The Discourse Report: April 12, 2021

Joe Biden and FDR, how money became a very weird thing, vaccine resistance is not what you think, and more

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Joe Biden and FDR

  • Jonathan Alter, who wrote a book about FDR’s legendary first 100 days, wonders in a piece today for The New York Times if Joe Biden can be “our FDR.” Both presidents recognized early, Alter writes, that a particular economic orthodoxy could no longer work—FDR had to whisk us away from pure laissez-faire-ism, and Biden is now taking us far away from Reaganomics. Alter contends Build Back Better can be like FDR’s New Deal; in an important sense, the New Deal prerogatives of “relief,” “recovery,” and “reform” are in play in Biden’s jobs and infrastructure agenda.

  • Sizing up Joe Biden’s surprisingly ambitious policy agenda has been a theme on the Times opinion page recently. Last week, Ezra Klein offered “Four Ways of Looking at the Radicalism of Joe Biden.”

  • I called Biden’s legislative ambitions “surprising” just now, but a lot of us aren’t all that surprised. During the last Democratic primaries, the word “moderate” was ubiquitously applied to Biden, but that was always supposed to be understood in context. Biden is a moderate—compared to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But that doesn’t mean he was ever going to be a moderate president. Looking back at Biden’s tenure in the Senate and judging it by today’s standards, Biden does come across like a moderate. But that’s anachronistic and silly. People should have based their evaluation on his candidate platform, which, as the leftist journalist Peter Beinart argued in The Atlantic as far back as August 3 of last year, was “big,” “bold,” and “strikingly progressive.”

  • To go back to FDR for a second, Michael Lind’s essay in Tablet from yesterday critically compares today’s progressivism to FDR’s, and wonders whether FDR’s legacy ought to be able to survive a re-examination.


How to Resolve a Conflict When You Hate Your Opponent’s Guts by Yascha Mounk in The New York Times on 4/9/21

In “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” Amanda Ripley tells the harrowing tales of people who got drawn into fights that consume their lives and make them capable of committing terrible injustices, from a gang leader on the South Side of Chicago to a guerrilla fighter in the Colombian jungle. …

Conflict, Ripley argues, can be productive. It is often good for people who disagree to state their differences and advocate for their own interests. In many situations, this allows adversaries to understand each other more fully and strike a compromise with which both sides are reasonably content.

But “high conflict,” the subject of her book, is very different. Once they get drawn into high conflict, people become certain of their own righteousness, make negative assumptions about those who have a different position and come to believe that the only acceptable solution is total victory.

There’s Nothing to Do Except Gamble by Max Read in New York Magazine on 4/12/21

In the years since the global financial crisis, new and revitalized theories of money have marched from the fringes of discourse to the center. Bitcoin and the cryptocurrencies that followed have promised a money that relies neither on banks nor on governments but instead on multiple overlapping private money regimes, all backed by cryptographic trust systems — a return to a premodern, hard-metal past by way of a carbon-intensive server-farm future. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, a new economic synthesis called Modern Monetary Theory, sounding a bit like Keynesian economics explained by Morpheus from The Matrix (“What if I told you … that taxes don’t pay for spending?”), came to prominence, promising an abundant future of lavish spending and full employment. Liberals and conservatives alike became enamored of the idea of universal basic income, or direct cash payments, over the Byzantine and often cruel benefits systems. Even Marxists began to return to Das Kapital to read it as a text about money and value.

Republicans Are Out of the Mainstream on Race by William Saletan in Slate on 4/12/21

Americans are divided in their views on the killing of George Floyd. But the biggest division isn’t along racial lines. It’s between Republicans and everyone else. This week, in an Economist/YouGov poll, 64 percent of Americans said police were “not justified in the amount of force they used” in Floyd’s arrest, but only 41 percent of Republicans agreed. Most Americans said former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin should be convicted of murder, but only 31 percent of Republicans agreed. On both questions, Republicans differed sharply, by margins of about 20 percentage points, from independent voters and from white Americans as a whole. People who don’t like integration, or who don’t acknowledge discrimination, have consolidated in the Republican Party. And they’re losing touch with the rest of America.

One Hundred Years From Freedom by Michael Carlson in Arc Digital on 4/11/21

The following year, 1962, we took our only real “family” holiday and stopped in Washington, still a segregated city. My brother got vertigo at the top of the Washington Monument; we rushed to the bottom and the restrooms, which were divided “white” and “colored.” When I asked my father if that was right, he said “no, it’s wrong, but that’s what they do down here.” I still remember the cold-eye a man aimed at my dad, which he dismissed as he tended to my brother. A couple of days later, on foot and lost, as was his wont, my dad asked a man for directions to the Smithsonian. “Follow me to the corner,” the man said. “I’ll point you the way”. So we did, and my sister took the man’s hand as we walked. People stopped and stared, because the man was black. By that time I was already a Civil War buff myself, but 1962 made me indelibly aware that the war was still being fought.

Hello Goodbye by Kevin Munger in Real Life on 4/12/21

I can send a multi-line email thanking a friend for their birthday message, and neither of us can be sure to what degree the other was actually involved in the process. Such messages — despite potentially being identical to emails sent a decade ago — have now become more difficult to parse, not in terms of their information but their intention. Nothing can be reliably inferred from the fact my birthday was remembered or that I remembered to say thanks; no conclusions can be drawn from how timely the messages are. The words may be appropriate enough, but the emotional subtext has become far more opaque. By reducing the friction in birthday messages, automation has stripped them of the social recognition we actually want them to convey. It’s the thought that counts.


Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep)

Walter Olson (@walterolson)

Noah Smith (@noahpinion)