The response in some quarters to President Obama’s (frankly rather anodyne) remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast has been dispiriting, if sadly predictable. The right-wing outrage machine has (once again) deemed him an apologist for Islamist terrorism and an enemy of true Christianity and Western civilization. (How they square this with his actual record is beyond me.)
More sober commentators have made much of the “Niebuhrian” (as in Reinhold) spirit of the president’s comments. Obama recognizes that no religion has a monopoly on violence, and no society is beyond using faith to justify its crimes. As Niebuhr pointed out again and again, even our best efforts are tainted with self-interest. Humility and self-criticism are indispensable, even while they shouldn’t paralyze us in pursuing justice.
This has been a persistent theme of Obama’s public statements since the beginning of his presidency. He famously named Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, and there has been no shortage of attempts to look at his policies through a Niebuhrian lens.
The reaction to Obama’s speech from some elements of the Right, however, puts me more in the mind of Reinhold’s brother Helmut Richard. In his justly famous analysis of “radical monotheism,” the younger Niebuhr brother distinguished monotheism in its highest form from what he called “henotheism.” As theologian Douglas Ottati has summarized Niebuhr’s analysis, henotheism “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends.” In a henotheistic scheme, God is used to prop up the values of the group, rather than calling people to a truly universal ethic.
When people can’t abide self-criticism or acknowledge that Christianity has been used to justify despicable evil (from the Crusades to pogroms against Jews to slavery and Jim Crow, and much besides), henotheism is at work. Christianity becomes the religion of our tribe, rather than a faith in the God who, as Obama’s favorite president put it, “has His own purposes.” The reaction to Obama’s rather mild comments says a lot more about the operative theology of much American Christianity than it does about him.
But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love–“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice–“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ–“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist–“Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist–“I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist–“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
These words are still powerful and challenging considering how quickly we deploy “extremist” as a term of opprobrium. Islamist terrorists are “extremists”; right-wing congressmen are “extremists”; left-wing environmentalists are “extremists.” Using “extremist” as an inherent term of abuse shifts the grounds of the debate, making the the “moderates” sound reasonable by definition and suggesting that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. But as we well know, King had some harsh words for those he called the “white moderates”–the clergy and other respectable citizens who, while they may have been sympathetic to the aims of the civil rights movement, were uncomfortable with anything that seemed to create “conflict.” They preferred orderly, incremental change that didn’t involve disruptive measures like civil disobedience. But as King’s roll call of “extremists” demonstrates, sometimes conflict–even bloody conflict–is unavoidable in order to unmask the violence and injustice that simmer and fester beneath the surface of an apparently “peaceful” social order.
I also find King’s words personally challenging because I am, by temperament, a conservative person who prefers orderly, incremental change. I’m deeply skeptical of revolutions and Manicheancrusades. And yet–some cases do seem to call for a certain black-and-white thinking. Certainly the systematic oppression of black people in the South (and elsewhere in America) was such a case. (Or even more clear-cut, the case of chattel slavery.) A preference for order and incrementalism, as King points out, is often a luxury of the privileged.
Needless to say, I don’t have a good answer to the question of when “extremism” is called for. But surely one essential task is to listen attentively to the voices of those who are pushed to the margins our society–those who most keenly pay the price to prop up the existing order. Examples aren’t particularly hard to come by these days–whether it be the unemployed and hungry, those incarcerated in a nightmarish prison system, or the victims of police brutality. Attending to such people is a quintessentially Christian set of priorities–Matthew 25 priorities you might say. Any social order that rests on the systematic disenfranchisement, impoverishment, or devaluing of some segment of its population, whatever other virtues it may have, falls far short of what justice–at least as the Bible defines justice–requires.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
*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.”
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.