Toward utopia?

I have always had a small-c conservative streak that makes me skeptical of utopian politics. The idea that human beings could, through their own efforts, abolish suffering, strife and injustice once and for all has always struck me as dangerously wrongheaded. Both history and my own religious tradition seem to tell pretty decisively against this kind of hubris. 20th-century communism is probably the most towering example of utopian aspirations leading to widespread human misery. Human nature is not nearly as malleable as various utopian thinkers have supposed, which tends to undercut ambitious programs of remaking society from whole cloth.

But there’s an opposite danger to utopianism, which is to become complacent about the status quo. Just because utopia in the strict sense is impossible doesn’t mean that things couldn’t be a lot better than they are. Complacency is a particular temptation for the privileged–those of us who are relatively well off materially and insulated from the more obvious forms of injustice.

On a more prosaic level, it’s increasingly evident that the fortunes of center-left political parties across the developed world have suffered in part because they no longer offer a compelling vision of the future that can inspire hope among the electorate. This dynamic played out in last year’s presidential election, where Hillary Clinton was perceived (fairly or not) as lacking the “vision thing” (as George H.W. Bush memorably called it). Her realism was ill equipped to fend off Donald Trump’s fear-mongering and grandiose promises to make America “great” again, however untethered from reality those promises were. And it’s no secret that the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders generated was due in part to his willingness to “go big” in his proposals (free college, universal health care, etc.). Again, it’s debatable whether a President Sanders would’ve been able to deliver on those promises, but he provided something like a vision of a better society and not just a series of incremental tweaks to the status quo.

There’s no easy solution to the dilemma between offering big change and staying within the bounds of political realism. Even our most transformative presidents, like Lincoln and FDR, were keenly aware of the limits placed on them by the powers of their office and the political situations they found themselves in. Nevertheless, it seems clear that without some animating vision of a good society, a political party or movement risks losing its reason for being. Maybe there is room for “utopian” dreaming about the society we want to see.

Toward that end, I really liked this article from Australian economist John Quiggin that I came across recently. Appealing to the thought of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, Quiggin argues that the left, broadly speaking, needs to reclaim a utopian vision of human beings freed from extreme material want; such freedom will allow us to enjoy ever-greater amounts of leisure and develop our distinctive capabilities.

In his 1930 essay “‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes argued that steady economic growth would eventually solve the problem of scarcity and essentially abolish the need to work to survive. Once the age-old struggle for subsistence was solved, humans could use their newfound leisure for other, more humane pursuits.

Quiggin argues that the end to scarcity Keynes envisioned is actually achievable within the relatively near future through a combination of productivity-enhancing technological progress and social-democratic policies. This would require a shift away from the obsession with maximizing wealth and consumption that characterize what Quiggin calls “market liberalism” (and what others call “neoliberalism,” Reaganism, Thatcherism, etc.).

Under market liberalism, the gains of economic output have increasingly accrued to the very rich, while the rest of the population has seen little benefit, and certainly not the freedom from material scarcity that Keynes envisioned.

This could change with a correction in policy, Quiggin thinks:

The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

This is essentially the program of the leftward-edge of social democracy (or left-liberalism in American terms), and a kissing cousin of “democratic socialism,” depending on how one understands those terms. But it would be in the service of a particular vision–of moving beyond the “money-driven” society toward one in which human beings are free not to work and accumulate, or at least work and accumulate less. And though Quiggin doesn’t mention this in his essay, the environmental crisis calls into serious question whether a world of ever-increasing consumption and accumulation is even compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

Yet our mainstream politics is usually afraid to step outside the terms of debate offered by market liberalism. Even left-of-center politicians (in the U.S. anyway) typically talk about citizens as workers and consumers first and foremost and tend to valorize the ulta-rich (particularly if they happen to be their donors).

