How Slavery Haunts Today's Big Debates About Federal Spending

slate.com
6 min read
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John C. Calhoun knew what a strong federal government might do.
Do a Google image search for "John C. Calhoun," and a matrix of dour, spectral faces will appear on your screen, each framed by an electric shock of white hair. The man in these images reminds me of nothing so much as some Romantic-era maestro from deep in central Europe, a kind of place harboring much culture and just as much terror. He has the look of penetrating insight with a touch of madness. But Calhoun was neither mad nor, I suspect, especially fond of music. He was instead a toxic political genius and the intellectual godfather of the Confederate States of America. For many generations, he was regularly included among a select set of dead white men—together with Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster—who were regarded as practically on par with the founders. He was thought of as a kind of tragic great American, a man who wasted his prodigious legal and political talents on the defense of a barbaric institution.

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Calhoun is rarely thought of as a monetary theorist, but his comments on monetary architecture and government spending are surprisingly relevant. Though nearly two centuries old, they hold a lesson about the politics of austerity today, as Republicans oppose needed federal investment in green technology and infrastructure, climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, affordable housing, equitable broadband access, and low-cost, high-quality education from pre-K to college. To realize these goals, which are both popular and urgently necessary, federal, state, and local governments will have to deploy the full scope of their fiscal and monetary capacities. We who support those goals can expect Republicans (and corporate Democrats) to blow a lot of smoke in our eyes, generating word cloud after word cloud dominated by "deficits," "inflation," and "pay-fors." Calhoun can help clear the air. His ideas expose the conservative, hierarchical commitments that have always worked to…
Ariel Ron
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