In crisis lies creative potential.
If there’s any silver lining in the cascade of crises facing the country (and the world) right now, it’s in how they lay the groundwork (pardon the mixed metaphor) for the incoming Obama administration to pursue policy solutions that would otherwise have been impossible. There are good, serious ideas out there in the larger political discourse, some of which have been around for quite a while, yet which as of four years ago, or two years ago, or even six months ago, would have been dismissed by the commissars of conventional wisdom as “too radical,” or “not viable,” or outside the political “mainstream.”
I’ve stepped back a bit from my usual preoccupation with political details in recent days, perhaps out of exhaustion as much as anything else. In a sense, though, that makes it easier to avoid getting caught up in speculation about the News Of The Day and take a look at the big picture.
And one thing that’s clear from that perspective is that “change” is more than just a campaign slogan at this point—it’s an inevitability. The only question is how we choose to direct it.
Our nation’s greatest presidents have often arisen in times when the previous government had left things in chaos, and dramatic measures were not only needed but welcomed. George Washington helped define the presidency in the wake of the disastrous Articles of Confederation. 72 years later, Abraham Lincoln emerged as the improbable successor to James Buchanan, long recognized (until recently) as the worst president in American history. 72 years after that, FDR stepped into a deepening Depression in the aftermath of the overwhelmed and reviled Herbert Hoover. And now, 76 years further along, Barack Obama steps into the shoes of… George W. Bush. (Does anyone detect a pattern here?)
Under ordinary circumstances, wielders of wealth and power (regardless of their political allegiances) tend to be reflexively attached to the status quo, and excessively cautious about changing it. After all, these are people who have prospered within the system as it is. In their own lives and the circles within which they move, that system works. Why trade it for something unknown and risky? There’s an institutionalized conservatism that trumps politics.
Today, though, we’re past the point when any rational person can maintain such comfortable assumptions. The status quo is being torn away, and isn’t coming back. People are forced to consider alternatives they would ordinarily reject.
Consider a large, obvious, and important example: the environment. For many years, advocates of stricter environmental protection, of conservation, of alternative energy—of the concept of sustainability in general—have run into the frustrating maxim that such things are “bad for business.” Even as the effects of climate change grew increasingly clear and such measures became more popular with the public, the assumption in the halls of power was that economic prosperity was a zero-sum game when it came to exploiting natural resources—and that attending to the needs of nature meant neglecting the needs of people.
In a remarkably short time, that short-sighted thinking has been relegated to the trash heap. It is now abundantly clear that addressing environmental concerns, and in particular weaning our culture off of fossil fuels, is a win-win-win public policy solution. Al Gore emphasized it in his speech as last summer’s Democratic convention, and Obama has made it a clear priority on his policy agenda. As we invest in solar and wind energy, green architecture and infrastructure, clean water and carbon cap-and-trade, and more, we will simultaneously:
- reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants (not to mention the environmental damage caused by extraction), thus mitigating climate change
- open up new business models and innovative niches, driving economic growth and creating jobs (many of the sort which are linked to geography and cannot be outsourced)
- step back from our dependence on the finite resources of notoriously unstable or unsavory middle-eastern regimes, thus reducing the motivation for expensive (often military) entanglement in the political affairs of such regimes
Let’s shift the focus slightly to another policy door that’s too long been shut: what sort of investment are we speaking of here? Why, public investment. The cult of deregulation and privatization has been discredited. Supply-side economics has proven impotent. The solutions available through monetary policy alone are literally exhausted. It is a time for activist government. It is a time for Keynesianism.
As a commentator on NPR pointed out not long ago, in the ideological tug-of-war between “the two Bobs” on Obama’s team, former Clinton advisers Robert Reich (who has always advocated support for workers and a strong public sector) and Robert Rubin (a Wall Street vet who was always a deficit hawk and deregulator), the momentum has shifted decisively toward Bob Reich. Indeed, Rubin himself coauthored a recent NYT op-ed last month arguing (alongside Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute) against the sort of “polarizing dichotomies” in economic policy that he so long helped to uphold, insisting that
our economic future also requires public investment…
Sound public policy, like public investment in education, health care, energy, infrastructure and basic research, financed by progressive taxation, can also drive strong growth and business confidence to invest and hire.
And public infrastructure doesn’t just mean rebuilding crumbling bridges, although that’s important. It means updating the nation’s power grid and telecom networks, it means high-speed rail transportation, it means getting Detroit to retool for fuel efficiency. Many of these projects are “natural monopolies,” areas where government management or at least careful oversight is only logical (and indeed where privatization efforts in recent decades, here and abroad, have demonstrated a dismal track record).
Basic scientific research, long neglected, is every bit as important a part of any stimulus package as public works, as these authors mention and as was also recently emphasized by Nancy Pelosi. Her idea of “bold and persistent experimentation” in policymaking includes support for bold and persistent experimentation itself.
What else did Rubin and Bernstein mention, besides energy and infrastructure and science? Well, a big one, a third sweeping area where new opportunities have opened up, is health care. Here again is an area of policy reform that for too long ran into insurmountable obstacles. Now, if anything, Obama’s stepwise approach from his campaign platform seems too cautious by half, and the idea of single-payer coverage is once again entering the debate as a serious proposal. Nothing is in the bag yet, of course, but if it fails to happen it will be due to the power of the insurance industry lobby, not to a lack of public support; if at least a more modest Obama-style universal health program doesn’t pass, it will be due to the maneuverings of the intransigent Republican minority, not to a lack of effort from the majority.
After all, the current private “system” stands revealed today as a catastrophe. Premiums rise while benefits shrink; hordes of newly unemployed workers face the loss of health care at the worst possible time; and, indeed, entire industries are being crippled by the costs of coverage. As we ponder the pros and cons of bailing out Detroit automakers, for instance, it’s worth remembering that as economist Dean Baker has pointed out, if the U.S. had a Canadian-style public health system, General Motors alone would have racked up an additional $22 billion of revenues in the past decade.
During the campaign, many of the plans and proposals Obama announced were dismissed as unrealistic. They now stand out as unavoidable. Indeed, they represent only a starting point. The times are changing fast, and where we go from here remains to be seen… but it should be exciting.
As we struggle through into that future, uncertain but full of potential, let us remember the quote long attributed to Winston Churchill: “America can always be counted on to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all other possibilities.”