Vietnam War

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Honoring and Renewing Dr. King’s Other, More Challenging, Dream — 55 Years Later

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 10:38pm in

Fifty-four years ago—on April 4, 1968—Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Exactly one...

Book Review: Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/03/2022 - 10:16pm in

Footprints of War by David Biggs offers readers an intriguing new perspective on the long history of military conflict and occupation in central Vietnam by integrating environmental perspectives with more traditional military and political histories. The book is a welcome contribution to creating a richer local history of central Vietnam in the context of the wider Wars for Indochina and is an inspiring application of robust historical research to solving modern environmental problems caused by war, writes Jon Formella.

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam. David Biggs. University of Washington Press. 2018. 

In recent years, the historiography of the Vietnam War has undergone a brilliant rejuvenation with fresh input from a new generation of scholars. One such work, Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs, provides a new perspective on the history of conflict in Vietnam from the angle of environmental history by recognising the lasting impact of successive layers of military occupation upon the Vietnamese landscape. Utilising rich sources ranging from Vietnamese provincial library archives to US aerial intelligence and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, Biggs provides a valuable addition to the study of Vietnamese history in pursuing a multidimensional understanding of the legacy of successive conflicts’ ‘creative destruction’ in central Vietnam. While not devoid of certain controversial interpretations and methodological limitations, this book provides an inspiration for how robust historical research may be applied to solving modern issues caused by the scars of war.

The longue durée perspective provided in the opening chapters of this work helps readers to position the more well-known French and American military operations in the long history of conflict and occupation in central Vietnam, centring on what is now the modern city Huế. In engaging with the history of central Vietnam from the early settlement of the Bronze Age Đông Sơn culture through the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802 to 1884) to the present Vietnamese regime, Biggs demonstrates how technological adaptations in combination with outside geopolitical forces both aided and frustrated attempts to exert military force on what is now central Vietnam. For instance, Biggs compellingly illustrates how the Vietnamese adaption of Ming China’s gunpowder technology and later Portuguese tactics enabled militaristic forays into previously impenetrable central Vietnamese territories by the Nguyễn lords starting from the 1400s.

Huế, Vietnam

Photo by Xiaofen P on Unsplash

While narrating successive attempts to pacify the region, Biggs also convincingly demonstrates remarkable historical continuities in the limits of military and political exertion due to the region’s unique environment and cultural resistance. Due to frustrated attempts at external control by the Nguyễn lords, for instance, the area around Huế became labelled by the Nguyễn as Ô Châu, or the ‘Terrible Lands’. Just as French, Republic of Vietnam and US forces would discover centuries later, military occupation of central Vietnam did not necessarily enable rulers such as the Nguyễn lords to remould the inhabitants of the region to their visions of civilised modernity. Sent by the Nguyễn court to spread state-sponsored Buddhism and thereby help to tame the peoples of Ô Châu, Chinese Buddhist monk Thích Đại Sán frustratingly remarked, ‘In some remote lands due to the isolation of high mountains and unfathomable seas, the greatest king could not send his troops to wipe out local conflicts […] As a result, residents […] ignored moral-cultural values.’ Such frustrated attempts at pacification would also be echoed by the later Saigon regime in its struggles to stifle insurgency through its strategic hamlet programme, as Biggs demonstrates. In this way, Biggs positions later French, Republic of Vietnam and US attempts to tame central Vietnam in a much longer history of frustrated governance.

Entering the modern era, Biggs’s examination of central Vietnam from the perspective of environmental and local history provides a highly welcome addition to the established historiography of the First and Second Indochina Wars. While macro-histories of the First Indochina War such as Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War understandably examine the conflict by centring major campaigns in Tonkin, Biggs provides a valuable localised history of French military operations and Viet Minh resistance amidst the rugged landscape of central Vietnam. Especially helpful in understanding the First Indochina War from a wider perspective is Biggs’s application of French military intelligence and Viet Minh records to detail the 1953 French military’s Operation Camargue launched from the sea. Utilising aerial footage and GIS technology to complement familiar historical sources such as Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy and Mai Nam Tràn’s The Narrow Strip of Land, Biggs provides an enriching new perspective to classic accounts of the First Indochina War and brings the reader to a grittier understanding of the French-Viet Minh conflict in the local environmental contours of central Vietnam.

