Milton Friedman's Collusion with Segregationists

Nancy MacLean, history professor at Duke University, talks about the ways in which neoliberal economic icon Milton Friedman collaborated with segregationists and with right-wing billionaires in the pursuit of his goal of privatizing public education.

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Rob Johnson:

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

I’m here today with Nancy MacLean. She’s the William Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. She’s the author of several books. Most recently, Democracy in Chains, which was a finalist for the National Book Awards. And she’s recently written a paper for the INET website and an article that I believe is on our cover, or on the front page of our website, currently, “How Milton Friedman Aided and Abetted Segregationists in his Quest to Privatize Public Education.” Nancy, thanks for joining me.

Nancy Maclean:

It’s a pleasure to be with you, Rob. I’m a great admirer of INET.

Rob Johnson:

Well, INET’s a great admirer of you. So a lot of smiling to do here. At any rate, let’s start with what inspired you. I mean, obviously, coming out of discussions related to James Buchanan and others, your awareness of the Mont Pelerin Society, its funders like the Volcker Foundation and others, I can see some momentum, but it’s leading you to what you might call the front porch of Milton Friedman. And this context of, how would I say, continuing and perhaps fortifying racial problems in the United States. So let’s start with what brought you to this beachhead? Where, what brought you to this place?

Nancy Maclean:

It’s actually a really interesting question, because I never set out to find Milton Friedman, or in the previous work, James Buchanan, Charles Koch, any of them. I’m a historian of the modern US - deep interest in political economy and social movements, and a particular interest in the south. And in 2006, I had just finished another book. And I was at a conference in Philadelphia, and I went into the American Friends Service Committee archives.

And there they had a display, involving the shutdown of the entire public education system in Prince Edward County, Virginia, from 1959 to 1964, to punish the students there for having struck for a decent High School in one of the cases that was folded into Brown. And I was very moved by what I found, and I quickly found out that vouchers were involved. And so I started digging into this and I started to find people I never would have expected to find in the trail of Virginia’s massive resistance to Brown versus Board of Education.

The first of those was a gentleman named in the paper Leon Durr, a former Washington Post reporter who went on to Winston, Salem, and actually helped destroy the first civil rights union in America. And he was saying things like the market solves all our problems, freedom is the solution while he was raising money for two segregation academies. So I started following Durr. But once I got into Durr’s papers, there was Milton Friedman. And there was James Buchanan, and there were all these other organizations.

Nancy Maclean:

And so I became very interested in that. And I thought initially that my story in the book would involve Friedman, primarily, but as I learned about James Buchanan and his connections to supplying the ideas that the Koch Network has operated on the book shifted to Buchanan. So in coming back to this research on Milton Friedman, it was almost like I was… It was unfinished business for me.

I had thought that it was really interesting that it was really important that it spoke powerfully to our own time, to our own historical moment. But it was research that had not gone into Democracy in Chains. So I wanted it to stand independently. And I thought what better site to publish it with INET, because you have such a global network of people who are deeply engaged with these questions of political economy, and probably feel the lack of good economic history or history of the profession in some of the things that you’re doing. So I was hoping to find some new conversation partners, I guess you would say, and it’s delightful to be here with you.

Rob Johnson:

I’m so glad to have you here as well. And I’m always reminded of a book that I read in my formative years by a man named Mary Furner called Advocacy Versus Objectivity. And the book was really about at the time of distributional tensions, late 19th century, how the abstract marginalists took over from the profession from the institutionalists.

Now, what we might call the reintegration of political economy, and the reintroduction or reinvigoration of the history of thought, and economic history, actually, how would I say, catalyzes, a bridge to people like yourself that are in history departments, and what you might call inherently multidisciplinary. And I think you set an example, particularly for our young scholars of the kind of things and kind of ways of approaching problems.

And then I’m going to use my silly joke, the pandemic unmasked how sterile things were in economic science. And there’s some great rigorous evidence based analysis and so forth. But clinging to the abstract, what I’ll call, idealization of the economy, and not seeing these more textured elements, like health care, like climate, like with notions of the common goods, you’ll go back to Henry George. And like, the questions of race.

