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The federal government is authorized to spend an additional $2 trillion over the next 10 years through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. I support many of the priorities in these laws.
But government spending should be democratic–at several levels. Operating in a democratic way is consistent with justice and is most likely to be sustainable, because people will feel relatively supportive of government programs that engage them. This is the version of social democracy or Great Society liberalism that I can get behind.
What does spending money democratically mean? First, a fairly elected, deliberative legislature should allocate the funds into large categories. That pretty much happened with these bills (acknowledging many imperfections).
Then the federal agencies and state and local governments that administer the funds should engage relevant communities in deciding how to spend the money in detail and should form partnerships with groups (which may not be federal grantees) to accomplish the intended outcomes of the spending. Finally, the funds should allow many people to be hired and given a voice in the programs–including those who do the blue-collar work.
Spending on public transportation is a good example. The White House says there will be “$89.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit over the next five years — the largest Federal investment in public transit in history.” This investment has potential benefits for climate, racial equity, and convenience and quality of life.
States and cities will receive portions of this money. They should give their communities appropriate voice in deciding what and where to build. They should form partnerships with community groups whose goals align (e.g., community development corporations that can build dense housing near the transit). And they should employ workers–often via contracts with businesses–who have a say and who see pathways to influential Green careers.
This approach is inconsistent with libertarian conservatism, which opposes the spending in the first place. It is also inconsistent with technocratic progressivism, which views community engagement with deep skepticism. Doesn’t “engagement” mean NIMBY groups that block valuable projects in their neighborhoods, well-resourced companies that grab government contracts, and process-driven delays that dilute the benefits for both environment and racial equity?
The truth is, public engagement must be done well. A one-time public meeting in which citizens line up at the microphone to yell at public officials–that is a recipe for disaster. A worthwhile process takes planning and money. It requires training and technical support for the federal civil servants, local public employees, and activists who are involved. Since no single training program can accomplish very much, success requires building experienced bodies of employees who have run processes before and have learned to do them better.
We have not tried this approach for many decades in the USA–not since the Great Society, which tried various experiments in community engagement under the heading of “Maximum Feasible Participation” (with mixed success).
Reagan depicted government as the problem, although federal outlays per capita, adjusted for inflation, rose rapidly during Reagan’s term and only stabilized under Clinton. Also, despite a rhetorical commitment to hiring contractors instead of career civil servants, the civil service actually grew in that era. However, I think that federal capacity for public engagement shrank, outside of certain notable programs. More importantly, Congress launched or redesigned very few social programs after the late 1960s. That means that most federal money has flowed into well worn channels, offering limited opportunities for deliberation about what and how to spend.
Then, when the Obama Administration got a chance to allocate a substantial amount of new money in the 2009 stimulus, the progressive technocratic approach clearly won out. Efficiency was the by-word. Funds went to “shovel-ready” projects that were seen as offering the quickest return, or to initiatives informed by behavioral economics that were supposed to “nudge” people without them even being aware, or to competitions (like “Race to the Top”) that were meant to leverage non-federal funds. There was no sense that the public would be involved in defining and solving national problems along with the federal government.
Democratic spending is the path not taken, at least not since ca. 1965. We should find out whether it can produce sustainable, popular, and fair social outcomes in ways that we have not seen in my lifetime. That requires:
- Setting aside tiny but real percentages of the federal funds for democratic and deliberative processes and for the training and technical assistance that they require. I am not sure to what extent those purposes are authorized under current law. If it is impossible to spend federal funds this way, then philanthropy should step up.
- Considering new rules, such as offering special grants to communities that can demonstrate that they have reached agreement about priorities across traditional lines of difference, such as race, partisanship, or urban/suburban/rural divides. I’d be especially interested in agreements that bridge distant communities, such as coal towns and East Coast cities.
- Intellectual leadership: influential people should articulate the value of public engagement. In the Obama Administration, the president did that, albeit somewhat vaguely. No members of his cabinet and hardly any liberal public intellectuals backed him up. The stimulus package and Obamacare came across as strictly technocratic and were assessed only for their outcomes (while democratic culture waned). We need more effective voices to defend democracy this time.
When David Meyers of The Fulcrum asked me yesterday to comment on the fact that the public identifies “the government” as the biggest problem facing us today, I replied that the most promising solution is to spend money democratically. My reply was rooted in the best traditions of the New Deal and Great Society (as I see them), but it’s a fairly marginal view today. It’s an alternative to three prevalent assumptions: that democracy is mostly a matter of fair electoral processes, that activated citizens are often a nuisance, and that protecting democracy means uplifting some kind of political center. I think we must exercise power to improve the world, but do so in ways that empower our full diversity of people in their roles as citizens.
See also: the Green New Deal and civic renewal; the new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; Democrats as technocrats; Hillary Clinton on spending for infrastructure; the long march through institutions–for civic renewal; the big lessons of Obamacare; empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent; etc.