Making Sense of the 2020 Presidential Election

INET’s Research Director Thomas Ferguson talks about the research he and his collaborators Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen conducted of the 2020 election and some of overlooked factors that were at play in that election.

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Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics & Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

I’m here today with my former teacher, longtime friend, Research Director from INET, and well-known political scientist, Tom Ferguson. Tom has written many wonderful papers, books, like the Golden Rule, who’s got the Golden Rules? Before that with Joel Rogers, Right Turn, about transformation of the Democratic Party in the American political system. And his understanding of the intersection between politics and economics, and how would I say, the texture or the nuance since, of what I’ve often called the commodification of social design, implementation and enforcement has been a tremendous window in source of my perspective.

And it’s nice to have him back here, again, for a podcast to share a new paper that he’s written with his co-authors, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen called, “The Knife Edge Election of 2020: American Politics between Washington, Kabul and Weimar.” Tom, thanks for joining me.

Thomas Ferguson:

Thank you, Rob. I’m actually, it’s pro forma to say I’m glad to be here. But actually, as you look around the world, and you consider all the alternatives, I’m doubly glad to be here. Because unfortunately, there are all kinds of states that people are in that are perhaps not so happy.

Yeah. Let’s talk about this election. I think the right way to start is exactly what we tried to do in this paper, which anybody can fish up on the INET website. And the answer is, we wanted to explain the differences between 2016 and 2020, which involved obviously, why did Trump lose the second time. And also, just trying to explain what changed.

And so, what we’re interested in is the shift in the vote. It’s not a huge shift in the vote, even though a lot more people voted. I mean, in the end, when you actually, look at the statistics, you can see that at first sight, and some people have even said this, right? It almost looks like that movie Groundhog Day, where they keep doing the same thing, the party said is year after year. Actually, they’re not. I mean, not only was turnout way up, but there are a million things now changing all over, so that you’re not looking at the eternal recurrence of saints.

So, I mean, let’s start with the big one, I think, which is COVID. Now, it’s as crazy as this sounds. If you look at the literature, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the academic literature, or what you might call the popular blogosphere literature, where you have all these folks who claim to be good at statistics. They can’t agree on whether COVID really hurt Trump.

We took a very careful look at that. Now, the problem is pretty simple to explain why it’s so hard, which is that well, if you’re a Trump voter, large numbers of them just didn’t hold Trump responsible for the COVID. And so, if you’re actually, doing what we did, which was to look at county voting data, this is not a national poll, it’s the actual county voting data across the whole United States with unimportant exceptions where there’s something weird. You haven’t gotten any access to the voters mind.

And so, when you see say, here’s the Trump vote, you can’t tell what they’re actually thinking. And the problem is that, and what people sometimes call rationalization, which is folks voted for Trump, they didn’t believe he was responsible for it or they believe that it was some kind of a conspiracy of somebody else. How do you tell that?

So, now, what we tried to do in the paper is look at what the actual effect of COVID in counties was on the vote there. The problem is, is that if you’re discounting that it doesn’t mean if more people are dying since… I mean, I’m just going to stipulate here that my co-authors and I accept the fact that masks and social distancing. And now, vaccines really matter.

So, that Trump voters and effect could catch more COVID. The COVID rates would rise. And from a statistical point of view, it would look like the more folks got COVID, the more people voted for Trump, that doesn’t seem on the face of it, too great. I mean, what’s going on here is this rationalization. We use a statistical technique where we interact, that there’s no point in going into it. But what we do is try to fish out that two-way causality business, just get rid of it.

And what we find is for sure, COVID was a big factor in the election. It was especially important where the Trump vote was small to begin with. And that’s where you could really see the impact of it there were COVID went through. You could see what we can actually show it. Upper income voters and especially scientific and technical workers were really pretty appalled at what had happened.

And so, we come out with… COVID, one hesitates no matter what sort of just say a one factor story, COVID really cost Trump heavily. It might well have cost him the election. It’s certainly cost him some states, I think, Arizona is one where I think that’s pretty clear. And so, COVID really matters a lot.

Now, the other thing we then do in the paper is traced the critical account, first critical account any detail of all… Or trying to trace all of the factors that went in to the terrible policy response. You can see the constant pressures from… It’s not just Republicans, but it’s mostly Republicans and it’s coming from the right, and especially businesses that like large chunks of low wage labor, and extreme laissez-faire advocates who are often heavily invested in firms like that coming. In other words, from private equity.

You could see that there was constant pressure to do as little as possible in terms of mitigating the pandemic. And, by contrast, the Democrats were much more reasonable. They were willing to do masks and for a large number of the large businesses that ended up supporting the Democrats. It’s just a point we make, it’s obvious, that say if you’re a Silicon Valley firm that has mostly highly remunerated labor, you’re not planning to lose that in recycle through large numbers of low wage workers.

An opposite type of firms, a meatpacking or the meatpacking situation, every time you open it up and look, a new congressional report was out just long ago. It’s simply horrible. People were dropping, and they actually, had cases where the senior executives were laying bets on how many would go in the following week. That’s actually quite well-documented. Okay.

So, we conclude that COVID really mattered. And that then leaves the next question, what’s going on with the other determinants of the vote? Now, we got a very interesting set of results on that. Usually, you’d say if the economy is going down the drain, it’s bad for the incumbent.

