A Labor Day Look at the State of the Labor Market
Making 'em Feel Small...

I Am a Reality-Based Center-Left Technocrat...

Eric Rauchway writes:

Open University: PAGING MICHAEL KAZIN: Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong wander across Michael Kazin's turf, and DeLong isn't being nice about it:

But when I read Paul's call for "smart, bold populism," I am reminded of earlier calls a couple of decades ago by Milton Friedman, Marty Feldstein, and their ilk for smart, bold conservatism or smart, bold libertarianism. But they did not get what they ordered: on the economic policy front the policies of Reagan and of Bush II have been a horrible botch. What populist policies that we can think of would be smart? And how can we make our high politicians allergic to populist policies that are stupid?

Lyndon Johnson, yes. William Jennings Bryan, no.

In Bryan's defense, some Populist policies that were not so bad were substituting the income tax for the tariff, establishing a managed currency, and generally opposing corruption in the press corps and the government.

But of course, I'm pretty sure that's not really what either Krugman or DeLong means. What they seem to mean by populism is, a movement championing the downtrodden, wielding the symbols of oppression against the oppressor. And DeLong seems to demur, noting the dangers of symbolic politics and (tacitly) disputing Krugman's argument for more "workers' bargaining power"--an idea that, let's note, Matthew Yglesias recently proposed as better than most LBJ-like solutions.

Temperamentally, personally, I think I'm with DeLong on this: but temperamentally, personally, I'm not the representative voter. Making a judgment as to whether the Democrats should adopt a more populist approach to politics depends on how you judge that representative voter. Is DeLong right to think she'd be more moved by tax policy proposals than populism?

I am, as I said above, a reality-based center-left technocrat. I am pragmatically interested in government policies that work: that are good for America and for the world. My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share--world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety. The aim of governance, I think, is to achieve a rough consensus among the reality-based technocrats and then to frame the issues in a way that attracts the ideologues on one (or, ideally, both) wings in order to create an effective governing coalition.

For example, Senator Arlen Specter's attempt at dealing with the asbestos-caused cancer mess, for example, was a reasonable take at a hard issue, and he tried to sell it (a) to the left as social insurance that gets more money to people who have been dealt a horrible hand by the system, and (b) to the right as a reform that sticks it to the trial lawyers. (He failed: the left saw it as too damaging to the trial lawyers, the right saw it as too big a giveaway of public money, and both saw it as depriving them of an important fund-raising issue.)

Right now Paul Krugman and I seem to have two disagreements.

First, I think--being as I am here at Berkeley under the powerful (but benevolent) intellectual dictatorship and hegemony of David Card) on labor issues--that the benefits of using government policies to strengthen unions (while they are certainly there) are much smaller than Paul judges them to be.

Second, while I am profoundly, profoundly disappointed and disgusted by the surrender of the reality-based wing of the Republican policy community to the gang of Republican political spivs who currently hold the levers of power, I do think that there is hope that they will come to their senses and that building pragmatic technocratic policy coalitions from the center outward will be possible and is our best chance.

Paul, I think, believes otherwise: The events of the past decade and a half have convinced him, I think, that people like me are hopelessly naive, and that the Democratic coalition is the only place where reality-based discourse is possible. Thus, in his view, the best road forward to (a) make the Democratic coalition politically dominant through aggressive populism, and then (b) to argue for pragmatic reality-based technocratic rather than idealistic fantasy-based ideological policies within the Democratic coalition.

He may well be right.