Category Archives: revitalizing the left

an abundance agenda

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.

-- from Songs for the People by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

To become a more just and sustainable society, we must produce a lot. For instance, to improve affordability and address homelessness, we need much more housing. One estimate claims that we need 7.3 million additional lower-cost rental units. But the graph above this post shows a long-term decline in new housing starts per capita.

We also need windmills and solar panels, more and better transmission lines, batteries, electric vehicles, commuter railway lines and intermodal transit points, heat pumps, and urban trees.

All this production will weigh on the environment, but I don’t see any path to a sustainable economy that doesn’t involve first making a lot of new things that replace the machines we depend on now.

The graph below shows rising production of renewables along with steady production of oil and coal. We need the former to accelerate, which should also push the latter down:

Trends in oil and gas production and renewable energy production, from St Louis Fed.

Regulation is important for health, safety, and other values, but it doesn’t produce stuff. Regulation can be a barrier to production, although the severity of that problem is open to debate. Certainly, regulations must be smart, efficient, and mutually consistent.

Redistribution is necessary to address inequities, but it is not the way to create abundance. To be sure, when disadvantaged people receive support, they are able to buy things, but that may not boost the total supply of the things we need. Besides, once we produce more, we can choose to distribute more.

Governments can boost supply by buying things. The massive Biden investments in green technologies and microchip manufacturing are at least well intentioned and may turn out to be crucial. However, the private sector is going to produce most of what we need, even if governments are important customers or investors. The question is how to expand the private production of good things, such as affordable housing and renewable power.

Steve Teles and Ron Saldin discuss an abundance agenda in political terms, presenting it as a response to certain tendencies on both right and left. They argue that abundance may create a new alignment and counter partisan polarization, which is rooted in zero-sum competition. They compare an abundance agenda to the Progressive Movement, which formed strong factions within both major parties. In the 1912 general election, three presidential candidates competed to be the best progressive, offering different but comparable interpretations of what progressivism meant.

Progressivism wasn’t about abundance, but their analogy is political. An abundance agenda could scramble the political spectrum today, as progressivism did from 1900-1924. Teles and Saldin argue that only the Democratic Party is really hospitable to abundance right now, for Trump has a “hold on the GOP.” But they envision a somewhat longer timeframe.

I find their political analysis interesting, and I am open to the argument that abundance could counter hyper-partisanship. However, I would separate political arguments from substantive policy issues. For the good of people and the planet, we must produce a lot more good things very soon, and that goal should determine our political strategies. In other words, we shouldn’t produce more to reduce polarization, but scrambling the political spectrum might help us to produce more of what we need.

See also: tracking the Biden climate investments; the major shift in climate strategy; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; The New Progressive Era.

calling youth to government service

According to the 2020 American National Election Study, 63% of people under 30 thought that the government should be doing “more things,” versus just 37% who thought it should “do less.” Yet few young Americans even consider working in the civil service.

At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where “Ask what you can do for your country” is engraved on the wall, 44% of the graduating class of 2022 took jobs in the private sector, 22% for nonprofits, and 28% for any government. From my beloved Tufts University, where students tend to be very idealistic, 6% of the undergraduate class of 2022 will work for “Government, Law, Public Policy, [or a] Think Tank.” I suspect public sector employment represents a small proportion of that 6%.

The role of the federal government expanded substantially in 2021-2 with the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act, and the $280+ billion CHIPS Act. Yet young people have not heard a call to go to Washington to make these new programs work.

Some colleges and universities produce large numbers of public employees, especially teachers and law enforcement personnel. I am grateful to them and believe that a degree of class bias explains why such jobs are less popular at institutions like Tufts and Harvard. Still, the civil service is a different category than regular public sector employment. At several points in our history, government service has attracted people who have advantages and cultural capital. Not so today.

Some reasons are on the demand side. The Partnership for Public Service says that the federal “hiring process is long and complicated,” the “pay system is antiquated,” and “opportunities for young people are hidden and scarce.” The Partnership and others–including some civil servants–are working on those problems. It’s easy for me to criticize without helping with the solutions. But these challenges need attention.

The supply side is also important (and more related to my work). Recent college graduates are not just avoiding public sector careers because of clunky hiring processes and antiquated pay grades. Many of them are against it.

From one direction, there are lots of left-wing students who might (or might not) vote for Bernie Sanders and his promise to expand government, yet who deeply distrust the national government of the USA. For them, the word “state” often comes with adjectives like “carceral,” “neoliberal” or “colonial.” Why work for that kind of organization?

From the opposite direction, I think many people have absorbed the lessons of public choice theory, which is presumptively skeptical about government.