And I often in my formative years, I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. But I remember reading things by the Chicago School, which were suggestive that the market was the tool that was going to end racism, because if somebody’s marginal product was more than they were getting paid for, there was a profit opportunity. So I saw those arguments being used and market versus state arguments being used on the right.

And I guess what’s awkward now is there are so many people that are worried about concentration of wealth, money in politics, like my research director, Tom Ferguson, that we’re in a place where people on the left don’t trust the government now. It’s almost like George Stigler’s work at Chicago was prescient, from their standpoint. But I need your help in unpacking what Milton Friedman did, as an economist, what he was after, and how this relates to intensifying segregation in schools and racial polarity.

Nancy Maclean:

Yeah it’s interesting, because Milton Friedman is such a huge name in the field today, and certainly among whatever we want to call them, civilians. Those of us and in other arenas, he’s really a household name. But in this period, he was the young guy. When he went to the Mont Pelerin Society founding meeting in 1947, he was kind of a kid among the big luminaries at the time. Hayek and von Mises and his colleague Frank Knight, and he was not a big player.

And I think part of what happened, he came home and he wrote this piece that is well known Neoliberalism and its Prospects in 1951. And he was very anxious to turn the tide of public opinion. To really find a way to shift people from the kind of Keynesian world that prevailed, then, the support for the New Deal, for labor unions, Social Security, public goods of all kinds. And I think what happened, as near as I can tell, is that when the fights began over equal schooling in the south, he was noticing. You couldn’t help but notice. It was in all the national newspapers, the strike in Prince Edward County, by the black high school students, was in 1951.

When it became involved in the NAACP litigation, and you had Southern reactionary governors saying that they would shut down the public school systems before they’d integrate. You had James Jackson Kilpatrick in at the Richmond News Leader, the day that the black students filed in Prince Edward County, their lawsuit. He said, “It’s time to start talking about private schooling.”

So all this news is bubbling up. I mean, I can’t prove or deny that Milton Friedman read this, but any regular newspaper reader of the time would have known this was bubbling. And he used the occasion of a Festschrift to publish this piece called the Role of Government in Education, which was really… And he wanted it to be a kind of a manifesto, to say, even if government funds education, why should government provide it.

Nancy Maclean:

And he even thought on language, he said, “Why do we call them public schools, we should call them government schools.” And he used in that piece, all the kind of language that has become part and parcel of the school choice movement today. Language of choice and liberty and parental rights and parental control. But he was writing this piece, issuing this piece just at the moment when resistance to the Brown versus Board of Education decision was heating up in the South.

And one of the crucial elements of massive resistance was tax funded vouchers for private segregation academies, because they actually understood that white solidarity was a myth. That there weren’t enough white parents who cared deeply enough about segregation to dig deeply into their own pockets and fund private school tuition for their kids. So they needed those public dollars.

And Friedman, I think appreciated that. He saw that and he saw it as an opportunity. By this point he had spoken of his economic views as a new faith, he used the language of conversion. And so he was deeply of the mind that what he had imbibed through the Mont Pelerin Society and beyond, was really a kind of gospel that would free the world and make it better and he just couldn’t take in any evidence to the contrary, and he rebuffed it when it came from his contemporaries, such as Robert Solo.

Not Robert Solow, the Nobel Prize winner, but another economist with the same name and no W on the end. He raised all the questions you were I would raise today, in the correspondence that I cite in the paper. And Friedman would hear none of it, he wouldn’t respond to a single particular of what Solo raised. In fact, he said, even consider questions of prejudice would put one on a par with the Nazis, with Hitler enforcing, what did he call it tastes and something else. The language of taste in neoclassical economics.

But anyway, so that intrigued me finding that correspondence. And the deeper I dug, the more I found, that seemed really important to surface because we’re also in a situation today, in our current moment, when we see the libertarian right in this country, particularly the organizations and operations funded by Charles Koch, being willing to weaponize prejudice of all kinds use disinformation, and so forth to achieve their ends.