The Trump experience was pretty weird. It’s also, I think, been quite misunderstood by excessively partisan accounts from Democrats as to what’s going on. I mean, put bluntly, it’s true, as many Democrats charged that the Trump economic expansion started under Obama. It’s also true that it wasn’t all that special. I mean, the tax cut didn’t help investment, hardly at all. It went into stock buybacks from firms.

That said, though, Trump’s pressure on the Federal Reserve, although the Federal Reserve had been trying to take credit for just its internal evolution. It’s perfectly obvious when you step back that the pressure not to raise rates as lots of inflation hawks took wing after the 2016 election. Did help keep that expansion going? And, yeah, even on the Wall Street Journal, there were all these articles about how people were having trouble finding laborers, workers.

But then, wages didn’t rise. They just didn’t have the big inflation rise that people were fearing. And that kept going actually, into 2019. And actually, in the term of 2020, so that unemployment rates for not just white workers, but minorities of all types, blacks, Hispanics. They all went down, and the minority employment rates were highest they had been in many, many years.

And that’s an important point for understanding some things that then go on to happen in the 2020 election. What we find, first of all, is that in a lot of communities that had been quite depressed, if you had hot, big jumps in employment, in other words, big falls and unemployment between 2017 and 2019, you were still inclined to vote for Trump, good deal more.

And the other thing was, and this is really weird, you just never… I’ve never seen anything like this. And I don’t know of any other cases like this. In October, in 2020, the unemployment rate worked what would be by normal standards, perverse. That is to say, the higher your unemployment rates, they were voting for the incumbent, Donald Trump. They thought he could bring back the economy as the obvious inference.

In other words, put bluntly, when you put the economic record on with COVID, it was a bit of a narrow call for a lot of people. It’s a little bit like 2016, although there were a lot of people claiming that votes on race or gender settled everything in the election. It’s not true. I mean, an earlier paper that Ben Page, Jacob Rothschild, and Arturo Chang wrote just showed… And Jie Chen showed absolutely that that’s not true.

There was a substantial economic component in 2016. And that was true, I think, as what our results show in 2020, that was true. Again, this is an extremely important point now, because if the American economy sinks into a recessionary toilet, or COVID kills growth. The Democrat… It portends big trouble for the Democrats. I mean, the economic growth, what have you done for me lately? If you like, I think is going to really matter in 2022, is the way is basically the lesson I extract from that, but anyway.

So, you get some… They’re pretty clear economic factors. We then, go on to look at some other things. One thing we noticed, I’ve seen anybody else do it, by the way, which was for all the talk about religion, there wasn’t much of a big change in 2016 to 2020, except in one place, and that was in the high Mormon areas, where it’s clear that in 2016, the Mormon vote was likely much less pro Trump.

I mean, if you remember, there were any number of problems with Mitt Romney and others at that time. And the vote was low, it jumped back to normal levels, it’s not any great upswing, it just went back to normal levels. That significantly up the Republican percentage of the votes in those areas. And it’s an interesting result, I think.

Then, we go on to look at a set of other factors. And that first of all, we spend a lot of time trying to parse the famous Trump trade policy and like a lot of other people we conclude, that didn’t help him much, didn’t hurt him either, actually. But what did really help them is we spent a great deal of time studying what happened in agriculture.

And, we noticed that there were funny things happening. There was a thing to when Trump picked the trade wars, not just with China, but especially with China. American farmers were said to be on the edge of being ruined in a large number of crops. Now, not every crop, but particularly, things like soybeans. China was a big part of the market. It’s not the only one.

So, what the Trump administration did is, they put in a market facilitation program which bluntly was a way of getting payments to farmers. Then, when COVID hit, they expanded that into a sort of, bluntly, it’s a super political business cycle. Arguably, the largest ever, and an absolute payment, but surely the largest ever.

They did it through things like various food programs and so forth. But the end result was to pump a ton of money into the farm areas, really an enormous amount. And as people wondered, the day after the election, how did Trump get 74 million votes? More than 74 million votes? Nobody… I saw no a talking head discussed the financial support for agriculture.

This is a really big story. It could be argued that it almost won the election form. It fell just short. But it was like what’s going on here? This has big implications for the future. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes. Then, we look at stuff that basically needs a good deal more discussion.

Because frankly, anyone sensitive now can hear the foundations of the American political economy shaking. As you have both wildcat strikes, and now formal, big organized strikes, starting to happen as we have not a wage price spiral but up price wage by Rolla. We’ll come back to that later.

But, in 2020, as the government just abandoned efforts to try to protect workers. I mean, there’s no other way to say it. The Trump use of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA was just basically, OSHA went to sleep. It issued a very weak emergency order once or twice for stuff, but nobody pretends. It’s been an object of much investigation that OSHA was doing much of anything to protect workers.

But workers were in fact, heavily exposed and what several folks have shown, Mike Elk then, has Payday tabulations is a good place to start. Wildcat strikes broke out all over the place in 2020. There were lots of them, lots more than the press covered. Most of these didn’t get much press coverage. Then, there were enormous numbers of demonstration.

Now, the most which were not directly labor related. I mean, that’s the Black Lives Matter demonstrations come to mind first. They’re not the only ones. There were not hundreds, but actually, thousands more in various parts. And we use a big data set that somebody else compiled to try to get the net effects of those on county voting.

