Social democracy as the answer to Trump

I’ve been reading Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land, his 2010 plea for social democracy in the last days of his life.  It turns out that Judt presciently anticipated the appeal of Trumpian authoritarianism in our insecure age — and offered social democracy as our best hope to withstand it.

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Tony Judt (New York Times)

Judt was a steadfast if begrudging admirer of social democracy–a political ideology that “does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past.  But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.”

Social democracy is the true center of modern political thought.  Where socialism outright rejects capitalism, social democracy accepts it.  Social democracy aims to harness the engines of capitalism while tempering its rough edges, crafting the institutions and guardrails necessary to balance capitalism’s chaotic dynamism with a measure of ordered security.

That sense of security is dangerously amiss today, roiling much of the West with anxiety.  “We have entered an age of fear,” Judt wrote.  “Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies.”  This is the insecurity of terrorism, of technological change, of globalization, of economic inequality, of the prospect of job loss.  “And, perhaps above all,” Judt wrote, “fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach.”

This combination — an electorate both gripped by fear and inflicted with skepticism of their leaders’ ability to do anything about it — produces anti-democratic movements that offer stability by turning aggressively inward.  “If we can have democracy, we will,” Judt observed.  “But above all, we want to be safe.  As global threats mount, so the attractions of order will only grow. [. . .]  Outsiders, however defined, will be seen as threats, foes and challenges.  As in the past the promise of stability risks merging with the comforts of protection.”  That’s the lure of Trumpism that Judt saw coming.

The fearful society craves stability.  This stability can be provided one of two ways: First, it can be anti-democratic stability.  This is the order promised by a strong man — one who exploits this insecurity by vilifying the weak and the “other.”  One who looks at blighted communities cast to the margins of the American story and declares “I alone can fix it.”  One who assures those forgotten communities that he will “give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years.”

“Unless the Left has something better to offer,” Judt warned, “we should not be surprised to find voters responding to those holding out such promises.”

Fortunately, the Left does have something to offer — Trumpism isn’t the only answer to insecurity.  Stability can also be provided through democracy by crafting institutions to truly protect people from the risks of modern life.  “Social democracy in Europe, the New Deal and the Great Society here in the US, were explicit responses” to challenges and threats wrought by previous eras of insecurity, Judt wrote.  Where Trumpism offers recriminations in response to insecurity, the Left must offer reassurance.

What does that reassurance look like?  By and large, it means insuring individuals against commonly-shared risks in the twenty-first century.  Political scientist Lane Kenworthy laid out a full agenda for a Social Democratic America, including wage insurance to protect workers from cuts in pay, sick leave to insure workers in case of illness, a child benefit to insure parents against the costs of child rearing, and other social insurance programs.  It might also include an aggressive program of targeted government investment to stimulate stagnant communities, coupled with a federal works program, to function as a form of insurance against creative destruction discarding whole regions of the country.

Of course, a program of that scale and ambition will directly confront a public with ever-diminishing expectations in the capacity of its civic institutions and their leaders.  As Chris Hayes wrote in The Twilight of the Elites, we face a crisis of authority in the United States after a generation of catastrophic elite failure at every turn across virtually every pillar of society. This makes for a receptive audience for the authoritarians promising anti-democratic stability that bludgeons these very institutions, and a much more doubtful audience for those looking to achieve democratic stability through better and more comprehensive institutions.

Which means the Left’s message and messenger matter.  A compromised center-left version of social democracy in the hands of a leader closely tied to decades of institutional failure won’t be compelling.  While Hillary Clinton pushed an agenda packed with progressive technocratic reforms and programs, her institutional ties were too unshakable and her ambition to restructure the American economy too trimmed to compete with the vociferous anti-democratic stability offered by Trump.

The Left will need an outsider insurgent that can credibly lay claim to moving the country in the direction of social democracy.  Barack Obama pushed a centrist progressive agenda, but did so as an outsider reformer offering hope and relief from the failures and disappointments of the previous generation.  Bernie Sanders positioned himself as an outsider to the political class vowing social democratic revolution of the country’s institutions, but lacked the inspirational and heroic appeal of Obama that cut across all core Democratic constituencies.  Some combination of the two is what’s called for.

