The Biden Economy.

            President Joe Biden will soon announce that he will run for a second term.  Here’s the Democratic best-case interpretation of the performance of the Biden Administration during its first two years in power.[1] 

            In the view of Brian Deese, the chief economic official in the White House, the Biden Administration has performed very well, if not flawlessly.  The Administration’s 2021 stimulus bill promoted a “strong and equitable economic recovery.”  The Biden Administration also has “invested” in a wide range of industrial and infrastructure initiatives.  Many of these initiatives can be designated as climate-related.  Furthermore, the administration also has launched a hodge-podge of other policies which have not yet born fruit, either sweet or bitter.  Chief among these have been an attack on corporate concentration and talking-up the value of labor unions. 

            There have been failures as well.  Running for office during the Covid emergency, Candidate Joe Biden promised his voters all sorts of new government benefits.[2]  President Joe Biden could not entirely deliver on his promises.  He did deliver a big temporary increase in the child-tax credit. 

            Much more important has been the problem of inflation.  In Democratic reasoning, the American economy has turned in a feeble performance for much of the Twenty-first Century.  Therefore the 2021 stimulus bill erred on the side of optimism.  The Biden Administration did and could not anticipate the large and sustained rise in prices.  However, in the Democratic interpretation, the primary drivers of the inflation were the disruptions of the supply-chain and the spike in energy prices.  The former sprang from the Covid pandemic; the latter from Russia’s attack on Ukraine.  Neither of these could have been anticipated.  In any event, the error had only “somewhat limited consequences.”  Unless you were buying groceries or gassing-up the car. 

            Take a longer view.  The Clinton Administration (1992-2000) held office during—and claimed credit for—a boom/bubble in the tech economy.  Then that bubble burst just after the Bush II (2000-2008) took office.  Hot on the heels came 9/11.  The government poured in money and encouraged Americans to consume, rather than sacrifice for the war effort.  Then the long-ignored housing bubble collapsed.  First the Bush Administration, then the Obama Administration (2008-2016) poured in money to cushion the blow.  Apparently not enough money, because the “Long Recession” dragged on.  Then the Trump Administration (2016-2020) applied big tax cuts and deregulation.  Democrats ridiculed the resulting boom as a ”sugar high.”[3]  Then came Covid and more heavy government spending, first under the Trump Administration and then under the Biden Administration (2020- ). 

            So, in what kind of shape is the long-term private economy?  It looks like many of the spikes in economic activity spring from government stimulus in one guise or another.  If so, then the performance of the underlying “real” economy may not be too solid.  Economists offer complex analyses of this issue.  In layman’s terms, however, the stimuli seem like nostalgia for a bygone age of American economic prowess as much as emergency economic policies. 

[1] David Leonhardt, “Assessing the Biden Record as His Economic Team Transitions,” NYT, 23 February 2023. 

[2] Universal pre-K, paid family leave, expansion of the child tax-credit, and increased elder care.  At the same time, Biden endorsed many government programs to counter climate change. 

[3] Although it isn’t clear why deficit-expanding tax cuts create that “high,” while deficit-expanding spending doesn’t. 

Civil Society.

            What is the relationship between the Individual and Government?  In the Western tradition of political thought, the answer to that question has been “civil society.”  However, the term “civil society” has meant different specific things at different times.  For the Greeks, it was the achievement of the “good life” through the “polis” (city-state); for the Romans of both the Republic and the Empire, the state and civil society were identical.  For Western Europeans of the Middle Ages, the term had no meaning in the decentralized system of feudalism and the social-economic system of serfdom.  During the Early Modern Period (c. 1500-1750), Absolute Monarchy became the ideal political form, even if reality rarely matched the ideal.  However, Absolute Monarchy’s ever-advancing claims to regulate aspects of life, provoked a reaction.  The most important thinker of this reaction was John Locke, who elaborated the existing “social contract” theory of politics as a check on absolutism. 

A bunch of thinkers then piled-on to Locke’s argument.  Hegel, De Tocqueville, and Marx all argued, in their various ways, that civil society meant the limiting of government power by the spontaneous creation and functioning of independent groups in a society.  The Nineteenth Century Liberal ideal of a small state rested, in part, on a faith in “voluntarism”[1] in a healthy society.  Massive population growth, industrialization, and political conflicts transformed the context of this argument.  In particular, the rise of the modern dictatorships between the two World Wars expanded the reach of government into private and associational life.[2]  The Nazis and the Soviets, in particular, either subordinated or destroyed and replaced with their own creations all independent social organizations. 

In theory, the emergence of “problem-solving” representative governments in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries should not produce the same collapse of civil society.  Yet, at least in the United States, that seems to have happened in the years since 1950.  More than twenty years ago, Robert Putnam argued that the long stretch of years after the Second World War witnessed a grievous decline in associational activities.[3]  Putnam’s explanations for this decline do not include the expansion of government substitutes.  However, Republicans have not hesitated to treat state expansion beyond certain limits as pathological.[4] 

Regardless of the cause of as social atomization, the atomization seems real.  One result is a “crisis of loneliness.”[5]  Democrats and Republicans may differ over whether the answer is to be found in government action or in private initiative.  The health of both private individuals and of democracy may be at stake in finding the right answers. 

[1] “See a problem, solve a problem.”  So, youth groups, sports groups, church groups, professional associations, trade unions, civic associations, hobby clubs.  NB: Night clubs and strip clubs don’t count. 

[2] On the Fascist dictatorships, see Victoria de Grazia, The Culture of Consent: Mass Organizations of Leisure in Fascist Italy, (Cambridge UP, 1981); Julia Timpe, Nazi-Organized Recreation and Entertainment in the Third Reich, (Palgrave Macmillan UK 2016).  For the Soviet Union, see the photographic exhibit of Peter Marlow, Recuperation and Recreation in Soviet Russia: Holidaying Behind the Iron Curtain • Peter Marlow • Magnum Photos   

[3] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). 

[4] This is particularly the case for federal welfare policies pursued since the “Great Society” of the Sixties.  However, the deluge of government spending during and after the Covid pandemic has become a prime target for Republicans who criticize dependence upon government payments.  In their eyes, it undermines self-reliance and self-respect. 

[5] John Leland, “How Loneliness Is Damaging Our Health,” New York Times, 20 April 2022; and Vivek Murthy, “Addressing the Public Health Crisis of Loneliness,” Addressing the public health crisis of loneliness – Bing video