Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
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  • Are the “inequality” charts simply tracking tax code changes?

    Posted By on September 7, 2016

    The main historical argument made by inequality scholars such as Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman asserts that the income and wealth distributions of the United States follow a U-shaped pattern across the past 100 years. According to this narrative, the century began at very high levels of inequality. Intervening events such as the adoption of the progressive income tax in 1913, as well as two world wars and the Great Depression, allegedly had an equalizing effect that reduced inequality to the trough of the U in the 1960s and 1970s. Piketty et al then claim that a series of tax cuts beginning under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s caused the U-shape to rebound, leading to rising inequality today.

    There are many problems with this narrative as a simple matter of economic history. The individual income tax has actually gotten more progressive since 1980, contrary to what Piketty et al claim. The original income tax in 1913 doesn’t match Piketty’s ideological depiction of it as a redistributive mechanism. The claimed “rebound” in inequality since 1980 also appears to be vastly overstated-to-non-existent, and more measured analysis has called this key claim of the Saez-Zucman study into question.

    Still, the U-shape remains a fixture of the inequality discussion including this visible example from the disputed findings of the Saez-Zucman study:


    Saez and Zucman’s wealth inequality measure, as well as a similar income inequality estimate by Piketty and Saez, derive their source data from historical income tax returns provided by the IRS. In one sense, income tax returns are an important point of data for something that is notoriously difficult to measure: an accounting of individually held “wealth.” It comes with a substantial liability though. As Alan Reynolds has repeatedly pointed out, historical income tax data are highly responsive to changes in the federal tax code – as in the types of laws that Congress has passed every couple of years since the income tax was instituted in 1913. Using tax data from before and after a major tax code overhaul (such as the one that happened in 1986, to use a prominent example that likely distorts the post-1986 Saez-Zucman numbers) runs a high risk of creating an apples-to-oranges comparison. Changes to the tax code alter everything from the simple top marginal rate of taxation (which Piketty et al stress) to the types of income that are taxed, the number of exemptions and deductible items, the eligible tax base, and even how the income tax interacts with other closely related types of taxation.

    Despite this intuitively obvious problem, Piketty et al pay shockingly little attention to historical changes to the tax code in their analysis. In fact, Piketty regularly fumbles the basic legislative history of the income tax in the 20th century. Time and again, his writings indicate a complete inattentiveness to the changing structure of the income tax system except for the top marginal rates – and even then he frequently assigns those changes to the wrong years and wrong presidential administrations (he has called these errors “typos” in correspondence with myself and in his public statements, though he hasn’t ever bothered to correct them in his subsequent work).

    All of this brings me to an interesting pattern that I have been investigating in recent weeks. One way to measure the effects of changes to the tax code over time is to look at the simple distribution of the income tax burden from year to year. The CBO publishes these numbers periodically for the top shares of income tax payers – both by household and individual burden – going back to 1979. Their numbers show that the tax share paid by the highest quintile of filers has grown astronomically since the first date in this series, with the Top 1% of tax filers leading the way. Owing to differences in methodology and changes in the way that the IRS has reported data over the years, pre-1979 figures are harder to come by. A 2000 paper by Feenberg and Poterba provides one estimate of the tax share for the top 0.5% of household filers from 1962 until its time of publication. I have yet to find any source that systematically tracks these data prior to 1960 though – an issue that is also somewhat complicated by changes in the way the IRS reported its own data as well as gaps in certain years.

    Curious about this question, I started to investigate whether an older estimate of the tax share could be derived. It turns out that the IRS records actually tracked the annual distribution of individual tax filings with relative regularity from 1916 onward, making it possible to (1) rank order the total number of filings from the highest tax payer and (2) determine which tax class the cutoff for the top 1% of filers fell under in given years. This allows us to approximate the tax share paid by the top 1% of individual filers within a few fractions of a percentage point, using the corresponding revenue figures from each tax class. What follows is a rough estimate of the tax share paid by the top 1% of individual filers from 1916 to the early 1960s, when the IRS changed its reporting practices. I note with some caution that these are preliminary estimates that I hope may be further fine tuned. As a point of reference, they are overlaid with the Feenberg-Poterba household estimate for the top 0.5% in the mid 20th century and the CBO-derived figures for the top 1% of filers since 1979, using their estimates for individuals (again, I’ll stress that each uses a different way of estimation and different categories of filers so they are not directly comparable but they do show the larger patterns at play). Even with this very preliminary look though, it is readily apparent that the tax share paid by top income tax filers is highly responsive to the changes in tax code over the past century.


    Also note that a pronounced U-shaped pattern emerges, with an almost identical shape as the income tax-derived estimates that purport to measure various types of “inequality.” I’ll leave it to the reader to interpret what that might mean about those estimates.

    A Phony ‘Phocion’: Alexander Hamilton and the election of 1796

    Posted By on August 20, 2016

    William Loughton Smith

    On October 14, 1796 the Philadelphia-based Gazette of the United States newspaper ran the first of 25 “letters” that would forever change the nature of presidential campaigns. Bearing the pseudonym of the ancient Athenian orator ‘Phocion,’ the letters presented a systematic and, at times, bitterly personal argument against Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy for President of the United States. Over the next several weeks, the letters questioned Jefferson’s philosophical temperament for the office, charged him with harboring sympathies with the Jacobin revolutionaries in France, accused him of hypocrisy on slavery, and even hinted at his now-accepted relationship with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave in the Jefferson household. After their newspaper run, the essays were printed as a pamphlet and widely circulated on the campaign trails by supporters of Jefferson’s main election rival and the eventual winner, John Adams. In recent years, a number of scholars and popular writers have confidently asserted that ‘Phocion’ was in fact Jefferson’s longtime political rival Alexander Hamilton. The 18th century equivalent of an “attack ad” that Hamilton is presumed to have produced is now widely cited as an effective and even principled form of political campaigning.

    Phocion has an identity problem though, as his association with Hamilton is based on an inexplicably sloppy historical error.

    Almost all of these mistaken attributions actually derive from the same source: Ron Chernow’s highly acclaimed 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. In declaring Hamilton the author of the essays, Chernow notes that “these essays have inexplicably been omitted from Hamilton’s collected papers and biographies.” Declaring them authentically and “unmistakably Hamiltonian in style,” he praises them as “mocking, brilliant, prolix, bombastic, sometimes hairsplitting – but also characteristic in their obsession with Jefferson and the sanguinary turmoil of the French Revolution.” As evidence of this identification, he declares that the essays simply sound like Hamilton. In one instance they replicated a metaphor from Hamilton’s known Catullus essay of September 29, 1792, leading Chernow to believe that he has simply recycled an older passage. Proceeding as if his case has been proven, Chernow asserts that Hamilton and Phocion are one in the same person. He then deploys this conclusion as his basis for analyzing the 1796 campaign. The essays, he concludes, “contain the most withering critique that Hamilton ever leveled at Jefferson as a slaveholder, and they hint heavily at knowledge of the Sally Hemings affair.”

    This assertion is historically crucial to another of Chernow’s more dubious and yet also repeated claims, namely that Hamilton was an abolitionist. As I demonstrated at this link, Hamilton’s anti-slavery reputation has been severely exaggerated by his biographers and Chernow is among the primary culprits. Though a moderate manumissionist, Hamilton actually took part in the buying and selling of household slaves on behalf of his in-laws from New York City’s aristocratic Schuyler family. He also wavered on the issue of slavery when it came before the Confederation Congress and left almost no written thoughts about the institution in his voluminous journalistic career other than a couple of vague references to the condition of slavery in the abstract.

