Progressive Econ

Brad Plumer's thoughtful, Galbraith-inspired post on the Democrat's lack of economic vision deserves a response and, indeed, a discussion. So I hope the blogosphere's economist-kings (bet Plato never saw them coming) will pick up on it. Until they do, I will.

To start, I think Brad's got two things going on here. One is the need for an economic vision, and the other is a need for a set of policy principles that get us there. And I thin, at times, that Brad conflates the two. As I read Neoconomy, conservatives want to keep growth roaring along and prices stable because the advancement of business is an end in and of itself. So pro-growth policies aren't the vision, they're the means. That's because the right sees an almost Platonic good in productivity increases, unending innovation, higher profits, etc, etc. So the success of business, for them, is the end.

The opposite would be the so-called "European Dream", which prizes quality-of-life far above efficiency of business and has shaped an economy that, while somewhat less vibrant, is immensely more pleasant. If you want the starkest statement of the difference, it's that since 1980, average hours worked has fallen in France while increasing 40% in America. 40%! The French economy would be in better shape if all their people worked 40% more hours, but their people wouldn't be as happy, and so it wouldn't serve their economic vision.

What should Democrats have? Not quite sure. But I think it should oppose further increases in the workweek. If I were to hazard a guess -- and I think this is more general than what Brad's fishing for -- we want a worker-centric economy, which means an economy that's aimed at creating a positive market for labor. What we've got now is this race to the bottom where shrinking pensions, costs that are rising quicker than incomes, and skyrocketing health care premiums are trapping folks in jobs they don't like and forcing new entrants in the labor market to take poor-quality positions (WalMart). Looks to me that traction can be found in shaking the landscape up a bit so workers occupy a better bargaining ground. Government guaranteed health care and pension benefits offer that by untying benefits from employers. Universal day care helps too. So too would, asset building programs. That, at least, is a vision for what the government's role in shaping our ideal economy should be, and I think it offers a compelling counterargument to the conservatives while fitting nicely with our policy priorities.