Moreover, a social democratic response to Trump isn’t necessarily about specific policies.  Rather, it requires making an unabashed positive case for the role of government to better citizens’ lives; for the capacity of a democracy to craft institutions to guard against threats new and old; for the ability of elected leaders to chart a course that enlivens struggling communities and ensures that prosperity is broadly shared.

Even if Trump’s presidency crumbles under the weight of chaos, incompetence, and scandal, the resonance of his dark message won’t necessarily follow suit in four years.  As the closest approximation of the Left in mainstream American politics, Democrats will only defeat Trump by offering voters their own vision of how to achieve security in the twenty-first century.  In an age of fear, the hostile illusion of security of the Right can only be matched by a hopeful communal security of the Left.

A Nordic cure for American anxiety

Any time liberals try to expand the American social welfare state, conservatives can be counted on to howl in resistance in the name of freedom.  Government helping parents pay for childcare?  An invasive infringement on the freedom of families to make their own childrearing arrangements, according to the conservative National Review.  Guaranteeing paid family leave for all workers?  A job-killing big government burden on free enterprise, according to conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio.  Providing universal healthcare through the private insurance market?  Government coercion on the freedom to take your chances without health insurance, according to virtually all Republicans.

We’ve become accustomed to this serve-and-volley routine in American politics.  Liberals pitch their policy ideas in terms of fairness, justice, and equity.  Conservatives furiously respond as the guardians of freedom from government overreach.

But this one-sided conception of what American freedom means warps the debate and obscures a richer, fuller understanding of what it means to enjoy the fruits of liberty in the twenty-first century.  Sometimes it takes a voice from outside of the bubble to show us what we’re missing.

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In The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen provides that voice.  Partanen was born in Finland but moved to the United States as an adult.  Upon landing in America, Partanen quickly noticed that for a country that prides itself as the land of opportunity, American life was remarkably laden with anxiety, dependence, and constriction.  With little in the way of public support, Partanen encountered the reality that Americans are largely on their own to obtain basic modern necessities and navigate complex systems that are publicly provided in other countries.  Americans had little sense of just how unfree their lives were.

Partanen’s home country of Finland provides a robust and modern welfare state.  Back home, Partanen had enjoyed a whole host of public benefits: simple and comprehensive universal healthcare, a year’s worth of paid disability leave, nearly a year of paid parental leave (with the option of lesser-paid leave for an additional two years), affordable public daycare, universally high-performing K-12 education, free college, and free graduate school.

In the United States, however, Partanen was struck by the degree to which Americans are on their own to manage the complexities of modern life, and how this fosters strangely backward relationships.  “[T]he Americans I encountered and read about were being forced to depend more and more on one another,” Partanen writes, “in a throwback to the traditional relationships of old.  And in the process, individuals were becoming beholden to their spouses, parents, children, colleagues, and bosses in ways that constrained their own liberty.”

For instance, Partanen grew disturbed by the grotesquerie of financial tax incentives to marry, and using marriage as a solution to poverty to compensate for lack of government support.  “[I]n Finland,” Partanen explains, “a policy like America’s would be considered government meddling in matters of private morality.”  To Partanen, promoting marriage—“one of the most precious of human experiences”—as a poverty fix “sounds like something from the distant past.”

Partanen explains that the Nordic welfare states arise from what she calls the “Nordic theory of love.”  This is the idea that love and fulsome relationships arise between individuals who are equal and autonomous.  Dependency is anathema to love.  This theory, Partanen explains, “has inspired the broad variety of policy choices in the Nordic nations that together ensure a single, predominant goal: independence, freedom, and opportunity for every member of society.”

These are quintessential American values.  But American fear of the welfare state has endangered them as increasingly hollow aspirations.  There is an odd contradiction in American life, Partanen writes: “Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problem the system creates.”

Leaving it to families and others to fill in the gaping holes in our safety net can dampen relationships that ought to be sacred.  The dependency of the elderly on their children to act as caretakers, for instance, breeds resentment and exhaustion.  That’s why Nordic countries provide public eldercare centers.  Nordics, Partanen writes, “want their love for the elderly to remain untainted by the sort of resentments that can arise when aging parents are stuck in relationships of dependency with their own children—relationships that destroy the autonomy, independence, and freedom of everyone involved.”

