Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Book Summary: Reich's "Reason: Why liberals will win the battle for America"

Robert B. Reich’s book, Reason, is a hopeful note in a symphony of dread among liberals. Facing the prospect of the re-election of feckless ne’er-do-well and federal government infested by thin majority of anti-democratic yahoos, gnawing away at our beloved Republic like a conquering army, Reich’s optimistic assertion that a return to classical and vocal liberal values will eventually win the day, seems, well... optimistic. There is something inspiring about his absolute faith in the good sense of Americans, perhaps, and in a work dedicated to the memories of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, perhaps optimism and touch of populist inspiration is appropriate. If anyone can inspire us to stand up unappologetically to proclaim the validity and common sense of our liberal ideals, it is the Wellstones.

Reich first identifies our enemy, and they are NOT conservatives; they are the Radical Conservatives, a strain of reactionary revolutionaries espousing unproven theories of social and economic order based on Social Darwinism, fundamentalist Christianity and economic anarchy. Traditional conservatives may not agree with us on every point, but they more closely akin to liberals than RadCons, and many are beginning to realize that. We should all beware of the simplistic and radical social nostrums of RadCons; they do not want to preserve the social order, they want to destroy it and rebuild it in their own image.

Reich identifies the origin of the RadCons’ kulturekampf as the counter-cultural youth movement of the 1960’s. They view the 60’s as a breakdown of social order. For many RadCons, the anti-war movement against Vietnam was not a reaction to an unwise and unwinnable war, but a flaw in our collective will which caused our defeat. They are determined to stamp out what they perceive as the weak-kneed liberalism that aided and nurtured the ‘do as thou wilt’ ethic of that decade.

Reich identifies the defining feature of the RadCon mind-set as moral absolutism. They see the world as a contest of opposed dualities (good v. evil, us v. them, right v. wrong) in which punishment with the possibility of redemption is the main purpose of social order. Their predilections have lead America into an unhealthy obsession with private morality, making it the central battleground of political discourse. Abortion, pre- and extra-marital sex, gay marriage, gay sex, illegal drug use, and the like are the weapons of the RadCon kulturkampf. By focusing on these issues of private morality, Reich charges that the RadCons distract political discourse from subjects which truly matter, and are the proper object of politics and government: public morality.

Fiscal misdeeds, corporate and personal tax evasion, white collar crimes (which cost society far more in lives and dollars than street crimes which are the RadCons’ red-meat), unjustifiable executive pay, conflicts of interest, and the legalized bribery of our public officials and influence pedaling, are tearing apart the fabric of our most important public institutions, but RadCons stand mute. Liberals must vigorously champion morality, but public morality, not private, says Reich. Liberal talk about these issues now, of course, but they do so in economic terms which leave them open to charges of ‘class warfare’ which are ridiculous, but politically efficacious enough to deflect many liberals. By condemning these misdeeds in terms of public morality, Liberals can put a powerful horse in the ‘values’ race, address the real damage elite’s lack of morals are doing to our public institutions, and get a leg up in the culture wars by taking advantage of a very important political tool, too little used by liberals - outrage.

Reich then examines the great debate now ongoing between the tried and true liberal solutions to creating a prosperous society with the simplistic nostrums and moralistic Social Darwinism which RadCons are adopting. They seek force the economic anarchy of 19th century robber-baron capitalism on a complex 21st century society: a dubious and risky experiment based on poor reasoning and failed theories. What RadCons refer to dismissively as the Welfare State is simply a system of social insurance, i.e. risk distribution, which has literally created the middle class and the modern capitalist economy as we know it. Without that system, based on liberal values and ideas, our current society and prosperity would collapse in a morass of corruption, poverty, and ruinous business cycles of boom and bust which plagued the 19th century they venerate as an economic paradise.

Nearly everyone is exposed to catastrophic financial risks. The risks to most peoples’ economic welfare, temporary and permanent unemployment, disability, natural disaster, disease, etc., generally cannot be insured against by any but the wealthy. Retirement used to be a matter of falling into extreme poverty for most elderly people. Unemployment could mean the destruction of a family and destitution. Health care was rare and infrequent, while early morbidity was common. It is a great and powerful liberal idea to spread a safety net under society to keep its members secure and productive, not as a handout, but to expand the wealth of society by ensuring the its citizens are protected from catastrophe and able to care for themselves. The liberal welfare state is not just sound business, it is based on a profound moral vision of collective economic security and Christian society.

RadCons equate wealth with virtue, thus poverty and misfortune equal sloth and moral turpitude. They believe that only fear of catastrophe in a ideal free market where people succeed or excel purely on their talents will make people productive and spur growth and innovation. They are working to cut the safety net out from under us in the hope that surety of punishment for failure will spur everyone to greater heights. They are worshiping an ideal ‘free market’ that doesn’t exist. Markets are social institutions, Reich reminds us, not natural phenomenon. Law, regulations, and the power of the state are the market, not infringements upon it. At base, their simplistic and unrealistic goal is simply Social Darwinism retreaded and repackaged as an economic theory. It’s a great irony that so many RadCons don’t believe in evolution and natural selection, except to apply it to their fellow citizens.

