Sunday, December 30, 2018

Thinking About Utopia

John Horgan, one of my favorite science writers, has a very interesting piece on his Scientific American blog about the different visions of utopia held by various scientists and thinkers he interviewed, including some quite well-known ones As Horgan puts it:
"Unless you are too stoned or enlightened to care, you are probably dissatisfied with the world as it is. In that case, you should have a vision of the world as you would like it to be. This better world is your utopia. That, at any rate, is the premise of a question I’ve been asking scientists and other thinkers lately: What’s your utopia?"
After the various answers he gets, he provides his own:
"As I argue in Mind-Body Problems, my free, online book, many of us are already living in pretty good utopias, democracies that give us unprecedented freedom to be who we want to be. But things could be—will be!--a lot better. We will recognize how stupid and wrong war is and end it once and for all. With the money we save from demilitarizing we will end poverty, too, improve education and health care for all, and solve the conundrum of climate change. And we will keep giving ourselves more freedom, more choices. Our children and their children will find new ways to be human, to live good, meaningful lives, ways we can’t even imagine now. This weird, wonderful human adventure will never, ever end."
I share his optimism, at least in a big picture, long term sense. I also have some more thoughts on this subject--about why the concept of utopia is still important and how the left can, as it were, get back in the game.
The 20th century was a difficult century for the utopian vision. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China were supposed to usher in egalitarian utopias where all social needs were met by benevolent state planning. Instead these Communist revolutions produced brutal authoritarian regimes where privileged bureaucracies ruled over the masses and lagged far behind the advanced West in meeting social needs.
In the advanced West, social democrats pursued a gentler utopian ideal that envisioned an egalitarian society of abundance with social control of the economy and enhanced democracy in the workplace and throughout society. But the welfare state model ran into troubles starting in the 1970’s as economic growth slowed and the inefficiencies of the system became ripe targets for conservative political forces. Support for the socialist ideal began to falter and the coup de grace was administered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe states. Societies that had called themselves socialist turned their backs on the idea and embraced capitalism with gusto. Even Western European parties that still called themselves socialist abandoned any pretence that they were seeking to create an actual socialist society.
In America, there was also a utopian impulse though it had its roots in more diffuse political traditions of liberalism and progressive reform. The idea here was that society could gradually perfect itself through a process of continuous reform that would weed out injustice and deliver prosperity for all. That idea came to a head with the Great Society of the 1960’s but sputtered out soon thereafter, battered first by counter-cultural and political radicalism and then by a nascent conservatism fueled, as in Europe, by economic problems that exposed underlying governmental inefficiencies. Over time, the liberal movement backed far away from the Great Society and its expansive vision of social justice and became resolutely focused on maintaining American social programs or, at best, their modest expansion.
Counter-cultural and political radicalism had their own utopian impulse of course. Visions of society ranging from participatory democracy (SDS) to communal bliss (hippies) to endless Marxist-Leninist revolution (Maoists) danced in the heads of young radicals in the 1960’s. But such hubris did not survive the grimmer atmosphere of the 1970’s not to mention the pressures of the life-cycle as these young radicals entered their thirties and forties.
As the Left’s utopian dreams faded, surging conservatives attacked vigorously. They argued that all of the left’s failings and especially their visions of a future society were attributable to their fundamentally unrealistic beliefs about human nature. People were selfish and acquisitive not cooperative and solidaristic as the Left mistakenly believed. Therefore, the vision of society we should all strive for is a society without government and taxes where selfishness would be unleashed and individuals could shape their own destiny free of the oppressive hand of the state. This Ayn Rand-style libertarian utopia became an inspiration to legions of conservative activists.
There are still some true believers left in this utopia left—some, indeed, hold elected office. But their dream of a perfectly unregulated capitalism has little mass appeal in our post-financial crisis world and will have less as the economy improves. The ideas underlying their vision of utopia have been tried and found wanting; their lease on utopia is up.
