The plight of the pragmatic progressive

Dave Roberts writes a dialogue on the notion of growth in modern politics and economics. On one hand, he notes that economic growth has been the most powerful engine for genuinely improving human wellbeing, and on the other hand, that it's doomed to run out, and that even as it can improve wellbeing, it typically creates massive inequality, hurting people rather badly. There's no viable alternative to growth to keep the world turning, but there's no viable explanation of how we can continue growing faster than our resources can recover. Ultimately, we wind up with this dilemma:

The idea that we're going to become radically more egalitarian, with substantially more modest material expectations, and we're going to do so voluntarily and peacefully, in less than a century ... that's unicorn porn.

I hear lots of happy ideas from the anti-growth folk, but I've never heard anything even close to a practical political plan to get from Point A -- a country gripped by fears over the deficit, suspicious of government, hostile to taxes, leery of social engineering -- to Point B, a vision of the future that would make John Lennon blush. "Imagine there's no growth ..."

Until that plan emerges, I'm going to stick with trying to wring incremental gains for justice out of social democratic capitalism. It doesn't work as well as one might like, but nothing else seems to work at all.

On so many political issues of the day, I find myself taking that same stand, the pragmatic I-wish-that-radical-plan-existed-or-was-plausible-but-for-now-let's-do-this-thing-that-will-work stance that gets me labeled an accommodationist in some circles, and an Obama-worshipper in others.

That isn't to say there's no place for idealism in politics generally or in my own politics. Thoreau urged us to imagine our castles in the sky, after all. But he also told us to build our foundations under them. And sometimes there's simply no foundation capable of supporting an idea.

And so we come to the President's speech tonight. He propose a package of payroll tax cuts and small business tax cuts and unemployment benefit extensions and assistance for laid-off teachers and cops and firefighters and construction workers, all paid for not with free money the global markets are offering us, but by closing tax loopholes for corporations. I don't think that's enough. I think we need massive investments in infrastructure. I think the President needed to lay out a plan to tax the hell out of carbon emissions, that money spent to build wind farms and solar facilities and geothermal generators and highly efficient transmission lines and high speed rail across the country. And also to fix and upgrade bridges across the country. And to build new schools and fill them with modern labs and computers, the facilities to learn 21st century technologies including molecular biosciences. And heck, build more post offices and parks and monuments, anything that gets people working.

No plan that can be paid for by closing some tax loopholes can do the job. A big tax on incomes over $1 million would help. So would a hike in corporate tax rates, and capital gains rates. Corporate income is up lately, but individual income is down, suggesting that it's worth more for corporations to keep their money than it is to invest in workers. That's a problem of tax incentives.

That's what I wanted to hear from the President. A plan that would be reminiscent of what FDR offered when he swept into office, not one like Bill Clinton suggested in 1993. Because this economy is a lot more like the Great Depression than it is like the first Bush recession.

But that plan wouldn't even unify the Democratic caucus in 2011. FDR came to office with massive majorities, and with a public on the verge of overt revolution. Herbert Hoover, campaigning for another term in 1932, encountered crowds urging, "Hang Hoover!" After Hoover lost, and a wave election tossed out 158 incumbents (the second wave election in a row), veterans and the unemployed marched on Washington, chanting "Feed the hungry! Tax the rich!" In addition to the Hunger March in DC, thousands marched on Columbus, Ohio, to sack the capitol and "establish a workers' and farmers' republic." Thousands occupied the Nebraska statehouse, and marchers in other cities took over municipal buildings and banks. In Iowa, farmers joined together to lay siege on Sioux City, Des Moines, Council Bluffs, and Omaha, barricading roads and tearing down jails to free their arrested comrades. Judges and lawyers who approved foreclosures were lynched or beaten. Then the banks ran out of money, leaving depositors penniless and farmers reliant on loans unable to plant crops.

Robert Caro quotes James MacGregor Burns on that long stretch between the November, 1932 election and the March, 1933 inauguration:

Crisis was in the air-but it was a strange, numbing crisis, striking suddenly in a Western city and then in the South a thousand miles away. It was worse than an invading army; it was everywhere and nowhere, for it was in the minds of men. It was fear."

The Congress elected first in 1930 and then in 1932 was overwhelmingly Democratic, and was ready to act. For two years, they'd passed bills to aid farmers, homeowners, and the unemployed, with each proposal vetoed by the indifferent Hoover. As soon as he was out of office, Congress and the President could act quickly to establish all of the programs they agreed were necessary.

That's not the situation that faced President Obama in 2008, let alone today in 2011. While he had a Democratic Congress, his margins weren't wide, and many of those Democrats were unwilling to take strong action. The public wasn't unified in demanding any particular actions; confused by the TARP mess, they weren't even sure which party stood for what. President Obama has wound up taking the blame for a recession started by his predecessor, and worsened by the aversion of conservatives in Congress toward stimulative spending.

So while I wish the President's speech were much stronger, I also know that he set his sights low because he knows that even the small potatoes he's asking for are too much for this Congress. I want a bold, progressive plan, but the sort of plan that would excite me will encourage conservatives in Congress to dig in and demand their own supercrazy ideas, and then where are we.

So how do we get from A to B? What can I, or the President, or you, do to create a movement that will demand a new New Deal, the sort of real change the country needs?

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Take any notion of a "steady-state" economy. Then, ask these questions: 1) Do humans continue to make technological progress? 2) Is any of that technological progress driven by an attempt to capture profit from it?

If so, the economy is not steady-state, but a growth economy.

Another way to look at this is at the micro-level. Imagine any good that is produced in a steady state economy, from a house window to an iPod. Does whatever is "steady-state" about the economy allow further improvement in those products, e.g., producing the window with less energy, or to pass less infrared, or to adjust to sun angle? Or allowing the iPod to be made cheaper or with more features? Lo! Economic growth.

An economy that doesn't admit such possibilities is a really scary prospect.

Take a notion of "progress" or "growth" and redefine it to fit your chosen economic ideology. Project this onto an imagined micro-level, and find that it supports your assumptions.

Suggest that others share your fear of unorthodox ideas.

1. We need to figure out how to reduce our burden on the environment, such as carbon emissions, but that doesn't require eliminating economic growth.

2. Obama's jobs plan is trying to address the short-term job creation problem. The strategies to address that differ from the best strategies to address the long-term environmental problems, with some overlap, but not a huge amount. For example, many of the needed infrastructure investments to address long-run issues with climate change would take too long to get underway to help with the short-term job creation problem.

3. FDR's initial wave of legislation was quite diverse in what it did. For example, one of the first things FDR did was to get spending, which at the time was viewed as a good way to help the economy by restoring "business confidence".

By Tim Bartik (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

Previous comment should say "one of the first things FDR did was to CUT spending".

By Tim Bartik (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

Good post mate, nice to see a fellow moderate. Of course I gave up and immigrated away.