I wrote a review of Matt Yglesias’s recent book One Billion Americans for the LA Review of Books. Check it out.

Excerpt:

One Billion Americans has a lot of excellent policy ideas: increasing the American population through Yglesias’s prescriptive policies would be beneficial and morally just. And the advantages of population growth themselves should be given more attention. But for those already in agreement with Yglesias, it’s difficult to find much fundamentally new in his arguments or framing. For those in opposition, the book is unlikely to convert.

Yglesias waffles between arguments he believes are pragmatic and those that are encouraging “thinking bigger.” Both of these have value, but he switches between them at random times, operating seemingly at whatever level is the path of least resistance. Are we meant to take his idea of a billion Americans seriously but not literally? His ideas can support a much higher population even if it’s not a billion, but he struggles to establish when it’s time to think pragmatically and when to just think bigger.?

The Chicago White Sox, my beloved baseball team for my entire life, made the playoffs this year for the first time since 2008. I enjoyed tuning in for the quick three-game series they lost to the Oakland Athletics. The occasion didn’t involve nearly as emotional weight for me as the big games for my sports teams in previous years. I cried when they lost in the 2000 playoffs, felt immense rage when the Bears lost to the Colts in the Super Bowl, and believed I was personally harmed when Derrick Rose tore his ACL. I couldn’t name every player on the Sox this year and I hadn’t watched any regular season games. I’d like to think I’m a mature adult now with a better perspective on what’s really important life, but I also recognize that I follow politics a lot like I used to follow sports.

Ezra Klein compared the intense tribalism from increasing political polarization to sports loyalty in his book Why We’re Polarized. We have come to attach so much energy to our sides winning in politics that we lose sight of the actual substance underneath. Political parties have come to match so closely to our identities, he argues, that our side losing feels like a threat to our identities. Donald Trump shares little in common in terms of policy with the Republican Party of 2012, yet the overlap in voters is pretty strong. Our instinctive reaction to any political development is more about what side is doing the thing, rather than whether it’s good/bad for society.

Tyler Cowen recently had a post about declining sports viewership and included one possible explanation as a crowding out from “political fanaticism.” I think it’s correct that an outrageous President and the accompanying newscycles have sucked the air out of the room where people used to pay attention to sports. And I realize there’s a huge overlap between how I used to follow sports and how I follow politics now.

How I used to follow sports:

  • Spend a little time every morning checking the results of major events
  • Read about the history of different sports/players to better develop an encyclopedic knowledge of each sport and better understand the big picture context of current events
  • Follow my team closer than other teams and feel an emotional attachment to their success/failures
  • Be defined almost as much by what I loathe (the Cubs) as what I support (White Sox)
  • Get a sense of companionship from talking about sports with similarly informed people

How I now follow politics:

  • Spend a little time every morning checking 538 and Twitter to see the status of the horse race in different elections
  • Read about the history of different elections/politicians to better develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the political system and better understand the big picture context of current events
  • Follow my country’s politics closer than international ones and feel an emotional attachment to my preferred party’s success/failures.
  • Be defined almost as much by what I loathe (Trump) as what I support (sometimes I’m not even sure?)
  • Get a sense of companionship from talking about politics with similarly informed people

I used to justify the attention I gave to politics as “this makes me a better-informed citizen.” Sports viewership is purely a hobby and learning more about the current/past results doesn’t make me a better person. But I always knew that. It was just entertainment. Indeed, I do think that pre-Trump I used to follow politics in large part because it was the necessary vehicle through which different policy preferences (which I spend a lot of time reading about) were implemented. On a good day, following politics closely might increase my personal civic engagement, but there are a number of ways where that justification is just BS.

  • Following the horse race of the Presidential campaign is where I spend most of my Online time. There is nothing of substance here. It’s either a level of reassurance that Biden will win, or disaster porn of some kind.
  • The way to actually make a difference in politics is through local government, not national elections. I can tell you my two New York Senators and the Mayor but not my Representative in the House, my state senator, or any other local officials. If my goal was really civic engagement, I wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about Trump.
  • I closely followed hourly developments in things like the Mueller probe that 1) did not effect my life 2) I could not impact and 3) only served to satisfy my urge to see Trump get punished.

Since I became a grad student and cord-cutter, it’s been difficult to keep up with any sports. Going to a bar for 4 hours to watch a Bears game on a day off was exhausting and expensive. Watching enough Sox or Bulls games to feel connected to either team was tough to find on tv and took too much time. But while my sports viewership has gone down markedly, it has been completely substituted by the spectator sport of Politics. It sucks, but it is damn addictive.