Antony Downs offers a classic statement (Downs 1957). He writes that no economist would “advise monopoly corporations to increase social welfare by cutting prices.” We assume that a corporation is self-serving, and we consider changing its incentives by boosting competition or regulating it. Nevertheless, Downs says, people routinely call on government to maximize the public good without considering the motives of the people who actually operate the government (p. 283). This is naive.

Downs acknowledges that some individuals act altruistically, but he makes the simplifying assumption that people generally direct their own behavior “toward selfish ends” (p. 27). That premise leads him to the following assumptions about government: politicians and parties try to gain and retain office, bureaucrats strive to expand their budgets and personnel allotments, and citizens collect political information and vote only insofar as that will benefit them personally. “They treat policies purely as means to the attainment of private ends” (p. 28).

There is then little point in advising a government to do better. The only strategies that can work are to alter the incentives of public employees or to reduce the size of the state.

Downs assumes bounded rationality and limited cognitive capacity, but he emphasizes people’s selfishness. In An Economic Theory of Democracy, he never cites his contemporary, Friedrich Hayek, for whom cognitive limitations were more important than bad motivations. For Hayek, the main problem with government is that it cannot know how to allocate resources, because understanding a whole society is just too hard. In contrast, markets generate reliable signals in the form of prices.

My view is that both left-wing anti-institutionalism and public choice theory offer genuine insights. They both conflict with social democratic theories, which are similar to the ideals of the New Deal and Great Society and Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.

In that case, one might ask which theory is right, but that’s not how I would proceed. I acknowledge that there are truly bad ideologies–based on immoral premises–that are very unlikely to yield beneficial results. Leaving those ideologies aside, I see grand social theories less as hypotheses that can be proven true or false (or right or wrong) than as forces that motivate and orient people.

A social democratic ideal can draw people to work for (or alongside) a national government and to build excellent public programs. A critique of government can inspire people to build private-sector alternatives that also do good. Although it’s worth thinking critically about these contrasting assumptions and predictions, much more depends on who responds to each ideal and what they do together.

The example I give in What Should We Do? (2022) is public schooling. Movements for universal public education arose in countries like Prussia and the USA during the 1800s. It was never true–nor was it false–that mandatory, public funded schools are good for children or a society. Some are good, some are not. The public education movement, however, had inspiring ideals, and it launched the professions of teaching, educational research, educational administration, and teacher education.

Since then, people in those professions and their allies have tried to make public schools work. At times–being human–they have failed or have even failed to try. Reform movements have arisen that offer various prescriptions, such as progressive pedagogy, choice and competition, or measurement and accountability. Again, I doubt that any of these prescriptions is right or wrong, but each has created a new field of practice and new organizations that have done some degree of good (and harm).

By the same token, the competence, fairness, and responsiveness of government are variables, not constants. Some bureaucracies behave worse than in Downs’ model, because he explicitly assumes (p. 30) that officials will follow laws, which is often not the case. But some public agencies perform much better than he would anticipate, because they attract talent and develop impressive professional cultures. Downs’ assumption of selfishness is a priori, not empirical. Real people go into public service for a variety of complex reasons, some quite impressive. (By the way, if they were strictly motivated by economic self-interest, they wouldn’t serve at all.)

Allocating enough money matters, and the Biden spending bills are helping with that. But as long as Congress is a poor deliberative body, and as long as federal agencies are sclerotic and distant, the money will not be spent very well. Cash alone will not maximize social or environmental outcomes, and it definitely will not raise public support for government. Nothing alienates more than an unresponsive bureaucracy, even it sends you a check.

What we need now is a large, energetic, youthful, and diverse movement that wants to transform government to be more effective, wise, and responsive. That movement would not negate the insights of leftwing anti-institutionalism or of public choice theory, but it would treat those ideas as diagnoses and would look for cures.

Source: Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison Wesley 1957). See also the Green New Deal and civic renewal; using federal spending to strengthen democracy; putting the civic back in civil service; on the Deep State, the administrative state, and the civil service.

Regan and Biden approval ratings through day 913 of their respective administrations.

1984 all over again? The Reagan/Biden analogy

The Biden team is preparing for a Reagan-style victory lap in the event that the economy looks healthy in 2024. I hope they are also prepping for more difficult circumstances, since the economic forecast is highly uncertain. However, for what it’s worth, Morgan Stanley “now projects 1.9% GDP growth for the first half of this year.”