And what we find is, the social protest of which Black Lives Matter was probably the biggest part. Those on balance worked to help the Democrats. In the strikes, the wildcat strikes probably, didn’t know… We haven’t investigated this in full. We’ve got the conclusion, but not exactly why. What we think there, Paul and Jie is that, when you look any of those wildcat strikes were out in areas they were heavily in things like meatpacking.

Meatpacking today is not sitting in big towns like Milwaukee. It’s spread out all over in smaller, rural areas. And you may have a very interesting and potentially, deeply significant interaction where you’ve got a large number of black and brown workers who are kept out of the life of the city, which is run by a farm black and mostly Republican. And that may actually, work to counter by a wildcat strike out there, they may or may go the other way.

Anyway, this question needs more investigation. We might actually, we get the time, we’ll do it. And so, what we thus find is that, the social protests on balance, though, definitely helped Biden. And, of course, so did COVID. Now, let’s put this together for what this all says about the future. Here, it’s trouble. At that point, we look very carefully at some because we didn’t do a full analysis of business contributions in the election, but we had heard… We read the same newspapers everybody else does, plus a few they don’t, I think.

And before the election, we had heard a lot about how the Democrats were going to be swept to power on a wave of money, both in Congress and in the presidency. There were many people talking about how, for example, Republican business groups were said to be abandoning Trump. Now, we were a little… And the Republicans more broadly, we were skeptical, but no, it’s before the election.

After the election, you can actually get real reports. We find something very different. Our paper shows you that first of all, in the Congressional elections, contrary to what a lot of people even on the Democratic side, who should have known better kept asserting. They’ve even told donors this. I know this, I’m not guessing. That they actually, just didn’t use their great money advantage intelligently.

Actually, they didn’t have a monetary advantage. The Republicans outspent them. It’s just both the Senate in the house. Our paper has the graphs, you can just see them. So, in that respect, part of the reason why things went down from why the Congress failed to follow the presidency is, the way big money works in Congressional elections. It’s the point that Paul Jorgensen, Jie Chen and I have worked on a lot. And with that linear model, and that linear model really works. It worked in 2020, again, and they behave right on time.

So, in the old pre-climate change days, the swallows used to come back to San Capistrano mission out there in California on the Feast of St. Joseph, and it was like clockwork. It isn’t I gather clockwork anymore. That’s climate change. But this has survived climate change. The linear model in congressional elections, anyway.

But then, we go on to look at Trump’s support, and this is pretty chilling. We find that both coal and oil were heavily behind Trump, it just one side. It’s just ridiculous. The other thing that shocked us and that’s a fundamental result that people really need to deal with, is that when you look at private equity, which is… And maybe now, the most lucrative part of the economy among the large firms outside of Silicon Valley. I think, that’s a safe generalization.

When you look at private equity, the smaller firms were indeed moving toward Biden. The big ones were very, very one-sidedly in favor of Trump. Let’s put it another way, so that everybody gets this. The biggest champions of extreme laissez-faire in American life right now apart from the heavily polluting industries are precisely private equity and these large firms, and they stuck with Trump in 2020.

Now, the Trump, we can deal, if you want to win, we can add later. Why did people think between the Election Day and January 6? But up to the election day, the money tells an absolutely one-sided tale, it’s absurd. Now, let’s try to spell out the lessons here of this for the future. You have to put our analysis of the agricultural block, which has tended to be Republican for decades, ever since the waning of the New Deal.

But it used to get, when you sort through the agricultural vote in earlier decades, you can see blocks of small farmers who still voted Democratic. I mean, no one has, to my knowledge really tried to dispute that large farmers were heavily Republican oriented. That was true even in the late stages of the New Deal after they’d been rescued by Roosevelt.

But they were conservative Republican large farms. What’s happened in the last 30 years is that, the role of large farming interests in the whole farming economy has gotten much bigger. And the smaller farmers have been decimated. There are actually lots and lots of them, but they make up a very small percentage of total production.

So, in the agricultural areas, you can see plain as day that the communities are getting dominated by folks who are making a lot of money, who often do quite well, but they are heavily conservative by their… I mean, farms care a lot about certain types of taxes, especially inheritance taxes, because so many of them still are family. They’re not family farms in the classic sense, but they’re family owned, if you like corporations that are big, really big and run more than one farm in many cases.

They don’t like restrictions on water on fertilizer. They don’t like labor unions. They’re very conservative. And so, what you get in this funny world we are now living in is, urban business interests, private equity, and the entire anti-climate change action block. In other words, folks who’d like to just slow down state action on climate change, they can pour tons of money into political groups that basically, want to slow climate change down and ends up as a Republican block.

It’s like urban money, with huge numbers of voters. And, of course, large interests out there in the rural areas. Now, the Democrats have a problem in the rural areas. It’s only partly because they were doing stupid things like rejecting our Dean’s approach. And when Obama came in, Dean wanted to campaign seriously in all the states. They shot that down out of the Democratic National Committee, that was a big mistake.

But the deeper problem is this, and it should lead you to see how stupid are the normal accounts of American life according to which somehow education is the dividing problem here. I mean, just look at the Midwestern states and I grew up in one as you did, too. We both grew up in the same state for a while, although I didn’t know Rob then.

The Democrats could win states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, not necessarily easy after the strong period of the New Deal. But they could win them by putting together coalitions of poor farmers and urban workers, who actually, were doing usually in manufacturing in those towns in there.

