Not Everything Is a Morality Tale
Inflation, ‘greed,’ and moral panics.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who’ve become perhaps a bit too attached to the SCOTUS leaker),
In his remarks on inflation, the president laid out a series of concrete measures he was undertaking to curb inflation. But, he cautioned, “it is a myth that the government itself can stop inflation. Success or failure in this overall effort will be largely determined by the actions of the private sector of our economy.” A bit further on he proclaimed:
“No act of Congress, no program of our government, no order of mine as president can bring out the quality that we need: to change from the preoccupation with self that can cripple our national will, to a willingness to acknowledge and to sacrifice for the common good.”
In other words, inflation and our other economic woes were downstream of deeper cultural problems with the country.
You shouldn’t feel guilty for missing these remarks or angry at the media for not reporting on them, because the current president didn’t say any of this. These remarks were delivered 44 years ago by President Jimmy Carter to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
In fairness to Carter, he did offer a number of serious proposals—whether they were all wise or adequate is a debate for another time. He imposed a cap on government worker wages and asked the private sector to do likewise. He sensibly ordered a review of regulations that had the effect of driving up prices. “I'm determined to eliminate unnecessary regulations and to ensure that future regulations do not impose unnecessary costs to the American economy,” he said.
But this idea that inflation was the product of selfishness and widespread moral failings of the American people is what really sticks out. Carter, who famously admonished Americans a year earlier to treat the energy crisis as “the moral equivalent of war,” was a consummate moralist who liked to reduce technical problems to moral failures. He told the newspaper editors, “The problems of this generation are, in a way, more difficult than those of a generation before. We face no sharply focused crisis or threat which might make us forget our differences and rally to the defense of the common good.” A year later, in his even more famous “malaise speech” (which never used the word “malaise”), Carter said, "all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. What is lacking is confidence and a sense of community."
There are a lot of similarities between the Carter presidency and the Biden presidency. Both—so far—have been rocked by any number of crises, many of which were not entirely of their own making, but were nonetheless beyond their ability to get control of. Both Biden and Carter won the presidency in large part because voters wanted to rebuke a previous Republican president. (Yes, Gerald Ford was Nixon’s immediate replacement. But were it not for Nixon’s abuse of his office, Ford wouldn’t have been a placeholder and Carter wouldn’t have won.) And both shared the belief that America’s problems were the result of a breakdown in team spirit and selfishness.
The biggest difference between their approach to leadership lay in style. Despite his conviction that America’s problems boiled down to a lack of esprit de corps, Carter was no cheerleader. He was more like an exhausted youth pastor who didn’t know how to talk to young people but thought he knew exactly what was wrong with these damn kids. Biden, meanwhile, often sounds like a high school yearbook editor fighting the lazy senioritis of his staff—“Come on, everybody, if we all work our hardest and come together, we can make this the greatest yearbook ever!” I’ve lost count of how many times he’s said some version of, “If we come together there’s nothing we cannot do,” or, “We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together.”
Now, longtime readers will not be shocked to learn I think is profoundly wrong. Unity is a tool, and like any tool it can be used for good or for ill. Lots of terrible things are done under the flag of unity, including war, genocide, lynching, and repression generally. To use a contemporary example, let’s say you passionately believe in a constitutional right to abortion. Do you think that right should evaporate if a large majority of Americans are united in their belief that no such right exists? Even in a democracy, unity alone isn’t always a persuasive argument.
But that’s a familiar refrain of mine. More basically, tools are only good for solving problems they are suited to solve. Screwdrivers are pretty useless for chopping wood and the best scalpels are worse than the crudest rock for pounding nails. And sometimes, the wrong tool is worse than no tool at all.
“We’ve got to amputate his arm!”
“All we’ve got is a mallet!”
“I’ll make it work!”
Systemic greed, moral projection.
In Biden’s remarks this week he said:
“My plan is to lower … everyday costs for hardworking families and lower the deficit by asking large corporations and the wealthiest Americans to not engage in price gouging and to pay their fair share in taxes.
The Republican plan is to increase taxes on the middle-class families and let billionaires and large companies off the hook as they raise profit and — raise prices and reap profits at record number — record amounts.
And it’s really that simple.”
Now, I have the pundit’s obligation to note that this is not “the Republican plan.” It’s Sen. Rick Scott’s politically barmy trial balloon that crashed like so much blue ice accidentally jettisoned from a commercial jet. Mitch McConnell’s “plan” is very similar to Michael Corleone’s offer to Sen. Geary: “Nothing.” Like it or not, McConnell’s well-developed attitude is that when your political opponent is smashing himself in the groin, the last thing you want to do is say, “Can I borrow your hammer?”