We’ve just seen the Koch funded an organization that was promoting vaccine denial and school board fights about mask wearing, we know that climate denial runs back for decades, the work with the tobacco companies in the 1980s, the funding of these politicians who were involved in the January 6 election. So it just seemed like to me this was a good time for some deep truth telling. And as a historian I believe passionately it’s the nature of my craft, that history is powerful. As James Baldwin said, it’s with us in all we do, and William Faulkner, “The past is never dead.” So until we come to terms with what human actors did in our past and the consequences of that, I don’t think that we can solve the problems that we’re faced with right now in our world.

Rob Johnson:

So let’s talk a little bit about Friedman in the correspondence that you saw with Robert Solo, spelled like Napoleon Solo, but different than the Nobel laureate from MIT, who happened to be my undergraduate advisor.

Nancy Maclean:

Oh really. He was my colleague at the Russell Sage Foundation, I was a fellow there.

Rob Johnson:

But coming back, is the sense that you get from reading this that Milton Friedman is talking like he’s a racist, and that’s his motivation. Or is his motivation more related to wanting more market, smaller government, governments not responsive, and this was a place in the spectrum of things that are provided in society were reducing the size of government was what mattered to him.

And then I’ll ask the second dimension of this, which is, even if he wasn’t on board with race, did he see these, what you might call strange bedfellows like the Ku Klux Klan are explicitly racist groups as a conduit to his mission, just as they might see him as a conduit to their mission in keeping school segregated. How conscious do you think he was of the partnerships consequences?

Nancy Maclean:

Important questions, the first thing I do is rule the Ku Klux Klan out of court. The Ku Klux Klan was not playing a big role here, actually. And I think that is kind of telling too. What we were talking about, particularly in Virginia, which is the site of my story is an elite that had profited from and worked to maintain racial capitalism since before the US was a country. The plantation elite there were the first to adopt racial slavery, they created one of the most undemocratic systems in America. The great political scientist V.O. Key in his book about Southern politics said that compared to Virginia, Mississippi was a hotbed of democracy.

So in other words, these are mainly elite actors. They are not the northern stereotype of who is a racist and who is enforcing this system. This was a system that Virginia’s elite profited from mightily, and they had the tightest political organization in the south, in that period. It was interlocking corporate and political elites, nothing went on without Harry Byrd’s organization ruling it okay. And this elite had first tried to defend segregation of public education in the Brown case. Actually, the President of the University of Virginia, Colgate Darden testified for segregation. And then went on to hire James Buchanan later and set up this Center for Political Economy.

Anyway, so first, I think we need to really understand how racism works in a way that African American and many white scholars have been encouraging us to do for a long time. But I don’t think our media does such a good job with. Or many of our churches, because they ask us to think about racism as a sin of the heart. A personal kind of ailment. And that is the language in which James Buchanan was defended by many of his colleagues when I tried to point out his history and Democracy in Chains.

And that’s really not the relevant question. I mean, I don’t know what was it James Buchanan’s heart, I don’t care. I don’t know what was in Milton Friedman’s heart, I don’t care. I don’t think he was primarily activated by racism. Not at all. But I think he clung to an economic dogma that said that freeing markets from any government interference would solve every problem in the world. And that’s why he opposed federal fair employment practice laws when they were supported by every major African American organization in the country and the labor movement.

That’s why he opposed the Civil Rights Act and worked as an economic adviser to Barry Goldwater, who was against social security, against minimum wage, et cetera. So I don’t think… Milton Friedman wasn’t going down there and speaking in the same tones as the white citizens councils. But he was working with… The Virginia and I show him working with this former New York Times reporter who had retired to a huge horse warm outside Charlottesville.

