Surfing the internet this morning, I happened upon this article in the Huffington Post. It’s a provocative piece, by Robert Kuttner, arguing that liberals need to become much more radical in their proposals going forward. He identifies several major economic issues that have become part of the political conversation in the Democratic party–the cost of college and student debt, income inequality, low wage jobs, and the loss of career paths; the emergence of part-time ‘gig jobs.’ Kuttner then examines the various proposals that people have been suggesting. He takes a careful look at Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on the economy, which he quite likes, and thinks represents a step forward in our understanding of the economic difficulties faced by American workers. And then he says this:
The budget deadlock and the sequester mechanism, in which both major parties have conspired, makes it impossible to invest the kind of money needed both to modernize outmoded public infrastructure (with a shortfall now estimated at $3.4 trillion) or to finance a green transition.
To remedy the problem of income inequality would require radical reform both of the rules of finance and of our tax code, as well as drastic changes in labor market regulation.
Politicians would have to reform the debt-for-diploma system, not only going forward, as leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, but also to give a great deal of debt relief to those saddled with existing loans.
Unions would need to regain the effective right to organize and bargain collectively.
This is all as radical as, well… Dwight Eisenhower.
And none of the changes Kuttner proposals even begin to address the biggest issue of them all; the potential spectre of global climate change, and the economic changes that would be necessary effectively to cope with it.
Here’s the thing: I agree with Kuttner right down the line. I think he’s right on every particular. Unfortunately, he’s also right in suggesting that how difficult passing any of this would be. As he says, “the reforms needed to restore (Eisenhower era levels of shared prosperity) are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.” And Sanders is already being dismissed by the Beltway, by the mainstream media commentators, by Democratic strategists and pollsters, as a wild-eyed radical. Frankly, he’s seen as kind of a crazy person. And he’s actually probably quite a bit too conservative.
Lately, my wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing. It was dismissed in its time as a fantasy show for liberals. Stuck with George W. Bush in the actual White House, we got to spend an hour once a week imagining a better President. Jedediah Bartlett was a Nobel Prize winning economist, unapologetically liberal, though, of course, flawed as all humans are flawed; in his case, by MS, and also by a bit of a temper, and a kind of pompous windbaggery that drove his staffers nuts. I liked the show; I’m not blind to its flaws.
But this time through, binge-watching all those great episodes with my wife, I’ve been struck by the actual issues that the show dealt with. After all, the heart of the show were all these impassioned conversations about public policy by smart, policy and political wonks, Josh and Toby and Donna and CJ, as they walked around the halls of the West Wing. The show’s been off the air for ten years; I would expect that it would deal with a lot of issues that aren’t actually issues anymore. What’s fascinating is how many of the issues the show deals with are still with us today.
They spend a lot of time, for example, talking about the Iran problem; Bartlett’s always trying to curb Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. One whole episode was about an effort by Leo, acting as Bartlett’s emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba. Climate change gets mentioned, but only a couple of times, in passing. Republicans are forever talking about tax cuts, which Bartlett has to consistently bat back. Economics in the show are sort of weird; Bartlett is never a particularly popular President, but we’re told that the economy is humming along, with five and a half (or seven, or nine, depending) million new high paying private sector jobs. Plus a balanced budget, plus low inflation? And an approval rating in the 40s? It’s like they had to have him be good at economics (he’s a Nobel laureate), but unpopular (conflict!), and sort of hoped we wouldn’t notice; Presidents with humming economies are really really popular.
Gay marriage gets mentioned a lot, but always as a kind of pie-in-the-sky thing that only the most wildly liberal politicians ever even mention. Barlett’s (quietly) in favor, but can’t say so publicly. Too preposterous a pipe-dream to ever become reality. But raising the minimum wage is not actually a big deal; Barlett negotiates a minimum wage hike with Arnie Vinick (the Republican Presidential candidate, played superbly by Alan Alda) and it passes without fuss.
Now, I’m not saying that The West Wing was a particularly prescient show, and oh, if we’d only listened! or anything like that. I think that Aaron Sorkin and (later) John Wells reflected the big political issues of their day, and the mainstream thinking on those issues. They tried to position Bartlett in perhaps surprising and provocative ways in relation to those issues, but those were the issues. And I look at Obama’s second term, ten years after Bartlett ‘left office,’ and it’s interesting. We have an Iran deal. We have normalized relations with Cuba. We don’t have a balanced budget, but the world-wide financial crisis of 2007-8 came after the show left the air. (It would have been interesting to see what Bartlett would have done about it. I assume he was a Keynesian (he was a macroeconomist; they’re all Keynesians); probably he would have rejected austerity). But John Wells was show-running for seasons 5-7, the last three seasons, and Wells was clearly less interested in economics than Sorkin was. The whole last season was about the campaign to replace Bartlett, Matt Santos v. Arnie Vinick, and it would have been nice if Santos had ever attacked Vinick’s tax cuts on substance, not because Vinick’s a Republican and we’re rooting for the Democrat to win, but because Vinick’s tax cuts are bad economics.
Whatever. Here’s my larger point: there are issues that were raised on The West Wing that have since been resolved, mostly, of course, because that show was ten years ago and the world moves forward. Liberals favor change; conservatives oppose it; that’s the difference between the two philosophies. Both are necessary. But right now, voters are angry, because they can see how our country’s current economic successes aren’t benefitting ordinary Americans. Economic inequality should be the key issue in this campaign, and it’s starting to happen on the left. (The Right’s all obsessed with nonsense issues, like border security and cutting rich guys’ taxes).
But. But. If we don’t talk about issues, even far-out, will-never-happen-in-my-lifetime issues (like marriage equality), then people won’t think about them, and they’ll never come to pass. The only way to affect change is to start talking about affecting change. That’s why Bernie Sanders is so valuable in this race. He’s not going to win, and there are issues where I think he’s dead wrong. But he’s talking about economic issues that need to be talked about. He’s willing to position himself as a radical, even though actually he’s not radical enough.
Jed Bartlett, of course, never existed. But that TV show was part of the political conversation. If what’s replaced it is another TV show (Veep, say, or House of Cards), well, those are both terrific shows, but not much interested in policy. But there remain fora where conversations about policy can happen. And we need to speak up.