Now, in the last generation, the urban work workers got blown away. The manufacturing jobs just up and left, basically, or in some cases, they got automated out. Although, this is fundamentally real globalization, I think. They just move a lot of components and many parts, even if they keep some assembly in the US.

In other words, that blew away the urban workers. And then, the poor, our farmers got decimated and many cases leave or they’re actually, living in a town coming out occasionally. But the result is, is that if you particularly, if you can hold turnout down in some of these areas are pretty good at restricting it even though their average turnouts are moderately high by standards of say, Oklahoma.

You just blew away the whole democratic coalition there. That’s not an education problem. It can’t be approached in terms of ideology at all. I mean, stuff about red or blue. This is about the destruction of livelihoods in both rural and urban areas. It’s the spread of the… As we call it at INET, lots of us, dual economy.

And this is your root problem now. And, more broadly, the Democrats come to power. They barely win the presidential race, it’s not… Biden outpoll Trump, but not by an enormous amount. Those 74 million votes were real. They actually, were real, and they were certainly not fake. I mean, Trump didn’t claim his own votes were fake. I gather only Biden’s.

And they’re now sitting on a knife edge. What are they going to do? You’ve got this massive blocking coalition, as I say, big money and agriculture. That’s a tough thing by itself. Now, that brings us to, okay, now, what’s happening now after Biden’s in power? And, look, I think one should begin by saying, it doesn’t matter what I or my colleagues think. This is a clinical judgment here. And it’s not… I don’t think anybody should try to be heavily partisan in this stuff.

A lot of the commentary I see from Democrats, I think, is pretty poor. One has to begin by saying, I think that, yes, Biden, you could see how popular he was and how successful he got off to a good start under a difficult situation coming in to a COVID situation that was out of control. They had vaccines, but they didn’t have any effective really delivery systems going at all.

And so, for a while that worked. And so, did the Big Bang relief programs that they put in. Now, I think for the Democrats, they have a real problem. The problem is very simple. First of all, partly pushed by the Republicans, but also by establishment Democrats, they rapidly dismantled the pandemic relief programs. But we still have the pandemic. I mean, it’s perfectly obvious that when COVID came back in late August, September and tanked the economy, that certainly was a contributing factor. That was a problem.

Now, rates are starting to rise in large chunks of the United States. Again, particularly, I’m hardly alone in noting this in colder areas. And you can see some real disasters in schools. In Boston, for example, several schools have had mass outbreaks. Now, the Biden people did not handle, in my opinion, they didn’t handle COVID well at all.

We’ve now had… And this, just I’ll quote the number. But say hastily, it’s not their basic fold, yet. The number of people dying this year of COVID just surpassed what it was in 2020. But Trump left you with a terrible legacy that had long lives. But when the Democrats came in, they did one thing right, they went for vaccination. They were slow pushing the revaccination thing. And more to the point, they just sat there with OSHA waiting forever to do some rules on occupational safety. And they did not push on ventilation.

They did fund some stuff that schools could use to ventilate, sometimes by transferring between allocations of appropriations. But the push on ventilation in buildings and schools from Biden is much weaker than it should have been. They’ve really screwed this up, I think, and they’re going to pay badly for this.

They also should have just destroyed mass distributed masks, which the Trump administration considered, and then ruled out. And they should have put some order in the sale of masks. I mean, you’ve got people still selling literally hundreds of thousands, probably millions of defective mass stuff that isn’t really K95, KN95, or whatever level of safety you want. They’re false. They’re just frauds. And they should have done mass manufacturing of that stuff much faster than they did.

And so, we are playing catch up on COVID. And that’s, they need the change policy on this. And the CDC needs to be a lot clearer about ventilation than they have been. I mean, I think I saw this morning that the German Health Minister had said something like, “By the end of the winter, everybody will be vaccinated, sick or dead.” We haven’t had that kind of clarity coming from the administration.

I understand the problem, where you have states, rights, traditions and large numbers of mostly vaccinated Republican governors telling their populations that they shouldn’t get vaccinated, implicitly. They are doing that by saying, “You can’t have a mass mandate or you can’t mandate vaccines.” But, they their response… The Biden people responded too slowly and too weekly on that. I think that’s a serious problem.

Now, they have an inflation problem. Now, let’s just… If we could talk a bit about that. First thing you notice is, let’s get it straight. We don’t have wage price inflation; we have price wage inflation. Meaning, wages are now clearly lagging behind inflation. This is a potentially deadly situation. And it’s true, as many people correctly said, yes, the Biden administration gave people some money to pay stuff. That’s true. But the pandemic support programs are now nearly ended.

And I would add on a point I should have made in relation to COVID is the medical parts of that, the stuff, the supplementary rules that said people didn’t have to pay for COVID test, which a lot of people were not told that by hospitals and turns out they build them, anyway.

But that stuff is gone, and people are getting sick. They need to put some kind of post initial pandemic medical relief program together pretty fast here, or you’re going to have people going to work when they’re sick and spreading it. I mean, it’s clear that the breakthrough rates of inflation are rather higher than people had hoped. And then, kids, young kids, who aren’t inoculated at all, pass it back and forth to parents, who then pass it around in the workplace and things like that.

Rob Johnson:

Tom, let me just clarify. You said breakthrough rates of inflation or breakthrough rates of infection?