Friedman was working with him, this guy was publicly known as a fundraiser for two segregationist academies in Charlottesville, one named after Robert E. Lee. He worked with James Buchanan and Warren Nutter at the University of Virginia, they were all supporting this effort to get tax funded school vouchers in the name of freedom. But the problem was those vouchers were opposed, to a person, by African Americans. To a person by the NAACP, who knew that this was an effort to steal the victory they won in Brown versus Board of Education.

So I actually put in the paper, Oliver Hill, who was the lead Virginia attorney involved in the Brown versus Board of Education decision, and he just said it plainly. He said, “No one has a right to have his private prejudices subsidized by tax dollars.” And that’s what these guys were trying to do. They were trying to make taxpayers subsidize the parents who did not want their white children to go to school with black children.

I mean, it was that simple. There’s no getting around the reality on the ground there. And Friedman said he supported their right to do that in the name of freedom. He also said he opposed forced segregation. But at the same time, he never recognized the complexities that Robert Solo tried to point out to him, Robert Solo said, “Hey, how can you say this? Black people can’t even vote in the south, they can’t control the government that’s taking their tax dollars to fund the segregation academies. How can you even be talking about freedom in a context like this? They need collective action. They need the courts, they need force basically, to break up this otherwise rock solid system.”

And Friedman would have none of it. And he worked closely with the people who were trying to get those tax dollars to segregation academies. So again, what’s in his heart, to me as a historian, it’s not really relevant. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a mind reader. I’m not a personal biographer. But it doesn’t matter to me to be honest, though, because I’ve been asked this question so much about James Buchanan.

If I were an ethicist and I were asked to choose what’s worse, someone who operates in the heat of passion from a deeply believed commitment that a whole other group of people are inferior to them. Is that worse, or is it worse for someone who doesn’t hold that view, who knows those views are wrong, who knows they’re pernicious, and they have human costs, but says “You know what, I’m going to use these people to get this thing I want.”

In a lot of ways, that’s what Republican, wealthy Republican voters do now. They’re saying, okay, beat up on the black people. And the immigrants take away their voting rights, take away abortion rights for women, but just don’t raise my taxes, it’s all I care about. And to me, again I’m not a religious person, but I have a lot of respect for many really good people of faith.

And I think the ethics would say, it’s a greater sin, if you don’t believe it, but you’re willing to use dark forces like that. And in fact, we see the Koch network doing this transnationally. Peter Boettke, who is the outgoing past head of the Mont Pelerin Society based at the Koch operation at George Mason. He is quoted in Ian Wasserman’s book about Austrian economics, saying, we have to give up the label of Austrian economics because it’s been too corrupted by the alt right, and the racist forces who have enlisted that.

And he’s saying that because part of the Hayek Society in Germany and in Austria, they’re playing footsie with these neo-nazis. Top people in those organizations that are part of the Atlas Network, are starting to work with street fascist and talk about getting somebody like Trump to carry their movement, because they know their ideas will never be popular otherwise. They can get masses of people to line up for an agenda of privatizing social security and public education, not stopping action on the climate, not having anti-discrimination enforcement.

So we’re talking about a cause here, that is really far outside of the normal pale. But because it’s so wealthy, they have been able to create what James Buchanan called the gravy train to bring many people, mostly young men into this and get them in for the long term. So it looks really academically respectable, but they don’t act like normal academics. It’s not a disinterested pursuit of truth. They engage in a form of denialism whenever any inconvenient evidence comes along.

Rob Johnson:

Well, as you know from economic theory, the notion of public goods, common good, externalities are considered to be exceptions, rather than what you might call of large import. And so pursuing that mission un-mindfully about the scope and scale of what I’ll call the externalities, of the structures that they’re promoting does not make them innocent.

And I’ve been in this last couple of years, how would I say, found very illuminating the work of a man named Ibram X. Kendi, K-E-N-D-I, where his book on called Stamped, and then another one about how to be an anti-racist. When he explores, he’s saying, racism is here. It’s a long legacy, and it’s very resistant to change. And you’re not race neutral if you allow it to persist and look the other way. Or you’re not race neutral, if you’re doing things that aid and abet those structures and fortify that resistance.

