The following piece was written for a conference on progressive governance being held this week in London by the Policy Network, an international think tank dedicated to promoting progressive policies:
For many on the left, the near-collapse of America’s financial system during the winter of 2008-2009 was irrefutable proof of the failure of free market ideas. The new consensus — let’s call it the anti-Washington consensus — was solemnized by business and political elites in Davos last month. Fittingly enough, French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered the eulogy for neoliberalism.
The Anglo-American model is dead. Long live state capitalism!
Not so fast. In America at least, popular attitudes have not lurched in a more interventionist or social democratic direction. If anything, there’s been a backlash against the emergency measures the Obama administration has undertaken to unlock credit, bail out big banks holding worthless securities, reduce home foreclosures, and keep big U.S. auto companies afloat.
That has perplexed and frustrated Democrats, who believe the government should get more credit for again saving capitalism from the capitalists, just as it did in Franklin Roosevelt’s day. But Wall Street’s fall from grace doesn’t automatically translate into rising public receptivity to a more active state. Anti-business and anti-government attitudes can and do co-exist easily in the American mind.
President Obama maintains, quite plausibly, that Washington’s decisive intervention kept the economy from tumbling into the abyss. But unprecedented public deficits, the government’s effective takeover of large finance and auto companies, and, yes, Obama’s push for comprehensive health care reform, also seem to have resurrected old fears about “big government.”
One likely reason is the sheer, pharaonic scale of government spending to rescue the economy: nearly $4 trillion when you add the Federal Reserve’s efforts to pump liquidity into financial markets, aid for failing banks, last year’s $787 billion “stimulus” plan, and another $100 billion jobs bill for this year. And many in middle America are barking mad that political elites have used tax dollars to shield economic elites from the consequences of their own greed and ineptitude. This is especially true of the independent voters who helped Obama to win a solid majority in 2008, but whose defection over the past year has fueled Republican victories in elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and, most shockingly, the liberal bastion of Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is growing again, by a gaudy 5.7 percent of GDP in the last quarter of 2009. There’s been little crowing at the White House, however, not when many small businesses still can’t get credit, people continue to lose their homes, and unemployment remains stuck in double digits.
For Obama and the Democrats, the central economic challenge is not to sell some new model of state-managed capitalism to a public already worried about government spending and overreach. It’s to rebuild the American economy’s capacities for brisk innovation and job creation. That will require striking a careful balance between new regulation and entrepreneurial risk-taking.
With Wall Street again reaping huge profits (and dishing out fat bonuses), some sort of financial regulation likely will pass soon. The key tasks here are reducing moral hazard by ensuring that no financial institution becomes too big or interconnected to fail, raising capital requirements to curb excessively leveraged speculation, and creating transparency in the trading of exotic financial products like derivatives.
But what the country needs even more is a progressive opportunity agenda that emphasizes technological innovation, small business creation, American competitiveness, fiscal discipline, better schools, and middle-class jobs. Such an agenda would include the following elements:
An aggressive infrastructure initiative. Washington must reverse decades of neglect and double or triple spending aimed at modernizing America’s aging and inadequate public infrastructure. Even that, however, won’t be nearly enough, which is why progressives are calling for a National Infrastructure Bank to leverage private investment in high-speed rail, intelligent transportation systems, a smart electricity grid, and next-generation broadband.
A big boost for clean and efficient energy. The United States needs to put a price on carbon, which would raise billions to invest in developing clean fuels and technologies. Unfortunately, Obama’s “cap and trade” proposal is languishing in Congress, a victim of Republican obscurantism on climate change.
More exports. Obama wants to double U.S. exports, but the White House has not pushed Congress hard to pass the U.S.-Korea trade pact. Nor has it confronted China and other Asian nations whose currency manipulations keep U.S. (and European) goods at a competitive disadvantaged.
Fiscal restraint. America’s heavy borrowing from abroad weakens the dollar and deepens our reliance on foreign creditors. To maintain the nation’s fiscal integrity and independence, Obama must walk a fine line between winding down our enormous public deficits and debts and continuing to pump up domestic demand. The key is to reduce the unsustainable growth of public health care costs, which is why Obama is right not to give up on health care reform this year.
An entrepreneurial climate. Over the last three decades, firms less than five years old have accounted for nearly all net job creation in the United States. U.S. progressives should embrace policies that foster innovation and entrepreneurship: more public spending on research, a light-handed approach to regulating and taxing new enterprises, fiscal discipline to keep capital costs low, dramatic improvements in education and preferences for skilled immigrants.
In the ideological hothouse of Washington, it’s natural for Democrats to argue that the financial crisis has discredited market fundamentalism. But the antidote isn’t more government, it’s a progressive model for innovation-led growth that champions individual enterprise and middle class aspiration.