Thursday, July 10, 2014

Liberals need to think more about the future

(This post originally appeared at Bloomberg View).
First, let me reiterate that I really don’t like the notion that ideas need to be liberal or conservative. I don’t see the U.S. as divided between two fixed, unchanging teams trying to outdo each other by coming up with more effective policy tricks. Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization -- which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.

With that disclaimer, I want to talk about Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s declaration that the American left is stagnating intellectually and suffering from “epistemic closure.” Anyone familiar with Gobry knows that he’s a merry partisan prankster, and should always be taken with a grain of salt. Two thirds of his article harps on the fact that the website Vox has a liberal slant -- as if it's a revelation that a center-left publication is center-left. But the part about liberal intellectual stagnation is interesting, because the question of “Where does liberalism go from here?” has been on my mind in recent times.
Gobry writes:
A flurry of innovative young writers like Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Tim Carney, and Avik Roy put out fresh, 21st-century ideas on everything from tax reform to health care to social mobility to poverty to curtailing the power of Big Business...[I]t's clear that the GOP is becoming the party of ideas again.
Meanwhile, two things are particularly striking about the current Democratic agenda. The first is that it's so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the '60s. The second is that nobody on the left seems to be aware of it.
This is a little bit of an unfair comparison, since Gobry is contrasting the plodding mainstream of the left with the most innovative bleeding intellectual edge of the right. But there’s a grain of truth there, because I get the distinct sense that the left doesn’t have a clear, coherent concept of what the new liberal U.S. is going to look like.
The main liberal ideas now on the table are basically about making the U.S. more like Europe, with its greater income redistribution, national health care and stricter environmental protections. But copying best practice can only take you so far --– at some point, we want the U.S. to innovate, push the boundaries and try to get ahead of the pack.
Fortunately, there are some liberals who are thinking about exactly this. One group is the New Urbanists, which include prominent figures such as Richard Florida and a whole host of organizations working behind the scenes to transform American cities. In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has seen relentless suburban sprawl, white flight and concentrations of poverty in inner cities. New Urbanism is looking to change all that, by encouraging walkable neighborhoods, adaptive redevelopment and less reliance on cars. Urban planning may sound like small potatoes, but it probably has more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs. And with the U.S. becoming increasingly multiracial, urban environments will be essential to the project of knitting us back into a unified culture.
Next, some liberals are working on the problem of how to get Americans to save more. Conservatives once believed that higher interest rates or lower taxes on capital gains, dividends and inheritance could boost savings rates, but these were all tried with little effect. But University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and other behavioral economists have been working on ways to encourage Americans to save more. Some of these, such as starter savings accounts, have made it onto President Barack Obama’s agenda.
Then there’s my Bloomberg View colleague Cass Sunstein and his initiatives to simplify and streamline government regulations. I especially like this idea, since good government -- so important to a rich and well-functioning nation-state -- has essentially been forgotten or disavowed by American conservatives.
These sparks of new liberal thinking are still small, but you can see where they lead. The vision is of a post-racial, multireligious, tolerant, re-urbanized U.S., where an efficiently run government provides public goods and works to ensure the smooth operation of free markets, while occasionally “nudging” people into healthy lifestyles. That vision doesn’t solve every possible problem we face -- What if the robots take all our jobs? -- but it provides a coherent picture of something that would be even better than what Europe has right now.
Still, the vision is in its infancy. Liberals need to focus not just on winning old battles over things such as health care, but on the creation of a new, better-than-ever America.


  1. That's why I'm neither a conservative or a liberal, but a pragmatic libertarian that believes policy should create an environment that maximizes the creation of wealth, prosperity and innovation for the state and the individual. While both parties - the democrats and republicans - tend to reuse the same old ideas and themes, the GOP is still much better. They understand you cannot create wealth by taking it from the most productive members of society and redistributing it to the least. They understand that a free market, for it's occasional flaws, is the best mechanism for wealth creation.

    1. Anonymous5:31 AM

      "...the GOP is still much better. They understand you cannot create wealth by taking it from the most productive members of society and redistributing it to the least."

      But that's exactly what their policies have been doing! All the money is going from the workers to the rentier class and has been for 35 years. It's hard to believe it's unintentional...


    2. Don't you see, 2nd nonny?

      All the problems caused by deregulation and tax cuts can be solved with more deregulation and tax cuts.

      The free markets fairy says so!

    3. Anonymous9:21 AM

      I don't know any social democratic party in Europe who would disagree that the free market is the best mechanism for wealth creation.

    4. Do you think you are going to convince anyone that your ideology is better?

      Would you dismiss a great idea from someone simply because it does not share your ideology?

  2. Anonymous5:29 AM

    "Liberals need to focus not just on winning old battles over things such as health care, but on the creation of a new, better-than-ever America."