His view is an anti-racist is someone who is conscious of what’s happening and takes on the challenges, the policies, the mindsets, the habit structures, so that it no longer stays with us. And so I think Kendi’s a little illumination of, if you will, what it takes to go beyond is in some ways, reminiscent in my reading to what Naomi Klein wrote about in climate change in a book called This Changes Everything.

Because she was saying, in essence, these people aren’t saying that there is no climate problem. What they’re saying is if we acknowledge a climate problem, and government plays a role, that upends all the other things we want to do towards smaller role for government and more free markets. It creates a legitimacy for government intervention. And here I think what Kendi is saying is similar. But also if you just going to sleep, you are complicit in this corrupt order, which persists.

Nancy Maclean:

I think those are incredibly helpful analogies, Rob. Yeah, Ibram Kendi’s work is really important in drawing our attention to the structures of power, the practices, all of these things that maintain this system. And sadly, for that he has been brutally attacked from the right, and particularly this libertarian right funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and it’s fellow donors in the network. But they have actually funded a lot of these attacks on critical race theory that are basically trying to stop us from coming to that institutional reckoning with racism, as America was seeming ready to do, particularly after the murder of George Floyd.

I think they’re also weaponizing, that issue going into the 2022 midterms. So that people won’t think about how popular the economic policies of the current administration actually are. And instead, they’re inciting fights at school boards. So it’s really dangerous stuff. But I think the other association you made to Naomi Klein’s book about the climate is also really apt. Because when I look at the history of when the Koch network really started to mobilize these operations, that I wrote about in my book, the timing is really crucial.

It was in the 1990s, late 1997, just after the global tobacco treaty, was showing that tobacco corporations had horribly misled the public for years. And they were being held to account for that. And the Koch folks, and the people at George Mason had worked with the tobacco industry in the 1980s and 90s, to deny the truth about tobacco.

Now, they were turning toward climate. And this was a time when if you remember, George Herbert Walker Bush was acknowledging climate change saying we have to get ahead of this, we have to deal with this. It was the time of the Kyoto accords. And it was at that point that Koch and these fellow… It’s not all capitalists, it’s a minority, but I’m very active, right wing militant minority said this is existential, we have to stop this.

And so what is the first thing that they went after is stopping the Paris accords. And they’ve also been active, and here I’m drawing on another piece I did on the Atlas Network, which is the transnational arm of all of this, but they seem to be working with these right wing populist in different countries that will also de-rail the climate agenda, derail the anti-racist agenda.

So you have partners in Britain, most famously, the Institute for Economic Affairs, supporting Boris Johnson, supporting Brexit. You have Bolsonaro conducting similar stuff. You have… Oh, sorry, you have Australia, in Australia, the allies of this, the think tank there, whose name escapes me at the moment, but saying could the Donald come to us. Could we have our own Donald Trump, and lo and behold it happens.

So I mean, it’s a tremendously complex operation that needs more research on every continent, so that we can get to the bottom of what’s going on here. But I think you put your finger with those analogies on two of the absolutely critical elements here. And one is the effort to deal with deeply rooted historical, structural inequality that goes back to slavery and colonialism, to say nothing of gender and sexuality.

But that has certainly been one driver. And then the other one is trying to take action on climate change, and the risks that fossil fuels pose to our planet. And so what we’re seeing is a cause that is willing to make allies of groups like the religious right, and push through all these attacks on abortion. In my state, they had what was notoriously became known as the bathroom bill, to get their voters to the polls and weaponizing prejudice against trans people.

So I know we’re just… It’s just an audio recording, but I’m looking at you thinking this is such a huge thing to get our arms around. And I don’t think we have nearly enough scholars working on this and following this money train to understand the self-consciously interlocking operations that all of this has become part of. Now here’s, if I may go back to an interesting point about Milton Friedman. One thing that I did love about researching Friedman is he was very honest and open.

