Reactionary Mind,* however, Corey Robin has a different take: conservatism, all the way back to Edmund Burke, has always been about counterrevolution, motivated by the success of left-wing radicals and consciously copying their tactics in an attempt to seize power back from them. Conservative thinkers were always conscious of the nature of modern politics, which required mobilization of the masses long before Nixon’s silent majority or contemporary Tea Party populism. The challenge is “to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses” (p. 43). And the way to do that is to strengthen and defend privilege and hierarchy within all the sub-units of society (master over slave, husband over wife, employer over worker).

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Happy Constitution Day

By James Kwak

(Actually, it was on Saturday.) I just read Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (W.W. Norton, 2009), by Kim Phillips-Fein. It’s a history of the resistance from the business community to the New Deal and how it gave birth to at least one major strand of the modern conservative movement. One of Phillips-Fein’s major points is that the conservative movement is not just a reaction to the civil rights movement, the 1960s, and the women’s liberation movement (and Roe v. Wade). Those trends gave the conservative movement more energy and support, but business leaders had for decades been trying to build an intellectual and political movement that could reverse the New Deal. And while some of them talked about Christian values, what they really cared about were breaking unions and lower taxes.

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My Christmas Present

By James Kwak

For Christmas, Simon gave me a copy of Why the West Rules — For Now, by Ian Morris. I thought it was an amusing but flawed book and put it back on my shelf, but yesterday a friend told me that everyone was talking about the book and I should say what I thought about it. So here goes. (And bear in mind that I do have a Ph.D. in history — though no one has a Ph.D. in all of the history that Morris covers.)

First of all, it’s a fun read. It isn’t particularly engaging, and the narrative is pretty weak (not the author’s fault — it’s just that the history of all of human civilization just doesn’t make for a great story), but it’s filled with interesting historical facts and fills in all those gaps in your knowledge of ancient history. My knowledge of ancient history was mainly gaps, so it was news to me that Western civilization began not in Mesopotamia, as I was taught thirty years ago, but in the “Hilly Flanks” — an arc that runs mainly through Western Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and the Iraq-Iran border.

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