These are my prior assumptions:

  1. A president has limited and ambiguous impact on macroeconomic trends. Too many other factors matter, from the Federal Reserve and Congress to the business cycle, and from wars and technological developments to the budgets of 50 states.
  2. Although many people vote on other grounds, enough marginal voters are influenced by recent changes in the economy that those trends predict the results of presidential elections.
  3. People cite the economic and electoral fortunes of each presidential administration to support their ideological positions. For instance, the apparent successes of FDR and Reagan were used to vindicate New Deal liberalism and neoliberalism, respectively.
  4. Economic trends influence public opinion, but they do not determine the outcome of the debate about ideology. Eisenhower, Clinton, and Obama are examples of presidents who saw healthy net economic growth and were reelected, yet their administrations did not move public opinion as FDR’s and Reagan’s did. The big shifts in opinion seem to reflect changes in the Zeitgeist, not just electoral and economic developments.

Applying #1 means that Biden’s policies will not affect the economy much in 2024, even though Morgan Stanley believes that he is responsible for the upturn. According to #2, Biden will win pretty easily if growth is robust but could lose to Trump or another Republican if it stalls.

Per #3, if the economy grows and Biden wins, the President and many Democrats will argue that the reason was his industrial policy, which is aggressive, green, and pro-equity. I favor the policy, so I will be hoping that this argument sticks, even though I believe that macroeconomic trends are out of his hands.

If the case for Bidenomics does persuade, it will be thanks to the Zeitgeist. To make that explanation a little less mystical, I would focus on two factors.

First, the previously dominant neoliberal view really is fading now, much as late-Victorian laissez-faire was faltering by 1932 and New Deal liberalism had run its course by 1980. By a certain point, established theories don’t offer plausible solutions to the problems of the day, but alternatives do. By the time FDR took office, his home state of New York and several others had already moved in the direction of the New Deal; Roosevelt took the opportunity to bring their ideas to Washington. Likewise for Reagan in 1980–and for Biden in 2020. Indeed, Trump is no neoliberal, and there will probably be no national candidate who runs on cutting taxes and spending.

Second, the demographic basis of politics has shifted. I avoid crude materialistic and class-based predictions, yet the people who have the most to gain from low taxes and light regulation are business owners and investors. They are now outweighed in the GOP (which they once controlled) by working-class voters. They are represented in the Democratic Party, but outweighed there, too, by diverse lower-income voters, public sector workers, and salaried professionals.

The tectonic plates are shifting, and it’s at such moments that presidential administrations become examples or even metaphors for fundamental change. We had a “new deal for America” and then saw “morning in America” once the actual New Deal state faltered. The opportunity to make another such shift is a good reason to run a celebratory campaign in 2024–if (but only if) the economy holds up.

See also: federal spending for both climate and democracy

Private investments in clean energy, batteries, or biomanufacturing leveraged by the Biden-ere spending bills

federal spending for both climate and democracy

Two huge problems may have the same solution. If this is true, it makes a powerful case for the main strategies of the Biden Administration.

The first problem is climate change, disastrous for both natural ecosystems and human lives and welfare. Underlying that problem is the fact that many constituencies around the globe benefit from burning carbon: not only authoritarian governments and powerful corporations (although they deserve the most criticism), but also regular communities and the parties and unions that represent them. As long as people who benefit in the short run from burning carbon have preponderant political weight, it is hard to pass truly satisfactory policy solutions.

The second problem is the marked tendency of poorer people to vote for the right, not only in the USA but in many other countries—in an eerie echo of the 1930s. Parties of the right that have lower-income constituencies cannot offer their voters tax cuts or deregulation. Instead they typically promise to strengthen the state to the exclusion of–or even against–minority groups or foreign populations. Unlike libertarianism, this form of politics has no natural limits; state power can keep ratcheting up until it reaches genuine fascism. Meanwhile, the center-left parties that are left with relatively upscale voters may try to defend individual rights, but they won’t address deep social inequities.

Federal finding authorized by Congress in Biden’s first two years addresses both problems. It tilts toward poorer districts (including those that are predominantly white and nowadays Republican) and green industries. The “theory of change” might be: 1) use federal funds to 2) “leverage” private investments in new industry that 3) mitigate climate change while 4) providing good jobs, thereby 5) building constituencies for green policies.

I am all for also using other strategies simultaneously, such as regulating or taxing carbon and divesting. I just think the Biden theory of change may be a necessary complement.

The map with this post (from the White House website) shows the locations of private investments in clean energy, batteries, and biomanufacturing that have been leveraged by new federal spending in the Biden years. Many observers have noted that a majority of this money–perhaps two-thirds–goes to districts represented by Republicans, who generally voted against the bills. I would draw attention to the concentration of projects along the Appalachian spine and in the heart of the Rust Belt. These are poor regions that happen, today, to be dominated by Republican representatives.

