Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Virginia, Learn from California. Vote Deeds.

Angelidify: v., a Republican campaign tactic involving early, clear definition of a Democratic candidate using failed conservative economic ideas that sound nice but don't work.

Memo to the Creigh Deeds campaign: there ain't nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

Compare these three ads. First, Schwarzenegger (R) vs. Angelides (D), 2006 for CA Gov - one of the best ads that Steve "we have functional unemployment at 17%... I think Schwarzenegger has been a great Governor" Schmidt ever produced:

Now, McDonnell (R) for VA Gov...

And Deeds (D) for VA Gov...

All three ads hinge on forward/backward and the economy. The Deeds ad is close to getting away with the jujitsu that Obama pulled. Obama's argument on taxes and the economy was basically "we'll do what works, not what Bush was doing." Deeds is trying to take the same line, but there are two problems.

First, the difference isn't sharp enough. Deeds is trying to inoculate with the tax cuts, pro-business blah blah, but my God, how many bailouts are we going to have to suffer through before some kind of Democrat, somewhere cowboys up and says "basta!" You can't say "I'm real different from Bush!" and then follow it by a bunch of proposals that say "I'm exactly the same as Bush!"

It's not quite tone-deaf; clearly there's still a lot of ambient conservative conventional wisdom on economics that Deeds is trying to glom onto (and in the process, reinforce). But there's lots of room between flat-out explaining to people that tax increases are good for the economy and this limp middle of the road stuff, which is costing him authenticity, and in turn both killing him with moderates and draining base passion.

The second difference is that the Obama campaign was running a clinic in sharp political positioning and definition from the moment they got started. That kind of definition gives you a lot of maneuvering room by giving you the capacity to talk about what you want to talk about, not what they want to talk about. Doesn't seem like Deeds has established that, so the last two weeks of this election will most likely be about whatever McDonnell wants it to be about.

Matt Miller wrote a nice book about the tyranny of dead ideas. What he left out was why zombie dead ideas like politicians running on tax cuts refuse to die. The VA Gov race should be a case study. It's another example of an ugly cycle of failure for the left: ideas about a progressive alternative for the economy don't exist, so we run millions upon millions of dollars of ads trying to glom onto the conservative ideas (and that's on top of the millions and millions of dollars of ads that they're running), thereby strengthening them, which in turn reinforces the impossibility of creating an alternative, and on and on.

If Virginia elects McDonnell, they can look to California as an example of what happens when conservative "starve the beast" economics meets a transitioning 21st century economy: start with gross, across the board underinvestment in public education, from pre-K to city colleges & public universities. Pile on deficits because the government needs to spend on is going to be debt-financed. Watch wages stagnate and unemployment climb even in up business cycles, and then shoot up when the business cycle goes flat, because all the tax cuts and resulting mountains of debt prevent counter-cyclical public sector spending. Don't forge the massive, always-growing inequality (and the resulting increases in political polarization) because the tax cuts are always somehow tilted towards either rich individuals or corporations, or both. (Here in CA we've managed to pass $2.5 billion in tax cuts for corporations, while we were billions of dollars in debt and giving teachers pink slips. Awesome stuff.)

Then, get ready to sit in some traffic jams that stretch over the horizon, because those tax cuts that went to the wealthy? They jammed up any investment in public transit or new roads. Even with the Federal government doing the right thing on public investment, you'll be surprised at how much a conservative governor can screw things up. And try not to get stuck on a bridge, too, because all the maintenance budgets are also getting cut.

If McDonnell is really following the Governor Schwarzenegger playbook, you can expect some paper-thin green initiatives that he will make an enormous amount of very public fuss over, and then work to undercut in back room deals, so you're looking at zero progress on investing in green tech or dealing with global warming, but probably some nice tax giveaways for oil & coal. You might even have to close down your parks.

And if any of the workers or anyone in the state house gets organized and call BS on this, expect a bunch of name calling and hissyfits rather than a substantive response.

This is how the conservative economic agenda plays out in reality, underneath their smokescreen of "economic freedom." But the freedom conservatives like McDonnell and Schwarzenegger are talking about always seems to come down to either more stuff or more guns. They're right about one thing: it is our damn money, and it's time we used it to rebuild a functioning civilization and expand real freedom. It's time for American (and Californian, and Virginian) Dream version 2.0, or a second tax revolution. Whatever you want to call it, it's time.

Jerry "Born Again Tax Cutter" Brown is already making noises like he's going to run the same plays next year. California could lose a governor's race to a woman who has only occasionally even bothered to register to vote. Hopefully Virginia can still avoid going through what California's been dealing with for the past five years.

But how many lost elections is it going to take before we start to break this cycle?

Update: From the you have got to be kidding department, Governor Schwarzenegger hath twittered thusly: "Check out this Time article - http://bit.ly/1GJfi9. The California Dream is alive and well." In a state with a bunch of cities with unemployment climbing into the 20% range, and worse in the central valley, this is beyond just Happy Talk. It's an insult.

Yes, Governor and Time magazine, things are great for the rich. The Time piece is right to challenge the idiocy of the corporate press "business-friendliness" rankings, and it rightly identifies some of the silver linings and tectonic changes occurring. But it manages yet again, as the corporate media invariably always does, to miss the growing grassroots progressive movement and Democratic party revitalization, which are the state's brightest and perhaps only hope for true renewal.

When even very well-educated, should-easily-be-middle-class families like ours, who have received every lucky break imaginable, can feel the Balrog of potential economic calamity coming up from the depths reaching up for us, something is deeply wrong. No amount of corporate media cheerleading should paper over the fact that the decisions Governor Schwarzenegger has made have brought about calamity for large parts of the state.

This is not personal, as his star-complex apparently is craving (and Time is so willing to feed). It isn't about schadenfreude or gloating when the jock wrecks his car. It's about leadership that's going to help us build a functioning society or not, and how the Governor's simpleminded clinging to the ideological wreckage of conservatism brought nothing but calamity and stagnation. That's your story, Time Magazine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Unions, what good are they?

Yesterday at the Corner, Jonah Goldberg asked:

This is a good faith question: I often hear advocates of unions claiming that unions are "good for the economy." What is the proof of this? ...

You can make the case that unions are good according to other priorities that fall under the jurisdiction of "social justice" and all that...But as a purely economic matter, where's the evidence that unions actually improve the efficiency, productivity, or competitiveness of specific firms or industries or the nation as a whole?

Today's response is a starting point: there are two questionable technical analyses, neither of which (at least from the provided abstracts) seem to take into account the depressive effects of inequality, as these models often don't. This is followed by one from The Makinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank funded by forces who have made the destruction of labor power one of their priorities. Goldberg fails to mention this, although maybe he's assumed his audience is familiar with their ideological presumptions. He does include a solid response from the political director of a union (he doesn't say which one) that's worth reading.