Just as Biggs uses the local history of central Vietnam to expand the Tonkin-dominated historiography of the First Indochina War, another especially fascinating section of the book explores the history of central Vietnam as the newfound Republic of Vietnam (RVN) under the ruthless Ngô Đình Cấn attempts to pacify the region following the 1954 Geneva Accords. While much of the historiography of the ill-fated Republic of Vietnam (1954-75) regime centres on the rule of Ngô Đình Diệm and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu from the halls of power in Saigon, Biggs’s examination of Ngô Đình Cấn’s brutal attempts to establish a footing in the power vacuum in central Vietnam following both French and Viet Minh withdrawal in 1954 is a highlight of this work. Biggs’s detailing of Ngô Đình Cấn’s bloody stratagems to forge a regional empire through tenuous alliances among anti-communist and anti-French elements and through brutal purges amongst the chaotic landscape of central Vietnam is an especially enriching addition to the post-1954 history of Vietnam which often centres the rival power bases in Saigon and Hanoi. In this section, Biggs combines an explanation of local political forces with a layered presentation of local features such as a repurposed French bunker system through detailed maps to transport readers to the sites where brutal arrests, interrogations and executions of undesirables were carried out as a part of this network of repression.

Though Biggs’s study of interrelationship between the central Vietnamese landscape and attempts to exert governance rightly details both the violence and environmental brutality of pro-Saigon and US forces, it would seem that later sections of the book overlook essential nuances such as the unsavoury tactics on the part of communist forces in the region, especially during the 1968 Battle of Huế. While the detailed narration of the environmental destruction and violence is highly convincing, the author’s unbalanced attention away from the Viet Minh and communist forces suggests a subtle bias in positioning these as unbending defenders of both the people and the environment of central Vietnam. An especially problematic characterisation by Biggs states that the 1968 assault on Huế resulted in the ‘inadvertent killing of many civilians’. The author’s use of ‘inadvertent’ in this section mischaracterises events established by historical records from multiple sides witnessing the battle during which besieged communist forces willfully executed defenceless prisoners characterised as ‘lackeys’ by going house to house and killing males of military age. Despite citing evidence from Nhã Ca’s firsthand account of the Battle of Huế, Biggs’s one-sided characterisation of the battle and emphasis on civilian assistance to communist forces fail to highlight the antagonism and outright fear many local Vietnamese felt towards the communist forces articulated in Nhã Ca’s account as communist forces committed war crimes. This unbalanced examination towards the factions vying for control of the region in this later section is this work’s greatest flaw.

While the author’s repeated emphasis on the ‘aerial perspective’ from the powers seeking to control the region is convincing from the position of the French and US forces, the assertion that this ‘aerial perspective’ was formative in Vietnamese nationalist conceptualisations of the Vietnamese environment in the modern history of Vietnam is not convincingly backed by supporting primary source evidence in the book. While the term ‘aerial perspective’ is useful to describe the aerial intelligence collected by external forces and in a modern scholarly context, this terminology does not seem to be found among the Vietnamese nationalist actors mentioned in the work, communist or otherwise.

Overall, however, this new work by David Biggs is a great addition to the study of conflict in Vietnam, not only for its environmental history perspective but especially in telling the localised history of a region often de-centred in the historiography. Especially inspiring is Biggs’s application of his research and GIS toolkit not only to broaden understandings of history, but also to partner with locals and the Vietnamese government in removing harmful traces of the war such as chemical waste sites. Combining sturdy local history research with a layered environmental perspective and a strong altruistic component, this book will help readers understand both Vietnam and the possibilities for applied historical study from a fresh perspective.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Harry van Moorst: a life of resistance

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/02/2022 - 11:12am in

Phil Griffiths pays tribute to a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement who never stopped fighting for justice

The left in Melbourne is mourning the death, on 8 February, of Harry van Moorst, shortly after his 75th birthday. For more than 50 years, he helped lead a series of major campaigns, and was central to many significant victories—over conscription, against Australia’s murderous war in Vietnam, and against plans to build a toxic waste dump in the outer Melbourne suburb of Werribee.

Harry was one of the first people I met when I turned up for my first Orientation Week at Melbourne University in March 1969. I was angry about the war and conscription, which hung over every young man’s head as a threat to our lives and futures.

Like so many others, I had also been inspired by the radicals of the student movement, by Albert Langer at Monash Uni and in particular by the way he had dragged into the open the instructions given to police when Albert was prosecuted for supposedly “attempting to incite a riot”.