    Phocion is different though as it tackles slavery directly. It blasts Jefferson’s philosophical nods to “emancipat[ing] the blacks to vindicate the liberty of the human race” without following through. Instead, “at another [moment] he discovers that the blacks are of a different race from the human race and, therefore, when emancipated they must be instantly removed beyond the reach of mixture lest he (or she) should stain the blood of his (or her) master, not recollecting what from his situation and other circumstances he ought to have recollected – that this mixture may take place while the negro remains in slavery.” Jefferson, the Phocion letter concludes, “must have seen all around him sufficient marks of this staining of blood to have been convinced that retaining them in slavery would not prevent it.” It then proceeds to work through a devastating dissection of a passage in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia where he attributes a number unfavorable characteristics to the inherited traits of black skin color. It similarly assails Jefferson’s proposed yet never acted-upon emancipationist plan for its attached scheme of colonizing former slaves abroad. Phocion thus potentially ranks among the earliest examples of the anti-colonization literature as it relates to American slavery.

    If Phocion’s letters were authentically Hamilton’s words as Chernow believes and as others have asserted on his authority, this passage would easily stand out as the boldest antislavery argument he ever put to paper.

    Unfortunately for Chernow’s case though, Alexander Hamilton was not the author of the Phocion letters.

    That distinction instead belongs to William Loughton Smith, an arch-Federalist congressman from South Carolina. It is easy to see where Chernow was led astray. On October 15, 1796 – the day after the first Phocion letter ran in the Gazette – Republican campaign operative John Beckley brought it to the attention of Jefferson’s chief political lieutenant James Madison, speculating that Hamilton had made “his first appearance under signature of Phocion.” Had Chernow bothered to read the accompanying footnote in Madison’s edited papers, he would have noticed that this identification was mistaken. As the 1790s political world quickly realized, the author was in fact Hamilton’s congressional ally Smith.

    Beckley’s mistake quickly revealed itself in the subsequent Phocion letters to the Gazette. Their author took to referring to Hamilton by name in the third person, as well as heaping on effusive praise of him. These blatant self-promoting practices are deeply uncharacteristic of any of Hamilton’s other known pseudonymous newspaper essays. Yet Phocion used the example of “the spirited and truly patriotic HAMILTON” as a point of contrast with Jefferson, arguing that the former had dutifully “retired” from public life whereas the Sage of Monticello sought only to extend his clinging to a political career with further offices.

    On November 10 the Charleston City Gazette reported that Phocion was a “member of Congress from South Carolina, who has on all occasions been lavish of his abuse of Mr. Jefferson.” The Philadelphia Aurora, a well known anti-Federalist organ, all but named Smith as Phocion, noting that “somebody talking of it said Mr. S—- borrowed the leading ideas from Gulliver’s address to the King of the Struldbruggs.” In a later issue, the City Gazette noticed the borrowed passages from Hamilton’s 1792 Catullus essay and alluded to another instance where Smith had similarly lifted lines from Hamilton out of the Federalist papers. Here the author quoted Catullus “without the usual inverted commas” to indicate its source. “Who does not know that the person that committed a similar plagiarism upon the Federalist in defending the treaty here in the summer of 1795?” Elsewhere, clues in the text revealed a familiarity with the workings of Congress despite the author’s initial denial of an affiliation with that body – a likely rhetorical tactic to obscure his immediate identity.

    With the conclusion of the series in November and its republication as an anonymous standalone pamphlet, all suspicions turned to Smith. John Adams revealed Phocion’s identity to his wife Abigail in a letter on December 7, 1796, noting “Cousin Smith is Said to have written Phocian and Murray the Pieces from Maryland.” By late December, Smith was referenced openly in the press as the credited author or culprit, usually depending on which political party the paper supported. The episode stuck to Smith’s name for the remainder of his political career. The Republicans quickly dubbed him “Phocion Smith,” recalling the episode again in 1799 when Adams nominated him for a diplomatic post in Portugal. Smith, for his part, embraced the name and, after leaving his diplomatic post in 1801, continued to publish a series of political essays under the name Phocion in the Charleston Courier. When these later Phocion essays were collected and published as a book in 1806, its publisher announced in the preface that Smith had “not affected to disavow or conceal his being the Author of these Papers” and credited him in full as their author. Historians accordingly accepted Smith as the author of the 1796 Phocion letters long ago, and the historical literature largely forgot about the early uncertainty of their authorship now that his identity was settled. This is the explanation for why they were “inexplicably omitted” for Hamilton’s collected writings, as Chernow wondered. They were not in fact the work of Hamilton’s pen.

    Incidentally, the Phocion pieces did originate from a source that was closely aligned with Hamilton’s emerging wing of the Federalist Party. From a perch on the Ways and Means Committee, William Loughton Smith had served as something of a personal henchman in the House for Hamilton’s legislative agenda from his days as Secretary of the Treasury. The two conferred regularly on Federalist political and electoral strategy, and Smith shared in Hamilton’s deep disdain for not only Jefferson but all things French. Though no letters survive between the two specifically mentioning the Phocion episode, it stands to reason from their ongoing political kinship that Hamilton approved of the positions that Smith staked out as well as his devastating attacks on Jefferson’s candidacy.

    The more significant rub of the matter comes from the slavery issue. A longstanding member of the Charleston political elite, Smith was no abolitionist. He is actually best remembered today for a vicious speech in the House of Representatives in 1790 where he attacked the mixing of the white and black races, denounced all claims that the federal government had any power to interfere with slavery, and urged Congress to ignore the emancipation petitions of Quaker abolitionists. As Smith declared, “In whatever light, therefore, the subject was viewed, the folly of emancipation was manifest.”

    Read in this light, Smith’s attack on Jefferson over slavery assumes an entirely different character. It is also one that Chernow is not entirely unaware of, even as he has mistaken the identity of the author. Smith, as Phocion, was not simply taking a principled stand against Jefferson’s hypocrisy when he displayed the Virginian’s divided thoughts and actions on the subject. Rather, he intended this message for specific political consumption in the slaveholding states of the lower south. By attacking Jefferson’s inconsistency on slavery, he sought to highlight that Jefferson had in fact made rhetorical gestures toward emancipation and, more specifically, colonization. These policies were anathema to the slaveholder class of South Carolina, where the Phocion pamphlet was reprinted and heavily circulated. By showing Jefferson as a wavering thinker where slavery was concerned, Smith therefore actually sought to drive a wedge between him and his southern constituency.

    Smith’s strategy as Phocion had a specific electoral purpose, and with it Hamilton likely intended for the same outcome at the 1796 ballot box. By showing that Jefferson was inconsistent on slavery, the two Federalists were not trying to undermine his emancipationist reputation so much as they were seeking to establish it on firmer grounds to display before the lower south. In the era before the 12th amendment, members of the electoral college each had two simultaneous votes to cast. The winner was made president, and the vice presidency went to the runner up. Assuming Adams won the presidency as the Federalist candidate, Jefferson would almost certainly emerge in second place on the tide of the Republican electors alone. Seeking to prevent this outcome, Smith actually hoped to use emancipation to peel the electoral college votes of the slaveocracy away from Jefferson, their presumed favorite. If enough electors broke ranks over slavery, they would likely shift next to South Carolina’s Thomas Pinckney – a former governor of the state from one of its leading political families and one of the most prominent southern Federalists. Adams would therefore win the presidency followed by Pinckney as vice president, squeezing Jefferson out of office entirely with a third place finish.

    The execution of Smith’s strategy is hardly a divination from its text. He brought slavery more clearly into the picture, but Hamilton spelled out the same electoral math in a memorandum on the eve of the voting. “Pinckney,” he explained, “has the chance of some votes southward and westward, which Adams has not.”

    Like Smith, Thomas Pinckney was a loyal Hamiltonian Federalist in his politics. Pinckney was also the heir to a large plantation fortune, and a hardline slaveocrat. Other than his own term in politics, he is remembered today as the architect of an aggressive and vicious suppression of Charleston’s free black community following Denmark Vesey’s alleged slave revolt plot in 1822. In 1796 though, he was Smith and Hamilton’s favored candidate to box Jefferson out of the government (and, possibly, even demote Adams to second if Hamilton got his way owing to their rivalry for control of the Federalist Party)

    Phocion’s attacks on Jefferson ultimately helped to propel Adams to victory by 3 electoral votes. Jefferson finished a close second. Internal splits in the ranks of the Federalist electors denied Pinckney the votes to overtake Jefferson, although a handful of South Carolina’s pledged Jefferson electors actually broke ranks from the national Republican ticket and cast their second votes after Jefferson for Pinckney. The first major attack campaign in American history did not fully execute on its intended strategy, but it did tilt the outcome in the Federalists’ favor. Hamilton, for his own stake in the game, ended up yet again subordinating his modest anti-slavery leanings to a political alliance with two avowedly pro-slavery southern Federalists. One of them was the actual Phocion, and the second was the candidate that Phocion and Hamilton alike hoped but failed to propel into national office.

