Hamilton's tariffs, math education, and the case for more Ethiopian restaurants
MAGA stands with the people of San Francisco against the woke menace of the Kansas City Chiefs!
In other news, we’re maybe using CRISPR to treat rare inflammatory diseases, we’ve had an incredible breakthrough from the Vesuvius Project and can now read some fresh ancient scrolls, the MTA in New York City figured out how to stop wasting money on oversized stations, and NYC building permits are way up.
Evil Socrates: So which side of the Hamiltonian Tariffs Were Good vs A Drag do you fall on given the nature of the early American economy and the lack of income tax. We know how you feel about prospective modern ones but I was left wondering your view on the open historical debate.
I thought about this a lot while working on One Billion Americans (a time when the Hamilton musical was all the craze), because I think it’s important to contextualize the role of tariffs within the larger debate about the future of the country. If you trust the economic historians, during the early republic the United States was poorer on average than the UK (which was reaping the fruits of industrialization and being at the nexus of global trade) but already richer than most of Europe just based on being an agricultural society with plenty of land.
I think it’s completely non-crazy, given the relevant policy choices, to believe that the country should just be happy with that. Enjoy the abundant land, enjoy the farming, export agricultural commodities, and import manufactured goods.
That’s not a “tariff policy,” though it has implications for tariffs. It’s a theory of what the new country should be like — a natural resource exporter that free-rides on foreign technology, has minimal needs for fiscal revenue, and sees the tariff as a narrow tax policy question. In the truly extreme quietest form of that vision, you might not even pursue westward expansion. After all, the 13 original colonies were plenty big and almost entirely rural as of 1790. But for a variety of reasons, both ideological and practical, no major faction in American politics genuinely pursued that vision. You had anti-immigrant politics starting in the 1840s, but the entire founding generation was bought-in on the idea that the country benefitted from more people arriving. They were less worried about dividing up a fixed pot of land than they were about the advantages of settling the frontier.
From within that context, what eventually prevailed as a national development strategy was the Hamilton / John Quincy Adams / Henry Clay / Abraham Lincoln notion of an industrializing country with high levels of immigration, relatively high tariffs, and aggressive subsidies for both transportation infrastructure and public education — both in the form of “common schools” and land grant universities.
I think that was clearly the superior American political tradition.
But what does this actually tell us about the tariff policy debate? Douglas Irwin says that Hamilton’s tariffs were set too low to be true protectionist measures, that he was trying to maximize revenue, and that’s a somewhat more boring debate. I personally favor progressive taxes, but it’s not clear to me that there were a lot of progressive tax options available to policymakers at that time, given limited state capacity. I also think that given the early republic’s level of economic development, a tax on imports was probably a lot more progressive than it is today (poor people would’ve mostly just been consuming food and shelter). Even today, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a European-style system of consumption taxes to fund universal services, as long as the services are good. The big difference is that given today’s global economy, a broad tariff is a force for de-industrialization in a way that wouldn’t have been true in Hamilton’s time.
James Schapiro: What has to happen to hype up Andy Beshear in advance of 2028? I think it’s worryingly likely that he falls victim to the same outcome as Steve Bullock, where we have a great potential candidate but too many people simply have never heard of him.
At the end of the day, what it takes is you and me.
I did not, personally, spend any time in the 2020 cycle hyping up Steve Bullock, which in retrospect I should have done. If we suffer the misfortunate of a second Trump presidency, I resolve to use my platform — which is not the biggest in the world, but also not the smallest — to hype up Andy Beshear. Most of you have platforms that are smaller than mine, but they are not zero. You can post about Andy Beshear. You can email other columnists about Andy Beshear. The one upside to the “hollow” state of American political parties is that people really can just make stuff happen.
Something I think back to from time to time is this brief item I wrote in February 2021 about NYC mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia:
Right now Garcia is stuck in a kind of low-name-recognition bubble where she’s low in the polls, so she doesn’t get coverage, so nobody knows she exists, so she stays low in the polls. But if you live in New York, consider telling a pollster you’ll vote for her. If you’re enthusiastic about urban reform, consider throwing her a little money and maybe getting a story about her fundraising written. Post something on Facebook or Twitter or forward this note to a friend. The low name ID trap is very real but also very escapable, and I think it’d be huge for east coast housing politics for someone like this to get buzz.
In the end, Kathryn Garcia didn’t win. But she came really close! And, by the end, she was certainly not in the low-recognition bubble.
Sharty: What culture's cuisine will (or if you prefer, should) be the next one to go mainstream in American dining? I swear I'd cancel a single-staircase infill apartment with relaxed window requirements if I could get some dang Ecuadorian around here.
As a DC guy, I think I need to represent for Ethiopian cuisine. It’s tasty. It’s also, as best I can tell, a cuisine that is still hard to find in many reasonably large American cities. And because injera is so central to the Ethiopian dining experience, it’s also really well-suited to “pay someone else to cook it for you” as a business model — most people don’t have teff lying around the house, and, as I understand it, you need specialized equipment to make the bread.
KN: There's been a lot of attention paid (and rightly so) to the "science of reading" and what look to be significant policy and pedagogical shifts in that content area. I've seen less focus on math, even though - according to the international PISA 2022 results - the US is now below average, and significantly underperforming compared to other OECD countries. See here.
Why has math gotten much less attention than reading? A clear difference in approaches to reading (whole language vs. phonics) that's not as obvious in math approaches? The general public's discomfort with math compared to reading? Something else?