But the great philosophers and religious traditions are virtually unanimous in saying that the good life for human beings consists of something other than endless work, accumulation and consumption. I’m optimistic enough to believe that many people would, if given the choice, prefer to have less “stuff” if their essential needs were taken care of and if it meant they could spend more time with their friends and family, enjoy artistic and creative pursuits, travel, appreciate nature, etc. This is hardly utopian in the sense of bringing and end to human suffering, nor does it require a revolution to tear down existing society and start from scratch (with the rivers of blood that usually entails). But it points to a dramatically different society organized around virtues that our current arrangements tend to stifle. As Keynes himself put it:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

Given the current state of things, even thinking about utopia seems utopian! But as the Scriptures say, “where there is no vision, the people perish.”


The liberality of John Calvin

The Lord commands us to do “good unto all men,” universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honour and love; but that this image is most carefully to be observed in them “who are of the household of faith,” inasmuch as it is renewed and restored by the spirit of Christ. Whoever, therefore, is presented to you that needs your kind offices, you have no reason to refuse him your assistance. Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which ought to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image. Say that you are obliged to him for no services; but God has made him, as it were, his substitute, to whom you acknowledge yourself to be under obligations for numerous and important benefits. Say that he is unworthy of your making the smallest exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess. If he not only deserved no favour, but, on the contrary, has provoked you with injuries and insults,–even this is no just reason why you should cease to embrace him with your affection, and to perform to him the offices of love. He has deserved, you will say, very different treatment from me. But what has the Lord deserved? who, when he commands you to forgive all men their offences against you, certainly intends that they should be charged to himself.

— John Calvin, quoted by Marilynne Robinson, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.

According to Robinson, the much-derided Calvinist and Puritan strain in American Protestantism emphasized caring for the needy, because of, rather than in spite of, its supposed “legalism.” That is, because it valued the Old Testament more highly than some other Christian traditions, the Calvinist-Puritan synthesis was more influenced by the demands for social justice that are found in the Pentateuch.  God’s “liberality” as expressed in these demands is at the root of “liberalism” as a project of institutionalizing justice for the poor.

The case for American social democracy–4: final thoughts

(Previous posts: here, here, and here.)

My summary can’t do justice to Kenworthy’s book, largely because it leaves out the impressive array of data he uses to buttress his arguments. I’m hardly a data-wonk, but in most cases the evidence he presents is clear and fairly persuasive in showing how the policies he favors can ameliorate the problems of economic stagnation and inequality. He’s also fair and level-headed in addressing objections, and generally un-dogmatic about his conclusions.

There are still things to argue with in this book, though. One of the more interesting arguments, to me anyway, is whether liberals/leftists/social democrats should agree with Kenworthy in accepting a future consisting in large part of relatively low-wage service jobs “cushioned” by generous government spending and services, or whether they should work toward reestablishing, in some form, the high-wage industrial model of the mid-20th century. I don’t know the answer to this, but in support of Kenworthy’s position, I think it’s fair to say that no one has yet come up with a way of recreating that model, despite it being the object of a lot of nostalgia on the center-left.

I’d also liked to have seen more discussion of the “intangible” aspects of work–its meaning, the extent to which it engages our capacities and creativity, whether it allows for some degree of autonomy and self-direction, etc. Making sure everyone has sufficient material resources is absolutely a prerequisite for a decent society, but a good society should also allow for everyone, to the extent possible, to exercise their distinctively human capabilities. That doesn’t have happen through paid labor, but given that many people spend a large chunk of their waking hours at work, making it more fulfilling should be on the agenda.

All that said, however, I’m inclined to support most if not all of Kenworthy’s policy prescriptions. Most of them are good ideas on their own merits, even if they may not be sufficient to solve the problems he identifies. I also consider it a mark in this agenda’s favor that it wouldn’t require an unlikely and radical break with past progress, but its natural continuation. If nothing else, it certainly gives the center-left plenty to do in the years to come.

The case for American social democracy–3: how do we get there?

(See previous posts: here and here.)

Observers of 21st-century American politics might be forgiven for thinking that the policies Kenworthy proposes are so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming. After all, the resurgent radical right bitterly opposes much of the existing welfare state, much less new programs. And haven’t the Democrats largely embraced corporate centrism and deficit-fetishism?