At Melbourne Uni, that meant joining Students for a Democratic Society, the radical student group that Harry had founded just the year before.

A group of SDS members had rented a large, former hotel at 57 Palmerston Street, Carlton, which they called the Centre for Democratic Action. Meetings were held there, leaflets written and run off on Gestetner machines, a cheap, basic and finicky way of printing.

Harry’s leadership of SDS was built on his absolute conviction that the war was a crime, his growing understanding of politics, and his quiet and respectful way of interacting with everyone.

In the months before uni started that year, SDS had started a campaign against a Melbourne City Council by-law, 418, which banned the handing-out of leaflets in the city. It was, the council pretended, to protect shoppers from harassment.

Part of the SDS campaign was civil disobedience: handing out leaflets, getting arrested, making the by-law a political issue to build opposition to it, and to point out its real purpose: to silence the critics of the government and the war. By O Week that year, Harry had already spent time in jail for leafleting.

This was my first demo. A small group of us gathered in what later became City Square, opposite the Town Hall, and started leafleting. We were soon joined by Dr Jim Cairns, then the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party in federal parliament, and the leader of the left nationally. To my astonishment, as soon as Cairns started leafleting, he was arrested and carted away.

That was the beginning of the end of the by-law. The left wing “rebel unions’ took a stand, threatened the council with industrial action, and by Easter we had won.


Harry went on to help found the Draft Resisters Union in 1970, again helping lead some of the most significant actions against conscription. These involved draft resisters going underground, and then appearing in public defying and embarrassing the police and government.

This tactic worked because the movement built mass rallies of thousands of students and sometimes workers that prevented the police from arresting them.

The high point of this movement came in September 1971 when the DRU, with Harry’s leadership, set up a “resistance commune” in the student union building. The most provocative part of the commune was the establishment of a radio station, Radio 3DR, to broadcast anti-war material and the voices of the underground draft resisters.

The ruling class were hysterical, not least because the signal from Radio 3DR interfered with the signal from one of the major commercial radio stations.

The climax came on 30 September when 150 police raided the student union, refused the university’s offer of keys to open the building and smashed their way in, where they were confronted by hundreds of students and staircases filled with chairs, blocking their way.

Two of the draft resisters had already been taken away, the other two remained inside the building, hidden in an alcove, with the police unable to find them. In true police tradition, they responded by smashing up the building.

The three Vietnam moratoriums are rightly famous in our anti-war history. At Melbourne Uni, for the first moratorium, Harry coordinated a mass rally that then marched into the city to join the main protest of some 80,000 people and played a major role in the following two rallies.

The many obituaries and messages of condolence that have come out in the week since Harry’s death give a sense of the strong and sustained nature of his activism since the anti-war days.

He led an occupation of the Melbourne University Council chamber demanding child care services in the mid-1970s. He was involved in the sustained, mass campaign against the Hamer government’s plan to build a gas-fired power station at Newport in Melbourne’s west.

This was both an environmental threat to people living in the area, and an attempt to break the industrial strength of the Latrobe Valley power workers. Our side lost that struggle.


Harry went on to become an academic and continue activism in the western suburbs of Melbourne. His most notable campaign there was against a Kennett government plan to build a toxic waste dump in Werribee.

Harry drew together a wide-ranging collection of local people to fight the proposal, initially through the proper channels. But he also knew that the odds were stacked against them, so their committee also planned for protest action if the waste dump was approved.

They ran a major political campaign through the local community against the proposal, informing people of the risks involved and attacking the company for proposing it. Everyone was told, if the decision went against them, there would be a mass rally at the local racecourse a few days later.

That rally attracted 15,000 people, shocking the government and the media.

The movement set up pickets at the proposed site and won support from Trades Hall and the building unions to ban construction. They ran a political campaign through Melbourne against the government, and the company, CSR. They won a smashing victory.

Harry’s commitment to social and community activism, his skill and patience in bringing people together to campaign, his gentle manner and his respect for everyone will be sorely missed.

Some of Harry’s work and words have been captured over the years through interviews. An “educational” video about the toxic waste dump campaign, Community Action and the Environment, is built around interviews with Harry.

And interviews he did for the documentary, Hell No, We Won’t Go (about conscription for Vietnam) are on the website of the Australian War Memorial.