    As a serious point, wouldn't a more socially inclusive return (i.e, dropping the Mad Men and Jim Crow) to the economic ideas of the 1950s and 60s be a very good idea? "Bleeding edge" plutocrat policies turn out to be the same ideas they've been pushing for millennia, when you scratch the surface. Of course, the principles of good government and a fair social contract haven't changed much either. Really, I don't understand why we're trying to reinvent the wheel, here.


  3. I think one of the main reasons it's so difficult is that fundamentally liberal and left are very different and often antagonistic agendas. I'm not saying you must be either pure left or pure liberal, but you have to clear first in your own head about what you want to achieve.

  4. Anonymous9:20 AM

    "Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Tim Carney, and Avik Roy put out fresh, 21st-century ideas on everything from tax reform to health care to social mobility"

    What exactly are these fresh new ideas? Their health plan is incredivly similar to Obamacare except with guaranteed renewability and higher out of picket limits. Their ideas to curb big business are "end corporate welfare"; I havn't seen a more tired slogan. Their tax reform is eliminate reductions and provide a large child credit. Obama has also proposed this and made the credit refundable, Republicans won't do this because it gives money to the poor. Emmanuel Gobry obviously know very little about policy.

  5. Conservatives have no new ideas. Their ideas have been put into practice these past 40 years and we've seen the results: slow growth and increasing inequality. Their ideas which can classified under the shorthand "conservative" so they're easier to remember are 1) tax cuts for the rich 2) cut the social safety net 3) cut business regulation and safeguards.

    The "new" ideas are either liberalish (like tax cuts for the non-rich) or old timey ideas like going back on the gold standard.

    The goals of liberal ideas are to get us back to the prosperous days of the post war glorious thirty years (it can be done and has been done) when social democratic ideas were regnant and when the Reagan/neoliberal revolution hadn't happened yet. Incomes were rising and the middle class was created. Now it is being destroyed.

    But liberal ideas have to be put within the context of the 21st century world and globalization and new technologies like social media.

    This emphasis on "new" ideas suggest that old ideas and history should be devalued but as conservative "thought-leaders" like Greenspan found out in 2008-2009, history doesn't forget you. It will remind you of its existence. (Conservatives' new ideas often involve rewriting history in new ways as John Taylor or Levin himself have done:

    "Brad Delong does a chart of the “reform conservative” wonks cited by Sam Tanenhaus in his “party of ideas” piece; basically, it’s all Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru. So what do we know about these would-be reformers?

    Well, I went searching for what they said about Paul Ryan, which is kind of my touchstone, and both did indeed strongly defend his smoke-and-mirrors budgets. But what I found especially interesting was the back-and-forth between Levin and Jonathan Chait on a topic I know a lot about, austerity. Chait pointed out that Republicans in general, and Ryan in particular, went all in both on expansionary austerity and on doom at 90 percent, and therefore took a serious credibility hit when both Alesina/Ardagna and Reinhart/Rogoff pretty much collapsed.

    Levin’s response was interesting, in the worst way. He could have defended the position he and Ryan took, or he could have acknowledged having gone somewhat off track. But what he actually did was to deny that he and his associates had in fact done what they did, complaining that Chait

    assumes that what Paul Ryan or I or others on the right argue for is a version of European austerity, which it plainly isn’t, and that conservative fiscal worries were based on the particular finding of a particular paper by two Harvard economists that has been shown to have had some data errors.

    OK, that’s just being dishonest. Go to the big JEC report “Spend less, owe less, grow the economy” (pdf) and you’ll see that it heavily features both Alesina/Ardagna and Reinhart/Rogoff.

    So we have a problem. It’s one thing to get a major issue wrong, and rely on the wrong research. It’s something else, and much worse, to pretend after the fact that you did no such thing. If this is what new thinking on the right looks like, let’s just say that it’s not a good sign."

  6. Noah mentions good, efficient government and he's right that it should be a focus of the "new." Obama's election campaigns made good use of technology by the Obamacare website - mixing government bureaucracy and technology - was a disaster. It's a problem of coordination and implimentation. Then there are the IRS and Veteran Affairs scandals which I believe also involve inadequate funding. More money often helps, another reason why a prosperous economy matters, why getting the economics right matters. Obama dropped the ball over too small a stimulus, turning to deficit-reduction etc. etc. His second term poll numbers suck b/c of the economy, just like with Bush. Reagan and Clinton had good second term poll numbers.

    Like the buggy, broken Obamacare website, the economy is broken. Google co-founder and CEO, Larry Page:

    "I totally believe we should be living in a time of abundance, like Peter Diamandis' book. If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy - housing, security, opportunities for your kids - anthropologists have been identifying these things. It's not that hard for us to provide those things. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small. I'm guessing less than 1-percent at the moment.
    So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true. I do think there's a problem that we don't recognize that. I think there's also a social problem that a lot of people aren't happy if they don't have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. We need to feel like you're needed, wanted and have something productive to do."

