The American Prospect

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Judging Obama's "Evolution" on Marriage Equality

Years from now, Barack Obama will almost certainly be seen as the most significant American president in the history of the gay rights movement. Under his watch, the military ended its policy of discrimination against gay servicemembers, the Defense of Marriage Act was abandoned by the administration and then overturned by the Supreme Court, and a majority of Americans came to embrace marriage equality—not least, the president himself.

But there's another way to look at that story, which is that on marriage, at least, Obama had to be dragged to the position he eventually took. An article in next Sunday's New York Times Magazine, by Jo Becker, details just what the process was, and if you're looking for evidence that Obama's "evolution" on the issue was purely political, there's plenty. I don't know too many liberals who would doubt it—or conservatives either, for that matter. The former see a president whose heart was in the right place but was cautious about when it would be possible for him to embrace same-sex marriage, while the latter see a president who dishonestly hid his radical agenda.

It's pretty clear by now that most Republican politicians are going to go through the same evolution as Obama did. There will always be holdouts on the far right, but before long, the typical Republican senator is going to be personally in favor of marriage equality, but unable to come out and say so until the political environment—in this case, within the Republican party—reduces the political risk of doing so.

Here's how Becker describes the political thinking within the White House as the issue came to a head before the 2012 election:

The assumption going into the 2012 campaign was that there was little to be gained politically from the president's coming down firmly in favor of same-sex marriage. In particular, his political advisers were worried that his endorsement could splinter the coalition needed to win a second term, depressing turnout among socially conservative African-Americans, Latinos and white working-class Catholics in battleground states.

But by November 2011, it was becoming increasingly clear that continuing to sidestep the issue came with its own set of costs. The campaign's internal polling revealed that the issue was a touchstone for likely Obama voters under 30. The campaign needed those voters to turn out in the record numbers they had four years earlier, and the biggest impediment was Obama's refusal to say he favored allowing gay couples to wed.

"We understood that this would be galvanizing to some voters and be difficult with other voters," said Jim Messina, the manager of Obama's 2012 campaign.

Caught between countervailing political forces, Obama called his top aides together and said that if asked again for his position, he both wanted and needed to drop the pretense and tell people where he really stood.

"The politics of authenticity — not just the politics, but his own sense of authenticity — required that he finally step forward," Axelrod said. "And the president understood that."

That is one priceless Freudian slip from Axelrod, about the requirements of the "politics of authenticity." But he's a political consultant, and his job to think about the politics of everything. Regardless, what the article doesn't contain is much evidence that Obama struggled with anything but the politics. Maybe he did, and Becker just didn't talk to anyone who could share his personal contemplations. (She didn't get to interview Obama himself.) But Obama is an extremely pragmatic politician, sometimes to a fault. It's much more likely that in the end, what will be remembered is the place he arrived, not how long it took him to get there.

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Did Jesus Have a Wife?

The world of ancient papyrology—the study of tiny scraps of manuscripts unearthed in archeological digs across the Mediterranean—is not, in general, a font of juicy media stories. That is, unless the papyrus in question seems to suggest that Jesus, long understood to have been celibate, was married. Last September, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King presented her initial findings about a business-card-sized fragment of papyrus, believed to be the work of early followers of Jesus. The 33 words on the fragment included:

Jesus said to them, “My wife …"

 "she will be able to be my disciple" 

King’s discovery—which she dubbed the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”—immediately made headlines across the world, and sent shockwaves through academic and religious communities. The Vatican dismissed the fragment, saying it was a clear fake. Scholars of antiquity lined up on either side, some declaring it a historic find, while others decried it as an inept forgery designed to undermine Christian teachings about celibacy and women’s leadership.

Now, more than a year later, scientific analysis of the papyrus and the ink reveals that the fragment is likely ancient. A chemistry professor at MIT told the New York Times that doctoring the scrap of paper would have been “extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Not everyone is convinced. Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown, says the fragment is so obviously fake it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.”

The fracas over whether the papyrus was forged has, so far, overshadowed questions about its historical meaning—and what ramifications it might have for contemporary Christianity. The American Prospect spoke with Karen King about the media firestorm around the papyrus, and what the early Christians might have meant when they wrote about Jesus’s wife.

Were you anticipating such a widespread backlash to the fragment?

The story was much bigger than I thought, and much more global. Usually, there’s a lot of time for other scholars to take a look at your data, to carefully consider something new, but because of the public interest and the media storm, scholars were asked immediately to respond. As a result, what got circulated in the press and on the Internet were immediate impressions—what people thought when they first looked at the fragment or heard there was a fragment that said, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” In that sense, it was kind of a Rorschach test. Typically, in scholarship, the wheels grind slowly and we work collaboratively at a more careful pace, taking in all the criticisms and doing more research.  That’s what happened and why it has taken another year and a half to publish the fragment.

Why do you think people were so fascinated by this finding, and so quick to draw dramatic conclusions from it?

Some of the passion of the responses came from the perception that it might change people’s understanding of Jesus. Some people wrote me and said, Jesus was without sin, therefore he could not be married. The implication is that sexuality has some taint of sin. Other people would say, if Jesus were married, that would undermine the Catholic teaching about a celibate priesthood. That fed into notions about whether the fragment was forged. There’s this notion that if the papyrus truly is an ancient document, then what it says is true, and if it’s a forgery, what it says is false. People who embraced the usual conviction that Jesus wasn’t married therefore tended to assume it was forgery. On the other hand, those who already thought he must have been married—after all, he was Jewish and a rabbi so that would be expected—tended to think the fragment was authentic.  But the fragment can be—I think it is—ancient and authentic, and yet what it says about Jesus was written too long after his life to be historically reliable.

Does the fragment prove that Jesus was married?

No. The fragment is not reliable evidence of whether Jesus was married. Both people who responded very favorably to me and people who responded very negatively believed I had said something that I didn’t say.  People quite understandably want a clear answer to this question, but we—historians—don’t actually know for sure.

But some early Christians believed that Jesus might not have been celibate?