But the interesting part is that Biden thinks inflation is being driven by corporate greed and “price gouging.” He’s not alone. Elizabeth Warren has introduced economically illiterate legislation to empower the Federal Trade Commission to punish companies guilty of charging “unconscionably excessive” prices. What are “unconscionably excessive” prices? The legislation doesn’t say. She simply trusts that her emissaries on the FTC will know them when they see them. Firms will be "presumed to be in violation" if they use "the effects or circumstances related to the exceptional market shock as a pretext to increase prices."
“What’s an ‘exceptional market shock?’” you ask. “Any change or imminently threatened (as determined under guidance issued by the Commission) change in the market for a good or service resulting from a natural disaster, failure or shortage of electric power or other source of energy, strike, civil disorder, war, military action, national or local emergency, public health emergency, or any other cause of an atypical disruption in such market.”
With a precise definition like that, what could possibly go wrong?
In short, the FTC would be the economic conscience of the nation and its commissioners would have free rein to let their conscience be their guide. In effect, obscene profits would be determined by Potter Stewart’s standard for obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” The problem is a market system that punishes companies when their investments pay off but doesn’t compensate them when they don’t (or vice versa) isn’t a market system. It’s a form of bureaucratic autocracy.
Now, it’s absolutely true that, say, oil companies are making big profits right now. But in 2020, they suffered what some might call unconscionable losses. ExxonMobil lost $22 billion in 2020 alone. And yet, the people now denouncing Big Oil’s greed didn’t congratulate Big Oil’s “generosity” when it was losing money.
As I’ve written a bunch, the concept of “institutional racism” was invented to explain how undesirable racial outcomes could manifest themselves even when no human actors had racist intent. I think this is a perfectly fine intellectual endeavor so long as those engaging in it hold fast to the part about intent. The problem is that humans aren’t wired that way. The crusaders against “institutional racism” usually can’t help but accuse those who dissent from their analysis as racist. I think it’s because the same part of the brain that drives us toward conspiracy theories needs to assign agency to bad things. For instance, I have no idea whether J.D. Vance is a conspiracy theorist or just plays one for electoral advantage. But the suggestion that Biden is intentionally inviting fentanyl into our country to kill “MAGA voters” is dangerous nonsense.
Similarly, Marxism is mostly garbage as economic theory, but it’s really useful as an illustration of how people can talk a good game about systemic problems—class structure, misallocation of capital, etc.—but invariably get seduced into morality tales about villains and victims. Marx’s labor theory of value was, again, garbage as economic analysis, but man was it awesome for demonizing money-lenders, industrialists, and the bourgeoisie under the rubric of “science.”
We see a version of this kind of thinking all over the place. According to Warren, Kroger, which has very low profit margins, is a monopoly-like malefactor responsible for soaring food prices that must be punished.
There’s this weird irony in progressive rhetoric about corporations. They despise the idea that “corporations are people” but they are the first to anthropomorphize corporations, assigning sinister motives to them. Multifactorial dynamics are reduced to voluntary evil choices.
I don’t want to be accused of perpetuating the naturalistic fallacy, in part because I don’t think the free market is particularly natural. But we all understand that when wolves eat deer, they’re just playing their part in the ecosystem. We don’t denounce “lupine greed” or the depredations of Big Wolf. And when wolves starve because the supply of prey is inadequate for their population, we don’t decry the selfishness of ungulates who run away from the hungry canines. But when it comes to the market system, we routinely assign moral intent and corrupt agency to complicated systemic phenomena.
The baby formula shortage, for instance, is very bad, but it’s not an evil scheme. Scott Lincicome is of course correct that protectionism and certain regulations are partly to blame for this crisis and other supply chain woes. But even Scott, who hates protectionism with the same intensity my old basset hound Norman had for that gray poodle, doesn’t insinuate that protectionists want babies to go hungry.
The projection of simplistic moral categories onto the complicated workings of markets is not always absurd, but it usually is. It’s best understood as our tribal brains rebelling against what we don’t understand.
Inflation isn’t a metaphor.
I know I’m running longer than a Steve Schmidt Twitter vendetta, but I want to make one last point. Last year, Rick Perlstein wrote a much discussed—and mocked—essay arguing that contemporary concerns over inflation are silly. Concern about the possible inflationary effect of Biden’s massive spending proposals, Perlstein wrote last fall, “makes no sense, and no liberal should take it seriously — let alone be seduced by it into balking over Biden’s spending plans.”
