All posts filed under: Economics

On Race and Inequality—A Reply to Nathan J. Robinson

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd has plunged us into a new era of institutional anti-racism. The prevailing narrative is that the country remains a fundamentally racist and white supremacist society that has yet to come to terms with its original sin and must be held accountable by eliminating all racial disparities of outcome. To this ongoing discussion, Nathan J. Robinson has contributed a long essay in his magazine Current Affairs restating the case for reparations on behalf of black Americans. What was once a fringe perspective has become increasingly mainstream in the wake of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely debated 2014 essay on the topic for the Atlantic. The reparations issue has become emblematic of the broader debate around race, encapsulating all of the moral and political dimensions that make it so complex and heavy. To what extent does racism continue to hold blacks back? Can an entire racial group, whites, be held responsible for the sins of the past? What does racial justice really look like, basic …

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism—A Review

Review of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class by Joel Kotkin, Encounter Books (May 2020) 288 pages. Writing books which make bold predictions about the future of the Western world can be risky, so I naturally approached Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class with caution. Could feudalism really be making a comeback in the West, as Kotkin argues? The answer might not be a straight “yes,” but Kotkin’s overall argument that deep currents of history and economics are pulling us towards a more stratified and ideologically orthodox society is persuasive. Particularly in light of recent events, as we shall see. Feudal societies were hierarchical, with clearly-defined roles and responsibilities for everyone. The knights fought for all, the priests prayed for all, and the peasants worked for all. Times of upheaval could force open the door to social mobility, but otherwise, people kept their station. These barriers were broken down by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the modern democratic state. …

Is State Protection a Threat to Liberal Democracy?

The world is awash with predictions about the impact of COVID-19 on life in the liberal democracies—from more online shopping to less globalisation, from higher taxing governments to more working from home. But most analyses compare 2020 with 2019 and examine the immediate changes wrought by the pandemic alone. Long-term, COVID-19’s impact may turn out to be considerably greater. To fully appreciate the potential consequences of this pandemic we need to examine it in the wider context of the last two decades. It must be seen as part of a series of developments over that period that, collectively, could transform liberal democracy more dramatically than is currently predicted. Those developments have driven the physical and economic insecurity of citizens to levels never previously experienced in the modern liberal democratic state. COVID-19 may be a tipping point for insecurity. Self-preservation may be the new priority that triggers a radical transformation of what the citizens of liberal democracies demand from the state and what the state delivers. Taken too far, that transformation of the citizen/state relationship could …

Goodbye to Hong Kong?

I shall always regret not visiting Hong Kong while it was still under British control or while the city remained the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” For reasons I will get into below, I feel a special affection for the city, and will mourn the loss of its political autonomy and, potentially, the end of its economic prosperity. For classical liberals, Hong Kong had been a beacon of hope for half a century. Peter the Great is said to have built St Petersburg to be “Russia’s window to the west.” Hong Kong was supposed to be liberalism’s window to the future. The city’s fabled wealth was built on four pillars of classical liberalism: limited government, rule of law, free trade, and fiscal probity. And, it worked! We hoped that the rest of the world would follow a similar path. When Britain obtained the territory following the First Opium War (1839 – 1842), British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston denounced the acquisition as a “barren rock with nary a house upon it” …

Pandemics and Pandemonium

Minneapolis and urban centers across America are burning, most directly in response to the brutal killing of a black man by a white Minnesota police officer. But the rage ignited by the death of George Floyd is symptomatic of a profound sense of alienation that has been building for years among millions of poor, working class urbanites. The already diminished prospects facing such people have only been worsened by the unforeseen onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and the policies devised to combat it. Like earlier pandemics, the virus has devastated poorer communities, where people live in the most crowded housing, are forced to travel on public transport, and work in the most exposed “essential” jobs, most of which are badly paid. Unlike the affluent of Gotham, some 30 percent of whom were able to leave town and work remotely, the working class remained, forced to endure crowded conditions as the disease raged through the city. No surprise then that inhabitants of the impoverished Bronx have suffered nearly twice as many deaths from COVID-19 as those …

Capitalism or the Climate?

