Check your credibility


Herein an odd recap of the New Left (circa 1968-72). The differences suggested between Lefts, ‘New’ and Newest are more superficial than real. Most of it has to do with the novel terminology one finds today, which I assume stems from arcane post-modernist academic discourse.

As in the olden days, characteristics of a tiny minority of the already tiny left tend to be attributed more widely than is justified. When you say New Left, a frequent association is to bombings by the Weatherpeople. This was a minority faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that became even smaller when they started running amuck in 1969. SDS actually had an extended sequence of different vintages of Left, starting in the early 1960s, ranging from old-fashioned democratic socialists inside the Democratic Party to a smorgasbord of assorted Marxist and anarchist factions. One such faction, the widely reviled Weatherpeople (a minority, in numbers), were responsible for some tragic deaths, including a few of their own people, though compared to the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Japanese Red Army (sic), Weather was a bunch of bratty teenagers.

Today you can find talk of “intersectionality,” “positionality” and privilege checking, but this too is a feature of a minority of a minority. Typically the setting for this discourse is not activism. It is the pastime of people who tweet. I’d be amazed to hear there were challenges of privilege checking at gatherings of Moral Monday in North Carolina. Or the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building. Or the sit-ins of the Dream Defenders in Florida. To quote an old old lefty, it’s a “hurricane in a drop of water.”

Much that is old has become new again. Intra-left racial exchanges today echo the split in the civil rights movement that launched Stokely Charmichael’s “black power” message and black nationalism more broadly. The original Black Panthers, with their interest in cross-racial coalition, actually did a lot to offset that divisiveness, until the cops shot them up.

Gender conflicts originally broke out as women’s groups started forming around 1969, if memory serves, in reaction to cloddish behavior and deficient analysis by radical men. (Men’s groups formed quickly after, but as a much less common activity. You couldn’t have dragged me to one at gunpoint.) Since then gender identification has gotten much more complex. So that’s one genuinely new thing that would have mystified a time-traveler from 1968.

Finally, class. The New Left was substantially middle-class or greater, though this tends to be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that there was parallel, connected agitation in the labor movement and among veterans. No less than today, the class issue provoked endless navel gazing, since the objects of New Left students’ organizing were racial minorities and/or the working class. Historically, the leaders of insurgencies often come from privileged backgrounds. How much time is it worth dwelling on this? I’d say not much. It’s old news. A fair amount of the self-examination focused on racial bias. I wouldn’t say that none of it was productive. It’s certainly not new.

How much of the problems with the left today are due to bias stemming from the racial, gender, or ethnic identities of its members? I would suggest for all practical purposes none, zero, nada, zilch. The left’s problem is that it is small. You might quickly note the left is also fragmented, not least by identity-connected concerns. I suggest that if the left was larger — if it had larger, all-inclusive organizations — the fragments would come together to advance their concerns, and legitimate concerns would be well-served. How to grow the Left? Damned if I know.

The masses are not abstaining from left politics because of identity bias within the left. Rather, a certain notion of identity in the white middle class or working class, particularly in the South, has become a pole of attraction that animates the GOP and a nasty assortment of neo-fascist groups that blow up buildings, shoot doctors, and assault people with dark skin. That is the principal identity problem in the U.S.

The recent Stephen Colbert brouhaha is instructive. What began as Colbert’s sortie against racism out in the world, through SC’s defense of native Americans against racist epithets, was preempted and transformed into a complaint about Colbert. That sort of intervention does not contribute to any plausible concept of progressive activism. It is at best a distraction, at worst a modern echo of COINTELPRO.


The thoroughly modern macroeconomics of Stephen D. Williamson (SDW), Part I

First in a series. I’m reading his intermediate macro textbook (fourth edition). Cost me ten bucks (including shipping). It is somewhat of a novelty among intermediate texts because he adheres to a “Real Business Cycle” (RBC) perspective. SDW blogs here. What is RBC? That’s the subject of this series. The eminent MIT professor Robert Solow describes it archly:

The preferred model has a single representative consumer optimizing over infinite time with perfect foresight or rational expectations, in an environment that realizes the resulting plans more or less flawlessly through perfectly competitive forward-looking markets for goods and labor, and perfectly flexible prices and wages.