I recently finished Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein, co-host of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. As with Planet Money, the book has something of value for people well-versed in economic history/know-how as well as those completely new to anything economics. The book also shares Planet Money’s uncanny ability to use (often quirky) stories to make a point. I found Money to be a short, digestible, and – given its length – surprisingly comprehensive look at the history behind society’s evolving definition of, use of, and attempts to reign in the power of money.

The biggest takeaway for a reader of any background is found in the book’s conclusion: “…the reminder that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about the way money works now. We know money will be very different in the future; we just don’t know what kind of different it will be.” We all have so intensely internalized what “money” looks like, what it can and cannot be, what government actions will cause inflation, that even people swimming daily in finance and economics forget how malleable the nature of “money” has been.

This valuable lesson comes from the book’s rich history of what societies have used for money and how they’ve dealt with certain difficulties along the way. The barter economy Adam Smith described in Wealth of Nations, the book points out, never really existed. People always exchanged their stuff for what they wanted from other people. There wasn’t any currency as we think of it at first, but there was reciprocal gift-giving. “A power move, like insisting on paying the check at a restaurant,” as Goldstein puts it.

I found it notable that, despite not having the bustling marketplaces we see today everywhere in the world, it was still commerce that brought the earliest communities together: The Greek agora was meant to act as a meeting place for civic discussion, with a sideshow for a place to allow people to exchange their wares. “In the long run, shopping won out over public discourse.” I’ve always thought people underestimate the power of commerce to bring communities together, and this seems to be an illustration of that power. (Sadly perhaps, people have shown themselves to be much more interested in going to the farmer’s market than town hall meetings.)

For as long as groups have declared power over others, they have collected taxes. But without a standard representation of value like money, cloth and grain acted as something the government in China could collect around the 11th century. So everyone had the annoyingly inefficient responsibility to weave or grow to some extent just to pay taxes. The arrival of coin currency from invading Mongols allowed Chinese people to specialize in their crafts and manage to pay taxes by focusing their time on what they did best. This allowed China to flourish centuries before the future economic powerhouses of Europe.

But the man who drove out the Mongols and eventually founded what became the Ming Dynasty wanted to Make China Great Again, and that involved getting rid of the “money” system that had allowed China to be the world’s most advanced nation by the late 14th century. Soon China went back to the cloth-and-grain system and regressed tremendously. The removal of money from China is not exactly the entire story here, but the book shows an interesting experiment about the economic impacts of introducing and then removing money.

The great lesson from this time is that China had, for centuries, thrived under a system where money was not tied to anything like a precious commodity. Money was worth something because everyone else just believed it was worth something. And this is essentially what defines our monetary system today. The dollar cannot be eaten or boiled down into jewelry. Short of the government accepting it as payment for taxes, it doesn’t have any value if everyone decided one day that it no longer had value.

But historically the idea that money was tied to nothing but the government’s enforcement (sometimes by death) of its value typically didn’t sit well with people. Linking currencies to gold or silver was thought to establish credibility, and somewhat limit the ability of warmongering sovereigns to inflate their way out of any problem. (Of course even under such regimes, people would fudge the weight of their coins, and sovereigns often spent their way to fiscal ruin.) The United States dollar was no exception. The convertibility rate of the dollar to gold was essentially fixed, giving predictability to the international financial system and confidence to the users of dollars.

Fast forward to the late 1920s. A banking ‘panic’ – where people all at one time were worried their banks would fail and their deposits would be wiped out – started as any of them did around then. People decided they’d convert all of their dollar deposits into gold. This was before the FDIC insured bank deposits, so people thought the safest place for their savings was out of the bank and into gold. But banks only have so much gold, and as the gold supply dwindled, it created a vicious feedback loop where people’s fear created a run on the bank’s gold deposits.

The Federal Reserve – only created recently in an effort to smooth over panics and financial crises like this – decided to raise interest rates. This was what the playbook said for countries who were using the gold standard. Raising interest rates was as a way to incentivize people to keep their money in banks and prevent the impending bank runs that would cause a financial crisis. The higher rates meant depositors would get higher returns. But raising interest rates also means investment becomes more difficult. And when there’s a contraction of the money supply, economic activity shrinks.

And this, dear readers, is how the Federal Reserve made an otherwise garden variety recession into the Great Depression. FDR, against all the doomsday prediction of his advisors, took the dollar off of gold. It allowed for a speeder recovery and showed, yet again, that our assumption of what money needs to be can cause us to be quite dogmatic about what will happen when the nature of it is changed. FDR, according to Goldstein, stopped the bank runs with his comforting fireside chats. Indeed, when it came to bank runs, it really was that the only fear we have is fear itself. Once everyone thought banks weren’t at risk, they stopped pulling out their money and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet again, the shared trust in the credibility of the dollar and banks was what gave the system its value.

