In 2021, as in every one of the 20 years Ive now spent at the Prospect (and did I get a gold watch? No!), Ive written both long and short on politics, the economy, and, every now and then, culture. Here are my handpicked favorites:
This year, my favorite piece wasnt just on the economy, but on economics, and how its largely changed for the better in recent years as it abandoned standard models that no longer described the real world in favor of an economics that, well, describes the real world, and its towering levels of inequality. I chronicled that transition in this piece on the flagship of the new, improved economics: the Berkeley Economics Department.
As to the economy itself, I put the new surge of worker militancewhich takes the form of non-union workers quitting and union workers strikingin historical context, noting that similar surges followed both world wars. When ordinary Americans are hailed, rightly, as heroes, and have put their lives on the line for the rest of us, they expect decent treatment on the job and better lives in the aftermaths of wars and pandemics.
As to unions themselves, I wrote a lot this year on their gutsiness (the Bakery Workers, not a union famed for militance, led the strike wave), their reticence (unions that hesitated to endorse vaccine mandates when some members objected), their shifting class composition (its been the irreplaceable workersat universities, nonprofits, think tankswhove unionized, while the organizing campaigns of blue-collar workers still were cowed by Big Management (see: Amazon in Alabama). Starbucks may be the start of an exception to that last rule, but my favorite of the labor pieces I wrote this year is a recent one on the growing number of grad students in the legendary, now diminished UAW, where they now constitute a full quarter of the membership.
When it came to charting the year in politicswell, oy. These three pieces illustrate my springtime optimism about the prospects for Democratic success, my summertime historical contextualizing of what the Democrats needed to do, and my autumnal account of how Biden failed to move his agenda. Mind you, Biden, like Lear, was more sinned against than sinning in this process, and if sin is the metaphoric context for the Democrats failure, then Sen. Joe Manchin, whom I excoriated in dozens of On TAPs, belongs squarely in hells ninth circle. That said, this is the seasonal chronicle of my falling hopes.
Finally, two pieces on culture. The first, on culture and politics, is an essay inspired by the film Mank, centered on the films depiction of how Republicans used fake news to defeat Upton Sinclair in 1934 and how that resonates todayeven though the films protagonist, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, actually had no role in the 1934 saga, though the filmmakers, providing a bit of fake news of their own, made him central to that episode.
Keep this site free and open for all to read...
The second is an appreciation of the great theater songwriter Stephen Sondheim, and an analysis of where he broke from his predecessors (the composers and lyricists of the classic American musical), and where he didnt. In the best Prospect tradition, the piece also fingers the unprecedented broadly shared prosperity of the postwar decades (i.e., the unprecedented size of teenage market share and the rock revolution) as being responsible for driving theater songs to the margins of popular culture.
Lets hope that 2022 will be better than we fear it will be, which will require a lot of work from all of us. That said, Happy Holidays!