Monday, June 20, 2016

Reflections on Bernie

  
Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the new book 'The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.'
























Bernie Sanders will soon drop his bid for the presidency and get to work uniting the party behind Hillary Clinton. At that point, he will turn his prodigious skills as a campaigner to defeating Trump and, more lastingly, as he suggested in a recent speech, to building the effectiveness of the solidly progressive movement he has helped to create.

I'm no political pundit and won't waste your time with predictions beyond my intuition that he will be effective at realizing these goals. Some of his supporters won't vote for Clinton, but I predict he will make strong, convincing arguments about why they should, and most will. (As far as Sanders supporters voting for Trump, I'm with Stephen Colbert on that logic: Hey, Sanders supporters, "If you can't have what you want, how about the exact opposite?")

So let's take a moment to reflect on the contribution that Sanders made to this presidential cycle and the progressive cause. While he, of course, has millions of ardent supporters, many on the left were and are quite critical of his run, and although I personally endorse no one and have written critically about a particular aspect of his agenda (I'll reprise that in a moment), I've found some of their critiques misguided.

The Sanders campaign accomplished the following objectives:

— Sanders both elevated and broadened the theme of inequality to include power. Though Sanders talked about inequality much more than others, the increased dispersion of income and wealth has long been a theme of Democratic politics. The gap was at the heart of both successful Obama/Biden campaigns, particularly the second-term run, in which Romney was effectively cast as a poster child for the issue.

But Sanders added something that hadn't been there before, the theme, also associated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, that the game is rigged. The problem isn't just that more GDP is flowing to the top 1 percent, such that a few policy changes can redirect the flow. It is that wealth concentration toxically interacts with money-saturated politics such that the policy process is itself dominated by the rich. They no longer simply purchase politicians and political influence. They buy the tax policies they want and block the ones they don't want. They buy the think tanks that apply junk science and junk economics to give them the "facts" that they want. They support the gridlock that discredits government in a pernicious feedback loop: "Washington is broken! Send me there and I'll make sure it stays that way!"

Sanders's message was and is that as long as that is in place, a true progressive agenda can never be achieved.

Is that correct? In my view, yes and no. "Yes" in the critically important sense that if you don't recognize these power dynamics, your inequality analysis is woefully incomplete. "No" in the sense that when Sanders maps it onto a policy agenda, it becomes too disparaging of incrementalism (this is my Sanders critique noted above).

If you do not believe a political revolution — by which I mean a major shift in political power such that those who have little will soon gain a lot — is forthcoming, then Sanders's rejection of "path dependency" is a problem. I never understood how you leapfrog over our gridlocked, dysfunctional political system, and my personal experience is that especially within that context, any policy change is hard-fought trench warfare. Single-payer health care makes tremendous sense to me, and I say that even more as an efficiency-crazed policy wonk than as a progressive. But the reality of path-dependency means that fighting to preserve the Affordable Care Act from the marauding hordes is the battle that progressives must join today.

— Sanders tapped a progressive pressure that had been building for a while: For too long, both the establishment Democrat and Republican agendas were built around balancing fiscal budgets, deregulating financial markets, 'entitlement reform,' and the next trade deal. True, R's added a tax cut for the rich and D's, a tax increase. But beyond that, the playing field was far too limited and failed to address real wage stagnation, the lasting impact of imbalanced trade, the increasingly distortionary power of finance, and the economic insecurity born of all of the above. This cramped debate fomented serious discontent among a sizable share of the left.

From my time in the Obama administration, I heard prominent voices from that part of the coalition shouting that the response to the Great Recession was too tepid and too friendly to the banks (at least pre-Dodd/Frank); that the pivot to deficit reduction came far too soon (a point with which I fully concur); that a "public option" should have been in the ACA; that schmoozing with Republicans about "grand bargains" that cut social insurance and negotiating trade deals are not what Democrats are here for.

Sanders is not the only one who could have tapped this building pressure; Warren has effectively done so as well. But to the surprise of many, he did so highly effectively, proving to be a disciplined, clear and consistent messenger.

Some critics of Sanders from the left credit him for organizing progressives but fault him for his unrealistic, outmoded policy agenda. In this recent New York Times piece, political analyst Mark Schmitt applauds Sanders and his followers for showing the party leadership that many of their constituents are ready for a "full-throated progressive agenda." But Sanders's agenda, Schmitt argues, won't take hold as it is so clearly "out of step with the ideas that have been emerging from progressive think tanks."

As someone who has worked at progressive think tanks for decades, that seems to discount the positive role of Sanders's contribution to improving, shaping and possibly moving our agenda. It's the kind of thinking that has thwarted progressives as we apparently have forgotten how to negotiate (an odd lapse for a movement with ties to labor unions).

The progressive agenda cannot move forward even incrementally if we simply rely on technocratic arguments: that based on the employment elasticities in this white paper, a minimum wage of $12 will have less distortionary impacts than one of $15; that "breaking up the banks" goes too far; that the think tanks haven't yet articulated how we get to single payer; that spending another 10 percent of GDP on government is necessarily out of the question.

In their quest to become technocrats, progressives somehow decided that if we're really smart technocrats, the opposition will recognize our analytic brilliance and land where we are (Matt Bruenig argues that the funding infrastructure of progressive think tanks forces this result; he may have a point).

But if we start at $12, we'll land at $8. If we start at 1 percent more of GDP, we'll end up with 0 percent. If we're too quick to trade entitlement cuts to attain other goals, we risk undercutting social insurance. If we start with a "half-throated" agenda, we'll be lucky to get anything.

Nor will we inspire anyone.

In this regard, Schmitt also fails to recognize the feedback between progressive think tanks, the grass roots, and ideas like those that have come out of the Sanders campaign. Expanding Social Security is a case in point; many progressives, now including President Obama and Clinton, have shifted from defense to offense: from accepting cuts or defending against cuts to calling for its expansion, often to the horror of D.C. elites. Same with the minimum wage. It wasn't until the "Fight for $15" got going that I started writing pieces likethese, endorsing the idea in places that can probably sustain it.

You ask me, progressives should be deeply thankful to Sanders for opening up the debate, for widening that cramped field of play on which the progressive establishment will now have to debate. Given the troubled state of our democracy, the fact that he and his followers have nudged Democratic politics in a more representative direction stands as an enormous contribution.

Now, as he once told this paper in a nod to the path-dependency he often ignores, his job turns to helping to "…bring people together. You know, we're not going to change the world overnight."

So thank you, Bernie. As you say, we've got a lot more work to do, and I suspect you'll be there to remind us of that in case we forget.
John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

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