February 20th, 2021

Transitions

On Spain's transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy

It’s been some time since the term “transition” was fully incorporated into day-to-day usage in contemporary Spanish. It refers to the process of political change that began during the second half of the 1970s, a process which transformed Spain from the Franco dictatorship to the parliamentary monarchy that governs the country today. The term was coined in the midst of the dictatorship, as if in its invocation it could foreshadow the horizon of its disintegration. It succeeded in connoting the way in which one regime gave way to another—not a violent cut, nor a democratic breakdown in the strict sense. Instead, it was a process negotiated by the leaders who had inherited the state apparatus of the dictatorship, and the leaders of the parties of the democratic opposition. While the first aimed to assert the weight, however trivial, of an obsolete and precarious power structure, the second aimed to channel the democratic impulse of a significant section of Spanish society.

That latter section was composed of men and women who resisted through illegal parties and organized social movements (worker’s movements, neighborhood associations, student unions, and feminist groups) capable of breaking the public order and revealing, between the cracks of the regime, the new alternatives. In their day to day, they developed forms of political participation, experimentation, and cultural innovation which themselves detracted from Franco’s hold on the popular imagination. In many ways, these early experiences were much more profound than the institutional restructuring later termed the transition. From this angle, the transition can be understood as a sfumato, that is to say, not only the fading of dictatorship into democracy, but as a sum of experiential layers each contributing to its atmosphere and offering a depth that we’ve yet to fully grasp.The interviews with Felipe González, Begoña San Jose, and Héctor Maravall contained in this book capture the texture of this historical moment.

On the other side of this politically active reality stood another very diverse and wide sector of society, predisposed to the consensus they were socialized into under Francoism. They were motivated by a timid desire for change, as well as by a deep fear of its consequences. Under- standing the Spanish transition requires gaining an awareness of these inherited social habits which were highly structured by authoritarianism, and the survival of its repressive legal, bureaucratic, and media institutions. It also requires acknowledging an international framework in which any action on the margin of society was limited by the areas of political influence that defined the Cold War period.

But understanding the transition also requires capturing that organic crisis in existing relations of power, the intuitive and automatic social responses which enhanced the appeal of new cultural attitudes and expanded the scope for political action. The much cited phrase of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán—which explains the negotiations behind the changing regime as “an alignment of weaknesses”—is useful if we recognize that, in moments of crisis, any alignment of forces is unstable and fragile. Understood through its underlying estatism, “an alignment of weaknesses” is a declaration that the transition happened in the only way that it could have. It’s an argument in which the real is transformed into the rational, the rational into the optimal, and the optimal into the venerable. But we know that narratives of the past tend to perform this argumentative transposition in the opposite direction: it is from the veneration of the present that earlier events are arranged in a way that inevitably leads towards some determined destiny.

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February 18th, 2021

François Mitterrand's Austerity Turn

The Rise and Fall of the French Road to Socialism

The history of French socialism is filled with famous and heroic dates: 1789; 1848; 1871 1936; 1968. But less well remembered is another date of great significance: 1981. It was in May of that year that the French left achieved its greatest electoral triumph of the postwar era, with the election of Socialist Party (PS) leader François Mitterrand as President of the Republic. That victory, which came after a quarter century of uninterrupted conservative rule, raised hopes for a new departure in French politics. Mitterrand’s election manifesto, the 110 Propositions for France, embodied the sweeping reform agenda he had promised since ascending to the leadership of the PS a decade earlier, when he memorably capped his speech at the Party’s 1971 Congress with a thunderous call for a “rupture” with capitalism. As head of the PS, Mitterrand’s decision to pursue an electoral agreement with his long-time his rivals from the Communist Party (PCF), which resulted in the 1972 “Common Program,” was both a milestone for the postwar French left, and an important step in his own rise to the Élysée Palace.

Mitterrand’s election in the spring of 1981, and the subsequent triumph of the left in parliamentary elections which followed immediately afterwards, led to the formation of a government under Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy that was more radical than any France had seen since Léon Blum’s Popular Front in 1936. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, Mauroy’s cabinet included four communist ministers.

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February 5th, 2021

The Italian Left After Keynesianism

From stagflation to the transformation of Italian left parties

In 1977, Eric Hobsbawm published a book of interviews with Giorgio Napolitano, a leading figure in the Italian Communist Party (PCI)’s gradualist wing, the miglioristi. Hobsbawm proclaimed himself a “spiritual member” of the PCI and intended this book to depict the path it was beating in between Leninism and social democracy. Yet his efforts appeared rather frustrated by Napolitano’s vocabulary. Though calling for the “reconstruction and renewal” of Italian society and insisting on the PCI’s “democratic commitment,” Napolitano did little to convey any clear socialist worldview. As he extolled the “perspective of the continuous, organic, balanced development of the Italian economy” and the “retailoring of [Italian] production for the foreign market,” Hobsbawm interrupted him, as if to draw him back on topic:

Hobsbawm: All this is very useful and positive…
Napolitano: But what does it have to do with the advancement of socialism?
Hobsbawm: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you.
Napolitano: That’s a question whose answer is less simple than it may seem.