    Liberals need to write/legislate new code for the economy. Conservative ideas have made the problem worse.

  7. VTProf11:06 AM

    If progressives are out of ideas (which is a dubious conjecture at best), it is because of recent successes. Progressive goals in gay rights and healthcare are being substantially achieved. Climate is an obvious next goal. I would also add the deplorable situation of less-educated whites, who seem trapped in a complex web of economic and social problems that defy simple solutions from either camp. Noah touched on this with "Problems with Conservative White America", but economic difficulties interact with self-defeating behavior (childbearning, less marriage, drug use, attitudes towards education) that progressives try to ignore.

  8. How could America become better than it is right now??? Don't we already have all of the programs we need to empower those less fortunate? Or do we need some more programs? Maybe scrapping Obamacare and going for the single payer system would be the cherry on top of an already completely regulated society. I'm curious as to what ideas Dr. Smith may have to make it better than ever.

  9. Freedom and human rights are old ideas too. Should'nt we get rid of them because they are "old school" ideas? Should we just drop all efforts to enforce human rights respect because it's a 18th century ideology?

    Liberal ideas, if implemented, are faced with a huge challenge: adapting to local realities. It's a dull, but essential, work. And it's not being done because people insist on "new ideas" every day

  10. I'd like to think that a good idea is a good idea. It's a good thing to read that conservative thinkers may have some new good ideas.

    I haven't noticed any of these new ideas nor any groundswell of support within the conservative side for any new ideas.

  11. Noah, the new urbanism is pretty much summed up by trying to remake US cities so that they more resemble European cities -- less need for cars, more walkable and bikeable, more mix of residential and commercial, more public amenities, less segregated by income. And that's good!

    Incidentally, if you're interested in the question of the relationship between "progressive US" and "progressive Europe", read Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age by Dan Rodgers. True, it's history (Progressive Era), but the past isn't past, right? And in any case it's a terrific read.

    1. Exactly. True New Urbanism would make U.S. cities more like European cities.

      Then you've got False New Urbanism claiming that a development in a suburb 30 miles from downtown St. Louis is a "New Urbanist" project worthy enough to demolish its own downtown and give $47 million in subsidies to the developer. Amazingly enough, we managed to defeat that. With a nice coalition of conservatives and liberals, at that.

  12. Anonymous2:56 PM

    Why do "liberal" ideas have to be new? Let's face it...the US hasn't yet lived up to the very liberal principles laid out in our founding documents. If anything, we're rapidly tacking back to the Articles of Confederation, with the Roberts court ignoring or throwing out everything after the 12th Amendment (so far), wingnut sophistry notwithstanding.

    And are you really taking seriously people like Levin, Douthat, et al have new ideas? I mean, really? Well, they don''s the same old conservative unsupported trash they've been throwing around for decades, just reworded. But the bottom line is always, always the same: give all the money and power to the wealthy. And it's worked, quite well.

  13. Anonymous4:42 PM

    This is just another iteration of the Republican tactical doctrine that you should always preemptively attack your opponent's perceived strengths. So if your opponent is a decorated war veteran, you should call him anti-American peacenik. Or if he tries to break the stranglehold of Wall Street on financial regulation, you accuse him of practicing "crony capitalism." Conversely, if your own strategy is one of scorched-earth opposition to compromise, you accuse him of being a tyrant who refuses to work with you.

    So obviously, when your own party's store of ideas has dwindled to the same stale mix of tax cuts, deregulation, and devolution to the states that's been implemented -- and utterly failed -- over the past three decades, you call your opponent's ideas "tired," and brag about how you're "the party of ideas again."

    Same old, same old. The question is why anybody would take this line of bunk seriously.

  14. "The main liberal ideas now on the table are basically about making the U.S. more like Europe, with its greater income redistribution, national health care and stricter environmental protections."

    Here's the thing, Noah: if the coastal United States is underwater in fifty years, no amount of income redistribution, national health care, trickle-down Laffer Curve or Ryan budget asterisk magic is going to fix that. That isn't a liberal-conservative thing, its just a fact thing, which one side has chosen to label simply a get-rich-quick scheme for the very fat Al Gore and very fat Mike Moore, while the other side occasionally tries to grapple with how to fix. Who, exactly, needs to think more about the future here?

  15. Personally, I think liberals need to think a lot more about how they want society to operate when the robots take over the bulk of the work, and how we are going to manage that transition, And talk about it more too, because I don't think people are even vaguely prepared for this.

