The case for American social democracy–2: objections and alternatives

(See previous post.)

After discussing the problems he’s concerned with and his proposed solutions, Kenworthy considers a number of objections to his program, both from the “right” and the “left” (broadly speaking).

For instance, one of the most obvious objections is: how are we going to pay for all this? Kenworthy estimates that the policies he’s outlined would require an additional 10 percent of GDP in expenditures. He thinks this can be accomplished through a combination of tax measures–most significantly a national consumption tax, or value-added tax, similar to those of many European countries, along with modest increases in the income tax rate for high earners, an end to the mortgage interest deduction, a carbon tax, and a few other measures.

He argues that American liberals have been overly focused on making the income tax more progressive, whereas what should really matter to the left is that the post-tax-and-transfer distribution is progressive. This requires a tax base broad enough to finance the programs he’s identified.

He goes on to rebut claims that big government is bad for economic growth, innovation, and employment, marshaling data showing that these are all compatible with the kind of robust social-welfare state he’s advocating. He also argues that such a state is consistent with economic freedom, as conservatives often define it, noting that some social democratic countries have relatively light regulation (including of the labor market). He calls this “competition with cushions”–in essence, you want a dynamic market economy to generate wealth and jobs, but one whose rough edges are smoothed by redistribution and the provision of public goods. The Nordic model shows that this is possible in the real world.

These are mostly objections from the right. Alternative proposals from the left that Kenworthy considers include putting the brakes on globalization, re-industrializing the economy, and revitalizing unions. As I’ve already mentioned, Kenworthy doesn’t think these are, for the most part, either plausible or desirable goals. For instance, globalization (which means both liberalized trade and increased immigration) has arguably helped lift hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty. It would be ironic, to say the least, if the American left made policies that would prevent this the centerpiece of its domestic social justice platform. Regarding industrialism and unions, given recent trends, Kenworthy sees little prospect for returning to the mid-20th-century model of high levels of industrial employment and strong private-sector unions.

He goes on to consider other “left” alternatives to his proposals, such as ensuring a high wage floor (vs. a lower wage floor with after-the-fact redistribution) and a basic universal income grant. As far as wages go, as noted earlier, he thinks the minimum wage should certainly be higher, but increasing it enough to make it a primary means of increasing incomes at the lower end would likely reduce employment. He goes on to emphasize that public goods and services can be a means of increasing people’s standard of living, even with relatively low wages. Similarly, he worries that a UBI would reduce employment and weaken support for other social programs.

To summarize, Kenworthy thinks that the Nordic model shows that we can have the dynamic, high-growth economy favored by the right and still ensure economic fairness via the redistributionist policies favored by the left. This puts him at odds, at least to some extent, with both sides of the spectrum. Though I suspect he’d find much more opposition from the right than the left to most of his proposals.

Next post: How do we get there?

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


*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.”

Why libertarians are not “social liberals”

Politico ran a story today from conservative writer Kevin Williamson on why Senator Rand Paul’s brand of libertarian-inflected conservatism will have trouble appealing to voters.

I don’t know about the politics, but Williamson makes an interesting point about the difference between libertarians and social liberals. Libertarians are sometimes described as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” but Williamson says that liberals actually don’t like Paul’s brand of leave-us-alone social libertarianism:

If the fair-weather fiscal conservatives don’t like Rand Paul, the phony social liberals are going to loathe him. Here’s where the English language fails us: “Liberal” and “libertarian” come from the same linguistic root, meaning “liberty,” and many libertarians will describe themselves among friends as “classical liberals”—political heirs to the Whigs and the Manchester free-traders. But “socially liberal” and “socially libertarian” today mean almost precisely opposite things. If there is one thing our “social liberals” hate, it is liberty. In their view, you’re free to do as they please.

Take the case of the Christian bakers and photographers who do not wish to participate in same-sex weddings because of their religious and moral views. Paul takes the classical liberal view, which is that people should be allowed to make their own decisions based on their own values, and that if a baker’s belief offends you, then you can criticize him, boycott him, give him the full Duck Dynasty treatment—but you cannot use the strong arm of the state to compel him to put two tuxedoed gentlemen on top of a cake.

