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Ron Paul Challenges Liberals – or Maybe Not

Matt Stoller, the former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute has a couple of very interesting articles posted at Naked Capitalism,  Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals, and the follow-up, Naked Capitalism, “A Home for All Sorts of Bircher Nonsense”

These are thought-provoking, in many ways insightful, and strike me as required reading, for a variety of reasons, including some valuable historical insights.  However, one thought they provoke from me is that the main thesis is spectacularly wrong-headed.  Stollar talks about what a great ally Paul’s staff was, when working on certain issues.  I should say, “when working against certain issues” or things, like war and the unfettered evil workings of the Federal Reserve.  The correct vocabulary is worth emphasizing.  Liberals and Libertarians may find common ground in what they are against, but it is quite unlikely that they will ever find anything substantial that they both are for.

Stollar goes on to point out what he calls “a big problem” with liberalism.  This is the mixture of two elements, support for federal power and the anti-war sentiment that arose with Viet Nam and has continued though today.  In the same paragraph, Stollar says, “Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore.”  This is an important thought, but he doesn’t pursue it, and as he goes on seems to conflate Democrats with Liberals, as suits his convenience.  In the final paragraph of the first post he refers to: “a completely hollow liberal intellectual apparatus arguing for increasing the power of corporations through the Federal government to enact their agenda.”  Seriously, WTF?  I have absolutely no idea what the hell that is supposed to mean.

The second article is especially weak, and essentially devoid of any intellectual content.  Stollar decides to “highlight a few of the reactions here without much of a rebuttal.”  Why would anyone do that?  Does he believe the reactions are self-refuting?   Is he too lazy to rebut, or does he simply not have a good rebuttal?

At least he clearly sets forth the thesis of the first article:  “that the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety.”   Here is the source of Stollar’s alleged intra-liberal conflict, that Paul is somehow supposed to illuminate and inform.  Though Stollar says: “I’ll be describing in much more detail the shifting of the social contract underlying this failure, which has nothing to do with Ron Paul and would exist with or without him.”  So referencing Paul in the first place was a bit of a red herring.

He then goes on to provide extended quotes from posts by David Atkins, who he describes as “wrestling with what liberalism is” and Digby, who he simply rejects out of hand, though with a lot of words that don’t quite reach the level of snark

What Stollar describes as “contradictions within modern liberalism”  boils down to liberalism needing big government to be interventionist, as Atkins demonstrates, but not imperialistic.  But this is a totally coherent position. The problem lies not with progressive liberalism, but with the practical realities of managing a power system – which is what governemnt is – in a way that advances the common good, while holding the drive for imperialistic and domestic domination in check.  This is going to be a central practical problem with any governing system or political philosophy – at least for one that takes seriously the idea of advancing the common good.  To say it is the problem of liberalism is to ignore human nature, political reality, and the entirety of history.

Thus, a liberal can hold the positions that American involvement in WW II was necessary, but that our involvement in Viet Nam was not.  Ditto Kosovo, vis-a-vis Iraq.   One can also recognize that the only entity with enough heft to balance the power of trans-national mega-corporations is government, but Stollar does not choose to give that any consideration.

Stollar concludes: “As the New Deal era model sheds the last trappings of anything resembling social justice or equity for what used to be called the middle class (a process which Tom Ferguson has been relentlessly documenting since the early 1980s), the breakdown will become impossible to ignore.  You can already see how flimsy the arguments are, from the partisans.

I don’t know how one gets from the systematic dismantling of the New Deal by successive Republican administrations (and you can include both Clinton and Obama in this list) to the New Deal model shedding anything at all.  And, no, I can’t see how flimsy liberal partisan arguments have anything to do with an assault on the middle class that has taken place from the right.

Stollar has constructed a straw man problem.  Which is a shame, since there are real problems to be dealt with.  One is the growth of right wing populism, as exemplified by the Tea Party – at least to the extent that is is real, and not a Fox News fabrication.  Another is to harness the energy of the Occupy Movements, which provide some evidence that there is progressive populism that could be a source of real political strength.  Most critically, though, as things stand now, there is no political left in this country with any actual power. 

