Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Difference Between Us and Them

The Difference Between Us and Them

by Stuart Zechman

Briefly summarizing this representative Third Way policy memo from pre-financial crash, 2007:

Laissez-faire is bad, because markets and the state would still fight.

Liberalism is bad, because the state and markets would still fight.

Both sides' agendas are burdened by the intellectual chains of obsolete ideological dogma, while we Third Way, on the other hand, pragmatically recognize that history will inevitably occur in the exact manner as we predict.

Big government (increasingly global) must partner with big industry and finance
(also increasingly global) to do what's best for everyone else. Capitalism can abide a reasonable limit; anybody who claims differently must be an old, suspicious Marxist.

For optimal productivity and growth, big government must first facilitate First World workers competing with Third World workers in a global labor market, or, rather, must facilitate big industry's unmitigated access to the cheapest labor on earth --wherever the most people are the most desperate for a buck, and their totalitarian or kleptocratic bureaucracies are willing to play along. It then must facilitate big industry's access to US consumer markets, which can be driven by big loads of individual debt on peoples' backs, which can be repackaged as securities, and sold by big finance to gullible sovereign wealth funds overseas and municipal workers' pension funds at home
. As complex and breakable as that scheme sounds, the world's biggest insurer says this sort of system can go on forever, judging by the soundness of the financial products insured by institutional participants. Folks will increasingly work for less and less, mostly in health care services and advertising. It's for their own good. The workers', that is. Eventually. Once the Chinese and Indian populations have a stake in this gig, state war and violence will be obsolete. Huge military invasions and occupations will never happen again, while death and terror will be confined to sporadic fits of irrational, medieval Islamicist militancy, which will be crushed from twenty thousand feet in the air by legions of expensive, armed, flying robots. By the way, did you ever read "The World is Flat" by Tom Friedman? It's an amazingly prescient book; fascinating.

Big government must not accede to neo-populist passions exemplified by the temptation to protect ordinary people from the amoral, dangerous behavior of enormous, monopolistic corporations, or to maintain independence from their organized, corrupting influence.

Middle-class pain is inevitable, but ordinary people in America have it too good as it is. Folks aren't really struggling, they're competing. There's a difference. Get used to it. It could always be worse for you.

Even though ordinary people are reveling in the spoils of middle-class luxury, they're still anxious, mainly because they're all social conservatives who are deeply confused by new neighbors of differing ethnicity, and because of the dominance of stale, old, orthodox, 20th century liberal ideas about what government should do --like Social Security and strict banking regulation.

Our optimism in the face of an admitted decline in
Americans' living standards springs from the fact that we go to our think tank jobs to write policy memos every day carrying an unshakable faith that it will all work out for the best. We're realists, not theorists, though.

This faith is very different from conservatives' belief in infallible markets, because, as long as our government is being sufficiently modernized
and adapted to the new rules we made up about how things are going to work going forward, forever, we will believe in infallible markets and the infallible institutions of the state.

Utopia is coming; get the crap out of its way right now, you dirty fucking hippies and gun-toting tent-revivalists. Who's in charge, pilgrim? Not you.
Think I'm joking? Read it for yourself, below.

The Third Way Middle Class Project, February 2007

Third Way Report --The New Rules Economy -- A Policy Framework for the 21st Century

Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, Bernard L. Schwartz, Jim Kessler, and Stephen Rose
Over the past six years, conservatives have had their shot at coping with the economy’s new rules. In keeping with Reagan’s philosophy, they have tried to shrink government’s reach in the economy with massive tax cuts for mostly the wealthy, wholesale deregulation, and attempts to eliminate or privatize safety net programs for the elderly and those at lower incomes. By any objective standard, the results have been a disappointment. On the plus side, economic growth during this time of change has been generally steady. But it has also been alarmingly uneven: average wages have been flat, income disparity has widened, and there is widespread anxiety about the nation’s economic future. Other measures of economic security, such as health care and pension coverage, have declined.

On the other side of the political spectrum are a growing number of progressives whose philosophy can best be described as “neopopulism.” Neopopulists see change as mainly a threat that requires American economic policy to turn inward. They believe that the tide of change will bring an unfettered race to the bottom, in which the rich get inexorably richer while the rest of America works harder to earn less. Capitalism, they argue, must be vigorously restrained, and workers shielded from the risks of competition and from corporations in search of a better, cheaper, faster way to produce goods and services. Reviving old suspicions about capitalism and markets, neopopulists want government to rewrite the rules to recapture a bygone era. It’s an idea that itself is deeply conservative—to turn back the clock “to reinvent the managed capitalism that thrived between the late 1940s and early 1970s,” as leading neopopulist Robert Kuttner recently wrote.3

Both sides see change through an ideological prism that pits markets implacably against government. As a consequence, both conservatives and neopopulists overstate the power of their chosen “side” to rewrite the rules of the economy. And while economic conservatism is premised on the myths of an infallible market and incompetent government, neo-populism is premised on the myths of a failing middle class, a declining America, and omnipotent corporations.

