Economics, Literature, Politics

This Must Be What Freedom Feels Like

In the waiting room of the hospital sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who is in pain and seeks to gain entry to the hospital.

“Anyone may enter the hospital,” the gatekeeper tells the man. “All you need do is enter through the emergency door.” She gestures toward a wide, swinging door at the far end of the waiting room.

The man approaches the emergency door, then turns back. “How much will it cost to enter through this door?” he asks. The gatekeeper says that there is no way of knowing the cost before the man enters. She encourages him to enter for the sake of his health. “We can settle the cost afterward,” she smiles. “We are not barbarians, after all.”

The man returns to the gatekeeper’s desk and asks her if there is another way to enter the hospital. Continue reading

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Economics, Politics

Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

President Obama recently made a speech to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, arguing that climate change is a national security issue. This is an argument that the Pentagon made in a report last year. Many others have been making it for over a decade.

I’ve often thought that progressives who care about climate change should make the connection to national security more often, in an attempt to appeal to the values of cultural conservatives — although there will of course be limits to the persuasiveness of such an appeal if conservatives perceive it as coming from liberals.

More generally, what President Obama might call “a whole host of”* progressive policies could be advocated on national security grounds. This casts a new light on several previous arguments that have appeared on this blog.

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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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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

Mankiw as Voice of the Reagan Era

Greg Mankiw recently published an Op-Ed. in the New York Times that provides a good illustration of the unstated economic assumptions of the Reagan era, as described in previous posts.

The Op-Ed. is entitled “When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher,” and it draws attention to the fact that economists’ work is “based not only on our understanding of how the world works, but also on our judgments about what makes a good society.” So: economists are both scientists, to the extent that they make falsifiable predictions about the economy; and political philosophers, in the sense that their work continues to be shaped by political and moral judgments in ways that natural scientists’ work is not. A fair enough point, as far as it goes.

But ironically, in the process of making this point, Mankiw illustrates something different. He shows the disparity between the relative sophistication of economics as a science and the relative lack of sophistication in many economists’ thinking as “political philosophers.” Mankiw’s credentials place him near the top of the economics profession in the United States. He can debate technical economic issues with a facility that few can match. But when he moves beyond these technical matters and into something like political philosophy, he loses that facility and appears blind to the unstated assumptions underlying his view of the economy.

In the central passage of the column, he writes the following:

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Politics

Bruce Ackerman and the Reagan Era

A quick note for anyone reading this blog who doesn’t come from a background in the law: these days, if you study American constitutional theory in law school, one of the major writers you’ll inevitably come across is Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School. I’m not sure how widely read Ackerman is in political science or American history programs. But in law schools, if you hear the argument that America has gone through a small number of fundamental constitutional transformations—above all, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and again during the New Deal—chances are the speaker inherited this idea directly or indirectly from Ackerman.

Since my thumbnail sketch of American political history also relied on there having been a fundamental political transformation during the New Deal, my account probably has some of its roots in Ackerman’s work. But based on what I’ve heard, Ackerman would disagree with the idea that the Reagan era represented the same kind of hard-fought, deeply rooted constitutional transformation that took place during Reconstruction and the New Deal. Instead, Ackerman’s latest book—which I haven’t read yet—may suggest that the most recent constitutional transformation took place through the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It’s probably not worth arguing over, but it seems to me—for the reasons stated in previous posts—that there are a lot of parallels between the political transformations of the New Deal era and of the Reagan era, even if the former were undoubtedly more consequential than the latter. And the Reagan era, as I’ve sketched it, fits well within the basic parameters of Ackerman’s model of constitutional transformation: a challenge to the legitimacy of a previous era’s understanding of the Constitution, a political struggle involving multiple branches of government, a battle for the public’s allegiance, victory by the challenger, and ultimate acquiescence in the transformation by former opponents.

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Politics

Adolph Reed Jr. on the Current State of American Liberalism

Adolph Reed Jr., a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a piece in Harper’s on the decline of American liberalism. For those of us without a key to the Harper’s paywall, Reed has been making similar arguments in other venues.

Many of Reed’s arguments echo this blog’s recent posts on the background of our current moment in American politics. In particular, Reed critiques “the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal”:

Most telling … is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

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Politics

Balkin on the Current State of the American Political System

Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, recently posted a new article that dovetails with some of this blog’s recent posts on the current state of the American political system. The abstract:

Today, America’s political system seems remarkably dysfunctional. Many people believe that our 225-year-old Constitution is the problem. But what looks like constitutional dysfunction is actually constitutional transition, a slow and often frustrating movement from an older constitutional regime to a new one.

Americans last experienced this sense of dysfunction during the late 1970s and early 1980s – the “last days of disco.” The New Deal/Civil Rights regime had gradually fallen apart and was replaced by a new constitutional order – the conservative regime in which we have been living for the past three decades. By 1984, few people argued that the country was ungovernable, even if they didn’t like President Reagan’s policies.

In the same way, our current dysfunction marks the end of the existing constitutional regime and the beginning of a new one. This new regime may be dominated by the ascendant Democratic coalition of young people, minorities, women, city dwellers and professionals that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Or insurgent populists associated with the Tea Party may revive the decaying Republican coalition and give it a second wind. As of yet, neither side has been able to achieve a successful transition, leading to the current sense of frustration.

There’s an interesting asymmetry between the two possible political futures that Balkin highlights. One is defined by demographics (Obama’s coalition), the other by ideology (Tea Party-style populism). This fits with my sense, articulated in previous posts, that Obama has failed to articulate an ideology that could displace the “small government” vision of the Reagan era. Obama is not a transformative president in that sense. He has a newly coalescing electoral coalition, but no vision of government to coalesce around—other than opposition to the Reagan era vision. And nothing new has come from the right to displace the Reagan era vision either: the Tea Party continues to rally around the idea of small government as the source of freedom.

All of this is why I would like to see the American left move beyond the Reagan era and come up with a new vision of government backed by concrete projects—whether like this one, and backed by projects like this, or based on some other set of guiding principles. The demographic soil for a new era in American politics has been tilled, but no one seems to have ideological seeds on hand.

The rest of Balkin’s abstract after the jump…

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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

Specific policies: some preliminaries

The goal of the preceding posts on politics has been to start thinking through what it would look if a progressive today tried to write the kind of book that Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom: a general vision of government capable of displacing the discredited Reagan era vision of “small government” as good government, alongside a number of specific policies that illustrate how the vision could be made concrete.

An earlier post arrived at a first sketch of one possible vision: moving beyond the false opposition between government and markets, as well as the largely irrelevant and outdated opposition between big and small government, and instead framing economic policy decisions as a democratic choice between different forms of government action. Faced with an economic problem, we could ask ourselves not whether government should intervene—after all, government is already inextricably involved in all aspects of the economy—but rather what kind of government action would best serve our democratically chosen goals.

At this point, one option would be to say that a progressive response to Capitalism and Freedom need go no further. We could say: the progressive goal should simply be to make our democracy work, encourage the public to choose deliberately between the use of direct government action and indirect government action through markets, and let the chips fall where they may. In other words, focus on the democratic procedures and let the economic substance take care of itself.

But we can also go further. Like Friedman, we can assume that freedom will be one of our democracy’s primary political goals, and we can turn to specific illustrations of policies that would best fulfill the goals of freedom within the context of a post-Reagan era progressive vision of government.

In a few of the subsequent politics posts, I’ll start attempting to connect specific economic policies to the overarching vision of good government as not necessarily “big” or “small” but democratic and focused on freedom.

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