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Monday, January 25, 2016

Transformation or half loaves -- A Debate

I still wish for an in person debate between Paul Krugman and Robert Reich. In a way we have one between their newspaper columns. Krugman in the times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/how-change-happens.html and Reich in his blog: http://robertreich.org/post/137882162570 I think they both are making valid points. But I disagree fundamentally with Krugman's attack on the value of “transformative rhetoric”

Does Change Happen with Transformational Rhetoric?

Reich notes that:

Robert Reich: "New York Times columnist Paul Krugman yesterday warned Bernie supporters that change doesn’t happen with “transformative rhetoric” but with “political pragmatism” – “accepting half loaves as being better than none.” He writes that it’s dangerous to prefer “happy dreams (by which he means Bernie) to hard thinking about means and ends (meaning Hillary).” [Reich Post]

To me Krugman's opinion reflects the continuing influence of neo-liberal views on our political economic thinking, not only on economists like Krugman or Reich, but on the general public. Personally I found that Krugman's article hit me while I was in my Opus style happy place, and was like dumping snow into my bathtub spa experience. Sometimes we need our happy place. Bernie's ideas are my happy place. Krugman and Hillary sometimes makes me remember that the opiates are wearing off and my leg is still broken. I don't see why folks can't buy a whole loaf of bread in a country where 1% of the people own most of the bread. [see Fortune Magazine]

An Asymmetric fight

Krugman writes:

Krugman: “There are still quite a few pundits determined to pretend that America’s two great parties are symmetric — equally unwilling to face reality, equally pushed into extreme positions by special interests and rabid partisans. It’s nonsense, of course. Planned Parenthood isn’t the same thing as the Koch brothers, nor is Bernie Sanders the moral equivalent of Ted Cruz. And there’s no Democratic counterpart whatsoever to Donald Trump.” [Times]

The two parties are asymmetric in other ways too. Increasingly the Wealthy Right owns the media, own or control many institutes of higher learning, and control Wall Street and the major Conglomerates; and thus have some "intellectuals" who will shill for them. Most of us, who are aware of what we are up against would be happy to hold onto the status quo against efforts to do away with what we have. Our "half a loaf" is in danger from the Right Wing "Free Market" ideologues. Which is why so-called "centrists" are under attack.

Krugman: “Moreover, when self-proclaimed centrist pundits get concrete about the policies they want, they have to tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting that what they’re describing are basically the positions of a guy named Barack Obama.” [Times]

Because Obama was never a leftie, at least not in practice. He'd start in the center offering half a loaf to the cons, and they'd reduce him to a quarter loaf. The country has been propagandized to believe that basic democratic principles are 'radical'.

Krugman: “Still, there are some currents in our political life that do run through both parties. And one of them is the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” [Times]

Radical or Populist?

Krugman is confusing populist ideas with "radical" ideas. But Democrats have been talking about universal healthcare, a living wage and basic economic equity issues for more than a century. They were never radical except to the well heeled who begrudge giving the hungry a second helping of gruel. I agree with Reich here:

Robert Reich: "Krugman doesn’t get it. I’ve been in and around Washington for almost fifty years, including a stint in the cabinet, and I’ve learned that real change happens only when a substantial share of the American public is mobilized, organized, energized, and determined to make it happen." [Reich Post]

These aren't radical ideas. Bernies original list of 12 plank items have been on the Democratic plank since before I was born. Investing in infrastructure, FDR's 6 "Second Bill of Rights" list, and things like the Lily Ledbetter act guarantee of wage equity for women, are basic human rights goals of most of us; even of many of us who call themselves GOP Republicans. And it takes leadership who are willing to embrace these bedrock populist and essentially conservative values to fire up people to vote in our elections and fight the cons as they try to bamboozle us, using fear-mongering, into supporting repression and oppression. This is a practical matter. Voters who feel their leaders don't represent their basic needs and aspirations don't vote.

Indeed, what Krugman says next shows he doesn't get it. There is not only no moral equivalence between the right and the left in this country. But their radicalism indicates that "half a loaf" is not possible with them. We either win or we lose with the Cons. They are after dismantling the New Deal, Square Deal and any deal that working people might have gotten.

Krugman: “You see this on the right among hard-line conservatives, who insist that only the cowardice of Republican leaders has prevented the rollback of every progressive program instituted in the past couple of generations. Actually, you also see a version of this tendency among genteel, country-club-type Republicans, who continue to imagine that they represent the party’s mainstream even as polls show that almost two-thirds of likely primary voters support Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz or Ben Carson.” [Times]

The Power of Wealth

Which is why Reich's next point is so important:

Robert Reich: "But not even a half loaf is possible unless or until we wrest back power from the executives of large corporations, Wall Street bankers, and billionaires who now control the whole bakery. Which means getting big money out of politics and severing the link between wealth and political power – the central goal of the movement Bernie is advancing." [Reich Post]

Conditions have changed. We no longer a fighting a party that has a center, much left a left. We are fighting a party that is appealing to the uglier side of our country and is transitioning into overt fascism. [Look carefully at Cruz and trump]. So if we can't find:

Krugman: “Meanwhile, on the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions. In 2008 that contingent rallied behind Mr. Obama; now they’re backing Mr. Sanders, who has adopted such a purist stance that the other day he dismissed Planned Parenthood (which has endorsed Hillary Clinton) as part of the “establishment.” [Times]