We urge a different approach, which we call “progressive realism.” Realism means recognizing and understanding the economy’s new rules while accepting the limits of government’s power to stop the forces of change. But as progressives, we also believe that government policies—if modernized and adapted to the rules of the 21st century—can create the optimal conditions for increasing economic growth, expanding middle-class prosperity and protecting those who fall behind.

As progressive realists, we do not doubt that change is disruptive and, for many people, painful. Globalization has made many jobs obsolete, and both companies and individuals have been hurt by its impact. As the neopopulists note, all is not well with the middle class. But we also see the current era of change as one of tremendous opportunity and potential for the middle class.

In addition, we view the challenges faced by today’s middle class as very different from the ones that most progressives believe them to be. We perceive the middleclass as struggling to get ahead, not—as the neopopulists argue—struggling to get by. Middle-class anxiety does not stem from broad dissatisfaction with capitalism but from the shifting terrain beneath their feet and the increasing irrelevance of an outdated government.

In an earlier Third Way paper, The Politics of Opportunity, we argued that 21st century economic policy—to be both politically resonant and substantively meaningful—should reflect the hope and optimism of the American people. Thus, unlike both conservatism and neopopulism, our approach is also profoundly optimistic. In contrast to conservatism, we have a positive belief in government’s ability to foster new middle-class opportunity. And in contrast to neopopulists, we have faith in the basic strength of the American economy to grow and in the ability of middle-class Americans to succeed...

This is the dominant policy framework being implemented by the leadership of your Democratic Party, to the extent that they have one.

A former member of Third Way's board of directors, former architect of NAFTA, former lobbyist for telecom giant SBC Communications, former Commerce Sec for Bill Clinton, former Midwest regional chair of JP Morgan-Chase (in charge of "government relations") now sits at Obama's right hand, as current White House Chief of Staff. This is what this individual had to say about your Democratic Party in 2009:

"The Democratic Party -- my lifelong political home -- has a critical decision to make," Daley wrote in 2009, one year before the devastating, for Democrats, 2010 midterms. "Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms but in many elections to come."
That's a threat. That's another way of saying "let us do what it says in that Third Way policy memo, or else..." That's who's in charge of your Democratic Party and of this country's future. That's what they believe about themselves...and about you.

We, the folks who are most affected by these ideologues' proximity to power, are the majority in this Party. They, the bubble-bound elites whose lives are spent making this unelectable crap up, are a tiny fraction of us. What's in this 2007 policy memo is what they want to do to us, using our votes, using our Party to do it. We simply can't let them. We, ordinary people, must take back control of the Democratic Party from them, even if it temporarily costs us --them, really-- political power to do it. It's clear that they are willing to lose elections rather than consider the validity of our "neopopulist" propositions, so why aren't we just as willing to play chicken with them? Why are we so exploitable? Why are we so predictable? Why are we so afraid?

If a gun called "right-wing nuts" weren't being held to your head by the national Democratic messaging apparatus (and their allies in the political press corps) day after day, would you ever, in a million years vote for this agenda? If you voted for Obama in 2008, you did, even though that fact might not have been clear to you at the time (it wasn't to me).

And, if you vote for Obama in 2012, you will again.

It's 2011, a year before another national election takes place.

If you don't want this agenda of theirs realized, then it's probably time to focus on how to stop being the perpetual hostages of national Democrats, isn't it?

If not now, then when?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kevin Baker's SOTU email

Kevin Baker's SOTU email

Responding to Obama's State of the Union address, journalist Kevin Baker sent out this email:
The real problem with Obama’s speech tonight was, once again, the historical narrative that he led off with, and that he is determined to have us believe.

That is:

Once upon a time, Americans had all sorts of really good jobs because “they only had to maybe compete against their neighbor,” and they could count on getting ahead if they worked hard, “and maybe even see life improve for their children.”

But then “over the course of a single generation, came great technological changes.” Steel mills “that had been employing thousands, now only needed hundreds of workers.” Countries such as “China and India” started “making adjustments, and teaching their kids math.”

Americans suddenly found themselves competing with the whole world, and that’s been really tough, especially since our kids have gone from best-educated in the world to only ninth. But fear not. We “still have the best innovators in the world, the best colleges and universities. We still lead the rest of the world in patents.” All it will take is a lot of education, a little social investment here and there, some strict budget-minding, and…voila! We’ll beat anyone on this planet!


