Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why some "lefty econ" types don't Feel the Bern? They accept a lousy "reality"

This is an intriguing article from the New York Times' Neil Irwin discussing how allegedly left-of-center economists like Paul Krugman (and to an extent, UW's Menzie Chinn) have expressed skepticism, if not outright contempt for Bernie Sanders' plans on health care and related issues.

Irwin points out that some of this dismay for Sanders' ideas are the reflection of people whose life work has been involved in policy-making int he 2000s and often being involved in the battles that go into making policy, and they feel that Sanders is threatening some of their experience, and their legacy.
The wonkosphere vs. Bernie clash is not just a story of center-left versus left-left. It is also a clash between those who have been in the trenches of trying to make public policy for the last seven years versus those who can exist in a kind of theoretical world of imagining what public policy ought to be.

Suppose, for a moment, that you worked as a staff member to a Democratic member of Congress, or perhaps in the Obama administration, or in the world of academics and think tank experts advising both.

Perhaps you worked countless all-nighters on the language of the Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank Act — or maybe you were at an agency trying to write the thousands of pages of regulations to institute those laws, or even an advocacy group trying to nudge all of the above to the left.

You know the compromises that were made back in 2010 and why — uniting 55 or 60 senators with wildly different political temperaments and local politics was really hard. You had to come up with a bill that could get a “Yes” vote from both a centrist like Joe Lieberman or Joe Manchin and, well, a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders.

You’re convinced that those laws — much hated by both conservatives and the industries they overhauled — made the United States a better place, helping millions more people afford health care and reining in the financial industry. You know the laws aren’t perfect — but also believe that future presidents and Congresses should build on them, much as Social Security and Medicare are now much expanded from their original charters.
But isn't that exactly the problem that Bernie is constantly pointing out, that the DC SYSTEM is so rigged that we need a revolution in thinking and new members of Congress that allow those needed changes to be made? Instead, we have had reforms watered down into the half-assed compromises and corporate sellouts that haven't dragged the country out of the Great Recession strong enough for many people to feel an improvement in their lives.

But don't take that to mean I'm arguing (for example) that Obamacare didn't make things better in this country - it absolutely did, and I will defend it against any garbage a GOP tries to throw up on the issue of dealing with the uninusred and underinsured. But it was also much less than what the American people voted for in 2008, which was somewhere between health care reform with a strong public option to give competition to insurance companies, and single-payer health care similar to what the rest of the civilized world has.

Let me note this passage from Matt Taibbi's excellent Griftopia to remind you how Obamacare REALLY was designed.
Obamacare had been designed as a coldly cynical political deal: massive giveaways to Big Pharma in the form of monster subisidies, and an equally lucrative handout to big insurance in the form of an individual mandate granting a few already-wealthy companies 25-30 million new customers who would be forced to buy their products at artificially inflation, federally protected prices.

The essence of Obamacare was two ruthless power plays fused at the hip. It was the federal government seizing control of America's private industry worth about 16 percent of GDP (I wish!) . And it was that same sector of private industry in turn seizing permanent control of about 8 percent of America's taxable income, for converting to private profit. What was little understood by the public, even after more than a year of near-constant media blathering and manufactured talk-radio controversies, is that the Obama administration tried to pay for the first power play by green-lighting the other.

The admittedly ingenious plan devised by our freshman president and his indomitable chief of staff - an overconfident and immensely unlikable neo-Svengali named Rahm Emanuel, who resembled Karl Rove, only more driven, with better hair, and without the distantly validating sense of humor (the same Rahm Emanuel who now is hated in every corner of Chicago outside of 1%er-land, but still defended by Hillary Clinton) - was to buy the insurance and pharmaceutical industries' acquiescence to the gentlest of regulatory regimes by giving them back the one thing they had to trade: the power to tax the public....

That the bill was a grotesque giveaway was, by the end, a secret to almost nobody in Washington. If you wanted proof of that, all you had to do was look at who wrote one of the bill's early drafts - a Senate aide named Liz Fowler who had joined Senator Max Baucus's staff in February 2009 after a few lucrative years away from government, working for the insurance giant WellPoint. Here's something that Liz Fowler said out loud a few years back, during her brief but lucrative hiatus from government service.

