Highway Robbery and the Progressive Future

Kevin Drum gives a pretty thorough analysis of President Obama’s open assault on the mainstream Democratic Party at yesterday’s press conference, and declares that “programmatic liberalism is dead.” I think that’s more than a little exaggerated, but regardless, it’s not a fair description of the policies at stake in Obama’s lousy tax deal. The tax deal is fundamentally about whether the United States still believes it has a basic commitment to protect its most vulnerable citizens from harm. For so basic an intuition to be the subject of political negotiation should be abhorrent to anybody of any ideological stripe in today’s United States. The deal is not a signal of strength or weakness on the left or the right, it is a symbol of rank political cynicism.

Protecting the most vulnerable members of society is not a liberal idea. It is the basic moral intuition of every philosophical and religious tradition but two: cruel interpretations of Friederich Nietzsche, and a brand of libertarianism far more radical than anything in contemporary American politics. Republicans were threatening to cut off unemployment benefits and a poverty tax credit for families with children. Let me emphasize: poverty relief for children.

These policies should never, ever be the subject of political negotiation. Obama could have raised a fuss, he could have publicly shamed his adversaries for threatening a basic moral building block of a decent society. Instead, he offered absurd giveaways to the rich that have not only been the ire of “the professional left,” but of the mainstream Democratic Party for almost a decade. Nearly every Democrat in Congress is now wondering if a primary challenge will be the result of support for this deal. And Obama now has the gall to chastise “the left” for being outraged.

A decent society takes care of its poor. Committing to conservative political thinking does not require one to believe that the poor should suffer for no reason. The number of poor families in the United States has gone up dramatically during the worst recession since the Great Depression, just as the number of unemployed parents has skyrocketed. These problems are caused by major structural economic problems, not by laziness or recklessness on the part of families (and even if it were only the result of laziness or recklessness, a decent society would not take that out on the children of the lazy and reckless). Amid mass poverty, any policymaker should support poverty relief.

This is a moral intuition even more fundamental than the commitment to equality of opportunity—the root belief that a decent society does not let its members endure extreme suffering needlessly. It is not egalitarian, it is not Marxist, it is not socialist, it is not liberal. It is just something a decent society does. It can be described with economic language, but it is not fundamentally an economic problem, unless short-term poverty relief somehow results in total economic calamity. Needless to say, the United States faces no such crisis from aiding its poor.

But Obama did not make this case. He didn’t even try. He entered a room with Republican leaders, and returned to declare they had been given everything they wanted.

Shortly before the deal was announced, Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story of The New York Times ran a numbers on how the Bush tax cuts affect Wall Street bonuses. For every $1 million in bonus payouts, they calculated, the Bush tax cuts allow Wall Streeters keep an additional $40,000 to $50,000 in income.

The price Republicans demanded for allowing the United States to participate in the basic moral foundation of every decent society the world over was $40,000 for every $1 million in Wall Street bonuses. That should be appalling to liberals and conservatives alike, and a President who does not go to the mat to shame his opponents under such circumstances is bound to lose respect among his followers.

Via a link to a prior post, Kevin defines “programmatic liberalism” as the Progressive Era of 1911 – 1919, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the 1960s. All of these involved significant restructurings of the United States government and its institutions. This is not the sort of thing under discussion in the tax debate. Not even close.

“Should the poor be sustained?” Is a much different question than, “Is it the proper jurisdiction of government to regulate X given recent events?” All kinds of ideological issues can play into regulatory questions. But for quite literally centuries, there has been a broad moral consensus about the right of the poor to live (this glosses over racism and sexism, of course). The “professional left” is not demanding new institutions or government functions. It’s demanding that our society actually be a society.

And so Obama’s assault on what he called “purist” and “sanctimonious” left cannot be viewed as anything but outrageous. MoveOn and DailyKos and FireDogLake are not actually demanding leftist positions on tax policy—their opponents are threatening outright brutality, and the President of the United States is not seriously challenging those threats. Obama’s willingness to capitulate does reveal the man’s fundamental human compassion—but it also portends serious dangers. The next major negotiation, as Matt Yglesias and Mike Konczal have emphasized, will be over raising the federal debt ceiling. If it is not raised, the United States will have no choice but to default on its debt, and the global economy will collapse. If Obama is willing to throw up the Bush tax cuts to preserve the basic moral foundation of society, then he will certainly offer anything to prevent mere economic Armageddon. With this deal, the President has signaled that whenever a difficult choice arrives, he will roll over.

Here’s a leftist tax position: restore tax rates on millionaires to Johnson-era levels of 90 percent, and use that money to guarantee free college education for the children of families earning less than $50,000 a year. Nobody on the “professional left” is demanding that right now. We’re demanding that the basic functioning of society not be ransomed away in the name of bigger bonuses, and that negotiations over economic and tax policy not allow the most vulnerable members of society to be used as bargaining chips.

So perhaps this is what Kevin means. Now that a Democratic president is willing to cave on negotiations about the moral foundation of society, liberals cannot hope for serious economic progress for several decades. I see things otherwise. Two years ago, pundits were forecasting the end of conservatism as it has been practiced for 30 years. “Liberal” thought is not dead. Our president is simply ineffective.

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