On my lunch break yesterday I read a few articles that I thought were exceptionally good, but it took until later in the day to understand what was so special about them.
The first, by Dylan Matthews, explains why he and many others were initially mistaken about the path inflation would follow after the pandemic. The second, by Lucas Mann, is a rarely heard perspective on the so-called crisis of free speech in elite universities.
Topics don’t overlap, so that’s not it. They’re both well-written, but that’s not quite it either. They are notable in that they both apply grounded pragmatism to topics that are typically approached dogmatically or polemically. They reflect the views that real people actually have. That, in itself, sets them apart from so much that is published.
Matthews’ play opens with a confession that his expectations for the economy turned out to be incorrect. Already, it is something; the experts generally do not admit a mistake. The rest of the play reads like a mystery story: why didn’t the usual predictors predict? It is an elegantly argued piece, offering a bit of the history of 20th century macroeconomic ideas in a readable and sensible way. He notes that the Phillips curve, which assumes a relatively direct swing between inflation and unemployment, broke significantly in the 1970s; with stagflation, both ends of the seesaw were high. That’s not how flip-flops work. Subsequently, the economy fell in love with the idea of the NAIRU, or Unaccelerated Inflationary Rate of Unemployment. Essentially, it is the minimum number of people who must be kept unemployed in order to prevent wage increases from driving up prices. The NAIRU was a variation of the Phillips curve, but with a breakpoint.
The main problems with her were twofold. First, certain levels of unemployment had to be maintained to make the economy work. In a “by your own boots” culture, this leads to some pretty inhumane actions. Second, he failed on his own terms. Unemployment rates have steadily fallen below a postulated NAIRU, and nothing has happened. Human sacrifices to a vengeful god are bad enough; human sacrifices to a false god are far worse. The NAIRU has offered nothing in return for the lives that have been ruined in its name.
I won’t spoil the ending beyond saying that it generally seems plausible to me. It rests on the recognition that a term like “unemployment” really serves as shorthand for “spending power,” but that the two terms have diverged during the pandemic. Add supply chain disruptions, a shift in consumption from services to goods, and (recently) a war that threatens to cause real damage, and things get – to use the technical term – bizarre.
The piece is strong in content, but the “I was wrong” framing makes it so much better. Besides being a question of inflation, it is also a question of humility. The economy is complicated. It is difficult to confidently proclaim future developments when information is partial and our theories are flawed. A certain epistemic humility can prevent certain types of disasters.
The second piece is an interpretation of the free speech panic in elite universities that occupies so much media coverage of higher education. The author, Lucas Mann, teaches at UMass Dartmouth, what we would usually call a regional campus. It should not be confused with Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire. UMass Dartmouth is a regional campus of the state university system. Like most non-elite colleges, it enrolls a significant number of first-generation and working-class students. As Mann said, sentences I wish I had written, “the trick is not to convince students to give up their dogmas. It’s convincing them that the things we’re talking about could matter in lives that are already complicated by so many other things. Yes. Exactly that.
I saw the same when I taught at places like Rutgers, Kean, DeVry and CCM. The students there didn’t need anything ‘problematized’, as they said. They needed things clarified. My role as an instructor was not so much to poke holes in prideful statements as to help students feel as if they had the right and the position to speak in the first place. That’s probably not much of a problem at Harvard, but it is in many other places. And those other places vastly outnumber the Harvards of the world, though you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage. The issue of free speech in most colleges is not a nest of stubborn ideologues hurling invective at each other. It is the students who think that it is not worth developing points of view on public issues, because their opinions will not matter anyway. Speaking as someone who believes in and teaches theories of democracy is the greatest danger.
Mann’s piece, like Matthews’, provides a grounded context in which the usual battle lines seem slightly ridiculous. In other words, it has the sound of truth.
I am very aware of being only one writer, and an imperfect one to boot. But to the extent that I can help push the discourse away from hothouse polemics and into pieces that are more recognizable based on lived reality, I’m happy to try. Kudos to Matthews and Mann for doing something rare that shouldn’t be rare at all. Well done.