Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 September 2005

An Opportunity for Democrats

(Republicans, Please Don’t Read!)


I’ve written before about the Democratic Party’s pitiful state of mind. Since its tragic and angering loss in 2000, the poor old Donkey can’t seem to think of anything but revenge.

When Franklin Roosevelt first campaigned for President, he had “a brain trust.” They were a select group of the “best and the brightest,” assigned to think and work on the toughest social and economic problems of the day. And they did. They came up with Social Security, regulation of the securities, banking and power industries, independent regulation of central banking (a la Alan Greenspan), and more thoughtful regulation of broadcast communication.

Today these ideas are so much an integral part of American government that we forget they all came from FDR’s think tanks (a term that didn’t then exist). Roosevelt’s Democratic “brain trust” invented the “mixed” economic system that we know today. It’s a “mixed” system because it mixes the best ideas from right and left, relying on free markets but restraining and improving them with government regulation in the public interest.

Not only did FDR and his think tanks save capitalism from itself. They created the most durable and resilient economic system the world has ever known. After three quarters of a century, no one has been able to design a better economic system than the one based on their ideas. That’s thinking!

Now fast-forward to 2005. As a contributor to the Democratic Party, I’m on the national committee’s e-mail list. About once a week, I get an e-mail over the signature of someone like John Kerry or Howard Dean. I have not made a detailed quantitative study of these e-mails, but the overwhelming impression they give me is negativity. “Do you know what the Bushies are trying to do??!!” they scream. “We can’t let this happen!” “Fight! Protest! Petition! Oppose! Send Money!” They remind me of a remark made by a wholly apolitical Southern lady (a distant relative) after accompanying a beau to a socialist rally in the 1930s. When asked what she saw as “the Socialist program” there, she replied “All kinds of things must cease.”

If you are unsure of the definition of “reactionary,” put yourself on that e-mail list. After only a few weeks of reading, you’ll have a firm and accurate idea what the word means.

I don’t read those e-mails any more, although occasionally I glance at the first paragraph. To judge by their tone, you would think that Democrats are a tiny minority party, relegated by its pitiful lack of power to protesting helplessly the actions of an eternally dominant majority. But they are not. The 2000 election was close enough to be decided by the Supreme Court. The 2004 election was hardly a landslide for Bush, notwithstanding September 11 and the then-recent capture and incarceration of Saddam Hussein. What’s remarkable is how close Democrats came to winning in 2004 with no new ideas whatsoever. A wave of popular support for the values that Democrats hold dear---civil rights, diplomacy, equal opportunity, community, working together---nearly carried an empty vessel to victory.

Now Democrats have a chance to awaken from their vengeful torpor. Bush and the Republican Congress are vulnerable for two reasons: incompetence and overreaching. Slowly the nation is coming to understand that, whether invading Iraq was right or wrong, the results we see on the ground there arose from poor or nonexistent planning, i.e., gross incompetence. There has been no recent evidence of better planning or greater competence, just a bumper-sticker slogan: “Stay the Course.” Ditto the response to Katrina at this date, despite the President’s vague promises. One would have thought that, four years after 9/11, we would have someone who could get relief supplies to a disaster area in less than 72 hours.

As for overreaching, Bush learned a lesson when he tried to privatize a part of Social Security. There are many parts of the Roosevelt legacy that work well, have universal public support, and require no radical change. Social Security is one of those, as the President discovered to his chagrin. More generally, even folks without the slightest clue about economics are beginning to understand that less regulation and lower taxes cannot possibly be the solution to every problem. The Republican think tanks, once so fruitful and successful, have begun to stumble. Flushed with success, they’ve applied some good ideas too broadly and too thoughtlessly.

So Bush, the Republicans and their thinkers are vulnerable, and Democrats smell blood. The 2006 mid-term congressional elections seem like a grand time for a counter-attack.

But there are two ways to counterattack. One is to out-think your opponent, attract the center and build a “big tent.” The other is to pander to your most extreme base and hope they outnumber the other side. On economic issues, both Al Gore and John Kerry took the second course. Clinton took the first and won handily, despite qualms (which hardly began with Monica Lewinsky) about his personal sexual morality. Isn’t there a lesson there?

What neither party seems to have fully internalized is that we have the world’s most successful economic system precisely because it is mixed, i.e., part capitalist, part communitarian or (if you like loaded epithets) socialist. It combines the best parts of free markets and government regulation, and it tries to do so pragmatically and intelligently, without preconception or dogma.

The genius of us Americans has always been that we do what works. That’s a large part of our secret of success. The Russians and Chinese put their trust in a beautiful but untested theory (Marxism), and look what happened. Yet as soon as Premier Deng uttered that famous slogan, “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” China’s economy began to take off and never looked back. The Russians are still trying to find a theory to connect them to the real world.

Democrats can take pride in having invented the mixed system, in Roosevelt’s think tanks. That invention was marvelous, but it is old news. Bush is President because, by year 2000, the revolution in thought that began with Franklin Roosevelt was spent. A new revolution had begun with Ronald Reagan, and it was time for new thinking. The Republican think tanks, which had been working in the darkness for a generation, stepped in.

