DMI Blog

Dan Ancona

Why I am not a fiscal conservative

"I'm socially liberal but fiscally conservative."

Hear this much? As Schwarzenegger's victory in supposedly-blue California and Mike Huckabee's recent populist-driven, expectations-beating 2nd place in the Iowa straw poll both indicate, progressives are still incredibly vulnerable on economic issues. Simplistic as it is, and seemingly regardless of how many bridges and levees collapse, anti-tax messages still have amazing traction with the American public.

To start to turn back this kind of thinking, we need a good, positive story about the economy to tell. We'll get there. But before we get to people saying "I'm socially liberal and fiscally progressive," we need to first budge folks off the dime. When we start to hear "I'm socially liberal and fiscally, I don't know what I am, but I'm definitely not a conservative," we'll be making progress.

To that end, for your debating with the conservative relatives pleasure, here is a grab-bag of a few points on why fiscal conservatism just doesn't work:

    Inequality sucks - unless you're into shorter lifespans, more homicide and violent crime, more people in jail, paying more for police, more unemployment, more folks on food stamps, less high shcool graduation, less spending on education, more disability, higher cancer rates, worse health overall and less health insurance.

    Capitalism has a tendency to concentrate wealth and power, and this is the concentration that drives inequality. It's up to everything else in society - the government, labor, civil organizations - to break up that power. That doesn't mean fiscal progressives want to smash capitalism. Not by any means! We just want balance.

    Economic inequality and political polarization feed on each other. If you, like most Americans, want a functioning and less polarized government again, we need an economic system to support that.

    Having homeless people, people without health care and kids without health care, etc. in the richest country in the world is flat-out immoral.

    Flat wages suck. The economy is a lot more than just the market.

    Even given that the economy is much more than the market, the market does better under Democrats by 5-10 points.

    When you hear tax cuts, think collapsing bridges, eye fungus, Katrina, E. Coli, prisons instead of schools and melamine.

    "Nanny state," "job killer" and "but you're a socialist!" are all meaningless name-calling. Really. You would get more rhetorical mileage out of "neener neener neener." Drop the talking points, quite whining and make a real argument. It is an appalling indication of the decay of media in this country that that Republican candidates can spew this kind of meaningless red-baiting and can still be taken seriously. Tell ya what, Mr Guiliani: you quit using the s-word and maybe we'll quit using the f-word.

    Speaking of fascism (i.e. the merging of corporate & state power), it sucks too. (Sorry Rudy. I lied.) But kleptoconservatism sucks worse. The kleptoconservatives are like the fascists, but less principled. They can't even make the trains run on time because they're too busy raiding the treasury and shoveling whatever isn't bolted down to their cronies. I know, I know, George Bush isn't a "Real Conservative," but Reagan supposedly was, and we had basically the same problems then. Something deeper is going on. It is time for it to stop.

    Speaking of Reagan, trickle down economics is an insult to humanity and to common sense. In the Real World of Work and Wages, Trickle-Down Theories Don’t Hold Up:

    "Trickle-down theorists are quick to object that higher taxes would cause top earners to work less and take fewer risks, thereby stifling economic growth. In their familiar rhetorical flourish, they insist that a more progressive tax system would kill the geese that lay the golden eggs. On close examination, however, this claim is supported neither by economic theory nor by empirical evidence."

    93% of Americans say we're too focused on work and money. (Note to the presidential campaigns: could someone, please, speak to this issue?) We can have a culture where the focus is on how much time we can generate with friends and family, not running faster and faster on a treadmill economy. At the very least let us have balance. Vacations should be one month per year, at least. Mandatory. Less than that is uncivilized. And don't start with the "job killer" crap again: that wouldn't kill jobs, it would create them, both on the front end (from needing to hire people to cover for longer-vacation taking employees) and on the back end (when folks go on vacation, have fun and spend money).

    Fiscal progressivism doesn't mean breaking the bank. Social justice can only be achieved through a balanced budget," as Howard Dean put it. Capitalism is like a puppy - it's great, but sometimes it poops on the rug. We love the puppy, we don't want to hurt it. We just want it not to poop on the rug!

    The environment. I would very much like the planet to survive. Green economists have gone to terrible lengths in an attempt to reconcile natural systems and pricing (i.e. the atmosphere provides x trillion dollars worth of life support, etc), but market fundamentalism and environmentalism are just going to incompatible for the foreseeable future, if not forever. They are based on different ethoi. (yes, "ethoi" is the plural of "ethos")

    Building the green economy doesn't mean fewer jobs. To hear all the blather from entrenched energy interests and the "belief tanks" they've set up, you'd think. They haven't yet been able to explain how, say, building thousands of new windmills, or - here in California - a badly needed high speed rail down the middle of the state, would somehow destroy jobs. Maybe they think giant robots will build the windmills and rail lines? Even if they did, who do they think will build the giant robots? Magic ponies?

    Paul Hawken:

    For all their power and vitality, markets are only tools. They make a good servant but a bad master and a worse religion.

    Housing prices, especially in cities, are completely out of control. The reasons our society chooses not to build nice walkable places to live any more are very complicated and that's certainly driving some of the increase, but there's research that shows that even relatively small numbers of wealthy buyers can warp housing prices out of reach of most people in a community. For a good, accessible compilation of research like this, I can't recommend "Inequality Matters" enough. There's a link to the book and a a lot more info at, which is run by Demos, another really great think tank in NY.

We still have a long way to go on developing the alternative. If you say you're socially liberal and fiscally progressive, 98% of everyone has no idea what you are talking about. A lot of people are working on this problem, but one start is the High Road, a narrative about the kind of economy we want to build that I will go into more detail on in future posts.

Dan Ancona: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 15, 2007 in Economy
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