The post Harry van Moorst: a life of resistance appeared first on Solidarity Online.

The Most Fatal Ailment

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/09/2021 - 12:42pm in

Part II of The Souls of the People series:

The souls of the people
The most fatal ailment
Ill fares the land

So long as you are happy
What we yearn to be
The sane and beautiful

The sum of what we have been
A little world made cunningly
Like a sinking star

The cries of the harvesters
The earth with its starkness
Written in blood

To do and die
In this fateful hour
So that we may fear less
The rags of time


Kurt Andersen wrote a superb piece in The Atlantic on inequality (2020), especially its trajectory in the US, although much applies to the rise of neoliberalism everywhere. I highly recommend the entire article for the insight it gives into what the heck happened in the last 50 years. As I can write no better, I quote Andersen:

From my parents’ teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed…

In 40 years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped to almost zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year, only the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. Americans’ boats stopped rising together; most of our boats stopped rising at all. Economic inequality has reverted to the levels of a century ago and earlier, and so has economic insecurity, while economic immobility is almost certainly worse than it’s ever been.

And this is no accident of history. As Andersen observes:

What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else.

But it is not a conspiracy precisely, as Andersen notes. Although the most powerful part—the subtle, unceasing manipulation of law to favor the rich happens out of sight and thus out of mind of the average citizen. On the other hand, much of the tax part is brazen, as well as calls to stop the people from organizing—not unions (although that too), but from using their own government to organize the country’s strengths, its collective skill, productive capacity and resources, and apply these to public goods. This is discussed in a later post.

If the best way to rob a bank is to own one (Black 2005) the best way to rob a society is to be in control of its laws. Like a bank owner, this is both public and behind the scenes, and like a bank, viewed as boring and thus ignored. It doesn’t need to be a conspiracy.

These issues are yet again the problem of our age. Their seeming trajectory towards resolution post WWII, with widespread prosperity and a rising middle class, has been undone. What undid them points to the underlying problem: immediate causes include the spectacular increase in financialization and unearned rents (Fischer 2021), the lack of and lack of enforcement of progressive taxes, both in turn largely due to a shift in the public’s understanding of these issues. What caused this shift in public understanding is the age old problem—power and the lack thereof.

“We Worry Less”

In 1985 economist John Munkirs painstakingly demonstrated the interconnections of a corporate fraternity that essentially ruled the US economy, calling the shots on what does and does not happen in many spheres (The Transformation of American Capitalism: From Competitive Market Structures to Centralized Private Sector Planning, 1985). This wasn’t conspiracy but fact, with details of the firms, interconnections, places and people as researched by a staid academic, not a wild-eyed conspiracist.*

And it was ignored precisely because of that. And because of the rise of the “economics” that would serve this new order. As a fellow institutional economist writes, “Unfortunately, as the corporations became more powerful and sophisticated in the post-war era, both the hoe and the hand upon it began to lose their vitality, as we institutionalists were ushered out of government and by and large made into second class citizens in economics departments.” (Sheehan in Neale et al. 1986).

And that was 1985. How far have we gone from there? Leaps and bounds it turns out. I note how bad the ailments related to inequality (in part stemming from corporate dominance of law) are now in the last post—many are worse than 1985, and inequality undoubtedly so. The gains of the post-war decades were lost as the wealthy managed to diminish them through law and finance. Just one example, by financial means: getting rid of “old-fashioned” pensions while enriching themselves in the process. With academic cheerleading not just from Chicago School types but New Keynesians as well, the “triangulation” strategies of the ’90s New Democrats, New Labour in the UK…you know it’s bad when an icon of 60’s counterculture and rock-n-roll is publishing the best economics reporting on a real issue such as this (Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital 2012, and Looting the Pension Funds: All Across America, Wall Street is Grabbing Money Meant for Public Workers 2013). The dominance and easy acceptance of this ethos by the 2000s was made clear in the inadvertently leaked and now infamous “Plutonomy” report by Citigroup. It opens:

The World is dividing into two blocs – the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., UK, and Canada are the key Plutonomies – economies powered by the wealthy…In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc. This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “ global imbalances.” We worry less.

Citigroup, 2005

A year later Citigroup came out with a follow up, “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.” Its summary:

Citigroup, 2006

A similar leak with much wider implications occurred in 2016 with the Panama Papers. If there was a hint at revolution at the end of the last post, I wonder why? You know it’s bad when The Economist asks “Can inequality only be fixed by war, revolution or plague?” (2018) and CNN notes “This billionaire warns that America’s massive wealth gap could lead to conflict” (2020).