Thomas Ferguson:

Infection, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Thank you. Thanks for stopping me on that. Now, let’s come back to the inflation problem. The administration is quite right, and saying, “Look, the supply side stuff probably will go away.” I mean, I think the forecasts of high inflation forever, are nonsense.

But look, people live not just with the supply side stuff, but they live with those funny commodities like food and fuel. The stuff that’s core inflation has lots of economists like to define it, doesn’t include either one of those, because they’re known to be funny markets.

But look, what’s eating your paycheck right now? Right now, it’s fuel, and it will eat it more over the winter. And it’s beyond belief to me that the administration has taken so long to do something about fuel prices. And frankly, they should do something about the food prices. What could you do? I think there’s a one point people have made, just open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

But more broadly, what they need to do is, they should have done this long ago. They should have reexamined position limits on speculation in food and fuel. Now, in 2006 the rules on most position limits changed in markets. And basically, the significance of those position limits means a financial interest can go in, buy the stuff up, or they can do it in a futures market. We’ll go there, maybe later or not at all. But you can do this in a variety of ways.

But the net effects of this were dramatically visible at the time after the post Lehman Brothers government rescue of AIG. AIG was told to sell its speculative positions, I think in food, and they crashed the commodities markets in crop after crop, all one afternoon.

So, it was a very dramatic development. I mean, even I who sort of jaded on this stuff was astonished at how much they were holding. Now, there’s been this endless argument about what the effect of speculation is, I’ll tell you though, you don’t need a very complex argument to realize that if there’s a clear trend, say in pool or food because of weather and climate, or fuel, because of climate change issues over the long run.

If there’s a clear trend in that, people are going to pile into those speculative markets, grab the stuff, and you’re going to see price rises beyond what an end user run market would do. I mean, you need some speckles, not an anti-speculation totally position. You want some people in there hedging and taking some risk. But when you can just pile any amount of stuff into this, it’s a problem. They should have gone after this long ago. They still should do it.

And because otherwise, you’re going to have a situation where people are trying to pay high fuel bills in the winter, and they’re being inflated the way on their wages. That’s not a system in equilibrium, something dramatic is going to happen, strike waves, agitation, and that people are getting sick too with the early release, the early abolition of the pandemic programs, and especially the medical support programs, this is real trouble. This is really big trouble.

The administration needs to start multitasking a bit. They’ve been concentrated on their two major legislative ones. They’ve got the first one through and truncated form and one may hope, though. It’s a clinical judgment here. They might get that through, but they have got to do a great deal more than they have done in order to be viable.

Rob Johnson:

In your paper, you talk about which I called different forms of money. I know some people that particularly on the progressive wing of the Democratic party, we’re hoping that with new technologies, large aggregations and small donations could play a formidable role. But I underscored in my preparation for this, some of your notes or in my notes, some of your texts where you talked about the difference between what I call large scale concentrated donations and broad based donations and their effectiveness. Could you share with us a bit about that?

Thomas Ferguson:

Yeah. Sure, yeah. And this is my two co-authors, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen. I did this. We took apart the political money looking very carefully at small donations and they’re all… We got a big appendix that walks you through this. The basic point is simple, small donations make about a third of the total expenditure in the presidential races and a little less than Congress.

But the big story is this, is most of the money is still much larger than a $200 cut off, and the races that in Congress now, the races that dominate with small money mostly lose. I mean, you have clearly got a money driven political system, and it’s dominated still by big money. I mean, every time you read a reporter, telling you that, “Oh, it’s all these wonderful small donations for Trump or anybody else.” Just laugh at it. I mean, what you actually have is, I mean, from my standpoint, I’m just saying my own view here, it’s kind of pathetic.

You see people doing their best to send some money to something they believe in, it doesn’t matter if it is left or right. We can assume they believe in a small donation. And then, what happens is, the large donors take, build on that base and control the system. It’s a classic disastrous form of a small investor, lose, big, dominance, if you like.

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, as you’re talking about the upcoming election in the diagnosis, it does seem… I’ll throw in… I’ll inject something called despair that we’ve experienced. I could see it when we were in Michigan, preparing for the 2016 conference that we did in Detroit. And I was talking to people I grew up with, many of whom had raised ahead of him.

Thomas Ferguson:


Rob Johnson:

And the recent economics conference, but I was talking with people I went to high school with in the suburbs and what have you, and you’ve got this feeling like, I guess what I would say is, if capitalism was a tool and in embedded in a democracy, then the incentives, the structure, the do’s and don’ts, and all that stuff, would be responsive to human needs.

But when the process of politics became just another commodity to be bought and sold, it heightens despair particularly as the concentration of wealth and income narrows, and a 1% or a one-tenth of 1% appears to dictate everything. I sensed very strongly back then that that heightened the despair that many of my friends, some of whom had MBAs, JDs, MDs, CPAs, all kinds of graduate degrees were saying, “These things come unglued and Trump is telling us the system is rigged.” And he’s right.

Thomas Ferguson:


Rob Johnson:

And I think to be fair, many of them when we got to 2020, voted for Joe Biden and felt like they’d been seduced and abandoned. But we have a situation where we don’t have a system that can be responsive to human needs, then I guess this is a long-winded way of framing question, how do we go about reducing the role of money in politics? Is there a pathway that you can envision for making the system more responsive to human need?