Nobody is motivated by Half a Loaf

And Obama was elected by appealing to our higher angels. But no, we have a solid reason for seeing most of our goals as being ones that are decidedly not radical except to neo-liberal or neo-keynesian folks who see social services as somehow detrimental to economic function and "free markets." Something I thought Krugman had gotten past. As Reich notes:

Robert Reich: "Political “pragmatism” may require accepting “half loaves” – but the full loaf has to be large and bold enough in the first place to make the half loaf meaningful. That’s why the movement must aim high – toward a single-payer universal health, free public higher education, and busting up the biggest banks, for example." [Reich Post]

What happens in a fight is that both sides draw lines in the sand. Eventually they come together. If you draw your line inside your enemies territory, he's likely to say "thank you for the give-away but we want the whole loaf." That is what happened with our ACA negotiations. So while Krugman is right:

Krugman: “But as Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.” [Times]

No, transformation only happens when one people fight for and demand a whole loaf. Or even better a reasonable meal. Then one can negotiate something functional. And Krugman doesn't get the fact that what sabotaged Obama was his unwillingness to engage in sustained struggle. Folks stayed home in 2010 because ACA and it's compromises didn't inspire them to show up and vote. They did the same thing in 2014.

Krugman: “Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.” [Times]

Actually his achievements occured because he held firm on the transformational vision enough to stop the Right Wing's efforts to take away even the half loaves. People aren't inspired by folks who give away the store before a shot is fired. Even so the following is what worries me.

Krugman: “There’s a sort of mini-dispute among Democrats over who can claim to be Mr. Obama’s true heir — Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton? But the answer is obvious: Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama. (In fact, the health reform we got was basically her proposal, not his.)” [Times]

Hoping for Party Unity to Achieve our Common Vision

I was hoping that Bernie's candidacy would inspire Hillary to embrace the transformational vision of FDR, Kennedy, Johnson and our party so that we could win electoral victories and reclaim that heritage. But I'm afraid that we'll go down without both a pragmatic and muscular effort to elect democrats to the legislature and local government coupled with the kind of rhetoric that inspires people to vote. I'm deeply worried.

Krugman: “Could Mr. Obama have been more transformational? Maybe he could have done more at the margins. But the truth is that he was elected under the most favorable circumstances possible, a financial crisis that utterly discredited his predecessor — and still faced scorched-earth opposition from Day 1.” [Times]

He's had difficulties aggravated by the fact that President Obama hasn't always muscularly embraced the aspirations of local democrats and fought back. His efforts to "compromise" have foundered on that entrenched opposition and instead of us rallying to fight the cons. We are now blaming the "transformational rhetoric."

The New Deal wasn't Transformational?!!!

But then Krugman resorts to mischaracterizing the New Deal:

Krugman: “And the question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.” [Times]

FDR got 4 terms by using transformational rhetoric. His reforms are still in motion.

Add ons????!!!???

Krugman: “Remember, too, that the institutions F.D.R. created were add-ons, not replacements: Social Security didn’t replace private pensions, unlike the Sanders proposal to replace private health insurance with single-payer. Oh, and Social Security originally covered only half the work force, and as a result largely excluded African-Americans.” [Times]

Krugman is actually wrong! Social Security did replace pensions, mostly because the financial geniuses who ran many companies prior to the Great Depression had stiffed labor out of either decent pay or provisions for pensions -- and the program was created to ensure that folks who had never had a pension could live a decent retirement. It also was created because many companies had dumped their pension plans due to the Great Depression. It's a shame that Democratic racism excluded African Americans, but that is fact. It was transformational.

Krugman: “Just to be clear: I’m not saying that someone like Mr. Sanders is unelectable, although Republican operatives would evidently rather face him than Mrs. Clinton — they know that his current polling is meaningless, because he has never yet faced their attack machine. But even if he was to become president, he would end up facing the same harsh realities that constrained Mr. Obama.” [Times]

Embracing transformational enthusiasm, versus defeatism

What I'm saying is that the mistake being made is to attack basic Democratic ideals as "radical" rather than embrace something that would turn out millions of voters. Hillary should be embracing Bernie's ideas, not letting her spokesmen talk about "half loafs." Krugman's right. Nobody is going to be inspired by promises that if we elect Hillary we might be able to eat half a meal rather than starve like if we elect Cons.

Krugman: “The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.” [Times]

Agreed, but there was nothing hard headed about Obama's efforts to compromise with the cons who basically rebuffed every attempt at a handshake. We have and had a fight, not a normal negotiation. Still it was worth it for him to try to work with him. It established the argument and showed that they were not serious or had real alternatives.

Krugman: “Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.” [Times]

"Hard thinking about means and ends" is neo-conservative talk. Our problems are defined by massive inequity in the distribution of production and capital and a huge disparity between a tiny class of rich and super rich and the dispossessed masses. Means = Ends. Fighting for an equitable future is win/win. Even the wealthy do better if the pie is bigger, even if their share of it is smaller.

Idealism or Fear?

And it's not idealism that should drive us. If we don't reform Wall Street, reduce the power of rent-seeking to infringe on labor, increase inequality, and build up unsecured debt -- Wall Street will once again take down the economy and in the process finish the process of pauperizing the former middle class. It's not idealism driving us, it is fear.

Further reading:
http://fortune.com/2014/10/31/inequality-wealth-income-us/
Reich: http://fortune.com/2014/10/31/inequality-wealth-income-us/
Krugman: "http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/how-change-happens.html"

1 comment:

  1. If we don't fight the powers that be, we will never see change. It has been a fight from the start of this country. A revolution is in order or we will forever be left as slaves to a corrupt system.

    ReplyDelete