The Non-Wealthy and Policy

There is a huge literature asking why the non-wealthy vote for candidates that support policies that harm them financially (against minimum wage laws, reduction in welfare programs, regressive taxes) or that do not support policies that would benefit them (public transport, healthcare, jobs programs, minimum wage laws, progressive taxes, environmental laws).

Two major factors commonly cited for the United States are:

  • Race (especially salient in the US; Alesina et al. 2001, see Zeitz 2017 for a thorough overview). Overall, racial divides across countries are highly predictive of less redistributive policies.
  • The Vietnam War. In the US in the late 1960s, unions and traditional Democrats became split from the anti-war and countercultural left, with significant numbers voting Republican. This split allowed for the rise of Republicans for decades, and eventually also the triangulation response of the Democrats, bringing the entire US political spectrum far to the right on core economic issues. (Frank 2004, Andersen 2020)

Other factors (note, of course, that these could all simultaneously occur with varying degrees of effect; the degree of the dilemma is enough to suggest there are multiple factors working simultaneously):

  • A federal system (especially in the US), making redistributive policies at the national level more difficult.
  • The Senate in the US (giving rural areas more power; rural communities may have traditional values that are against redistribution or “big government;” see Sargent 2021).
  • First-past-the-post electoral systems. The natural outcome of which is two parties; this may make a progressive faction less likely to influence outcomes, although other factors would need to explain why this seems to happen more to the left than right; e.g., corporate influence, other structural or sociocultural factors. This directly relates for another reason to lower middle-class apathy and voting on “values” rather than economic issues. There is a vague sense that there is no real difference on economic issues regarding regulation, corporations, free trade, investment in infrastructure, taxation, and industrial policy between the two major parties. There is little sense in voting for a third party in a first-past-the-post system, and the two main parties genuinely haven’t offered the working class true choices on economic policies. Given Democratic corporate connections, New Keynesian and neoclassical economic dominance, New Labour in the UK etc., this vague sense was well-founded.
  • The association, especially with 90s New Democrat and New Labour New Keynesian (not Postkeynesian!), pro-market, pro-privatization beliefs and the “triangulation” strategy of capitulation by the left. Relatedly, a disdain by the working class for a “liberal elite” real or imagined (see Frank 2016).
  • The emphasis on “values” and social issues by the right, sometimes with a bait-and-switch: a conservative candidate runs on values and emotive issues, then if wins actually focuses policy on economic issues in favor of the wealthy and corporations. When it is noticed that change on social issues isn’t happening, the politician blames a “liberal elite” for blocking them, thus setting the stage for another electoral victory on value issues in the next election. (see Why Working-Class People Vote Conservative 2012 by Haidt for an argument that voting on “values” makes sense to the working class; I disagree but it calls attention to key issues).
  • The influence of think-tanks. Directly on the public and media, and indirectly via academia on media and policy.

On a number of comment sections from articles on these issues there are comments “from the people” that should not be ignored—they are direct evidence of what people are thinking, and from my long personal experience working, living in and listening to working class America, they ring true (as representative of what the working class opine).

