Is Progressivism in the Eye of the Beholder?

Thomas Palley recently blogged a post that was cross-posted at Naked Capitalism where I read it. In it, he discussed the question of whether Hillary Clinton’s apparent intention to run as a progressive in 2016 represents a sincere change in her views, or whether it is just a political communications strategy to please the progressive base of the Democratic Party.

In his analysis, Palley points to Clinton’s failure to answer questions of journalists and to be pinned down to specifics on policy questions. He also points to the fact that the economic advisers who are central to Clintonworld still include Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Peter Orszag, and, I think, he reasonably could have added Gene Sperling and Jack Lew, who are still serving President Obama, but who were two of Bill Clinton’s mainstays. These economists, and others associated with the Clintons had a hand in all the economic policy failures of the past 20 years, and continues with this money quote:

In Clintonworld, it seems that playing a central role in catastrophic policy failure or peddling bad economics doesn’t disqualify you from future influence. If anything, a record of being disastrously wrong on economic policy seems to be a required credential.

Mrs. Clinton wants us to think things have changed and that she’s become a real deal populist. Well, talk is cheap. It’s costless to mouth bromides about supporting full employment and reduced income inequality.

That means the challenge for the rest of us is to make presidential candidates commit to policies that are ‘big” enough to determine an administration’s character and specific enough to tie a candidate down.

Here’s my list of three policies that Mrs. Clinton must adopt to show she’s the real thing:

1. Expand Social Security.
2. Add a public option to Obamacare.
3. Reject all trade agreements that lack currency manipulation protections or include investor – state dispute settlement provisions.

I couldn’t agree more with the idea that the rest of us need to make presidential candidates “. . . commit to policies that are ‘big” enough to determine an administration’s character and specific enough to tie a candidate down.” However, I can’t agree that commitment to his three policies should be enough to persuade progressives that Clinton is “. . . the real thing.”

I think these three policies are far from enough to qualify her as a true progressive. The first policy commitment on expanding Social Security would, after all, be met by passing former Senator Tom Harkin’s recent bill providing for a $750 per person annual increase in SS benefits. This is certainly better than nothing.

But it’s not much of a progressive goal in a world where some European welfare states provide pension benefits that are around twice the level of those due to Americans. Before I’d be willing to say that Hillary Clinton was serious about progressive policies, I’d like to see a doubling of SS pension benefits as her goal with a plan to phase them in over three years or so.

Second, I think that adding “. . . a public option to Obamacare” is a bad joke as a progressive standard, after all we’ve been through since 2009. Then, the public option idea was “a trick sparkle pony” used by the Obama administration to split the progressive movement and to divide Washington establishment progressives from the base of the party that has, for years, supported Medicare for All in one form or another.

And the resurrection of the “public option” now would have the same effect, apart from the likelihood that it is a very bad policy idea that is both unlikely to solve the problem of providing health care to everyone as a right and also is likely to postpone the day when that right can be realized by perhaps another 5 – 10 years after it is clear to all that Obamacare as presently constituted still leaves the lives of too many thousands of people annually to the fates to allow it to continue in a civilized society. John Conyers’s enhanced Medicare for All bill (HR 676) should and would have been passed in the Spring of 2009, if the duplicitous Obama had gone full bore for it. I, and many other progressives, would not consider a candidate “progressive” if they failed to commit to end neoliberalism’s “death by spreadsheet” in American health insurance entirely by committing to some variant of Medicare for All, as, by the way, Bernie Sanders did a very long time ago.

Lastly, while I agree with Palley’s third policy commitment to ISDS and currency manipulation-free trade agreements as necessary conditions. I do think that is still weak tea. A progressive candidate in my view must also make a commitment to end Fast Track Congressional-Executive agreements entirely by formulating a Congressional procedure prohibiting them. These agreements are a way of getting around the constitutional requirement that international treaties must be ratified by 2/3 of the Senate. They are an avoidance of constitutional requirements that all progressives ought to be opposed to.

The powers of the Executive Branch in concluding agreements that would become the law of the land in the United States were limited by the Founders for a very good reason, and that is, simply that the Legislative Branch must be the only authority in law making in the United States. Congressional-Executive Fast Track agreements breach the separation of powers, and Congress should have the guts to outlaw them. Certainly it is not progressive to want to continue to use this trick to by-pass the constitution as Bill Clinton did when passing NAFTA.

Finally, even if these three revised commitments were made and kept by Hillary Clinton I still would consider her only mildly progressive. The United States has been avoiding its problems for decades now, and has been allowing these problems to fester and to multiply in severity during all that time. The problems of the environment, climate change, infrastructure, growing inequality, re-invention of energy foundations, inadequate health insurance, a decaying educational system, etc should have seriously addressed beginning in the Carter Administration, and certainly during the Clinton and Obama Administrations. They were not due to an increasingly feckless and perhaps malevolent commitment to government fiscal austerity.

