Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Problem With Pragmatism

Thinking about the scold we Lefties got from President Obama the other day, and the scorn he got from us in return, and the criticism bloggers and journalists are heaping upon each other as they pick a side, it all seems to boil down to one thing: When it comes to policy-making in modern-day Washington, you either think something is better than nothing, or you think nothing is better than something.

If, like President Obama and some of our Democrats, you think something is better than nothing, then compromises on the tax bill and healthcare reform and the stimulus package and Afghanistan and GITMO are acceptable, pragmatic actions. But if you take the long view, then such pragmatism does more harm than good. Sometimes, nothing is better than something.

Or, to put it another way: if you have a blister on your thumb, then amputating your arm is definitely a radical, foolhardy move. Unless you’re a masochist, you will opt for a Band-Aid instead. But say you’re Aron Ralston, and you aren’t dealing with a blister but instead are trapped beneath a boulder. In that case a Band-Aid is useless and foolish; amputating your arm to save your life is the pragmatic, albeit drastic, solution.

The trick in politics is knowing when you have a blister and when you are trapped by a boulder. And some of us progressive-types are saying the Democrats are trapped by a boulder right now. What’s at stake isn’t simply a piece of legislation here and there or even an election or two, it’s the entire legacy of the New Deal. And perhaps the sooner everyone wakes up to that reality, the better.

Three weeks before President Obama threw a bucket of cold water on the liberal base, James K. Galbraith articulated the conundrum that is the Obama presidency in a speech ominously titled, “Whose Side Is The White House On?”

The historian and economist said:
On the topics that I know most about, the administration is beyond being a disappointment. It’s beyond inept, unprepared, weak, and ineffective. Four and again two years ago, the people demanded change. As a candidate, the President promised change. In foreign policy and the core economic policies, he delivered continuity instead. That was true on Afghanistan and it was and is true in economic policy, especially in respect to the banks. What we got was George W. Bush’s policies without Bush’s toughness, without his in-your-face refusal to compromise prematurely. Without what he himself calls his understanding that you do not negotiate with yourself.


The president deprived himself of any chance to develop a narrative from the beginning by surrounding himself with holdover appointments from the Bush and even the Clinton administrations: Secretary Geithner, Chairman Bernanke, and, since we’re here at Harvard, I’ll call him by his highest title, President Summers. These men have no commitment to the base, no commitment to the Democratic Party as a whole, no particular commitment to Barack Obama, and none to the broad objective of national economic recovery that can be detected from their actions.

This is all correct, and there’s more ... lots more. Go read Galbraith’s entire speech. He outlines point-by-point how the Obama Administration failed by advocating weak policies, by campaigning as a man of the people then siding with the banks and Wall Street.

The question is, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? Galbraith and others believe we are now lodged behind a massive, conservative boulder, and Band-Aids -- pragmatic, legislative compromises -- do more harm than good. If the Democratic Party is going to continue to exist as a political force, then they need to start showing they stand for something. That may mean some legislative failures to score some ideological wins.

Stupid? Maybe, if you’re talking about some legislative initiatives. But the country faces huge challenges right now. Big battles require big actions. And with every compromised, pragmatic vote, Democrats saddle themselves with Republican baggage. They lose the argument. George W. Bush launched his disastrous, budget-busting war of choice in Iraq, but Democrats voted for it too, and there we are. Learn that lesson, Democrats.

In two years no one will remember that the Republicans were being really mean on tax cuts. They’ll just remember that when the Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate and the White House, they gave millionaires a tax cut that isn’t offset by spending cuts. So the Republicans will also remind everyone that Dems added 900 bazillion jillion dollars to the deficit, because that’s how our narrative works. Republicans rule the media, and I promise you we’ll suddenly be a nation of fiscal hawks again when it comes time to spend money on things like Social Security and Medicare and social safety nets.

That’s how it works when you have one political party bent on destroying the greatest achievement of another political party.

Here’s Galbraith’s take:

What is at stake in the long run? Two things, mainly, in my view. First, it seems to me that we as progressives need to make an honorable defense of the great legacies of the New Deal and Great Society — programs and institutions that brought America out of the Great Depression and bought us through the Second World War, brought us to our period of greatest prosperity, and the greatest advances in social justice. Social Security, Medicare, housing finance — the front-line right now is the foreclosure crisis, the crisis, I should say, of foreclosure fraud — the progressive tax code, anti-poverty policy, public investment, public safety, and human and civil rights. We are going to lose these battles– get used to it. But we need to make an honorable fight, to state clearly what our principles are and to lay down a record which is trustworthy for the future.

Beyond this, bold proposals are what we should be advancing now; even when they lose, they have their value.
We can talk about job programs; we can talk about an infrastructure bank; we can talk about Juliet Schor’s idea of a four-day work week; we can talk about my idea of expanding Social Security and creating an early retirement option so that people who are older and unemployed or anxious to get out of the labor force can leave on comfortable terms, and so create job openings for younger people who, as we’ve heard today, are facing very long periods of extremely aggravating and frustrating unemployment; we can talk about establishing a systematic program of general revenue sharing to support state and local governments, we can talk about the financial restructuring we so desperately need and that we’ll have to have if we are going to have a country which has a viable private credit system and in which large financial power is not constantly dictating the terms of every political maneuver.

We are not going to get these things, but we should have a clearly defined program so that people know what they are. And then, frankly, as was said earlier today, said most elegantly by Jeff Madrick, in the long run we need to recognize that the fate of the entire country is at stake. Its governance can’t be entrusted indefinitely to incompetents, hacks, and lobbyists. Large countries can and do fail, they have done so in our own time. And the consequences are very grave: drastic declines in services, in living standards, in life expectancies, huge increases in social tension, in repression, and in violence. These are the consequences of following through with crackpot ideas such as those embodied in the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, as Jeff Madrick again outlined, such notions as putting arbitrary limits on the scale of government, or arbitrary limits on the top tax rate affecting the wealthiest Americans.

Yes. Yes, yes and more yes. Dear God, Democrats, but yes.

As the old addage goes, if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. Dear God, Democrats, quit falling for anything! Stand for something! You may not get it but you will have gained something else: your spine. Your right to Leadership. And you will have defended your legacy.

You will need these things moving forward. Galbraith’s speech is sobering, even depressing. He does not paint a picture of lollipops, puppies and rainbows. He says, indeed, that “we are heading now into a very dark time.” I believe he’s right.

Someone -- I don’t remember who, I think it may have been a commenter over at Balloon Juice -- pointed out that what people are really angry about is the realization that Washington is irreparably broken. Obama came to Washington promising to change the way things are done and he has failed miserably. With both houses of Congress and the White House, people hoped that partisan gridlock and party-over-country politics were history.

That didn’t happen because it was already too late. We can’t fix things the old-fashioned way. We need to wake up and smell the oligarchy, adjust our sails, and move forward accordingly.