But there's a more succinct way to explain this, which is that post-depression American economic history can be roughly divided into two phases: before 1980, and after. Before 1980, we had strong economic growth that was broadly shared across all levels of income (these graphs are courtesy of Demos' Inequality.org):

After 1980, things changed. We still had growth, but nearly all of the results of this growth went to the top:

One primary feature of the economic landscape that changed over this time: plummeting rates of unionization. Reversing that trend isn't the whole answer. We need all sorts of policies that democratize economic power, such as employee ownership incentives, asset-building programs, changes in corporate governance and executive pay and a return to progressive income and wealth taxes. But encouraging union formation is the most common-sense and democratic reform to start with.

Goldberg clumsily tries to separate out questions about inequality and ""social justice" and all that" from "purely economic matters," as if it's unthinkable for the purpose of economics to be about improving the lives of ordinary Americans. But there's more to economics than determining the rate at which oligarchs can stuff suitcases of cash into their helicopters. We tried it that way and it didn't work out so well. It didn't even work out so well for a lot of the oligarchs. The Employee Free Choice Act is a key step in making the next few decades look more like the first bar graph and less like the second.

Most conservatives have yet to acknowledge that income inequality is even a problem. For those that do, as David Frum puts it in the last paragraph a September 2008 NYT piece, "Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal." It's a strange statement for a piece that's trying to make exactly the opposite case, that Republicans should be worried about growing inequality. This bet hedging and cognitive dissonace is a direct result of the collision of their governing philosophy with the hard reality of the generally poor results it produced.

There was another example of this kind of thinking this week over at the new Enterprise Blog, a new house organ for the American Enterprise Institute (scroll down the page and note their commitment to racial diversity):

A major cultural schism is developing in America. Not over the issues that divided us in the past, like abortion, same-sex marriage, or home schooling, important as they are. The new divide centers on free enterprise—the principle at the core of American culture. As the recent “tea parties” showed, a growing ethical populism is now brewing in America. Protests are being raised against administration policies that punish “makers” and reward “takers.”

This is flat-out absurd. AEI is funded by the biggest takers in our economy, the kingpins of the financial services and extractive energy industries, and the network of foundations they've put into place to keep the system that allows them to do this taking in place. They wouldn't know an actual maker if one fell on them. If they did, they'd be pushing hard for universal health care and shorter workweeks, the lack of which are two of the biggest impediments to startup formation.

Despite their significant role in helping to elect Obama, most actual makers remain nearly completely politically disorganized. This has to change, because if one side clearly makes an argument and the other side is silent, even if that argument makes no sense it will prevail. There is some hope: places like New Deal 2.0 could become a must-read and lead the process of building a strong counterargument. Conservatives don't have solutions to these problems. Progressives do, but have a long way to go in figuring out how to tell the story.

Update: This is an excellent response to Goldberg about the biggest dislocator of jobs, which is technology. The only long-term answer to that, and the only thing that can protect our long-term global competitiveness, is that firms have to be come democratized learning organizations. It's hard to imagine that happening without unions.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Economic Crop Failure: a Primer for Understanding the May 19th Election

The six propositions to be voted on in the upcoming May 19th statewide special election are a symptom of a broken political system in California. This post is an attempt to sum up some recent history of this state for the less than fully politically obsessed, in an attempt to provide some basic information for making the most difficult and technical decisions California voters have been asked to weigh in on.

This is not an attempt at an unbiased or neutral history, but a progressive one. I believe the decisions we're making could have an impact on whether our state's political leadership has the chance to broadly once again take up the challenge of transition from a thing-oriented to a person-oriented society - or not.

I write from this viewpoint because I believe it provides the best view of the truth, which is that this is no accident. This state is in the mess that it is in very much by design. This is exactly where movement conservative forces, led by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform and joined by their elected allies, want this state to be. They have argued, organized and fought for exactly this situation. Their dream of standing athwart history and stopping it has been realized. The question before us is how to re-start the progressive history of our state.

Six data points

    The 2008-09 budget is about $105B, and the baseline proposed budget for 2009-10 is $111B. The biggest expenditure are K-12 education ($41B), Health & Human Services ($38B), Higher Ed ($13B) and prisons ($10B). (Governor's CA Budget Summary Charts, SUM-01)

    The budget disaster is both acute and structural. The projection for next year, should the May 19th elections fail, is for a $40B deficit. (CA Governor Budget Summary Charts. SUM-01 and subsequent charts that explain the projected effects of the May 19th ballot props.)

    We are a moderate tax state: California was 17th out of 50 in total revenue as a percentage of personal income (California's Tax System, CBP 2009 page 18).

    We are a low tax country. The US has some of the lowest taxes in the industrialized world. We are currently 17th out of 18 industrialized nations in total tax amount as a function of GDP. (Nationamaster/OECD)

    State government is not "growing out of control." It has grown modestly with respect to personal income over the past few decades. (Somewhat out of date, but based on BEA & LAO data, updated data forthcoming when I get a chance to pull it together.)

Recent history

The seeds of the current budget disaster were sown in 1978 under then-Governor and now-candidate Jerry "born again tax cutter" Brown, with the passage of Proposition 13. Prop 13 marked the final end of the era of government investment and growth started by Pat Brown (Democratic Gov of California from '59 to '67) that was then continued by Ronald Reagan ('67 to '75). While Prop 13 included a reasonable fix to increases on residential property taxes that were rising too quickly, it went too far by including a requirement that any tax increases of any kind must pass both houses of the California legislature by a two-thirds majority. This effectively locked the state into a semi-permanent structural deficit: a gap between the funds needed for things that clear majorities of voters want (investment in schools, health care, infrastructure, environmental protections etc) and what the tax system generates, and handed the power to freeze government completely over to a one-third minority. The majorities in favor of investment in society are even stronger if nonvoters are included, as documented by the Public Policy Institute of California's very thorough 2006 report, California's Exclusive Electorate.

The executive and legislative political leadership of the state had managed to more or less deal with these limitations until recently, when continued effective execution by movement conservative forces finally collided with this baseline increase in desire in the electorate for government services. The intensity of this collision has been further exacerbated by the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001 and a limp recovery, which was then followed by 2008's bursting of the housing bubble, which hit California with particular ferocity.

One result of this collision has been the election of an enormous number of Democrats to both houses, to the point that two-thirds majorities may be within reach over the next several election cycles. However, conservative forces took their biggest prize in 2003, when they were able to align around and fund the recall of Democratic Governor Gray Davis, ostensibly because of a deficit nearly the size of the project 2009/2010 deficit. Davis proceeded to lose a one-sided election to Schwarzenegger in an election that turned almost solely on anti-tax fervor whipped up by the Schwarzenegger campaign, an identical tactic that powered him again to victory over Phil Angelides in 2006.