Thomas Ferguson:

Yeah, there are a variety of things I think you could do immediately. I do think, for example, I mean, look, tomorrow, Gary Gensler the SEC could initiate a procedure that would make the public companies have to report on all their money. Right now, they don’t have to, and they should. I mean, I’m not telling you that that will get that out of politics. It’s already in politics.

But we have full extent. I mean, in particular, if you’re giving dark money stuff, if you’re an executive or for that matter, a firm that wants to go through an intermediary, you can hide it. That’s ridiculous. They should have to print. They should have to publish all of this. And the Democrats don’t need to put this through Congress. They could do that with an SEC ruling.

I think, AOC said the other day, a lot more Biden could do than just go through Congress. She’s right. There on that one. I would pick right up on that, as I would, of course, on the position limits. You use the CFTC, Commodity Future Trading Corporate, and things like that, and probably FERC, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But you could do that.

But look, there was a serious effort to build a democratic built, put a democracy bill through, it’s just died a death in Congress. That basically, if Democratic party candidates would campaign on that, they’d get a response. Now, the truth is, the reason they don’t is because so many of them are trying to get big money. I mean, the establishment, the people are now finally calling establishment corporate Democrats, which is exactly what they are.

Silicon Valley, finance, telecommunications, these sectors are probably predominantly democratic, although we’re still sorting through the 2020 numbers. But that’s what I think I see and unfinished tabulations. And you can see the financial end of the thing in the Biden administration, where you got folks from private equity and elsewhere sitting there in the National Economic Council and other places, and I don’t think that operation hasn’t performed like it should for the bulk of the population, let me put it that way.

But I would try to get a bill through that basically, puts real limits on campaign finance. And I would then try if necessary to litigate it. I quite get what people are saying. Most of all, if you want one single shot, you could just do a small public financing thing or I say, you could… I mean you could just do the… Go back to the old income tax check off where you could send some money out of that, although that leaves out the population, which is a large chunk.

Now, that doesn’t have to file any income tax, and you got nothing in effect to that you could send them. But what that the public money, I think has changed elections in states where they put in small public systems, and you could expand those. You could do that very quickly.

The other thing I would do is, I put it much tighter restrictions on people taking top jobs. Basically, if you’re going to take a top job in the government, you should not be allowed to come in with payments, all OJEU from large firms have several recent Democratic and Republican treasury secretaries and appointees that… I mean, it’s ridiculous. You get these bonus payments that give you a bonus. If you’re working for a bank, and you leave and go into government service, what on earth is going on there?

And, I think one could do a good deal more insight Congress to spotlight who was doing what to whom? It is striking to me that, look, earlier in this year, there was this big debate, people who should have known better in the New York Times and elsewhere, were assuring us, Joe Manchin or [Katherine Sozema 00:49:04] from Arizona, they would never be thinking of money when they were doing this.

In fact, they’re being inundated with contributions. And they’re doing totally cynical things like taking a position, and then the next day holding fundraisers or vice versa. It’s crazy, the way… You have a Mississippi river flowing into the US Congress and the executive branches and you got to do something about it. And, we’re not going to get honest reporting out of any major media, particularly as you have private equity firms buying more and more of the new media firms that were set up to do basically over the internet type reporting. I won’t mention names here. I’m in a good mood today, but they’re not… I mean, this is a ridiculous situation.

Rob Johnson:

I think a lot of the things that you’re suggesting, make it more transparent what the system here, what people are doing, making them accountable. I come back to the people in the legislature or in the White House. There is a sense in which an incumbent can sell policy that a challenger can’t quite do. Are they going to, which you might call remove the barrier to entry that they have as incumbents? So, how will we impose these changes which might call elections more contestable if existing incumbents will insulate themselves from competition?

Thomas Ferguson:

Perfectly, reasonable question. All right. First, we can say there is this block of progressive Democrats were fairly sizable right now in the house, and they clearly would like to do something like that. But now, all right, I’m just going to just say it. I mean, the whole… The plain fact is the AFL-CIO needs to get off its dime on this stuff.

Organized labor has been too complacent about accepting this situation. That’s partly because many of them would prefer a situation they think they can somehow preserve their position as they marshal their own money in elections. They’re… I think, not entirely candid about this. I’ve talked to a lot of folks in that.

And it’s about time they take a much more forthright position on campaign finance reform. I’d say this, even if it were not obvious that they are shrinking. I mean, and occasionally, you see now, right now, you’ll see strikes, and some places, workers joining unions that won’t last unless they change the political finance story.

And the AFL-CIO has been way too complacent. It does not help that they are in a deep contest for over direction. And frankly, there’s a bunch of unions in the AFL-CIO that were opposing. They were trying to keep the whole economy open. In 2020, some construction unions in particular, when they rather, obviously, needed mitigation measures, and probably and certainly, in some cases, closures.

And rich Trump get came out for masks. But it’s like, why was that a controversy and the teachers unions have been all over the landscape on this. I mean, it’s not enough to say, “Well, we want them to bargain with us, if they require a mask.” The first thing they need to say is, “Yeah, we need masks.” And sure, we need to bargain. Of course, they need to bargain, but not over whether you have to wear a mask, that’s killing people. And that it’s a real problem.