    Commie Chic & Quantifying Marx on the Syllabus

    Posted By on August 15, 2016


    A recent story about the prominence of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto on U.S. college syllabi has sparked a number of lively debates and discussions about the proper role of such an economically discredited yet philosophically prominent thinker in the classroom curriculum. I’m personally of the view that Marx’s intellectual contributions are severely overrated and I consider his philosophy to be intellectually incoherent. Still, a need exists for non-marxists to grapple with the pervasiveness of his arguments on a number of fronts. I have no particular desire to expunge him from college curricula, and – on the contrary – encourage anyone who wants to tackle the old Marxist question to familiarize him or herself with his work. Marx should be read and dissected to the extent necessary to dispense with his arguments.

    The latest debate is interesting as it takes on an additional empirical character through a fancy new tool, the Open Syllabus Project. This search engine/network mapping hybrid crawls the internet for publicly posted college syllabi and aggregates statistics about the frequency that certain texts are assigned in college classrooms. And without too much surprise given academia’s general leftward tilt, Karl Marx showed up on top of the list.

    I’m an empiricist at heart, so I decided to take a closer look at some numbers on the whole Marx/syllabus presence question and in particular the ranking of his most frequently assigned book, the Communist Manifesto. My findings and a few observations proceed in the following steps:

    1. Accounting for different versions of its title, Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on a total of 3856 syllabi in the Open Syllabus Project database. That makes it the second most used text in academia after the popular writing style manual by Strunk and White (3934 syllabi) – a book that’s usually assigned to help college students with their composition habits for writing term papers.

    2. Of those 3856 Communist Manifesto hits, only 103 – or 2.67% – are on syllabi in Marx’s own primary academic discipline, economics. The rest are in fields that venture far astray from economics, with the highest concentrations coming from the humanities.

    3. Marx’s Communist Manifesto far exceeds the syllabus frequency of virtually *any* other author or work in all of human history with the possible exception of Plato. Here are the rankings for Marx and the most cited work of several major philosophical figures on the list (note: I intentionally excluded works that are textbooks or primarily literary and paired down the tail end of the list to give a rough sample):

    Marx (Communist Manifesto) – 3856
    Plato (Republic) – 3573
    Aristotle (Ethics) – 2709
    Hobbes (Leviathan) – 2671
    Machiavelli (The Prince) – 2652
    King (Letter from the Birmingham Jail) – 1985
    Mill (On Liberty) – 1969
    Foucault (Power) – 1774
    Darwin (Origin of Species) – 1701
    Augustine (Confessions) – 1694
    Tocqueville (Democracy in America) – 1650
    Smith (Wealth of Nations) – 1587
    Rousseau (Social Contract) – 1427
    Rawls (Theory of Justice) – 1248
    Sartre (Existentialism) – 1224
    Paine (Common Sense) – 1128
    Locke (Second Treatise) – 1045

    It continues downward from there into increasing obscurity.

    4. From these stats, it may be easily observed that Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on syllabi at a frequency that is often 2, 3, or 4X that of other thinkers of comparable prominence. Again, Plato is the only one who even comes close.

    Taken in cumulative, these data suggest two unusual possibilities:

    A. Karl Marx is the single most important, influential, and far-reaching thinker who ever lived, and his empirically attested syllabus presence accurately reflects this extreme degree of influence that he has over virtually all aspects of human knowledge.


    B. Karl Marx enjoys a grossly outsized presence on college syllabi relative to his importance as a thinker, owing to a similarly disproportionate affinity for his thought among university faculty and particularly those faculty outside of the economics profession.

    Explanation B strikes me as far more plausible than explanation A.

    In considering the implications of this finding, it is worth acknowledging that Marx remains a prominent figure in several fields outside of economics: some corners of philosophy and political theory, certain schools of historical thought, a heavy presence in English/literature, and around the periphery of sociological circles, among many other locations. For better or for worse (and mostly worse, given the interminable jargon, conspiratorial disposition, and cluttered writing that Marxism tends to breed) students who pursue degrees in these fields are likely to encounter Marx at some point in their education. It might therefore be tempting to attribute Marx’s high syllabus ranking to his lingering trendiness in a number of academic fields. Let’s call it commie chic for fun.

    But wait for a moment before we leap from the existence of commie chic to our syllabus-derived empirics. The typical academic Marxist lesson in literary criticism, conflict analysis, race/class/gender analysis and the rest enjoys a well-deserved reputation for taking textual obscurantism to near-comical extremes. If you’re studying Marxist historical materialism at anything more than a superficial level, you can expect your reading assignments to derive from Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, an acroamatically decoded passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and probably some unduly celebrated clump of palavered word-lint from the Grundrisse. As a Marxist philosopher or lit critic-in-training, you should be at minimum touring the vocabulary swamp from one of the later chapters of Capital. 

    The one thing a student of “Advanced Marxian Dialectics 501” would not expect to encounter on a syllabus is a frolic through the common trite platitudes of Marx’s most famous foray into political leafleteering, the Communist Manifesto. In the academic world of commie chic, that’s the kindergarten lesson.

    Returning to the syllabus project’s database, we quickly find that classroom Marx lessons trail off after the Communist Manifesto. The second place Marx-text is Capital at 1447 hits, placing it right in the neighborhood of Rousseau’s Social Contract. The descent from there is rapid, such that they attract a couple hundred appearances a piece. The Civil War in France comes in at 133 for example. Between its various titles, his Theories of Surplus Value numbers about 200. Grundrisse is at 196, and his essay On Religion pops up at 115 hits.

    The observed syllabus chart-topping popularity is no general feature of Marx himself, but specific to Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The acknowledged academic proliferation of commie chic is therefore insufficient to explain Marx’s overall dominance of the rankings.

    This secondary finding would appear to further dampen the prospects of Explanation A above, namely that Marx somehow landed himself on the very top of the list of the most important, influential, far-reaching, and consequential figures of all time. Rather, university faculty simply have an abnormally pronounced affinity for assigning his bombastic little propaganda pamphlet at rates that far exceed every single other writer in human history, ever. I’ll leave it to my readers to draw their own inferences as to the intellectual merits of that little exercise.

    Alexander Hamilton’s Xenophobia

    Posted By on August 2, 2016


    We are presently in the midst of a Hamiltonian revival. After sitting dormant for much of the 20th century, the first Secretary of the Treasury’s political program recently sprang to life in a vulgarized form through the Donald Trump campaign. While the Trump association has yet to taint Alexander Hamilton’s reputation despite their nearly identical economic viewpoints, his popular image has benefited immensely from a hagiographic broadway show.

    One prominent theme of the latter medium is its glorification of Hamilton’s immigrant story. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton migrated to the North American colonies as a teenager in 1773 (yes, this was technically an immigration within the British empire, but nonetheless his “foreign” birth continues to weigh heavily upon how he is perceived). Hamilton’s immigrant status is not merely a celebrated feature of his popular image – it is perhaps the central message of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award winning musical, not to mention one that Miranda has exploited for its modern day political resonance.

    Unfortunately, the Hamilton of legend is grossly mismatched with the Hamilton of history where immigration is concerned. Though he is celebrated as an immigrant success story in his own right, the historical Alexander Hamilton actually became an aggressive and sometimes vicious xenophobe by the end of his life.