Schwarzenegger's first act as Governor was to cut the unpopular Vehicle License Fee, but with no consideration whatsoever for either corresponding spending cuts or replacing the revenue. This act immediately increased the state structural deficit by at least $4 billion per year and started the state on the course that has led to today's tangled mess. This action was taken as a part of the "starve the beast" strategy demanded by Grover Norquist, which Schwarzenegger even referred to point-blank in interviews with several newspaper editorial boards.

Schwarzenegger may have had some early opportunity to make cuts and weed out inefficiencies. He made two primary mistakes. First was a fundamental underestimation of the difficulty of cutting the budget, because as Schwarzenegger now admits and frequently mentions, very large majorities of voters do in fact want government services. And Schwarzenegger loves providing them; he has even attempted to refer to himself as modern incarnation of Pat Brown. His fatal flaw as a free-lunch conservative has been his repeated denial of the revenue problem that he helped drastically worsen.

His second category of mistakes was that he squandered his considerable electoral mandate with a series of embarrasingly juvenile rookie mistakes early in his administration. He was yet another successful business leader that couldn't adapt to the reality of how to function in and lead a democracy, a lesson that Republican primary voters should (but likely will not) consider in evaluating candidates like Meg Whitman. Schwarzenegger's mistakes were a case study in why a lack of prior political experience should all but automatically disqualify a candidate, however charismatic, from pursuing executive higher office; he could have learned a good part of what he needed to know from a four year stint on a county central committee.

What is at stake?

The election hinges primarily on the passage of Prop 1A, a measure focused on limiting state government growth through an arcane and complicated formula. 1A is substantially similar to Prop 76 from Schwarzenegger's 2005 special election, which was voted down 62 to 38. This is a parallel result to Prop 13's 65 to 35 passage in 1978. California voters are showing a certain amount of rationality here: we understandably don't want taxes that cause acute pain, but we also want to avoid a hard spending cap that would lock in a low level of social investment. Prop 1A is a philosophical descendant of a more draconian national right-wing initiative effort called the "Taxpayer Bill of Rights," or TABOR. Colorado passed this measure in 1992 and has spent nearly every election cycle since then weakening it's provisions, to the point that it has now been substantially repealed.

The key difference between 2009's Prop 1A and 2005's Prop 76 is that the Governor placed some limited protections for school funding in Prop 1A, and by so doing was able to gain the support of (or to put it less charitably, buy off) the California Teacher's Association, the state's largest teacher's union. This move has effectively split the labor coalition that united to defeat the 2005 special election debacle. Both sides are weighing in heavily with millions of dollars of spending, and the TV ads have already started.

Movement conservative forces have carefully shaped this election to specifically exclude the consideration of actual solutions. As the nonpartisan California Budget Project puts it, "Basic economics demonstrates that carefully chosen tax increases are preferable to spending cuts when the economy is weak." Yet even a modest increase in progressive income taxes (for one example) hasn't even been on the negotiating table, or included as part of the solution. Facts like this strain the credibility of those who say this is the best deal we can get.

No on 1A, but why?

California is arguably the state that is farthest along in the historical arc of transformation from a thing-oriented economy to a person-oriented economy - even though most days, it feels like we've hardly started. The electorate's baseline demand for services like education will not decrease, nor should it, given the demands of both our state's commitment to social justice and the practical demands of the 21st century economy. The conservative definition of freedom, with it's nearly exclusive focus on property rights, has to be replaced by a more expansive, progressive and just vision of freedom.

The shoots of a real solution are just now starting to grow out of the weeds of the disaster. They've sprouted but are still growing mostly below the surface, but there's a lot to be hopeful about. Consider the following four developments:

Ongoing huge increases in voter registration and participation in the California Democratic Party (the CDP)

The emergence of five networks of data-driven grassroots organizing groups (PICO, MIV, CA Alliance, the CDP grassroots and Courage Campaign)

Increasing national progressive movement investment in ideas and strategic communications (like The Progressive Ideas Network and New Deal 2.0), and

The prospect of a Constitutional Convention, and Gavin Newsom's publicly-stated, on-his-website, nothing-unclear-about-it support for this idea.

There are also wildcards, such as the role Organizing for America could play, although it's unclear how their current focus on supporting the President's agenda and community service could connect to the biggest problems facing our state.

Given the massing of these progressive forces, the question then comes down to this: what will better accelerate this process? Senator Darrel Steinberg and Assemblymember Karen Bass are strong progressives, and the architects of this deal for the Democratic caucuses in their respective houses. It's tempting to trust the people who have studied this problem the most and who know it from the inside out. Right now, that's Assemblymember Bass and Senator Steinberg, who claim this deal truly is the best we can do.

But this deal is the result of their best efforts in a deeply broken system. This may very well be the best deal that they could get. But it is not the best deal that we can get.

The passage of these propositions step backward for our state. The California economy is facing a form of crop failure. Prop 1A would lock us into a drought when we need to be opening the gates and letting the irrigation waters flow. We need real solutions: we need to plant roots that will lead to progressive taxation, and either end the two-thirds requirement, achieve two-thirds majorities in both houses, or both. Voting no won't accomplish any of this, but your participation will. It's time to plant some seeds of a governing philosophy that will work for this state.


Calitics Endorsements: No on everything.

Courage Campaign Endorsements: No on everything. (and see their nifty multi-group slate)

SF Bay Guardian Endorsements: No on everything.

The California Budget Project has a lot of very detailed information, including an 8-page analysis of 1A.

The Governor's Budget Summary Charts page

The best arguments in favor of Yes on everything, via Sacramento consultant Steve Maviglio.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Converting a shapefile into one kml file per feature

Below is some python/GDAL code for an easy way to split a GIS shapefile (such as those found in the CA Statewide Database) into a bunch of kml files, one for each feature found in the file. For example, this can be used to create individual precinct maps from the county and whole state files in the SWDB, which can then be rendered in either Google Earth or Google Maps.

This code is a long way from perfect; it's finding some MultiPolygons where there should be polygons, and GDAL barfs out some missing symbol errors (but keeps on truckin' anway). But I didn't see a ready solution for this posted elsewhere, so enjoy (sharp sytax highlighting via http://pygments.org/):

There are a bunch of different ways to get into the guts of a shapefile and start mucking around with it. If you have an ESRI ArcMap license you can sort through the numerous ESRI .Net APIs, which is how I've ordinarily done it. But it can be slow going, and you do need the license. As far as I can tell this has to be the easiest, fastest way to get there with open source. And writing python is a lot more fun C# or VB anyway.

