Tag Archives: progressives

Good Policy Is the Goal. Compromise Should Not Be.

Matt Bruenig just wrote an excellent series of posts dismantling a misguided “Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream” from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.  Bruenig’s posts explain why the plan’s emphasis on education, work, and marriage will not accomplish its goals (I’ve made similar points about education and family structure before).  While it’s important to note that education and work (and family strength and stability, which are critically different from family structure) have value – improving education and the availability of good jobs can boost economic mobility – the evidence is clear that we will not equalize opportunities for more than an unacceptably small subset of kids until we both reduce inequality and make sure kids’ basic needs are met.

Richard Reeves, a researcher I really like who participated in drafting this unfortunate “consensus plan,” describes it as a triumph of realism over purism.  In doing so, he draws a false equivalency between what he calls “purists on both political extremes: those on the right who simply see government as the problem, and fantasize about sweeping away vast swaths of institutional architecture and funding, and those on the left who imagine that simply taking money from some and giving it to others will cure society’s ills.”

“Liberals” (or, in the parlance of the report, “progressives”) and “conservatives” are the labels DC insiders typically use to categorize people on one or the other of these false extremes, as shown below.

LiberalConservativeBut the idea that these are two equivalently absurd “sides,” and that the best course of action is thus to compromise by meeting in the “middle,” is unfortunately a major impediment to good policymaking.  It is harmful primarily because it fails to capture how certain views and proposals are more ethical and evidence-based than others.

For example, if our goal is to reduce poverty and boost the opportunities of poor children, evidence shows that the “purists” Reeves describes on the “left” have a much more legitimate claim than those on the “right.”  Government programs like Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, work very well on these fronts, as do direct cash transfers and more robust social insurance systems around the world.  Redistribution may not “cure [all of] society’s ills,” but it definitely works as intended in most cases, while gutting government programs, especially during times of economic hardship, doesn’t.  It is simply incorrect to suggest otherwise, but the categorization scheme above implies that each “side” has an equally legitimate perspective.

Consider how similar reasoning could be applied to current presidential debates on immigration.  Donald Trump’s platform (build a wall across the border, end birthright citizenship, and don’t let any poor people into the country, among other crazy ideas) could represent the perspective on one “side” of the political divide, while Bernie Sanders’ plan to bring 11 million people out of the shadows could represent the other.  Both Trump and Sanders say they want to put “the needs of working people first – [over those of] wealthy globetrotting donors” (Trump’s words).  The AEI/Brookings brand of “realism” could result in the adoption of a decent chunk of the Trump immigration agenda; it clearly isn’t an approach that makes for desirable policy.

Reeves is right that there are a “diversity of views” among those on each side of this uninformative partisan divide, and the AEI/Brookings team correctly notes that nobody “has a monopoly on the truth” – even Donald Trump occasionally has a good idea and even smart, principled politicians like Bernie Sanders sometimes get things wrong.  Yet a better political categorization scheme would explicitly note that Sanders’ policy positions are far superior to Trump’s on the two criteria that matter most: ethical considerations and the degree to which proposed policy ideas are supported by available evidence.  The tool below does so.

Political Tool.003

The x-axis is an “ethics axis” and requires us to think through John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.  As I’ve explained previously:

“Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over…the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Elevating “bipartisanism,” “compromise,” and “realism” as goals might help a group come to a consensus wherein each “side” gets some things it wants.  It does not often result in good policy platforms, however, and the Brookings/AEI plan is a case in point.  If we want final products that are truly ethical and evidence-based, we need to reject compromise for compromise’s sake and start recognizing that some viewpoints and proposals are more legitimate than others.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Political “Pragmatism” Undermines Progressive Goals

The Working Families Party (WFP) bills itself as “New York’s liveliest and most progressive political party.” Founded in 1998, the WFP sought to use fusion voting and community organizing to “hold politicians accountable” to an admirable set of progressive principles including but not limited to “full public financing of elections…community control and equitable funding of our schools …a guaranteed minimum income for all adults[, a] universal ‘social wage’ to include such basic benefits as health care, child care, vacation time, and lifelong access to education and training …[and a] progressive tax system based on the ability to pay.” For many years, the WFP successfully propelled progressive politicians like Bill de Blasio into elected office.

