Hope for the liberal label and a center-left country

From the New York Times over the weekend:

It seems that “socialist” has supplanted “liberal” as the go-to slur among much of a conservative world confronting a one-two-three punch of bank bailouts, budget blowouts and stimulus bills. Right-leaning bloggers and talk radio hosts are wearing out the brickbat. Senate and House Republicans have been tripping over their podiums to invoke it. The S-bomb has become as surefire a red-meat line at conservative gatherings as “Clinton” was in the 1990s and “Pelosi” is today.

Conservatives like to point to voter self-identification surveys and find that this is a center-right country, while liberals look to polling on specific issues (like support for universal health care and unions) and find a center-left country.

But if conservatives feel like they have to ditch “liberal” as an epithet and move on to “socialist,” well, then, that seems like pretty good evidence to me – straight from the conservatives themselves – of a leftward shift in the U.S.

Or perhaps a good refurbishing of the liberal label by Obama.

Either way, a net plus.

Update: Matthew Yglesias has more.

Sheer dumb luck

I’ve written before that one of the defining characteristics of liberals is that they take the role of luck in our lives seriously. Even with hard work, some people experience bad luck or bad timing. With an equivalent amount of hard work, some people just catch some breaks.

Check out this post in which three prominent liberal bloggers describe the role of luck in their lives.

Book to read

John Podesta is a co-chairman of Barack Obama’s transition team and the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, one of liberalism’s most effective organizations.

He also has written a great book outlining liberalism/progressivism itself – The Power of Progress. I’m about half way through it. I’ve read a lot of these books, and this is one of the more concise and clear-headed explanations out there.

A central value of liberal economics

One reason I didn’t post for a long while was I was trying to follow all of the economic news and punditry as the economy melted down and cries of socialism came from the campaign. I felt it was a perfect time to hear people talking fervently about liberal versus conservative economics.

I still have much of that chatter to process, but I think I reached one conclusion. There’s a way to determine just how liberal or conservative a person is when it comes to economics: how indifferent are they to human suffering?

A hard-core conservative would be completely indifferent. This is the kind of mindset that suggests we should have let the entire economy collapse in order to weed out the weak actors (both corporations and people) and quickly right the ship. There might be a certain economic logic to this. Yes, the economy would quickly hit bottom, and presumably it would then begin to come back.

Of course, in the meantime, there would be extraordinary human suffering for everyone except the most wealthy among us.

And that’s where liberal values come in.

We must do what we can to limit the human suffering brought on by economic slowdowns. We can debate the most effective way to go about this. I would also say that people who made poor decisions should not be made whole. For example, if you need a mortgage bailout, there should be some long-term implications for you.

But the conservative economic position of laissez faire strikes me as immoral. Economic slowdowns cause both the prudent and the foolish to suffer. No able-bodied person or household who is willing to work at providing for themselves should be left without access to a decent level of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care in the face of an economic downturn – or at any time, for that matter.


Ah, Detroit’s automakers.

I almost called this post “The Big Three,” but I stopped calling them that years ago. I covered the U.S. auto industry for several years while I worked at the public radio station in Ann Arbor, Mich. Initially, I felt I had to come up with a different moniker because Chrysler became a German company when it was bought by Daimler. That deal famously came apart, but I still see no need to call anything about the U.S. auto industry “big” anymore.

I love the state of Michigan and always root for Detroit. I was born just outside of the city, and as I said, I lived near there for several years as an adult. My kids were born in southeast Michigan. I have many friends who work in or depend on the U.S. auto industry. A collapse of Detroit automakers would be devastating for many people I know and my home state.

But I cannot support a bailout.

Or, at least, a bailout that would leave everything as it has been.

It’s sad to watch General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and the United Auto Workers go begging to Congress for help, but it’s even more baffling to me to think that an industry would be so incapable of pulling itself out of a roughly three-decade decline. For some reason, the Detroit automakers and the UAW have proven that they can’t make decisions that will put them on a long-term road to health and competitiveness.

Many people I know – and many national commentators – blame the UAW. It’s those cursed autoworkers, with their crazy demands for high wages and high-quality health care. Don’t they just see the reality? Obviously, I’m being facetious here. Still, the reality is really real, so to speak. There is a huge labor cost difference between Detroit’s companies and the rest of the auto industry. Clearly that’s unsustainable in the competitive environment that’s grown up in the U.S. in the last three decades.

