There May Be a Blunt-Force Fix for Inflation

Plus: Dysfunction in progressive institutions

woman looking at price of food in grocery store
Joos Mind / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Pick your poison: high inflation or a recession. Which would you prefer and why?

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Conversations of Note

What if the Fed raised interest rates by 2 percentage points immediately? That’s what Noah Smith proposes to fight inflation, the force that’s been ravaging wallets and bank accounts coast to coast. Smith’s critics say a rate hike that sharp, done all at once, would put millions out of work.

Smith’s reply:

The fear of an economic downturn is certainly legitimate. The Great Depression was the greatest economic calamity in our history so far, and the Great Recession that began in 2008 was enormously damaging as well. The Volcker recessions of the early 1980s that ended the 70s inflation … probably left permanent scars on the Rust Belt. The harms of unemployment are concentrated on society’s most vulnerable. But at the same time, recession isn’t the only economic danger to worry about. Moderate inflation might be tolerable, but high and accelerating inflation is itself a huge danger to the economy.

In the extreme case, it can cause total economic collapse. Even if things never progress to hyperinflation, sustained rapid price rises can hollow out the middle class … Inflation is at its highest in 40 years, and much of this appears to be due to excessive aggregate demand. Recessions are bad, but a mild recession now is far preferable to the severe, Volcker-like recession that will be necessary to quell inflation if expectations become entrenched.

The January 6 Hearings

Bill Kristol argues that it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture, which he describes as follows:

The committee will show how Trump propagated the lie that he hadn’t lost; how Trump pressured state legislators to overturn their states’ results based on lies; how Trump pressured senior officials at the Department of Justice to support this effort; how Trump pressured his vice president to join the conspiracy to overturn the results; and how Trump summoned the mob to Washington and encouraged them to storm the Capitol in a last ditch effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. So the heart of the matter is that Donald Trump was the head of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

Neal Katyal argues that the hearings may lay the foundations for criminal charges against Donald Trump:

Public hearings serve a subtle function. They permit the minds of the American people to acculturate to the facts and evidence. By laying out the facts that explain what Trump did, the Jan. 6 hearings can in advance help acclimate the public to why the Justice Department has to take criminal action against the former president. The hearings may afford the department a deeper and public explanation of its reasoning than an indictment out of the blue would offer. Public sentiment of this kind could help insulate the department against a claim that it is politically motivated. These hearings may prove to be a bridge between the Justice Department and the public.

But David Brooks wishes that the committee was more focused on the threat to future presidential elections:

We don’t need a committee to simply regurgitate what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. We need a committee that will preserve democracy on Jan. 6, 2025, and Jan. 6, 2029. We need a committee to locate the weaknesses in our democratic system and society and find ways to address them. The core problem here is not the minutiae of who texted what to chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6 last year. The core problem is that there are millions of Americans who have three convictions: that the election was stolen, that violence is justified in order to rectify it and that the rules and norms that hold our society together don’t matter. Those millions of Americans are out there right now. I care more about their present and future activities than about their past. Many of them are running for local office to be in a position to disrupt future elections. I’d like the committee to describe who they are, what motivates them and how much power they already have.

A Progressive Critique of Wokeness

Sam Adler-Bell is the author of this much-discussed article. Its thesis:

The critique of “wokeness” may point to a real problem for socialists, feminists, and other radicals, one obscured by our disdain for its messengers and their motivations … To elucidate it further, I’m going to offer … another definition of “wokeness,” one which bears at least some resemblance to the way it is deployed in our jaundiced contemporary discourses. Here it is: Wokeness refers to the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident.

This idiom—or perhaps communicative register—replaces the obligation of persuading others to adopt our values with the satisfaction of signaling our allegiance and literacy to those who already agree. In some cases, this means we speak in an insular language that alienates those who haven’t stewed in the same activist cultural milieu. At other times, it means we express fealty to a novel or unintuitive norm, while suggesting that anyone who doesn’t already agree with it is a bad person.

If you think this phenomenon should not be called “wokeness,” that’s fine; use a different term in your head as you read on. But if you’ve spent any time in progressive or left-wing political spaces in the past decade (campus activism, nonprofits, progressive campaigns, Twitter dot com), I suspect you know exactly what I’m talking about.

“Purity, Sorcery, and Cancel Culture”

Virginia Postrel draws on the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas to understand purity conflicts, and argues in one passage that purity purges pose a particular threat to the constitution of knowledge:

Terrifying for the relatively few individuals targeted, purity purges strike fear more broadly because they lack a stopping point. Zealous or ambitious people can keep shifting and tightening the definition of impurities. Even if the numbers are small, at least for the present, institutional structures have shifted in ways that portend amplifying conflict. And while the consequences for individuals may be severe, the social results could be devastating. Knitters may get along fine after a few purges and schisms, but how can knowledge-seeking organizations like universities and publications do their jobs if their members are afraid to be difficult or different? If they manage to function, will they remain credible?

Dysfunction in Progressive Institutions

In The Intercept, Ryan Grim reports that numerous progressive advocacy organizations are in tumult and unable to carry out their missions because of frequent or ongoing staff meltdowns, characterized by what critics describe as callout culture, cancel culture, or trashing.

Grim writes:

This is, of course, a caricature of the left: that socialists and communists spend more time in meetings and fighting with each other than changing the world. But in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election, and then Joe Biden’s, it has become nearly all-consuming for some organizations, spreading beyond subcultures of the left and into major liberal institutions …

In the long term, the organizations may become better versions of themselves while finally living the values they’ve long fought for. In the short term, the battles between staff and organizational leadership have effectively sidelined major progressive institutions at a critical moment in history. “We used to want to make the world a better place,” said one leader of a progressive organization. “Now we just make our organizations more miserable to work at.”

Elsewhere Grim quotes a 1976 essay by Jo Freeman that is arguably more apt today than it was back then:

What is “trashing,” this colloquial term that expresses so much, yet explains so little? It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy ...

Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one’s integrity, a declaration of one’s worthlessness, and an impugning of one’s motives. In effect, what is attacked is not one’s actions, or one’s ideas, but one’s self. This attack is accomplished by making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the Movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing to exist. These feelings are reinforced when you are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with-you is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them. Eventually all your colleagues join in a chorus of condemnation which cannot be silenced, and you are reduced to a mere parody of your previous self.

Freddie deBoer articulates a different ethic:

An ethic of forgiveness and sympathy for those who have screwed up is of course not limitless. I’m not sitting around waiting for Harvey Weinstein to get another chance. But if we’re truly opposed to the endless hunt for heretics that has gripped our popular culture, we should have a generous definition of who we should consider forgiving. With the exception of those who have committed serious crimes or otherwise deliberately hurt others in a malicious way, I think we should err on the side of equanimity and a refusal to judge … I want a more forgiving and compassionate social culture because I know I’m a sinner who needs forgiveness personally. But I also know that all of us are, that the only people who haven’t yet been taken to task for their crimes are those whose crimes are yet undiscovered. I also know that every major religion and moral philosophy you can name contains an injunction against self-righteousness and sitting in judgment of others; none of us have the credibility needed to make those judgments. Vengeance is the lord’s alone for a reason, and we all have it coming.

Provocation of the Week

Writing in Palladium, Ginevra Davis describes how Stanford administrators systematically destroyed the traditions of residential life in the name of safety and equity.

Here’s one passage:

Stanford took the little neighborhood with the most beautiful homes on campus and turned it into office buildings. It sounds so good: “community center.” How could you be lonely on a campus with so many community centers? At Stanford, we have an office for every problem.

Mental health is a Big Problem in our generation. About 71 percent of college students say that they are “very sad.” I wonder how many sad kids are just lonely. Our former fraternity houses have been filled with offices to help us feel better, and we are sadder and sicker than any generation before. If you are sad, Stanford has an office building with a number you can call and a series of “community conversations” about neurodiversity. But what if you are just unhappy spending your days alone, in your lettered house and numbered room? Stanford students live in brand new buildings with white walls. We have a $20 million dollar meditation center that nobody uses. But students didn’t ask for any of that.

We just wanted a dirty house with friends.

The entire essay is usefully read in conversation with this John Seery article from 2017 on administrative bloat and diminishing human connections at Pomona College.

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