But the idea of utopia can and should live on. Utopia is fundamentally an expression of humanity's ability to dream of a better world. It provides—or should provide--inspiration to those seeking social change, providing a model for the society they seek to create. Without that inspiration, it is more difficult to sustain long-term commitment to substantial change, which inevitably saps energy from reform efforts. Reform, after all, is about taking steps to reach goals; a utopian vision helps you decide what those goals should be. Lacking robust goals, we have been experiencing a "sticky" status quo at the very time when large-scale change is necessary to deal with problems like climate change, slow growth, economic polarization and financial instability.
But things don't have to be this way. We are better situated than ever before to pursue a utopian dream that is reasonable and realistic and won't degenerate into authoritarianism or economic collapse.
So where is the new utopian vision to inspire today’s left and its emerging postindustrial coalition? The first task will be to reawaken hope in the future by rejecting the limits and assumptions of the current debate.
The key limit is not that today's left still embraces a socialist or (in America) a “Great Society” utopia as a concrete goal. It is rather that they have given up on end goals altogether. It is as if these old utopias are the only ones the left could ever aspire to and, since these goals are no longer feasible or desirable, the left must do without. This leads to the uninspiring vision of a society that is, at best, a little bit better than the one we have today. Hardly the stuff of dreams and movements.
Moreover, the left finds itself drawn to an idealized past, since it now lacks a vision of a fundamentally better future. This generally takes the form of touting the Golden Age of the postwar welfare state, roughly the 1946-1973 period, as some sort of model for society. It is true that wages and incomes rose much faster in that period than since, that there was far less economic inequality, that unions were much stronger and that basic institutions of the welfare state were not only safeguarded but expanded. But as utopia, that's pretty weak beer. And there is the inconvenient fact that this so-called Golden Age was not so golden for blacks, women, gays and other outsiders. (Ironically, it is this aspect of the Golden Age--a stable, traditional social order--that is recalled with fondness by many on the right and held up on their side as a sort of model.)
Linked to this backward-looking viewpoint is a continued failure to grasp that the traditional working class--the bulwark of the postwar welfare state--is no longer the leading force for progress. Their place has been taken by a diverse modernizing coalition that has quite a different sensibility than the traditional working class and who are quite unmoved by appeals to an idealized past of happy workers with steadily rising living standards.
What would inspire them is quite different and it is here that the left will have to plough new ground. It will embrace new findings on human nature and economics as providing the basis for an expansive vision of humanity’s future. And it will reject the pessimistic view of progress, so popular among today’s left, which confuses current problems with long-term trends. It is true, as we have seen, that rising inequality in the US and other countries has limited the benefits of economic growth, as well as slowing that growth. It is also true that globalization has produced its share of losers in the US and that globally many nations are still mired in poverty. And it is certainly true that world economic progress has brought with it serious climate problems. But economic growth and globalization as long term trends are still far more beneficial than harmful, a fact which resonates with this emerging coalition, even if it no longer does so with the traditional working class.
It is hard to think about all this with Trump still in office and all the various threats the world faces today. But I do think it's necessary. If you don't know where you're going, as Yogi Berra put it, you wind up someplace else.
About this website
Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees and others answer the question: What’s your utopia?

Friday, December 28, 2018

Who Do the Republicans Want to Run Against in 2020?

Republicans are nervous about 2020. Trump's low approval ratings, the 2018 election results and a host of other current and looming political problems tell them that Trump will be a deeply vulnerable incumbent.
That said, he is the incumbent and incumbent Presidents usually win, so Republicans are hardly ready to throw in the towel. They believe they can win, but fear some potential Democratic candidates far more than others.
According to an article by David Drucker on Vanity Fair's blog, the candidate Republican operatives fear least--would most like to see as their opponent--is Elizabeth Warren.
"Without naming names, I asked several senior Republican insiders which Democrat, or Democrats, at the top of the opposition ticket would most reassure them about 2020. Without exception, Elizabeth Warren, the 69-year-old progressive senator from Massachusetts, topped every wish list. “There’s a lot of Hillary Clinton in her,” said a veteran Republican operative in D.C. who hails from the Midwest and keeps a close eye on the heartland. “She’s elitist and doesn’t appear very nimble. It would be hard for her to expand her base or reach directly into Trump’s base.”
