Back To The Future

America Beyond Capitalism by Gar Alperovitz
(John Wiley & Sons, 320 pages, $24.95)

The Pro-Growth Progressive by Gene Sperling
(Simon & Schuster, 326 pages, $25.00)

These two books -- thick with prescriptions for America's future but ensnared in a briary thicket of often arcane facts, acronyms, abbreviations, and figures -- represent all the mixed virtues and vices of “pop policy” today (the perils of academic policy being another matter entirely). That is their less interesting feature. The greater is whether, once we've struggled through the thickets, they tell us something encouraging or alarming about the Democratic Party's -- and American liberalism's -- professional thought cadres, and their relevance to today's wars for political power.

What Gar Alperovitz and Gene Sperling share is a belief that detailed policy ideas matter in those wars. But the two authors are from different branches of the modern liberal tradition (different generations as well), and their motives, intended audiences, frames of reference, and goals are thus painfully at odds. It is here, however, that, read together, they have something to teach us -- though perhaps not what either intends.

Alperovitz is nowadays a 60-something professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Forty years ago he was a young New Left avatar, much admired for his Atomic Diplomacy, a coruscating revisionist history of American motives for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. Over the next 30 years, his attentions turned from military and diplomatic history to writing about -- and sometimes working to carry out -- a variety of domestically focused “alternative economic scenarios.” Funded primarily by small foundations, he once described his work as aimed at “a socialist alternative” (more Fabian than Marxist, to be sure), but today -- reflecting the truncated hopes of the left -- says it is all about humane and reasonable improvements to our market-based economy.

Many of his proposals, which he believes could lead America to rebirth as a “Pluralist Commonwealth,” will be familiar to progressives of his generation, as they involve various and sundry schemes for worker ownership, major amelioration in working conditions (a 25-hour workweek, he says, should be a major goal), diverse innovations meant to empower progressive state and local governments against mobile and predatory capitalism, greater political regionalism as antidote to what he sees as overwhelming national complexities (though he also favors a nationwide “Public Trust” that would “take the place of current elite and corporate ownership” of large-scale capital) -- plus attentiveness to more garden-variety issues such as campaign-finance reform, protection of Social Security, and ways to solve the health-care and environmental messes we're in, among others.

Alperovitz claims proudly that he is guided by Tolstoy's dictum for intellectuals that “if you can't explain it to an ordinary peasant, that is your problem, not theirs.” Setting aside the question of who is Tolstoy's peasant today, surely America Beyond Capitalism does not meet that test. Although it, like Sperling's book, is free of the complex data sets, regressions, equations, and multivariate analyses that define academic policy writing that no peasant (or nonacademic, for that matter) would read, it nonetheless bears chapter headings such as “Community, the Environment, and the ‘Non-Sexist City'” that will sharply limit its audience.

In relentlessly listing dozens upon dozens of examples of what he sees as the future alive today -- from employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) and community-development corporations to “publicly accountable enterprises,” community land trusts, and the like -- Alperovitz insists that he is “no utopian” and indeed “tough-minded.” Some of the efforts he mentions are significant. There are, for example, now roughly 11,000 ESOPs, with assets greater than $400 billion. Individual programs such as the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, set up with the help of Robert Kennedy, have strong track records. And given that Americans now work more hours than even the Japanese, some sort of work-hour reduction system deserves serious consideration.

But, despite his claims of tough-mindedness, not only are Alperovitz's ideas far from authentic large-scale adoption; he is also too often willing to downplay their complex and sometimes quite disappointing results. His discussion of worker ownership, for example, skips past the bankruptcies of United Airlines and myriad troubles of Wierton Steel, the sometimes worker-unfriendly investment habits of public-sector and union pension funds, the declining fortunes of municipal utilities, or the fact that many of the innovative programs on his long list serve only a handful of people, often nearly invisibly. That in turn leaves him somewhat anxiously -- though proudly, even defiantly -- declaring to skeptics that his heroes are the forgotten men and women who fought for civil rights in the 1930s and '40s, doing “the real work” that led to the victories of the '50s and '60s. But though it may be a consoling thought, to suggest that his “America beyond capitalism” might be just decades away scarcely seems tough-minded.

Further underscoring his determination that this book be an affirmation of policy ideals more than a tactical manual for politics, Alperovitz does little more than mention in passing “globalization” (admittedly by now a hateful cliché, but at least a useful portmanteau); nor, just as discouragingly, does he speak of the Democratic Party. He does say he favors localism and regionalism as partial antidotes to the former, and “democracy with a small d” (a k a “democracy from the ground up”) for the latter. But he never really says what he thinks of the “Big D,” its problems (let's not get started), or quite how, if “little d” ever really got going, it could be grown to a federal scale.

Gene Sperling has no problem taking up either globalization or the Democratic Party question; in fact, they are in some ways the heart and soul of The Pro-Growth Progressive and thereby produce a decidedly different set of recommendations for our future. The author spent four years as head of the National Economic Council, that Clintonian invention meant to put economic policy on the same level as the National Security Council's foreign-policy portfolio. Sperling is unquestionably bright, and since leaving the White House five years ago has shuttled among the Center for American Progress, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations -- and to judge from this book, is visibly eager to re-enter public service in the next Democratic administration.

The 1990s are to Sperling, who is 20 years younger than Alperovitz, what the 1960s seem to have been to the latter: that crystallizing moment in early adulthood when larger worldviews first mature. Alperovitz counts revisionist historian William Appleman Williams and radical economist Joan Robinson as personal mentors; Sperling, a college tennis star whose grades got him to Yale Law at the height of the Reagan era, not surprisingly counts three Yalies -- Robert Reich, and Bill and Hillary Clinton -- as his. It was through that network that Sperling entered the 1992 campaign, and then the White House. Once there, however, he quickly gravitated to “the other Bob” (Rubin, not Reich), thereafter becoming a stalwart of the “deficit-reduction-first” camp, through which he steadily rose in power. And from those eight years, Sperling, not surprisingly, has absorbed a straightforward lesson: Deficit reduction and Clintonomics “worked,” and Clintonian, Third Way politics must -- and will -- be the future of the Democratic Party and the nation.