And so when I went through his papers he said, what he thought, everybody. So I’d be writing to my husband from these archives. Can you believe he’s saying this. Over and over again, he talked about how vouchers were not an end in themselves. They were a tactic, school choice was a tactic. He wanted to privatized education completely. So that parents, as he said, would pay for their children’s education like they do for their food and shelter.

In the libertarian dream world, we have no public education, we have no post office, we have no national parks. That is the dream world. And Friedman, to his credit was honest about it. And in 2005, I saw him saying why don’t we just wrap up the Mont Pelerin Society? We’ve won, everybody believes in markets now, enough is enough. But these other figures like Koch and James Buchanan, they’re like, “No, we want to go on and rig the rules of the game, to get what we want.”

So I think that poses a challenge to folks like us who are in academic spaces and spaces where we think, well, empirical research should be the deciding factor. If you can prove your point, with research, with findings of whether it’s statistics, or archival research then we can settle some of these vexed debates. But what I learned in seeing the attacks on my work from some of these Koch funded professors, is that they’re not interested in the truth.

They’re not interested in an honest look at this history of the movement, or of some of its leading thinkers and actors. What they want to do is take down the messengers. So character assassination of established, respected scholars, denial of the substance of what they’ve written, refusal to engage in the core findings of the research. And instead the kind of silly kind of bait and switch operation which we see in old denialist movements.

They try to change the subject they pick some microscopic little point in hopes that they can discredit the whole case by some little tiny point. And anyway, it’s kind of fascinating to see at work. But I don’t think we as a country, are prepared for the levels of disinformation that are coming from self interested actors and certainly, we saw that in the Trump presidency we see that on the issue of voter suppression, climate denial, the anti-abortion movement, so many of these things. You have powerful well funded interests, who are deliberately polluting the public debate.

Rob Johnson:

I know, for instance, the scholar Naomi Oreskes-

Nancy Maclean:

Yes, she’s a friend.

Rob Johnson:

Merchants of Doubt, you were referring earlier to the tobacco era, and how that propagated. Michael Mann at Penn State, who was a guest on this podcast a few months ago, on the nature of what you might call disinformation strategies, to arrest the attempt to bring fossil fuels, how do I say, to a lower value as assets because of the side effects that they produce.

And so I think there’s a lot of anxiety now, particularly after the onset of the pandemic, that we can identify climate change, the IPCC reports. But we don’t have a strategy in the context of our real political economy, and information systems, and concentrations of wealth and money, politics, et cetera, to move forward. And I think it’s starting to scare people a great deal, that it’s almost like being sent to the doctor and getting diagnosed for critical illness, but then not being able to be treated.

Nancy Maclean:

Yes. That’s a really, really good analogy.

Rob Johnson:

We just have to sit there and take it. And that’s scary. That’s haunting.

Nancy Maclean:

But if our democracies were functioning well, and normally, we would be able to address these issues. But what we see instead and I’ll just now talk about the US case, is strategic actors. And again, I don’t think anyone, other than a few scholars and independent researchers has really come to grips with… And journalists, heroic journalists like Jane Mayer, but how big the Koch network is and what they have wrought.

But what you see is state after state, this really smart strategy to get control of state legislatures, state governments, where so many of the rules about democracy, about labor about education are made, and then use that control of state governments now 30, systematically rewrite the rules so to engage in the most radical redistricting we’ve ever seen in our political history, using the most sophisticated technology and the most audacious power grabs. That really misrepresent the citizenry on all questions in many of our state legislators, including my own in North Carolina.

To engage in voter suppression. Mass voter suppression under the misleading rubric that this is somehow election integrity when there is no problem of voter fraud. To undermine the power of labor unions, which they know will add at least 3% to their side from the other side. I mean, this is very, very smart, strategic stuff. Going back to our earlier discussion, this is not the Ku Klux Klan crowd in hoods coming out of a gas station.

No, this is really determined actors and some of the richest men in the world. And here, I point to Charles Koch, who understand, who see an existential threat to their current and future profit stream from action on the climate. And are willing to wreck democracy and stir up all these demons in order to make sure that doesn’t happen.