America’s so-called social liberals think that amounts to Jim Crow for gay people. Paul’s instinct is to get marriage entirely out of the federal tax code and to let the states define marriage for themselves. For social liberals, that is, at best, a punt. On the subject of gay marriage, they do not want a skeptical federalist—they want a president who is categorically in favor of gay marriage. They do not want somebody tolerant, but somebody committed, and willing to use the federal government to make their own preferences national policy. They don’t want marriage written out of the federal tax code—they want gay marriage written into it. They demand a pro-gay president even if, like Barack Obama in 2008 and 2010 and half of 2012, he claims to be against gay marriage for reasons of cynical political self-interest. Liberalism is a subculture; they know their own. Rand Paul isn’t one of them—and probably won’t get their votes. In fact, whether it is abortion, guns, public-school curricula or the all-important issue of dropping the federal civil-rights hammer on noncomformist bakers, Paul can count on bitter, unified opposition from liberal social-issue voters.

Minus the tendentious characterization of liberalism, I actually think Williamson is on to something here. Broadly speaking, liberals care about social equality, while libertarians care about non-interference from the government. This is why, for example, you get liberals arguing that business owners shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation, while libertarians say that property owners should be free to discriminate in whom they serve (or hire).

Sometimes these views overlap in their policy recommendations–for example, both liberals and libertarians generally oppose locking up nonviolent drug users. But it’s worth understanding that these are based in different philosophical viewpoints. Liberals do not see non-interference by the government as the highest political good. In fact, they think that government action is often warranted to ameliorate social inequalities. From a liberal point of view, libertarian “non-interference” leaves people, particularly less powerful people, at the mercy of private concentrations of power–corporations, bosses, intolerant religious and social majorities, etc. Certainly liberals think liberty is an important good, but they don’t see government as the only, or even necessarily the main, threat to liberty.*

Incidentally, this is why I think the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” formula is ultimately incoherent. If social liberalism is about social equality, then you can’t be a social liberal without supporting the material conditions of equality. This means not only that government may need to step in to thwart discrimination, but also that it should ensure access to the basic material conditions of participating in society on an equal footing. This includes such essential goods as education, health care, and a minimum level of income (though liberals disagree on the ideal mechanisms to provide access to these goods). Liberals and libertarians may share some philosophical forbears, but at this point they’re really different species.


*It’s worth noting that J.S. Mill’s classic liberal manifesto On Liberty was in large part concerned with non-governmental forms of coercion.

Two recent books on Christian liberalism

Christopher H. Evans’ Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition (2010) provides a brief history and qualified commendation of the American tradition of liberal Christianity. He discusses the roots of liberalism in the 19th century, its flowering in the Social Gospel movement, and its continuing diffusion and influence throughout the 20th century. As the title suggests, Evans is far from uncritical of the liberal tradition, but he thinks it still has much to contribute to the revitalization of mainline Protestantism. For example, Evans argues that contemporary liberal theology is too rooted in academia and too detached from congregational life and the living sources of Christian tradition. In particular, he says, liberalism needs to engage more constructively with contemporary evangelicalism; after all, many of the giants of liberal Christianity came out of the evangelical milieu of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Liberal religion will probably remain a minority preference for the foreseeable future, but American still needs a theological tradition that engages critically and constructively with secular thought, responds to systemic social injustice, and promotes pluralism in theology.

Michael Langford’s The Tradition of Liberal Theology (2014) is less historical and more directly theological and philosophical than Evans’ book. It describes and defends a tradition of Christian thought stretching back to the 2nd century that emphasizes the compatibility of faith and reason, the goodness and rationality of God, theological pluralism, and a nonliteral approach to the Bible, among other elements. He sometimes calls this “liberal orthodoxy” to emphasize its commitment to central Christian doctrines like creation, incarnation, and Trinity. Langford identifies 13 historical figures whose thought contributed to this tradition and argues that it continues to be a viable approach to Christianity in the 21st century. In contrast to Evans’ more America-centric approach, Langford focuses on a particularly (though not uniquely) British tradition and emphasizes philosophical considerations more than social reform. But these books provide complementary rather than conflicting defenses of liberalism.

I wouldn’t identify myself as a full-blown theological liberal, but I think the tradition still has valuable contributions to make to the future of Christianity. These two books provide a good start for thinking about what those contributions might be.

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.