Now, I don't want to claim Drucker's info is 100 percent reliable or, even if reliable, that these operatives' perceptions are correct. But, assuming Drucker did a conscientious job of reaching out to these insiders, it's certainly of interest. Even though I like Warren a lot, I have been getting kind of nervous about her as a candidate--it does seem like Trump could rattle her and she might have a hard time connecting in certain areas of the country. This is a shame because Warren really does have a lot of great policy ideas and the guts to push them against big economic interests that will try to block them. A reasonable case can be made that, of the current crop of Democratic candidates, she might actually make the best President.
But you gotta get elected first! So who do the Republican operatives really fear--which candidates do they think have the best chances of beating Trump? One is Beto O'Rourke:
"As much as the Democratic base might be clamoring for a standard bearer to force-feed the president a dose of his own medicine, there is no beating the genuine article at the game he perfected. Trump is too quick and too shameless, and that approach offers little change to voters who want to turn the page from the chaos and anxiety that has characterized the current era. “A Democrat is not going to defeat Trump by being more brash, blustering, and strident. They will win over voters they need to retake the ‘blue wall’ states by connecting with those voters on substance but presenting an alternative to his leadership style,” a Republican consultant told me in an e-mail.
Indeed, if there’s a key aspect to the fear Beto O’Rourke inspires in some Republicans, it’s the outgoing Texas congressman’s combination of sunny disposition and 21st-century social media agility. Sure, he’s unabashedly progressive, but to borrow a phrase from Vice President Mike Pence: He’s not angry about it. Nor, as it happens, does O’Rourke look down upon so-called heretics, or, if you prefer, “deplorables.”
Ignore the Beto mockery prevalent in Republican circles during O’Rourke’s near upset of Senator Ted Cruz this past November. Party insiders were taking notes, and taking the 46-year-old from El Paso far more seriously than suggested by the apparent delight they took in lampooning everything about a figure who has drawn comparisons to a onetime up-and-coming Democrat named of Barack Obama. “A Democrat who can carry Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or North Carolina is problematic,” a Republican insider from a critical swing state said. “Someone like Beto, who can campaign on the fly, raise money, and excite young voters, could put those and other states in play.”
Another is Joe Biden:
"November 6 provoked a brutal reassessment. Republicans saw their coalition crack, and many senior strategists blame the president. As a few well-placed strategists told me for reporting I did for the Washington Examiner, after-action polling and analysis made it clear that Trump drove away soft Republicans, college-educated Republicans, female Republicans, moderate Republicans, basically every category of Republican not firmly ensconced in Trump’s base, plus crucial independents, handing House Democrats a larger victory than most had predicted, and with it, the majority. The right Democratic presidential nominee could capitalize on that.
And who is that? As often as Warren and her like-styled cohorts were mentioned as easy Trump foils, former Vice President Joe Biden was cited as among the few Democrats who many Republicans believe might dispatch the incumbent with relative ease. Is Biden progressive? Absolutely. Gaffe-prone? Duh. But he is the antithesis of Trump, with the added benefit that he’s been vetted before, and passed muster. “He [reeks] calmness and normalcy, which I feel like people crave over the chaos of the Trump administration,” a Republican strategist headquartered in the Southwest said."
Another candidate who might fit here, though his name did not come up in the article, is Sherrod Brown. At any rate, it seems like the candidates they are most afraid of are those that can take votes away from Trump, not just turn out reliable Democratic voters. They could be onto something.

About this website
Republicans are happy to run against any progressive who tries to compete with Trump at the game he perfected. But they desperately fear another Barack Obama.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Is Globalization Good or Bad?

My earlier post about the worldwide decline in inequality occasioned some spirited comment. I do think people on the left have a hard time striking a balanced view of globalization, which makes it hard for them to process facts like a worldwide decline in inequality, a sharp rise in global median incomes and a sharp decline in global poverty. Wouldn't it be better though to face these facts, while holding onto a critical view of where globalization has fallen short?
