Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
Love Me, I’m a Liberal, Phil Ochs
The liberal establishment is worried that the more sophisticated classbased voting rooted in economic awareness they see growing in Latin America after three decades of a disastrous neoliberalism may be heading north. Robert Rubin, Clinton’s first secretary of the treasury and his successor Larry Summers have spearheaded the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution focusing on what they see as the paradox of wage stagnation in a period of robust growth in the productivity of the U.S. workforce. They are worried that growing inequality and wage stagnation will lead to radicalization. The idea is to come up with a program to preempt discussion of more radical proposals and the self-organization of grassroots movements in opposition to business as usual. Modest improvements through spending on education, training, and infrastructure will not be enough to address rising income and wealth inequalities and the deteriorating status of American workers. Nevertheless, establishment liberals hope that frustrations can be cooled by these means.
In one sense this is a simple set of issues. Wages are rising very slowly while productivity is increasing at a relatively rapid clip. This means that there’s an increasing disparity in wealth, a process well documented by economists like Emanuel Saez and Edward Wolffe.
What gets more complicated is what you think is or should be done about it, especially when it comes to the upcoming election, which represents a remarkable opportunity for regime change in the U.S. Tab sets out what might be called a kind of old-leftist party line: as Phil Ochs reminded us, the liberals by definition cannot be trusted to do much more than protect the system.
Kucinich may be more of a progressive than a liberal, but so far our only practical choices are mainstream liberals. So we are faced with the same basic dilemma. Do we vote for Clinton, Obama, or Richards knowing that we are only voting for stop-gap measures at best? None have come out in favor of a single payer health care plan, for example, which means the problems in health care could only grow worse a little less fast in their administrations.
Or do we put our vote into the long term plans of alternative parties, especially the Greens, who have some chance of getting to a position of influence nationally, perhaps especially now that Al Gore has won the Nobel Prize. Or perhaps we should vote for Edwards, who at least seems willing to acknowledge that the growing income disparity problem must be addressed?
“Under Clinton,” Tab writes, “and in the economics advanced by Gore and Kerry, it is clear that the Democrats accepted and encouraged corporate globalization and lacked enthusiasm to defend working-class interests.” Tab concludes by noting that “There remains a basic disconnect between what Americans think is important and what politicians in thrall to the well-to-do are willing to consider.”
At this point, though, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which any of the leading candidates changes their positions. And I doubt a new candidate is likely to come out of nowhere. So I can’t help but wonder if the real question is which liberal policy might have the most bang for the buck in terms of helping the rest of us get organized. Reform of the laws around organizing unions seem the obvious candidate.