Another New Vision
A few months ago, Washington Monthly published The New Vision, by venerable JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson. While certainly a powerful message, I believe Mr. Sorenson's speech failed to directly address three pressing tactical issues facing the country at this point: our lack of a clear, distinct and progressive economic program, the need for a broader and more participatory politics, and how we might begin to rebuild our shattered faith in government. These issues were also addressed to varying degrees in Matt Bai's The Argument.
In the discussion following these two works, it seemed clear that the left certainly does have an Argument, but that argument just isn't sharply focused enough to work as a political force. The following post (and this accompanying slide presentation) is the speech I'd like to hear, and an explicit attempt to refine that focus.
The High Road: Principles for a 21st Century Economy
October 1st 2007
We stand here together today near a turning point in the American and global economy. Globalization, the information economy and planetary environmental degradation are forcing us to confront new and difficult challenges; planetary scale challenges unlike any that human society has faced. Like all difficulties, these new difficulties contain opportunities, and the opportunities before us are planetary-scale as well. Technology is unlocking new forms of cooperation and expanding the limits of human potential, but our democracy has not adapted to these profound changes.
The conservative argument has been that the way to compete in the global economy is by taking the low road: we should cut taxes, drive down wages and try to compete directly with the developing world for jobs. But their tax cuts have not been met with a significant decline in spending, and have led only to deeper and deeper deficits. The American middle class is already facing declining benefits, flat wages, and more expensive housing, education and health care: no wonder two thirds of us feel like the economy isn’t working for us at all.
The conservative argument for growth is based on a deeply and fundamentally flawed diagnosis of the critical factors underlying growth as the information economy continues to diversify and expand. Any venture capitalist in this country will tell you that financial capital is not the limiting factor in starting a technology business, and it’s true for other sectors as well.
What is in short supply are good ideas. In even shorter supply are people who can execute on those good ideas, work hard and turn them into successful, sustainable businesses.
The fundamental question for growth today is this: how can our society best support people to develop themselves, to become the kinds of people who can come up with innovations and make them happen? The answer to this lies in expanding our understanding of human rights. The 21st century growth agenda has nothing less than one of the oldest economic ideas in existence – that of social justice, the foundation of human rights – at its core. In an ideas-based economy, we have the opportunity to rewrite the social contract and align our civilization and economy around both justice and growth. They’re certainly far from incompatible. In fact, they are synergistic.
Take a company like Google as an example. Google’s profits are, in part, a function of how many diverse, curious people there are in the world. The more diverse and the more curious people are, the more money Google makes.
And Google is hardly alone: thousands of new economy companies are linked to this same, basic wealth-of-networks dynamic. There is a bottom line rationale for a progressive economic alternative to the system we have now. While it is certainly true that many big corporations benefit greatly from the hard and soft corruption of the current system, a growing number are realizing that it is unquestionably in their best interest to have a government that can think long-term and make wise investments. And if we can’t have that (yet), at the very least we can have a government that is run by people whose priorities go beyond short-sighted pandering with tax cuts and sketchy, lobbyist-driven earmark deals.
Some of this need for long term investment can be met by private capital, and still other parts can be met by philanthropy. But only a functioning democracy can provide the safeguards for the longest-term investments in infrastructure, education, research and defense at the scale these things need to happen at in a complex world. In 2003, total philanthropic giving in the United States - including corporate, individual, foundations and bequest – came to $241 billion. But the total US education budget alone for 2004-2005 school year was almost twice that, around $536 B. So the leverage opportunities that arise from having a functional, efficient and effective government that works for everyone and considers the long view are just enormous.
Personal responsibility and self reliance will continue to play roles in how both individuals and companies like Google succeed, as they always have. But just as the really big and planetary-scale problems require cooperation, so does the cause of personal freedom. True freedom is hugely complex and it is always created in a social context. Reagan was quite simply wrong in saying government is the problem: the path towards this greater substantial freedom points towards democracy, not away from it.