By now, America needs to implement at least the agendas discussed in posts here and here. In comparison to these Palley’s “progressive” commitments seem like weak tea, indeed. He might argue that weak tea or not, they are all that anyone can realistically epect from a new Administration that may have a Republican Congress to work with.

Perhaps that’s true. But I think it is also true that what is realistic depends on the makeup of Congress and is not cast in stone. The progressive candidate we need is one who will lead a progressive movement with goals that will make a big difference in the lives of the 99% and restore America and its blessings to them. Such a movement can ask the voters to elect Congresspeople and Senators to support the movement, and the candidates who will commit to its goals.

Palley’s criteria, as “realistic” as they may be, will never inspire such a movement or elect such a Congress. So, they are not “realistic” from the point of view of fitness for purpose. A truly progressive candidate will offer commitments to goals that can generate such a movement.

Perhaps Sanders is that authentic candidate. But Hillary Clinton, I’m afraid, can never play that role!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

6 responses to “Is Progressivism in the Eye of the Beholder?

  1. Jeff Johnson

    If a commenter suggests that voting is akin to something like a “suggestion box for slaves”, they’ve immediately crossed the rubicon into territory that is verbotten for most prominent bloggers – the self gratification of innovatively denigrating a political actor quickly evaporates too – another drawback.

    Getting on with it then – Hillary, obviously, can say many things, including “adopting policies” that will ulitimately mean little to the party of orgnized money. Dismiss this as cyncism, but folks who continue to believe in the so-called contest of voting support it’s outcome. Americans, hopefully more of them, will realize that voting ulitimately holds no value for them. This generally enrages two groups of people, those who benefit from the process of voting – and those worshipful plebians, who perhaps advantageously, go through life under delusions of duty.

  2. Jerry Hamrick

    Joe, I was a little disappointed to see that you did not mention the platinum coin.

    I, too, favor an increase in Social Security. In my book, which I will publish very soon, I describe the Social Security Lifetime Stipend (SSLS) which amounts to $36,000 per citizen per year payable in equal monthly installments deposited regularly in each citizen’s UniCheck ($2,000) and UniStipend ($1,000) accounts. These are accounts in the Uni (Universal Bank of the United States). These are elements of a new economic system which I call democrato-capitalism as opposed to our current system of tyranno-capitalism. All banks will merge into the Uni.

    In addition I propose a livable wage that would be $30,000 per year for people working in Texas.

    These two elements combined, the SSLS and the livable wage, would give a family of four with two adults working full time at minimum wage jobs an income of $204,000. When these programs are applied to every household across the board our total household income would more than double. We would have over $20T in the system.

    The discussion about Hillary is typical of our system. We are unable to produce sweeping changes (even though we desperately need them) and so we will only nibble around the edges. That is not nearly enough. The flooding down here in TX and other climate extremes show that time is running out.

    Instead of trying to make changes through our current system we should devote all our energy to replacing our current system. That is what I have done. We need a new system of government and we need a new system of economics. We also need a plan for switching to the new systems. I propose just such a plan. Its main virtue is that it gives over 300 million Americans a reason to vote for the change. It has been my experience that plans like that usually work

    I have the book in the hands of three final editors and I hope they will finish up with two or three weeks.

    • What about inflation? Sounds like your proposals would wreck the price system.

      • Joe Firestone

        Why do you think that? Do you have a theory about the causes of inflation that predicts that? If not please spare me the BS. If so, then please let me know what it is. I’d love to be enlightened.

  3. Candidates can and will say whatever they think will get them elected. It doesn’t seem to necessarily always influence the policies they pursue, once elected. But sometimes it does. Voters need to protest when politicians switch policies after the election though– not lie down and be doormats.

    In reply to Jeff’s comments here, most Americans have already “realized” that voting holds no value for them. Just 36.4% turned out in 2014. That’s why both Houses of Congress are now as Right Wing as they are. And, in order to get that result, it sure looks like there is a continuing and concentrated propaganda campaign by the Right Wing, to get people to not vote. There are articles all over the Net, apparently written for that very purpose. I myself wouldn’t be so eager to be taken in by that propaganda campaign.

  4. Excellent article, but after her behavior over the past several years, and her appointments as secretary of state (former Dick Cheney defense policy advisor, Victoria Nuland, wife to founding member of PNAC, Robert Kagan; former Bush inner circle dude, Marc Grossman, who also is related to George W. Bush, etc.) it seems highly improbable she will ever be a progressive.
    I am especially appalled to find out about her personal email server she used while SecState, while at the same time claiming that Edward Snowden was a traitor and acting as an evangelist for NSA full spectrum surveillance.

    Recommended reading:

    The New Prophets of Capital, by Nicole Aschoff
    The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber