Was Ronald Reagan America’s Pinkerton? USC Bedrosian discussion of Reagen’s White House

Our policy wonks read Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw At the Revolution , and we sat down to discuss it a few weeks ago. On the resulting podcast are USC Bedrosian faculty, staff, and students: Raphael Bostic, Donnajean Ward, Matt Young, and me.

I listened to our discussion the other day and came to two conclusions: 1) I get very boisterous discussing books and 2) I have always rather thought of Reagen a lot like the Pinkerton character in Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton is not, per se, a bad man. He is very charming, and he is courtly in his affections for Butterfly. But he ruins her anyway because he’s not a careful man, nor is he a thoughtful man. Even at the end, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that coming back to Butterfly, new wife in hand, to take her boy away will take everything Butterfly loves and give her no reason to live. This isn’t a merely cross-cultural blindness on Pinkerton’s part. At some point, all that stops being the winsome charm of a simple, devil-may-care fellow and starts being an unforgivable obtuseness in his character about the way the world works and what other people need.

And that’s a little how I feel about the Reagan legacy. Conservatives revere him as this marvelous leader who emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous 1960s to ‘make America great again.’ If Trump’s slogan sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a constant drumbeat for conservatives. Conservatives are in thrall to imagined past that was simple, clear, and linear, and so much better than today, and we could have that again, if only we did things differently, and progressives are in thrall to an imagined future where things could be so much better than today, if only we do these other things differently.

Nonetheless, when I think of Reagan I think of a truly charismatic leader that, by “simplifying” the issues, led us to two legacies just as socially and economically disastrous as anything the 1960s might have wrought:

1) Americans shouldn’t have to pay taxes at the same time they should engage in lots of foreign policy brinkmanship and intervention; and

2) A dollar spent on a social investment in an American is a hand-out to a unproductive person, and, thus, that is a dollar wasted. Rather, if we all just pull together and smile enough, things like need will go away with jes’ a l’il o’ that American gumption and go-gettiness.

Those two led major influences that Reagan legitimized, even if he didn’t invent them, have led the US into crippling levels of unproductive spending and unwillingness to have any serious discussion about social investments at all.

The first impression has led us into one, very expensive foreign entanglement after another, which leads to the US taking on what have turned out to be unproductive spending in blood and treasure. The second influence led to decades where social policy discussions were either one-sidedly stupid or nonexistent, which led to conditions where the possibilities for health care expansion allowed older Americans and the health sector to benefit, while younger Americans got less and less investment, and while I certainly do not want elderly people to be impoverished or to suffer ill health, dollars spent at the end of life are not at all the same economic investment as those made in young people.

And we can’t discuss either of these issues without people running around like their fannies are fire and yelling “SOCIALISM SOCIALISM SOCIALISM FACISM ERMERGERD FACISM YOU ARE JUST LIKE NAZI GERMANS.”

Bostic, in leading the discussion, seemed to want to discuss management; I wanted to discuss policy, and we seesaw the discussion back and forth in the discussion. I agree entirely that Reagan was a wonderful leader who did a great job at many things as president. But I also abhor the policy influences of that leadership. Trump has said, again and again, that people do not care about policy. I clearly do. Which leads me to some questions:

1. Do people vote for individuals trusting that their character is fine, and if that character is in general what they want it to be (in Reagen’s case, seemingly friendly, fatherly, determined, decisive, old-fashioned, decent) is that enough to say that a leader did his job by being those things? Was it enough for Reagan to make people feel hopeful again and to make them love America? That itself can’t have been easy.

2. Or do people–should people–vote for parties based on platforms, even though few people seem to know what platforms are and what they are for, and even though presidential leadership may lead far from platforms?

3. Or should people realize that the individual leaders they see standing on the stage come with a whole host of people. The people running for office aren’t just individuals, they are organizations. In Reagan’s case, that nice old man came equipped a horde of Chicago School Friedman’s acolytes whose dogma was “taxes baaaaaaaaad, markets goooooood” and hawks who believed themselves above democratic scrutiny in the name of democratic security, willing to experiment with the Laffer idea and other trickle-down theories without ever–ever–revisiting their policy experiments for potential failures once we had empirical results on the tax cuts? Is he responsible for them because he gave them “grandpa” cover? I rather think so.

For more of my discussion of the problems with doubling down on Laffer

Ben Bernake’s speech and why planners should care

For a scholarly discipline that has produced some pretty amazing students of globalization (John Friedmann, for one), my discipline rather rigorously puts its head down and refuses to be pay attention to macro changes. For instance, American planners are still obviously focussed on sprawl even though it has, as an issue, lost tremendous salience. Yes, Americans still drive too much and suburbs are still bad, blah blah blah, but the markets that many planners have insisted don’t work properly eventually came around to discipline fringe and housing over-investment. The driving forces prompted planners and architects to become self-appointed sprawl tamers—and what made planning relevant to people who wanted their regions to stop growing during the housing expansion—are mostly gone, and don’t appear to be coming back any time soon.

Ben Bernake’s cautionary speech last week went largely unnoticed, and it shouldn’t have. Because his remarks carry all the hints about of a “recovery” that means major problems for the US, planning, and cities.

There are four reasons why we should be worried:

1) A growing share of US growth will continue to come from overseas, despite Obama’s export plan, at the expense of US employee income growth. That means continued globalization of US companies, and greater competition for US workers who aren’t served very well by their own education system.

2) The pendulum of power in the US has swung sharply from public to corporate, and that power means that problem #1 is not a problem for the people who are driving policy. Profits at the expense of income growth is just fine in that power balance because democratic discontent means little.

3) The emergence of two-tiered workforce means that while the US is adding jobs, it is doing so in such a way that median income will fall. (Not unlike the last “jobless recovery” we got to enjoy.)

So you know all that screaming about adjuncts in the academy and how wrong it is? Sure, it’s wrong, but it’s also par for the course in industries around the US where young workers are typically getting much, much lower starting wages and benefit packages than older workers were hired at.

4) Our balkanized politics offers us no way out soon

To wit; corporate profits have been soaring happily throughout most of the downtown while the US only just added enough jobs to keep people like me from tossing ourselves in front of buses.

Corporations are not people, as Mitt Romney pointed out in his chronic inability to not give a counter-productive sound bite (are he and Larry Summers twins and I’m not aware of it?). Corporations are institutions that already enjoyed extreme legal privilege prior the bailout precedent. They may employ people, but there is no reason to believe that what benefits capital also benefits labor in the distributive function of those organizations.

Planners should care about deepening inequality and a hollower state because they’re employed by the public sector both in public agencies and the consulting firms that cater to those agencies. So there’s the self-interest. The general case is: what does it mean for your profession when the rich don’t need you, or the amenities you advocate for (they can get their own, without public finance), and the poor can’t afford you?

The Berkeley Blog: Why it’s China’s turn to worry about manufacturing

Visiting prof Vivek Wadhwa suggests that robotics and AI will bring manufacturing back to the US:

Why it’s China’s turn to worry about manufacturing:

America has been extremely worried about the loss of manufacturing to China. Seduced by subsidies, cheap labor, lax regulations, and a rigged currency, American industry has made a beeline to China.

But the tide may soon turn.

New technologies will likely cause the same hollowing out of China’s manufacturing industry over the next two decades that the U.S experienced over the past twenty years. That’s right. America is destined to once again gain its supremacy in manufacturing, and it will soon be China’s turn to worry.

China’s largest hi-tech product manufacturer Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, made waves last August when it announced plans … More >

(Via The Berkeley Blog)

I’m pretty excited about our robot overlords coming soon…

Something intelligent on American saving behavior

Don’t know about the rest of the you, but I generally find that most pieces about American saving behavior full of empty assertions about how bad Americans are, like the writer is some Presbyterian minister rebuking sin using the same boring old tropes about American excess. This NPR story about Princeton’s Sheldon Garon strikes me–finally!–as something policy relevant. Go listen.

Richard Green’s testimony on how to work through foreclosures

My wonderful colleague, Richard Green, testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee. He’s convinced me, and I’ve been a bit dubious about bailing out homeowners (still: why didn’t we make the banks refinance when we were handing the banks money with TARP? I don’t get it). Here’s my favorite part of the testimony

There are those who argue that it was the attempt to advance
mortgage credit to minorities that led to our current condition—
I do not accept that argument. The loans that have performed
most poorly were originated by institutions that were not
covered by the Community Reinvestment Act or the Affordable
Housing Goals. Moreover, as Mr. Wallison himself once noted,
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not do a good job of advancing
credit to minorities or low-income neighborhoods. While this is
to their discredit, it undermines the argument that their
troubles arose because they made too many loans to underserved


The myth of the men-only recession and cutting budgets for growth

I was reading Bloomberg this morning, and the California jobs numbers are enough to make me take to the vermouth at 9 am. These jobs numbers are nothing less than disgusting.

55 percent of the state’s workers are employed. It’s heartbreaking.

Early on in the recession, I lost count of the the number of times I had to sit through my male colleagues discussing how “men are being especially hard hit” by the recession. I objected: we didn’t really know the relationship between gender and job loss because at the early stages of recessions (this was primarily in 2008 and somewhat later), you are likely to see predominately male job loss due to their prevalence in the workforce in construction–a leading indicator for a reason.

So as usual, I am right and they were wrong:

Job losses in local government, health care and other industries where women make up a large portion of the workforce contributed to the weak employment picture. Women have lost jobs in industries such as retail and financial services, while men in those fields gained.

“As businesses cut costs, the first thing to go is administrative support positions where women tend to work,” Anderson said.

Oh, and that whole idea that just by cutting government, you’ll create jobs jobs jobs? California has been cutting for three years and look where we are.