    Hamilton’s anti-immigrant shift came about almost entirely as a product of his efforts to consolidate political and military power during the Federalist presidency of John Adams. As friendly Hamilton biographers like Ron Chernow stress at length, he previously held relatively liberal views on immigration as expressed in his 1791 Report on Manufactures. Only 7 years later though, Hamilton had become a behind-the-scenes architect of the Alien & Sedition Acts. His ostensible reasoning was a reaction to the terrors of the French Revolution, and an almost paranoid belief that French supporters of his Jeffersonian adversaries were plotting to import Jacobinism into the United States. His anti-French sentiments rapidly expanded to include a fear of similarly imagined “subversive” activities by Irish Fenians, German radicals, and other immigrant groups at large.

    As I noted in my last post, the “Alien” portion of the Alien and Sedition Acts referred to three laws that were designed to severely curtail foreign immigration into the United States. Two of the measures gave the president sweeping peace and wartime powers to detain and deport foreign nationals who allegedly posed a “danger” to domestic security. The third entailed a naturalization law that more than doubled the time required for a foreign born person to obtain United States citizenship and, with it, vote.

    Chernow in particular portrays Hamilton as a somewhat reluctant latecomer to the Alien & Sedition Acts who only supported them after his party drove the measures through Congress. In reality, Hamilton was involved in their creation. On March 25, 1798 Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton sent Hamilton a now-lost letter that apparently solicited his input on a list of legislative matters. Hamilton’s reply survives and indicates his support for the Alien and Naturalization bills:

    “I agree that the President ought to have power to send out of the country suspected foreigners saving merchants who have six months by Treaty, which stipulation contemplating war must operate in the event contemplated. And let us perservere and set good examples.

    The suspension of the naturalization act will also be prudent but I always wished that our naturalization acts had distinguished between the right to hold property & political privileges.”

    Two months later, as the bills were being prepared and debated in Congress, he reaffirmed this position to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. According to Hamilton, “the mass ought to be obliged to leave the Country” save for exceptions carved out for merchants.

    Hamilton’s xenophobia intensified as the measures became law later that year. President Adams utilized his discretion to severely limit deportations under the Alien Friends Act, despite Pickering’s sometimes intense lobbying to deploy its powers. Hamilton likely wished for the same end as Pickering, or at least his surviving letters indicate as much.

    Writing again to Dayton in late 1799, Hamilton railed against two “foreign” newspaper editors, the Irish-born John D. Burk and the Scottish-born James T. Callender. Hamilton’s fury derived from his frustration that they were not being deported or prosecuted for the anti-Federalist contents of their papers:

    “Renegade Aliens conduct more than one of the most incendiary presses in the UStates—and yet in open contempt and defiance of the laws they are permitted to continue their destructive labours. Why are they not sent away? Are laws of this kind passed merely to excite odium and remain a dead letter?”

    When the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions condemning these measures as a violation of the constitutional protection for free speech, Hamilton called upon Congress to issue a “report exhibiting with great luminousness and particularity the reasons which support the constitutionality and expediency of those laws.” The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, he responded, were a “regular conspiracy to overturn the government,” their intention being “to encourage a hostile foreign power to decline accommodation and proceed in hostility.”

    Hamilton reserved a particularly aggressive form of antipathy for one of his successors at the Treasury Department, the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin. His dislike for Gallatin dated to at least the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793, and devolved into outright foreigner-bashing by the end of the decade. In an 1802 political editorial, Hamilton took to raving in conspiratorial fashion about Gallatin’s influence on Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet:

    “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country? And who stimulates persecution on the heads of its citizens, for daring to maintan an opinion, and for exercising the rights of suffrage? A foreigner!”

    The same article decried Jefferson’s efforts to repeal the Naturalization Act on the grounds that doing so would flood the country with “foreigners.” Hamilton blasted the extension of citizenship rights to immigrants because he believed that doing so would allow them to “get too early footing in a country.” Jefferson, he strongly insinuated, even owed his election in 1800 to too many “foreigners” being granted easy access to the ballot box.

    A severe case of cognitive dissonance accompanied these and other anti-immigrant pronouncements by Hamilton, particularly given his own background. While Gallatin’s Swiss birth was a frequent obsession, he similarly railed against immigrants who came from within the British empire much like himself. The Irish-born anti-federalist congressman William Findley was another of his favorite targets for foreigner-bashing – even though Findley immigrated to the United States in 1762, a decade before Hamilton himself.

    Others pointed out Hamilton’s hypocrisy in his own time, yet strangely his historical interpreters mostly give him a pass where immigration is concerned. Hamilton’s turn to xenophobia is as much a part of him as his protectionism, his debt consolidation program, his coauthorship of the Federalist Papers, and his role in drafting the Constitution itself. Obscuring this unpleasant fact, or dressing it up – literally – in song and dance routines that project the appearance of an enlightened pro-immigration immigrant, subjects his biography to an unsupported and fundamentally untruthful claim. In the meantime, it remains difficult to reconcile the “immigrant legend” of Hamilton’s popular reputation and acclaim with the reality of his deep personal hostility toward foreigners at the maturity of his political life.

    Non-ideal policy in an idealized public policy world

    Posted By on July 26, 2016

    Kevin Vallier offered a response on the BHL blog to my last post on the subject of the Universal Basic Income. It’s a lengthy post that should be read in full, but I wanted to briefly respond to a couple of points. In my previous post on UBI consisted of a challenge to the practicability of its implementation. I argue that the case for UBI is essentially undone by the political perils of its adoption. I’ll break down my position in further detail into a series of steps, starting with a few general observations:

    1. The case for UBI directly depends upon a “swap” in which it replaces the existing welfare state. This “swap,” if successfully effected, would replace the notoriously inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt welfare state with something that is comparatively more efficient and more cost effective to administer.

    2. It is a necessary implication of #1 that the inability or failure to successfully execute the proposed swap would obviate the primary argument in favor of adopting UBI, as it would leave us with not only a new UBI program but a simultaneous sizable remnant of the old comparatively wasteful and inefficient welfare state.

    3. A failed execution of the proposed swap would also necessarily leave us worse off than the status quo of doing nothing, when measured by the cumulative expense of both programs and the cumulative inefficiency of their simultaneous existence.

    4. The policy swap between the welfare state and UBI will have to be implemented through the very same political channels that produce, sustain, and administer the current welfare state, which we know to be inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt.

    Though I’m open to someone making an argument otherwise, I believe these first four observations are generally non-controversial and undisputed. The rub emerges with the next step:

    5. The inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt political system through which the swap must be effected is very likely to (a) capture/corrupt/distort the design of the new UBI program and (b) resist the elimination of the old welfare state, which has become politically entrenched despite its comparative inefficiency. These factors combine to make the most likely outcome of a proposed swap an expensive new UBI program + an expensive and sizable remnant of the old welfare state.

    Note that this is a prediction. I outlined in my last post why I believe it is a likely prediction for UBI (there is also an extensive academic literature on why this phenonemon happens). Briefly stated, experience teaches us that several existing features of the welfare state such as Social Security are deeply entrenched in the political process and highly resistant to even modest efficiency-improving reforms. It is also likely the case that, following the implementation of UBI, persons who are disposed to a much larger welfare state than the one it provides will seize upon its perceived deficiencies to make an emotion-laden political case for retaining the old welfare state as a further “supplemental” security net. And finally, Congress – which would likely have to execute the swap on a staggered schedule over several years – has a long history of reneging on politically difficult prior commitments such as the reduction of spending or the elimination of an old program once the deadline actually hits.

    I believe I have made a pretty strong case for this outcome being likely. Others may disagree and I invite the counterargument, but if we proceed as if observation 5 is indeed an accurate diagnosis of the likely outcome, we may also conclude that its necessarily obviates the case for adopting UBI in the first place (observation 2) and necessarily leaves us worse than the status quo in terms of its cumulative budget strain and inefficiency (observation 3).

    I arrive at my skeptical position on UBI for these reasons but, more importantly, I also note that they reveal a shortcoming in most current arguments for UBI. Specifically, the proponents of UBI have paid very little attention on how to get us from their proposed policy on paper to actual implementation (which again necessarily requires the execution of a successful “swap” with the existing welfare state).