You can call what they did a “counterrevolution.” To the extent that all revolutions lead to excess, maybe it was. We are certainly seeing some of that excess now; it’s what gives Democrats an opening.

But viewed dispassionately and honestly, what the Reagan think tanks did was just the next step in our evolving “mixed” economic system. In focusing on the need to regulate and control the excesses of free markets, Roosevelt’s think tanks had neglected some of markets’ strengths. The Republican think tanks exploited them. Free markets, they argued, often can do jobs more efficiently than government and are less subject to corruption and waste, because free markets impose an economic discipline that no political system can mimic. They were right. And so they made headway in expanding economic opportunity, fostering small business, encouraging innovation, eliminating waste in government procurement, and reforming the welfare system.

If you have an apocalyptic, political bent, you might call all this revolution and counter-revolution. I like to think of it as two opposing parties groping for a system that works well for everyone. The two parties have somewhat different values and different presumptions about what works, but they both are trying to win votes, one presumes, by making life better for everyone. If one party has a new idea to make that happen, it enjoys an advantage that may last for several election cycles. Roosevelt proved that for the Democrats, Reagan for the Republicans.

But parties get into trouble when they have no new ideas or, worse yet, revert to outdated stereotypes. Goldwater proved that for the Republicans in 1964, ending up on the losing side of the biggest landslide in American political history. Unfortunately, Al Gore and John Kerry seem to have proved the same point for Democrats. The fact that they lost by much narrower margins than Goldwater only suggests the broad residue of support that Democrats could enjoy nationally, if only they would wake up.

Al Gore might well be in the White House today---hanging chads and Ralph Nader notwithstanding---if he had not campaigned on bashing corporations and the wealthy. Americans can be manipulated, but they are not stupid. They know that corporations design and build the cars they drive, the airplanes they fly in, the televisions they watch, the drugs they take, the furniture they sit and sleep on, and often the houses over their heads. The also know that, by and large, those things work pretty well. Most Americans aspire to be rich themselves and don’t want to tarnish irretrievably the image of those who already are. Finally, most Americans have heard of what class warfare did, has done, and is still doing to Russia and want no part of it. Therefore, bashing the corporations and the rich, unless they are obvious scoundrels or criminals, is, in America, a political ticket to nowhere. Economically, it is a doctor prescribing leeches for fever.

Unfortunately, John Kerry and Howard Dean seem to be pretty firmly in the “bash ‘em, class warfare” camp. Maybe John Edwards is, too. So I have no illusions that the “Party of the People” is going to wake up anytime soon, even by 2008. But in the perhaps unrealistic hope that there are still some surviving “New” Democrats out there, I’d like to offer three points that might help them prevail.

My first suggestion is to recruit the help of leading economists. Have you ever noticed that most of the best economists seem to support Republican ideas? There are two reasons for this.

First, Republicans have listened to economists better than Democrats, so Republican ideas are often more congruent with current economic thinking. Not all economists may be Republicans. Yet, at least since the Reagan era, Republicans appear to have been quicker than Democrats to accept economics as a real science offering useful, practical advice. Republicans therefore have worked better with economists, inviting them into Republican think tanks, soliciting their ideas, and listening carefully. Rather than relying solely on values and slogans like “individualism,” “self-reliance,” and “personal responsibility,” Republicans have taken science seriously. They have, it seems, made the leap from religion to natural philosophy.

The second reason why economists often seem to be in the Republicans’ camp is more subtle. The problems about which Democrats care most---poverty and racism, for example---are not entirely economic and are very hard to solve. They are much harder than understanding the glories of free markets and how to control and regulate them. Like scientists in any other field, economists work on the easier problems first. Some may, just may, be ready to offer practical prescriptions for poverty and racism. They already have offered some useful prescriptions in the small, like eliminating redlining from the banking industry and attracting business competition to inner-city neighborhoods. Democrats can make more progress by enlisting them in their effort to solve social problems.

So my first suggestion is that Democrats try to catch the wave of modern economic science. Despite large pockets of poverty and ignorance, we are an educated people. These days no popular majority is going to follow a leader who mouths obsolete slogans like “soak the rich” or “subsidize the poor.” We need more thoughtful solutions to our problems, and most voters know it. Economists can help solve those problems, consistently with Democratic values, if only they are asked.

My second suggestion is a corollary of the first. There is one area in which modern economics has already been applied successfully to modern social problems: environmental protection. For almost twenty years, economists have suggested reasonable, market-based solutions for reducing pollution. For at least five, some of those solutions have actually been implemented. You know they must work when committed environmentalists (mostly Democrats), by the ones and twos are begin to support them, notwithstanding the political risks of being labeled apostates or “traitors to the cause.”

Unfortunately, Republicans have been the primary implementers of these solutions. I say “unfortunately” because Republican implementation has had two disadvantages. First, Republicans have seldom been the first and strongest promoters of environmental protection. So they often implement these modern economic solutions with a bias: when in doubt, favor the business that makes useful products and pays taxes, but incidentally pollutes. Second, because of this bias and the less-than-impressive history of Republican support for environmental protection, people suspect Republicans of institutionalizing this bias, and therefore modern economic solutions often lack popular support.