The history of central banks has shown societies’ delicate experiments with how to best prevent financial crises and the United States is no exception. Alexander Hamilton pushed for a “national bank’ at the country’s outset. Populist Andrew Jackson thought that banks and the coastal elites that ran them had too much control over the inland farmers and countrymen he was claiming to represent. So he got rid of the national bank.

What dominated for decades was a period of ‘free banking’ where any bank could print their own currency. At one point, there were 8,370 different kinds in circulation. A helpful reference book would tell merchants the value of each bank’s bill and, in an effort to prevent counterfeiting, the appearance of each bank’s currencies. It sounds like total chaos, and in some ways it was. The system led to financial panics every decade or so and the US went back to a national bank called the Federal Reserve in the early 20th century for good reason.

But the frictions in the system weren’t as catastrophic as you might think. As Goldstein says, “Travelers typically lost around 1 or 2 percent when they exchanged paper money, in the same ballpark as the fee I pay today when I can’t get to my bank and have to use another bank’s ATM.” Also, perhaps surprisingly, there weren’t all that many totally fraudulent banks. Today, imagining 8,000 different corporations printing their own Monopoly money sounds insane. But it worked better than you’d think!

Today, the Federal Reserve is run by 12 regional banks and it sets short run interest rates on the open market by selling treasury bonds. That might sound like a lot of confusing word soup to someone not totally in the mix of finance and economics. But just know that what the Federal Reserve does today is a little different than what it did pre-Financial Crisis, more transparent than what it did before the 1980s, and much different than what it did when the dollar was still chained to gold before the 1930s.

There is an important distinction between “money” and “currency.” Currency is the coins and bills we can hold in our hands. But money can be numbers on a screen and what banks do. Put another way, there is a concrete tangible amount of currency, but the amount of money in the system is always changing. One of my dollars deposited in a bank can be lent out to someone looking to start a business. That businessperson take the dollar and pays a construction worker to build an office. I still have a dollar, the investor has a dollar, and the construction worker will do something with that dollar. This “money multiplier” is what causes economic activity to thrive, and is in part what stopped China from reaching its full potential during the Ming Dynasty. But this distinction, or at least the ability to have the distinction, is pretty counter-intuitive and seemed primed for disaster for most of history.

Even our definition of a “bank” should be flexible. Today, as with most of history, a bank does two things: takes in and holds people’s money; and lends out money. Why do banks need to do both roles? Money shows a scenario where some institutions are essentially ‘money warehouses’ that store your money, while others are the ones that take risks and lend to borrowers using the money of investors. The mismatch between people wanting to safely deposit their money and the risks banks take is essentially where many frictions in the financial industry lie.

The arrival of cryptocurrencies has shown potential disruption to the idea that only the Federal government can control currency. If our dollar bills have value only because everyone else agrees they do, why would numbers on a ledger be any different? So far, the issue is that the fluctuating value of Bitcoin makes it hard to be used as a ‘storage of value.’ I’ll admit that Bitcoin has been around much longer than I predicted, but it still has too many of the problems of historic attempts at money. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies may have some value for society in the future, even it currently looks unlikely to replace the fiat money system we have now. If there’s one lesson about monetary history and Money, it’s that you should never count out changes that at first glance look pretty absurd.

Money has been printed by governments and it’s been printed by private banks. It’s been backed by precious commodities like gold and silver and it’s been backed by nothing. It’s been represented as coin and bills and it’s been represented merely as numbers on a screen. Its confusing nature has caused financial panics even when there was nothing wrong. Our relationship, control, and treatment with the concept of money will continue to change. A book like Money shows us how we should learn to accept and accommodate that inevitable change.

New podcast episode released this morning. “Golden Gates: Housing Affordability in California” features NYT’s Conor Dougherty as he talks about his recent book Golden Gates. Check it out on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

I wrote a review for Liberal Currents of Ezra Klein’s latest book Why We’re Polarized.

Klein sees the election as a culmination of our social psychology mixing with a media landscape designed to outrage, in a political system that incentivizes Republicans to become more extreme. We are hard-wired to protect our identities from external threats, and contemporary political parties have become strong proxies for the groups to which we belong. The media and politicians tap into our psychology that makes us react more strongly to threats and antagonism than to positivity. And the American political system was designed centuries ago to represent geography more than popularity in a way that makes Republican electoral success tied more to extreme stances than winning over swing voters. All of this, according to Klein, leads to “a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system.” The book’s claim that political parties now stand in for identities, in a way that leads to more polarization than was common in the 20th century, is convincing. However, Klein leaves important social factors unanalyzed, and there is reason to believe he is presenting current trends as more inevitable than they in fact are.

Check it out.

