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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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.

You can’t separate politics from morality

To me, the most interesting part of this Dahlia Lithwick article on the recent wave of left-of-center protests in North Carolina is this:

One of the first speakers of the morning opened with a booming, Southern, “Shabbat Shalom, y’all.” An imam spoke eloquently of civil rights. An astute 11-year-old friend observed that when so many religious leaders can agree so much about moral truths, “The speeches can be much shorter.” And when Barber spoke, he toggled almost imperceptibly between quoting the Constitution and the Bible. “Kicking hardworking people when they are down is not just bad policy. It is against the common good,” he preached, pleading, “Lord, Lord, plant our minds on higher ground.”

Progressives are not used to so much religion in their politics. I met someone who planned to avoid Saturday’s protest because of the God talk, and it’s clear that for many liberals, it’s easier to speak openly about one’s relationship with a sexual partner than a relationship with God or spirituality. But there are a lot of liberals who live on the seam between faith and politics. And one of the core messages of Moral Mondays is that ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left. Or as Barber put it when he spoke, those who dismiss these protesters as “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists” fail to understand that the great prophets of the Bible and the founders of American constitutional democracy were “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists,” too.

As discomfiting as it may be to hear the Bible quoted alongside the Federalist Papers, the truth remains that for most people of most faiths, kicking the poorest and most vulnerable citizens when they are down is sinful. Stealing food and medical care from the weakest Americans is ethically corrupt. And the decades long political wisdom that only Republicans get to define sin and morality is not just tactically wrong for Democrats. It’s also just wrong. This is a lesson progressives are slowly learning from nuns and the new pope. When we talk of cutting food stamps or gutting education for our poorest citizens, we shouldn’t just call it greed. We should call it what it is: a sin.

Liberals have long been skittish about mixing politics and religion, and often with good reason. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of a liberal society is an embrace of religious pluralism. This has led many academic liberal theorists to take their cue from philosopher John Rawls’ admonition that a liberal society must be “neutral” between competing conceptions of the human good.

But the uncomfortable truth is that this is at odds with much of the history of progressive social movements. Arguably, the two most important movements for social justice in U.S. history–abolitionism and the Civil Rights movement–succeeded in no small part because they appealed to Americans’ religious sentiments. Lithwick’s article suggests that forging any broad-based political coalition in America still requires such an appeal.

Personally, I’m skeptical that any society can maintain a strict Rawlsian neutrality among conceptions of the good life.  Public policy will, I suspect, inevitably reflect prevalent views on what kinds of life are worth pursuing, which for many Americans includes a religious component. In the realm of real-world politics, refraining from taking a position on the good is likely to cede the public arena to the influence of wealth or naked self-interest. This constitutes a de facto endorsement of a certain vision of the good.

The question is whether we can affirm certain goods as worthy of public endorsement while maintaining our commitment to a reasonable form pluralism. I think we can, but I can also see why it might make some liberals uncomfortable.

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”:

The evangelical liberalism of Georgia Harkness

A common story about 20th century American theology is that liberalism dominated in the early decades, but gradually vanished in the face of more conservative or orthodox alternatives. Theological modernism and the Social Gospel movement seemed to be the wave of the future, but they were swept away by the winds of Barthian neo-orthodoxy blowing in from Europe and by Reinhold Niebuhr’s devastating criticism of liberalism’s naive moralism and shallow optimism about human sin. As the story goes, liberalism has been in decline ever since, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of mainline church-goers and the resurgence of a newly confident conservative evangelicalism.

Of course, as folks like Gary Dorrien have pointed out, this story oversimplifies things quite a bit. Liberalism has never completely died out, and some of the most creative theological minds of the last several decades have been those working in the liberal tradition. Moreover, Dorrien has shown how putative critics of liberalism like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were actually working within the liberal tradition, even as they criticized the forms it took during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A less-known but still important figure who never abandoned the liberal tradition was pioneering Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness (1891-1974). She was the first woman to attain a full professorship at a theological seminary in the U.S. and was a life-long proponent of theological liberalism, albeit a “chastened” liberalism. Harkness began her career as a philosopher, studying at Boston University under the renowned personalist philosopher Edgar S. Brightman, did postdoctorate studies under Alfred North Whitehead, and refined her views through interactions with Niebuhr and Tillich as part of the “Younger Theologians Group” and during a sabbatical at Union Theological Seminary.