Instead, the attitude of many on the left is unremittingly hostile: trade costs jobs, especially manufacturing jobs; global competition destroys the economic base of local communities; rising nations like China are undercutting us with cheap labor and unfair trading practices; international capital seeks lower wages and looser regulation everywhere, promoting a race to the bottom; and so on. This casts globalization as an enemy of healthy growth and the ordinary worker and therefore something that should be opposed by the left.
This attitude is misguided on several levels. First, globalization has been central to the economic advances that have dramatically raised living standards all over the world. Indeed, most parts of the developing world have made huge progress in the last half century as globalization has bound countries closer and closer together. Because of this, the proportion of the world’s population that lives on less than 2,200 calories a day has fallen from 56 percent in the mid-1960’s to less than 10 percent today. The proportion of the world’s population living in “extreme poverty” (currently defined by the World Bank as under $1.90 a day) has fallen from 44 percent in 1981 to less than 10 percent today. Put in terms of absolute numbers, there were almost 2 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1990; that is down to around 700 million today. That means around a quarter of the world’s population has been lifted out of extreme poverty in just the last 25 years—25 years that have coincided with an acceleration of globalization.
This trend has been strongest in East Asia, especially China, but it has greatly affected all parts of the developing world, including Sub-Saharan Africa, frequently the poster child for the alleged failures of globalization. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the percent of the population living in extreme poverty has dropped from 56 percent in 1990 to 35 percent today. More broadly, as Branko Milanovic, one of the world’s leading scholars on income distribution, notes :
"Global income distribution [since the fall of the Berlin Wall] has changed in a remarkable way. It was probably the most profound global reshuffle of people’s economic positions since the Industrial Revolution. Broadly speaking the bottom third….became significantly better off and many of the people there escaped absolute poverty. The middle third or more became much richer, seeing their real incomes rise by approximately 3 per cent per capita annually."
Accompanying these dramatic rises in income have been dramatic increases in health. Between 1990 and 2013, the percentage of the world’s children who died before their fifth birthday fell by almost half. And overall life expectancy continues to climb, reaching 70 for those born in 2011. Back in 1950 world life expectancy was only 47. The average Mexican today lives longer than the average Briton did in 1955. And stunningly, of all the people in human history who have reached the age of 65, half are alive today.
These are amazing advances and they are taking place while the world is becoming ever more globalized. That’s because globalization, far from driving a race to the bottom, makes possible (even if it does not guarantee uniform progress in every country at every time) the spread of material progress to every corner of the earth. Marx, despite his underestimation of capitalism’s long-run potential, understood this. The broad left throughout most of the twentieth century understood this. But many on today’s left have lost track of this fundamental truth and prefer instead to focus on the obvious facts that globalization has some negative effects, both in developing and advanced countries, and that material progress has been very uneven. But it is only this maddening, uneven, unfair process that makes serious economic progress for most of human race possible. Therefore, on ethical and moral grounds alone, the left should enthusiastically embrace globalization, even as they seek to mitigate its negative effects where they occur and spread its benefits more evenly.
Some on the left are willing to grant that globalization has raised living standards in the developing world but insist that it is the enemy of the developed world worker, due above all to the destruction of manufacturing jobs. But is this really true? The decline of industrial employment is a very long-run trend that predates the sharp rise in globalization toward the end of the last century. And, if you plot the share of manufacturing jobs specifically in overall employment since 1948, there has been a steady decline from a high of about 35 percent to less than 10 percent today, with recent declines no sharper than those that have occurred in the past.
There is a very simple reason for this. Much of the decline in manufacturing employment can be traced to rapidly rising productivity in the manufacturing sector —so the same output could be produced with fewer workers--combined with shifts in demand toward services, reflecting a rise in consumer affluence. In this sense, declining manufacturing employment was an inevitable product of capitalism’s evolution.
Now that does not mean that globalization has played no role in declining manufacturing employment or that foreign trade has no negative effects. Academic studies generally acknowledge some “trade effect” on manufacturing jobs and trade with China in particular has probably had a significant recent impact. It is also likely that job loss from trade is larger in cyclical downturns, when economic vulnerability among workers is particularly high. But it does mean that attributing the massive, long-term decline in manufacturing jobs across the advanced world to globalization is a stretch.