Leftists looking for a greater chance of making desired change should rally around Elizabeth Warren as their preferred candidate. If the idea is to support a candidate that has an ideal ideology, then Sanders could be the guy. But if the idea is to get policy closest to where leftists think is ideal, Warren is far more preferable.

Sanders may present himself as passing a higher purity test – Warren has said she’s a capitalist, after all. Yet Warren has proven that she is more effective at working within the system.

Warren has been a Senator since 2012 but her biggest legislative impact may have been through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB was passed after the financial crisis as an effort to stop predatory banking practices and increase transparency in the financial industry. Her campaign is notorious for having thought of policy proposals for everything whereas Sanders relies more on rallying cries that have unclear policy specifics.

Bernie’s legislative accomplishments have been sparse. He has been a member of Congress since 1991, but two of the seven successful bills he has sponsored have been to rename post offices, and one was to commemorate a Vermont ‘bicentennial day.’ With his proposed legislation being so far out there, how different is he effectively than a replacement-level average Democratic Senator? He has admirably stuck to his principles when most Democrats joined Republicans for sub-optimal things like foreign intervention, financial deregulation, or curbing civil liberties. But whereas Biden has some shady history here, Warren is no different than Bernie in this regard.

Noah Smith debated Meagan Day for Bloggingheads in what was billed as a match pitting “neoliberalism versus democratic socialism.” Something that struck me about the more than 80 minutes of conversation was the angles at which each person came at each issue. Noah was well-versed in specific statistics, compared the impacts of various incremental policy changes, and gave a sense of when certain approaches worked better than others. Meagan took a much more birds-eye view of the system, pointing out big picture shortcomings of capitalism and the injustices of many policies.

I found Meagan’s approach to be valuable in a philosophical sense – pondering big questions about systemic realities we take as given that need not necessarily be. Important questions, and true meaningful systemic change comes from the seeds of ideas that originally seem radical. But Noah’s style of analysis fit much more into the “technocratic left” approach to policy. He looks at policy impacts as fitting into the current system rather than the very most ideal system. Meagan learns more about the system and the surrounding world to figure out what the best system would be. Noah learns about the system and tries to answer questions using more incremental change.

I see Sanders operating at a level much more in tune with Meagan – creating a broad philosophical approach to politics that emphasizes theory more than the political roadmap to get there. Warren looks at the problems on Wall Street and says “I’m going to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.” Sanders proposes a lot of bills that, while maybe really great in principle, don’t have much of a chance of even getting out of committee.

The reality is that changes are almost always made on an incremental level within the existing system. The American system is designed to decentralize power, causing change to be slow and gradual rather than revolutionary. It’s not impossible for a Sanders Presidency to fundamentally remake the entire system, but I also consider it very unlikely.

Consider an extreme libertarian or communist that is elected to the village board of their town. The libertarian could have an ideological commitment to privatizing the local schools or removing the country from fiat money. The communist would like to abolish private property and unionize the entirety of the working class. But in these positions, the local residents just want to make sure the potholes are filled and the garbage is taken out. If the libertarian dies on a hill of “all local spending is unjustified except for maybe a small police force,” they’re going to be left out of conversations where there is actual discretion of public spending.

So the ideological difference between Sanders and Warren is moot to me when you consider that they would be President, not benevolent autocrat. They’ll be met with a resistant Congress and moderates of their own party that will not allow their most progressive initiatives to pass. The areas where President has the most relatively unchecked power – things like foreign policy and regulation – are policy verticals where Sanders and Warren aren’t very different from each other.

I should also note that I consider both Warren and Sanders to be incredibly principled and consistent in their views. They have demonstrated to be champions for their causes over a long period of time, and are not corrupt or likely to compromise their values. They are not faux-progressives, and the discussion about whether Warren previously being a Republican compromises her consistency is really stupid.

Trump has shown that people will rally around their party and its leader to an incredible extent when it comes to policy preferences. Republican voters’ views during the Trump administration have been revealed to be incredibly malleable. Suddenly, Russia is not the bad guy and tariffs are great. It could be said that a Sanders platform, by merely being the stated policy platform of the Democratic Party’s highest elected official, would shift the views of half the country. There’s some truth to this. Maybe the Overton Window would dramatically change and instead of the parties nitpicking over the nuances of the Affordable care Act, the discussion suddenly becomes between varying degrees of Medicare for All.

But I’m still drawn to an emphasis about who is more likely to cause change. Despite not passing some leftists’ purity tests, Warren would still be the most progressive President ever. The differences between her and Bernie ideologically don’t seem relevant to me compared to her success and approach at actually changing the system.

As a much more moderate person, Warren and Sanders are not my preferred Democratic candidates. But I think for people holding views on the farther left end of the spectrum, Warren should be the candidate they push.

I reviewed “Capitalism, Alone” by Branko Milanovic for the Liberal Currents website.

