On my lunch break yesterday, I ran across a couple of articles that struck me as unusually good, but it took until later in the day to figure out what was so special about them.
The first, by Dylan Matthews, explains why he and many others initially guessed wrong on the path that inflation would take after the pandemic hit. The second, by Lucas Mann, is a seldom-heard perspective on the so-called crisis of free speech at elite universities.
The topics don’t overlap, so that’s not it. They’re both well-written, but that’s not quite it, either. They’re notable in that they both apply a grounded pragmatism to topics that are usually addressed either dogmatically or polemically. They reflect perspectives that actual people actually hold. That, in itself, makes them stand out from so much of what gets published.
Matthews’s piece opens with a confession that his expectations for the economy turned out to be incorrect. Already, that’s something; pundits don’t usually confess error. The rest of the piece reads like a mystery story: Why didn’t the usual predictors predict? It’s an elegantly argued piece, offering a bit of the history of 20th-century macroeconomic ideas in a readable and sensible way. He notes that the Phillips curve, which assumes a relatively direct seesaw between inflation and unemployment, largely broke in the 1970s; with stagflation, both ends of the seesaw were high. That’s not how seesaws work. Subsequently, economics fell in love with the idea of the NAIRU, or the nonaccelerating inflationary rate of unemployment. Essentially, it’s the minimum number of people who have to be kept unemployed in order to keep wage increases from driving prices up. The NAIRU was a variation on the Phillips curve, but with a breaking point.
The major issues with it were twofold. First, it required maintaining certain levels of unemployment to make the economy work. In a “by your own bootstraps” culture, that leads to some pretty inhumane actions. Second, it failed on its own terms. Unemployment rates routinely fell below a postulated NAIRU, and nothing happened. Human sacrifices to a vengeful god are bad enough; human sacrifices to a false god are that much worse. The NAIRU offered nothing in return for the lives that were ruined in its name.
I won’t spoil the ending beyond saying that it strikes me as mostly plausible. It relies on recognizing that a term like “unemployment” really serves as shorthand for “spending power,” but that the two terms diverged during the pandemic. Add supply chain interruptions, a shift in consumption from services to goods, and (lately) a war that threatens real damage, and things get—to use the technical term—weird.
The piece is strong in its content, but the “I was wrong” framing makes it much better. Along with being about inflation, it’s also about humility. The economy is complicated. It’s hard to proclaim confidently about future developments when information is partial and our theories are imperfect. Some epistemic humility can prevent certain kinds of disaster.
The second piece is an interpretation of the free speech panic at elite universities that occupies so much press coverage of higher ed. The author, Lucas Mann, teaches at UMass Dartmouth, which is what we would usually call a regional campus. It’s not to be confused with Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire. UMass Dartmouth is a regional campus of the state university system. As most nonelite colleges do, it enrolls significant numbers of first-generation and working-class students. As Mann put it in, sentences I wish I had written, “The trick isn’t convincing students to drop their dogmas. It’s convincing them that the stuff we’re talking about could matter in lives already complicated by many other things.” Yes. Exactly this.
I saw the same thing when I taught at places like Rutgers, Kean, DeVry and CCM. The students there didn’t need anything “problematized,” as we used to say. They needed things clarified. My role as an instructor wasn’t so much to poke holes in hubristic pronouncements as to help the students feel like they had the right, and standing, to speak in the first place. That’s probably not much of an issue at Harvard, but it is at plenty of other places. And those other places vastly outnumber the Harvards of the world, even if you wouldn’t know it from press coverage. The free speech issue at most colleges isn’t a mosh pit of brittle ideologues hurling invective at each other. It’s students who feel like it isn’t worth developing views on public questions because their opinions won’t matter anyway. Speaking as someone who believes in, and teaches, theories of democracy, this is the much greater danger.
Mann’s piece, like Matthews’s, offers grounded context in which the usual battle lines look slightly ridiculous. In other words, it has the ring of truth to it.
I’m very aware of being only one writer, and an imperfect one at that. But to the extent that I can help nudge the discourse away from hothouse polemics and toward pieces that are more recognizably based in lived reality, I’m happy to try. Kudos to Matthews and Mann for doing something rare that shouldn’t be rare at all. Well done.