Well-intentioned though it may be, this whole narrative makes no sense on the face of it.

So, back in the good old days, we were the best at everything, but we did well only because “we just had to compete against our neighbors”?

Say what? Which is it? Were we the best, or were we not?

China and India sure did make changes. But of course the Chinese have been “teaching math” since long before the rest of the world knew the Americas existed, and didn’t India invent it? Were the changes so much better education, or the fact that the two countries emerged first from under Western thumbs, and then from suffocating systems of caste and communism over the course of the last couple generations?

And how DID we fall behind? I mean, while still having the world’s best universities, best innovators, most patents, etc.?

What Obama’s pseudo-history conveniently ignores is that what really changed is not Chinese students buckling down to their algebra homework, or “sweeping technological changes in the course of a generation.” What changed was government policy.

American workers have ALWAYS operated in times of rapid, sweeping technological change. They’ve ALWAYS competed with other countries, in one way or another. And they’ve generally done pretty well.

The reasons they did well included the fact that for most of our history, our government protected our industries against competition from countries with desperately underpaid labor. And because the people running the industries kept inventing new stuff, and ploughing money back into their American industries, instead of shipping their plants overseas and devoting all their time and capital to figuring out new financial Ponzi schemes.

Still, though, the old America that Barack Obama refers to used to be plagued by constant, wrenching depressions. And those old industries didn’t necessarily help people make a good living, or improve their children’s standard of living.

Being a steelworker, or an auto line worker, doesn’t INHERENTLY pay well. In fact, for many decades, such jobs didn’t pay much at all.

Then the people who did them organized themselves, and forced higher wages out of owners (who didn’t have the option of searching out child slaves abroad), and elected representatives who defended and extended their rights.

THAT’S the “magic formula” that American prosperity came out of. Innovation, education, inventiveness—sure. But also industrial policy, unionism, protectionism, real patriotism, and all those other things that Barack Obama and the whole, lovely class he hails from don’t want to hear about because they might chip away some small portion of their staggering wealth.

But without acknowledging that narrative—without letting that narrative guide our future actions, which is the whole reason to learn history in the first place—we’ll just keep butting our heads against the wall.

We can make our kids do math problems until their fingers’ fray…and they still won’t be able to compete with sweatshop dictatorships where workers make 20 cents an hour.

We can talk all we want about making social investments…and they will never be made, as long as the financial oligarchy which has severed all bonds of loyalty to this nation continues to co-opt and buy off our leaders.

But hey, in the meantime, let’s find common ground: fire all the teachers!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Centrist Duck Test

The Centrist Duck Test

A year-and-a-half ago, some folks thought I was bizarre for saying that Obama is an ideological centrist.

I was told back then that I was a little weird for talking about all of this "New Democrat" and "Third Way" centrist stuff, and comparing Obama's policies all of the time to the DLC's "Progresive Policy Institute" think tank policy memos.

It was relayed to me that Obama was "basically a liberal," but working within the constraints of the system in Washington, which he was sure to navigate masterfully...if I just gave him time to win 85-dimensional chess, and I withheld criticism that might turn fellow liberal Democrats into impetuous and impatient children incapable of recognizing what was good for them.

I was assured that this was the "pragmatic" way forward, and that it would all work out for the best. I was admonished that Obama surely must be a "progressive," and that, if I didn't recognize his policies as liberalism, it was because A) the secret liberalism couldn't be let out yet, lest Joe Lieberman vote against cloture, B) it was what he had to do, in order to enact some great New Deal 2.0 later, or C) it was the "most liberal" policy that could be accomplished by anyone, ever. In some extreme cases, it was edgily theorized the problem was D) that I must harbor some racist tendencies (Tim Wise's "With Friends Like These, Who Needs Glenn Beck: Racism and White Privilege on the Liberal-Left" ) that caused my misunderstanding of Obama.

And, patiently, over and over again, I replied that, if it looked like a centrist, and it walked like a centrist, and it quacked like a centrist, and its policies were straight out of the DLC's think tank, and its messaging was straight out of the New Democrat Network, and its appointed bureaucrats were Clinton-ites and Rubin-ites, and if, after it was finally elected to power after an extended primary season campaigning for the votes of a liberal Democratic base, it actually said "I am a centrist"...

...then Obama is probably a centrist.

As I can see from the commentary on this thread rebutting Michael Crowley (formerly a columnist at Third Way rag "The New Republic"), I may not have to argue that point quite as hard anymore.