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February 4th, 2021

Democracy or the Market

Third wayism and the problem of representation

The problem of democratic representation has always turned on the question of the “have-nots”—that is, not only those without wealth and property, but also those marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, origin, religion and education. Even in a world of full-fledged democratic rights, the democratic game tends to break in favor of the “haves.” They enjoy an easy affinity with political elites who are not so different from them, and they experience democratic politics as a hospitable and responsive place. When in doubt, they can back-channel, mobilize proxies and networks, and exchange cultural influence and economic power for political voice, cloaked in the comfort that what’s in their interest is in everyone’s interest. None of this means the powerful always get their way. But it means they operate on the assumption that their way is likely to prevail.

Before democratization, which in both Europe and the United States did not reach its full expression until the turn of the twentieth century, those without power were politically excluded by fiat. Even when some “have-nots” overcame formal exclusion, they had to further overcome efforts, both brazen and subtle, to impede the exercise of their political rights; if they managed to bridge the distance between rights-in-name and rights-in-fact, they still had to muster meaningful representation in a game that was not built for them. The achievement of both rights and representation for the powerless is difficult, rare and fragile—not least because formal rights, once achieved, can be used as a pretense for rendering representation practically meaningless. In this case, democracy becomes form without substance.

Three kinds of institutions were crucial drivers of the fitful, contested, imperfect construction of democratic rights and representation of the powerless between the 1850s and the 1920s: socialist and social democratic culture, mass political parties, and labor movements. Where the three converged, the result was a unique historical organization—the labor-allied mass party of the socialist and social democratic left.

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January 28th, 2021

Revolution, Reform, and Resignation

In the 1980s, the left abandoned its language of transformation. Can it be regained?

Some time in 1991 I was invited to give a talk to the Andalusian Confederation of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). Afterwards, the secretary of the confederation walked me back to my hotel. I asked him why there was a widespread atmosphere of demoralization within the party. He answered “Nos hicieron hablar un idioma que no era el nuestro”: “They made us speak a language that was not ours.”

Note that the secretary did not evoke the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, which significantly reduced the Party’s industrial working class base. He did not refer to the emergence of television, which reduced the importance of the party machine in mobilizing that base. He did not point to cultural transformations in Spanish society, which rendered new ideological dimensions politically salient. Instead, he identified the root of the party’s transformation in the language by which party leaders were expected to address their supporters, publicly interpret the world, and justify their policies. What was this language that was not “ours”?

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January 22nd, 2021

Inflation, Specific and General

The many causes and effects of inflation

Concerns over a generalized “inflation” loom in the recovery. Yet the prices that most heavily factor into the cost of living for US workers—housing, health, and education—have already been rising for decades. The question we should be asking is whether the extension of the welfare state is the cure for, rather than the cause of, these trends.

Until 1980, the annual rate of change of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the weighted measure of the cost of a basket of core consumer goods, increased at an accelerating pace in every business-cycle expansion, reaching double digits during the 1940s and 1970s. Inflation—its causes and consequences—was at the heart of economic debates throughout this period, when the discipline of macroeconomics took its current form. While we understand individual industry price changes in terms of supply, demand, and market power, our conceptual tools for understanding inflation remain weak.

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January 16th, 2021

Supercomputer

The Control Data Corporation and global value chains

In March 1976, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Defense (DOD), William “Bill” Clements invited William “Bill” C. Norris, CEO and Chairman of the supercomputer producer Control Data Corporation (CDC) to a closed-door meeting at the Pentagon. Secretaries and undersecretaries from the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force were to attend, as well as a selection of spokespersons from the public university system and private sector. Clements requested Norris come prepared with “any important aspect of Defense management or posture that… warrants perspective” and to be candid in his comments.

Preparing for the meeting, Norris wrote a note. The subject was “East-West trade.” The DOD was not giving enough “attention” to export administration, Norris penned. The fact that the Department was “inconsistent” in reviewing export applications for computer technology to Central and Eastern European countries created an “unhealthy,” “adversarial” relationship between industry and the military, he continued.

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January 9th, 2021

The Deflationary Bloc

Living in Hyman Minsky's world

“An effective way to write the history of the last thirty years of the twentieth century,” economist Albert Hirschman wrote in 1985, “may well be to focus on the distinctive reactions of various countries to the identical issue of worldwide inflation.” Writing just as the global “great inflation” of the 1970s was abating, Hirschman could not have understood how right he was. As Claudia Sahm has recently written in the New York Times, the fear of the great inflation of the 1970s still dominates the thinking of the Federal Reserve, even as its recent messages indicate some acceptance of higher inflation.

