A good while back I made a resolution not to blog about blogging more than once in a blue moon, and I’ve kept the resolution well enough that I literally can’t find my last post on the subject, after googling and scanning the site for about an hour. I do recall that this long-lost post explained why I don’t provide comment threads–which some folks consider essential for any legitimate progressive blog–mainly because I literally don’t have the time to read, much less manage, a significant number of comments. But at present, there’s quite a bit of buzz about comment threads in the blogosphere. Much of it is devoted to the recent incident over at The New Republic, which shut down a “culture blog” written by Lee Siegel after he got caught pseudonymously doing self-hagiographical posts in his own comment threads. And there’s continuing discussion (most recently by my colleague The Moose) about anti-semitic comments on progressive blog sites and whether their managers are sufficiently policing them. Siegel’s stunt struck me as reflecting more of a psychological disorder than some sort of massive violation of blogospheric ethics; you have to wonder how many other bloggers have succumbed to the temptation to stuff their own ballot box with self-praise. But it does raise obvious questions about the function of comment threads. Their ostensible purpose is to allow readers to “comment” on primary posts. But as anyone knows who slogs through comment threads, particularly at high-traffic sites, threads typically drift into collateral and then non-collateral topics. And there is clearly a hardy band of frequent commenters who drift from site to site; who know each other’s views; and who often conduct long-running debates that have little or nothing to do with the posts on which they are “commenting.” I have no inherent objection to this practice, but would observe that comment threads in many cases simply offer a way for non-bloggers to blog without the muss and fuss of running a site or creating diaries on the sites that offer them. The topic of objectionable content on comment threads is more important and troublesome. I agree with Kevin Drum that it’s fundamentally unfair to tar whole sites, much less whole categories of bloggers, with occasional disgusting views as expressed in comment threads. The Moose is making the somewhat different claim that blog proprietors aren’t doing enough to rid their sites of anti-semitic comments. I dunno about that. Most of the big progressive sites have an elaborate (and to me largely incomprehensible) machinery of policies and technological tools to police comments threads, and do regularly “ban” posters who violate the policies chronically. But they don’t, and probably can’t, instantly expunge comments that express objectionable prejudices, in part because it’s not always easy to draw the line between, say, objections to the U.S. alliance with Israel, and genuine anti-semitic utterances, even though they may often overlap.As it happens, I once (successfully) urged Josh Marshall to ban a guy from comments at TPMCafe who was constantly popping up (not just there, but all over the blogosphere) to claim that anyone he disagreed with on virtually any topic was, in fact, acting as an agent of AIPAC, a.k.a. “the Israel Lobby.” I contacted Josh after about the fifth time this jerk breezily announced that the DLC existed purely and simply as an AIPAC front. My objection was not exactly that he was expressing anti-semitic opinions, though he likely holds them; it was that his comments weren’t expressions of opinion at all, but completely unsupported statements of “fact” that were actually lies, and had to be either conscious lies or products of a deep delusion, since he had no idea what he was talking about. Seems to me this might not be a bad rule of thumb for the general treatment of possibly anti-semitic content on blog sites. After all, the diseased heart of all classic anti-semitism is the stubborn claim that Jews exercise shadowy and disproportionate influence by way of a conspiracy that has ensnared or corrupted the gentiles who ostensibly are in charge of governments and opinion-leading media. If, God forbid, I were in charge of a comment thread, I wouldn’t have a beef with people who wanted to argue that America’s alliance with Israel is not in our national interest. But there are dozens of reasons for the strong pro-Israeli tradition in U.S. foreign policy–reasons that range from coldly rational analysis to all sorts of ideological and cultural affinities. It would exist if there were no AIPAC, and no high-profile Jews writing about the Middle East. So I’d bounce anybody from a comment thread that resorted to the “Jewish cabal” kind of argument. It’s a short distance from there to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And quite frankly, that point of view has been aired more than enough over the centuries, with horrific consequences.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
All the talk of renewed inflation brought back some terrible memories for me, and I wrote about them at New York:
When I was a freshman college debater at Emory University in the fall of 1970, the national debate topic was not Vietnam, but the desirability of wage and price controls. Little did we know that just months ahead a Republican president would impose a wage-price freeze, long the anti-inflationary prescription of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But the surprise known in financial circles as the “Nixon shock,” nearly a half-century ago (on August 15, 1971) showed how pervasive the fear of inflation — running at just over 5 percent in 1970 — had become.
That’s ancient history now, even to those of us who remember the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, and the particularly horrid scourge of “stagflation” (high inflation and unemployment simultaneously). Inflation seems to have been tamed by wise monetary policies. The periodic warnings from 21st-century conservatives that low interest rates and federal budget deficits would create inflation didn’t much bother me. It was like hearing an old priest chant a forgotten litany in a lost language — just one among many ritualistic arguments for the tight credit and reactionary social policies these people favored instinctively as a sort of class self-defense posture.The current surge in consumer prices doesn’t necessarily change that picture; the current post-pandemic (we hope) economic environment was sure to produce a spike in wages and prices that cannot be projected into a future where something approaching normalcy will surely return (though the real-estate bubble is indeed troubling). But now I am beginning to hear echoes of the inflation panics of the not-so-distant past, which make me tremble.