And the organized labor response here has been too complacent, too much relying on the White House. I have the feeling that we are moving toward a situation where if the situation doesn’t improve, like in the 30s, the labor movement will have to split to get something to happen. I mean, basically, the CIO walked out. If I talk hyperbolically, put it because they want… Yeah, they organized like that.

The unions split from the AFL and went to become a much bigger union movement. The area of high inflation may bring you this because people can’t sit still under inflation. Though, as I say, I don’t really see high inflation coming. But food and fuel are I think both going to be affected by climate change, fuel in particular.

And indeed, you can see everywhere in the world, it’s not just in the US. As fuel prices have risen, the paralysis of governments on climate change to actually make and put stuff through the Biden people were very sensible in trying to put through the electric car. Mansion caused him to drop a lot of that. But they got serious problems with the electric car, and at least of which is, most of us can’t afford a Tesla, or anything remotely like it. And so, if you go to the population and say our answer to climate change is the Tesla, look out.

Rob Johnson:

In the title of your paper, American Politics Between Washington, Kabul and Weimar. Let’s talk a little bit about Kabul, but I want to come back at the end to Weimar because when I asked you these questions about removing money from politics making… How would I say, capitalism as it’s currently structured, more responsive to the needs of people. I think if we can’t achieve that, that despair that many people refer to continues to grow in the temptation towards authoritarian, which might call resolution, might continue to grow. But let’s start with what is Kabul have to do with where we are?

Thomas Ferguson:

All right. All right, there, you got to… First of all, when the Biden administration came in, they took the line that America is back. And they preach to everybody about how it’s very important for countries to observe the norms of international organization, international relations.

Now, that stuff is so 1990s. When the US was basically, the head Japan bluntly, and in another world, and I… You don’t have that now. That international system has broken down. And I mean, the dollar underpins, a very strong American position in finance. And that in turn underpins along with defense, a strong position, but you’re now got lots of countries, not one or two, but three or four that are absolutely, somewhat competing or thinking that they can… They’re out of that they’re not going to be aligning with the US. I mean, just think Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, for example. It doesn’t mean they have to be our enemies.

I’m not telling you that we are surrounded by people bent on destroying the US. That’s not… I mean, I think you can do a great deal more to manage conflict. But the Biden people lectured everybody, managed to… They did the difficult trick of alienating both the Russians and the Chinese very early on. That was a serious misjudgment, I think, and they show no sign of having absorbed, it’s lesson.

Then, Biden, in my judgment… Now, this was to make a political judgment that somebody may disagree with, did the right thing and pulled the troops out of Afghanistan. I mean, it was very clear, the defense establishment did not want to leave, and we’re trying to stall. He just overruled. But then, nobody followed up, nobody in the top level seems to have noticed that the entire position was crumbling fast, though it is now clear, they were getting plenty of lower level information saying this situation is deteriorating very rapidly.

In that sense, it suggests we may be living in a fool’s paradise in terms of just the system of international relations, and the way international economics is going to impact on that. Now, you can see around the world, various countries thinking, let’s test out the Biden administration. I read some of the conflicts in the Near East. Certainly, in Korea, and some behavior from Russia and China, as that.

Everybody is just testing to see what’s going to happen here. Now, this stuff has the potential, if one explodes into a big crisis. I mean, this morning, we have American poll, American sources backgrounding news stories about how a Russian invasion of the Ukraine could happen in January. Anything that materializes like that is going to have a gigantic dramatic impact on American domestic politics.

And so, I think, Bernie Sanders wrote that piece in the Foreign Affairs actually, trying to explain why you didn’t have to demonize China, to be concerned about rebuilding the United States. Sanders is exactly right. That’s, if you ask me. I mean, I’m speaking just for myself now on that, this particular point. I mean, there’s just no reason to have the demonization of China that you’ve got going in some sectors in the United States.

I’m not saying that everybody is wonderful, friendly, and not doing things that you need to watch. It’s obvious that there are… I mean, anybody who could look at Hong Kong, for example, what just happened there would be deeply troubled. The threats to Taiwan, the internal operations in the western provinces with the leaguers and elsewhere, or the clashes on the Indian border.

I’m not telling you that we’re just dealing with a whole bunch of people who just can’t wait to be friends in the United States, but it does not need to turn into war. And that’s… I’m not clear that anybody in Washington is thinking this question through at all. I think somebody’s head should have rolled for the cup bowl thing. I mean, they should not all have just gone on as though… They’ve just done that affect their version of the Bay of Pigs. And somebody, they should ask why, what reorganization is necessary to prevent that? Now, would you like to do?

Rob Johnson:

I was going to say, based on your internationalization of the conversation, I’m reminded, people often told me that Bismarck used to say when you can’t solve your problems at home, find a foreign enemy and direct their attention outwards. So, let’s go to Germany and let’s go to Weimar. What do you see…

Thomas Ferguson:

I mean, we understand that withdrawal. I mean, I’ve done a lot of basic work on Weimar. I mean, [inaudible 01:00:49] have all worked on this question a lot. So, we’re not just in the position…

Rob Johnson:

Our friend David Abraham was…

Thomas Ferguson:

Yeah, yup. But the thing about Weimar is, because you’ve now got the Trump part of the Republican party, or whatever you want to call it, if it slid into another party is clearly now a basic antisystem party, anybody can see that that part of the party, now it’s a question of how much of the party is actually, tacitly going along with this? We’re all going to find out.