If you'd like to try this at home, this GDAL API tutorial from the geodjango site is invaluable. And if you're on a Mac, for the love of all that is holy don't try to compile GDAL and all its dependencies. Download the "KyngChaos Binaries" instead. Yes, they sound like warez but they seem to work fine and will save you hours of wandering through Makefiles.

Monday, March 2, 2009

"It's gonna fail."

"People ask me if I hope [Obama's economic plan] is gonna fail. I tell 'em, I don't have to 'hope' anything. It's gonna fail."-- Tom DeLay

One week from today, I am going to place either a formal prediction a bet over at Long Bets, a site designed to keep track of exactly this sort of thing. Here's the draft wording of it:

Prediction: The Obama administration will exceed the Bush administration's performance over all of the following social and macroeconomic indicators: better rate of job creation, better rate of GDP growth, lower poverty rate, lower child poverty rate, greater rate of S&P 500 growth, fewer total number uninsured, fewer net oil imports, less public debt, less public debt as a percentage of GDP, and greater per capita attendance at four-year college.

Tom Delay is only the tip of the veritable iceberg. Many conservatives are saying that the President's agenda WILL fail, that they hope it fails, and that people should even sign up to work for it to fail. Although Rush isn't even saying whether it would be a good or bad thing for it to fail, which makes me think that perhaps the words success and failure are just getting beaten to death here.

So ok: time to put up, folks. I'm making it easy for conservatives and tough for Barack. He has to do better than Bush on all ten metrics. And in a few cases, Bush put up some solid numbers, like a 41% increase in GDP. If Barack is really destroying "economic freedom" and wealth on a heretofore unthinkable scale, he can't possibly do better than that, right? This is hardly fair. It should be an easy bet.

I've tried to make these numbers conservative-friendly. Other than jobs, health care, energy independence and education, these aren't particularly my priorities. For example, one of my priorities is income inequality, which is usually measured by something called the Gini index. But since a solid source of year over year US data for it isn't even available on the web, I'm not including it. I could personally almost care less what happens with the stock market, although the amount of pain that people who are near retirement are experiencing is unfortunate. (Even if I did have money, I wouldn't be in the market for the same reason I don't gamble much when I go to Vegas. Both Vegas and Wall Street can be a lot of fun but that they mainly exist to eat small players for breakfast.)

But the fact is that I think the Obama administration will do right by Wall St. once the current mess is fully unwound - he's just not going to do it at the expense of Main St. Like Barack said in his acceptance speech, "for those of you whose support I have not yet earned, I intend to be your President too." So I'm including the S&P 500 as well as the GDP. Flawed as the GDP is as a gauge of what matters, reliable, recent GPI (genuine progress indicator) figures also aren't available, so I'm not including that either. Nor am I including total hours worked per week, which I'd like to see decrease. And I'm staying away from social issues, although I'd guess we'll have more guns and fewer abortions than the Bush years, too.

I was thinking of including some numbers regarding how much better the Obama administration will do, but it's taken long enough to pull this together already. And with Obama starting down by three touchdowns because of the mess that more than forty years of conservative economic orthodoxy has made, he's got his work cut out for him. If someone wants to take the bet but only on conditions of proposing how much better Barack will do, fine, propose some numbers and I'll think about it. And if someone wants to crunch similar numbers for the Reagan adminstration, I'd consider that bet too.

There is a very real chance that the bottom is going to completely fall out of things. A $50T+ market is collapsing and we've been underinvesting in society for decades. That is putting us in uncharted economic territory. It'd probably be smart to wait a couple of weeks and see where things go. But I'm not being smart. I'm making this bet now, when things are looking all bad.

The details are below. If anyone wants to dispute these numbers or add a few more before taking the bet, please leave them in the comments. (and please feel free to check my math!) I tried to use direct government figures wherever available, and as close to January 2001 to January 2009 figures as possible. If you'd be willing to take the bet, propose an amount. I propose that the money go to build.org, which seems like something both progressives and conservatives can agree is a good thing.

Incidentally, if you're working on government transparency, the difficulty of tracking down these numbers (including the unavailability of the Gini index & any kind of a recently updated or transparent GPI) would serve as an interesting case study.

Update: if the Obama administration is only four years long, then I'll run the numbers based on Bush's yearly average.

Job Creation
Jan 2001: 132.469M jobs / 285.0M pop (464.8 jobs per thousand ppl)
Jan 2009: 134.580M jobs / 304.1M pop (442.6 jobs per thousand ppl)
+2.111M jobs (263k jobs/year)
-22.2 jobs per 1000 people

GDP Growth
$10.0125T (Q1 2001)
$14.2003T (Q4 2008)

Poverty Rate
11.7 (2001)
12.5 (2007)
+ 6.8%
census.gov & cbpp

Child Poverty Rate
16.3% 2001
18.0% 2007

S&P 500 performance
1,335.63 January 2001
865.58 January 2009
Political Calculations

Increase in uninsured
2001: 38.4M
2008: 45.7M

Net Oil Imports
2001: 10900 barrels/day
2007: 12040 barrels/day
+ 10.4%

Public Debt
2001: $3.3196T
2008: $5.8029T

Debt as a pct. of GDP
2000 58%
2008 74.6%

Enrollment in four-year college (pct. per capita)
2001: 15.928M (5.59%)
2008: 18.264M (6.01%)

Population (for college & job creation per capita figures)
July 1 2001: 285.0M
July 1 2008: 304.1M

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thoughts on the bottom

I don't think we're at the bottom, but I think we can probably see it from here. Three data points, and some thoughts on this.

One, stocks are still expensive by historical standards. Maybe after today's selloff they'll be more in the ballpark, but despite all the hysteria we're still above historical P/Es:

"By this measure, the P-E ratio of the S.&P. 500 is now about 14.5. It’s below average [which is 16], but not enormously so. By comparison, this ratio fell to 6 during the 1930s and 7 during the early 1980s. In short, stocks are a little less expensive than their historical average. But they are far more expensive than they were at the worst points of the other two worst recessions of the past century."

Two, housing prices are way down, but somewhat incredibly, sales are brisk:

"An estimated 29,458 new and resale houses and condos were sold in the state last month, an increase of 53.9 percent from the year-ago period, DataQuick said."

Three, the stimulus is going to work very well, and the bank & housing plans are going to work well enough. Richard Norton's The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth has a collection of very clear charts illustrating the benefits of demand side tax cuts. It is not the whole story since it mostly leaves out the advantages of investing in society, but it's a good start. Unfortunately none of the charts appear to be available online, although this page seems to have at least some of the data he collected. But basically, business investment goes up, unemployment goes down, real income & GDP growth goes up, and so on and so forth.