This is true at the opposite end of life, too.  New parents must solve logistical puzzles to take time off from work to be home with their new child, and to coordinate childcare while staying in the labor force.  Those who are lucky have paid leave as a fringe benefit from their employers, but far from all have this luxury.  The Nordic theory, however, is that “parents should be able to focus on welcoming new life into the world and loving their newborn, rather than being overwhelmed by the logistical challenges involved,” Partanen writes.  That’s why Nordic countries each provide at least nine months of paid leave for new parents to stay home with their children.  And Nordic countries provide public daycare for working parents, sparing them the exhausted mental bandwidth that American parents expend figuring out how to juggle work and childcare.

The Nordic brand of freedom means the absence of burden.  Children don’t bear the burden of their parents’ income status—kids of all classes can access high-quality education and are entitled to a basic child allowance.  Workers aren’t stuck at a job for fear of losing health insurance—and employers aren’t burdened with running complicated social insurance schemes, either.  Entrepreneurs can put business ideas in practice, knowing that there’s a safety net to catch them if they fail, and that their startup won’t be tasked with paying for costly employee benefits.

Skeptics might argue that this freedom is merely replacing one dependency with another—making citizens dependent on government instead of on family, neighbors, civil society, and themselves.  Indeed, the prospect of government dependency has long been the bogeyman in American politics.  Why should Nordic dependency on the state be preferable to American informal dependency elsewhere?

Henrik Herggren, a Swedish public intellectual, has one answer.  In The Myth of the Nearly Perfect People, author Michael Booth deals with similar themes of Nordic freedom and personal independence, and poses the question of government dependency to Herggren.  According to Herggren:

“[Swedes] are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. [. . .] [But] [y]ou can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization.  [. . .]  [T]he point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure.  Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”

In Herggren’s view, the state can provide a support structure and a set of guideposts to create equal opportunity in a way that no other actor or institution can.  Any other arrangement of dependency—on families, on employers, on charities—will create varying and unpredictable levels of support.  Only the state can guarantee a basic level of opportunity to all, setting everyone on a path of self-exploration and meaningful freedom.

So what is to be done for the stressed-out and stretched-thin United States?  Partanen has a clear vision for what the country needs.  “What Americans need,” she writes, “so that they can stop struggling so hard to be superachievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacations.”  In short, real freedom requires government to step in to provide the goods needed to loosen the squeeze on everyday Americans.

Of course, Nordic citizens pay handsomely for these types of generous public services.  But as Partanen explains, when you tally up all of the United States’s public and private expenditures on items like health care, pensions, unemployment benefits, and childcare, it winds up spending as much as Sweden does as a share of its GDP.  Given the bounty that her tax bill bought, Partanen says, “it was a bargain.”

The United States is stuck in an outmoded, negative view of freedom.  This brand of freedom is negative in that it focuses solely on freedom from government infringement on personal liberty.  But modern society calls for a more positive understanding of freedom—a freedom from knowing that certain basic goods and services are accessible to fall back on in order to meaningfully actualize personal liberty.

“Today nations that have progressed into the twenty-first century see freedom as something much richer,” Partanen writes.  “They see freedom as the assurance that all individuals get real opportunity, so they’re free to pursue the good life for themselves, and real protection from the lottery of bad luck, so they’re free from unnecessary fear and anxiety.”

Let’s hope we join these nations soon.  Our incomplete idea of freedom is obscuring all of the ways that we are already unfree and dependent, constrained and burdened.  A modern and comprehensive welfare state is necessary to replace mounting American anxiety with real American freedom.

The raw end of the free trade deal

Any economic change creates winners and losers.  “Creative destruction” is the economic concept that innovative, efficiency-promoting advancements also tend to displace segments of the preexisting status quo.  Uber generates benefits for consumers, but disrupts the taxi industry.  Automation makes consumer goods cheaper, but imperils jobs for workers.

Globalization has been one of these economic changes.  The rise of globalization promised vast new global wealth from lifting barriers on the movement of goods and people.  And on the whole, American consumers have immensely benefited from cheaper consumer goods and the bounties of global trade.  But globalization also triggered tectonic shifts in American workplaces.  Industries that, in a pre-globalized world, provided a good living to millions of working-class Americans suddenly faced international pressure and increasingly offshored their workforces to faraway countries.  Spurred by globalization, these companies picked up and left countless American communities in the dust.

In a fair political economy, the deal is supposed to be that we take a slice of the gains from broad economic innovation to compensate those on the losing end.  In theory, we could take some of the surplus wealth generated by free trade and direct it to those Americans who have been hit hardest by this creative destruction—those whose jobs have vanished and whose towns have dried up.