Sometime in the late second and early third century the question of Jesus being married comes up as part of an active debate in which the main interest was sexual ethics for Christians. Should Christians marry, or should they be celibate? Is celibacy better than marriage? The first people to talk about Jesus’s marital status really weren’t talking about him as a historical person. They used a metaphor: that Christ was married to the church, or the bride of Christ was New Jerusalem. As far as I’ve been able to discover, the first people to say that the historical Jesus was not married were a group of Christians who were condemned as heretics. They said that marriage is fornication and Christians should imitate the Lord who never married. They regarded themselves as superior because they were following the gospel. The only text I’ve found that said that the historical Jesus was married—to Mary Magdalene—was the Gospel of Philip, which was found in Egypt in 1945. It sees his marriage as part of his incarnate life, like his birth and teaching mission. It has symbolic meaning for the soul’s union with the divine spirit in baptism.

Does the fragment suggest that women might have been leaders in the early Christian church?

When some people were looking for a motive for forgery, some suggested that it would promote women’s priesthood. But I don’t think the fragment is interested in that issue. I think the main assertion here is that wives and mothers can be disciples of Jesus. Some people may think that that’s obvious and doesn’t need to be said. But if you look at early Christianity, this was a really hot topic. There’s a saying where Peter says to Jesus, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Some Christians were clearly arguing that women couldn’t be disciples of Jesus. But then you see something like 1 Timothy in the New Testament, where the author of that letter writes that women will be saved through bearing children and bishops should be the husband of one wife. It condemns people who reject marriage, in the strongest terms, calling them liars inspired by demons. So early Christians were taking some very strong positions with regard to women’s discipleship. They were especially focused on sexually active women, wives and mothers. In my view, the fragment fits into that discussion and comes down on the side of 1 Timothy: Yes, women who are wives and mothers can be disciples of Jesus.

Do we know anything else about when the fragment was written, or who might have written it?

The radiocarbon dating Noreen Tuross did at Harvard just came back and puts this fragment somewhere between the 7th and the 9th centuries. That’s the actual date of the material piece of surviving papyrus. But that doesn’t mean that’s when the text was composed. For example, generally we think the gospels of the New Testament were all composed in the 1st century, even though we don’t have any existing pieces of 1st century copies of New Testament gospels. That doesn’t make anybody think they weren’t composed in the 1st century, but it does show that “When was something composed?” is a different question from “How old is the existing material copy?” Mostly for this fragment, we have more questions than answers. When was it composed? When was it copied? Who was reading it in the 8th century? Why did somebody copy it then? I’ve been dating the original composition to the late second or early third century because I think it fits into this time when Christians were asking a lot of questions about marriage and celibacy. But that’s more speculative than asking why Christians were reading it in the 8th century.

Why might people in the 8th century have wanted to copy it?

Since we got that radiocarbon dating so recently, I have not had a chance to explore that. And obviously no one else has either. Particularly fascinating to me, though, is the notion of Christianity in Egypt in the early Islamic period. We know that Muhammad was married. Islam understands that the prophets were married, and they considered Jesus a prophet. So even though the Qur’an did not say Jesus was married, it’s interesting to ask the question about what Christians were thinking about Jesus’s marital status in a milieu where Muhammad and other prophets were married.

Does the papyrus have anything to say about Christian life and practice today?

It does ask Christians to think about whether all intimate sexual relations—even sex in marriage, even sex that gives us our children, that fits in relationships of mutuality, commitment, and affection—is tainted by sin. And it asks Christians to think about whether sexuality is part of being fully human. Because Christianity has this theological notion that in the incarnation, God became fully human—Jesus was not only fully God, he was fully human—if he did not engage in any form of intimate sexual relations, does that mean that sexuality is not part of being fully human? Those questions are very, very important for any kind of contemporary Christian sexual ethics. 

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Daily Meme: The Passion of Kathleen Sebelius


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The Culture War Goes On

These days, liberals might be forgiven for feeling that they've won the culture war, or at least that they're winning. With the large exception of abortion (on which opinions have basically not budged in decades and conservative states have moved aggressively to curtail women's rights), on most hot-button social issues the country continues to move left. Marriage equality is now embraced by a majority of Americans, as is marijuana legalization. Basic conservative ideas about family life—that women should stay home whether they want to or not, that children benefit from a good beating now and again—live on in the hearts of many but have been vanquished from the realm of reasonable debate. On these issues and many others, young people are far more liberal than the old, particularly the oldest generations that are dying out.

But the culture war has always, and will always, be with us. And just because you've lost a particular battle, it doesn't mean you can't keep fighting it. To wit, this inspiring bit of lawmaking from the Louisiana legislature:

The Louisiana House of Representatives rejected legislation, on Tuesday, that would remove the state's symbolic ban on certain kinds of sodomy. The bill failed by a wide margin on a vote of 27-67, with 11 members not voting.

Louisiana's anti-sodomy law was overturned and declared unconstitutional in 2003, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling such state statutes could not be enforced. Still, the Legislature has been unwilling to officially strike the measure from state law, even though it can't be used as a cause for arrest.

A House Committee passed the legislation onto the body's floor by a vote of 9-6 last week. But one of the state's most powerful lobbying groups, the conservative Christian Louisiana Family Forum, opposes striking the sodomy ban.

The group sent out a letter to every legislator urging them to vote against the proposal, claiming that teenagers would be less protected from sexual predators if they went through with the repeal. They also said the bill would put the public health at risk.

"Louisiana's anti-sodomy statute is consistent with the values of Louisiana residents who consider this behavior to be dangerous, unhealthy and immoral," stated the letter to lawmakers from the Louisiana Family Forum.

Every Republican but two voted to keep the sodomy law on the books (there were also 8 Democrats among the 67 votes to keep the law). How much of that was calculated politics and how much sprung from the genuine belief that people who commit sodomy should be arrested (but just the bad kind of sodomy, you know what they mean, not the awesome kind!), we'll never know.

The honorable members of the Louisiana House may be fighting against an enemy that has already overrun them and moved on. But once we stop debating marriage equality, there will be some other culture war issue, no doubt related in some way to sex (as almost all culture war issues are) that folks everywhere can argue about, and Southern legislators can use to tell their constituents that immoral Northeastern elitists are using to try to destroy their way of life. So it has been, and so it will be.