Georgia_E._Harkness
“I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed.”

Harkness was also active in reform movements in church and society. She was an unflagging proponent of the Social Gospel and maintained her pacifist convictions even during World War II. She was also heavily involved in the Christian ecumenical movement, attending important conferences in Oxford; Madras, India; and Amsterdam. Notably, at one ecumenical church meeting she debated Karl Barth himself on the subject of women’s equality.

So what was the nature of Harkness’ theological liberalism? In her introduction to the excellent collection Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian, Rebekah Miles explains Harkness’ theological outlook using an image developed by fellow liberal Henry Van Dusen. Theological liberalism has two “parents”: modernism–the critical, rationalist spirit derived from the Enlightenment–and evangelicalism–with its emphasis on experiential religion and spiritual transformation. Different liberal theologies share a “family resemblance” in that they contain varying mixtures of both tendencies.

According to Miles, during the critical years from 1929 to 1940, Harkness’s thought shifted from a modernist form of liberalism toward a more evangelical type. An evangelical liberal in this sense accepts the findings of science and critical history; she also sees a continuity, or at least consistency, between God’s general revelation in nature and special revelation in the Bible.  But at the same time, the clearest, most reliable revelation of God’s nature is found in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as witnessed to in the New Testament. Evangelical liberalism is open to insights from a variety of sources but is grounded in the living Christ of the gospels.

Harkness adopted what she called a “synoptic” approach to theological truth, one that, fittingly, echoes the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral. All sources of knowledge–authority, experience, science, logic, and pragmatism–should inform our thinking about God. She rejected any exclusive reliance on churchly authority, bibilcal proof-texting, spiritual experience, or natual reason as the basis for theological truth. Instead, she argued that all of these sources have value, but only as sifted through what she called “the mind of Christ.” By this she meant both the image and teachings of Jesus as presented the gospels and the “indwelling spiritual Christ.” Harkness refused to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” With Christ as the lens, these other sources of truth receive their proper focus.

In her own recounting of how her mind had changed over the years, Harkness emphasized her shift to a more Christ-centered religion, but at the same time reaffirmed her commitment to liberalism:

Ten years ago I was a liberal in theology. I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed. This does not mean that I have seen nothing in liberalism that needed correction. We were in danger of selling out to science as the only approach to truth, of trusting to hopefully in man’s power to remake his world, of forgetting the profound fact of sin and the redeeming power of divine grace, of finding our chief evidence of God in cosmology, art or human personality, to the clouding of the clearer light of the incarnation. Liberalism needed to see in the Bible something more than a collection of moral adages and a compendium of great literature. It needed to see in Christ something more than a great figure living sacrificially and dying for his convictions. It needed to be recalled to the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.

These correctives have come to us. I do not think liberalism ever had as many utopian illusions as it is now customary in retrospect to attribute to it, but its self-confidence has been challenged both by events and by theological trends. With many others in America I have profited from the currents coming out of continental Europe and too superficially called Barthian. These have come to me through books, but more though the forceful personalities of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich–men with whom I do not agree very far but by whom I am stirred to rethink my faith. They have come at Oxford and Madras through wrestling with continental theology for the liberalism which I believe to have the truth.

My liberalism is, I trust, a chastened and deepened liberalism. But I am more convinced than ever I was before that God reveals himself in many ways and that only through the spirit of free inquiry can Christian faith go forward. I believe in the essential greatness of man, in a social gospel which calls us to action as co-workers with God in the redemptive process, in a Kingdom which will come in this world by growth as Christians accept responsibility in the spirit of the cross. My Christian faith has its central focus, not in Paul’s theology or Luther’s or Calvin’s, but in the incarnation of God in the Jesus of the Gospels. (from “A Spiritual Pilgrimage: Ninth Article in the Series ‘How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade,'” Christian Century 56 (Mar. 15, 1939), excerpted in Miles, ed., Georgia Harkness, pp. 19-20.)

In my view, this combination of openness to critical thought, commitment to social reform, and an emphasis on a personal, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ still has much to contribute the church and the world.

When is schism justified (or required)?

Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.

  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.

