Walter Lippman was a unique voice in American economic and public policy debates for half the 20th century. His career spanned two world wars, the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, the postwar economic boom and the reckoning of the Vietnam War. In Walter Lippmann: Public Economist, Craufurd D. Goodwin mines Lippman’s books and journalism to provide a comprehensive economic intellectual history of the time.
Lippman was an undergraduate prodigy at Harvard, finishing there in 1910. He worked as a researcher for the muckraker Lincoln Steffens in 1911, an aide to Schenectady’s new socialist mayor in 1912, a founder of The New Republic in 1913, an assistant in the War Department in 1917, an Army intelligence officer in 1918 and an advisor to President Wilson at the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Finally he settled into a career in journalism and a 36-year run as the country’s most prominent journalist and newspaper columnist. He was an all-in-one Martin Wolf, Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Floyd Norris and (insert your favorite pundit here, or reach back to James Reston or Leonard Silk) until his column, Today and Tomorrow, ended in 1967 (see Ronald Steele’s definitive 1980 biography for more).
Events of that era provoked fierce policy arguments. Lippman positioned himself in the center, the consummate reasonable man and the champion of reasonable men (reflecting the time, it was always “man” and “men”). He saw his job as promoting progress while restraining excess. His erudition, effective writing and everything-in-moderation approach cemented his role as a Wise Man relied on by millions of readers for sober policy counsel.
Goodwin strings together telling quotes from Lippman’s prodigious output and adds his own commentary to convey the economic history of the mid-20th century. At some points the recounting flags—then Lippman said this, then Lippman said that. But most of the time, Goodwin holds the reader’s attention by deftly linking Lippman’s views to the dramatic developments of those decades and offering his own seasoned opinion as our leading historian of economic thought.
Goodwin also engages the reader with policy-wonkish celebrity-watching. Starting at Harvard, Lippman had a gift for befriending and engaging elite figures in intellectual, business and policy circles. With whom is he going to hang out next? Post-presidential Theodore Roosevelt? Pre-presidential Franklin Roosevelt? President Woodrow Wilson? Justice Felix Frankfurter? Winston Churchill? The president of Harvard? The head of J. P. Morgan? General Motors? Well, yes. His interlocutors were a Who’s Who of early and mid-century politicians, businessmen, public intellectuals and policy makers like Gardner Ackley, Thurman Arnold, Bernard Baruch, Adolph Berle, William Borah, McGeorge Bundy, even the future C.I.A. superspook Richard Bissell. And those are just some of the A’s and B’s.
Goodwin returns often to Lippman’s close relationship with John Maynard Keynes. For decades, Lippman channeled Keynesian policies in his books and columns. He reminded readers and policy makers that the government is not a family that must tighten its belt when times are hard but an engine that can borrow and spend its way out of an economic downturn. But he also knew and sympathized with Friedrich Hayek. He often counterbalanced his Keynesian thrusts with Austrian School cautions against collectivism and economic concentration.
Goodwin confirms Lippman’s stance as a committed liberal in the European sense, favoring free trade and free markets and decrying any form of concentrated economic power, no matter how small. He saw special interests everywhere, even to the point of supporting General Douglas MacArthur’s violent expulsion in 1932 of bonus marchers from Washington. Lippman called the World War I veterans a “pressure group.”
Goodwin traces Lippman’s exercise in what social scientists call “framing” or “diffusion” of economic concepts into policy recommendations that resonated with his millions of weekly readers. At the same time, Goodwin shows how Lippman was skeptical of the very public opinion he wanted to shape. He feared that people were too ill-informed to support policies he advocated and too easily pulled by populists to extremes of left or right.
Goodwin’s synthesis confirms that Lippman was truly a man in the middle, not wanting to go too far in any single policy direction and to be defined as any kind of -ist or -ian with an agenda. Responding to charges that Lippman disdained democracy and preferred a philosopher king to whom he would be chief counselor, Goodwin suggests that his real aim was broad public education—in Lippman’s words, a “search for enlightenment”—that would produce wise leaders using reasoned discussion instead of messy politics to shape public policy.
The selections gleaned from Lippman’s writings show how, when he moved from the center to a side, he soon regressed to his mean. For example, he supported workers’ right to organize trade unions and the 1935 Wagner Act, but only if unions acted tamely. He opposed any form of militant action and thought that the right to strike should give way to mandatory arbitration, citing the system then prevailing in Australia. When unions struck for catch-up wages in postwar inflation, Lippman supported the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and its harsh restrictions on labor.
Lippman finally came down on one side near the end, when he wrote consistently against the Vietnam War. But even then, he did so on classic national-interest grounds, not from moral opposition or sympathy with the antiwar movement.
Goodwin guides the reader through a tour of mid-20th century economic arguments that echo today. Lippman’s views on stimulus versus austerity, regulation versus deregulation, free trade versus tariffs, internationalism versus nationalism, special interests versus public interest, partisanship versus compromise and other policy disputes provide insights into our contemporary versions of these debates.
Insights, but not solutions. Goodwin’s account suggests the ephemeral influence of here today, gone tomorrow newspaper columns, even from the most famous columnist of all. His something-for-everyone urgings mainly solidified views already held by policymakers rather than changing them.
Lippman called for “new men” to be elected and appointed to leadership posts, and was mostly disappointed. He was frustrated because lesser figures held positions of power and failed to take his advice. One wonders how such a talented man might have performed had he applied those talents to the exercise of power in government or business or education. But Lippman was at home as a commentator on events, not an actor shaping them. Craufurd D. Goodwin’s skillful distillation of Lippman’s views informs our understanding of this complicated figure and his times. Readers can draw their own lessons for today.