Unfortunately, however, WFP leaders have lost sight of the party’s original intentions. Despite vocal opposition from many members, the WFP voted on Saturday, May 31 to back Andrew Cuomo in his bid for reelection as New York’s governor. While Cuomo secured the endorsement by promising to support, among other things, a minimum wage hike, public funds for campaigns, and the Democratic Party’s attempt to win control of the state Senate, his actions as a first-term governor demonstrate his unwillingness to actually pursue a progressive economic agenda. He deserves some credit for driving New York’s recent gay rights and gun control legislation, but there’s a reason big business and Republicans love Cuomo: he has worked to dismantle the estate tax and pass massive additional tax cuts, significantly undermined de Blasio’s progressive education initiatives and opposed de Blasio’s proposal to raise New York City’s minimum wage, killed efforts to publicly finance elections, tried to lift a moratorium on fracking, and consistently trampled on other progressive values.

The WFP, in large part, has itself to blame for Cuomo’s anti-poor economic policy agenda – the WFP gave Cuomo its endorsement during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign despite Cuomo’s explicitly pro-corporate platform. The WFP’s endorsement then and decision to stick with Cuomo now illustrate how a misguided concept of political pragmatism, endemic in Left-leaning circles, makes progressive policy considerably less likely in the long run.

The WFP’s endorsement was driven in part by the belief that Zephyr Teachout, the WFP’s alternative candidate, would be extremely unlikely to win in a three-way election that included Cuomo and Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate. Similar concerns about candidate “electability” surface frequently during each Presidential election; pundits and party operatives insist that votes for third party candidates are wasted. Yet psychological research and poll data indicate that liberal voters routinely underestimate the number of other voters who share their policy preferences. Fewer voters care about electability than the media would have us believe and most Americans want the distribution of wealth in the United States to mirror the significantly more equitable distribution in Sweden. As evidenced by Seattle’s recent election of socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, claims about who is and isn’t electable are self-fulfilling prophecies; third party candidates have a chance to win when we base our votes on candidate policy instead of our perception of candidate viability. Historical data suggests that a progressive third-party candidate could be particularly viable in the case of New York’s 2014 gubernatorial election.

Perhaps even more troubling is the message the endorsement sends to Cuomo and other politicians. Cuomo has spent the past three-and-a-half years actively undermining most of the WFP’s espoused principles; by granting Cuomo its support anyway, the WFP has given Cuomo license to ignore its legislative priorities during his second term.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2011, “telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any [politician] motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle” (a description that sadly fits most politicians) “will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.” Greenwald’s argument applies just as appropriately to Cuomo and the WFP today as it did to Barack Obama and progressive Democrats three-and-a-half years ago. Like Left-wing Democratic support did for Obama in 2012, the WFP’s endorsement, as Salon’s Blake Zeff notes, will allow Cuomo “to make a mockery of the party’s entire priorities list and then waltz to re-election” in 2014.

When we continue to support Democrats who undermine progressive causes, we enable their behavior (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522).

The Working Families Party’s support for Cuomo mirrors progressive support for Obama in 2012 (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522)

Which is more important: the difference between mainstream Democrats (like Obama and Cuomo) and mainstream Republicans (like Mitt Romney and Astorino), or sending the message, loud and clear, that the failure to enact progressive policy will hurt politicians at the ballot box? Progressives who argue for a lesser-of-two-evils approach to electoral politics aren’t necessarily wrong – there’s probably enough of a difference (though not as much as most people think) between members of the two major political parties to impact some people’s lives. However, our essentially unconditional support for Democrats-by-name-only deprives us of the opportunity for meaningful challenges to American plutocracy in the long run. Until we draw a line in the sand and punish Democratic politicians who cross it, we’ll continue to get Cuomo- and Obama-style Democrats who actively exacerbate income inequality and further disadvantage people unlucky enough to be born poor.

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Filed under Labor, US Political System