On modern liberalism

In honor of their 100th anniversary, TNR has a nice essay entitled “How The New Republic Invented Modern Liberalism.”  I’ll just take their word for that.  What did really grab me, though, were a couple of passages which I do think really get what modern liberalism is about:

This attachment to the magazine’s style is hardly a trivial thingliberalism is itself a sensibility as well as a set of ideas, if it is even possible to speak of them separately. For hundreds of years, long before the word was associated with Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, it has meant generosity and tolerance. It’s pretty clear how those sentiments have evolved through the ages into a modern political program that champions a social safety net, civil rights, and civil liberties. But they are also hallmarks of an intellectual modewhich is manifested in the manner that liberals read and write as much as what they substantively argue. That approach is cosmopolitan and freethinking, daring to engage ideas that it might not share. (This magazine has a tradition of filling the masthead with socialists, communist sympathizers, English Tories, and neoconservatives.) Our doctrine proudly considers itself an anti-doctrine. That is, American liberalism flaunts its pragmatism. It may have strong moral and philosophical beliefs, but it likes to claim that it derives conclusions from evidence and data, not dogma; its expectations for politics and human nature remain on the hard ground, not up in the utopian sky. [emphases mine]

Old liberals and the new ones have very different methods; but at bottom, they have exactly the same convictions. They both believe in the transcendent importance of freedom and individual liberty. It’s just that the threats to those values have changed. There’s not a capricious monarch looming. In a constitutional democracy, the centralized state was no longer a grave danger to be contained, but an actual guardian of freedoma protector against new menaces, like rapacious corporations and bigoted local tyrants. The state must create and enforce the rules that help ensure that the market economy remains productive and fair, despite its size and complexity.

Of course, it can all be a bit self-congratulatory to define any ideology only by it’s best elements, but I do think this captures what is of essence of modern liberalism and why I am proud to call myself a liberal.

The wage stagnation problem

So, it’s pretty interesting how the post-election analysis on the left is full of talk about the problem of real wage stagnation and the Democrats’ inability to offer a compelling policy solution.  Part of me wonders if this isn’t just a bandwagon, but I have huge respect for Josh Marshall, Dave Leonhardt, and Kevin Drum who are all smart and sober analysts.  Leonhardt has a nice column on the matter today and suggests a middle-class tax cut.

Yet no mix of these policies is likely to end the great wage slowdown anytime soon. “This is not a silver-bullet issue,” says Gene Sperling, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama, “and that’s part of what’s frustrating to people.” In fact, the country is making good progress on several of these issues, starting with health costs, but incomes are still stuck.

Politicians often like to boast that they’ve come up with bold ideas to solve economic problems and then package those ideas as new — a new deal, a new frontier, a new covenant. But most aren’t really new. That’s O.K., too. Truly new ideas don’t come along very often in any field, including economics.

So it goes with lifting middle-class incomes. The best hope for doing so, in the immediate future, is probably the oldest and most obvious play in the book: a tax cut.

A few years ago, a middle-class tax cut would have seemed a silly idea. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama had already cut taxes, and the federal budget deficit was enormous. But the deficit has since fallen sharply, thanks in part to lower health costs. Meanwhile, middle- and lower-income families are reaping a disproportionately small share of economic growth. Having the government try to rectify the situation doesn’t sound so silly now — and probably won’t in the 2016 presidential campaign.

For his part, Jamelle Bouie embraces expanding the EITC to the middle class (i.e., a middle-class tax cut):

Now—as would-be presidential candidates build their platforms and portfolios—is the time to propose new ideas for ending wage stagnation. The time is right to propose something that lives on the edge of the possible, like a new flat Social Security benefit for all retirees or an expansion and reform of the Earned Income Tax Credit that includes middle-class families.

Both would boost incomes, and neither is far away from the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The only question is whether Democrats have the courage to stick their necks out for something new, something that gives voters a plan to support, or if they’ll just resign the conversation to Republicans and wonder why they keep losing.

Reasonable enough, but can’t we do something to actually boost middle-class wages.  Or are they a hopeless victim of globalization where we can only treat the symptoms rather than enact a true cure?  If I can be persuaded this is the most efficient and pragmatic policy option, I’ll get on board, but I’m not that happy about relying on the Republican panacea of “tax cuts!”  Of course, Republicans love “middle-class tax cuts” because they use them as a side effect, if you will, of much larger tax cuts for wealthy Americans.  The only way for Democrats to win on this is real class warfare where we actually extract more from the wealthy (the 1% can certainly afford it) to pay the country’s bills while putting more actual dollars in middle-class pockets.  Of course, the 1% have just a wee bit of political power and will probably not be big fans.  Or we can just finance it through deficits.  That’s a non-starter among Republicans unless those deficits are benefitting the wealthiest.

Naturally, Drum is happy about all the focus on wage stagnation:

First, growing income inequality per se isn’t our big problem. Stagnant wages for the middle class are. Obviously these things are tightly related in an economic sense, but in a political sense they aren’t. Voters care far less about rich people buying gold-plated fixtures for their yachts than they do about not getting a raise for the past five years. The latter is the problem they want solved.

Needless to say, I agree, but here are the two key takeaways from Marshall and Leonhardt and pretty much everyone else who tackles this subject: (1) nobody has any real answers, and (2) this hurts Democrats more than Republicans since Democrats are supposed to be the party of the middle class.

I’d say #1 is obviously true, and it’s a huge problem. But #2 is a little shakier. Sure, Republicans are the party of business interests and the rich, but voters blame their problems on whoever’s in power. Right now, Democrats have gotten the lion’s share of the blame for the slow economy, but Republicans rather plainly have no serious ideas about how to grow middle-class wages either. They won’t escape voter wrath on this front forever.

I think the problem is that to the degree there is a clear policy solution, it is middle class tax cuts and Republicans pretty much “own” the tax cut issue.  Furthermore, if the solution is more complicated (investment in infrastructure, education, etc.,) that’s a whole lot harder sell than the Republican mantra of “tax cuts!”

However this all does turn out, I do think it is very encouraging to see smart minds really struggling with this problem because it’s one that our country simply has to solve.

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