    This is where Kevin takes issue with my argument, because he notes (and somewhat accurately, I’ll happily concede) that I have presented a world in which “policy change isn’t seriously possible, and so isn’t worth pushing for.” I’d amend that to read “sweeping policy change in a desirable libertarian direction isn’t seriously possible through political channels, and so isn’t worth pushing for through those same political channels.” I’d also add that this does not preclude the viability modest policy changes for the better, attained through incremental processes or the occasional chance opening on the margins. But nevertheless, you get the gist.

    So where does that leave us? For my own outlook, it’s admittedly a position of deep pessimism about the efficacy of politics in general (I’d also add for anyone who knows me or my general outlook on the political process, none of this should come as even a slight surprise). Kevin seems to indicate that he does not share this pessimism, and he may even consider me mistaken in reaching this position.

    But also note what he does not do: he does not provide an answer to the specific obstacles to UBI’s implementation that I raised, now summarized in point 5 above. Kevin seems to believe that it isn’t necessary for UBI’s proponents to explain how we could arrive at UBI, and that they need only show that UBI is conceptually better than the current welfare state. This position is deeply problematic, because UBI is being justified as an improvement upon the current welfare state. As such the entire case for UBI is actually dependent upon its successful execution – or at least a plausible case that its successful execution is likely.

    If, as I have argued in #5 above, the most likely outcome for UBI is a failed implementation that instead saddles us with both a large new UBI program and the majority of the old welfare state, then the case for UBI collapses as per observations 2 & 3. Note that this is also true irrespective of whether one considers my general outlook on politics to be overly pessimistic, cynical etc. A more optimistic person might take regular refuge in political campaigns and sweeping policy solutions and yet similarly conclude that UBI faces insurmountable implementation obstacles along the very same particular lines I have suggested. And since, as I have shown above, the case for UBI is itself dependent upon the successful implementation of the UBI/welfare swap, it is incumbent upon the proponents of UBI to make the case that those obstacles are actually surmountable. Thus far, we’ve seen an unusual reluctance to make that case beyond an unconvincing exercise in the waving of hands to deem its implementation plausible without any deeper consideration of the path.

    Without addressing the obstacles to UBI’s implementation that I raised, Kevin attempts to turn my description of them around by positing an analogous case against privatization along similar lines in a socialist regime. I’ll simply note that the analogy doesn’t really hold all that well for the reason that socialist regimes (or at least their hardline variety) are usually hostile to the very same political processes by which the proposed privatization or other deregulation of the status quo might be initiated. Instead you’re likely to get Prague 1968. Or Venezuela today. Still, socialist regimes do from time to time collapse and thereby “privatize.” Their softer “democratic socialist” variants also sometimes retract themselves from state ownership or heavy state regulation. At most, all this analogy shows us is that large sweeping political changes of any type are exceedingly difficult to politically design and almost impossible to execute (therefore in answer to Kevin’s question – no I actually wouldn’t view a sweeping attempt to orchestrate and manage privatization politically in a socialist regime as a particularly viable expenditure of energy – rather, as I indicated in my last post, I’d be on the lookout for cases on the margins where the rents extracted by the socialist regime had dissipated beyond the point where they are cost effective to maintain, as that is where deregulatory movements are most likely to occur).

    So whether we want to address them or not, we’re back to the obstacles of implementation and to a non-ideal theorist, this should actually come as no surprise. Just as UBI is offered as a non-ideal political strategy for the welfare state problem in a non-ideal political world, its implementation must also grapple with the non-ideal features of the political system through which it is being proposed – including the likely obstacles. Otherwise the non-ideal political strategy errs in idealizing its own prescriptive political implementation in spite of the very same instincts that prompted the original turn to a non-ideal solution.

    Donald Trump, Hamiltonian

    Posted By on July 25, 2016


    One of the many unsettling features of the Donald Trump’s strange political ascendance is found in his deep seated antipathy to the time-honored doctrine of free trade. Trump devoted a substantial portion of his Republican Convention speech calling for the adoption of protectionist tariffs and other trade restrictions against “any country that cheats.” He proceeded to blame NAFTA for a litany of largely-imagined economic woes in the industrial sector, reiterated his support for an import-substitution regime to internalize manufacturing and tech production in the United States, likened the trade deficit to the federal budget deficit, and railed incoherently against that favorite modern era scapegoat of all of America’s purported trade ills, China. In the following days Trump only doubled down on his calls for alleged economic autonomy, suggesting that as president he would consider taking the United States out of the World Trade Organization.

    These renewed calls for protectionism are not new to American politics, though they do buck the trend toward a managed but certain trade liberalization advanced by both major parties over the past 80 years. In his own idiosyncratic and sometimes vulgarized way, Trump represents the resurgence of an economic philosophy as old as the republic itself: that of Alexander Hamilton.

    A skilled if often mistaken political commentator in his own right, Hamilton was the father of the direct antecedents to Donald Trump’s favored economic system. Over the course of almost 30 years in political life, Hamilton developed a system of sometimes-nuanced but assertive economic nationalism. He believed that trade restrictions were crucial to the development of the fledgling nation’s “infant” industrial base, as well as a guardian against practices of European nations that he deemed unfair or harmful to American interests. To attain this result, Hamilton advocated a complex and carefully tuned system of “bounties” (essentially subsidies to boost American companies agaisnt their competitors abroad) and moderate but certain protective tariffs to insulate American industries from foreign competition. Hamilton and his political heirs coupled this prescription with an aggressive program of harbor, canal, and road infrastructure spending, often called “internal improvements.” These public works projects would in turn provide the means to transport American-made products to American consumers, thereby bypassing the alleged “dependency” on Europe for manufactured imports. As an added bonus their construction would supply American workers with jobs and industry in its own right.

    The parallels are no accident. To quote the great classical liberal economist William Graham Sumner, Hamilton’s mind “was completely befogged in the mists of mercantilism.” This affliction that lasted from his earliest forays into politics as a young soldier in the revolutionary army until his most famous economic treatise, the deeply protectionist “Report on Manufactures” that he wrote as Secretary of the Treasury in 1791. To Hamilton, economic “autonomy” – as maintained through an extensive system of state regulations and economic management – was a primary feature of the American experiment.

    “Food and clothing we have within ourselves,” he wrote in 1774. The rest could be cultivated with a policy of enforced economic independence. Hamilton continued:

    “Our climate produces cotton, wool, flax, and hemp; which, with proper cultivation, would furnish us with summer apparel in abundance. The article of cotton, indeed, would do more; it would contribute to defend us from the inclemency of winter. We have sheep, which, with due care in improving and increasing them, would soon yield a sufficiency of wool. The large quantity of skins we have among us would never let us want a warm and comfortable suit. It would be no unbecoming employment for our daughters to provide silks of their own country. The silk-worm answers as well here as in any part of the world. Those hands which may be deprived of business by the cessation of commerce, may be occupied in various kinds of manufactures and other internal improvements. If, by the necessity of the thing, manufactures should once be established, and take root among us, they will pave the way still more to the future grandeur and glory of America; and, by lessening its need of external commerce, will render it still securer against the encroachments of tyranny.”

    This aggressively autarkic pronouncement gave way to greater nuance as Hamilton’s politics matured, yet protectionism remained a constant feature of his message. In 1782 he pressed its strategic propriety in a blistering assault on the national government’s lack of regulatory powers under the Articles of Confederation. “To preserve the balance of trade in favor of a nation ought to be a leading aim of its policy,” Hamilton declared. “The avarice of individuals may frequently find its account in pursuing channels of traffic prejudicial to that balance, to which the government may be able to oppose effectual impediments.”

    Trade regulation, to Hamilton, was the essence of economic policy. Free trade, he complained, stood “contrary to the uniform practice and sense of the most enlightened nations” Rather, commerce must be subject to “the encouragements or restraints of government.” The “power of regulating trade ought to have been a principal object of the Confederation,” he continued, laying out the case for a national authority to regulate commerce that would come to pass under the new Constitution of 1787.