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Uncivil Disobedience and the Opposite of Patriotism

Back when George W. Bush was president, liberals were regularly accused of being disloyal or anti-American if they disagreed with the policies the administration was undertaking. As Bush himself said, you were either with us or with the terrorists, and as far as many of his supporters were concerned, "us" meant the Bush administration and everything they wanted to do, including invading Iraq. You may have noticed that now that there's a Democrat in the White House, conservatives no longer find disagreeing with the government's policies to be anti-American; in fact, the truest patriotism is now supposedly found among those whose hatred of the president, and the government more generally, burns white-hot in the core of their souls.

We've gotten used to that over the last five years, but I've still been surprised at the conservative embrace of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has been in an argument with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees. Briefly: for 20 years Bundy has been taking his cattle to graze on federal land, but he refuses to pay grazing fees as the law demands and as other ranchers do, despite numerous court orders. So the BLM seized some of his cattle, and in the ensuing standoff, hundreds of armed right-wing nuts came to Bundy's defense, trooping out to aim their weapons at federal employees.

I'm sure there are some conservatives who view this conflict in the clear, simple terms it deserves. This guy wants to use resources that don't belong to him without paying for them, which is what we generally refer to as "stealing." The reason he thinks he can do it is, as he put it in a radio interview, "I don't recognize the United States government as even existing." In other words, he isn't standing up for principle, he's a nut case.

And yet, prominent conservatives are not only rushing to his defense, they're casting him as a patriotic American. Here's part of an absolutely incredible column from The National Review's Kevin Williamson:

Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too, when he was tried for sedition; Mr. Gandhi himself habitually was among the first to acknowledge that fact, refusing to offer a defense in his sedition case and arguing that the judge had no choice but to resign, in protest of the perfectly legal injustice unfolding in his courtroom, or to sentence him to the harshest sentence possible, there being no extenuating circumstances for Mr. Gandhi's intentional violation of the law. Henry David Thoreau was happy to spend his time in jail, knowing that the law was against him, whatever side justice was on.

Yes, you read that right: he compares Cliven Bundy to Gandhi. And he ends with this stirring call:

Prudential measures do not solve questions of principle. So where does that leave us with our judgment of the Nevada insurrection? Perhaps with an understanding that while Mr. Bundy's stand should not be construed as a general template for civic action, it is nonetheless the case that, in measured doses, a little sedition is an excellent thing.

Williamson's boss, NR editor Rich Lowry, also said that Bundy's actions are "within the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau." Which just shows how little these people understand about civil disobedience, and about American traditions.

Civil disobedience means breaking a law, publicly and calmly, and then accepting the punishment the law provides, in order to draw attention to a law that is unjust and should be changed. The law Cliven Bundy is breaking says that if you graze your cattle on land owned by the federal government, you have to pay grazing fees. I haven't heard anyone articulate why that law is unjust. People are saying that the government owns too much land in Nevada, and maybe it does, but until the government sells it to you and you own it, you have to pay to use it. There isn't any fundamental question of human rights or even the reach of government in question here at all. Mr. Bundy also doesn't have the right to walk into the local BLM office and stuff all their staplers and pens into his knapsack and walk out.

Secondly, and just as important, there's nothing "civil" about Bundy's disobedience. If it was civil disobedience, he'd pay what he owes and then try, through the courts and public opinion, to change what he sees as these unjust grazing fees. But he hasn't done that. He just refused to pay, and then led a heavily-armed standoff with the government.

I'm sorry, but if you're defending Bundy, no matter how many times you toss the phrase "We the people" into what you say, you just have no clue about how democracy works. When you become a United States citizen, or when you take public office in America, you don't pledge to honor whatever particular notion you have of what this country ought to be. You pledge to uphold the Constitution. The whole point of democracy is, as John Adams put it, "a government of laws, not of men." The system embodies the will of the people and allows for change. When there's something about that system you don't like, you can't just shout "Tyranny!" and refuse to obey the laws. You work to change them through democratic means.

What Cliven Bundy and his supporters are doing is the opposite of patriotism. It isn't principled opposition to Barack Obama, or to the policies of the federal government; it's opposition to the American system of democracy itself. And the people who are defending him ought to be ashamed of themselves.

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Cuomo's Wedge

On Monday, Mary Fallin, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, signed legislation forbidding her state’s cities from enacting ordinances that set their own minimum wage standards or that entitle workers to paid sick days. Even in hard-right Oklahoma, citizens were collecting signatures to put initiatives raising the minimum wage and mandating sick-day on the Oklahoma City ballot. Fallin has now put an unceremonious end to such egalitarian frippery.

As an increasing number of cities have considered setting their minimum wages higher than those of their states, conservatives in state government have moved to strip them of that power. Most Southern states explicitly forbid their municipalities from indulging in such displays of egalitarian economics. In Washington, a Republican state senator has introduced legislation that would keep Seattle from raising its wage. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker is backing legislation that would strip cities of the right to enact living wage ordinances covering city-contract workers. (If passed, the bill would negate the living-wage ordinance in Madison and pre-empt the effort to enact one in Milwaukee.) And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced his opposition to a bill that would give New York City the right to set a minimum wage higher than the state’s, effectively killing the legislation.

That’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, of course. But then, on matters economic, Cuomo is frequently closer to Oklahoma’s Mary Fallon than he is to most Democratic governors—or, for that matter, to the Democratic voters of New York.

In his three years as New York’s governor, Cuomo has shown himself to be a down-the-line social liberal, pushing through the legislature bills to legalize same-sex marriage and expand the state’s gun-control laws. Then again, it’s hard to find any blue-state Democrats who don’t back same-sex marriage and gun controls. But even as his party and his president have moved to the left on economic questions to combat the vertiginous rise in economic inequality, Cuomo has repeatedly shown himself to favor Wall Street’s interests over Main Street’s.

Last year, at Cuomo’s prompting, the legislature raised the state’s minimum wage in annual increments, topping out at $9-an-hour in 2016.  That’s hardly a munificent figure—the Democrats’ proposal for the national minimum is $10.10, a level to which Connecticut, Maryland and California have all raised theirs (almost—California’s is set at $10.00). Cuomo has entertained no further increases to his own state’s minimum, however, and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sought the state’s go-ahead for the city to set its own standard—living expenses in the city being at least twice that of upstate New York—Cuomo responded with a flat No. (By state law, the city needs the state’s permission to set a wage of its own.) Cuomo’s argument was that wages should be uniform throughout the state to avoid a crazy-quilt of different standards, but by acknowledging that the state’s minimum, as of last year, should exceed the national minimum due to the state’s higher costs of living, he advanced the very argument that makes raising New York City’s minimum so screamingly obvious.