But what about that competitiveness anyway? It’s been nice to see more national commentators actually acknowledge that Detroit’s car companies have been poor at delivering vehicles people actually want to buy. That’s management, folks. The UAW doesn’t walk into management’s office and demand that they produce boring clunkers that don’t measure up well to the overseas competition. And it was management’s decision to focus almost exclusively on trucks for a decade or more, which left the companies completely exposed to the sales-crushing force of high gas prices.

And lest we forget, every labor deal has two sides. Labor made its demands. So did management. And everyone signed at the bottom. And they did so for decades.

So what am I suggesting? That the Detroit automakers should be allowed to simply collapse – with all of the collateral damage to people and the larger economy?

No. That wouldn’t be very liberal of me, would it?

But does liberal in this case meaning propping up an industry that has been unable to help itself for so long? I don’t think so.

Liberalism demands that we do what we can to help ourselves – that we bear some personal responsibility for our own fate. But liberalism also acknowledges that sometimes we aren’t in control of what happens to us, and that we shouldn’t suffer extraordinarily because of that.

Liberalism also favors real people as opposed to creations like corporations.

So how does all of that apply here?

I don’t see any reason to save GM, Ford, Chrysler or the UAW themselves. These institutions are simply combinations of people that clearly are dysfunctional. They need some form of bankruptcy so that they can reorganize and/or merge into an auto industry that can actually compete.

That bankruptcy could take many forms, though. Traditional, Chapter 11, bankruptcy might be too dangerous at this point. The auto companies make a good point that few people would be willing to buy a long-term product like a car from a company that’s bankrupt. Plus, with the financial crisis, the loans usually used to get through a process like that (DIP financing) are simply not available.

Government could step in here. A “bailout” could simply be a special form of bankruptcy that gave them the funding necessary to restructure, while still imposing the need to restructure. We’ve seen something like this in the financial services industry.

But why do it at all? Because of the larger economy and the people.

On the larger economy, it’s true – as the industry and its supporters often point out – that a lot of jobs do depend on this industry. A complete meltdown would never be welcome, but certainly this would be the worst possible time to do it, with recession upon us. Detroit’s automakers benefit from having hung on long enough to go down when all of us together can’t afford to let them simply go down.

But here is what I think is my most liberal point in this post – we need to do what we can to prevent unnecessary suffering among the individuals and their families caught up in the meltdown of the automakers.

Put another way – save the people, not the corporations.

How do we go about that? For the most part, I’m going to punt on answering this question for now. I haven’t had as much time to consider this up to this point. Obviously there are some short-term tools that are available – extended unemployment insurance, helping to fund payments for continuing health insurance coverage, extending trade adjustment assistance to people who need to retrain to find new work. Obviously, this doesn’t fill all the gaps, but it’s a start.

Personally, I think if we spent as much energy trying to figure out how to help the people who are caught up in this as we did crafting a way of saving the companies, we’d come up with more and better ideas.

Also, over the long term, the big issues are stagnating wages and rising health care costs. People might not feel so bad about leaving the Detroit automakers if they knew they could make decent wages and have good health care coverage at other companies. Say what you will about the UAW, but they’ve taken care of their people in a way that the larger economy has not.

Yikes. A huge post. I could say other things, too. I don’t like these ideas to make the automakers produce certain environmentally friendly cars. I won’t go into that much right now. One thing on that, Toyota has taken the lead in environmentally friendly technology, and it did so by serving customers, not by forcing it upon them. (In the interest of full disclosure, my brother-in-law works for Toyota.)

Thoughts on the election of Barack Obama

I know it’s been a couple of weeks since the election, and I’m not sure there’s much I could add to what has been said about it already. So, just a few thoughts.

This is the first presidential election in which I felt that my guy won. Obviously Barack Obama is an impressive speaker, but I’ve never been particularly interested in political speech itself. But as the campaign went on, I found myself actually wanting to hear what he had to say. What he said – and how he said it – synced up with my views most of the time. I’ve never had that before.

Obviously, it was an historic election. It makes me proud of my country in many ways. I think it puts us on a path to bringing our behavior back in line with our greatest American ideals, renewing our faith in ourselves and rejecting fear, and restoring our reputation.

With all of that said, though, I think we also need to – as liberals – remain vigilant. We the People can’t let up now. Barack Obama and his allies in Congress will need our support and our honest evaluations of how they’re doing.

Also, I tend to agree with some of what’s been said and written already that liberals must be careful not to read too much into this election. This election was still very much about rejecting the Republicans. I think it was even less about rejecting conservatism. The Republicans proved themselves to be cynical, corrupt, and incompetent during their time in power. Conservatism ran out of ideas to help the nation at this particular moment.