    Hamilton’s 1791 Report advanced these sentiments as prescriptive policy. Deeming foreign demand for American agricultural products “too uncertain a reliance” for the fledgling nation, he called for the use of economic regulations, tariffs, and bounties to create “a substitute for it, in an extensive domestic market.” The reason for these policies, according to Hamilton, was an allegedly unfair playing field abroad. “If the system of perfect liberty to industry and commerce were the prevailing system of nations,” he argued, free trade would have merit. “But the system which has been mentioned, is far from characterising the general policy of Nations. The prevalent one has been regulated by an opposite spirit.”

    Echoing Hamilton, Trump advanced a boorish but conceptually identical argument in the March 10th Republican debate: “Take China as an example. I have many friends, great manufacturers, they want to go into China. They can’t. China won’t let them. We talk about free trade. It’s not tree free trade; it’s stupid trade. China dumps everything that they have over here. No tax, no anything.”

    To complement his managerial approach to international trade and domestic industry development, Hamilton also used the 1791 report to propose a national infrastructure plan. “Improvements” favoring the transportation of goods, he argued, were an object of any government. In this area “the United States stand much in need.” He continued:

    “The symptoms of attention to the improvement of inland navigation which have lately appeared in some quarters, must fill with pleasure every breast, warmed with a true zeal for the prosperity of the country. These examples, it is to be hoped, will stimulate the exertions of the Government and citizens of every State. There can certainly be no object more worthy of the cares of the local administrations; and it were to be wished that there was no doubt of the power of the National Government to lend its direct aid on a comprehensive plan. This is one of those improvements which could be prosecuted with more efficacy by the whole, than by any part or parts of the Union.”

    If these features sound familiar, consider the following line from Trump’s acceptance speech:

    “This new wealth will improve the quality of life for all Americans – We will build the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, and the railways of tomorrow. This, in turn, will create millions more jobs.”

    It is more or less the same argument, updated by about 200 years of technological advance and distilled downward to the bombastic platitudes of an idiot.

    An Immigration Policy Parallel

    If Trump’s trade protectionism is essentially Hamiltonian, albeit a less coherently argued form, what about its close cousin in immigration? Trump has infamously appealed to the nativist tendencies of American populism, ranging from his proposal to build a massive wall on the American border with Mexico to multiple notorious and bigotry-tinged “security” deportations and immigration restrictions in the name of fighting terrorism.

    Alexander Hamilton was, famously, an immigrant himself. He also diverged from Trump in his pairing of immigration and protectionism. The 1791 Report contained an extensive defense of “promoting of emigration from foreign Countries” and linking this policy to his broader program for the state promotion of manufactured goods.

    Though he struck liberal policy tones on immigration for his day, Hamilton’s immigration views were not without nuance or even an uglier side that emerged toward the end of his life. Hamilton proved quite capable of espousing openly xenophobic and nativist beliefs, often to the surprise of his contemporaries who knew of his own foreign birth on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

    One striking episode came to print in 1796 involving a dispute between Hamilton and William Findley, a congressman from Western Pennsylvania who had harshly criticized the former Secretary of the Treasury’s instigation of the Whiskey Rebellion. Addressing the Irish-born Findley and Swiss-born politician Albert Gallatin, Hamilton “censured the people [of Pennsylvania] for electing us.” According to Findley’s recollection:

    “[Hamilton] expressed much surprise and indignation at their reposing so much confidence in foreigners, that Gallatin and I were both foreigners and therefore not to be trusted. When it was answered, that I had been in the country from my youth, &c. and that Mr. Gallatin had come into it very young and had been a citizen a competent length of time, to be legally qualified for trust, that we were both sensible men, and had a sufficient stake in the country, to secure our interest, he persisted in saying, that we were bad hearted men and dishonest politicians.”

    Perhaps “foreigners are bad hearted men!” was some sort of slightly tamer 18th century shorthand of “The Mexicans are sending us drugs dealers, criminals, and rapists!”

    Hamilton served as something of an architect behind the scenes of perhaps the most severe anti-immigration policy to emerge from the founding era, the legislative package known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. This set of four bills is best known today for its penalization of “sedition” – the criminalization of certain forms of political speech that the Federalist party used to persecute opposing newspaper editors. The legislative package’s other three less-discussed provisions actually pertained to immigration.

    The first was the Naturalization Act of 1798, which increased the required residency period for an immigrant to obtain naturalized citizenship from 5 to 14 years. The Alien Enemies Act authorized the imprisonment or forcible deportation of non-citizen males coming from any country at which the United States was in a state of declared war (note that this provision extended to persons who would have lost their citizenship eligibility under the Naturalization Act). The Alien Friends Act granted the president widespread authority in times of peace to order the detention or deportation of foreign nationals that were deemed “hostile” to the United States, and to prescribe severe restrictions on the lengths that targeted persons could remain in the country.

    These draconian measures came into being as a product of early anti-immigrant sentiments tied to the undeclared Quasi-War with France, which Hamilton played a key role in fomenting. The Quasi-War itself was an outgrowth of the French Revolution, entangling the United States in a state of degrading diplomatic and eventually naval relations with a succession of governing regimes in France. As Hamilton’s political adversaries, the Democratic-Republicans, had expressed early sympathies for the French Revolution, the episode also functioned as a prime opportunity for the Federalists to whip the American public into a state of alarm about the presence of alleged subversives and other “treasonous” elements who supposedly threatened to import a Jacobin Reign of Terror into of the fledgling United States. In reality, the Federalists’ driving motivator was likely a combination of (1) a ploy to strengthen the case for war with France, and with it the establishment of a “defensive” army under Hamilton’s command, and (2) an old fashioned ballot suppression scheme to disenfranchise immigrants, who tended to vote for the opposition Democratic-Republicans.

    Hamilton followed the bills’ progress through Congress closely. While his role in their drafting is confounded by the destruction of his personal papers and a disputed assignment of blame to him by Hamilton’s bitter enemy, President John Adams, there can be little doubt that he approved of the anti-immigration measures. As Congress debated the bills he wrote Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, his line to the Federalist Party faction in Congress, for information about their progress. Hamilton informed Pickering of his opinion that “the mass [of Aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the Country.” He wished for Congress to carve out exceptions for persons “whose situations would expose them too much if sent away & whose demeanour among us has been unexceptionable” and he asked that their enforcement “not be cruel or violent.”

    Nonetheless, his position was clear. Hamilton supported the deportation of foreign nationals on the suspicion of threat to the United States, which in his own time entailed the publicly inflamed spectre of Jacobin revolutionaries from France. It is not difficult to see the parallels between the “security”-tinged rationale of 1798 and Donald Trump’s own vulgar manifestations in his call to prohibit Muslims from entering the country on the same grounds.

    All three of the Alien and immigration acts were quickly repealed after the Federalists fell from power in 1800, though they served as an unsettling precedent for subsequent anti-immigration measures across American history. Similarly, economists have long since debunked the reasoning behind Hamilton’s neo-mercantilist economic system. Its shadow continue to linger over American politics and directly sustained a trade-penalizing protectionist policy regime into the early 20th century on expressly Hamiltonian grounds. Unfortunately the rise of Donald Trump has reinvigorated one of America’s oldest and most dubious political traditions, and this time it’s coming with all the reckless ambition of its progenitor but very little of his intellectual sophistication or erudition.


    I have since learned that the Alien Enemies Act actually still remains in effect to the present day, having been adapted into the United States Code in a series of revisions in 1918. Part of the original text it still requires deportations under the act to be conducted “according to the dictates of humanity and national hospitality” – a clause that was probably included at the behest of Hamilton, based on a suggestion he made in a letter to Timothy Pickering shortly before its adoption. The clause confirms Hamilton’s own intimate involvement in the drafting of the measure.