More broadly, attempts to blame globalization for the wage and income problems of workers in advanced countries ignore hugely important factors like capitalism’s intrinsic dynamic toward higher inequality (as demonstrated by Thomas Piketty), the advance of the right and serial policy error, including many committed by the left itself. Clearly, the globalization explanation does not go very far in explaining the totality of workers’ problems today.
The point about policy error is key. The left will do a lot more good by correcting policy error on growth, employment and fiscal policy than by standing in the way of globalization. This even applies to the specifics of the manufacturing jobs issue. Germany, for example, has recently done far better than the US in moderating manufacturing job loss by retraining manufacturing workers from import-competing industries and moving them into export-oriented manufacturing jobs .
In short, globalization is not the villain many on the left make it out to be. It is simply part of the way capitalism today works and will increasingly work in the future. The sensible response is not to denounce it but to make it work for as large a share of the population as possible. This can be done by embracing globalization as a potential agent of growth and prosperity, rather than stagnation and job loss.
The key to doing this is recognizing that globalization is not a zero-sum game, where the developing world’s gain is the developed world’s loss. Instead, it is a positive sum game where increased prosperity in the developing world and denser trade ties should mean increased prosperity in the developed world through larger markets for developed countries’ goods and services and potential infusions of foreign human and investment capital. Besides equitable growth and full employment policies, the left should therefore concentrate on ensuring that workers dislocated by globalization can move smoothly into other economic sectors and that openness in developed countries’ economies is matched by openness in developing countries’ economies. But ultimately, more wealth and a better life in the developing world should mean the same in the developed world.
The job of the left is to make this happen as rapidly as possibly, rather than denouncing globalization wholesale, which is both ill-conceived and ineffective.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Will the Millennial Generation Live More Poorly Than Previous Generations?

Many believe this. Polling data in recent years has shown an unusually high degree of pessimism among the public about future generational prospects, with many subscribing to the thesis that future generations will simply be worse off.
How plausible is this? Careful reading of available data indicates slow growth across the population in living standards not no growth or negative growth (see previous posts). But is the Millennial generation different? Will it be the generation that actually suffers declining rather than merely slowly growing living standards?
Not on current evidence, according to an interesting new release from the Pew Research Center.
"After bottoming out in 2011, incomes are rising for American households – and those headed by a Millennial (someone age 22 to 37) now earn more than young adult households did at nearly any time in the past 50 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new census data.
The growth in household incomes among young adults has been driven in part by Millennial women, who are working more – and being paid more – than young women were in previous years....
The median adjusted income in a household headed by a Millennial was $69,000 in 2017. That is a higher figure than for nearly every other year on record, apart from around 2000, when households headed by people ages 22 to 37 earned about the same amount – $67,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars."
The problem therefore is how to accelerate income growth for Millennials, as well as for other generations, rather than reverse decline. That's an important difference the left would do well to remember.
About this website
American households headed by a Millennial now earn more than young adult households did at nearly any time in the past 50 years.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thinking about White Identity, Consciousness, Racial Resentment

These terms get thrown around a lot and are seldom rigorously defined. Tom Edsall provides a useful discussion in his latest column on how contemporary political scientists tend to use these terms. One thing it seems to establish is that views associated with these terms are complex and should not be reduced to sheer racial bigotry (especially if one's goal to move some of these voters away from the Trump/GOP camp).
Edsall's article prominently cites the research of Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina:
"According to Jardina, “higher levels of white identity are somewhat linked to higher levels of racial animosity.” At the same time, she contends in her book:
A small percentage of white identifiers score quite high on measures of racial prejudice or resentment, but many more white identifiers possess average and even low levels of racial prejudice. In other words, white identity is not defined by racial animus, and whites who identify with their racial group are not simply reducible to bigots."
There is also discussion of the ever-popular "racial resentment" scale, which is somewhat promiscuously used in political science research. The racial resentment scale is based on "responses to four survey items, with response options ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree for each. The survey items ask respondents if they agree/disagree that (1) blacks should work their way up without any special favors; (2) generations of slavery and discrimination make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class; (3) blacks have gotten less than they deserve; (4) blacks must try harder to get ahead. The index is scaled to range from 0 (least resentful) to 1 (most resentful)."
