Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Does It Mean To Be Progressive?

This editorial in the Washington Post takes a first pass at defining progressivism.  It encourages others to engage in a discussion about the meaning of progressivism.  However, much of the editorial was about shaping the discussion that might follow.  For example, it was critical of efforts by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to make our country more progressive.  It argued that middle class Americans might get more benefits from their programs than impoverished Americans.  This focuses the inequality discussion into a battle within the lower half of the income distribution for a limited amount of social welfare spending.  It makes the point that programs like Social Security and Medicare are no longer affordable so it is makes no sense to even talk about increasing the payouts from those programs.  It admits that the top 1% of our income distribution has received the lion's share of the growth in personal income, but it avoids any discussion of raising their taxes so that we can afford to pay for social welfare programs.  Conservatives will love the way in which they have shaped the discussion about progressivism.  The battle over government resources is a battle between the middle class and more deserving citizens in poverty and raising taxes on the well off is excluded from the discussion.  Moreover, it is not critical of efforts by Republicans to reduce the tax burden of of the super rich.  Tax cuts for the rich shift the tax burden to less advantaged citizens.

The editorial takes a similar stance in its defense of globalization.  It argues that trade has been very good for the poor in many parts of the world.  It has raised the standard of living in many developing countries by unprecedented amounts in any period of human history.  That is true, but it avoids any real discussion of the distribution of benefits from trade in developed countries.  Most of those benefits have gone to the executives of multi-national corporations, their shareholders, and to bankers who facilitate international trade and currency movements.

To summarize, the Post editorial has shaped the discussion about progressivism into a very conservative direction.  The discussion is about income redistribution.  That is, how we divide a limited amount of available resources between the middle class and those in who are in even greater need of government help.  It makes no effort to deal with the maldistribution of income by market forces.  The market system has been modified over the last three decades to increase the incomes of those at the top of the distribution and to reduce their share of the tax load.  We can have no real discussion of progressivism without addressing the changes that have occurred in the market system.

The Post editorial correctly points out that economic growth makes it easier to improve the lives of our citizens.  It implies that progressive ideas may impede growth.  In other words, a more progressive tax system and a more progressive market system may kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.   Ronald Reagan, and supply side economics, is alive and well in the Post.

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