US stocks & housing were both overvalued because for decades, there was so much loose money in the top of the economy that it had nowhere to go but chase sketchy deals. But this week is budget week. Obama is going to propose - and pass, with or without Republican support - a modest tax increase on the wealthy. We are finally shaking off supply-side and taking money that was chasing its tail in the bubbles and investing it, in the old sense of investing (i.e. putting money to work). The next phase will be a wringing out of excesses, Volcker-style, which will involve pain but is the only path towards putting the economy back on a long-term path to growth.

Stocks coming back into line with historical averages is going to be part of that process. If anything they should be well below historic P/E averages, because there are still a lot of things that could go horribly wrong. Obama and the Democratic leadership successfully navigated the stimulus past the neo-Hooverites and the Santellis, but now for it to be effective we have to get it past the kleptomaniacs. It's not at all clear that our democracy is up to the task. And the Santelli types are disorganized and inchoate at the moment, with little to lose they have an opportunity to take bigger strategic risks. They're going to pitch a thousand hissyfits over the budget.

The irony here is that on some level (and apologies for this, Senator McCain), the fundamentals are strong. The question is how dig do you have to deep to find them (and the other question is how tone-deaf of a politician do you have to be to say that at the beginning of a mini-depression). A $50+ trillion "market" collapsed over the past few months. That's a lot of horseshit, but at the center of it, there is still a $15T pony under there. That pony is the greatest consumer market the world has ever known. This is why sales of California housing is brisk. Even with wave after wave of foreclosures, there are either enough people who saw this coming and waited patiently on the sidelines to drive demand, or the speculators are getting back in. Hopefully it's the former.

Yes, there will be rubble from the collapse. The best technical bookstore in San Francisco, Stacey's, is right across the street from my office. It's closing and this is a terrible loss. We may skip along the bottom for a while. But while we will get through it in some fashion, the big outstanding question is whether we can use the crisis to put our economy (and our lives) on a more sustainable course.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Preliminary thoughts on Beinhocker's Origins of Wealth

Someone - or perhaps many someones - could make a career out of turning the "very interesting research plus partially thought-through policy proscriptions" genre into ideas with real political impact. Maybe this is a recipe for a new think tank: scan for this stuff, develop the ideas the rest of the way, determine how to best get them across and then run advocacy based on that research. Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth and Dan Arielly's Predicatably Irrational both belong to this emerging category and would have tremendous potential for this approach.

Beinhocker's biggest win is the sheer size of the ideas. From the preface: "I...believe that just as biology became a true science in the twentieth century, so too will economics come into its own as a science in the twenty-first century...this book will argue that what we are witnessing in economics today is in fact the early stages of...a paradigm shift." He sets the controls of the heart of economics and goes far in making the case that the very core of the discipline is rotten.

What's at stake in this shift is decidedly not comparable to the turn of the century revolution in physics, where in moving from Newtonian to Einsteinian models, everything basically lined up except for the edge cases (i.e. for things moving near the speed of light or things that are very small, near the Planck length). The assumptions that traditional economics makes often don't match reality either close up or from a distance. The Complexity Economics Beinhocker describes basically rips out the Walrasian equilibrium models, and replaces them with complex adaptive systems. These systems and the models they generate both line up better with how economies work at the human, individual micro- level as well as at the historic macro- level.

Wealth is created from the interplay of what Beinhocker dubs Physical Technologies, Social Technologies and Business Plans, which function as a sort of wealth-creating DNA. Wealth is "fit order," created through jointly meeting 3 conditions: irreversibility, locally decreasing entropy and fitness. This is far too brief of a summary but it is a gorgeous idea: supple, flexible and with a grand historical scope. It's the math behind the history of human cooperation in Robert Wright's Nonzero, a book Beinhocker references frequently.

In terms of the math and the science, there are clear gaps that need filling, which Beinhocker clearly indicates. Equilibrium-based models work for a great many purposes and will continue to do so even as Complexity-based models become more useful. But despite the out-of-control nature of evolution and complex adaptive systems, the key to his analysis of the implications of Complexity Economics is this:

We may not be able to predict or direct economic evolution, but we can design our institutions and societies to be better or worse evolvers.

Policy Implications

The policy side of the book has two big problems. One is structural and likely nothing more than a function of the current state of the research. The other, based on a total misunderstanding of the progressive position on markets, is less understandable.

First, his telling of Complexity Economics seems to gloss quickly over the clear role democracy plays in economic evolution. He divides the processes that sort business plans according to effectiveness into two categories: Big Men and markets. Yet over the course of a few pages devoted to the role of democracy, he points out that "in 1700, America's GDP was 5 percent of Britain's and, by 1775, was 40 percent.."one of the highest growth-rates the world has ever witnessed." (297) - and that this was due in large part to the politics and culture of the colonies.

For another example, consider the growth and broadly shared prosperity of the post-war US economy. The fitness functions of a functioning democracy in a mixed economy seem to have the ability to shape the economy far more effectively than a dictator. But the interplay between functional democratic institutions and economic growth merits only three pages. There is a clear but unexplored connection to Sen's concept of substantial freedom, for another example: in fact it may be that substantial freedom could be defined as the degree to which one can deflect the fitness order with one's preferences. Arguably this is all outside the scope of Origins, but it's certainly an area for more study.

The more incomprehensible problem is that the one chapter specifically devoted to policy implications is built around a somewhat jarring end to left-right/end of history artifice. Maybe this only reads so strangely in the decidedly post-Fukuyama world where Obama is president: Origins was published in 2007. But it relies on a particularly flimsy anti-market strawman of the left that was no more accurate in 2007 than it is today, as if he mistakes the anti-globalization WTO protesters as the left's entire argument. If this isn't an indication that the left needs more aggressive idea marketing, I don't know what is.

Incidentally, as they say on Battlestar Galactica, this has all happened before. Bob Kuttner's April 2003, "Beyond Left and Right: a Guide for the Unwary" picks up the same pattern in discussing the lefty approaches offered up by the New America Foundation as centrist:

"...Lind doesn't deign to address the political obstacles. The very phrase, "Imagine a federal program ..." is a nonstarter in the current Bush era, let alone a program of national economic planning. (If you want to imagine something, imagine the Republican catcalls at the presumption of large-scale social engineering.)

We're in a different moment now, to be sure. An $800B stimulus was unthinkable six months ago and will be signed into law on Tuesday. But in Origins as then, the Rawlsian-compliant opportunity and social-capital expanding proscriptions he offers - such as "efforts to encourage voting and political involvement" or "[r]eforms to make workplaces more family friendly" or "better public transport" and more urban-friendly land-use laws - are all utter nonstarters with what's left of the conservative movement in the US.