Economists lack a good understanding of what causes inflation—and its inverse, deflation. In introductory macroeconomics curricula, Milton Friedman’s mantra “inflation is always a monetary phenomenon” remains central. By this, Friedman meant that excessive price growth happens when a state loosens the supply of money, thus over-expanding the monetary base. However, recent research

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November 18th, 2020

The Student Debt Crisis is a Crisis of Non-Repayment

Think of the student debt crisis as an overflowing bathtub. On the one hand, too much water is pouring in: more borrowers are taking on more debt. That is thanks to increased demand for higher education in the face of rising tuition, stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities for those with less than a college degree, and the power of employers to dictate that would-be hires have the necessary training in advance. On the other hand, the drain is clogged and too little water is draining out: those who have taken on debt are increasingly unable to pay it off.

The last post in the Millennial Student Debt project used a new database of student debtors and their loan characteristics (matched to demographic and economic data in the American Community Survey) to document the former phenomenon, both in aggregate and particularly as it pertains to disadvantaged communities along multiple dimensions. Specifically, it showed the rapid growth of student debt levels and debt-to-income ratios in the population at large, among people of all income levels. But this growth is concentrated among non-white borrowers, who have higher debt conditional on income and whose increased indebtedness over the past decade-plus is greater than for white borrowers. That racial disparity is particularly pronounced in the middle of the income distribution. It also showed that student-debt-to-income ratios have grown fastest in the poorest communities since 2008. This post uses the same data to document the latter: non-repayment by student loan borrowers is getting worse over time, especially so for non-white debtors.

Over the last ten years, as outstanding student loan debt has mounted and been assumed by a more diverse, less affluent group of students and their families than was the case for prior cohorts, a common policy response has been to wave away its impact on wealth, both individually and in aggregate, by saying that the debt finances its own repayment. First of all, so the claim goes, student debt finances college degrees that in turn pay off in the form of higher earnings, enabling debtors to repay. Second, expanded allowance for income-driven repayment (IDR), by capping debt service as a share of disposable income, eliminates the worst forms of delinquency and default. The first claim says that repayment is inevitable, the second that it need not take place. Both claims together, however, serve to rationalize higher debt, higher tuition, higher attainment, and the forces driving all three.

IDR was designed to address a liquidity crunch: since students are graduating with more debt, they may not earn enough immediately upon entering the workforce to pay it down. That failure of earnings to align with debt service obligations means that a program to defer those obligations until earnings are realized would ameliorate delinquency and default, at the cost of capitalizing unpaid interest into a higher principal balance. The creation and expansion of IDR programs in the early 2010s did indeed serve to stop the growth of delinquency by the mid-2010s and reverse it, to the point that the share of accounts delinquent now is lower than it was before the Great Recession, despite the amount of debt and the number of debtors having increased continuously since then. For that reason, many higher education policy analysts have proposed further expanding the program.

But IDR programs will never be successful as a solution to the student debt crisis, because they’re designed to address a liquidity problem rather than the real problem—solvency. The problem with student debt is a problem of wealth—students and their families are taking on debt because they don’t have enough wealth to afford increasingly-costly, increasingly-mandatory higher education. The debt then itself exacerbates wealth disparities that the higher education it “paid” for doesn’t rectify.

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October 16th, 2020

Data as Property?

The legal structure of data egalitarianism

Since the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, critics of widely used internet communications services have warned of the misuse of personal data. Alongside familiar concerns regarding user privacy and state surveillance, a now-decades-long thread connects a group of theorists who view data—and in particular data about people—as central to what they have termed informational capitalism. Critics locate in datafication—the transformation of information into commodity—a particular economic process of value creation that demarcates informational capitalism from its predecessors. Whether these critics take “information” or “capitalism” as the modifier warranting primary concern, datafication, in their analysis, serves a dual role: both a process of production and a form of injustice.

In arguments levied against informational capitalism, the creation, collection, and use of data feature prominently as an unjust way to order productive activity. For instance, in her 2019 blockbuster The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshanna Zuboff likens our inner lives to a pre-Colonial continent, invaded and strip-mined of data by technology companies seeking profits. Elsewhere, Jathan Sadowski identifies data as a distinct form of capital, and accordingly links the imperative to collect data to the perpetual cycle of capital accumulation. Julie Cohen, in the Polanyian tradition, traces the “quasi-ownership through enclosure” of data and identifies the processing of personal information in “data refineries” as a fourth factor of production under informational capitalism.

Critiques breed proposals for reform. Thus, data governance emerges as key terrain on which to discipline firms engaged in datafication and to respond to the injustices of informational capitalism. Scholars, activists, technologists and even presidential candidates have all proposed data governance reforms to address the social ills generated by the technology industry.

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