A couple of economists respectfully disagree on the politics of policy in the age of Trump and the new socialists

September 9th, 2018 at 8:03 pm

Belle Sawhill is an economist I greatly admire, so I carefully read her Twitter-thread critique of a piece I recently posted in the WaPo.

My piece makes the case that technocratic policy wonks, like Belle and me, should not be overly critical of ambitious, even unrealistic, policy proposals by the new socialists. True, they often eschew the path dependency by which many of us are constrained. But they signal to key constituencies that, relative to establishment or centrist Democrats, they’re going to bring a new, aggressive fight to the powerful, well-endowed forces that have long been aligned against the progressive agenda.

I argue that:

“What Trump should have taught us by now is that if people believe you’ve got their backs, you can do things never imagined by the status quo. In this regard, the new socialists are saying to the majority that has long been left behind, “We’ve really got your back.” Moreover, their analysis of market power is far more convincing than Trump’s promotion of fear and divisiveness.

Yes, the socialists are eschewing path dependency, and not all their plans pass technocratic muster. But, for now, that’s beside the point.

What is that point? To enlist poor, middle-class and diverse America in the struggle to take back their country and their democracy from the oligarchs who are actively undermining it.”

Belle argues that I’m advocating “politics first, policy later,” and that this strategy invokes significant risks. These include a) alienating a public that is more moderate than activists, b) exposing D’s “to barrage of criticisms from right, painting them as socialists who will raise taxes, take away freedoms, and scare away swing voters, including Rs unhappy with Trump,” and c) deepening distrust of government by promising big and delivering little, if anything.

Instead, she recommends: “A simple values-based agenda that provides good jobs, honors personal responsibility, diversity, community-based efforts, and demands integrity from public servants.” That sounds good, but we’ll all have to read her new book (looking forward to it!) to understand what she’s suggesting. Surely a “values-based agenda” means different things to different people.

In fact, such differences make me skeptical of Belle’s claim that the public is more moderate than activists. That may be true in Conor Lamb’s district, but it’s demonstrably not so in Ocasio-Cortez’s or Jahana Hayes’ or Ayanna Pressley’s or Andrew Gillum’s or Stacey Abrams’.

I suspect Belle is thinking about general elections, not primaries, where activists tend to be more prominent. Still, it’s hard for me not to see what the Times calls a “surge of progressive energy on the left among nonwhite voters and white millennials” as a critical movement pushing our politics in a less moderate direction. Individual elements of the socialist agenda poll well among the general public, sometimes even with Trump voters. President Obama just endorsed Medicare for All and debt-free college, planks of the new socialist agenda. In fact, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that a slight majority of Republican voters support Medicare For All. These poll results suggest to me that young people are increasingly uninspired by status-quo, establishment, middle-way arguments.

Next, there’s no question that right-wing opponents will make all the accusations Belle notes under “b” above. But they already make all these accusations – President Obama was routinely called a socialist for pushing an agenda with which I suspect Belle is very comfortable.

So what? I’m not going to let their cat calls dictate my policy agenda. I’m sure that universal coverage, higher minimum wages, employment supports, access to quality education from pre-school on up, promote freedom. And it’s my—I’d argue “our”—job as policy wonks to make the case.

If that means more tax revenue, which it does, then we must be honest about that too. The fact that one party will only cut taxes and the other will only raise them on a narrow sliver of the richest voters is simply unsustainable and inconsistent with meeting the challenges of climate change, aging demographics, infrastructure, health care, poverty, affordable, quality pre-school through college, and more.

Finally, I can envision an endgame that raises, not lowers, trust in government. If the Ds were to take back the Congress and the White House, the lions would have to sit down with the Lambs. That is, Democratic moderates would have to work with the progressive insurgents to hammer out a compromise policy agenda in the areas above. I doubt they’d end up with single payer and free college, but I’m optimistic that they’d get part of the way there.

That might well disappoint some activists, but it would have a potentially much larger, positive effect in tapping the growing recognition that we need a functional, responsive, representative government that can help to solve real problems.