Democracy gives us the tools to meet these challenges. This is what democracy has always been about at its core: the art of the possible, the promise of expanding freedom for everyone through massive-scale cooperation. Tossing people out into the go-it-alone, sink-or-swim free market – let alone a deeply unfree market, where the deck is stacked against them by big corporations and a government captured by special interests – will not bend the arc of history towards justice.
Many, many books have been written lately about the need for liberal ideas. In fact we’ve had something of a tidal wave of ideas over the past few years – of course on countless weblogs, but also in magazines like Washington Monthly, The Nation and the American Prospect, as well as in new publications like Democracy, a Journal of Ideas. We’ve had deep studies like Larry Lessig’s work on participatory culture and Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks that are helping to define the contours of potential in the new economic landscape. We’ve had great popular studies on our economy from folks like Barbara Ehrenreich, Tamara Draut, John Schwartz, David Cay Johnston, Norton Garfinkle, Richard Florida and Jared Bernstein, just to name a very few. And there are organizations like the Center for American Progress, the New Democrat Network, Citizens for Tax Justice, Demos and the Drum Major Institute – again, just to pick a very few. These groups support deep and long-term work on fundamentals and policy design, as well as making these ideas understandable and connecting them to the political process.
These are great, but it’s a vast amount of work to keep up with. Since most of us don’t have the time or inclination to get into the deep end on all this, we need some basic principles. What do the ideas these authors present have in common? What are a few principles that we can pull from them?
And, what of the change from a thing-oriented economy to a person-oriented economy that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of now forty years ago? That change may be happening below the surface: according to a recent poll, 93% of Americans think we are too concerned with work and money. The revolution in values has not yet happened, but we can design policies that will facilitate people who are hungry for this change to finally begin.
The conservative approach to growing our economy by keeping wages low and piling on debt is the low road. The progressive approach is to take the high road instead. Here are the six principles that define it.
Secure basic freedoms.
Invest in people and the future.
Democratize economic power.
Housebreak big corporations.
Build the green economy.
Globalize this approach.
At the core of these principles is securing basic freedoms. FDR's Economic Bill of Rights is a good template for this: housing, health care, useful work, education, and basic economic security are all basic rights that the federal government can and absolutely should play a role in securing. Without a basic level of security, people can't even get to the kind of freedom and opportunity that is so central to progressivism: the freedom that is the fruit of cognitive liberty, the potential to develop one's self as fully as possible. Securing these basic freedoms is the aim of social justice and it is the heart of the high road.
We need to invest in people. Investing in people is investing directly in the future of our country. To compete in the 21st century, we need to take our education and research system to the next level. Financial resources aren't the only thing the system needs, but they are certainly part of it. There is a bottom-line rational for beating structural racism and fairly distributing educational resources and opportunity; tax cuts don't create jobs, people do. The job creating leaders of tomorrow will be new immigrants and inner-city kids, if we give them a chance. Giving them access to the tools they need to become part of the participatory culture will pay us incalculable dividends.
We need to democratize economic power. The hypercapitalist system we have today unmistakably concentrates wealth. Since 1980, with government’s help, this tendency has gotten completely out of hand. Unions, progressive taxation, minimum and living wage laws, and employee ownership all have one thing in common: they counteract this concentration by democratizing economic power. The American people are good and tired of being trickled down on! Our nation’s economic policy has been hijacked by a small group of cranks and whiners – who, despite crumbling bridges and disasters like Katrina – are still pushing tax cuts alone as a solution to everything. This approach could not be less suited to the challenges we face today.
The response to this that you’ll often hear is that this amounts to “redistributing wealth.” But this response is based on a faulty understanding of how wealth is created. Wealth is not created by individuals acting alone, much as our popular culture likes to imagine it is. Individual effort plays a role, of course, but it’s always in the context of investments that have come before and the society we are building together. Labor rights in particular are a big part of this. It is impossible to keep workers from organizing without cutting deep into basic 1st amendment rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but we’ve seen that big companies have no problem doing exactly that. That has nothing to do with “redistribution,” and it has to stop. Now.