Edsall properly notes that interpretation of these responses is vexed; these responses--and their associated scale--may not, in fact, mean what many researchers assume they mean. In so doing, he cites the landmark Carney-Enos study, which deserves to be more widely-known.
"There is an ongoing dispute over the use of such questions to measure racial resentment. Jardina acknowledges that “some scholars are critical of this framework” and “argue that racial resentment entangles conservative principles, like individualism, with racial prejudice.”
Most recently, Riley Carney and Ryan Enos, political scientists at Harvard, have sought to assess the validity of racial resentment questions in their working paper, “Conservatism and Fairness in Contemporary Politics: Unpacking the Psychological Underpinnings of Modern Racism.”
In survey experiments, Carney and Enos substituted Lithuanians and other nationalities for African-Americans so that the first resentment question would ask for agreement or disagreement with the statement: “Lithuanians should work their way up without any special favors.” Their conclusion:
The results obtained using groups other than blacks are substantively indistinguishable from those measured when blacks are the target group. Decomposing this measure further, we find that political conservatives express only minor differences in resentment across target groups. Far greater differences in resentment toward blacks and other groups can be found among racially sympathetic liberals. In short, we find that modern racism questions appear to measure attitudes toward any group, rather than African-Americans alone.
Carney and Enos conclude that the “modern racism scales” fail to
capture attitudes specific to African-Americans. However, the scales do capture a form of racism, both a general resentment that applies to many groups and a specific failure to recognize the unique historical plight of African-Americans."
Food for thought. Something to keep in mind when you read the next study linking racial resentment to Trump/GOP/whatever voting.
About this website
How should Democrats understand — and confront — them?

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Myths about the 2018 Election

Let me recommend a memo my old friend Andy Levison has written for The Democratic Strategist site. He takes aim at three myths--dangerous myths--that have taken hold in conventional interpretations of the 2018 elections. I have pushed back against each of these myths in various posts I have written since the election, but Levison does a nice job of rounding up much of the relevant data undermining these myths and putting it all in one place. I heartily endorse his conclusions.
The myths:
1. A substantial number of college educated voters who voted Republican in 2016 switched to the Democrats this year while, in contrast, white working class voters maintained (or perhaps even increased) their 2016 level of support for the GOP.
2. The “suburbs” that shifted from supporting the GOP in 2016 to the Democrats this year were composed of educated middle class voters.
3. In 2018 rural areas maintained or increased their 2016 level of support for the GOP
The conclusion:
"[To] sum it up simply: white working class and rural areas did indeed participate in the rejection of Trump in 2018 and the image of the suburbs as entirely composed of educated
professionals is wrong.
The strategic implications are clear. There are votes to be found and races to be won in white working class and rural areas as well as among the educated and urban. Giving up on white workers and rural areas is simply playing into the GOP’s hands. The Republicans would like nothing better than for Democrats to cede them vast areas of the country so that they can concentrate all their resources on attacking swing districts and Democratic strongholds. Behind closed doors they are anxiously looking at the map of the elections in 2018 and hoping that Democrats will allow their deeply embedded negative attitudes about white working class and rural voters to blind them to the opportunities that exist."
Read the memo!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Once Again on Purple Texas

I've written a few posts about how red Texas increasingly looks like purple Texas and just may vote blue in some near-term elections. As I've noted in these pieces, trends in the white vote are key to making this happen, as the growth of the nonwhite vote alone is probably not enough to flip the state anytime soon.
Some good news along these lines comes from an article on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog by researchers Juan Carlos Huerta and Beatriz Cuartas. They note:
"Although O’Rourke fell short, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House, two seats in the Texas Senate and two seats in the U.S. House, and came close in several statewide races....
[T]he blue shift isn’t coming just from the growing minority population. Younger white voters are significantly more likely to identify as Democrats than their older counterparts....