Democrats could overcome both these disadvantages, and make a stunning political coup, by co-opting these market-based methods of protecting the environment and taking them to the next level. Not only could Democrats insure that any bias when in doubt favors protecting the environment (especially in places populated by the poor and people of color). Merely by endorsing modern, scientific methods of reducing pollution, Democrats would make everyone take them seriously, allowing both the science and public-policy aspect of these useful ideas to take quantum leaps forward. The effect would be like Nixon going to China.

My final suggestion for new Democratic thought is more general: a focus on science and all it can do for humanity. George W. Bush has been the most “anti-science” president in American history. He has discouraged stem-cell research, one of the most promising fields of biotechnology and medical research. Like a tobacco baron trying to argue that smoking doesn’t cause disease, he has belittled and distorted a worldwide scientific consensus on global warming. (He only changed his tune---and then only by a few notes---after the international scientific community took the extraordinary step of writing a near-unanimous open letter protesting his bullheadedness.) He has undermined public understanding of and respect for science by approving the dilution of evolution in our public schools with transparently religious dogma, thereby disparaging all the practical good that an understanding of evolution can do.

Worse yet, the Bush Administration’s motivation for much of this hostility to science has been pandering to ignorant religious minorities, thereby confusing the very role of science with religion. The world has not really seen the like since the Pope curtailed Galileo’s astronomical research by threatening to excommunicate him in the early seventeenth century.

The short-term challenge to Democrats is to show our people how much science has done and still can do if left unfettered and properly funded, and to do so without negativity and Bush-bashing. Among other things, Democrats should look for ways to: (1) aggressively foster stem-cell research, minimizing religious sensibilities while widely touting research results; (2) propose practical and economically sound technological and social solutions to global warming; (3) emphasize the danger of failing to address global warming at all; and (4) constantly remind the public of the practical benefits of understanding evolution (such as avoiding bacterial resistance to antibiotics and avoiding crop failure due to pest evolution by diversifying crops).

Democrats can also use Katrina as a practical demonstration of the risks of ignoring scientific conclusions and treating scientists as just another political interest group, or as priests of an odd religion. Scientists knew precisely the strength of hurricane that New Orleans’ levees would withstand: a Category 3. That’s how they were designed. Scientists have for decades predicted that New Orleans would succumb to a Category 4 or Category 5. Scientists have known for years that hurricanes have been increasing in ferocity, probably due to global warming. Yet someone, somewhere (probably not President Bush!) failed to connect the dots, and New Orleans died as a result. There is a lesson in that which Democrats can use to their advantage.

But predicting with alarm is not enough. Katrina and President Bush have given Democrats an enormous opportunity. President Bush just announced his readiness to spend $200 billion to reconstruct the devastated areas. It’s his watch and therefore his problem how to find the money. Instead of carping about how Bush will bust the budget (a plausible tactic), Democrats should burn the midnight oil, join with competent specialists, and come up with a workable plan to do the job quickly, efficiently, and consistently with Democratic values. The Democratic program should be realistically priced at not a penny more than $200 billion.

If the Bush Administration listens (as it has promised to do), that program may actually help people and further refine the theory of our “mixed” economy. If it ignores the Democratic plan, any blunders or lack of success can be held up to searing scrutiny in future elections. But to do this, Democrats have to plan, not shoot from the hip.

These three limited suggestions are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many similar problems of public policy that might yield to a concerted assault by policy wonks and competent scientists, economists, and engineers. That assault, however, requires more than incestuous political “strategy” sessions deciding which interest group to pander to next. It requires real and sustained interdisciplinary problem solving, of the type that Republican “think tanks” have undertaken since the Reagan Administration. Democrats have a think tank “gap,” and they need to close it.

One last point. Each party has its skeletons in the closet. The Republicans have racism and the “Southern strategy.” They used it to inveigle many Southern Democrats into switching parties so they could continue opposing complete integration of minorities into American society. That was a shameful, despicable political tactic, but it did work, as least to some degree. President Bush did much to give that strategy the coup de grace when he appointed Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice as Secretaries of State.

The comparable (although far less shameful) skeleton in the Democrats’ closet is its “soak the rich” and “class warfare” strategy. That strategy helped the party attract socialists and communists in the 1930s, but hasn't done much good lately. Still, no Democratic leader has made as dramatic a gesture in burying that skeleton as Bush did in his appointments. Someone should.

Despite his grand and noble visions, President Bush has made more serious blunders in policy and execution that any president I can remember. The Democrats lost the last election because they fielded a candidate with no vision who looked with nostalgia to past struggles (including Vietnam) for support. Even then, they came close to winning. Bush’s blunders now have given the Democrats a golden opportunity. To seize it, all they have to do is bury the skeleton in their own closet, stop reacting, begin problem solving, field a few new ideas, and look to the future, not the past. A good plan for recovering from Katrina would be an excellent start. One thing is clear, however: Democrats won’t start to win elections again until they stop whining, pandering and re-counting votes and get to work on the people’s problems.



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