To supporters of the market economy, the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly thirty years ago was supposed to mean the undisputed triumph of capitalism. But tensions today from increasing inequality, the rise of populism, and the remarkable growth of China have thrown this foregone conclusion into doubt. Did capitalism’s supporters take a premature victory lap? In his recent book Capitalism, Alone, Branko Milanovic argues that while we must resolve some of capitalism’s internal contradictions and countries like China show there is more than one recipe, capitalism is here to stay.

And:

In the end, Milanovic’s greatest contributions in Capitalism, Alone come from his fresh approach to the history of different capitalist countries. His taxonomy of Western countries evolving from classical, social-democratic, and now liberal-meritocratic capitalism helps us put the current state of affairs into better context and think about the ways policy can and cannot improve the system. While he is overconfident in political capitalism as a dominating force in global politics and a sustainable alternative to liberal capitalism, his analysis of the forces and magnitudes of different kinds of inequality give a more nuanced story than is often found in public discussions.

Check it out!

Slavery in the United States is one of its many original sins. How can such an abhorrent institution be consistent with the ideals that America claims to uphold? Does the existence of slavery for centuries – including a large presence at the time of America’s founding documents – negate or supersede all other factors of US history?

The 1619 Project is a collection of written and audio pieces from The New York Times that aims to re-examine the history of the United States from its legacy of slavery. Beginning in mid-August and continuing slowly onward, the project takes its name from the year the Trans-Atlantic slave trade came to the United States.

The material in The 1619 Project should be seen as a valuable addition to the typical US history curriculum. To the extent that conservative critics are right that 1619 leaves out some important context, it’s only because the project’s value is not as a comprehensive overview of US history, and “what people are taught in schools” is so direly minimal anyway.

So how is it possible that slavery – something so universally abhorred today – can somehow make us fall into our partisan tendencies?

The Contributions

I read everything available at this point, have listened to the handful of podcast episodes that have been released, and read a select number of the criticisms. There’s a lot to be learned from the material in the 1619 Project. The history of slavery casts a long shadow in subtle ways on facets of daily American life today from music and traffic jams to healthcare and our democratic processes.

The lead essay of 1619, written by the project’s leader Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells of Hannah-Jones’s father always flying an American flag in their yard when she was growing up. She wondered for a long time why her father seemed so committed to America when her father’s childhood was “an apartheid state that subjugated its near-majority black population through breathtaking acts of violence.” Even after slavery was legally abolished, blacks fought tremendous legal and social forces whose sole intentions were to keep them down. Yet against this context, her father believed in hard work and sought to shape America in away that fulfilled its stated ideals.

This story sets the tone of 1619 and should be viewed as the project’s underlying message: As Hannah-Jones said on Ezra Klein’s podcast, “Those who would have the most right to hate this country have the most abiding love for it.” The rest of the project’s material should thus not be viewed through a lens of scathing criticism and a relentless quest to bring down the country’s credibility. The pieces in the project are stories from slaves and their descendants that show how this wretched institution impacts America’s music, healthcare system, and ethos to this day. Yet through all those centuries of injustice, slave descendants continue to embrace their America. Conservative critics miss the point by thinking any story that sheds a more honest light on our past is motivated by a desire to tarnish its reputation.

My memory of my US history curriculum from high school is not perfect. My recollection is that my schooling mentioned slavery’s role in our country’s history, gave a nod to the obvious contradictions between slavery and the Founding Fathers, and of course described its role in the US Civil War. But I don’t think I ever had a vivid picture of the brutality of slavery. And I don’t remember one story from the viewpoint of a slave.

By focusing more on the lives and experiences of the slaves and descendants themselves, 1619 changes the lens by which the reader sees the country’s past. History in school is narrated from a very politics-centric lens that looks at changes through the vehicle of who was in power and how those changes came to be. We heard a lot more about how Andrew Johnson screwed up Reconstruction than how the slaves themselves were actually living.

Exploring the long shadow of slavery’s history through a variety of verticals helps paint a more vivid picture of slavery’s legacy in America. The social safety net for blacks ran parallel to the superior system for whites through a variety of mechanisms: jobs that were disproportionately worked by blacks were left out of the Social Security Act, the American Medical Association barred black doctors, and medical schools excluded black students.

Kevin Kruse draws a connection from emancipation to a traffic jam today in Atlanta: “Once they had no need to keep constant watch over African-Americans, whites wanted them out of sight. Civic planners pushed them into ghettos, and the segregation we know today became the rule.” One need not look far to see how NIMBYism and hyper-restrictive construction laws have deep racial roots that stem from the desire to racially segregate, either explicitly or implicitly.