    Why non-ideal UBI is still a unicorn hunt

    Posted By on July 25, 2016



    Kevin Vallier has an interesting post up over at the BHL blog in which he takes on the public choice critiques that I have made of the Universal Basic Income proposal that is popular among some would-be reformers of the welfare state. It’s a long post and worth a read, but I want to focus on one argument in particular. Kevin espouses a version of UBI on explicitly non-ideal grounds, that is to say it is not a destination policy but rather a transitional policy – that is to say “one that we should pass through in transitioning from our present institutions to ideal institutions.”

    So far, I’m with him and would readily concede that UBI is likely an improvement over the status quo in a non-ideal political world…if you can get to it. But that’s the rub. A non-ideal political world also entails non-ideal implementation mechanisms, which is to say legislative and administrative channels that are also highly susceptible to corruption, interest group capture, regulatory incompetence, waste, and everything else we know and expect to encounter from government. Kevin acknowledges these challenges as well, but assesses them comparatively against the current welfare state:

    “The important question is whether it would face worse problems than the present welfare-state that the UBI would replace (or some similar welfare-states to what we have now). And I see no reason to think it would fare any worse than the current welfare state, with its many, many problems. We should expect less waste, less rent-seeking, and so on, just as UBI advocates claim.”

    I’d answer that such a comparison is only half of the picture though. On a side by side comparison, made between two mutually exclusive policy options, a plausible case can be made that UBI will be less susceptible to waste, rent-seeking, and so on than the current beast of a welfare state. Unfortunately our political system does not permit such clear demarcation lines between the two. In order for UBI’s advantages to become known in this comparison, we also need a pathway to get there – to implement UBI in a swap with the current welfare state. And as I noted, that pathway must also be laid out within a deeply non-ideal political world new where policies are highly susceptible to corruption and capture.

    In other words, we’d have to make a large-scale policy swap between the current welfare state and UBI. And as I have noted previously, policy swaps of this type are exceedingly rare in history. At the scale envisioned by UBI’s supporters, they may not even exist. They might as well be unicorns.

    I can accordingly think of one very likely scenario where UBI’s affliction with the problems of rent seeking, waste, corruption etc. is not simply worse but significantly worse than the current welfare state: the scenario in which UBI is adopted due to a promised “swap” for the existing welfare state, but the existing welfare state never goes away thereby saddling us with both programs. Now wait a minute, you might say – that’s not a part of what UBI is proposing! Indeed it isn’t, but remember – we are living in a non-ideal political world. The seamless execution of a political swap between the current welfare state and UBI is highly improbable in non-ideal conditions, so we must contemplate the adoption of our non-ideal policy in accordance with the most likely pathway to its implementation.

    I’ll go ahead and predict right now what will likely happen if, say, Congress were to seriously consider implementing a UBI system:

    1. A deal would be proposed to “swap” UBI with the existing welfare state as a necessary condition for getting enough skeptics on board. This deal would carry all the promises that we now hear from UBI supporters about how the new policy would be welfare-improving and more efficient than the hodgepodge of a system we currently have.

    2. Once UBI is adopted, it will need to be phased in over several years if not decades in order to wean us off the old system and onto the new. This will involve a “phasing out” of all of the elements of the old welfare state over many years, likely on a schedule prescribed by law.

    3. When the first phase-out deadlines arrive for the old welfare state, interest groups that are highly invested in those programs will begin to realize the imminent loss of their captured and concentrated program-specific rents, even though all people also now have UBI. A number of them will move to preserve the rents of the old system by pressuring Congress to carve out an exemption to the previously agreed upon schedule.

    4. Pressure to abandon the agreed-upon schedule will be immense, and will point to perceived deficiencies in the newly-adopted UBI system as a reason to “preserve” part if not all of the old welfare state on top of the UBI benefit. You can expect to see news features and TV commercials that illustrate the sob stories of children or other dependents who still need food/clothing/medical attention despite having UBI. This includes a very likely number of cases where incompetent parents or guardians misappropriated their UBI payments on wasteful or frivolous self-indulgence, leaving their dependents little better off than they were previously. The paternalistic instincts of the welfare state will come out in full force.

    5. Amidst these and other pressures, Congress will cave, because the concentrated benefits of that rent will have an advantage over the diffuse costs of the program. We also have extensive evidence that Congress will cave because that is what Congress usually does in this very similar scenarios where a previously agreed-upon expenditure-limiting schedule runs into political demands in the present for continued appropriations.

    6. Instead of getting the promised swap, we will be saddled with both an extremely expensive new UBI program and substantial preserved elements of the old welfare state.

    I say this scenario is likely because the existing welfare state is the product of many decades of rent extraction, as well as a number of deeply entrenched and relatively stable stakeholder interests that sustain it and make the execution of substantial changes to it very, very difficult (just look at Social Security for a long track record of would-be political “reformers” slamming head first into this wall). Vested interests with substantial existing rent extractions do not simply dissipate, unless the rent itself also dissipates to the point that it is no longer worth the political investment to maintain it (and that scenario is highly unlikely with a direct payout system, as welfare is). Nor do interest groups easily “swap” to something else, such as a parallel “alternative” policy like UBI. Doing so is something akin to scrapping one’s lucrative and existing political investments – including investments that keep out other competitive seekers of the same rents – and starting again from scratch under a new rent allocation regime that is, comparatively, open to new competitive entrants seeking to capture some of its fruit.

    In the end, a non-ideal transitional UBI program may explicitly eschew an idealized unicorn “fix” for the welfare state. But its implementation is still subject to a non-ideal political world. Delivering a massive proposed overhaul intact through that non-ideal political world therefore becomes its own unicorn problem, given everything that we know to be true and evidenced by centuries of experience within that political world.

    It’s not enough to compare the welfare state and UBI – even a non-ideal transitional UBI – side by side and see how they stack up. We must also ask if we can even get to a UBI from the current welfare state while also leaving its promised benefits over the welfare state intact. Since one of those benefits necessarily entails repealing and replacing substantial parts of the welfare state within a non-ideal political world, the obstacles that political world places on the pathway to UBI’s implementation must not only be addressed – they are the very essence of why UBI, idealized or not, is a politically impractical program.

    How many adjuncts are there in not-for-profit higher ed?

    Posted By on June 29, 2016

    Counting adjunct faculty is a strangely politicized topic, replete with bad information and even outright false statistical claims. Media reporting of the subject routinely repeats the false claim that adjuncts make up about three fourths of the academic workforce. Adjunct activist organizations such as the “New Faculty Majority” even incorporate this claim into their name. Yet as I have documented on this blog and elsewhere, the stats behind this claim simply do not add up.

    We also know for a fact that the adjunct job market is heavily distorted by the for-profit higher ed sector, which almost exclusively draws from part-time faculty. My article in the most recent issue of Liberal Education documents this phenomenon and illustrates some of the nuances beneath the surface of the adjunct numbers.

    One request I often receive is for an accounting of how many adjunct faculty teach at traditional not-for-profit institutions. Owing to data limitations in the way that adjunct numbers are tracked and reported, it is difficult to arrive at a precise estimate. We can however see the results of the for-profit distortion by removing these numbers from the historical trend in adjunct hiring. An estimate of this pattern without the for-profit effect is overlaid in the dotted red line below. As it shows, adjunct growth – though existent – is far more stable without the for-profit effect, and actually does not appear to be growing much faster than the ranks of full-time faculty in recent years.


    There are still some data issues to work through though. The U.S. Department of Education tracks its adjunct data through self-reported surveys from higher ed institutions. While adjunct activists have long charged that these surveys “under-report” the total number of part-time employees, the opposite is actually true – at least in aggregate. The most thorough survey data on the adjunct workforce indicates that about 22% of current part-time instructors teach at two or more institutions. That means the Department of Education numbers are likely double-counting a sizable subset of the adjunct ranks. We don’t know exactly how many are double counted due to data limitations. Some of these persons teach at 3 institutions and are therefore triple-counted. Even if we err on the conservative side though, the Department of Education numbers are probably at least 122% of the actual adjunct population.

