Dangerous Convictions, Part III: Investing in Pie

political discourse

(By NCrissie B)

This week’s series considers Tom Allen’s new book Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress. First we began with common explanations for the breakdown in Congress, and why Allen believes the true answer lies in the parties’ very different worldviews. Yesterday we saw specific examples in budget policy, the Iraq War, health care, and climate change. Today we conclude with what Allen proposes to enable Congress to function again.

Note: Tom Allen represented Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House for twelve years. He graduated from Bowdoin College, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford with former President Bill Clinton, and graduated from Harvard Law School. He served on the staffs of Maine Governor Kenneth Curtis and Sen. Edmund Muskie and, after practicing law, was elected to the City Council of Portland, Maine. In 1996 he was elected to Congress, where he served on the House Energy and Commerce and House Budget Committees, chaired the House Affordable Medicines Task Force, and served on the House Oceans Caucus. After his unsuccessful 2008 challenge against incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, Allen was appointed president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers.

“To see the world as it is and our place in it”

Tom Allen completed Dangerous Convictions before the 2012 elections, and he did not seem hopeful about their outcome:

The great paradox in American politics today is that the Republican Party has a significant political advantage: its dominant identity as the party of Americans’ “first language,” the language of individualism. But it also suffers a substantial policy weakness: its core principles of “smaller government, lower taxes” provide little guidance on the pressing problems of a globalizing world, which requires domestic public leadership and international collaboration.

In fact President Obama and Democrats presented a compelling vision in what Allen calls our “second language” of community: “We the People” working together “to form a more perfect Union.” President Obama was reelected and Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress. The president’s Second Inaugural Address and his State of the Union Address this week also spoke the language of community, and polls show strong support for the policies he outlined. If community is our “second language,” the evidence suggests that voters respond when we speak it well.

Allen proposes a wide range of solutions to our polarized politics. He argues that we should be guided by “four neglected virtues” – respect for evidence, tolerance of ambiguity, caring about consequences, and commitment to the common good. He also proposes a “three-legged stool” of liberty, equality, and justice as core principles for a democratic society. He argues for a more attentive media who ask for evidence and do more investigative reporting, and who recognize that political leaders usually do mean what they say. He proposes institutional and electoral reforms to reduce gerrymandering and increase voter participation, and campaign finance reform, including a constitutional amendment if need be to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Ultimately, he concludes:

We must work to see the world as it is and find our place in it. Our place is defined by our relationships with others. Confronted by an increasingly complex, interconnected world, we have succumbed to emotional messages that promise simple answers. [...]

Hope, faith, love, forgiveness – we need them all to keep moving when completion of our purposes eludes us. For all my alarm at the frozen state of our political discourse, I still believe that by some not yet visible process we Americans will eventually find our way to more pragmatic public leadership inspired by a clearer commitment to the common good.

Talking about pie

I have one idea for that “not yet visible process.” We can’t magically bridge the Democratic and Republican worldviews, but we can try to develop a common language. And while we may not agree about much, most Democrats and most Republicans like pie.

Republicans talk a lot about pie. At the Heritage Foundation, Leslie Carbone and Jay Wesley Richards write about “economic pie.” In his book The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli writes about “liberty pie.” In the Republican worldview, the economic pie can grow and “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but the liberty pie is fixed and “more government” inevitably means “less freedom.”

Put those ideas together and you get supply-side economics: lower taxes and fewer regulations yields higher growth that benefits everyone, even if the rich benefit more. But there’s a problem. Supply-side economics doesn’t work.

Pie slicing and pie growing

The Heritage Foundation also publishes an Index of Economic Freedom, ranking countries according to the Heritage Foundation’s policy wish list. Various sources also gather data on each country’s economy, and that data is collated in the CIA’s World Factbook. You can look at national GDP growth rankings, and compare those to the Economic Freedom rankings. You’ll find there is no correlation. None of the top 20 countries in terms of GDP growth ranks better than “Moderately Free” by Heritage Foundation standards. Several fast-growing economies, including China and many in Africa, rank as “Mostly Unfree” or even “Repressed.” Hrmm.

That is not an argument for political repression. Most of the world’s developed economies are “Moderately Free” or “Mostly Free.” As it happens, those developed economies also average only modest GDP growth, precisely because their economies are already developed. That stands to reason: as more of a country’s people and resources are developed, there is less untapped potential and growth slows to the more modest rates we see in developed economies.

Yet even if you look at the developed economies, there’s no correlation between Economic Freedom and GDP growth. There is, however, a strong negative correlation between economic inequality and GDP growth in developing countries and at least some evidence of a weaker correlation even in developed economies. In other words, how we decide to slice the pie affects how much the pie grows.

Investing in pie

This evidence suggests that the policies and institutions that diminish economic inequality and extend opportunities to more people can also help grow the economic pie. If we define “liberty” to include both negative and positive aspects – both the absence of interference and the presence of opportunity – those same policies and institutions can also help grow the liberty pie.

And contrary to Republican dogma, the liberty pie is not a fixed size. The existence of a choice for those who can afford it matters little to those who cannot. In the abstract, yes, “people” are free to college or open businesses and pursue their dreams. In Realworldia, many qualified people can’t afford either of those choices, and that reduces their slices of liberty. If we enact policies that enable more people to attempt more choices, the liberty pie does get bigger …

… unless your idea of “liberty” means the freedom to have something that someone else cannot have. Privilege is a zero-sum game.

So if Republicans really care about liberty and economic growth, we can speak a common language of pie. We can talk about progressive policies in terms of investing in pie, through better education, updated infrastructure, more efficient health care that provides better outcomes at less cost, and research and bridge funding to speed development in sustainable energy and mitigate climate change.

By framing these as investments rather than spending, we do two things. First, we emphasize that our goal is to help grow both the economic and liberty pies, to make more and better choices more available for more people. Second, we force ourselves to estimate each policy’s costs and benefits, and try to make the best investments we can afford.

If Republicans are serious about the economic and liberty pies, those frames should penetrate their worldviews. And if Republicans care only about defending privilege … those frames should expose their real agenda.

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))

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