So my conclusion from my book research, but I think it would also be true from this paper, is that informing people of what’s happening and prioritizing democracy reform are the most critical things that we can do in this moment to make sure… At the time I wrote Democracy in Chains, it’s probably worse now we were, I believe the figure was, it’s in the conclusion, 132 of 178 democracies in the levels of voter participation.

That’s a scandal we should be ashamed of that. We should be doing everything that we can to make sure that people are participating in elections. But instead, we have this cause, which is use donor control and Fox News and weaponizing, the bass to stir up… To essentially capture one of our political parties. And they are preventing us from taking action on any of this, and they’re actually making it worse as we speak.

And I just I don’t think a lot of the mainstream media has gotten on top of this. What it means that we have two different media universes, I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed Yokai Benkler at Harvard, a really interesting communication scholar. Who has written about how Fox News and Breitbart are just a bubble. In the rest of the spectrum, we all go around, I read the… I’m not a fan of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, but I read it, the paper.

And you read, you sample, this broad media. Well for the core base that they have there, which is now the base of voters of the Republican Party, they don’t get out. And what they get is the daily diet of having their identity consolidated, and then they’re made to feel embattled. So it’s almost like a stress response. And you have to go out and fight the other side. So you’re right, that it’s just so frustrating. Because on issue after issue, the vast majority, including Republican voters knows that there’s things we need to do, as people as societies, and we’re not being able to do it because of the way that our democracy has been shackled and distorted by these forces.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I will cite a scholar, who, again, was a teacher of mine as an undergraduate. But he’s been a INET researcher… We’ve funded a lot of his research. It’s the professor emeritus Peter Temin.

Nancy Maclean:

Oh, yes, he’s wonderful.

Rob Johnson:

And he wrote a book called The Vanishing Middle Class, which as we were approaching a conference in Detroit, Michigan, he emphasized how we had… In the old days of W. Arthur Lewis’s vision, you walked from the farm to the city, you went from agriculture to manufacturing. Well, metaphorically, what Peter was saying is now what you do is walk from low margin services through the education system to high margin services.

But in the context of economic distress, whether globalization caused, technology caused, environment caused or policy caused people adopt otherness, racial animosity as what you might call the false enemy. What Peter was concerned about, was for both black and white people and Hispanics and Asians, the animosity that was being caused in the school system was breaking the rungs in the ladder, from the low margin to the high margin services.

So to use W. Arthur Lewis’s analogy you weren’t going to walk into that high level unless you created fortified school systems while everybody was cutting local budgets. Peter’s next book, which is now coming out, I believe soon under Cambridge University Press INET series is called Never Together.

It’s about from reconstruction, to the present. All of the counter strategies to racial healing. Prison industrial system, education things, access to medicine. Some well intentioned things that came from people like Eleanor Roosevelt that were constantly undermined. But he just tells the story of this conflict.

And I, how would I say, I’ve never liked to end a podcast on a disheartening note. But understanding where you are and what the real struggle is, like you say, the scholars that illuminate what the challenge is, what it has been, or how it’s not been met, becomes important. But now let’s say President Biden or the UN invited you to speak tomorrow. What’s your healing strategy, with regard to racial animosity in America?

I heard you allude to something before about the relationship of money in politics, freeing up scholars, correcting the media system, which you’ve said is, what you might call filled with disinformation, as a conscious strategy. But where do you take us so that my young scholars have a place to march in their minds.

Nancy Maclean:

Yeah, well, I would say absolutely, this question of money. And politics is number one, it’s killing us. In domain after domain. And the fact that you can use dark money in politics, that you can push out all this pollution of our public discourse, and have the donors not be able to… Sorry. Not be able to be held accountable for that is really, really a problem.

As I said before, I think democracy reform so that the actual will of the people can be felt, and heard and acted on in politics. Because that’s another thing that has affected us. I mean, I think it is interesting to pay attention to those two time Obama voters who then voted for Trump. Leave all the other ones out of the equation. But that is a puzzle that needs to be solved.