[A]mong people of color, both older and younger Texans have been solidly Democratic....Democratic support among white Texans is considerably lower. But that’s been changing over the past decade, especially among younger whites. Whereas in 2009 just 36 percent of younger white Texans called themselves Democrats, by last year that number had grown to 45 percent....
[T]he most reliably Republican group of voters — older whites — are being replaced by a more Democratic-leaning cohort of younger white voters. Older whites were socialized into party politics during eras when the GOP was ascendant. But younger Texans are coming of political age at a time when the party is struggling to appeal to young people across the country. Since the party you vote for when young tends to become the party you identify with for a lifetime, that may give Texas an increasing proportion of white Democratic voters as time goes on."
The most powerful demographic force of all is generational replacement. It just may flip Texas.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Only Way to Beat Bad Populism Is With Good Populism

David Leonhardt makes this argument--and correctly in my view--in his column today in the New York Times. And check out the chart below for some of the evidence for his argument.
"There is only one quality — beyond, of course, charisma — that Democrats should demand in their nominee. The Democrats need a candidate who can and will run as an economic populist.
They need a candidate who will organize the 2020 campaign around fighting for the little guy and gal. (And most of the potential Democratic nominees could do so.) It would be a campaign about Republican politicians and corporate lobbyists who are rigging the game, a campaign that promised good jobs, rising wages, decent health care, affordable education and an end to Trumpian corruption.
The country doesn’t only need this agenda. It wants this agenda. A mountain of evidence shows that populism — the real kind, not the faux Trump version — is the Democrats’ most effective political strategy. Yet that evidence often gets obscured by less important issues, like a candidate’s race, sex or precise spot on a traditional liberal-conservative spectrum......
Populism takes very different forms — from odious racism to sensible economics — but there is no other political style consistently succeeding in the Western world right now.
There is more than one form that a Democratic populist can take. Franklin Roosevelt, the most successful populist of the past century, was an aristocrat. Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson were hardscrabble Southerners. Barack Obama managed to do quite well with much of the white working class despite having one big obvious difference from them.
So the need to run a populist campaign in 2020 doesn’t point to any specific candidate....
[A]lmost every single one of the potential Democratic candidates could run a smart populist campaign. Take Beto O’Rourke. His record in the House was not especially populist. He cast a procedural vote for a trans-Pacific trade deal, for example. Yet his Texas Senate campaign captured the energy of the moment. In campaign ads, his top issues included: “Get big money out of politics” and “Jobs for Texans.”
We’re living in a populist era. The question is who figures out how to thrive in it. In 2016, it was Trump. It doesn’t need to be in 2020."
Exactly. And I would add that the approach Leonhardt recommends could put into play the basic components of the "equitable growth" agenda this country so desperately needs to move forward and leave reactionary populism behind for good.
As I conceive of it, the equitable growth approach has three broad components: (1) measures to directly improve economic outcomes for the working and middle classes; (2) measures to directly reduce the flow of excessive benefits to the wealthy; and (3) measures to increase societal investment in the jobs of the future.
Measures to directly improve economic outcomes should include the following. First, there is the provision of more and more widely-distributed educational opportunity. This provision is absolutely central to the life-chances and economic mobility of the working and middle classes. Making early childhood education available for all is part of this, as is more effective elementary and secondary education and much easier access to a college education.
Raising the quality and quantity of educational attainment helps individual workers but it does much more. Broad diffusion of knowledge and skills is a powerful countervailing force on rising inequality. And the role of rising societal skill levels in promoting economic growth is well-documented.
Policies to directly support wages are also important. A relatively high minimum wage, indexed to prices, fits in here, as do pro-work tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and employee profit-sharing, share-ownership and representation. And, critically, the attainment and maintenance of full employment, including government as employer of last resort, will do a great deal to push wages up over the long-term.
Then there is the role of robust social insurance and social benefits. Besides the familiar old age programs of Social Security and Medicare, this includes the universal provision of health care, affordable child care, retirement savings accounts, paid sick and parental leave and paid vacation.
There is no question these measures would go a long way toward improving the lot of the working and middle classes in today's America. But an equitable growth approach entails going beyond directly helping the great middle to cutting the flow of excessive benefits to the wealthy.