Ultimately these two issues may be a quibble. The point is that we can design our institutions across the business, government and nonprofit sectors to evolve more quickly and vigorously

Movement Implications

There are powerful implications for the movement here, both at the movement strategy and the organizational development levels. His conception of strategy as a portfolio of experiments, while brutally difficult to implement, manage and execute, sounds like a key success factor as well as exactly the kind of strategy that a revamped conservative movement (with less to lose) could adopt.

At the organizational level, the key to this is creating organizational cultures that allow for increased evolution. Beinhocker covers so much ground so quickly that he doesn't have a chance to get into this in too much detail, but he does provide 10 commandments of evolutionary culture as a starting point (371):

Performing Norms
1. Performance orientation
2. Honesty
3. Meritocracy

Cooperating Norms
4. Mutual Trust
5. Reciprocity
6. Shared Trust

Innovating Norms
7. Nonhierarchical
8. Openness
9. Fact-based
10. Challenge

There's a clear connection to the Learning Organization school of organizational development: evolutionary optimization and strategy as a portfolio of experiments both sound like tools for executing and evaluating the learning organization. Again there's a lot of room for further analysis here. And this points towards an organization focused on horizontal movement communication, organizational development and spreading best practices around evolving strategy as another serious movement-level gap. (although one that a group like the Democracy Alliance could perhaps step into relatively easily)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thinking Big, Thinking Forward

Yesterday, I was privileged to attend Thinking Big, Thinking Forward, put on by four of the groups doing the best work on the economy in the movement: the Economic Policy Institute, the Institute for America's Future, Demos and the American Prospect.

I'm not going to try and get into the content, because there was just too much of it for me to cover remotely adequately here. I posted a few real time reactions to twitter with the #thinkingbig tag (which no one else took up - more on this later). Overall, it was an outstanding event. There was certainly evidence of the somewhat chaotic pile-of-silos approach progressives ordinarily employ in endeavors such as this, but it seemed like there was a strong effort to move beyond that. The great preponderance of the presentations were well crafted and interesting. I agree with presenter Mark Schmitt's observation that thinking big, to him, means putting the whole thing together somehow, and it may not have quite gotten there, but more on this later too.

So here are a few points of unsolicited but hopefully constructive feedback:

1) Racial and gender diversity. I know this is a big challenge, and I'm sure Larry, Miles, Bob & Roger and Bob Kuttner have known each other for years. Every last one them are progressive champions and on the whole, they did better than most events of this nature. One of the more interesting panels had Jerome Ringo of the Apollo Alliance and Michelle Collins of ShoreBank, and Dr. Manuel Pastor Jr. of UCSC and Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change presented in the afternoon. So while there was relatively good panel diversity, the concern here is top-line leadership diversity. Why not elevate CCC or the Apollo Alliance (who were represented on panels), or for that matter, Green for All, Opportunity Agenda or PolicyLink? (who weren't) I know these things get geometrically harder to plan with more groups, but it is incumbent on movement leadership to keep the fact that if we're not connecting with women and racially diverse communities, we're not just doing it wrong, we're not going to get where we want to go. The only way to do that is to bring diverse leaders and groups in at the foundational, leadership and strategic levels.

2) Presentation Quality. You would think at a meeting where people are putting out lots of complex information that there would be a better mix of visual communication. We can't all be Al Gore or Steve Jobs, but we can all learn from how they communicate. For the few folks who did have slides, many of them could have used an overhaul. (hint: if you have to apologize for how much text there is on a slide... revise the slide!) Presentation Zen is a good starting point. Also, a switch to a more TED/EG style model of 15 minute presentations rather than a panel might encourage more concise storytelling.

3) Social Media Exposure. While it's unlikely that this kind of event would generate much earned corporate media coverage even if the Vice President had been able to make it, it does seem like there's a lot of room for better social media exposure. Of the 900 some-odd folks there, from the searches I ran there were only a half-dozen people using twitter, and not even a critical mass of people to pick up the hashtag I proposed. There were no facebook pages or invites as far as I could tell. This is a movement wide problem, and it does seem that the right is outflanking us already in social media usage on the movement/organization side (if not on the campaign side). While yesterday's content was likely too technical for a broad audience, we should be doing a better job of reaching people like the person who practically begged the presenters for better communications tools at one point in the Q&A.

It seems like ideas marketing (broadly conceived) is still a gap that no organization is yet quite filling, even while many orgs have it as part of their missions. More effective use of social media could be a low-cost way of making this happen. We have to do a better job narrowcasting to the group of people who are already interested this, meet their needs, and then start figuring out how to grow the size of the audience we can reach effectively.

One other general thought: for a long time, I have chalked up the left's lack of a forceful, clear argument for a progressive economics to... I'm not sure what, but something internal to the movement. A short list might include ossified and/or thick-headed leadership, structural issues around what does and doesn't get funded and why, some variant of beltway fever (maybe a "not invented here" strain) that repels solutions-oriented thinking from outside, historical divisions and structures, and even (everyone's favorite excuse), the good old fashioned lack of resources.

All those are certainly very real issues (although I think the thick-headedness is less of a problem, and the lack of resources moreso), but I'm also thinking that there's simply a natural, historic progression to these things. Maybe reading Beinhocker has me thinking that every big, complicated process is an evolutionary one, but it seems like this probably really is. Arguments evolve. While there are numerous factors that can increase & decrease the rate of evolution (and what those factors are would be an awfully interesting analysis), evolution takes time. The right's arguments are so clear, powerful and resonant - even now, amongst the obvious economic devastation that governing under their argument has led to - simply because they've been at it for so long and have been able to boil their arguments down to their most simple and persuasive cores.

I suppose I'm being a little more zen about this, which might be helpful to the process of reading, synthesis, execution of research and writing that we need so much more of. Maybe we need Top Thinker, the progressive economics version of Top Chef. Or how about an unconference of some kind, perhaps FooCamp (closed, elite invite list) or even one BarCamp (open invite list) style? I found myself awfully curious about where people in the audience were coming from and why and how they were there. An unconference could help figure that out.

So while arguably no one was really able to pull it together in a satisfying way yesterday, maybe the big takeaway is that we're headed in more or less the right direction, and how helpful it is to get folks in a room and talking.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Foundations III: Ten Progressive Principles (A Response to Russell Kirk)

[Originally posted at Speak Out California 8 June 2006.]

With the roots of the philosophy of progressivism - interdependence and expanding substantial freedom - covered now in slightly more detail, here's a first take on a full progressive response to Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles that dates originally back to 1957, the hazy dawn of movement conservativism.

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries.

The ideology dodge here is a little bit of a funny tactic. Kirk protesteth a bit too much and he returns to it again and again. Don't look behind the curtain, there's no idelogy here! But there's more:

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word "conservative" as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.

