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The Democrats' Progressive Façade

February 8, 2016.


What Does "Progressive" Mean?


In every national election since 1964 I voted Democratic. Why? Initially it was idealism. Now, it's the gag-reflex: the retching inspired by Democratic hype and duplicity is less projectile than that of Republicans. I am wary of the discrepancies between what Democrats say and what the do.


After the Party's "liberal" label became tarnished by self-inflicted mishaps like Vietnam, Willy Horton, welfare queens, midnight basketball, managed care, and acquiescence to the Iraq invasion, Democrats have been re-branding themselves as progressive. The problem is, this term means something different to politicos than to nonpartisan policy-wonks like myself.


To me, it refers to classic progressivism, the legacy of Progressive Era movements often lead by Republicans: trust-busting, anti-corruption, environmental conservation, efficiency, applied science, and social welfare. What I glean from this tradition is a set of principles for good public policy. The guiding principle was summarized by Gifford Pinchot as "the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time." This imposes a tough discipline on policy makers; that they objectively weigh benefits and costs so as to ensure the efficient use of scarce resources. Yes, economic efficiency is a truly progressive virtue, but not to most Democrats.


Rational progressivism is practiced in nonpartisan think-tanks, where academics try to identify the best policies for improving human well being. I call it the 'utilitarian science of doing good.' Regrettably, the Democratic Party cannot afford to be bound by think-tank science, because its sole purpose is winning political power. The Party's progressiveness is a sales pitch, not a coherent guide to good public policy. Which is why I intend to highlight the critical discrepancies between what Democrats think and what think-tanks think.


There's no better example than the paragon of progressiveness, Elizabeth Warren. On the subject of international trade her positions resonate Donald Trump's nasty nationalism. Both railed against the original NAFTA and the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TTP). Both equate protectionism with patriotism. The main policy difference is that Trump's weapon of choice is tariffs, while Warren prefers non-tariff barriers to imports.


Together they aborted US participation in TTP, Obama's visionary diplomatic achievement. TTP was a major element in Obama's strategic pivot to the Pacific region. It was a smart way to discipline China through peaceful, rule-based trade relations. Warren's opposition to TTP reveals a perverse definition of progressive. It is a euphemism for left-wing populism which, like Trumpian populism, thrives on retarded nationalism and protectionism.


Then there's the issue of Warren's attempt to fabricate a progressive persona. Taking the lead from male politicians who have burnished their image by "misstating" their military experience, Ms. Warren could not resist the wokish advantage of transitioning to Native American. No doubt about it, politics is the bailiwick of sociopaths.


Betrayal of Progressivism


My beef with Democratic Politicians is their shameless willingness to sacrifice progressive policies on the alter of political expedience. All of us are familiar with the realpolitik justifications for this: "Idealistic purity won't get you elected," "Power is the prerequisite for doing good," "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."


But those clichés are also excuses for avoiding political risk. For example, in 2009 Barak Obama urged the Democratic controlled Congress to fight the Great Recession with a $825 billion stimulus package, even though Christina Romer, head of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, insisted (correctly) that $1.8 trillion was needed to do the job. Although she was a renowned expert on recessions, Obama rejected her advice in favor of Larry Summers, who mansplained that Congressional Democrats would balk at anything over $900 billion because it would look fiscally irresponsible. The final stimulus package came in at $787 billion which, as Romer predicted, led to a very sluggish recovery. She quickly returned to Academia where her expertise might have some influence.


In other words, the self-proclaimed heirs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt were too cowardly to support a level of deficit-spending that would save the livelihoods of millions of workers. For Democrats to wimp-out on something so fundamental is an unconscionable betrayal of progressivism. Absolutely unforgivable.


Populism is Not Always Progressive


No doubt the Party's compromises reflect its indebtedness to special interests. But less defensible is the Party's penchant for confusing progressivism with populism (the sound and fury of progressivism without the substance). There is no better example than President Obama's recent proposal to make community college tuition-free for everyone, rich and poor alike, at a cost of $6 billion/yr.


But how, you ask, can this be construed as a betrayal of progressivism? Because, according to economists, it doesn't effectively address the problem it's supposed to solve, and the biggest beneficiaries are non-needy students. I call that regressive. So, the real cost of this scheme is that it would divert $6 billion from opportunities that could do immensely more good, like universal pre-school and affordable high quality day care.


On top of this example are many other Democrat-supported giveaways that bypass the poorest 50% of American households and return little on no social benefit, such as the ethanol mandate, mortgage interest deduction, and the array of subsidies for agriculture, rooftop solar, passenger rail, student loans, and flood insurance. Stated bluntly, even without Republican obstructionism, Democrats could not deliver truly progressive blockbusters because they have shot the fiscal wad on rich farmers, beach-front owners, McMansion dwellers, bankers and doctrinaire environmentalists.


So, after appeasing the truly greedy, the only way left to help the truly needy is to raise taxes. But that won't be easy because the Obama-Democrats have classified most rich people as "middle-class;" so, only the obscenely rich 1% need worry about tax increases. In other words, people who earn eight times more than the median worker won't have to chip-in.


How progressive is that?


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