Cuomo’s opposition to higher minimums is of a piece with his aggressively anti-populist economics. In this year’s state budget, which he signed into law last week, he cut taxes on New York’s mega-banks and raised the threshold at which the state’s estate tax takes effect. He refused de Blasio’s request to allow the city to tax its wealthiest citizens—those making at least $500,000 a year—to establish universal pre-kindergarten classes within the city, and increased the number of charter schools the state allowed in response to de Blasio’s efforts to limit them.

Cuomo’s obeisance to money didn’t stop there. Earlier this month, he disbanded the commission he’d appointed to reform the state’s campaign finance laws in response to a wave of corruption scandals in the legislature. Proponents of reform had been pushing for the state to adopt a system like New York City’s, in which low-dollar campaign contributions get a five-to-one match of public funds. The law was key to the election of de Blasio and the new progressive majority on the city council. By abolishing the commission, Cuomo has strengthened the hold that big money has on his state’s politics.

Will New York Democrats stand idly by as their governor promotes Republican economics more ably than most Republicans? New York Democrats are a famously liberal bunch, and Cuomo’s attacks on other party leaders—he’s made enemies of de Blasio, Senator Chuck Schumer, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and most of the state’s Democratic electeds—haven’t left him with any residue of good will among Democratic elites. Like Republican Chris Christie across the Hudson from him, Cuomo governs by fear and inspires loathing. Whether that fear, and a sense of futility (Cuomo has already raised close to $20 million for his re-election campaign and Wall Street won’t balk and giving him much more) will suffice to deter the serious primary challenge that Cuomo merits remains to be seen. It’s late for a challenger to enter the race, but that challenger could be assured going in that there would be no need to drive a wedge between Cuomo and the Democratic primary electorate. Cuomo has driven that wedge himself. 

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Hillary Clinton, Youth Candidate

Our old colleague Patrick Caldwell has an interesting article up at Mother Jones about the way the Hillary Clinton campaign—or whatever we can call it at this point, since it isn't actually a campaign but it isn't exactly just a bunch of independent people doing their own thing either—is going after college students. I had forgotten how idiotically hostile the Hillary '08 campaign was toward college students in Iowa, but that's just one of innumerable mistakes that one presumes she'll attempt to correct this time around. This, though, is the part that caught my eye:

I was an Iowa college student myself during the last Democratic nomination, and I remember all my friends rallying around Obama with only a handful of holdouts canvassing for Clinton. She represented everything old news to my generation. We came of age during the tail end of Bill's presidency. The Clintons were our parents' Baby Boomer obsession. The old fights over draft dodging and inhaling were quaintly out of touch when Barack Obama owned up to being a stoner in high school and having experimented with cocaine. The Iraq War, launched while we were in high school contemplating our futures, was the initial moment of political awakening for many of us; Clinton's vote in favor of the war destroyed her chances of winning over the college-age crowd last time around.

Republicans have already signaled that they plan to highlight Clinton's age and Baby Boomer status should she become the Democrats' nominee. "The idea that we're at the end of her generation and that it's time for another to step forward is certainly going to be compelling," Karl Rove has said.

Yet that argument appears to hold less weight among the college kids of today. She receives rapturous applause when her speaking tour takes her to college campuses, an increasingly frequent occurrence. Polls have found that voters ages 18 to 39 are more likely to view Clinton favorably than their parents.

I don't doubt that the Republicans will highlight Clinton's age. And it will have no effect. It will be a bunch of ugly comments about her looks and her wrinkles (just you wait), with unflattering pictures passed from one AOL account to another. The problem they'll have is that although their nominee will be younger than Clinton, perhaps significantly so, none of the contenders for the GOP nomination has much appeal to the young beyond their chronological age.

This SNL skit about Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush trying to pitch the kids at Coachella wasn't particularly funny, but it captured the problem. Just like with any other group of voters, style matters to young people, but so does substance. The GOP's basic policy profile just isn't going to be a hit among the young. A lot of what the party believes isn't even appealing to young Republicans; for instance, a recent Pew Research poll shows that 61 percent of Republicans between 18 and 29 support marriage equality. So it isn't as though millions of college kids are going to say, "Man, that Paul Ryan guy [or Ted Cruz, or Scott Walker, or whoever] is awesome! He's only, like, 25 years older than me!"

In 2008, Barack Obama was stylistically appealing to young people in lots of ways. But he also wasn't held back by an ideology pitched to the concerns and fears of angry, 75-year-old white guys. I don't know if college students will go nuts for Hillary Clinton, but I'm pretty sure they won't be turning away from her in favor of whoever the GOP nominates because they think she's too old.

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Daily Meme: Boston, One Year Later

  • Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. Three people died in the attack, while over 270 were injured, many of them gruesomelyleg amputations abounded amongst the victims of the attack, given the angle of the bomb. 
  • The city of Boston marked the day with a memorial service and flag-raising ceremony over the finish line of the race, attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Governor Deval Patrick, and former mayor Thomas Menino. A bomb scare by South Station this morning was a reminder of the sense insecurity that shook the city one year ago. This year's marathon will go on as planned on Monday April 21
  • The lone surviving bomber, 20-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is currently being held in a federal medical facility, where as The New York Times reports, he remains incredibly isolated: "He cannot mingle, speak or pray with other prisoners. His only visitors are his legal team, a mental health consultant and his immediate family, who apparently have seen him only rarely ... Beyond being segregated from other prisoners—for their security and his, the government has stated—Mr. Tsarnaev may well spend little time outside his cell, period."
  • In February, a U.S. District Court judge set Tzarnaev's court date for November 3, an expedited schedule. One of Tsarnaev's defense lawyers, Judy Clarke, called the litigation schedule  "virtually impossible.”  
  • The government will seek the death penalty on 17 of the charges leveled against Tsarnaev. Massachusetts does not have the death penalty under state law, and some are upset that it's being sought. 
  • The defense team is expected to paint Dzhokar Tsarnaev as under the thumb of his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shoot-out with police last year. The older Tsarnaev became increasingly interested in radical Islam, and following a trip to his native Dagestan, Russian authorities informed the FBI that he "had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.” The Russians then failed to provide American authorities with several follow-up requests for information.  
  • Further confirmation that these days, everything seems to come back to Russia acting shady as all get-out.  
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Strike a Pose

One of the central dynamics of American politics in the last few decades has been the sorting of the parties, the way that the Republican and Democratic coalitions have become ideologically clearer and more narrow. There are some ways in which this has been a salutary development; for instance, if like many Americans you're a low-information voter, its easier to figure out which party to vote for than it once was. But while the GOP has become particularly unified—the northeastern liberal Republicans who once constituted a substantial faction within the party are all gone—there are still some moderate Democrats around, even in the South.