The effects are not yet evident in polling. In Pew’s June survey, 62% of all Americans disapprove of Biden, 41% very strongly. He receives net approval from college graduates but the disapproval of 66% of people with high school diplomas or less. He performs best among those who classify themselves as upper income and faces 2-1 disapproval among everyone else. Fifty-six percent of whites without college strongly disapprove of him, as do 57% of rural people.

This political strategy will take several years to work. People will have to see clear and sustained benefits from state action that is both equitable and green. The argument must begin now, but it will take time to change minds.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and some of her cabinet colleagues are visiting the locations of major new investments, most of which are in Republican districts. If Granholm were trying to affect the 2024 election, this trip would probably be a waste of her effort, since many of these districts are very safe for the GOP. For instance, she recently visited the district of Rep. Patrick McHenry, who won his last reelection by 45 points. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is going to Kentucky’s fifth district, which GOP Rep. Hal Rogers won by 65 points last time and which has been Republican since 1962. These trips may generate some social media calling out Republicans’ hypocrisy, but that won’t change minds. However, I do think actual jobs can shift people’s fundamental beliefs about both government and climate. For that purpose, both the federal spending and visits by Democratic leaders to tout it can be seen as highly promising.

See also: the major shift in climate strategy; Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; investing in the Appalachian cities

whether to make the election a referendum on MAGA

In an interesting conversation between Ryan Grimm and Dimitri Melhorn (who represent two very different strands in today’s Democratic Party), Melhorn says:

So, imagine you’re the average voter, and you’re saying, OK, there are three things you can choose to believe about politics, and adjust your behavior accordingly. One, politics can do nothing for you. Two, politics can make your life better. Three, politics can make your life worse. People will believe the third. They normally default to the first, but they will believe the third. Within a rounding error, for electorally viable purposes, nobody believed the second, other than Bernie [Sanders] and his staffers and, you know, some other folks. It doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. It doesn’t.

I won’t dispute that Dmitri is right about the USA right now, and perhaps his theory would apply in Britain and much of the EU. It’s hard to persuade undecided voters that new or different leaders or policies will improve their lives. They are ready to believe that some current proposals would hurt them, and this fear can persuade them that voting matters. In turn, many of the current proposals that frighten the most Americans come from the hard right. Thus, Melhorn argues, the path to a Democratic victory is to make the election a referendum on right-wing ideas while downplaying ambitious progressive ones.

Although Dmitri may be correct about the present, this can’t be a law of nature. Surely FDR persuaded Americans that “politics can make your life better.” Maybe Roosevelt didn’t need a positive case to win against Herbert Hoover in 1932, but he and his party did argue for a New Deal, and the result was a whole new social contract, not only some electoral victories. Likewise for Clement Atlee in Britain (1945-51) and many other cases. Skepticism about the positive potential of elections and policy is a particular feature of our time.

Nor is skepticism universal now. In the 2020 American National Election Study, when presented with a forced choice, 42% of adults said “the less government, the better,” but 58% said there are “more things government should be doing.”

I would acknowledge that general pro-government sentiment doesn’t always translate into support for actual candidates who propose to do specific things. For one thing, almost a quarter of those who voted for Trump wanted government to do more, and they may not have the same kinds of interventions in mind that I do. Worse for progressives, the level of openness to more government was weakest where government might do the most good. In 2020, people without any college experience were split 50%/50% on the value of more government, whereas those with bachelor’s degrees favored more government by a 36-point margin (68%-32%). Black people were nine points less likely to support increasing government than white people (60% vs. 68%).

This class inversion has profoundly bad implications for our politics (and not just for progressives), but it is not historically typical. It’s a trap we must get out of.

During the Biden Administration, Democrats are actually making dramatic policy changes that might–if they succeed–make people’s lives better. When the Inflation Reduction Act passed last August, it was predicted to provide $270 billion in tax credits for green energy and manufacturing. Now the CBO is projecting the law’s cost at $553 billion. Goldman Sachs predicts that the “law will cost roughly $1.2 trillion — three times more than the official government forecast — and spur trillions more in private-sector investments.”

These estimates are being circulated as evidence of a budgetary problem, but for me, they are hugely hopeful (if true). Several trillion dollars in green investments could save the planet and improve people’s lives. Arguably, Congress recently enacted those policies.

It would therefore be ironic if Democrats’ best path to reelection was to make voters fear Republican ideas while offering largely symbolic proposals of their own, such as background checks for guns. That is like smuggling a new social contract past the voters.

Again, I would not be surprised if “Stop Republican craziness” polls better than “We are the midst of transforming the economy.” But that is a symptom of deeper troubles. The situation was different during the Clinton Administration, when Democrats actually did little except to block some GOP proposals. But during the Biden years, when the party is beginning to transform the economy, not to be able to run on that record is very odd.

See also: class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections; using federal spending to strengthen democracy