  16. A few more brief reactions -

    We shouldn't be shy to copy what Europe does well, particularly health care and walkable cities. Go ahead and be idealistic but honestly we've got a lot of catch up to get done before we can talk about making US living standards higher than northern Europe.

    We need not only urban planning but a rethink of how social policy shapes cities. Look especially at section 8. We badly badly badly need the people who profess to care about the poor to know much much much more about the poor. Harping on aggregate demand stimulus as the cure all is I think a way of avoiding having to know uncomfortable details. If you really want to help the poor, look at how they live and who they are. Look at the supply side of who does and could employ them and why they don't more - not the dogma, the real business conditions.

    There's no better way to encourage savings than paying people to save. Imagining that some public awareness program is going to overcome zirp is just plain dippy. But it's good that left-liberals are starting to question the wisdom of suppressing savings.

  17. Bill Ellis8:44 PM

    How about mandated savings accounts ?

    I have a half baked idea of "Life Stages" savings accounts.

    People would be required to invest a minimum amount ...maybe 2,000 a year.

    People would be able to invest in a government version of an index fund without any fees. Contributions might need to be be limited, (25 grand a year ?)

    If people could not afford the savings, the government would subsidize it up to a 100%, on a sliding scale kinda like Obamacare.

    People would be given an account automatically at birth. With a one time government supplied nest egg of 2000 grand. (because it's a sweet thing to do.) Parents could contribute as much as they like up to the limit for each child. But the money is the child's and can't be touched until adulthood.

    The accounts would have restrictions on what kinds of and Amounts of withdrawals are allowed. Permissible withdrawals...would be things like paying for college, down payment/buying a home, starting a business, or a retirement allowance.
    The amounts of the withdraws could be restricted by a budget based on total savings and age. (Say no one can pull more than 50 percent )

    Besides the practical kinds of allowable withdrawals there would be an allowable "mad money" withdraw. Do whatever you like with it.

    The mad money withdraw would be based on a % of saving that would grow as you aged.
    Say...18 to 24, a 1% limit....expanding exponentially up to say a 20% (more?) limit for someone 60 and older.

    1. Bill Ellis10:28 PM

      Oops..."With a one time government supplied nest egg of 2000 grand. (because it's a sweet thing to do.)"
      I meant 2 grand or 2,000 bucks...not 2,000 grand.

  18. There is a very simple, very progressive and very liberal way of getting Americans to save more. PAY A LIVING WAGE, When folk are living hand to mouth savings are the last thing one does, including saving for retirement. Savings are the excess.

  19. Sans doubt it's just me, but -very surprisingly- this post by Noah seems amateurish and dull-witted.

    With conservatives of all shapes and sizes saying, yelling, lying, cheating, stealing, and bribing their ways to fantastic, imagined Mordors of vicious societal blackness, we have Prof. Smith wistfully wishing that new liberal ideas will emerge? Ideas of what? To what end? Why?

    Our task is not to imagine new elysian fields of liberal, civilized affability, it is to gird our loins; to exterminate the varmints; to do the hard work of organizing to elect people who are not crazy. This won't be a long road, it will be a forever road.

    Let's not distract ourselves.

  20. Here is my take on Gobry's piece, as well as "reform conservatism." I think there are some good ideas in it, but little of it is new, and Gobry is massively guilty of severe derpitude in his accusations of derpitude. .

    Barkley Rosser

  21. I'm hoping (and betting) that driverless cars will be a fruitful source of new policy ideas, given the transformative potential of such devices. In the meantime, maybe government could do more to hasten their arrival?

    I'd also like to see corporate tax reform take a higher priority. It's ridiculous how multinationals are able to play the tax shell game to realize all their profits in low or no tax jurisdictions. Sure, conservatives will oppose any attempt to raise taxes, but we ought to hold their feet to the fire. A greater focus on the ridiculous methods corporations use to dodge their tax obligations would make the GOP position harder to defend, and I think it play well with the general electorate. We also ought to be looking at how we can cooperate with other economically significant nations to thwart these tax strategies.

  22. The problem liberals have is that some things just haven't changed. Their ideas work just fine when they are implemented, but there are powerful forces fighting them. One common tactic used against the liberal agenda is BS, as in monetarism, CEO worship, corporate religious freedom, anti-regulation, the Laffer curve, shareholder value and so on. Sure, the right wing is more creative. Their ideas get discredited by reality again and again, so they have to keep coming up with new ones or variations on old ones. The left's ideas work again and again.

  23. Has Gobry noticed that the writers he named have exactly zero influence in the actual Republican Party? Even if I took those "New Ideas" seriously (from Ross Douthat?!), they're not going anywhere unless you also get a new party.

    My new idea is that we do something real about Global Warming. What? That's not original with me? Just goes to show you...