To be fair, adherents to RBC would answer, our models get much more complicated than that; and they will, in time, provide more accurate predictions of the economy. Being able to predict is what ultimately matters anyhow.

The RBC folks can be a little sharp themselves. Here, for instance, the eminent Robert Barro contrasts his own “regular economics” with irregular Keynesian economics.

Here is RBC guru Edward Prescott, pulling rank:

I don’t know why Obama said all economists agree on [the need for a stimulus bill]. They don’t. If you go down to the third-tier schools, yes, but they’re not the people advancing the science…

And Prescott again:

It is an established scientific fact that monetary policy has had virtually no effect on output and employment in the U.S. since the formation of the Fed . . . 

I find the above a little breathtaking, purely in terms of arrogance. We’ll try  to get to the substance in this series. Full disclosure: I did well in my macro comprehensives in grad school, but that was in 1984. I’m trying to get up to date. After following DeLong and Krugman’s ongoing jihad against modern macroeconomcs’ “dark ages,” I thought it would be worthwhile to get the Full Monty “Real Business Cycle” (RBC) side of the story. As the quotes above should indicate, RBC is the mortal enemy of traditional Keynesian economics, and vice versa.

A few fun bits to get warmed up.

In the “Key Terms” section at the end of Chapter One, SDW defines the term “Keynesian” as “Describes macroeconomists who are followers of J.M. Keynes . . . ” By contrast, RBC theory is defined as “Initiated by Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott . . . ” So Keynesians are like children following a dead Pied Piper, RBC’s founders don’t have “followers.” They do the serious work.

On financial bubbles, or by SDW, “bubbles,” we get:

Some economists argue that the rapid increase in the price of housing up to 2006 was an asset price “bubble.”

By contrast:

Alternatively, according to the fundamental view, market prices of assets can always be explained (maybe through some hard thinking and research) by factors affecting supply and demand . . .

Get the difference, bubbleheads?

I’ll end by noting SDW’s principal exception to GDP as an indicator of well-being is its omission of household production, which is fine as far as it goes, though the failure to mention non-market environmental amenities up front is curious. As I said, we’re still in the throat-clearing phase of the book, so some suspension of judgment is called for.

Lastly, on unemployment, SDW lists four factors affecting it: aggregate economic activity, the structure of the population, government intervention, and sectoral shifts. The first one looks circular (As in “When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results.” — Calvin Coolidge), but as noted above this is an introductory chapter so we will withhold judgment. The RBC view of unemployment is kind of notorious. We will unpack it at our leisure.

Noah, treading water

The often interesting Noah Smith offers a dubious contrast of intellectual vibrancy of left vs. right. On the right we have the Yuval Levin/National Affairs crowd, who as others have observed enjoy little support from the raging id that is the Republican base. The “Reformicons” have been roundly bashed so there is no need in this post to dwell on their dubious ideas. On the left he offers Richard Florida, advocates of schemes to boost savings (like Richard Thaler, Univ of Chicago economist), and Cass Sunstein.

I’ll leave classifications of Florida (the man, not the nutcase of a state) to others. My friend Peter Dorman characterizes him as an advocate of European-style cities. Dorman notes that this does not jibe with Smith’s notion that his leftists have transcended the old ways of social-democracy.

I’m a little tickled that someone attuned to New Keynesian models is taken with savings schemes, since in that context no such scheme enlarges the saver’s lifetime budget set, though it might increase their well-being. I debated the asset builders some time back and basically made that point. You don’t increase incomes of the poor by persuading them to spend it later rather than sooner. As for Sunstein, he’s a deregulator. There could be something to say for all these worthies, but they are a poor sample of the American left.

Instead I would suggest those interested in what’s left to look into events such as this, and journals such as this. Or my blogroll. Noah, you need to get out more.