One piece by Wesley Morris and complemented by a solid podcast episode tells how black music first crept into the American mainstream. Morris’s piece starts the history with T.D. Rice singing a song he heard first sung by a black man grooming a horse owned by a man with the last name Crow. The anecdote is meant to express the beginning of proto-gospel and other musical characteristics brought over from America creeping into the American mainstream, whereas previous white music derived mainly from the Irish harmonies and classical music from Continental Europe. Also from Rice’s lyrics, the “Jim Crow” term was born. It’s not hard to find traces of black music across all genres now, but the story shows just how deep these forgotten roots are.

The emphasis on black history also uncovers stories that are woefully under-appreciated: How many people know there was a “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was burned down by white rioters in 1921? And how can one deny the parallel of voter disenfranchisement today with the ugly history of suppression found in Jamelle Bouie’s essay?

Industries run on the back of slaves had a tremendously big presence in the United States economy for centuries. In her podcast interview with Ezra Klein, Jones notes, “By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States…the combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation.” Did you know that? Also under-appreciated compared to King Cotton, Queen Sugar was so profitable that during the antebellum reign Louisiana was the second most wealthy state in the country.

The Critics

I have taken a look at a select handful of the criticisms of the 1619 Project, basically from conservatives who think it doesn’t give America due credit for what it did right and how it’s unique. In more ways that I predicted, I’m fairly sympathetic to some of these criticisms. By and large, we would benefit from knowing a greater context for a lot of these stories, especially to compare America to the history of other countries. Some of the causal connections between slavery and modern-day systems are at least oversimplified. Where the criticisms go wrong is by arguing that a lack of full context negates the stories or points the pieces in 1619 make. Instead, the stories are a new angle with which to view the country’s past, despite not being a completely comprehensive look.

One way to interpret the framework of most critics is this: a) America was one of many – most – countries that had slavery, so slavery is not a unique identifier; b) the emphasis on slavery thus overlooks the things that actually made us unique. Rich Lowry leans on this thinking heavily in his numerous critiques of 1619, arguing that slavery was ubiquitous in world history and many countries had the slave trade longer and more intensely than the United States did. One point specifically, which I think most people don’t acknowledge, was that in the Western Hemisphere it was actually Brazil that was the most common destination for African slaves and the country that abolished the practice the latest. 95% of slave transported across the Atlantic, he notes, went to countries south of the United States. And in Lowry’s words, “Both Brazil and the United States had slavery; only one of them had the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.”

Indeed, most people casually make the connection between the existence of free labor and America’s prosperity today. But because the institution was so ubiquitous across the Western hemisphere, it’s a leap to say the explanatory variable for America’s current riches is its history with slavery. In fact, if slavery were indeed the significant characteristic in the long-run for the bottom line of a country’s economic output, a country like Brazil would be the richest of them all, and Canada incredibly poor.

Slavery was more likely a force against a more productive economic order in the South. In Acemoglu and Robinson’s terminology, slavery is the ultimate “extractive” institution – a set of rules that does not plant the seeds of broad prosperity in the long-run like “inclusive” institutions, but instead soaks up revenues from a resource with no propensity towards increasing productivity. A focus on exploiting slave labor in order to sell natural resources in the South made it focus less on things like public education and other factors that are better for sustained productivity gains that ensure prosperity in the long-run.

A counter to this, of course, is to note that slavery can cast a shadow on other countries and it still have an impact on our daily lives. So perhaps the right phrasing is to say that it is inaccurate to think of slavery as a unique American identifier, but instead a very significant part of our history.

Andrew Sullivan takes issue with 1619’s statement that “our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written.” In his mind, focusing on the contradictions and hypocrisy’s of the Founding documents glosses over the ways that they represented a seismic shift in how anyone would even think about the ideals of liberty and equality under the law. To his credit, I would say that we view Athenian ideals of democracy more than two thousand years ago as rightfully credited for theorizing and developing a model for how democracy works. Of course, Athens had slaves, women had no rights, and who Athenian leaders considered entitled to these ideals was very limited. We should hold higher standards for the birth of a nation only centuries old, but the point remains: Discrediting the philosophy of America’s founding because of the contradictions at the time is a step too far.

In fact, Hannah-Jones even proves the power of the ideals of the United States – no matter how contradictory or unrealized at the time of their founding – by showing that her father, a man not treated with the respect he deserves by American society, still perseveres to get America to the point that it lives up to its ideals. The ideals under the umbrella of American Exceptionalism – though still not fully realized – are at least powerful enough to make her father think this way. The contradictions are present and we must acknowledge them, but it’s hard to argue that the American ethos is not an unusual aberration compared to other countries.