    A little math gets us to a rough but reasonably accurate estimate of how many adjuncts are currently teaching in not-for-profit higher ed, a figure that includes community college and 4-year institutions. By dropping the for-profit workforce, the total number of not-for-profit adjuncts reported to the Department of Education sits at around 625,000. Since this figure includes a the aforementioned double-counting problem, it needs to be further discounted. That brings us to about 512,000 adjuncts on a conservative reduction. But since triple counting also exists, actual numbers are likely below 500,000.

    By contrast, these same institutions currently employ about 800,000 full time faculty. The claimed “new faculty majority” isn’t anywhere close to a majority after all.

    When Mises met Keynes

    Posted By on June 5, 2016

    On June 23, 1926 John Maynard Keynes delivered an unusual economics lecture at the University of Berlin. This event has gone almost completely unnoticed by Keynes’ principle biographers despite what would seem to be a historically significant product. A few months after the event, Keynes heavily edited the Berlin lecture into his well known essay, “The End of Laissez-Faire.” The resulting pamphlet is arguably Keynes’ second most famous work, after the General Theory, as it articulates a formative step in his broader case for using the tools of the state to prescriptively intervene in certain matters of economic policy.


    The historical neglect of Keynes’ Berlin lecture is unfortunate, as it obscures a troubling feature of his economic thought. More specifically, Keynes used the occasion to advance an economic argument for population eugenics. Population growth was one of the primary areas where Keynes believed that the principle of laissez-faire should be abandoned. As he stated in the derivative essay:

    “The time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members.”

    There is reason to believe that this overtly eugenicist nod from the essay comprised an even larger portion of his Berlin lecture. Several German-language newspapers covered the event. Their reporting focused heavily upon what was considered one of the primary takeaways of Keynes’ lecture. Its message was received as an attempt to modernize and operationalize Thomas Malthus’ famous theory of runaway population growth. To do so he espoused deploying unnamed tools of the state to “manage” the population of a given country, including with an eye toward maintaining what he saw as a desirable racial stock. Keynes in fact had advocated such policies for many decades, and had previously attributed them to the proliferation of “laissez-faire” doctrine, as in this 1923 editorial for the New Republic magazine:

    Keynes1923-NewRepublicKeynes’ frequent eugenic nods are deeply bigoted by modern standards, even as they were common among intellectuals in his day. The 1926 Berlin lecture still stands out as an exceptionally egregious case, both for its close connection to the development of Keynes’ more famous economic assault on laissez-faire and for its timing. Though the text of the original lecture has not survived, a direct glimpse into its severity may be seen in the reaction of one of its witnesses. Economist Ludwig von Mises, then visiting from the University of Vienna, was in the audience at Keynes’ Berlin talk. A few months after the lecture he wrote a short but devastating critique of Keynes’ adapted essay for a German-language periodical. Making note that it was based on the Berlin lecture, Mises did not weigh directly into the Malthusian debate it had since provoked. He did however single out the deeply unsettling implication of Keynes’ argument. As Mises wrote:

    “Certainly there were found among his listeners some, who in the last few years were driven out of the land in which they had worked and lived; and many, who wish to emigrate from an overpopulated Middle Europe and cannot, because the workers of more thinly settled lands defend themselves against the addition of  competitors. And Keynes will also certainly know that protectionism has put Germany and England in the most difficult economic situation.”

    Clearly Keynes’ nod to state-designed population control had struck a nerve, including with his own audience at the Berlin lecture hall. The resulting implications of this context upon the essay it produced are similarly disturbing to contemplate.

    Adjunct Activists and the Terminal Degree Problem

    Posted By on May 26, 2016

    Most adjunct professors in the United States lack a PhD or other comparable terminal degree. Surveys of the past decade have consistently attested to this fact, indicating that only between 18% and 30% of current adjunct faculty possess a doctorate. Many of those faculty who do hold terminal credentials are highly qualified scholars. A portion of the remainder are ABD, or holders of Master’s degrees who competently teach introductory level courses in which a Master’s is likely sufficient training. Still, the harsh reality of inadequate academic qualifications is probably the single biggest obstacle that most adjuncts face in the quest to obtain a more permanent form of academic employment.


    The reason is simple. Doctorates are overproduced – especially in the humanities. In almost any given year, there are more new PhDs granted in many of these fields – think English, History, Philosophy, and almost all of the ___ Studies departments – than there are available job postings. The resulting glut means that several PhD holders will be unable to obtain academic employment.

    Note that, by virtue of their degree alone, each and every one of these unemployed PhD-holding applicants automatically has a stronger CV than practically anyone who stopped at the Master’s level or below. Yes, there may be a few exceptions of well published MA holders or persons who are hired on career experience rather than academic credentials, but they are rare. The inescapable reality is that the PhD has become a bare minimum prerequisite to even make the first cut of the job application stack, let alone obtain an interview for a tenure track position. To put it bluntly, if you apply for a tenure track job at anything even remotely resembling a serious academic institution and you do not have a PhD, you are likely living in a fantasy land. Your application will not even be considered for the simple reason that there are 100 other people ahead of you who possess the PhD that you lack.

    A small and noisy segment of the adjunct activist community has recently become aware of this obstacle. Rather than rectify the deficiency on their respective resumes though, they have chosen to attack the very notion of the credential. Consider the following article by adjunct activists Maria Maisto and Seth Kahn, which appeared in the AAUP’s May-June 2016 newsletter. Critiquing another author who pointed out the overwhelming lack of this minimal qualification among the adjunct community, they editorialize:

    “Their insistence on terminal degrees for tenure-eligible positions—despite the fact that the majority of contingent faculty don’t have such degrees and without substantial evidence that they’re helpful, much less indispensable, for teaching-intensive positions—leads to the book’s deepest disappointment: the authors acknowledge the injustice their proposal would do to long-serving adjuncts but offer no solutions except to allow them to keep working in contingent positions.”

    The position Maisto and Kahn argue for is nothing short of insanity. They are effectively arguing that unqualified adjuncts with admittedly weak academic credentials are somehow entitled to the scarce number of tenure track jobs in a glutted academic market, even if granting these jobs to MA-toting adjuncts would also place them ahead of potentially hundreds of better qualified academics who actually meet the minimum degree expectations for a position. Never mind that a typical PhD requires 4-10 years to complete, whereas a Master’s can be finished in 1-3. As with most other aspects of their political cause, these adjunct activists actually eschew and demean merit as a basis for hiring. They continue with an uncharacteristically revealing concession. Merit-based hiring, they absurdly contend, is also somehow “sexist” and “ageist” since it advantages young people with PhDs in hand:

    “Clearly, requiring terminal degrees could cost many women (disproportionately those with family responsibilities) an opportunity for secure, tenure-track employment. Age is also a significant factor in the mistreatment of adjunct faculty, with older adjuncts least likely to be considered for full-time positions and most likely to be pushed out of departments (see, for example, “No Country for Old Adjuncts” and “The Age(Ism) of Diversity,” both articles from Inside Higher Ed). It is admirable to support new and recent PhD recipients, but not at the expense of women and older faculty members, with or without terminal degrees.”

    Note that at no point does their argument even acknowledge that the lack of a terminal degree renders their expectations of tenure unrealistic, or that applying for a job without the minimal qualifications might signal a deficiency in one’s own application. It’s always somebody else’s fault – somebody else’s fault that they don’t possess the minimum qualification for the job they seek, somebody else’s fault that they don’t research or publish, and somebody else’s fault that faculty hiring committees place their applications in the reject pile.

    Strangely, they never consider that perhaps the reject pile is exactly where these under-qualified adjunct activist applicants belong. Though I disagree with many adjunct activist arguments, I’ve never contended that they should be dismissed out of hand. The avowedly anti-meritocratic position advanced by Maisto and Kahn signifies however that they are not interested in a serious discussion of the problems facing adjuncts. Rather, they seek only job protectionism for under-qualified and under-performing applicants on the flimsiest of grounds only to poison the discussion with cheap allegations of “sexism” and “ageism” when their absurdly unrealistic expectations of the academic job market are challenged with uncomfortable but empirically attested realities.