  • Service industry and blue collar jobs are both physically and mentally demanding and do not provide financial security, all in ways that are qualitatively different than professional and white collar jobs, no matter how hard the latter work. This combines with a strong traditional work ethic that makes “freebies” distasteful. “I work by butt off everyday and they can too.” This is greatly amplified when imagined and/or real increases in (regressive) taxes are claimed to be needed for social programs and public goods (because both Republicans and Democrats believe public projects can only happen with increased taxes). Even a small rise in taxes (or insurance rates, or rent, or inflation) significantly impacts the quality of life of the working poor, again in a way that is qualitatively different than for the financially secure. The middle class and above are secure and comfortable enough that they can afford the idea of paying a little more for redistributive programs (taxes don’t work like that at the national level. However, it only matters how people think taxes work, and they do indeed work like that at the municipal and state level, especially when they are regressive). This simple dynamic is vastly underestimated. The poor in America are deeply suspicious of government programs and redistribution and often the worse-off they are and the harder, less pleasant, and more precarious their job, the more they say that “if I can work so hard and make it with no welfare, then so can they” and then vote for candidates who are against social programs.
  • Successful underfunding and lack of exposure: these are somewhat similar and also reflect the success of conservative and/or libertarian long-term strategy. The right has managed to purposefully underfund public goods. In part, this directly achieves their end goal. More importantly, it greatly furthers the goal, as the right then uses poorly functioning underfunded systems as “examples” that “government does not work,” enabling an overall public sentiment that aids in their objective of reducing public goods and increasing profit-providing privatization (besides the US, this is occurring, for example, with rail transport and healthcare in the UK, and broadband in Australia [Mitchell 2017, 2019]).
    Relatedly, because of the lack of development or scaling back of public goods and services in the past, many Americans have not been exposed to quality public goods. To a degree that would scarcely be believed by a European who has not lived in the United States many Americans believe it is normal for healthcare to be incredibly expensive (with difficult paperwork involved, and tied to one’s employer), that public schools are necessarily low quality, have had little to no exposure to quality public transport (neither local nor long distance), and lack experience or perspective on other public goods such as civic architecture and an efficient bureaucracy (underfunded and unsurprisingly notoriously slow Departments of Motor Vehicles and the like; the experience with underfunded government at all levels fosters a belief that government doesn’t work, which is precisely what the right wants). Many now have low opinions of unions even in the North and coastal West; as a Southerner, I can tell you firsthand that a vast majority of Southerners literally have no idea what unions do and what they have accomplished in the past. This ties in with the dominance of neoclassical economics and the discredited belief that there is some “fair” and knowable distribution of wages and profit, when the truth is that wages and profit are always a political outcome. On two huge issues—healthcare and public infrastructure—and smaller ones as well, two generations or more of Americans literally do not know what quality public goods look like in practice. They won’t vote for what they don’t know.

The above ties in again to the deeply rooted success of think tanks, perhaps amplified by the internet. Again, through long personal experience, the amount of times one hears in conversations among the working class soundbites whose wording can only be from think tanks or think-tank-informed politicians—that minimum wage causes unemployment, that progressive taxes are unfair, that the wealthy create jobs, that welfare causes laziness, that government programs are always corrupt, that regulations stifle small businesses—is very high.

Note that explaining that the belief we must tax in order to organize public goods is a fallacy is a logical approach, as it is both true and should assuage the above fears (of the middle class on the ability to provide public goods). However, the message that social programs will lead to taxes and/or make people lazy is profoundly ingrained in the working poor and middle class in America, and may well make that approach unsuccessful despite it being true. Furthermore, taxes do raise funds for public goods at the state and municipal level. And those are especially regressive. Until those issues are fixed, the strategy to ignore taxation in order to facilitate public goods creation by separating it from the “tax the rich” slogan, will fail at those levels, and since many lump all taxes and public projects together, possibly at the national level as well.

The above attitudes and beliefs combine with the belief, whether cynically used by the right or legitimately held, that upward mobility is high, and high due to some kind of “free market” combined with a weak welfare system (maintaining “incentives”), and thus that 1) moving up is attainable and 2) progressive changes would somehow reduce upward mobility. As example, consider a primary benefit for the working poor in the US, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The power of a combined aspiration of upward mobility and disdain for “welfare” is common among the poor, e.g., “Because the EITC raises the incomes of so many, some low-income beneficiaries of the federal anti-poverty program regard themselves as middle class Americans—a struggling middle class who look down on “welfare cheats” but are confident nevertheless that upward mobility is theirs to claim.” (Why Working Poor Think They Are ‘Middle Class,’ 2015).

Note the irony that conservatives (and not infrequently, self-styled libertarians) vote in ways that increase government funding dramatically for corporations and the wealthy: subsidies, monopoly laws, corporate and patent law in ways that are interventionist and in favor of the wealthy (Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer 2016) not to mention interest on treasuries mainly held by the wealthy, laws favorable to individual asset holders and corporations (investments, real estate, anti-inheritance tax, liability laws, the 2008 bailouts and Federal Reserve/Treasury policies in general [TARP etc, “rescuing” rather than nationalizing failed companies and directly aiding individuals], or student loan bankruptcy laws).

Although the social and technological changes surrounding decades-long social change are of course vastly complex, the one thing that seems to always be just beneath the surface and that, both in their timing and mechanisms, seem causal, are economically conservative and libertarian think tanks.

