Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Are the Democrats on Board with the Prosperity, or the Austerity, Agenda?

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[Updated below]

Not long ago I wrote about Prosperity Economics, a report by Hacker and Loewentheil, that seeks to offer a way forward that challenges the dominant approach, called austerity, which involves cutting government spending, supposedly to restore confidence in order to right the ship of the economy.  In point of fact, this actually makes things worse, by reducing aggregate demand (while at the same time producing additional suffering among those who have already suffered the most)–a kind of reverse Keynesianism.  Austerity was used before.  It was pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US government on so-called developing nations, leading them to dismantle their welfare states and sell off public goods and enterprises, which made firms like Citibank even more rich while causing pain and suffering abroad.  (On this, I highly recommend Panic Rules! Everything You Need to Know About the Global Economy, by Robin Hahnel.)

The point of the report isn’t to break new analytical ground, but rather to offer an alternative framework around which progressives can organize to chart a new path.  It has the backing of the labor movement and some civil rights groups.  Hopefully more will sign on.  And thanks to an email I received from Blue America, I’ve learned that it has the support of a number of Democratic candidates as well. (You can see the list here, and donate if you’re so inclined). As of right now, there are ten candidates listed, all for US House races, all non-incumbents.

This should come as no surprise.  The Democrats have embraced austerity for some time.  Here we have a major effort to shift the discourse around addressing our economic problems (and thankfully, many other problems along the way), but the response from Democrats so far has been anemic.

This reminds me of an earlier episode, the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.  The Responsible Plan was developed by retired General Paul Eaton and candidate Darcy Burner, and unveiled in March 2008.  It garnered the support of many Democratic candidates that year, and of course Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses in Congress as Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency in part because of his early opposition to the war. But there was no serious push by Congress to end the war or even take steps towards that.  Ultimately, it was the Iraqis who pressured the Obama Administration to keep the deadline which they have previously pressured the Bush Administration to set.  I thought then, and I think now, that the Responsible Plan was a great idea. But the inability to generate pressure (or to even try) once Democrats took control of the White House poses a pretty serious problem for this approach.   That Democrats stated their support for the goal of ending the war (some of the time) was enough for most people–their own side was to be trusted.  This seems to be how partisanship works, at least at the present time.  But it means that partisans aren’t keeping their own side accountable, with disastrous consequences.

Will this report garner support from members of Congress?  Will activists demand that Democratic incumbents who decry the Ryan budget sign on, and incorporate its message and policies into their campaigns?  This moment, with the election approaching, is the time when incumbents are most open to pressure.  If people wait to make any demands until after the election, in the interests of beating the Republicans at all costs, the moment will pass.

But most of all, let’s not make this just about Democratic officials, or worse still, Obama himself.  Activists, voters, organized interests, commentators and unions — we need to demand better. It’s no good to ask why government or a political party refuses to do things we refuse to mobilize over.  That’s not meant to excuse them.  It’s meant to encourage us to do the main thing that’s actually under our control. Simply put, the answer to the question I posed isn’t set in stone. Nothing in politics is. Every effort to change the world for the better has been told it was impossible, and those critics generally look right as long, but only as long, as we listen.

[Update]: On a related note, David Dayen warns, “The party of  ‘eat your peas’ is not an attractive party,” with bonus video of Corey Robin discussing austerity on Up With Chris.

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