Thursday, November 06, 2008

A New Deal

Op-Ed Columnist - The Obama Agenda -

Can Barack Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies? Yes, he can. Right now, many commentators are urging Mr. Obama to think small. Some make the case on political grounds: America, they say, is still a conservative country, and voters will punish Democrats if they move to the left. Others say that the financial and economic crisis leaves no room for action on, say, health care reform. Let’s hope that Mr. Obama has the good sense to ignore this advice...[A] serious progressive agenda — call it a new New Deal — isn’t just economically possible, it’s exactly what the economy needs. The bottom line, then, is that Barack Obama shouldn’t listen to the people trying to scare him into being a do-nothing president. He has the political mandate; he has good economics on his side. You might say that the only thing he has to fear is fear itself.

Truth is, I don't like Obama one bit. I didn't watch his speech on Tuesday because it would have undermined my elation at the Democratic win. What matters to me is the progressive economic agenda that I hope he'll pursue.

Working class conservatives distrust the progressive agenda because they believe it will make them worse off--by slapping them with taxes that drive them to near-destitution and taking away the minimal freedom they enjoy. Liberal pundits and other purveyors of 5-minute ideas repeat the conventional wisdom that the dispute between liberals and conservatives cashes out as a difference between those who regard equality of paramount importance and those who would trade off equality for freedom.

This is false. The whole agenda of progressivism is to increase freedom. Apart from the privileged few, people have their backs to the wall with little room to maneuver. There are few options to better oneself and hard work doesn't pay off. That isn't the way it looks on paper, but it's the way it is on the ground.

I was talking to a (semi-)mature student who'd gotten in on a scholarship after kicking around in the World and taking courses at a local community college. She had the clarity and decency to recognize that she got this chance in part by luck. She knew someone who was working at a $10/hour job and couldn't get out. She defaulted on a student loan and so couldn't go back to school unless she made good on that, but couldn't raise the $400.00 she needed to do that. Long ago, when Bill Clinton abolished "welfare as we have known it" I had another student who was getting through on a patchwork of loans, grants and novennas. She had a baby and was on welfare. But with the end of welfare as we have known it, in her senior year, she got the ultimatum: quit school and get a job or there would be no more benefits of any kind.

These aren't just anecdotal tear-jerkers. The absence of safety-nets makes it too costly to assume risk. Without public services and financial support it's difficult or impossible to get further education or training. The issue is not equality but freedom--the assurance that no one will be trapped like this, that anyone who is willing to work hard can better himself, can avoid getting stuck for life in boring, dead-end work. I got that chance by pure dumb luck, and a ran with it. So, I believe, would most people--it's just that without social safety nets and government intervention most people don't have that chance.

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