One part of this is increasing taxes on the wealthy and on wealth. As Thomas Piketty argues, low marginal income tax rates on the wealthy encourage the pursuit of extreme incomes, while much higher marginal rates can be implemented without adverse effects on work effort and entrepreneurship.
Curtailing wealth through tax increases on the wealthy would, by definition, make a contribution toward reducing inequality by pushing down excess at the top of the income distribution. These measures would also have the highly desirable side effect of helping raise revenue for needed social programs and government investments to lift up the great middle of society (even if such taxes, by themselves, would not be sufficient to provide all the revenue needed).
There is also the issue of laws and incentives that encourage excessive and destabilizing wealth accumulation. A host of changes are needed here. Measures to combat these tendencies include ending “too big to fail” in the financial sector, enacting a financial transactions tax to discourage short-term, speculative investments and eliminating tax loopholes on performance pay and other forms of compensation that have allowed CEO pay to skyrocket.
Direct measures to lift up the middle and push down the top are clearly necessary and important parts of an equitable growth program. But they are not sufficient. Sustained healthy economic growth also depends on increased long-term societal investment in the infrastructure, research and sectoral innovation that will underpin the jobs of the future.
There are obviously a lot of moving parts here. But several things are clear. There has been a systematic tendency to underinvest in infrastructure, both its maintenance and expansion to suit the needs of modern postindustrial economies. This tendency has been particularly acute in the United States, where investment in infrastructure is now at historical lows, despite an immense backlog of deferred maintenance and mostly unfilled needs for new infrastructure.
This underinvestment reflects in large part unwarranted faith in the ability of the private sector to “go it alone” and drive growth purely on the basis of entrepreneurship and profit-seeking. This ignores, of course, the well-known economic problem of “public goods” that are useful and necessary for many economic actors but are available to all regardless of whether they have contributed anything to the availability of the public good (“free-riding”) and cannot be appropriated for the exclusive use of any profit-making firm. Infrastructure is a classic example of such a public good, as is some basic research.
In the absence of a robust supply of public goods, some firms will still make healthy profits and economic growth will still continue. But growth will be less than it otherwise would be and it will be tilted toward areas where large profits do not depend on public goods (think finance). Good for those firms that do make large profits, bad for the working and middle classes.
Worse, the problem goes beyond that indicated by the public goods framework. As economist Mariana Mazzucato points out, the role of the state is not just to supply public goods the private sector ignores but needs (though this is very important) but also to be an entrepreneurial agent investing in areas that are far off the private sector’s radar screen because of extreme uncertainty in economic returns. This is particularly the case with fundamental knowledge generation and very early investments in new technological sectors. Current theories of economic growth assign such innovation a key role in economic growth and it is the “entrepreneurial state” in Mazzucato’s phrase who can afford—and is willing--to bear the inherently immeasurable risks of such innovation.
This has been the case in the United States where pretty much all research underlying the internet and modern computing was funded and initially capitalized by the US state. For example, the immensely profitable Apple corporation’s signature products, like the iPhone and iPad, rest on fundamental innovations developed by government funding . This includes everything from the internet to GPS to touch screens to Siri voice recognition. In other words, no entrepreneurial state, no Apple.
More generally, a Brookings Institution study found that 18 of the 25 most important breakthroughs in computer technology in the seminal 1946-65 period were underwritten by the federal government . And it’s not just information technology where the role of the state has been critical: between 1971 and 2006, 77 out of the 88 most important innovations outside of computing/communications, as rated by R&D Magazine, were heavily dependent on government support, especially in their earliest developmental stages.
The role of the entrepreneurial state has been critical to growth in the past and there is no reason to think it will not be critical in the future. Progress in such emerging fields as biotechnology, nanotechnology and, of paramount importance, green technology will continue to depend on the entrepreneurial state being willing to provide support in areas where the private sector sees only unknowable risks. And without such progress economic growth--and the consequent ability to raise living standards--will fall well short of potential.
It's a big program and getting rid of Trump is just the first step. But it's what we need.