The Commons

The Commons hosts commentary from contributing writers across the political spectrum, advancing American Compass’s mission through discussion that combines intellectual combat and personal civility.

The Free-Market-Fundamentalist Menace Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Coronavirus

The Senate is finally back in Washington and negotiations over the next coronavirus recovery package are underway. The White House’s initial salvo was reported Monday and includes a capital gains tax cut, a measure to increase entertainment tax deductions, and a payroll tax cut. 

If you tasked me with putting together a parody recovery plan that epitomizes decadent free-market fundamentalist thinking, I still probably couldn’t put a plan together this obtuse. The plan reads as if Paul Ryan is still running Republican economic policy and as if Donald Trump did not win the 2016 presidential election by explicitly running against economic orthodoxy within his own party.  Read More

Josh Hawley, the WTO, & the Shifting World Order Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Trade

Re: The W.T.O Should Be Abolished (Sen. Hawley, New York Times)

Sen. Josh Hawley recently opined in the New York Times about the need for the US to back out of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and engage the global economy with bilateral trade agreements that better reflect American interests.

The piece prompted immediate reactions from groups on the Right. The CATO Institute took issue with the op-ed as getting “so many facts wrong that it cannot serve as the basis for useful discussion.” Other groups disputed Hawley’s assertion that the WTO has harmed America’s workers as well as our larger economic interests.

A Departure from Traditional Libertarian Moorings

The reaction is an interesting one, however, not in the least because of Hawley’s ability to provoke some on the Right into a defense of policies and institutions they’d ordinarily scrutinize. 

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To Reboot America, Reboot the Power of Hard-Working Americans Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Inequality and Mobility

Working Americans were in trouble before COVID

Before anyone had heard the term “COVID-19,” working America was already in a crisis.

Despite a growing economy in the years preceding COVID-19 — with expanding corporate profit margins, soaring capital markets, record-low unemployment, rising levels of educational attainment and (intermittently) rising productivity – real wages for many hard-working Americans had largely been flat for a generation.  Over this same time period, prices for housing, health care, and higher education grew multiples faster than incomes. Read More

The Compass and the Territory Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Technology

No particular worldview or ideology is necessary to see the reality of our political situation today. Due to the reshaping of our psychological and social environment by digital technology–a process laid bare by the unfolding coronavirus pandemic–our “map” of America is now out of date. Deep-seated economic and cultural transformations that began decades ago have burst through the terrain we knew, throwing up strange and vast new features and breaking up or plowing under long-familiar ones.

This process has only just begun. Many Americans, including at the highest levels of leading pre-digital institutions like academia, media, entertainment, and the administrative state, struggle to make sense of the new topography rising all around (and, indeed, within) them. Some strongly refuse to recognize that anything fundamental has changed: perhaps the speed or the complexity of our problems has increased, they suggest, but so have our potential solutions.

This is a mistake. The task facing today’s and tomorrow’s practitioners of American statecraft is to quickly and fully come to a reconciled understanding of what has already happened–a point conveniently lost on those apt to hawk ostensibly cutting-edge forecasts or prognostications about the future. Plenty of roads lead to the Rome of recognizing the new America rising up into the foreground. Some are more readily apprehensible than others. Here are a few that leap into sharp relief.

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On National Growth and Community Well-Being Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Community

For my inaugural post here on The Commons, I want to offer a few thoughts on how one of the pillars of the American Compass mission, community, has too often been a blind spot in the prevailing view of the economy.

First, a confession: I’m probably the closest thing to a cheerleader for free markets you’ll find on this site. But those who believe, as I do, that market capitalism has been a profound force for good have generally not done enough to address the limits of aggregate economic growth in lifting vulnerable people and places throughout the country. This is clear when one considers regional and community-based divides in the United States, which have grown steadily over the course of the 21st century.