And as near as I’ve been able to gather from the research, those were people who actually thought that something was going to change for the better in their lives. And when it didn’t, they got pissed and they wanted to break the house, and they were willing to try anything. But as I was writing the book Democracy in Chains, I was thinking, I’m a historian. I was like, what are these people thinking on the right? Because if you render democracy in operable and the people cannot use the channels, they need to in order to get relief from the problems that are afflicting them, they’re not just going to go to sleep, and say, “Oh, gee the market’s not doing it, either. I guess I just am inferior, that’s the end of that.”

No, they’re going to go right, or they’re going to go left. And they’re going to polarize. And at this point the right is much stronger in our country, and in many others, than the left sadly, but it was amazing to be doing that research and thinking this and then get to 2016, where the two most popular actors for a time were Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. So we’ve got to make democracy responsive.

I think on the racial questions, here I would take a lead from some of the great research done at Demos. So Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at Berkeley has a wonderful book called Merge Left, that describes a research project they did and talking to voters, where they actually ran different scripts. They only talked about issues of racism, or they only talked about issues of class inequality. And neither one of those were very effective.

But when they helped people see that there are powerful wealthy interests who are pitting us against one another, so that we can act on the things we have in common, then they broke through. And also Heather McGee, who had been the head of Demos, now is Color of Change. But she wrote a fantastic book that came out I believe it was last year or the last year before that. I lost track of time in COVID, but it’s called the SUm of Us. And it’s about this question of getting beyond a world in which essentially, white people will cut off their noses to spite their faces, if it means they can keep blacks worse off.

And her driving metaphor in this book is a swimming pool in Alabama, I forget whether it was Birmingham or a Montgomery, but it was a state of the art swimming pool. It was beautiful. It had all these diving boards, all these wonderful things. And when the whites in the community realized they’d have to let black families come in and swim they paved it over. So they took away their own great, wonderful public resource to spite these people that they had been made to think of as different and other.

So I would say as an academic, I always want to point to more, more good reading. But I would say that those two works Ian Haney Lopez’s Merge Left and Heather McGee’s The Sum of Us, they’re both very readable. And I think they really help us move the conversation where it needs to go on this. And I’m really looking forward to Peter Temin’s book. He’s been just such an illuminating commentator on these issues for so long.

Rob Johnson:

I’ve had the good fortune of being in a group that meets on racial issues with the Ian Haney Lopez and I have to affirm how insightful he and John Powell who’s at the Haas Center, who’s a member of INET’s board, and there are many others in that group. But he has always been, how would I say, someone I’ve learned a great deal from.

So and Heather has I’ve known her since, geez for many years, because we worked a little bit side by side when I was at the Roosevelt Institute on issues related to the Dodd-Frank legislation and all of that. And she’s, I think, also… Her family comes from Michigan. I know her mother worked in the philanthropic world for years and may still. So there, and Rashad Robinson’s Color of Change is an extraordinary organization as well. So I feel like you’re giving us good guidance.

Nancy Maclean:

Oh thank you. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you.

Rob Johnson:

You too.

Nancy Maclean:

And it’s so important to open wider conversations on these issues.

Rob Johnson:

It’s important, and it’s important for people to see your conviction and you as a model of the courage that it takes to not be what you might call deterred, from expressing what you feel. And that I think, is the gift that this podcast can give to our future scholars, is to underscore how much insight and courage and enthusiasm for the repair of society at a time when people are very scared. That model is very important. So thanks for being with me today. And thank you for all your work. Thank you for staying in this vibrant debate and for all of your suggestions.

Nancy Maclean:

They’re going to have to drag me out by my feet. Ain’t going any other way.

Rob Johnson:

That’s the right attitude. So yeah, we’ll do another episode around the corner sometime in the future. But this was a great start.

Nancy Maclean:

That sounds wonderful, it’s been a pleasure, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. And check out more from the Institute for new economic thinking at INETeconomics.org.

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