Like Tim Noah, I suspect there may be a generational lapse in understanding the politics of inflation:
“I don’t care to be condescended to by a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials about my ’70s-bred fear of inflation. It feels too much like the condescension we Boomers directed toward Depression babies whenever they warned us that we were playing with fire in deregulating the financial markets. Poor dears, we thought, traumatized for life by the 1929 crash and one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
“The Depression babies turned out to be right, of course.”
Noah makes it clear he’s not arguing inflation per se is bad for the economy. It is, however, bad for progressive politics, and not just because “stagflation” probably killed the Carter presidency and ushered in the Reagan era far more than the Iranian hostage crisis or other better-remembered Democratic foibles. The deflationary economic strategies of the 1980s weren’t called “austerity,” but rather a corrective for undisciplined policies that fed wage and price spirals which in turned hammered the value of savings, the living standards of those on fixed incomes, and the political case for federal domestic spending.
Most lethally for progressivism, the conservative supply-side tax-cutting when combined with inflationary fears can create enormous pressure for public disinvestment and the shredding of safety nets (which is why reactionaries happily labeled the intended result “starving the beast”). We are still living with some of the long-term consequences of anti-inflationary backlash. As Noah points out, California’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative in 1978 and similar “tax revolts” were a by-product of price spirals that boosted tax assessments on property and income alike.
But sometimes lost in an examination of the right’s exploitation of inflation fears is the abiding fact that the left has no clear prescription for dealing with it, either, other than by denying its existence or significance (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly). Ironically, that was made most evident by the supposedly illiberal Richard Nixon’s surprising use of the great liberal instrument for taming inflation.
The veteran ex-conservative economic and political analyst Bruce Bartlett has penned an exceptional explainer on the background and consequences of the “Nixon shock,” particularly its international dimensions, and the role played by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who like his boss and ally Nixon was more focused on short-term politics than on long-term economic realities. What’s clear is that Nixon was convinced a recession induced by the Eisenhower administration and its Federal Reserve Board appointees designed to kill inflationary pressures also killed his 1960 presidential candidacy. As prices spiked in 1970, he was terrified the same thing could happen in 1972.
Nixon had inherited (and temporarily extended) an income-tax surcharge from LBJ that was designed to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the Vietnam War, but its effects were limited. So with his signature televised bombshell reveal (the one he deployed a month earlier to announce his trip to China), amid great secrecy, Nixon rolled out a combo platter of initiatives to fight inflation and international economic instability. They included a suspension of fixed currency exchange rates and the convertibility of the dollar to gold (to head off a raid on gold supplies triggered by a British demand for a major conversion); an import surcharge (to prevent a worsening of the trade balance); and most significantly for most Americans, a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to be followed by an indefinite period of controls by federal panels.
As political theater, Nixon’s speech announcing a “new economic policy” was, well, Nixonian. He began with dessert: an assortment of tax breaks and job-creation incentives balanced by mostly unspecified spending cuts; only then did he mention the wage-price freeze. After promising to “break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs,” Nixon moved on to his international proposals, which he downplayed as “very technical,” while assuring viewers that “if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.”
Nixon’s wage and price controls were initially very popular (as polls had told the White House they would be) and did indeed hold down inflation through the reelection year of 1972, when Nixon won his famous landslide reelection over poor George McGovern, in part by goosing federal appropriations to create a mini-boom. By then the administration had moved on to a more discretionary system for regulating wage and price increases, which generated rumors of employers currying favor with generous donations to CREEP (the Committee to Reelect the President), the notoriously corrupt operation heavily complicit in the Watergate scandals that brought down the Nixon presidency. Between the suppressed and eventually unleashed inflationary pressures and the oil-price shock Nixon’s international economic policies helped create, the country paid a very high economic price for the brief respite from inflation the wage-price freeze earned him. He sowed the wind with even greater inflation, and his successors Gerald Ford (whose feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was widely mocked) and Jimmy Carter reaped the whirlwind.
Before you dismiss these events from 50 years ago as irrelevant, consider how much Nixon’s short-sighted approach sounds like something President Donald Trump might have done if inflation had became a political problem during his tenure (or in, God help us, a future term). Indeed, any president mulling Nixon’s choice of recession-inducing fiscal or monetary policies might be tempted to resort to the easy-to-understand, if dangerous, strategy of wage and price controls in which the pain is mostly back-loaded, particularly in or near an election year. Old folks remember how it preceded Nixon’s landslide 1972 win, followed by a decade of economic pain and multiple decades of political misery for progressives.