  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.

  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*

Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.

Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?

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*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.

The ACA, social insurance, and human solidarity

Most liberals and Democrats admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been a mess. How serious this is for the long-term success of the law is a matter of debate, but no one thinks this has been anything other than a rocky start. The most visible problem, of course, has been the all-but-non-functional healthcare.gov website, which has prevented people (how many is uncertain) from signing up for insurance plans under the new federal exchange. But more recently the focus has shifted to the architecture of the law itself–specifically changes to the individual insurance market which have resulted in people having their existing policies cancelled and, in at least some cases, seeing the amount they will have to pay to get new policies go up.

There are good wonky liberal responses to this–Jonathan Chait provides a nice overview here. The short version is that two groups–those without any insurance at all and those who purchased individual insurance–were always going to be the ones most affected by the ACA. For the former, the effects were virtually all positive: they would either be able to afford insurance on the exchanges, possibly qualifying for subsidies to help, or they might fall under expanded Medicaid eligibility. In the case of the latter group, things are a bit more mixed. Many of these people would find that they could now afford policies that were cheaper and/or better than what they had before. But at least some of these people (no one seems to know for sure how many) would end up paying more for policies comparable to what they had before. This is the much-vaunted “sticker shock” we’ve been hearing about.

As Chait explains, the reason for this is relatively simple: the whole purpose of insurance is to put people into risk pools in order to spread risk (and hence cost) around. Thus in any risk pool, those people with lower risks (in this case, the young and healthy) are going to end up “subsidizing” those with higher risks (the old, the sick, etc.). So people who were able to get policies for less, because insurers could discriminate based on your health history, may now find themselves paying more because they are in a pool with people who previously would’ve had to pay more, or wouldn’t have been able to get insurance at all. The very same principle operates in the employer-based insurance model, which is how most Americans currently get their insurance. People whose age and health vary widely are grouped into a single risk pool, with the younger, healthier people effectively subsidizing the older and less healthy.

From a certain point of view this all sounds horribly unfair. But only if you take an ultra-individualistic, short-term view of fairness. As David Kaib nicely explained in a post yesterday, the concept of social insurance rests on a sense of social solidarity. We spread risk around because we want everyone, within limits, to be taken care of and have a shot at a decent life. All wealthy societies have implemented forms of social insurance, including the U.S., despite our individualistic rhetoric.

The notion of solidarity rests not only on concern for our fellow citizens, but also a more realistic understanding of our own self-interest. Social and political philosophers like Alasdair McIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Susan Moller Okin have pointed out that much of the Western political tradition assumes that the typical or normative human being is a healthy, independent, male individual, and this has distorted our concepts of justice. In reality, all of us find ourselves, at some point in our lives, dependent on others, whether as infants and children, or because we get sick, or because we get old and frail and lose our minds. We are “dependent rational animals,” in McIntyre’s suggestive phrase. Vulnerability and dependency are instrinsic to the human condition.

This means that even if you are a young, healthy person, you will, inevitably, be an old or sick person. And when that happens, younger, healthier people will be caring for you. Social insurance is simply a way of institutionalizing this, making it less ad hoc and subject to chance.

It should be obvious that these principles are congruent with Christian ethics, which enjoin care for the neighbor, respect for parents, and justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Moreover, the doctrines of original sin and unmerited grace emphasize our common human lot and fact that none of us can save ourselves. Conservative Christians sometimes argue that social insurance is not a proper responsibility of government but that relief for poverty and sickness should come voluntarily from churches and other non-governmental entities. But there’s very little in the Christian ethical tradition per se to support such a restrictive role for government; this view owes more to libertarian conceptions of the “night-watchman state” than anything specifically Christian.

Unfortunately (from my perspective), the U.S. is still caught in the debate over whether the government has a proper role in ensuring economic security for all its citizens. This distinguishes us from most European social democracies, where the debate is more about the means by which the government should do this, the precise levels of expenditure, etc. During the last election, the Democrats emphasized solidarity and interdependence to some extent (e.g., the president’s (in)famous “you didn’t build that,” and in some of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention), but American political discourse still seems largely driven by notions of individual rights and deserts. We need a stronger culture of solidarity to underwrite a commitment to social insurance, and thus the possibility of human flourishing for all.