That means, among other things, that other Democrats have to put up with those Southern moderates doing things that would get them excommunicated if they were Republicans, like making bashing a Democratic administration one of the centerpieces of their campaigns. To wit, this new ad from Louisiana senator Mary Landreiu, who is facing a tough race this fall:

So there you have it, a solid minute of showin' 'em who's boss, standin' up against Washington, and givin' the Obama administration the what for. But I'm guessing the administration doesn't mind a bit.

They know this is all in the game. And you'll notice that the ad doesn't actually describe anything in particular Landrieu has done. It's a bunch of clips of her talking—talking on TV, talking at hearings, and so on. Landrieu is showing voters that she feels what they feel, and is angry on their behalf. If I were the administration, I'd say, "Talk all you want." This is just posturing, and it doesn't do any real damage if a southern Democrat postures against the Democratic party or a Democratic president. Because on balance, they'd rather have even a not-particularly-loyal Democrat in that seat than a Republican.

Now, there are certainly times when posturing turns to action, and real harm can be done. Some conservative Democrats in the past made a great show of being as critical as possible of Democratic goals, forcing the party to cater to them, and then siding with Republicans in the end (former Nebraska senator Ben Nelson comes to mind). But if all you're doing is striking a pose? Knock yourself out.

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Karl Polanyi Explains It All

In November 1933, less than a year after Hitler assumed power in Berlin, a 47-year-old socialist writer on Vienna’s leading economics weekly was advised by his publisher that it was too risky to keep him on the staff. It would be best both for the Österreichische Volkswirt and his own safety if Karl Polanyi left the magazine. Thus began a circuitous odyssey via London, Oxford, and Bennington, Vermont, that led to the publication in 1944 of what many consider the 20th century’s most prophetic work of political economy, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.

Polanyi, with no academic base, was already a blend of journalist and public intellectual, a major critic of the Austrian School of free-market economics and its cultish leaders, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Polanyi and Hayek would cross swords for four decades—Hayek becoming more influential as an icon of the free-market right but history increasingly vindicating Polanyi.

Reluctantly, Polanyi left Vienna for London. Two of his British admirers, the Fabian socialist intellectuals G.D.H. Cole and Richard Tawney, found him a post at an Oxford—sponsored extension school for workers. Polanyi’s assignment was to teach English social and economic history. His research for the course informed the core thesis of his great book; his lecture notes became the working draft. This April month marks the 70th anniversary of the book’s publication and also the 50th anniversary of Polanyi’s death in 1964.

Looking backward from 1944 to the 18th century, Polanyi saw the catastrophe of the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of laissez-faire taken to an extreme. “The origins of the cataclysm,” he wrote, “lay in the Utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system.” Others, such as John Maynard Keynes, had linked the policy mistakes of the interwar period to fascism and a second war. No one had connected the dots all the way back to the industrial revolution.

The more famous critic of capitalism is of course Karl Marx, who predicted its collapse from internal contradictions. But a century after Marx wrote, at the apex of the post–World War II boom in both Europe and the United States, a contented bourgeoisie was huge and growing. The proletariat enjoyed steady income gains. The political energy of aroused workers that Marx had imagined as revolutionary instead went to support progressive parliamentary parties that built a welfare state, to housebreak but not supplant capitalism. Nations that celebrated Marx, meanwhile, were economic failures that repressed their working classes.

Half a century later, the world looks more Marxian. The middle class is beleaguered. A global reserve army of the unemployed batters wages and marginalizes labor’s political power. Even elite professions are becoming proletarianized. Ideologically, the view that markets are good and states are bad is close to hegemonic. With finance still supreme despite the 2008 collapse, it is no longer risible to use “capital” as a collective noun. The two leading treasury secretaries during the run-up to the 2008 financial crash, Democrat Robert Rubin and Republican Henry Paulson, were both former CEOs of Goldman Sachs. If the state is not quite the executive committee of the ruling class, it is doing a pretty fair imitation.

Yet Marx, for all of his stubbornly apt insights about capitalism, is an unreliable guide to its remediation. Polanyi, with the benefit of nearly a century’s worth more evidence, has a surer sense of how markets interact with society. More humanist than materialist, Polanyi did not believe in iron laws. His hope was that democratic leaders might learn from history and not repeat the calamitous mistakes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Polanyi lived long enough to see his wish fulfilled for a few decades. In hindsight, however, the brief period between the book’s publication and Polanyi’s demise is looking like a respite in the socially destructive tendencies of rampant markets. In seeking to understand the dynamics of our own time, we can do no better than to revisit Polanyi.


The Great Transformation, written for a broad audience, is witty and passionate as well as erudite. The prose is lyrical, despite the fact that English was Polanyi’s third language after Hungarian and German.

Contrary to libertarian economists from Adam Smith to Hayek, Polanyi argued, there was nothing “natural” about the free market. Primitive economies were built on social obligations. Modern commercial society depended on “deliberate State action” by and for elites. “Laissez-faire” he writes, savoring the oxymoron, “was planned.”

Libertarian economists, who treat the market as universal—disengaged from local cultures and historic time—are fanatics whose ideas end in tragedy. Their prescription means “no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”

Like Marx, Polanyi begins in England, the first fully capitalist nation. In Polanyi’s telling, the slow shift from a post-feudal to a capitalist economic system accelerated in the 18th century, when the enclosure movement (“a revolution of the rich against the poor”) deprived the rural people of historic rights to supplement incomes by grazing domestic animals on common land, and the industrial revolution began to undermine craft occupations.

For a time, social cushions left over from feudalism sheltered ordinary people from the turbulence of markets. “England withstood without grave damage the calamity of the enclosures,” Polanyi wrote, because protections guaranteed by the Crown could “slow down the process of economic improvement until it became socially bearable.” Conservatives understood this better than economic liberals. Polanyi invokes the views of Lord Canning, a Tory who served as foreign secretary and later prime minister, that the poor laws—traditional relief payments that protected the rural working class from periodic destitution—“saved England from a revolution.” But in the early 19th century, the rising merchant class, the emergent Liberal Party, and the ideology of laissez-faire together produced a social order based on a self--regulating market.

The old poor laws were abolished in 1834 in favor of the poorhouse, an institution designed to be so degrading that workers would accept the dismal labor-market wages in William Blake’s dark, satanic mills. Meanwhile, free trade became the norm, meaning lower grain prices in the short run (and depressed wages) but increased volatility in the price of food. In the same period, the rise of a rigidly enforced gold standard limited the state’s ability to temper periodic downturns.

An economy oblivious to social consequences had to engender backlash. The sponsors of protective measures were often conservatives concerned about social stability, such as the English Tory Benjamin Disraeli and the Prussian Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. “The [English] Ten Hours Bill of 1847,” Polanyi writes, “which Karl Marx hailed as the first victory of socialism, was the work of enlightened reactionaries.” But by the late 19th century, periodic financial panics and depressions menaced both society and the market system. This got displaced into nationalism, culminating in World War I.

After that war, the victorious nations tried to restore the trinity of free trade, the gold standard, and unprotected labor markets. Obsessed with sound currency, market ideologues and bankers demanded austerity policies leading to both mass unemployment and episodes of hyperinflation. Given the legacy of war debts and dislocations, all this was more than the economy or society could bear. Market institutions, Polanyi writes, “broke down in the twenties everywhere—in Germany, Italy, or Austria, the event was merely more political and more dramatic.”

In a few places, politics produced a third way—neither the hegemony of the turbulent market nor the grim security of the total state. Social-democratic Sweden and New Deal America devised a mixed economy that civilized the brute energy of capitalism. At the time Polanyi was writing, others converged on the same aspiration. In Britain, Lord Beveridge was composing his blueprint for a postwar welfare state. Part II, published in 1944, carried the Polanyian title Full Employment in a Free Society. At Bretton Woods, also in 1944, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White were inventing a postwar international financial system that made room for domestic social democracy freed from the pressures of gold and deflation. A few months after Polanyi’s book went to press urging that “rights of the citizen hitherto unacknowledged must be added to the Bill of Rights” including “the right of the individual to a job,” Franklin Roosevelt delivered his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in January 1944, calling for exactly that. Polanyi was not part of the run-up to Bretton Woods; he does not cite Beveridge, nor could he have known about FDR’s coming speech. But in the aftermath of depression, dictatorship, and war, the shared vision of managed capitalism was in the air. Nobody gave it context and gravitas better than Polanyi.

For three decades, the success of a social settlement between labor and capital seemed to vindicate both Polanyi’s critique and his hopes. But the compromise did not stick. The path of capitalism since the 1970s has repeated the 19th-century hegemony of the market and is beginning to resemble the darker history of the 1920s and 1930s.


How did Karl Polanyi become the great non-Marxian synthesizer of the tragic interplay of markets, society, and politics? He was born in Vienna in 1886 during a short era known as the “Great Generation,” when the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire was a center of intellectual and political enlightenment. His Hungarian father, Mihaly Pollacsek, with a Swiss engineering degree, was a designer of Vienna’s rail system. The family’s surname, of Polish-Jewish origin, was magyarized in the 1890s to Polanyi, and the family ceased identifying as Jews. Polanyi grew up mostly in Budapest, where his Russian-born mother, Cecile, ran a literary and political salon, and he attended the elite Trefort Street Gymnasium. The illustrious family included his younger brother Michael, a chemist who became a libertarian political philosopher, and Michael’s son, John, who won the Nobel in Chemistry, as well as the artist Eva Zeisel.

Expelled from the University of Budapest in 1907 after a brawl in which anti-Semitic right-wingers harassed a popular socialist professor and Polanyi and his friends rushed to her defense, he repaired to the provincial University of Kolozsvar (today Cluj in Romania) to finish a doctor of law degree. While still a student, Polanyi helped found the left-wing Galilei Circle, serving as its first president and editor of its magazine. After a flirtation with Marx, Polanyi was drawn to the more temperate Socialism of Robert Owen, Richard Tawney, and G.D.H. Cole and the British Fabians. In today’s language, he was a social democrat.

Polanyi served in the world war as a cavalry officer. He contracted typhus and came home to find Budapest torn between nationalist right and far left. At the time of the aborted Hungarian Soviet revolution of 1919 (which he opposed), Polanyi left Budapest for Vienna. His war experience, illness, and the destruction of liberal Budapest left him frail and emotionally exhausted. But in 1920, he met the love of his life, a petite firebrand named Ilona Duczynska. Her biographer called their union “a marriage between an anarchist world revolutionary and a reclusive liberal scholar.” Ilona was expelled from the Communist Party that year for her independent views. The couple had their only child, Kari, in 1923. Though he had been a student organizer and secretary of the Hungarian National Bourgeois Radical Party, Polanyi seems to have been happiest at home with his wife and daughter or in a library. Soon, Polanyi was contributing to local journals and running an informal economics seminar from the family apartment on the Vorgartenstrasse.

To provide a counterweight to neoliberal dystopia, Polanyi believed the working class needed to be mobilized politically, in a robust democracy. He arrived at this conclusion not merely from theory but from his worker-education efforts at the Galilei Circle and by living in one of the most successful social-democratic epochs of the European experience, Red Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s—red as in social-democratic, not communist. There, after World War I, socialist municipal governments in power for 15 years built model low-rent housing financed by taxation. Parents received kindergartens, day care, and a family allowance in the form of a “clothes package.” Gas, water, and electricity were provided by publicly owned utilities. Taxes on the wealthy included surcharges on the use of servants. Generous unemployment insurance strengthened workers’ bargaining power.