Corey Robin describes the central problem of American liberalism in the 21st Century, and closes the loop back to Stollar’s Ron Paul idea like this.

Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating.  The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support).  But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

Digging a level deeper, the reason we don’t have such a spokesperson is that our political system is essentially owned by corporate interests, which is why we get alleged liberals like Clinton and Obama in Democratic leadership, while genuine progressives like Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, and even Alan Grayson are marginalized.  On top of this, the right has a vigorous and powerful propaganda machine – hence the Tea Party; and the small number of progressive voices in broadcast media is nowhere close to providing a balance.

Money owns politics, and corporate interests, along with a small entrenched elite, own the vast majority of the money.  The key to achieving progressive solutions is to get the money out of politics.  But in the wake of Citizens United, that prospect is a forlorn hope.  That is my “coherent structural critique of the American political order” in one short paragraph.

Cross posted at Retirement Blues

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The Argument Against the "First Derivative Mistake" Excuse

Unless you’re really stupid, or bending over backwards to find excuses for the Obama Administration’s Geithnerian malfeasance, you should be less than impressed with Matt Yglesias’s attempt to argue that the Administration saw reason to be happy with overall employment (link to Brad DeLong).

If you’re Matt Yglesias, you should be even less impressed with your (own) argument.

Because Matt Yglesias was paying attention in 2010. He was paying much more attention to Barack Obama’s speeches than I was, so he would have heard the 27 January 2010 State of the Union, when Barack Obama said:

[O]ur efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt. That, too, is a fact.

I’m absolutely convinced that was the right thing to do. But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year.

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.) [emphases mine; laugh track in original]

And Matt Yglesias, who was paying attention then and has a memory now, would have known that “freezing government spending in 2011” means starting 1 October 2010 (when FY 2011 starts), which means that departments have to start planning and cutting…well, basically when the words leave Obama’s mouth.

And Matt Yglesias would have known that transfer payments such as Unemployment Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Home Energy Assistance Program, and other programs that (at the least) enable “discretionary” spending on things such as food, clothing, and medicine are not on the list of programs that will be exempted from funding cuts. So—even ignoring any moral considerations about letting people freeze to death or starve—there’s a cut in consumption (and therefore GDP) coming. Which will impact employment.

And Matt Yglesias would have known that freezing Federal spending—which is what Obama really means, since he doesn’t control the States’s spending directly—means that the States that are at best just starting to recover, and that have to balance their budget somehow, and only did it for the then-current fiscal year with the help of a lot of stimulus that won’t be coming from a frozen government budget. So there will be cuts in civil servants, and more cuts in consumption.

And Matt Yglesias would have known that freezing the Federal budget in the midst of a slow recovery (because even Matt’s first graphic doesn’t come close to the stable-unemployment rate of 110-150,000 new jobs a month at the time of the SotU, and only approaches it later because it includes temporary census hiring) means that there will have to be layoffs at the Federal level as well, even if there is no one (contrary to economic theory) who leaves for the private sector.

And Matt Yglesias—who isn’t as dumb as his post makes him seem—would know that an Administration that says something that stupid in 2010 isn’t looking at his second (more clearly understandable) graphic, or even his first (census-enhanced) graphic, but rather so mythological construct where all those government workers and increasingly-impoverished unemployed people magically Create Jobs.

And Matt Yglesias—not to mention Brad DeLong—would not be at all surprised when the result of those early 2010 policies came home to roost:

Indeed, the reaction might well be that the recovery went even better than should have been expected, and to wonder why.

And Matt Yglesias would, instead of making excuses for them, wonder aloud why any capable economist (or even one of the Administration’s policy guru) would have been stupid enough to take the first chart he presented seriously as a roadmap, since the Administration changed the territory—for the worst, from an employment perspective—from the previous model. He would be asking if Austan Goolsbee—who is smarter than both Matt and myself, and possibly the two of us combined—was just sleeping through the entire Administration.

But Matt Yglesias didn’t do any of those things. Why, oh why, can’t we have a better press corps?(tm, Brad DeLong)

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