One Author, Two Good Articles

Robert Kuttner with an appreciation of an influential economist and an exhortation to a serving president

The author is Robert Kuttner, of The American Prospect. The first item is an appreciation of Albert O. Hirschman, whose death at age 97 I mentioned briefly two days ago.

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Kuttner describes the incredible saga of Hirschman's life: his childhood in the Kaiser's Germany, his service as a Resistance soldier -- and secret agent, and forger, and refugee-smuggler --  against the Nazis in World War II, his entry into American academics, his lifelong commitment to remain an intellectual "trespasser" who kept learning about and making major advances in fields that were not strictly "his own." As an example of Hirschman's approach, Kuttner says this about Hirschman's most celebrated book:
To the extent that Hirschman is widely known today, it is mainly though a small book with a puzzling title, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, written in 1970. The book has a huge following among social scientists, mainly outside of Hirschman's own profession of economics. His basic insight is elegant, simple, and original. Citizens and consumers have two basic ways of responding when they find anything from a product, politician, neighbor, or nation unsatisfactory. They can vote with their feet (exit) or stick around and provide constructive feedback (voice).

Though orthodox economics emphasizes exit--consumers shopping around, shareholders selling stocks, workers pursuing different jobs, emigrants seeking new shores, Hirschman was partial to Voice. It was Voice that made possible civil society, Voice that made business enterprises more than a collection of spot transactions, Voice that offered useful information. And to complete the trilogy of his title, it was voice that engendered reciprocity and Loyalty.

The small book virtually revived the field of political economy.... 

I can't resist one more quote. See if you can guess why I found this part cautionary / instructive:

When I [Kuttner] first visited him at his office at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, Hirschman was already in his seventies. He gestured to piles and piles of letters, papers, manuscripts and books that had been sent by students, colleagues and admirers. "I could spend the rest of my life," he said plaintively, "administering my past life." But he found time both to engage with his public and to keep producing new, important work.

There is lots more in this elegant appreciation, which very much more reading. Also, I've learned of a full-scale biography of Hirschman coming from the Princeton University Press early next year. It's by Jeremy Adelman, it's called Worldly Philosopher, and its cover is shown above.

Robert Kuttner's second article is a long analysis, also in the Prospect, of one of the Obama administration's most notable and puzzling sins of omission. That is the president's lack of urgency about getting people chosen, nominated, and confirmed for service on the federal bench. Sample / precis of Kuttner's case:
[S]purred by the tailwind of a re-election victory and the realization that public opinion is on his side, President Obama has displayed a new toughness in his budget battle. He has declared that he won't negotiate against himself, and the strategy is working. But the White House is still stuck in don't-make-trouble mode on the crucial issue of judicial appointments, where the pace of nominations is only now catching up with that of Obama's predecessors and the strategy for avoiding partisan confrontation gives Republicans something close to a veto over who is nominated.

The slow pace of nominations combined with Republican obstruction to create a huge backlog. There are now more than 100 vacancies on the federal bench, out of some 856 federal district and appellate judges, far more than on the day Obama took office. The flagship Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has 3 vacancies out of 11 judges, leaving that court with a Republican majority. During Obama's first term, total judicial vacancies increased by 51 percent. During the first terms of Clinton and Bush, they declined by 65 and 34 percent respectively.

This also is worth reading, and I very much hope that the audience includes people in the White House.