The Influence of Think Tanks

These started early and highly ideological. By 1946 there was already a conservative reaction to the New Deal, The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), whose aim “was to roll back policies of the New Deal. FEE opposed the Marshall Plan, Social Security and minimum wages, among other American social and economic policies” with corporate and industrial backing by “J. Howard Pew [President of Sunoco], Inland Steel, Quaker Oats, and Sears.” (“Foundation for Economic Education,” Wikipedia; see citations by Phillips-Fein 2009; Hamowy 2008; Schneider 2009 and Lichtman 2008).

FEE helped inspire and/or pay for the foundation of other conservative and libertarian groups, such as the Mount Pelerin Society and the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK. There followed a long line of other think tanks, often umbrella groups which in turn funded or organized conferences, journals, youth outreach, and endless sub-groups funded or organized by an underlying foundation of think tanks, media owners, billionaires, and corporations (e.g., Koch brothers, Murdoch). Incidentally, the point that 1960s counterculture was part of what helped weaken Democrats/strengthen conservative and libertarian policies is supported by the history of the early (1953) and ultimately highly influential John M. Olin Foundation, with its effective fostering of the “law and economics” movement that would greatly increase conservative and libertarian views in law schools in the US. Although founded early, it was not very active until its founder was galvanized by the Willard Straight Hall takeover at Cornell University in 1969. It would go on to be a pillar of pro “free market” policies that law, above all else, could implement.

In total, the amount of influence via professorships, academic departments, organizations or institutes (George Mason, Mercatus Center, CATO, Mises Institute, the underestimated and extremely influential State Policy Network, the Fraser Institute), publishing and other media, programs for youth, providing an academic imprimatur to ideologically motivated economics, advising and consulting…all of these combined has cumulatively in size and over time had a massive influence, especially in the United States. Behind many politicians, talk radio and cable news hosts (and local news through the Sinclair Group) one can directly discern these earlier think tank writings and ideas, and at least indirectly, funding. Personal experience with how deeply their basic framing of issues shapes the acceptable range of discussion on economic issues suggests the impact runs deep (and shapes elections, e.g., Yglesias 2019).

Of course there are progressive and centrist think tanks (some are cited here), some of which predate the rise of conservative think tanks. Yet it seems their influence on the media and everyday people is far less. This is partly a question of funding imbalances (the wealthy and corporations can more easily fund think tanks with a wider academic and media reach than the working class can). Wealthy donors on “the left” seem to largely support what are in reality centrist think tanks; in the age of New Keynesianism this is hardly helpful. Overall the right supports what seems to many observers to be a more calculated, strategic, patient, and dogged approach, that has indeed had long term and fundamental impacts on framing and votes.

Overall, there is a sense that in the United States especially, and in many other countries as well, policies that aid the wealthy at the expense of equality—if not the poor directly—are dominating. And as the ancient Greeks already knew, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics” (Plutarch). The next post looks into the distribution of this imbalance at the the national and international scale.


Notes & Selected References

* Munkirs’ aim is not related to conspiracy, but rather to highlight the unique, and essentially non-capitalist, system that had developed in the US. It is different than the centralized public planning of the USSR, the decentralized public planning of Western Europe, and from a Galbraithian decentralized private planning system; the US had by 1985 become a centralized private sector planning economy.


Note: I am interested in poverty and inequality everywhere. However, there is a default in this series towards the US, in part simply because I am from the United States, but also because the US, being an outlier among wealthy nations on poverty, inequality, and welfare, seems to offer useful lessons on what can go wrong even in a wealthy country with vast resources. Many countries are wealthy or becoming wealthy, and it would be a bad thing for them to fall into the traps that the US has. And the US is the third largest country in the world by population; it would be good to help the millions of poor or struggling Americans. Although inequality and poverty in developing countries is discussed some, the problem of poverty in developing countries is an entire field of study beyond the scope of this series. I hope this small series can shed some light or be useful in thinking about these problems more broadly, even with its focus on the US.

Update: Tom Hickey at mikenormaneconomics noted the relevance of the infamous 1971 Powell Memo. It powerfully demonstrates the concerted, intentional effort and outlines the succesful tactics of think tanks I discuss above. I overlooked mentioning it in the main body but its importance is difficult to overstate.

But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.
As unwelcome as it may be to the Chamber, it should consider assuming a broader and more vigorous role in the political arena.

Powell Memo 1971


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