Polanyi viewed Red Vienna as a hopeful counterpoint to the Dickensian poorhouse on one extreme and fascism on the other. The perverse reforms of early-19th-century England were products of the weakness of the working class, he wrote, but Red Vienna was a badge of its strength: “While [English poor-law reform] caused a veritable disaster of the common people, Vienna achieved one of the most spectacular cultural triumphs of Western history.” But as Polanyi appreciated, an island of municipal socialism could not survive larger market dislocations and rising fascism. Four months after he departed Vienna in 1933, the right took over.

The nature of the times caused Polanyi and his wife Ilona to be twice separated, first when he moved to England and she stayed behind as part of the anti-fascist underground until 1936 and again for more than a year, when Polanyi backed into a wartime stay in America. He had been on a lecture tour of U.S. colleges, his third such visit. Peter Drucker, a friend from Vienna and later an influential theorist of corporate management, invited Polanyi to spend the summer of 1940 in southern Vermont with him and his wife. With the support of Drucker and another émigré scholar and friend, economist Jacob Marschak, then teaching at the New School, Polanyi applied for a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to stay at Bennington to complete his book. Among his references were prominent London acquaintances, including a young war correspondent named Edward R. Murrow.

In the 1944 catalog of publisher Farrar & Rinehart, the entry for The Great Transformation appropriately compares it to Keynes’s succinct 1919 classic, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. But while Keynes’s book was a best-seller, turning its author into a celebrity, The Great Transformation sold just 1,701 copies in 1944 and 1945.

The New York Times reviewer, John Chamberlain, was savage: “This beautifully written essay in the revaluation of a hundred and fifty years of history adds up to a subtle appeal for a new feudalism, a new slavery, a new status of economy that will tie men to their places of abode and their jobs.” If that sounds just like Polanyi’s nemesis, Hayek, it was for good reason. Chamberlain had just written the foreword to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, also published in 1944. While Hayek’s book was adapted in Reader’s Digest and became a best-seller, Polanyi’s languished.

By 1946, however, Polanyi had been reviewed, mostly favorably, in major newspapers and social-science journals, and he was slowly attracting a following. At 61, Polanyi was offered his first real academic job in 1947 at Columbia, where he taught until 1953. But in the Cold War chill, the State Department refused to give a permanent visa to Ilona, and she relocated to Canada. After attempting to commute from Toronto, Polanyi spent his final years settled there, returning to an early scholarly interest in economic anthropology.

Temperamentally, he was both a work obsessive and a romantic. His habit of phoning former students at odd hours to discuss arcane ideas was part of his charm. Polanyi’s letters to his wife and daughter are filled with tenderness. One of his great essays is on Hamlet, and his last work, published in 1963, was a jointly edited book with Ilona, The Plough and the Pen, with an introduction by W.H. Auden, on the struggles of modern Hungary as rendered by Hungarian poets and essayists.


Fred Block and Margaret Somers, both economic sociologists, have been Polanyi admirers for more than three decades. In The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique, they aim to reintroduce him in an era of resurgent laissez-faire and political blockage that he could have scripted. “Our focus,” they write, “is on the rebirth in the 1970s and 1980s of the same free market ideas that were widely assumed to have died in the Great Depression.”

Block and Somers provide a thorough reprise of Polanyi for readers new to him and careful analysis for specialists. The best part of their book is its introductory chapter, a well—integrated and brisk summary of the man and his ideas. Other chapters provide useful discussions of what Polanyi’s social history gets right and slightly wrong, as well as astute comparisons of Polanyi with Keynes and Marx.

Unlike Marx, Polanyi viewed the transformation of a more balanced commercial society into a market-dominated one as neither natural nor inevitable. For Polanyi, as Block and Somers observe, “progress could only come through conscious human action based on moral principles.” Though there was a logical pattern to capitalism’s overwhelming social structures, we were not doomed to repeat our mistakes. Polanyi was a huge fan of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he saw as the sane alternative to laissez-faire dystopia on the one side and totalitarian anti-politics on the other. “The eclipse of Wall Street in the 1930s,” he wrote, “saved the United States from a social catastrophe of the Continental type.”

Polanyi rejected both Marxists and economic libertarians for their shared premise that the state should or could wither away. Marxists assumed the state would be redundant after the workers’ revolution. Libertarians saw (and see) the state as interfering with the genius of the market. Polanyi embraced democratic politics, both as an end in itself and as the necessary precondition for taming the economy. Despite his gloomy rendering of history, Polanyi remained an optimist.

Block and Somers also re-examine Polanyi’s research. A key section of The Great Transformation pivots on a local English ordinance known as the Speenhamland law, which Polanyi treats as an emblematic shift in emergent capitalism. Approved by the justices of Berkshire County at a May 6, 1795, meeting, Speenhamland increased the worker protections of the old Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. With wages falling, pauperism spreading, unrest increasing, and the English gentry all too aware of revolutionary events across the Channel in France, the law provided that any worker who could not earn enough to feed his family was entitled to supplemental relief from the local parish tied to the price of bread—“a minimum income should be assured to the poor irrespective of their earning.”

But the law, like a badly designed modern welfare program, backfired. Many employers reduced wages, knowing that the parish would make up the difference. Some workers, disdaining the wretched pay on offer, became idlers. Costs to taxpayers increased. The dysfunctional system led to outcries from welfare reformers of the day, culminating in the infamous report of the 1832 Royal Commission, which, in turn, led directly to the reform of 1834 and the poorhouse.

Block and Somers find that Polanyi overstated the ubiquity of the Speenhamland system. In practice, poor-relief formulas in England varied widely. What Polanyi did not overstate was the dislocation of the working poor—first by the enclosure movement, then by the industrial revolution—and the perverse response of economic liberals.

A weakness of the Block-Somers book is that several chapters are based on published journal articles, insufficiently blended into a new whole. As a consequence, the tone is uneven, and the book has a fair amount of repetition. Nor do Block and Somers offer much on Polanyi’s personal journey. They include just four pages of summary on his life. The British social scientist Gareth Dale, author of the fine 2010 book Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, and Berkeley Fleming of Mount Allison University in Canada are currently working on the first comprehensive Polanyi biographies.

