Liberals and Economic Prosperity
Over the past several days, I have discussed Robert Reich's take on the rise of "radical conservatives," as well as his argument that liberals should not shy from advancing a moral agenda of their own, each of which comprises a chapter of his 2004 handbook on liberalism, Reason.
The second and third prongs of Reich's liberal rebuttal cover economic prosperity and patriotism, and ways in which liberals can retake these issues from the conservative movement that for decades has claimed them as their own. In the debate over economics, Reich argues that liberals have made two errors; they have been dismissive of the importance of growth, and they have lost the framing war:
[I]n a debate that seems to pit economic growth against fairness, liberals lose. Part of the reason lies in how liberals define "fairness." They make it seem like too squishy an idea -- appropriate for soft hearts rather than hard heads. Besides, most of the people who are being hurt by Radcon cuts in social spending appear to be poor and black or brown -- "them" rather than "us." And most of those who are getting tax breaks and accumulating fortunes are people whom a lot of Americans would like to emulate.
We've seen this very phenomenon appear in the past several weeks of the current campaign. The ridiculous "Joe the Plumber" meme, which the gasping McCain team has latched onto this past week, is a perfect example. While the lunatics at the National Review obsessed over Senator Obama's "socialist" beliefs, it was not readily apparent or important to Joe the Plumber himself that he was going to be a beneficiary of Obama's tax plan. Instead, he was more concerned that someday, somehow, he would be rich, and Obama would raise his taxes. Robert Reich has a better answer to this than Democrats in the past:
Liberals shouldn't abandon convictions about fairness. But to be persuasive to the rest of America, the ideal of fairness has to be embedded in a hardheaded program to promote prosperity for everyone. Rather than help wealthy people stay on top, we need to help all working people build their wealth. The truth is, fairness and growth aren't at odds; they complement each other. Prosperity is easier to achieve if it's widely shared.
Unfortunately for McCain, and the occupants of the National Review echo-chamber, Reich's sentiment can be heard incorporated throughout Senator Obama's response:
My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're gonna be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.
So while the cynics and the mercenaries want to seize on the "spread the wealth" soundbite, Senator Obama is still consistently winning the argument, because he taps into both of the American economic ideals: growth and fairness. That's why the latest polls show he is more trusted on almost every issue related to economics, including the current financial crisis, reducing the deficit, and even taxes, which has been the bread-and-butter of conservative propaganda for decades:
On most domestic issues, Obama enjoys wide leads over McCain. Voters see Obama as the candidate best able to deal with the current economic crisis, 46%-34%. Obama leads 53% to 32% when voters are asked which would do the best job improving the economy more generally. Voters favor Obama on energy issues 53% to 34%. On handling education, the environment and the health care system, Obama holds advantages of more than 25 points over McCain.
Half of voters say Obama would do a better job dealing with taxes and reducing the budget deficit, while about a third say McCain would do the better job (35% and 30%, respectively). Obama also holds a nine-point advantage over McCain on the question of who would best limit the influence of lobbyists, up from a four-point edge in mid-September [emphasis added].
Certainly part of the reason for Senator Obama's advantage has been the disastrous campaign run by his opponent, whose erratic and negative behavior has destroyed his own credibility on almost every issue. But part of the reason why such a campaign was necessary was that Obama has so successfully articulated a liberal alternative to the conservative policies that have dug American into a hole. Consider one of Reich's major insights into the future of American economic growth. He recognizes that the decline of manufacturing jobs is not the fault of outsourcing, free trade, illegal immigrants, or minorities:
Factor jobs are vanishing all over the world... Robots and numerical machine tools can do factory work more efficiently than people. Even as manufacturing employment dropped around the globe since the mid-nineties, industrial output rose more than 30 percent.
We should stop pining for "manufacturing" jobs and the days when a lot of people were paid for good money to stand along an assembly line and continuously bolt, fit, solder, or clamp what went by. Those days are over. Don't blame poor blacks, Latinos, or all the other usual suspects.
In the absence of these jobs, Reich sees a division of available employment into two categories: highly-paid "symbolic analytic" jobs that center on "analyzing, manipulating, and communicating through abstract symbols--numbers, shapes, words, ideas" (think engineering, law, advertising, medicine, finance); and "personal service" jobs, which "are usually paid by the hour, are carefully supervised, and rarely require much more than a high school education."
Reich makes no judgment about the importance of either job to the economy; he simply recognizes that the jobs are not rewarded equally; "the demand for symbolic analysts keeps growing because they add significant value to products and services. Companies can no longer depend just on economies of scale to keep them competitive." On the other side, "Most personal service jobs... pay low wages. Few of these jobs require special qualifications, so many people can do them."
The obvious solution? Increase the number of symbolic analytic jobs in the United States. But Reich points out that the standard supply-side, trickle-down economic policies promoted by doctrinal conservatism is antithetical to such growth:
Their solution is to raise the level of savings and reduce consumption in order to create more capital. You know the drill: Cut the highest income-tax rates; reduce or eliminate taxes on savings, investment income, and wealth; and phase out the estate tax. Meanwhile, cut spending on social services; privatize public insurance; and relax government regulations on health, safety, and the environment.
The only way to attract global capital and also improve our living standards is to increase the productivity of Americans.
America's basic strategy for economic growth must be to equip a larger portion of our people to add more value to the world economy. And the way to do this is to increase investments in our people: We need to ensure that a good-quality public education is available to every child from the age of three all the way through at least two years of college, so that any talented American kid can become a symbolic analyst regardless of family income or race. We need to help personal service workers be more productive by giving them access to better training, and career ladders linking increased expertise to higher pay scales. We need to provide better health care and improve the environment, so that American can lead fuller and more productive lives, and both feel and be more prosperous.
Does Senator Obama have a coherent strategy to meet these demands? Let's see. Education? Check. Job creation? Check. Health care? Check. The environment? Check. It should be no surprise, then, to see the bases on which Robert Reich endorsed Obama, way back in April when the primary was still hotly contested:
His plans for reforming Social Security and health care have a better chance of succeeding. His approaches to the housing crisis and the failures of our financial markets are sounder than hers. His ideas for improving our public schools and confronting the problems of poverty and inequality are more coherent and compelling. He has put forward the more enlightened foreign policy and the more thoughtful plan for controlling global warming.
He also presents the best chance of creating a new politics in which citizens become active participants rather than cynical spectators. He has energized many who had given up on politics. He has engaged young people to an extent not seen in decades. He has spoken about the most difficult problems our society faces, such as race, without spinning or simplifying. He has rightly identified the armies of lawyers and lobbyists that have commandeered our democracy, and pointed the way toward taking it back.
Absolutely. Tomorrow I will turn to the final chapter of Reich's book, entitled "Positive Patriotism." In light of comments made in just this last week by Senator McCain, his running mate, and several Republican congressmen, this is a hot topic. And it is another area where Senator Obama has been pitch-perfect in his response, successfully owning the topic of patriotism such that now it is the conservative darling, Sarah Palin, who is making televised apologies for her comments. Advantage: liberals.