"People used to love me when I worked on the Hill," she said, "because I wrote bills that gave away money."
And this is the culture that elite wonks are coming from when they take issue with Bernie Sanders' plans and call them unrealistic. They think that lobbyists and the interests they front for are immovable, that they are a key part of "political reality", and that the best solutions to the real problems of economic insecurity and a lack of health insurance can't always be done because of that "political reality."

But what's being missed here is that political reality can always be changed. We've seen it in a negative way in Wisconsin, where "political reality" in November 2010 would have said that there was no way you could pass laws to eviscerate public and private sector unions, cut funding for the UW System and K-12 public education, and open up a flood of untraceable dark money into the state's elections. Yet barely 5 years later, look at where we are, and it didn't take a large-scale movement of people to do it, but instead it was a combination of a bought-off media and the laziness of an electorate that refused to vote in large enough numbers to make those politicians pay for the damage they were causing.

Lots of us on the progressive side of things in ALEC states like Wisconsin have noted this, and see that the half-measures and compromises of the 2010s Democratic Party have done nothing to change this damaging course. Instead of settling for "political reality," we'd rather change things into something that is more acceptable than a slight improvement on a crappy status quo. And these include the base idea of unrigging the economy, making health care a right and not something that amoral corporations control, and removing the disproportionate influence of oligarchs on our politicians and the campaign finance system they dominate.

And it's not like going further than "political reality" isn't something new. Dems used to say things like this all the time.

AND IT HAPPENED. It's a matter of will and getting the right people in charge who will tell the truth, inspire the people to get more people in power with the same values, and get the job done. And unlike a lot of people in the Acela corridor, I don't think we need to give up and settle for second-best.


  1. Social movements however are necessary. Walker's revolution in WI represents a real reactionary social movement.

    White male power has taken some real hits in the last 40 years and add on an abandonment of the post-war industrial model and we get the toxic stew that is Reagan/Walker/Trump.

    It will not be easily defeated with just the right liberals at the top. The Krugman/Chait/DeLong gang are an extremely sharp lot and they can smell the sharpening of the pitch forks already. And they will stop at nothing to put all this talk of social democracy back in the closet.

    Conclusion: more social movements are needed on the left-labor, environment, LGBT, immigrants, anti-imperialists, prison reform..... if we are going to defeat this monster.

  2. Thanks for addressing this topic. Of course it will take more social movements to pressure for change, and the key to their success will be in their effectiveness in getting people out to vote, and knowing that their vote will count in having the legislator they vote for follow their directive.

    That means the candidates have to offer ideas that help us get out of this pre-determined, media-driven, entrenched establishment scenario of what the "political reality" is.
    "Getting things done" is not the same as doing what's right for the people you claim to represent.

    As soon as we are able to minimize the influence corporations have on our legislators and political process, then actual voting people--not corporations--will have hope for their futures.

    Economies are built by having the interests of the people being served by corporations, not by the people being servant to the rule of corporations.

    1. Agree with this entirely, Anon. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post (no Bernie fan) has a very good analysis of the key question in the race, and if you think extra steps are needed on top of the Obama years.

      "To be fair to Sanders, even if his promises are unrealistic, given the structural realities of our politics, he is basically trying to shift the boundaries of what we decide at the outset should constitute “realism.” Missing this risks missing a core aspect of his appeal. In addition to his supporters’ legitimate agreement with his specific policies, surely his supporters are also fired up by his Big Idea, which is this: It should not be seen as radical, crazy, or beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse to run for president on the idea that a country as rich and great as this one should guarantee to everyone a minimally decent standard of living and a reasonable measure of opportunity — in the form of guaranteed quality health care, a guaranteed college education, and a guaranteed retirement with dignity."

      And Sargent says those who don't think our current boundaries should be pushed tend to support Hillary. So we have to outvote and replace those who want to settle for something we don't accept. And that means voting in local elections and primary elections, because you know those in power (and beholden to the power) will.