But none of that means that liberalism has triumphed. I believe we’re at a strange moment when the conventional wisdom – the common sense – remains as the conservative movement has defined it for the past thirty years. But that very common sense broke down when it came to facing problems in the real world, and many so-called conservatives themselves abandoned that common sense when things got bad. What stepped in to the breach? Liberalism, of course. But I don’t believe the American public understands it that way. That work – of defining, articulating, and defending liberalism – of explaining its value – remains to be done.

Liberalism and the role of government

I spent a good part of yesterday just trying to wrap my head around everything that’s occurring in the financial world. I haven’t finished that yet, but I hope to tease out some conclusions on what this says for liberalism vs. conservatism.

The conservative part is easy. “Free” markets? Ain’t no such thing, or at least there shouldn’t be completely free markets. Not even stalwart conservatives just want to let all of these chips fall where they may. Perhaps a few free market radicals or fundamentalists want to, but do we really need to take them seriously at an economic moment like this one? If we have the tools to reduce some of the suffering – via the government that’s so often maligned by conservative ideologues – then we should use them.

But on what basis does this government intervention fit into the liberal worldview? And how do we express what this liberal alternative is?

Let’s start with the language.

“Fair markets” is the phrase often used is liberal circles, but I don’t think “fair” captures what’s going on right now. We’re talking simple survival. (As this shakes out, I think we need to ensure that the geniuses that got us into this mess pay their fair share, but that’s a different topic.)

My first crack at this would be “secure” markets. We could even add on fair.

Liberals and progressives believe in fair and secure markets.


First, it’s our moral responsibility as individuals to look out for one another, otherwise we’d just have a world of selfish savagery. A great deal of suffering has already occurred from this economic collapse, but even more suffering can be averted if we take the necessary steps. We owe it to one another to take the steps that we can to reduce that suffering.

Second, the federal government is the appropriate agent to take these steps. Government is one of the ways we come together to fulfill our individual responsibility to look out for one another, so it’s legitimate. Also, the federal government, in cooperation with governments across the world, has the scale necessary to take on this job. Clearly no private agencies were up to the job. They specifically backed out of helping AIG. If not the government, who?

Third, and somewhat disconnected from the two, let’s thank the tradition of liberalism for pursuing evidence-based technical expertise and knowledge. It’s a good thing that there has been a tradition of empirical inquiry into the field of economics that tells what is likely to work and not work in a situation like this. And let’s be thankful that we have some brilliant – dare I say, elite – people trying to figure out how to resolve this crisis and prevent one in the future. I’d hate to see some untrained, uneducated, faith-based folks trying to pray and “gut” our way out of this one.

Now, back to the language for a second. I have to say that I don’t think “fair and secure” markets has the emotional and historical American resonance of “free.” So, that’s a definite drawback to what I’ve come up with so far. We could add on “free,” of course. Liberals believe in free, fair, and secure markets. Three items always rolls of the tongue better than two, in my opinion. I’ll continue to think about this.

Any ideas?


Something else other than economics…

This is a great short post from Matthew Yglesias:

The Conservative Creed»

James Robertson offered up this comment non-ironically this morning and I think it’s an excellent distillation of the conservative creed:

Yet another thing Matt is unclear on:

“Life isn’t Fair”

For Matt in particular, we need to add this:

“Attempts to make it fair result in making things worse”

It’s a statement that rings as true today as it did when coming from the mouths of slavery proponents 1860 or opponents of guaranteed retirement incomes in the 1930s or critics of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s or when Ronald Reagan said that Medicare would put us on a slippery slope to Communism.

Free market fundamentalism

To follow up on my point about national security, here’s a start at economic policy and the cult of free market fundamentalism.


As an FYI, here’s an organization called the Longview Institute. My understanding is that they are some folks that used to be at the Rockridge Institute with George Lakoff. They have an entire project area dedicated to developing a moral economy. Something to keep an eye on.

Tackling national security (and everything else)

Kind of expanding upon my last post, in which I made the point that liberals should be talking up and demonstrating liberal values, here is a great post about liberalism and national security.

The author, Rand Beers, is dead right when he makes that point that liberals need to figure out what they stand for, then present it in a clear, simple (without being simplistic), compelling, and morally satisfying way.

His focus is on national security – which of course, is a huge problem for liberals. That’s why the liberal and progressive community has responded so strongly to the whole “appeasement” thing. But this needs to be done with all of the major issues.

I’m not calling for some sort of radical conservative misinformation campaign. We’ve all had enough of that. I’m simply saying that we have to put our best arguments forward in the best way possible. That’s certainly something that, in my opinion, liberals have failed to do for decades.