Economics, Politics

Paul Starr on a New Progressive Era

Free Photo: World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

Paul Starr, the Bancroft and Pulitzer prize-winner historian, has a new article at The American Prospect that addresses some of this blog’s earlier questions about what a new progressive era might look like. The article is titled “How Gilded Ages End.”

I’d recommend reading the entire thing. For my interests, the key passages come toward the end, when Starr concludes that a new progressive era, like the progressive advances of the twentieth century, should center around “three critical domains for curbing oligarchic dominance.” These are: “taxation, the rules of the market, and the rules of politics.”

In a nutshell, reforming the rules of politics makes it possible to reform the rules of the market (which determine wealth before taxes and transfers) and the rules of taxes and transfers (which determine how much wealth everyone ends up with). In turn, reforming the rules of the market and of taxation will help reduce wealth inequality, which will lead to less inequality in political power, which will make reforms of the rules of politics more likely.

Where one starts may depend on political contingencies. But no matter where one starts, the “three domains for curbing oligarchic dominance” should reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle.

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Literature, Politics

Muckraking and Documentary Film

Thought for the day: I’m reading Robert Caro’s wonderful biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. At one point, Caro describes the central role that muckraking journalism played in fueling the progressive reform movement. It was not only that the journalists drew public attention to issues that had previously been hidden from public view. They also performed the more basic role of collecting facts in an era when government had for the most part not yet entered the fact-collecting business.

I remember being surprised a few years ago to learn that the U.S. government made no attempt to measure the size of the economy until the Great Depression. (Simon Kuznets invented the notion of GDP while working to address this problem at the NBER.) But according to Caro, the lack of basic data-collection went even further than this prior to the progressive era. In the later nineteenth century, city governments did not even keep numerical track of their budgets—sources of revenue, amounts spent. When a municipal government discovered that it was unable to pay its bills, it would often simply issue some bonds.

It struck me that while newspapers are in decline today, there is a new form of muckraking that is on the rise, and could be compared to the progressive periodicals of an earlier era in some ways: documentary film. Just as powerful magazines like McClure’s regularly provoked policy reforms in the last Gilded Age, our current Gilded Age has seen several documentaries succeed in provoking changes in public attitudes. The first example that comes to mind is The Invisible War, which deals with sexual assault in the U.S. military. Apparently, the film drew Senator Gillibrand’s attention to this issue and played a significant role in bringing about the legislative responses. Other examples of surprisingly influential, muckraking documentaries would not be hard to find: Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove

So, even if newspapers can no longer afford thorough investigative reporting because the public stopped buying classified ads, maybe documentaries can partially fill the gap. And ironically, some of the same forces that have made in-depth newspaper reporting less economically feasible have made documentary-making more feasible. The same Internet that destroyed the classified section has created a new avenue for documentary film distribution through streaming video services.

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