The book thus starts, much in the manner of Thomas Friedman and Jagdish Bhagwati, by making globalization inescapable. Hence, the duty of the Democratic Party is to prepare its constituency for constant change and intensive competition. The fact that there will be real losers as well as winners in this new world means to Sperling that “the Dynamism Economy” -- driven by global capitalism and modulated but not really profoundly shaped by government -- will determine who's who in that race. To be sure, Sperling sees an affirmative role for government (he is, after all, a Democrat), but in place of the values of the New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society, he offers a new social compact built on three not-so-new, and far from New Deal, “progressive values.” To wit: “Economic Dignity for Those Who Take Responsibility for Their Lives,” “Opportunities for Upward Mobility,” and a “Fair Start” in life for all. One need only note the prepositional phrase qualifying “economic dignity,” the declaration of “opportunities for” but not “upward mobility” itself, and the sharply delimited claim for a “fair start” rather than “fair outcomes” to sense the shotgun marriage of progressivism and social Darwinism that this compact represents. With Sperling we're in the land of the Third Way.

In pursuit of his values, he then deploys dozens upon dozens of policy ideas -- almost every one floated or implemented on a small scale over the past 15 years, a blizzard of proposals in the best Clintonian tradition -- that leave one dazzled by their comprehensiveness, but with no confidence about which will work as proposals.

Sperling freely admits, for example, that many communities will be devastated by free trade, which he nonetheless favors as a sine qua non for “pro-growth progressives” (versus apparently “anti-growth” or “no-growth” progressives, whom he's a trifle slow in naming). But he then reassures us that “Dynamic Adjustment Zones” -- drawn from the ideas of Jesse Jackson and Charles Rangel as well as Jack Kemp and Dennis Hastert and equipped with “Rapid Preresponse Units,” “Preemptive Retraining Assistance,” and “Flexible Education Accounts” -- will serve to smooth the transition to a more prosperous future. Where the same free-trade policies produce pain for the Third World's poor, Sperling's bold vision is to promote “Universal Education,” including Western aid totaling $7 billion to $10 billion a year for the basic training of 2 billion to 3 billion children.

Here in some ways Alperovitz and Sperling seem twins, trying to overwhelm us by the sheer numbers and seeming novelty of their proposals, whatever the likelihood of their implementation in the current political environment or their proportionality to the magnitude of problems they're attempting to solve. And it's here that one is reminded most clearly that political victories for policies are won with headlines, not details.

That is not to say that Sperling's book lacks headlines; rather, they seem torn from yesterday's news. The final part of the book, for example, is taken up with a return to core Clintonian and Rubinesque themes: the reasons for “fiscal discipline,” and how to “fix” Social Security (rolling back some tax cuts, trimming some benefits, and introducing a 3-percent surtax on annual incomes greater than $200,000). Simultaneously, he calls for increasing private savings through what he calls a “Universal 401(k),” suspiciously similar to Clinton's old “USA Accounts,” which stalled and then died in Congress.

Although The Pro-Growth Progressive is clearly aimed at influencing domestic policy debates in the run-up to 2008, reading the book reminded me of Paul Krugman's tart phrase, “It all sounds so very 1999.” Something here is badly mistimed and off-kilter, but for reasons different from Alperovitz's difficulties in America Beyond Capitalism. For many who know Washington's small cadres of progressive policy folk, this seems too much an update of arguments that have gone on since the early 1990s between the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and more liberal policy intellectuals (like those affiliated with this magazine), a battle that is at its heart about the business-government balance, the inevitability of market-driven change, free versus fair trade, and the appropriate role of regulation.

Sperling -- who plants his feet in the DLC camps while extending his hand to his more liberal friends -- believes that the sheer fiscal madness of the Bush White House makes '90s-style fiscal discipline all the more necessary. But he is slow to sound alarms on the widening of inequality, and his pro-growth agenda doesn't really address that problem. Invoking John F. Kennedy's dictum that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Sperling is quite open in insisting that Democrats must accept the reality that upper incomes will grow faster than middle and lower incomes -- and that that is all right, as long as the latter are growing, too.

This strategy “worked” in the '90s, though the boats of the bottom 90 percent rose only in the last four years before beaching once again since. But today there is no soaring stock market, underlying high-tech boom, or record-low unemployment. As I write, General Motors has made unprecedented cuts in its health-care program, and its parts supplier Delphi has demanded a reduction -- by two-thirds -- of its employees' wages. This follows on United and other airlines off-loading billions in pension liabilities, plus further announcements of outsourcing by telecoms and high-tech companies. And all of this is taking place as American corporations report record profit margins but negligible reinvestment in domestic plants and equipment. How Sperling's remedies cure these ailments never becomes clear.

Neither Alperovitz nor Sperling, therefore, makes good on his claims. Alperovitz expresses ideal ends that he unconvincingly defends as realistic because little seedlings can be seen about us. And Sperling has written an election-driven strategy manual reminding us that, like the proverbial generals, policy intellectuals are always preparing to fight the last war. Both books, for those willing to rummage through them, offer dozens of narrowly interesting ideas, but neither convinces us that the Rosetta stone of progressive economics -- a coherent, generous, farsighted, and electorally promising policy for Democrats -- has yet been found.

Richard Parker is the author of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. He teaches at the Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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