But that wasn’t the controversial part (most liberals, including at the White House, were saying similar stuff). Perlstein also argued that the inflation of the 1970s really had little to nothing to do with, well, inflation. He wrote:
The conclusion I’ve drawn is that this was a form of moral panic. The 1970s was when the social transformations of the 1960s worked their way into the mainstream. “Inflation spiraling out of control” was a way of talking about how more permissiveness, more profligacy, more individual freedom, more sexual freedom had sent society spiraling out of control. ‘Discipline’ from the top down was a fantasy about how to make all the madness stop.
I thought that was ridiculous at the time, and I still think it’s substantially wrong. Americans justifiably cared a lot about inflation and the cost of living, and it’s just very weird that a historian would deny that. Here’s a passage from Robert Samuelson, writing in 2009:
“Since 1935, the Gallup Poll has regularly asked respondents, 'What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?' In the nine years from 1973 to 1981, 'the high cost of living' ranked No. 1 every year. In some surveys, an astounding 70 percent of the respondents cited it as the major problem. In 1971 it was second behind Vietnam; in 1972 it faded only because wage and price controls artificially and temporarily kept prices in check. In 1982 and 1983, it was second behind unemployment (and not coincidentally: the high joblessness stemmed from a savage recession caused by inflation).”
For Perlstein’s thesis to be correct, not only was Ronald Reagan’s and Paul Volker’s heroic (and politically risky) effort to wrench inflation out of the economy a mere sideshow, but America’s “moral panic” over progressive change just happened to end around the same time they succeeded. That’s hardly how progressives described Reagan’s America at the time.
That said, I think there’s a point to Perlstein’s argument, just not the one he intended. He got the causality backward. Inflation is panic inducing. It makes people feel like things are out of control, that their leaders are in over their heads, and that their economic future is imperiled. And when you’re all jangly with fear and the sense that powerful forces are buffeting you, you’re more likely to be freaked out by other stuff, too. In other words, the economic panic of the 1970s made moral panics generally feel more justified. The inflation of Weimar Germany (far worse than our current predicament, I should note) made Germans susceptible to other forms of panic. When droughts or other calamities afflicted our ancestors, all sorts of moral panics followed.
Obviously, in politics nothing happens in a vacuum. In the 1970s the very legitimate fear of crime was unsettling, too. The unease caused by skyrocketing crime surely fueled unease about the cost of living and vice versa, particularly among those who felt trapped in neighborhoods they couldn’t afford to move out of. And in that context, it’s surely plausible that middle class anxieties about everything from feminism, to Vietnam, to racial discord, to those damn hippies were made worse by inflation—and vice versa. But that doesn’t change the fact that inflation was a real thing, not some metaphorical catchall for conservative bourgeoise reaction.
The polarization and hysteria of the last decade no doubt makes inflation feel even worse. The fact that Biden seems not just inadequate for the job but incapable of describing the problems he faces undoubtedly makes people more anxious about inflation. Similarly, Donald Trump’s inability to talk about the pandemic as something other than a conspiracy against him, a hoax, or a boffo ratings opportunity made people even more anxious about COVID. Leadership—and the lack of it—matters. And we’ve had crappy leadership for quite a while now.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: That damn fox is still harshing everyone’s mellow. Last night he barked and barked at Chester—and at Chester’s house—for the better part of an hour. Zoë was so vexed at one point that I thought she might jump out the second floor window to impose order. And Pippa just kept running around the house shouting, “Wake up! This is not a drill! There’s a fox outside. A fox!” In other news, let no one say that Zoë is not an egalitarian in her wrath. The other day, the Fair Jessica texted me that there was a fly in the house and Zoë was not having it. She chased it all over and, as she has many times before, sent that monster to Musca Domestica Valhalla (where flies that die in battle gather in the great fecal hall sharing tales of their courage). Pippa is very happy these days, getting her quota of belly rubs and spending quality time with her bestest buddy Clover.
Midge Decter, R.I.P. Midge Decter, an intellectual and maternal force of nature, passed away this week. She was a great lady and, if I’m allowed to say so, a terrific broad. I couldn’t possibly do justice to her remarkable life. But her son, my friend John Podhoretz, came as close as humanly possible. This is a lovely and moving eulogy. I highly recommend it not just as a moving testimonial but as a fascinating profile of a remarkable woman.
And now, the weird stuff