It is long past time for government to lead on building the green economy. The long-time argument against building the green economy - that it would cost too much - is nonsense. Just a few years ago, oil was $50 a barrel, but today’s headline is “Four in a row for oil price records: Crude tops $83 as dollar weakens, storm fears grow.” There is indeed a storm coming. The dangers and costs of not doing anything are far, far greater. As Paul Hawken puts it, “markets make good servants, but bad masters and worse religions.” They are tools for solving problems, not ends unto themselves. It is time for government to press markets into service and help us solve environmental problems.
And we need to housebreak capitalism. Capitalism is just like a puppy: it's great (at least until we come up with something better), but it definitely has a tendency to make messes. It's time to stop having to clean capitalism's messes off the rug. To do this, we have to change how Washington works. We have to bring the era of “money equals speech” to a close and publicly finance campaigns. Special interests should be at the table; but they can’t buy every seat.
Last, we need to globalize this approach, and not the destructive, race-to-the-bottom low road that we’ve been taking so far. NAFTA is a perfect example of this, and it’s been detrimental to both the US and the Mexican economies. The purpose of our trade policies, other than opening up international markets to our products, should be to encourage other countries to do the right thing. We can avoid races to the bottom, but only if we deliberately use our market power to compel our trading partners to avoid them.
In six words? Secure, Invest, Democratize, Housebreak, Green and Globalize. That’s the high road.
One of the hallmarks of a successful governing philosophy is flexibility. I want to bring people together in discussion around this. These principles are just that – they’re guidelines, not barriers. They are most certainly not a rigid ideology of some kind. I will always listen to you and the people I work with every day to do what is right for this country. There are people of great faith in both parties and I will work with them. The past few years have shown us all too clearly what one-party rule looks like when that party refuses to even listen to the other side.
To do this, I need your help. We’re going to post longer explanations of all of these principles and how specific policies fit into them on our website over the next few weeks. You’ll be able to discuss these ideas there, and if you have a story that illustrates on one of these principles, there will be a way for you to submit it.
I and my campaign staff believe the internet is an incredible tool for democracy. We’ve already made a number of tools available through our website to help you connect with each other. We want our campaign to be a fulcrum in building a participatory and agile democracy.
But we know technology can be very intimidating and difficult. So in every office that we're able to, we’ll have a computer or two set up so that members of the public can come in and log in. We're going to designate one person to be a tech support contact. So if you have a problem with any of the tools on our website or can't figure something out and there's a local office near you, get in touch with them. We might not be able to solve your problem but we'll try our best to connect you with someone who can.
Every candidate running is saying this now, but it's important: this campaign is about you. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need a renewed and more participatory democracy. We’re running a new kind of campaign that will help us all rise to this new challenge. Your small donations have already freed me to spend more time talking to ordinary folks and less time on the phone with high dollar donors, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that.
Please, get involved during this campaign season. Talk with your neighbors. I know you are busy: we as a country work longer hours and more jobs than we ever have. But we need to get the word out about our campaign to millions more people, we need your help to spread this message of hope. One of your duties as a citizen of this country is to not be a spectator – and as it turns out, you’re going to find it’s incredibly rewarding too. You’ll sleep better at night. And find out what's going on with your local government and political parties, too. Your involvement locally will make a huge difference.
In closing, this is very important. Our trust in government has been severely damaged over the past few decades, but over the past few years in particular. Government is an expression of our democracy. It is our democracy. People who say government can't work, that government can't solve problems but that it is the problem, are effectively saying that democracy can't work. It's one thing to say that you want an efficient government that uses tax dollars wisely, but it is entirely another to say that government is the problem itself. The American people working together is America's greatest source of strength, and the structure by which we do that is democracy, is our government. You and I here together, we are standing athwart history and saying yes, it is time to get moving again.
We can have a democracy and an economic system that works for everyone - but none of us can do it on our own. Abraham Lincoln – echoed four years ago by another great leader - said that a Government of, by and for the people shall not perish from this earth. Our democracy has brought us thus far on the path to freedom. The next evolution of it we're building here is the high road, the path to a secure and prosperous future.