The case for American social democracy–1: the problem and its solution

Over the weekend I finished reading Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America. Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona, offers a clear, concise, and well-argued case for expanding the role of government in ensuring economic fairness and opportunity for all.

Kenworthy’s book is divided into four main sections: describing the problem, making the case for his preferred solutions, dealing with objections and alternative proposals, and arguing that the changes we need are not only politically feasible, but likely. In this post, I’m going to focus on the problem and Kenworthy’s proposed solutions. In future posts, I’ll look at some objections and alternatives he considers, how he thinks we can move forward politically, and finally some of my own thoughts on the book.

The problem

There won’t be much new here for anyone who has followed these debates in recent years, but Kenworthy compellingly lays out the data showing that since the 1970s the U.S. has been moving in the wrong direction. He breaks the problem into three components: economic security, opportunity, and shared prosperity.

Security means “having sufficient resources to cover our expenses” (p. 17); lack of security is indicated by low incomes, declining incomes, and large unanticipated expenses, such as a major health event. Income insecurity has risen in the last few decades largely because of changes in the economy: increased competitive pressures arising from globalization and more demand from shareholders for constantly increasing profits chief among them.

Opportunity does not, for Kenworthy, mean equal opportunity, which would require everyone to have the same “skills, abilities, knowledge, and noncognitive traits.” Instead, he proposes, following economist Amartya Sen and others, that we focus on maximizing people’s capacities “to choose, act, and accomplish” (p. 30). In post-1970s America, he shows, opportunity, as measured by the ability of someone from a poorer-than-average family to move up the economic ladder, has declined.

Shared prosperity means that the economy benefits everyone, even if unequally. Most Americans probably don’t object to inequality per se, but recent decades have seen the benefits of economic growth going primarily to the top 1 percent. “The income pie has gotten bigger, and everyone’s slice has increased in size, but the slice of the richest has expanded massively while that of the middle and below has gotten only a little bigger” (p. 36).

The solution

One distinctive feature of Kenworthy’s book is that, unlike many on the left, he doesn’t necessarily think we need radical new policy proposals to address the problems he has outlined. Rather, we mainly need to build on and expand existing programs and borrow some ideas from other countries, particularly the Nordic “social democratic” ones (hence the title).*

Economic security can be enhanced by implementing or expanding programs that address low incomes, declining incomes, and large unanticipated expenses. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, unemployment and wage insurance, paid parental leave, and universal health insurance. All of these policies help compensate for fluctuations in people’s income.

To expand opportunity, Kenworthy proposes various improvements to our educational system on the grounds that “schools . . . are our principal lever for enhancing opportunity” (p. 62). These include things like free public colleges, more investment in high-quality K-12 teachers, and universal pre-K education. In addition to educational improvements, he also suggests a cash grant to low-income families in the form of a “child allowance,” reducing incarceration for minor criminal offenses, and instituting family-background-based affirmative action programs.

Ensuring shared prosperity may be the hardest problem to tackle. This is because the forces that have contributed to unequal growth are not easily reversed: globalization, mechanization, immigration, etc. Moreover, it’s not clear that it would be good to reverse these trends even if we could. Kenworthy does think the government can do more to encourage higher-wage employment by, for example, providing personalized job search and (re)training support, subsidizing private-sector jobs, and creating public-sector jobs.

But ultimately he thinks we need to accept that many of the jobs of the future will be relatively low-wage service jobs. Rather than fight this, we should ameliorate it through things like a higher minimum wage and an expanded EITC. We can also provide more  public goods, including public spaces and more paid holidays and vacation time, which can improve people’s standard of living even if they don’t increase their income as such.

Kenworthy even provides his favored proposals in handy bullet-list form:

–Universal health insurance

–One year of paid parental leave

– Universal early education

– Increased Child Tax Credit

– Sickness insurance

– Eased eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance

– Wage insurance

– Supplemental defined-contribution pension plans with automatic enrollment

– Extensive, personalized job search and (re)training support

– Government as employer of last resort

– Minimum wage increased modestly and indexed to prices

– EITC extended farther up the income ladder and indexed to average compensation or GDP per capita

– Social assistance with a higher benefit level and more support for employment

– Reduced incarceration of low-level drug offenders

– Affirmative action shifted to focus on family background rather than race

– Expanded government investment in infrastructure and public spaces

– More paid holidays and vacation time

Lane Kenworthy thinks we need more public goods--like the library where I got this copy of his book.
Lane Kenworthy thinks we need more public goods–like the library where I got this copy of his book.

Next post: Objections and alternatives

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*A note on usage: by “social democracy” Kenworthy largely means the model favored in the Nordic countries, which combines relatively free markets with robust welfare states and provision of public goods. This differs from some other uses of the term, which take “social democracy” to be virtually synonymous with “democratic socialism.” As Kenworthy uses it, though, social democracy is not wholly distinct from, but rather exists on a continuum with, what Americans typically call “liberalism.”

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6 thoughts on “The case for American social democracy–1: the problem and its solution”

  1. I agree with many of Kenworthy’s ideas, but in your review I could find not a single word about how he proposes to pay for increased government programs, employment and earned income tax credits. Perhaps there is more in the book–interested to see. Somewhere along the line, governments must have adequate funding to carry out their programs, and it’s not coming from those with declining wages.

  2. “To expand opportunity, Kenworthy proposes various improvements to our educational system on the grounds that “schools . . . are our principal lever for enhancing opportunity” (p. 62). These include things like free public colleges, more investment in high-quality K-12 teachers, and universal pre-K education.”

    Sweden goes far further than us in this regard… and has exactly the same rate of social mobility as the US. Medieval England had the same rate of social mobility. It is essentially a constant, and government programs do nothing to change it.

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