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3 comments in reply to "A couple of economists respectfully disagree on the politics of policy in the age of Trump and the new socialists"

  1. Denis Drew says:

    Re: On the politics of policy in the age of the new socialists … worried about “promising big and delivering little” Give them their big econ and pol power back (labor unions) and watch them deliver big to themselves.

    FIRST, recognize that old fashioned union organizing as we knew it may safely be declared dead (forever!) in this country. Even if we now make union busting a fed felony and hire (tens of?) thousands of fed investigators, what’s to keep millions of business owners and managers from laughing it off, asking: “What are you going to do, lock up all the business know how of the country?”

    SECOND, observe Repub: H.R.2723 (115th Congress) — Employee Rights Act
    “(2) require union recertification after a turnover in the workforce exceeding 50% of the bargaining unit”
    https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2723

    THIRD, think blue wave Dem modification: H.R.2723 (1/2) — 116th Congress — All Employees Rights Act
    “(1) Require union cert/recert/decert elections at all private workplaces — option for one, three or five year cycles, local plurality rules.”


  2. efcdons says:

    Her “critique” didn’t justify you reading it “carefully”. It barely merits a reading of any sort other than to see what the third way people think.

    Sawhill basically makes assumptions about the electorate (which just happen to coincide with her own positions. How convenient!) and then says the Democratic party needs to follow her policy prescription in order to reach these “Sawhillist” voters.

    The whole thread makes me worried about Sawhill’s mental health. If the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”, then Sawhill is straight up bonkers (obviously I’m engaging in hyperbole and not making any claim about Sawhill’s actual mental health).

    She is recommending a political and policy strategy which has been the way the Democratic party has operated for arguably the last 50 years (since Carter ran for the Presidency). What evidence is there that “this time” it will work? That this time measured, gradual policies which try to get cross party support by including ideas from conservatives will mean the gop won’t gnash their teeth and rend their garments about how the Democratic party is trying to turn America in to the Soviet Union? Nothing. If anything, it’s going to be even worse! The gop have shown they genuinely don’t care about “the truth” and they have absolutely no shame, so they will lie as easily as we breathe.

    And recent events have shown us a sizeable minority of voters are completely unreachable in that their political behavior is driven entirely by resentment. Resentment against non-whites, non-native born people, “elites” (which has nothing to do with money but instead is based on some sort of weird combination of anti-intellectualism and racism), the cities, and lots of other resentments I don’t even know. Since I’m not an insane racist who listens to right-wing media in all its various forms 24 hours a day.

    Frankly, I think Sawhill knows and understands all of this. About the way the gop and the right are not able to be reasoned with and it’s no use trying. But like the third way-ists all over the developed world, she also knows it’s not the 1990’s anymore and she (the collective “she”) have lost the ideological battle on the center-left. Since her arguments and policies proposals are non-starters in the Democratic party based on their content, she must make a different argument as to why the Democratic party needs to follow her lead even if the party’s voters don’t really like what she says.

    So just like Corbyn and his enemies in the UK Labour party, Sawhill has to argue that the popular in the party policies are “unelectable”. Only Sawhill and people like her (e.g. Kessler) truly “understand” the electorate and the electorate’s love for third way style policy. So us lefties need to buck up and take our medicine if we want to win power.

    Thankfully, no one cares what Sawhill, Kessler, and the rest think. They might be able to create an aura of a following with the money and resources they are able to get from capital (which will do anything to stop the Corbyn’s and Sanders’ of the developed world from gaining power), but it’s all a mirage.

    The future is not going back to the past. “Technocracy” lost its sheen in the crash and its mask of objectivity slipped with its prescription for fixing what they helped break.

    From now on we are going to make powerful, meaningful policy arguments which will not be fought on the battle ground Sawhill and her ilk want it to be fought.


  3. Nathan Lazarus says:

    I agree with what you’ve written but think the piece would be stronger if you replaced all instances of “Belle” with “Sawhill.”


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