Sullivan believes though that explaining everything through the lens of the history of slavery is overlooking everything else. Indeed, the story of why America doesn’t have universal healthcare right now may be in part because of racist intentions, as argued in 1619, but a larger part of it is because of an odd history of price controls leading to employers offering insurance and then the status quo inertia making it politically difficult to scrap the system.

Sullivan:

Take a simple claim: no aspect of our society is unaffected by the legacy of slavery. Sure. Absolutely. Of course. But, when you consider this statement a little more, you realize this is either banal or meaningless. The complexity of history in a country of such size and diversity means that everything we do now has roots in many, many things that came before us. You could say the same thing about the English common law, for example, or use of the English language: no aspect of American life is untouched by it.

What Sullivan is thus arguing is that he does not deny how slavery’s past puts itself into every facet of our lives today, but that he views the 1619 Project as overemphasizing, or perhaps even going so far as to being essentially monocausal, the role of slavery in the context of every other force in our history. There may be some truth to what he’s saying, but I don’t view 1619 as trying to argue that its stories are the defining script of American history; I see them as a fresh set of perspectives about stories that have so far gone untold.

Jones says in her interview with Ezra Klein that “Capitalism is not a system of morality” and Ezra responded that there are many countries that are just as capitalistic as the US but have different manifestations. I take issue with the fact that capitalism is inherently an amoral or immoral system. Read literally, yes capitalism is indeed not a system of morality – our set of moral values and culture come separately from our economic system. Rather, I would argue that the market economy is a set of rules and institutions whose endpoint for production and morality is a result of the interaction between these legal frameworks and the culture found in the system. I imagine the conservatives who have criticized the 1619 Project and many proponents of the market economy take statements like this to be throwing a grenade in any hopes of finding common ground.

I’d be much more sympathetic to the arguments these conservative critics are making if they demonstrated more support for righting the remedies we “all agree are terrible atrocities.” I believe it is possible to think simultaneously a) the Founding documents were a huge leap in how the world thought about equality under the law and b) the racial wealth gap is the product of centuries of injustice that needs to be corrected. But too often writers like Lowry and Sullivan will, in the same sentence, talk about how terrible treatments of blacks were in American history and then downplay the need or justness of ways to correct those injustices.

The Brutality of American Capitalism

One piece by Matthew Desmond argues that an unusually high degree of brutality in American capitalism has its roots in slave plantations. This paper in particular irked me. He makes a lot of weakly supported connections and faulty analysis connecting slavery and the contemporary American economy.

Desmond writes, “Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker.” This is a widespread economic fallacy that I can’t ignore. Adam Smith put this to rest as far back as 1776 in the Wealth of Nations. Smith’s contemporaries thought it natural that a firm will pay its workers only at subsistence level, believing workers’ struggles would motivate them to be more productive for fear of losing the ability to survive. Smith recognized that no, this was not the profitable approach: Paying workers more will increase productivity because they can take better care of themselves, it will reduce turnover, and workers won’t accept such direly low wages because they have outside options. Firms need to compete to some extent for even the lowest skilled workers. In modern-day terminology, “efficiency wages” actually suggest that paying workers more is a profitable venture. In this regard, slavery, for all its brutality and poor health for the slaves, can be argued as counter-productive. In any case, the American workplace is not one where capitalists are soaking all the spirit out of its workers. Supervisors know that morale, culture, and overall health impact the productivity of its workers.

I also wonder how tenuous the connection is between corporate practices today that have their roots in the slavery industry centuries ago. The point Desmond hopes to make is that our corporate structure and financial system still resemble the times of slavery in nontrivial ways. He claims that asset depreciation or even spreadsheets have their roots in the American plantation and that workplace hierarchies displayed “a level of complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.” And that “enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America.”

Does the use of Excel to increase efficient resource use, or having multiple layers of management at large corporations really deserves to be tied in to the history of slavery? And does the use of collateral for loans in our financial system today really mean we have a brutal system because slaves used to be held as collateral? Slave-run industries like cotton and sugar were a huge part of the economy for centuries. It only makes sense that changes to corporate governance were not excluded from these industries and yes, slave-owners tried to be efficient. Steel was also used to keep slaves in bondage, but is it fair to connect our use of steel today to its use during slavery? Indeed, any industry that co-existed with slavery can be tied to it in some way; does that mean that our economy today has traces of its brutality? If train lines were accelerated to support the slave trade, is it fair to make a moral connection between train tracks now to the institution of slavery?

These connections to me are thus unconvincing, and it makes the reader question why collateralized debt has been around long before American slavery or why other countries that had long experiences with slavery don’t have the “brutal” economies America does. America may have rugged individualism in its national fabric – “brutality” in Desmond’s mind – but this ethos existed before and independent of the existence of slavery.