Surprisingly, perhaps, Kenworthy thinks the long-term trend of American social policy is toward providing more services, and once programs are adopted, they are very hard to undo. Simply put, the economic trends producing insecurity, lack of opportunity, and uneven economic gains are likely to continue, if not worsen. Policy makers will try to solve these problems, and the kinds of programs that exist here and abroad have a proven track record of helping. So, at least sometimes, they will succeed in expanding or implementing these programs.

He’s not unaware of the obstacles to these kinds of reforms, but argues that, on balance and over time (the next 50 years or so), many of these policies are likely to be enacted. He points out, for instance, that although many polls show that Americans are opposed to “big government” in theory, they largely support individual programs like Social Security and Medicare. And once a policy is adopted and has been in effect, support tends to go up.

Given yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, it might be worth focusing on the role of money in politics. This ruling lifted a cap on the total amount someone could contribute during a particular period, while leaving intact limits on contributions to individual candidates. It’s another step down the same path as the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, which prohibited limits on independent spending by corporations and unions.

For many folks on the left, the ever-expanding role of money in politics is one of the most powerful obstacles to progressive reform, if not the most powerful. Kenworthy is aware of this, but argues that the role of money in determining political outcomes is overstated:

Even if money totals continue to favor Republicans, it’s unclear how much that will matter. There are diminishing returns to money in influencing election outcomes: when a lot is already being spent, additional amounts have limited impact. The Democrats had less money in 2012, yet they were competitive in the presidential, House, and Senate elections. (p. 163)

In general, he says, the “history of campaign finance in national elections in the past four decades is one of each party and its backers seeking new ways to raise and spend large amounts of money in spite of existing regulations” (p. 163). If this pattern continues, Democrats will find new ways to offset Republicans’ advantages arising from a changed legal and regulatory landscape.

But to many on the left this misses the point: even if Democrats can continue to be electorally competitive, hasn’t the influence of big money pushed them to the right and led them to promote policies that favor the rich? A common story is that over the last several decades the influence of liberals in the party has waned, while corporatist, “third-way” Democrats have triumphed.

Kenworthy considers this objection and responds by showing that, in fact, patterns of voting on economic issues by Democratic legislators at the federal level do not show a shift to the center. If anything, the pattern since 1950 shows a slight shift to the left (see p. 164). (This is partly due to the exodus of conservative southern lawmakers from the party in the wake of civil rights, but even if you factor them out, the pattern holds.) He concedes, however, that focusing exclusively on voting could be misleading since many important policy-shaping decisions are made before a proposal even comes up for a vote. It’s possible that if we could measure this we’d see that the influence of campaign contributions has successfully moved policy to the right. (This strikes me as a fairly significant caveat.)

Nonetheless, the Democrats, while historically more of a centrist than a true leftist party, remain electorally competitive, and the Democratic Party has historically been the main vehicle for implementing progressive economic policies. It’s also worth noting, anecdotally, that in the last few years there seems to have been at least a slight shift toward a more “populist” economic posture among Democrats, which isn’t what you’d expect if big-moneyed interests were all-powerful.

Another major obstacle that many liberals and Democrats would highlight is influence of a more radical and intransigent faction of the right on the GOP (i.e. the tea party). Kenworthy admits that the current GOP and its anti-government rhetoric pose a problem for a social democratic program like his. But he we can expect that the party will move back to the center. Reasons for this would be if the GOP loses an otherwise winnable election and the increasing importance of working-class whites as a Republican constituency. (In fact, last year’s government shutdown fiasco seems to already have provided something of a moderating influence.)  Over time, he thinks, the GOP will find its way back to the middle and come to more closely resemble center-right parties in Western Europe. Its focus will then be not so much on how much the government does, but how it does it.

These claims will probably strike different readers as having varying degrees of probability, and some of the discussion does strike me as a bit Pollyanna-ish. But Kenworthy goes on to point out that, even since the 70s, headway has been made on a number of fronts (e.g., expansions in the EITC, expansions in unemployment insurance, expanded Medicaid access, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and others). Indeed, the Affordable Care Act, for all its problems, is probably the single largest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ’s Great Society and shows that significant progress is still possible.

Next: Final thoughts

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.”

Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”: