On my lunch break yesterday, I came across a few items that seemed unusually good to me, but it took me later in the day to figure out what’s so special about them.
The first, by Dylan Matthews, explains why he and many others initially misjudged the path inflation would take once the pandemic hit. The second, by Lucas Mann, is a rarely heard perspective on the so-called free speech crisis at elite universities.
The themes don’t overlap, so that’s not it. They’re both well written, but that’s not quite it either. What sets them apart is that they both apply a down-to-earth pragmatism to issues that are usually treated either dogmatically or polemically. They reflect perspectives that real people actually have. That alone sets them apart from so much that is published.
Matthews’ article begins by admitting that his expectations for the economy have been proven wrong. That’s something; Experts don’t usually admit mistakes. The rest of the play reads like a whodunit: why didn’t the usual predictors predict? It is an elegantly argued article that offers, in a readable and sensible way, part of the history of 20th century macroeconomic ideas. He notes that the Phillips curve, which assumes a relatively direct interplay between inflation and unemployment, largely broke in the 1970s; with stagflation, both ends of the seesaw were high. That’s not how seesaws work. Economics then fell in love with the idea of the NAIRU, or the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment. Basically, it’s about the minimum number of people that must be kept out of work to prevent wage increases from driving up prices. The NAIRU was a variation of the Phillips curve but with a predetermined breaking point.
The main problems with this were twofold. First, it was necessary to maintain a certain level of unemployment for the economy to function. In a “by your own bootstraps” culture, this leads to some pretty inhuman acts. Second, it failed on its own terms. Unemployment rates routinely fell below a postulated NAIRU and nothing happened. Human sacrifices to a vengeful god are bad enough; Human sacrifices to a false god are all the worse. The NAIRU offered nothing in return for the lives ruined in its name.
I won’t spoil the ending other than to say that it strikes me as mostly plausible. It is based on the recognition that a term like “unemployment” actually serves as an abbreviation for “spending power”, but that the two terms differed during the pandemic. Add supply chain disruptions, a shift in consumption from services to goods, and (recently) a war threatening real damage, and things get – to use the technical term – weird.
The piece is strong in content, but the “I was wrong” framing makes it so much better. It’s not just about inflation, it’s also about humility. The economy is complicated. It is difficult to speak confidently about future developments when information is incomplete and our theories imperfect. A certain epistemic humility can prevent certain types of disasters.
The second track is an interpretation of the free speech panic at elite universities that has received so much coverage in the university press. The author, Lucas Mann, teaches what we would normally call a regional campus at UMass Dartmouth. It is not to 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 has a significant enrollment of first-generation and working-class students. As Mann put it, sentences I would have liked to have written: “The trick isn’t to convince students to drop their dogmas. It convinces them that the things we’re talking about could matter in a life that’s already complicated by many other things.” Yes. Exactly.
I’ve seen the same thing teaching at places like Rutgers, Kean, DeVry and CCM. The students there didn’t need anything “problematized” as we used to say. They needed clarification. My role as an instructor was not so much to poke holes in overbearing statements as to help the students feel they even had the right and position to speak. That’s probably not a big issue at Harvard, but it’s in a lot of other places. And these other places are vastly superior to the Harvards of the world, even if you wouldn’t know it from press coverage. The issue of free speech in most colleges is not a moshpit of aloof ideologues hurling abuse at one another. It’s students who feel it’s not worth developing views on public issues because their opinions don’t matter anyway. Speaking as someone who believes in and teaches theories of democracy is a much greater danger.
Mann’s play, like Matthews’s, offers a well-founded context in which the usual battle lines seem slightly ridiculous. In other words, it rings true.
I am very aware that I am only an author, and an imperfect one at that. But to the extent that I can help move the discourse away from the polemics in the greenhouse and towards plays that are more recognisably based on lived reality, I’m happy to try. Kudos to Matthews and Mann for something rare that shouldn’t be rare at all. Well done.