Overall

A deeper story needs to be told for America’s experience with slavery than “slavery is really bad!” 1619 makes a significant contribution by telling stories, giving a personal touch with real people from history, of how slaves and their descendants experienced life and continue to impact American through various channels today.

One 1619 piece by Khalil Gibran Muhammad mentions that tourists to a local sugar plantation museum in Louisiana are warned by locals that the museum is misrepresenting the past. Earlier this year, stories were told of how tourists consistently complain about being reminded so much of the history of slavery. Against this context, it’s hard to argue that Americans wouldn’t benefit by learning more about slavery’s role in US history and confronting its brutality more vividly. It’s an inconvenient history for many people, but it’s vital to understanding our past.

I did not grow up around guns at all. As far as I remember, no one I knew in my extended network owned a gun. We did not hunt, we did not feel the need to have one for self-defense, and we didn’t go to a shooting range for recreation. I think I asked my immediate family in the last few years how many of them had even shot a gun before, and it was only about half. In a country of 300 million people, I imagine there are a lot of people that grew up just like me. And it’s in this context that so many Americans are absolutely perplexed by the support for gun rights even after events like mass shootings. I’ve tried to understand the passion for gun rights that so many Americans have that leads to a stalemate in the legislative process. In the end, one’s view of whether gun ownership is a fundamental right is probably the determinant on how one looks at the entirety of gun legislation.

Imagine a right that you consider to be very sacred. Now imagine that 1) a bunch of people are harmed by an incident and a legislative abridgment of that right is thought to be a meaningful way to reduce future harm. Or consider 2) a slight abridgment of the right – a law that imposes restrictions on your sacred right only in very exceptional circumstances, but those exceptional circumstances can also be seen as the most egregious instances of this right.

Rather than continue in the abstract, I’ll apply the thinking in the above paragraph to actual issues. If you consider the civil liberties of privacy and protection from unwarranted government surveillance to be really important, will a terrorist attack or an increase in organized crime change your value of that? Was the Patriot Act justified because of September 11th? Probably not. For people who view the 4th amendment to be particularly sacred, a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people does not change their fundamental right to protection from intrusive government surveillance. People who are a little more waffley on the 4th amendment argued that we’d need to compromise a little for the sake of security. I mean, we have to do something. This applies to point number 1 in the paragraph above.

For point #2, consider this logic in the context of abortion access, specifically partial birth abortion. Partial birth abortion is incredibly rare, and reproductive rights advocates often point to it as a distraction from the overall issue, saying that it paints a misleading picture of what typical abortions really look like. And if one is of the mindset that abortion choice is a fundamental right, a partial birth abortion ban is chipping away at that right with a slippery slope towards bigger and more meaningful restrictions.

Maybe you can see where I’m going here with the analogue to gun rights. For scenario 1, a mass shooting does not sway gun rights enthusiasts away from their sacred right to bear arms. Other peoples’ abuse of gun use does not change the right to own a gun, just as people planning a terrorist attack under the guise of privacy from FBI surveillance does not change my right to privacy either. In fact, any statistics showing how gun ownership leads to accidental deaths in the home or more suicides are totally irrelevant. The rush to “do something” in both circumstances – tighter gun control or the Patriot Act – was viewed by opponents as a knee-jerk reaction that encroached on fundamental liberties.

In scenario 2, one can see parallels between partial birth abortion and an assault weapons ban. Most gun deaths are not caused by assault weapons, even though their existence and use appear to be the least reasonable instance of self-defense or hunting. Legislation restricting ownership or even banning them is an encroachment on a fundamental right to own a gun, anyway. And it’s only time before laws keep chipping away at the guns people are allowed to own and everything falls into the category.

I think there’s also some truth to the idea that those seeking partial birth abortion bans do see it as a roadmap to outlawing abortion entirely. Similarly, those banning assault weapons would be open to the idea of outlawing gun ownership entirely – or at least they’re comfortable with getting to that point.

In these scenarios, the important difference is where your “square one” is. If your square one is that gun ownership is a fundamental right, all logic flows from that and restrictions on gun ownership are almost always dubious and a huge burden of proof is placed against legislation that restricts it. If your square one does not include a particularly passionate defense of gun ownership, then you probably see all gun control as completely reasonable.

I of course am in the latter camp, struggling to see why people are willing to tolerate a society that allows so much gun violence. But the more important thing is that I don’t see why gun ownership is held so sacred to so many people. And if the starting point for such a critical mass of Americans is holding this right so closely to their heart, is there much room for meaningful overlapping compromise? If the 2nd amendment is so important to so many in the electorate, will any significant efforts to limit ownership be seen as an unjustified violation of rights? Maybe people are less extreme than we assume they are. That the binary of “pro choice” and “pro life” is as exaggerated as the “gun rights” vs “gun restrictions” dichotomy. I hope that’s the case.