Fortunately, a good deal on the connection between Polanyi’s life and his work has already been written by his daughter and literary executor, Kari Polanyi Levitt, an emerita professor at McGill University in Montreal. In Polanyi Levitt’s most recent book, From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization, she provides fascinating new material on Polanyi’s debate with Mises and Hayek. From the time he worked at the Österreichische Volkswirt in the mid-1920s, Polanyi engaged Mises and Hayek both ideologically and technically, arguing over pricing mechanisms under democratic socialism and the emergent dangers of the libertarian system then strangling Europe’s postwar recovery. Polanyi viewed Mises and Hayek as modern counterparts of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, punishers of the poor in the name of market incentives. “Inside and outside England,” he wrote in The Great Transformation, “from Macaulay to Mises, from Spencer to Sumner, there was not a militant [free-market] liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism.”

Hayek contended in The Road to Serfdom that even democratic forms of state planning were bound to end in the totalitarianism of a Stalin or a Hitler. But 70 years later, there is not a single case of social democracy leading to dictatorship, while there are dozens of tragic episodes of market excess destroying democracy. “The fascist solution of the impasse reached by liberal capitalism,” Polanyi wrote, “can be described as a reform of market economy achieved at the price of the extirpation of all democratic institutions.” Polanyi surely had the better of the argument. But Hayek had more influence over prevailing ideology and practice. Polanyi and Marx might converge on the inference that Hayek’s views were more useful to the ruling class.


Though slow to win recognition, The Great Transformation became a modern classic. After the neoliberal assault on the grand compromise of the late 1940s, Polanyi seemed not just prescient but prophetic. Because he was a political organizer, journalist, self-taught historian, and economist, Polanyi, in moral philosopher Albert Hirschman’s metaphor, could be a trespasser across academic disciplines. Though Polanyi is one of the most cited of social scientists, he is not widely read among economists. The mainstream of the profession has largely stopped teaching the history of economic ideas. Nor do most economists today study the relationship of economics to politics and social history.

Like other free spirits such as Hirschman, Joseph Schumpeter, or John Kenneth Galbraith, Polanyi had relatively few graduate students, and there is no formal Polanyi “school.” Rather, a wide spectrum of thinkers found their way to him. He’s prized by social historians and economic sociologists, and his brand of inquiry fits squarely into the tradition of American institutional economics associated with John R. Commons and the great debunker of free-market cant, Thorstein Veblen. Since 1988, thanks to the efforts of his daughter Kari and her colleague Marguerite Mendell, there has been an active Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy, which holds regular conferences, including an anniversary event planned for this fall.

A 1982 article by the international-relations scholar John Gerard Ruggie helped rekindle interest in The Great Transformation. Ruggie, paying homage to Polanyi, refers to the great postwar social compromise as “embedded liberalism,” meaning it squared the circle of a basically capitalist (liberal) economy with plenty of social protections (embedded). A few social scientists of the first rank, including the late sociologist Daniel Bell, political historians Ira Katznelson and Jacob Hacker, and economists Joseph Stiglitz, Dani Rodrik, and Herman Daly, explicitly cite their intellectual debt to Polanyi. Paradoxically, Polanyi also appeals to some Burkean conservatives, with their regard for the social order. John Gray, a recovering Thatcherite and author of the best-selling critique of neoliberalism False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, is effusive in his praise of Polanyi. Martin Anderson, advising Ronald Reagan on welfare reform, drew extensively (if misleadingly) on Polanyi to warn that the wrong sort of poor relief backfires. Yale political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott, author of notable books on the failures of grandiose state projects, said in a 2010 interview that he read The Great Transformation the summer before starting graduate school, “and I think it is, in some ways, the most important book I’ve ever read. … The struggle that Polanyi points to is a struggle that we’re still engaged in.”

At the same time, many public intellectuals working in the tradition of Polanyi don’t have him on their conceptual maps. Michael Walzer’s classic Spheres of Justice, on necessary boundaries between market and non-market institutions, is quintessential Polanyi, but Walzer never mentions him. Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist whose work on strategies to avoid environmental catastrophe—the modern tragedy of the commons—made her among the first non-economists to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, echoes Polanyi but doesn’t invoke him. In reading the works of Galbraith, the consummate historical and institutional economist of the 20th century, one searches in vain for Polanyi.

As more of us are having second thoughts about the second coming of the primal market, it is as if Polanyi is somewhere in the ether. Rereading Polanyi at a time when events vindicate his vision, one has to be struck with the eerie contemporary ring. Polanyi is startlingly 21st-century in addressing how the private rule of global finance puts public policy in a straitjacket. Back in the era of the gold standard, if a government tried to combat unemployment, Polanyi wrote, “any governmental measure that caused a budgetary deficit might start a depreciation of the currency.” That analysis could describe contemporary Argentina or Indonesia, except that the discipline of today’s bond market is even more relentless than the classical gold standard.

Polanyi also sounds like today’s news when he explains how the state’s doing the bidding of private capital (rather than providing a democratic counterweight) undermines politics. In the 1830s, he explains, the British state served the interests of the rising merchant class. The result, he wrote, was “the hatred of public relief, the distrust of state action, the insistence on respectability and self-reliance” on the part of the English working class. He could be describing members of the Tea Party, the same demographic that once voted in large numbers for FDR, and the tendency of citizens throughout the West to give up on governments in the pockets of the rich.

The European Union’s austerity follies are recapitulating the perverse policies of the 1920s and inviting the same brand of know-nothing backlash. In the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, voters disgusted with the failure of politics to remedy the prolonged recession are poised to deliver big gains to nationalist far-right parties. In Polanyi’s beloved Budapest, where he and Ilona are buried, the right already governs.

His discussion of the influence of ideas, likewise, is all too contemporary. In the 1920s, as in the 1830s, the intellectual dominance of free-market economists gave elites pseudo—scientific cover to pursue brutal and perverse policies, with a studied myopia about real-world consequences. In our own time, market fundamentalism is again the dominant ideology. The latest great transformation, from a balanced social market economy to a dictatorship of the invisible hand, has weakened the power of the polity to restore balance and undermined the confidence of the working and middle classes in the use of the democratic state to counter market excess. One must hope, with the optimistic Polanyi, that capitalism can be fixed.

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