You can see that are in the various states offices, like the Secretary of State, which is often responsible for conducting elections and certifying them. And it’s not… It varies by state. Those local… Both the local, the state offices, and some of the local ones are heavily contested now with a lot of money suddenly pouring into them.

And anybody can see that there is a serious prospect. I don’t disagree with Robert Kagan, that the problem is right now, it’s obvious that people are trying to suborn the electoral system count, that the pitch that was made to Trump by law professors and others that you could legally do this, it didn’t work on January 6th, it just failed. What would have happened if Pence had taken a different view? I’m not sure. But he didn’t.

Anyway, the whole business was too narrow, just too narrow a problem to give any comfort. But now, you can see efforts to suborn the counting mechanisms are getting everywhere. And many states, the whole middle part of the United States has passed legislation, making it harder to vote, that’s very clearly efforts just turned down turnout in the classic American fashion, the Dean Burnham and I used to write about. And that’s crazy.

And so, this is an anti-system movement. It really is designed for constitutional change. And you got Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and some others talking like they support that. I don’t know how wide this movement is, but very much like Marimar. I mean, this is to get very inside. But the old German National People’s Party, which was the pre-Nazi right wing.

These guys sound at least like that. And people are going to have to deal with this. Kagan is right, the crisis is immediate, it’s not in the future. And the question of how much in the business community you can see large numbers of people and corporations that had said they wouldn’t give to supporters of the… We won’t count the votes correctly, that change the electoral college vote. They wouldn’t support those folks. A lot of them are clearly backsliding. That’s their… And the pressures to backslide more seem to me to be gathering.

So, this is a problem. This doesn’t mean that the Trump people are necessarily going to take over. I can see a close reading suggest to me that you’ve got a post Trump right wing movement, that is if anything scarier done by some financiers perhaps that’s also sits there. And then, there are the sort of in between Republicans, who are clearly trying to find a way to hold on to the Trump vote without embracing Trump, at least directly. This stuff is up in the air. It’s going to be determined, coming soon to a voting place near you, would be my way of summarizing.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, how would I say, the premises that have evolved at the core of INET have been a handful. One of which is that, you can’t know the future. Our friend, Robin Friedman, embodies that. People like George Akerlof talk about how… Which you might call the preferences that lead demand are not frozen in ice and not independent. They’re a social process.

But at the core, in what we’re talking about today, is the notion that politics and economics are separable is nonsense. And I don’t know of anyone who I think has what you might call been as constructive as you when your co-authors in illuminating that falsehood.

On Saturday night, I guess, I was a little bit imposing as a father, I took my two young daughters along with some other friends, and made them go listen to Bob Dylan, at the Beacon Theater in New York. And towards the end, Dylan is 80 years old, he was not concentrating on a greatest hits tour. He was concentrating on the work that he’s released since the pandemic started, called Rough and Rowdy Ways.

I’m reminded a little bit of that today because the song murder most foul 58 years ago, on this day that we’re recording November 22nd, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But towards the end of the show, about two songs before the conclusion, he has a song called Mother of all Muses. And I have to say, Tom, as I listened to that song, I thought of you.

It’s a book, how they say, it’s a song, it’s a lyric that talks about all the things that have inspired him throughout his life. But at the end, there was a verse, which was his last request. Mother of Muses, unleash your wrath. Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path. Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate. Put me upright, make me walk straight. Forge my identity from the inside out. You know exactly what I’m talking about.

I think you have been a tremendous guide to INET, a challenge to the economics profession, to the political science profession. And I don’t know if Dylan years ago reached out in another context, maybe when he wrote Desolation Row, and the Mother of all Muses brought you to the stage. But I’m very, very admiring of your work, not only for its rigor and quality, and the people that you work with, but for the importance of it.

And so, fine, I guess in conclusion, I want to thank you for spending an hour or so here sharing with our audience today. And how would I say, helping us face the challenge we have to face in the coming years.

Thomas Ferguson:

Thank you. Yeah, I’m afraid this… I’m sorry to say I think American politics today is no longer a stable structure. It really is on the verge of changing into something, and it may well change into something rather worse. Maybe, a whole lot…

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Good. Let’s say continue to work, and as you continue to produce with your co-authors and with the people that you give guidance to or support in funding from [INET 01:09:09] will bring them to the stage too, and do the best we can in the context of this ominous challenge.

Thomas Ferguson:

And remember that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king or queen. I mean, we may not know everything that we need to know, but we have a much better idea of where this place is going. Then, if you read the average newspaper.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I know, you probably met Patrick Lawrence recently wrote a column called A World Without Newspapers, where he was talking about the how we say, the awkward silence, particularly that pertained to the case of a gentleman named Donzinger who had been involved in the prosecution of an oil company. I think it with Chevron in Ecuador. And now, it was flowing back on him. And other than people like Amy Goodman, it wasn’t being covered in the news.

Rob Johnson:

And so, I think, I would say the unmasking of things that the mother of news is called on is how you say, a formidable part of the challenge. Any rate, thanks for being here today. And…

Thomas Ferguson:

All right. Thanks.

Rob Johnson:

… thanks for the fine work that you do in the very lucid explanation that you shared with us.

Thomas Ferguson:

Thank you.

We’ll talk again soon. Bye-bye.

Rob Johnson:

And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.

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