Politics

A hierarchy of political needs?

Free Photo: Mexican Migrants Home

Longtime readers of the blog may remember that when I first started posting, in March 2014, I began with an odd question: what would a progressive Milton Friedman say? Underlying the question was my sense that contemporary American progressives have failed to articulate a vision of government that could replace the crumbling vision of the Reagan era, as embodied in Milton Friedman’s rhetorically powerful and very influential Capitalism and Freedom.

In retrospect, one of the unstated assumptions of that series of posts — to which I hope to return, especially as the materials for a progressive post-Reagan-era vision continue to accumulate, if not coalesce — was the idea that a contemporary, progressive Capitalism and Freedom would be primarily about economics, as Friedman’s book was.

But why should this be the case? Why must economic policy and the government’s role in the economy be the defining focus of the next “era” — the next political or constitutional regime — in the United States? Even if the New Deal era and the Reagan era were largely defined by changes in economic ideology and policy, must this always be the case?

In particular, as I turned toward thinking about the environment as part of a recent project, I wondered whether the next American political regime could be defined by the response to environmental problems and above all climate change, which, it’s at least plausible to argue, is the single most important political issue facing the United States and the world today. Maybe Europe’s Green Parties could be a sign of things to come.

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Politics

What so few economists know, but nearly all the good legal scholars understand

Free Photo: Stacks of Tires in a Rubber Factory

Many of the blogs I’ve enjoyed most over the years feature recurring motifs. One of Kevin Drum’s hobbyhorses is the relation between the phasing out of lead in the United States beginning in the 1970s and the drop in violent crime over the last two decades. If a prominent article proposes an explanation of the fall in violent crime (for example, arguing that “broken windows” policing was responsible) without mentioning the possibility that Americans are less violent because they’re no longer being poisoned by lead at an early age, Drum will chime in. Similarly, Paul Krugman returns again and again, both in his blog and in his columns, to failed predictions of runaway inflation by commentators on the right. Whenever a new warning against “printing money” and the risk of hyperinflation appears, Krugman posts a response. Likewise, Sanford Levinson (at Balkinization) circles back repeatedly to the criticism of political analysts who fail to recognize the harmful political effects of the undemocratic, hardwired structural provisions in the U.S. Constitution, such as the malapportionment of the Senate, the selection of the President by the electoral college, and life tenure for Supreme Court justices.

If I were going to have a hobbyhorse, it would probably be the failure to recognize the role of government in the economy. Not the role of government in regulating the economy. The role of government in constituting the economy. Progressive legal scholars have been hammering away at this point for nearly a century, at least since Robert Hale’s “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923), but it has never gotten through to the public consciousness. It has never shaped the way that the American public thinks and talks about the economy. And that’s a tragedy for our national economic conversation.

One reason that the progressive legal scholar’s view of the economy as a government creation has not gotten through to the general public may be that the public (naturally) looks to economists for guidance on how to think about the economy. Unfortunately, even most progressive economists today talk about “the market” as something that exists in opposition to the government, rather than as something created by the government. Whether on the left or right, mainstream economists tend to share the basic conceptual framework of the Reagan era when it comes to the economy, the framework I criticized in an earlier post on Greg Mankiw.

Consider Joseph Stiglitz’s recent remark in Harper’s: “Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘purely’ capitalist system. We have always had a mixed economy, relying on the government for investment in education, technology, and infrastructure.” These statements may sound progressive at first glance, but they adopt some of the central and most damaging assumptions of the Reagan era.

When Stiglitz says that there is “no such thing as a ‘purely’ capitalist system,” he’s right–but not in the sense he intends. The reason there is no such thing as a “purely capitalist” (or “purely free market”) system is not that all modern governments engage in infrastructure spending and the like. The reason is that “capitalism” is not a concept that has an essence or a core. We can talk about pure water–water with all the impurities removed, water that is nothing but H2O. But it simply makes no sense to talk about “pure” capitalism if this means something like capitalism with all traces of government removed. Markets without government aren’t markets at all, at least not in any sense we would recognize today. If the government plays no role in the economy, then there are no property or contract rights–and surely private property rights are one of the features of every economic system that we would call “capitalist.”

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Politics

First note on specific policies: a guaranteed minimum income

The idea of providing a guaranteed minimum income to every American currently lies outside the ever-shifting window of politically plausible policy ideas. But it is hardly a fringe proposal. Various public thinkers from Friedrich von Hayek to Martin Luther King Jr. have supported the idea.

There are a variety of good practical arguments in favor of providing a guaranteed minimum income, including that it would decrease economic inequality and all of its negative externalities; strengthen families, since poverty is one of the greatest contributors to family breakdown; encourage investment in personal capital, innovation, and risk-taking, because all of these are more likely when a person is not faced with uncertainty about basic economic needs; and be more efficient than the tangle of programs that currently make up the safety net. The limited empirical evidence regarding guaranteed minimum incomes also seems to suggest that their disincentive effect on work is not as serious as might be feared.

What interests me, however, is the way that a guaranteed minimum income fits together with the post-Reagan-era vision of government sketched in previous posts. The key is recognizing that because of the centrality of the price mechanism to the efficient functioning of markets, wealth inequality in and of itself represents a non-self-correcting source of inefficient outcomes—a “market failure.”

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Politics

What would a progressive Milton Friedman say?

Or, to put the question more clearly: If a progressive today were to write a book like Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, what would it say?

The politics posts on this blog will be, in part, an attempt to think through some future intellectual directions for the American left. The blog occupies a relatively neglected but I think important part of the political conversation among American progressives. On the one hand, the blog is concerned with electoral politics and practical, plausible, short-term to medium-term policy changes—as opposed to the radical left of Occupy Wall Street, anarchism, and parts of humanities academia in the United States. On the other hand, the blog is interested in thinking about bold ideas that push at the outer limits of what is politically plausible in America today—as opposed to those center-left institutions that are more concerned with immediate electoral calculations than intellectual and political change. As Occupy Wall Street showed, the American left can benefit from radical voices; and there is always a need for tactical thinking by insiders about the next election. But this blog is concerned with different questions.

Before turning to the particular question at the top of this post, a little intellectual background. The next few posts offer a brief recapitulation of a probably familiar historical narrative about where we are now in American politics, and how we got here. You can hear variations on this story from historians like Sean Wilentz, essayists like GeorgePacker, lawmakers and reformers like Elizabeth Warren, economists like Paul Krugman, and many other sources of progressive thought.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this: The Reagan Era is drawing to a close, but nothing has replaced it yet.

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