The following is an excerpt from the new book Third Wave Capitalism by John Ehrenreich (Cornell University Press, 2016):
For there to be any possibility of a progressive resurgence, we have to confront the conservative narrative and address the question of why so many Americans buy in to it. George W. Bush famously told then-Senator Joseph Biden, “I don’t do nuance.” The right has been very successful at reducing complex issues to simple slogans. The examples are many: the “Contract with America,” the “Right to Work,” the “Right to Life,” “death panels,” “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” “weapons of mass destruction.” Complexity is a confusing issue to the Left. We are caught between wanting to imitate the Right, with its catchy phrases, and a respect for the much more complex truth.
Three sets of simplistic conservative belief stand out, accepted by virtually all Republicans and, unfortunately, by many Democrats. First: “We can’t.” The most pressing problem in the United States and the key to most of its problems, say conservatives, is our unbalanced budget and the resultant overwhelmingly large national debt. Raising taxes to deal with it is unthinkable. Higher taxes would burden ordinary taxpayers and businesses, the “job creators,” and would threaten our international competitiveness. The bottom line is that we simply can’t afford to expand government programs (for example, the social safety net).
Second: “The problems are too complex.” The belief that complex social problems can be solved through acts of government is widely considered to be foolish. Many years ago, when I was in college, Henry Kissinger, then a professor, would occasionally have lunch with the members of our campus anti–nuclear weapons group. Scoffing at what he saw as the naÃ¯vetÃ© of our proposals to advance world peace through a nuclear test ban treaty, he would proclaim in his deep German accent, “These things are more complicated than they seem.” (We callow youths, out of his presence, would mock him, proclaiming in fake German accents, “These things seem more complicated than they are.”)
Third: “We don’t want to.” To conservatives, freedom is inherently a characteristic of individuals and “big government” is the enemy of freedom and prosperity. Societal constraints on individual freedom put us on the slippery slope to tyranny. It is not government but the “free market” that solves social problems, and the only legitimate goals of public policy are to promote “growth” and serve the needs of businesses (the “job creators,” the “drivers of the economic engine”).
Let us examine each of these contentions. First, “we can’t” and the problem of the debt: Budgetary constraints seem to make it impossible even to consider introducing new and expensive government programs. Many liberal economists have argued that the supposed threat to our economy posed by the national debt has been greatly exaggerated. In any case, the budget surpluses of the later Clinton years were turned into massive deficit neither by something inherent in our system of government nor by the alleged tendency of liberals to throw money at social problems. The causes of the deficit were simple. Government income was deliberately reduced by the Bush-era tax cuts favoring the wealthy and then reduced further, involuntarily, by the recessions of 2001 and 2008. Meanwhile government spending increased, largely due to the soaring costs of the Bush war of aggression in Iraq. Nothing inevitable. All reversible.
There are other, longer-term deficit concerns, to be sure, such as the shortfall anticipated for Social Security. The latter, at least, can be fairly easily fixed by adjusting the payroll tax (most notably by applying it to all earned income, not just income up to $118,500, as it is now). The only relatively intractable part of the deficit is that due to rising costs for Medicare and Medicaid, but what makes health-care costs “intractable” is our unwillingness to confront their real source, the medical-industrial complex.
But leaving the issue of the causes of the deficit aside for a moment, let us embrace complexity. Yes, we do have a moral obligation not to leave our grandchildren with a crippling burden of debt. But that assertion does not end the discussion of what is “moral.” We also have a moral obligation not to leave our grandchildren with a decaying infrastructure, not to leave them with the consequences of runaway global warming, not to leave them with the legacy of several generations of bad schooling, not to leave them with an over-expensive and under-effective health-care system, and not to leave them with a society riven by racism and morally tainted by the failure to eliminate poverty.
Then there is the “it’s too complex” argument: The irony is great. Americans pride ourselves on our “can-do” attitude, yet right-wing think tanks, media, pundits, politicians, and preachers have drummed into our heads over and over that, while individuals can dream of conquering the world (metaphorically, of course), we must reduce our expectations with respect to public action to meet common needs. The only way to address societal problems is through “free market” solutions, they say.
Things are complicated. There are no magical solutions to the world’s problems. And no matter how reasonable, clever, or well-crafted proposals for reform are, we can expect fierce opposition, blowback, unanticipated consequences, and unpredicted complications. But things are also very simple. It remains possible to imagine a better future for America and to take steps to make this vision real.
Finally: “We don’t want to:” The conservative narrative continues with interlinked concerns about the proper roles of government and the proper relationship between government, business, the free market, and the distribution of wealth. Again the ironies are great. Mistrust of our government is perfectly understandable. It has long been bureaucratic, inefficient, wasteful, and opaque. It has long served business interests, although, as we have seen, in recent years it has become increasingly hard to untangle government from business interests. Let us recall the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that began in late 2007 and, by the economists’ definition of recessions, was over by mid-2009. It is hardly a secret that, in reality, by six years later we had still not recovered. Wages remained below their pre-recession levels, unemployment and underemployment remained high, and many of the public services that we had become used to were gone. But it was not the actions of government that caused the financial crisis and the recession and the failure to recover rapidly, but the actions of the financial sector and the inaction of government at the behest of conservatives and their business allies. It was the failure of government to regulate financial markets that permitted the abuses that led to the crisis, and the failure of government to provide adequate stimulus to the economy, the failure of the government to provide relief for “underwater” homeowners, and the failure of the government to maintain the social safety net that have extended the suffering. Yet somehow the Right has turned that history into blaming the downturn on “big government” itself and into demands to cut government programs even further.
It is the same with the vastly increased misdistribution of wealth and income of recent years. It resulted from soaring CEO salaries, monopolistic power over markets, the same predatory lending practices that also brought us the financial crisis and the Great Recession, tax cuts mainly benefiting the rich, government tax subsidies to private corporations, laws passed under corporate influence to weaken unions so that they can’t protect the incomes of their members, and so forth. Yet somehow it is okay with the Right for the private sector to engineer a vast redistribution of income but not for the government, acting on all of our behalves, to redistribute it back.