Yesterday, the Economic Innovation Group released a new project on neighborhood-level poverty going back to 1980, which examines how high-poverty metropolitan communities have evolved over time and investigates how often such areas experience an economic turnaround. The results are sobering, and underscore the need for a policy agenda designed to empower more of the country to participate in, and benefit from, a vibrant national economy. Read More

The Tipped Red Tricycle: Why Economic Growth Is Not Enough Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Family

The house next door sits empty again. The neighbor across the street leaves a boys jacket on my porch that she scavenged from the overflowing boxes and bags of stuff lining the lawn for the trash man. “It’s a nice jacket—could one of your boys use it? Some of the things in the boxes still have tags,” she tells me. “Brand new.”

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know these neighbors. They were a couple for years—I don’t think married—but with two school-aged boys. Sometimes our chickens would go in their front yard and once they lost their dog and asked us about it, and many times our kids would hit a baseball over the fence and knock on their door for permission to retrieve it, but that was the extent of our interactions, beyond polite waves and the passing of Halloween candy. The neighbor across the street tells me the reason for the sudden move. Apparently the woman decided to move to Florida to be with a former love. The man had no use for all the stuff she left behind. Read More

Government, Not Markets Can Best Pick Winners Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Industrial Policy

Finding a Manufacturer (Image Courtesy Wikimedia

China’s economic rise and the damage inflicted on U.S. industry has been a wakeup call to many U.S. policymakers. But most conventional economists continue to hold firm to their ideological notion that only the market can respond, and that any more proactive government action, particularly focused on key sectors or technologies, is doomed to fail. For many, the only choice is between China’s command-and-control playbook and the market, albeit one perhaps supported by a bit more spending on education and research. This is ideological framing of the first order, grounded in neither logic nor research. The reality is that government is best positioned to “pick winners.” Read More

The New Fusionism We Need Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Politics

Almost 60 years ago, Frank Meyer formulated “fusionism.” He explained why 1950s anti-communists, free-market proponents, and social conservatives could unite in a coherent coalition. By his reckoning, all three were concerned to defend freedom. The anti-communists battled against Soviet tyranny. The followers of Hayek and Friedman were opposed to the dirigiste impulses of Keynesian economic planners, and social conservatives wanted to restore the American tradition of civic virtue and self-government.

It was a fitting and honorable configuration. But its day has past. Since 1989, the growing peril has been disintegration, not the postwar over-consolidation that made conservatives (justly) fearful for the future of liberty. Whether we’re speaking of economic globalization, mass migration, or transgenderism, boundaries are blurred. As Marx put is, “all that is solid melts into air.” Read More

From Protecting Essential Workers to Upgrading Essential Industries Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Economic Development

The COVID-19 panic has drawn long-overdue attention to the economic and health and financial challenges facing many “essential workers” including nurses and health aides, nursing home aides, slaughterhouse workers, truckers, grocery store clerks and other retail workers, warehouse workers, and others upon whom the daily functioning of our continental society depends.  Unfortunately the response of too many on the conventional right and left has been to fall back into ideological comfort zones—calling respectively for fewer regulations on business or higher wages and benefits for workers in general—rather than focusing on another reality that the pandemic has revealed: the appalling technological backwardness of many of these “essential” sectors. Read More

Thinking Big to Act Small Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Community

American Compass proposes that conservatives revisit the question of whether a nation can afford an economic order without a “compass,” a guide that can provide a sense of direction national policy and shared intention.  The question is essential, and the answers on offer on this site portend a new course for the American political order.

Libertarians have long argued that markets are wiser than government, that the accumulated choices of many people acting without plan or intention results in more efficient economic outcomes that reflect their true preferences. In a truly free market society, people’s initiative and inventiveness are unleashed, allowing for massive prospects of innovation, transformation, and disruption.  It was for this reason that Friedrich von Hayek declared that he was not a conservative, since conservatives resist transformative change, instead preferring a society marked by stability, generational continuity, and slow change that accretes rather than transforms. Read More