Yet at the same time RadCons advocate letting people fail economically (no matter what harm that may imply), some are apparently too wealthy powerful to be allow to fail. Tax-financed bailouts of corporations and whole industries, subsidies for certain industries that would otherwise go under, tax breaks and shelters, and massive contracts based not on merit, but on political influence, seem to be perfectly acceptable to RadCons. Assumably, this is reconcilable to their beliefs because the beneficiaries of this government largess are already wealthy, thus already virtuous, and thus, not subject to demotivation by welfare. If liberals are going to win this debate, we have to stand firm for our values, point out the inconsistencies, and stand on the liberal tradition’s record of success in supporting and growing modern economies.

The RadCons seek to give ever greater benefits to the wealthy, and allow greater concentration of wealth at the top under a justification of ‘trickle down’ economics. Reich challenges the simplistic, and demonstrably incorrect theories of the RadCons on how to create a prosperous society. The basis of the RadCon economic theory is that by allowing the wealthy of the nation to have more money, they will invest more in the American economy and all will eventually benefit. It’s load of malarkey, and liberals need to contest how the wealth of nations actually works now. Capital is international now and it goes where the greatest returns are. If you want investment, you must provide high returns. The RadCons think they will attract that investment by cutting benefits, wages and systemic costs, such as compliance with environmental standards and fair labor practices. Reich points out that America can’t compete as a low cost producer. Unless we want a society of declining wealth, we must compete as high value-added producer.

The only way to be a high value-added producer is to have superior inputs that are attractive to investors based on their quality, not so much their cost. We can’t be the cheapest; so we must be the best. Our infrastructure, educational system, system of social insurance, and system of law and government must be the finest in world. Being the best takes serious investments in our people and the systems which support them, wise use of resources, and good public morals and institutions.

RadCons want the opposite, a race to bottom, choking off investment in people and systems that make America first-class rather than third-world. RadCons’ economic vision is America as a sweat-shop. Liberals’ vision is an America that has the finest, most adaptable, and most secure workforce in the world. Liberals will have to work hard to ensure that our vision, which lifts all boats, is more attractive to voters than theirs, which drains the harbor to lift a few yachts. Liberals must make clear that GDP isn’t the best and only measure of economic success, quality of life matters too. We need to offer a stark choice, not just a small variation on their theme.

Reich is saddened by the cheap and empty patriotism of the RadCons in which denigration of others replaces celebration of what is great about America. He thinks that liberal must take patriotism back from those who use it like a weapon and distort it into a sentiment which asks little except to keep your dissent to yourself, keep shopping, and avoid paying taxes. "It’s your money’ says Bush, and he wants you to keep more of it, even as the nation is at war and running record deficits. Well, that’s simply unpatriotic according to Reich. Those who love their country should sacrifice to support it. Reich suggests that by redefining taxes as patriotic, and possibly setting up a system of national service, liberals can show that real patriotism calls for sacrifice and shared endeavor. Liberals must proclaim that those who would have America live up to its highest ideals love her most, and are not ‘blaming America first’ crowd. Nor are ‘Freedom Fries’ patriotic, they’re just obnoxious and intellectually insulting. The real patriot loves America’s traditions, her values, her idealism, and her citizens’ rights.

Liberals have to also reject the idea that they are soft on defense. Reich points out that it is liberals who constructed the international order which keeps us safe and regulates the world, and it is liberals who have vigorously defended that order against all threats; totalitarianism, fascism, and rabid nationalism have all been faced down by the steady world leadership of liberals. Now we stand ready to face down terrorism, too. Not by invading other nations or stripping citizens of their liberty, but in the only way to effectively combat terrorism, like police work. Good intelligence, good local knowledge, and a heavy hammer or a razor-edge scalpel, whichever is called for, when it’s time to take out the trash is how you fight crime, and it’s how you fight terrorism, too. A that takes having friends and people who trust you enough to call on you in the neighborhood where the criminals live.

Finally, Reich appeals to liberals to reject centrism, and triangulation. We have to make our case plainly and honestly as liberals, working from liberal values. We have to stop running scared from ‘the label’ or we are dead meat. Today I heard some prick of a GOP Senator, who was whining about Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the pussy-in-chief, say that she was from a place where people didn’t mind being called a liberal. Since when do people commonly take umbrage to being called a liberal, I wondered? Probably few would, but this how the RadCons are waging ongoing campaign to demonize us as unworthy of respect, and unfit for civilized company. To hell with that. We have to stand up and tell the world what liberalism stands for, why it’s better to them, and why the RadCons are full of shit.

This has been a summary of the main thesis and arguments of Robert Reich’s book, but I strongly urge liberals to buy and read this book. It is a lucid and powerful case for how to frame the liberal tradition as a more viable and more attractive philosophy on which to base society that the RadCons’ catalog of moronic Gipper quips.


At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark Kaegi, Gina Kaegi, tax evasion, are they cheating on their property taxes? are they tax cheats?


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