Can environmentalism and capitalism sustainably coexist? An influential movement of climate activists view capitalism and environmentalism as antithetical. According to the title of an article in the Guardian, “Ending Climate Change Requires the End of Capitalism.” An article in Foreign Policy, meanwhile, is subtitled, “New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both.” And in her bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know.” These are just a few of countless prominent examples. This view dwells not just in newsrooms, but in the halls of government as well. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the 2019 Green New Deal resolution and surrogate to Bernie Sanders in the 2020 democratic primary, told a 2019 SXSW audience, “Capitalism, to me, is an ideology of capital. The most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the …

Towards a Better Urbanism

The pandemic has brought panic to the once-confident ranks of urbanists promoting city density. At a time when even the New York Times is noticing that density and transit pose serious health risks for any potential re-opening, such people attack their critics as “anti-urbanist” or “sprawl lovers” or “urban gadflies.” Preferring theology over data, some advocate ever-greater density and crowding in cities and mass transit. But wishful thinking cannot alter the fact that the pandemic has hit core cities with particular force. The concentration of the worst outbreaks in major urban areas—the New York region alone accounts for more than 40 percent of all US fatalities—is a global phenomenon also seen in Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. This has cast a pall on traditional downtown-centric employment, dependent on massive subway systems, crowded apartments, and packed workspaces. Such places promote what demographer Wendell Cox calls “exposure density.” This is particularly lethal for low-wage workers forced to take packed transit lines from crowded apartments to packed workplaces. It is not surprising that, …

After the Virus: The Way We Live Next

How will we live, or be forced to live, after the pandemic? “I don’t know” is—according to Paul Collier, the famed development economist—the most honest answer to this question and others related to the cause, rise, treatment, and decline of the current pandemic. This is, after all, an unprecedented disease of rare speed and communicability, for which there is no cure and no agreed political and social response. Yet, contradicting himself within weeks, Collier wrote a similarly powerful essay in which he argued that centralisation had failed, and devolution from those who pronounce from on high to those who practice on the ground is necessary. Perhaps he was merely demonstrating that, in this maelstrom of conflicting arguments, no-one, no matter how distinguished, can wholly know his own mind from day to day. In any case, agnosticism is as unwelcome to journalism as it is to governance. And journalists, who operate under fewer constraints than governments, can at least consider some likely alternatives, while remaining alive to the possibility that unknown unknowns will continue to turn up, …

Viral Politics

Long after the pandemic has receded, its long-term impact on our society and political life will continue. Just as plagues past have reshaped the trajectory of cities and civilizations, sometimes with fearsome morbidity, COVID-19 is already having a profoundly disruptive impact on our political future. Rather than uniting humanity against a common foe, the pandemic seems to be widening the internal political chasm between nations and within them. The “battle,” “war,” or “crusade” against the novel coronavirus has not to date reprised the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor, or the World Trade Center attack in 2001, during which people closed ranks, even if they thought little of their country’s leaders. Democrats like party strategist James Carville and Speaker Nancy Pelosi insist that Trump has “blood on his hands” and one of Pelosi’s more excitable colleagues has suggested that Trump be tried in The Hague for his handling of the pandemic. On the Right, meanwhile, the pandemic has engendered, in the US and elsewhere, a predictably anti-China and nativist tone, which have sometimes drifted into overt racism, …

Warehouse Work in an Age of Contagion

As regular readers of Quillette will know, I work at a warehouse in West Sacramento, California, where every workday I toil in close quarters with dozens of other employees. In the days before the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, that wasn’t a problem. Now, however, it’s a little bit frightening. Last week, along with all other members of the company’s workforce, I received an email informing me that a supplier of surgical masks for all warehouse workers hasn’t yet been found. In the meantime, employees are improvising. People are covering their faces with bandanas, like stagecoach bandits in the Old West. Others are wearing ski masks, like contemporary bank robbers. Some wear scarves around their faces, even though the weather is fairly warm now. And some have even managed to procure actual facemasks. But most of the employees, like me, work uncovered. Although we are encouraged to stay six feet away from each other at all times, that isn’t really practical. We’re all hauling bags and packages out of narrow aisles and it isn’t …