If ideology is just a group of ideas, then conservativism is the negation of ideas? I doubt that's what Kirk meant. But if this whole "see no ideology, hear no ideology" game is appealing to you, then progressivism is in the same boat...

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.

Ditto for progressivism. We lefties love to make up our laundry lists, and there is value in doing so. But the project here is more at the level of worldview and narrative. What is the story that progressives have to tell? What are our values, our identity? Kirk does do a fair job at that.

In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.

Mr Kirk, I'll see your Milton reference and raise you one. The progressive is simply one who is fascinated with Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. Not to say that we deny the continuity and value of our history; nothing could be further than the truth. The expansion of substantial freedom was at the core of the American revolution and everything that's happening now is just a continuation of that spirit. But progressivism is surely about looking and moving forward into the unattempted and undiscovered country. Awake, arise, or be forever fallen!

...the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era. The following ten articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.

As with progressives. Lakoff's six(ish) types of progressives (socioeconomic, identity politics, environmentalists, civil liberties, spiritual and antiauthoritarian) have a lot of work to do to really nail down what our principles and narrative are going to be. This is only a start:


First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.

Nothing too shocking there if you've read Lakoff; this really is conservativism in a nutshell. This is where the conservative predilection for control that manifests itself in issues from women's rights to foreign policy comes from: It's all about defending the moral order. Progressives, instead, are about the broad expansion of substantial freedom.

That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

Some moral truths are permanent, and some are discarded through the arc of history. Slavery is a good example; someday the way we currently treat economic refugees will be as well.

This word order signifies harmony.

What it really signifies all too often is dominance.

There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth... Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.

The connection between the internal and outer orders is true enough. But the most hideous acts of the 20th century were largely a result of our desperate clinging to the old moral orders in the face of new emergent challenges to humanity, not the other way around. What was Nazism but the defense of a strict moral order, an assertion of racial superiority? What was the cold war but a contest for the dominance of two competing moral orders, neither of which provides the answers? The path to the future is towards the devolving of these grim and oppressive hierarchies, not their embrace.

A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society...

This is conflationary sleight of hand. Personal conviction towards justice and honor and a strong sense of right and wrong by no means lead to slavish devotion to some rigid moral order. The thirst for justice can lead only to questioning and working toward the eventual dismantling of such orders, to the extent that they hold people back.


Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.

This one is easy: Progressives are unafraid to think critically, question authority, customs and continuity. The painfully critical need for this in the world today is blindingly obvious.


Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.

Progressives believe in the principle of interdependence, which gives rise to a very different approach than this:

Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often.

This is the first mention of property rights and there will be more on this alter. But this is a particularly grim passage...

Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.

The historical ramifications for this are astounding. Think of the breadth of artistic, scientific and technological endeavors just over the past few years, let along the course of history. None of these count as brave new discoveries? If Kirk were still alive I'd send him a gift subscription to iTunes. Democracy may not be a new idea but as a species we surely have a long way to go in figuring how to make it work. How this can happen without new moral and political discoveries is unfathomable.


Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.

Progressives are guided by their thirst for justice and by their curiousity and wonder. The rationale for this paragraph is a litany of do-nothingism:

Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away...The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences.

Of course there's nothing wrong with reflection and planning. But when enterprises of great pitch and moment turn awry and lose the name of action, as they have so often recently, things have gone too far.


Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.

It's a little hard to tell exactly what Kirk is talking about in this one. Maybe this is an area of agreement, and yet conservatives...

...feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.

So Kirk goes on and on about enforcing the moral order and then turns around to complain about narrowing uniformity, but pins the blame on the other guys. And what the heck is remotely deadening about egalitarianism?

Regardless of what sort of point Kirk was trying to make here, it's clear that progressives value maximum diversity. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations isn't just for Vulcans. Progressives value diversity innately; life is just better with real variety, not whatever conflicting surface variety Kirk may (or may not) be trying to make the case for here.


Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.

Again, this sounds like excuses, reasons to give up on moving things forward, which accounts for a lot of Kirk's approach really. It's somewhat amazing that something so uninspiring could have had such an impact. The obvious alternative: progressives accept the principle of imperfectability, but never allow their dreams of abundance to be shackled by it.

This is another interesting bit that illustrates some of the basic negativity and even near-delusion at the core of conservativism:

The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.

To the extent that the 20th and 21st centuries have a hellish component, it's more than a little disingenuous to pin that on "ideologues" of whatever stripe. Bad things happen when our vision is too narrow, not when it's too broad. The short term biases of capitalism as it's currently implemented, for just one example, are far more responsible for what's gone wrong than whichever unnamed ideologues Kirk is trying to blame. Without more detail on what Kirk considers hellish though, it's a bit hard to tell what he's thinking.


Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.

Progressives appreciate the incredible breadth of freedom. It's telling that it took Kirk six other topics (starting with moral order!) before finally getting around to any kind of meaningful discussion of freedom. For as much blathering as conservatives do about freedom, it isn't really a top priority of theirs. Even when it is, they miss the point of it, as the freedom linked to the ownership of property is among the most vulgar and coarse of freedoms. The cognitive freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom to learn, freedom of and from religion, freedom of thought - as well as freedom from want and freedom from fear are the progressive pillars of the infinite taxonomy of freedom. Those are the substantial freedoms and form one of the two core philosophies of progressivism.

This isn't at all to say that private property shouldn't exist, of course! It just means that property rights have to be placed alongside other rights and freedoms. This gives rise to a certain critical but generally positive approach to capitalism: it needs to be housebroken, not smashed.


Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.

This issue, tied to the notion of coercion, is something more conservatives, especially those of a more libertarian stripe, seem to lose a lot of sleep over. What they don't seem to undertstand are some of the basic truths behind taxes and democracy. In any democracy, and indeed any society where the aforementioned property rights that Kirk values so highly are respected, there must always be some degree of "coercion." Things are never going to go your way 100% of the time and it's almost childish to think that they could; most of us learn this pretty early on in school. Ditto for taxes. Since the great majority of Americans are not in fact anarchists, we're always going to support some degree of taxation and are willing to have a discussion about exactly how much or how little that is, and what the most beneficial level is. Voluntary taxes would lead obviously and inevitably to free-rider problems.

So what to focus on instead? Progressives are pragmatic and grateful for all that civilization has provided. The unswerving hope for a better future that all progressives share is always tempered by their unending commitment to understanding an ever more complete picture of reality. For progressives, justice is of far higher priority than the thinness of focusing solely on property-linked freedom. The penniless monk who owns nothing is certainly no less free than the rich corporate executive.


Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

Another area of large agreement, but with a slight twist: The progressive believes in the unlimited power of human passion, and in restraint provided via countervailing powers. A large, thriving, complicated economy needs a large, thriving public sector as a countervailing force to keep corporate power in check. Capitalism does very much right but there are many basic needs that are not well met by markets, and government sets the ground rules for markets. But passion is what drives the game that is then played inside the boundaries of these rules: this is why there is a connection between a knowledge based economy and progressivism. Unlocking human potential and expanding cognitive liberty simply makes good business sense now. With power pushed out to the edges, the smarter the edges are the better we all do.


Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

Basic agreement yet again. However:the thinking progressive understands that extreme concentrations of wealth and power can throw the process of reconciling permanence and change badly out of whack. The development of a modern American oligarchy is at the root of what has slowed progress in this country to a near standstill. Crashing the gates - the breaking of the stranglehold this oligarchy has on power and the restoration of democracy - is a top priority for progressives.

So that's it. A couple things are clear: one, Kirk may have been influential, but a lot of his thought seems to be on pretty murky ground. And a whole lot of it sounds like elaborate excuses to quit trying. Maybe that will end up being one of the core values of progressivism: get off your butt and keep working! The arc of history is long, and it sure bends away from Russel Kirk.

Foundations II: Substantial Freedom

[Originally posted at Speak Out California, 20 May 2006.]

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every from of tyranny over the mind of man."
   -Thomas Jefferson

One of the most destructive legacies of the conservative movement is the diminishing they have inflicted on the concept of freedom. This seems counterintuitive, perhaps, but all the relentless yammering that emanates from conservatives about freedom is perhaps a signal of their weakness on this issue, one of fundamental and historical importance to the American project.

Since the beginning of the conservative movement, the conservative conception of freedom has been intimately and intrinsically tied up with property rights, almost to the point of excluding anything else. This goes back all the way to Russell Kirk: "...conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked" is one of his ten principles, and the only mention of freedom throughout his ten conservatives principles.

One of the obvious attributes of the idea of freedom that this misses is its incredible breadth. True freedom goes far, far beyond just the connection to property, or stuff. The connection between stuff and true freedom is even tenuous since we don't just own our stuff, our stuff owns us as well. Who is more free: the apostle who owns nothing and lives in an intentional community, or the typical American, surrounded by the amazing output of our consumer economy, but saddled with levels of debt not seen since feudal Europe?

There may be no answer to this question, but conservative thought would have us believe the answer is definitely the latter...

Yet a major facet of the perennial wisdom (the core wisdom that most religious traditions share) is to not get too connected to stuff. All major religions have vigorous, unambiguous warnings about becoming overly concerned with property, such as this from Matthew 6:19: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal."

What conservatives have done with freedom is pulled out this tiny slice of what freedom really is, just the parts related to property rights, and elevated just that as being practically the whole notion. It's as if, in the process of trying to define life, they took one species of fern out of an entire complex rainforest ecosystem and said "this is it -- this is life."

The progressive understanding of freedom is far more broad. True freedom is an unbelievably broad concept, a whole ecosystem of understanding. It encompasses practically every aspect of the human condition, so much so that it's difficult to even get one's head around it. FDR's four freedoms are a good start: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship. Sexual and bodily freedom are critical to progressives too. Freedom of the press and freedom of thought (or cognitive liberty) are also critical, and figure into our understanding of this in an even more important way.

It's a little tempting to leave the progressive notion of freedom at this point, with just an emphasis on the true breadth of it. But freedom of thought is key to this in a certain way that has been explored much further by Harvard economist Amartya Sen. In his Development as Freedom, he lays out an idea of substantial freedom that is much more useful for progressive expansion than simply appreciating the true breadth of the idea.

It would be difficult for me to do justice to this whole concept, and the link above is a succint and clear deeper explanation of it. The basic notion of substantial freedom is that the objective of civilization is for citizens to become "fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions [capacities for deliberate choice] and interacting with--and influencing--the world in which we live." Maximizing and expanding that kind of freedom is what progressives are about.

Like with interdependence, this is an idea that touches a lot of progressivism. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, for example, are the philosophical underpinnings that give rise to unionism. It's impossible to restrict unionism without severely curtailing one or both of these basic freedoms. Freedom of the press underlies a lot of what's happening on the internet. Freedom of religion translates into defending the establishment clause, because a secular public society is the best and only way to truly protect this cherished freedom. Coginitive liberty underlies our strong belief in education, our understanding of culture, the importance of mental health and is the basic criticism of the socially destructive war on drugs.

Substantial freedom is also is a pointer to progressivism's relationship to capitalism. Obviously capitalist societies can generate great amounts of substantial freedom. But it has its limitations, so progressives just want to housebreak capitalism, not smash it.

But at the root of it all is this idea of substantial freedom, and closely linked to it, cognitive liberty. The two ideas laid out so far, interdependence and substantial freedom, form what could be the backbone of the progressivism that's developing now.

Foundations I: Interdependence

[Originally posted at Speak Out California, 3 May 2006. Crossposted on dailykos.]

About a year ago, I came across a couple of references to conservative thinker Russell Kirk. His ten conservative principles, first published in 1957 and last updated in 1993, was reportedly a great influence on the thinking of Barry Goldwater and others at the dawn of movement conservativism.

Apparently, no one on our side ever wrote a response. I'd like to be proven wrong, but if someone did, it isn't showing up on google.

I've drafted the first part of such a response, a ten progressive principles approach that answers Kirk point by point. But I want to start with just one principle...

...because I think it pulls together a lot of progressive thought and action, and that is the principle of interdependence.

Interdepence is simply the state of being both apart from something and connected to it simultaneously. It seems simple but it's an extraordinarily powerful spiritual/philosophical idea, and thinkers as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr., M. Gandhi, Jesus and business consultant and author Stephen "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" Covey have made both general and specific references to it. The link just above is to a wikipedia entry that I've been editing to include some of these quotes.

Interdependence is a spiritual idea with serious political consequences. One of the most powerful of these is that it yokes together two of the largest issue-driven parts of the progressive movement: social justice and environmentalism. Interdepence is found everywhere in ecosystems; as John Muir put it, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." It's also the idea behind the vision of social justice that MLK expressed in his 1963 letter from Birmingham jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

The added emphasis there is to illustrate how this idea points to the kinds of real policies that progressives need to be supporting. The current battles over immigration throw this in a clear light: injustices visited upon these new arrivals to our country affect all of us. This feeling of mutuality was powerful, almost overwhelming at the marches; even the pictures seem infused with it. We will be continuing to work out the exact ramifications of this for our economic and immigration policies and further establish this idea as a foundation of the progressive worldview.

In Stephen Covey's approach, independence is a good thing, and a stage that people, and by extension, societies, need to go through. But further growth requires an awareness of the reality of interdependence. The future of our state and country depends on it. There is no way forward except with all of us working together. ¡Sì se puede!