But that hasn’t happened.  Despite the diffuse gains of globalization, we haven’t provided much in the way of targeted help to those who have been net losers.  And those who perceive themselves to be net losers have noticed.

The missing compensation from globalization is becoming the defining political issue on both sides of the Atlantic and is scrambling political divisions.  At the New York Times, Nate Cohn writes that the Brexit vote signals “the emerging split between the beneficiaries of multicultural globalism and the working-class ethno-nationalists who feel left behind.”  Pro-Brexit votes flowed in from traditional Labour Party strongholds in working-class neighborhoods, with the dagger for “Remain” coming when 62 percent of Sunderland, a once reliable pro-Labour region, voted to “Leave.”  Similarly, at the Washington Post, Matt O’Brien writes that Brexit marks the beginning of the revolt by globalization’s losers—disproportionately concentrated in the working- and middle-classes of rich-world countries.

And let’s not forget Donald Trump, who has made walling off borders and tearing up trade deals—in effect, reversing globalization—the calling card of his nationalist campaign for president.  And who formed the core of Trump’s base?  A “certain kind of Democrat,” according to Cohn; specifically, less educated white registered Democrats who nonetheless identify as Republicans in the South, Appalachia, and the deindustrialized North.  Just like the “Leave” vote sweeping through working-class Sunderland, Trump’s ethno-populism has resonated with white working-class voters and the economic devastation they face in 2016.

So what to do?  Must globalization either march forward or else reverse itself to stem the political unrest fueling its working-class resisters?  Not necessarily.  There is a third option between globalization and no globalization, and it’s global capitalism paired with robust social insurance regimes.  As Marshall Steinbaum of the Center for Equitable Growth points out, “we once solved the problem of the conflict between capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash with social democracy.”

We’ve fallen far short of that solution.  Whether a Bernie Sanders-style social democratic overhaul or a more targeted approach to aid those displaced by free trade, we have done little to cushion Americans against economic upheaval.  The rise of globalization has dovetailed with decades of stagnant income growth, mounting inequality, and ever-growing financial strain on American families.  Yet the United States hasn’t adopted the kinds of social insurance protections needed to match the increasing volatility and insecurity of twenty-first century capitalism.  And while we provide a small program to retrain and compensate certain workers who have lost out due to free trade, we do relatively little to otherwise target help to the communities that are hit the hardest.

Which means we’ve failed to live up to our end of the bargain.  Creative destruction is immensely valuable and can do wonders to improve overall well-being.  But it inherently causes destruction, and that destruction doesn’t just dissipate with time.  We’ve reaped the diffuse benefits of globalization, but have done little to level with those bearing the targeted costs.  This failure is a big part of the discontent we’re seeing rock both sides of the Atlantic now.

The Scandinavian Dream

 

In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British writer Michael Booth, while living in Denmark, sets out to explore the much-heralded success of the Nordic countries.  Denmark regularly tops indices of global happiness.  Sweden’s welfare state is the envy of progressives around the globe.  What is it that makes these countries so great?

The Scandinavian countries are famed for their high-tax, high-benefit social welfare regimes.  Booth meets with numerous local experts, revealing some of the thinking behind these countries’ choices for such robust social insurance.  For instance, Henrik Herggren, a leading Swedish historian and social commentator, explained that the aim of the Swedish welfare state is to eliminate dependency and provide people with the foundation to lead a secure, fulfilled life:

  • Berggren: “The main objective is not to be dependent on your family, the wife shouldn’t be dependent on her husband, the children should be autonomous when they are eighteen, old people should not be dependent on their children taking care of them, and therefore to a large extent the state steps in and provides these things.”
  • Booth: “But doesn’t this just replace one dependency with another—the state . . ?”
  • Berggren: “We are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. [. . .] [But] [y]ou can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization.”

    “For Americans and Brits the state is such a bogeyman, such a horrible menacing thing . . . .  But the point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure.  Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”

That is, Swedes believe a generous social welfare state is a perquisite to true individual freedom.  In order for individuals to pursue self-realization, the government provides extensive public supports.  Sixteen months of family leave per child, to be taken by parents any time during the child’s first eight years.  Guaranteed healthcare.  Publicly-funded daycare and eldercare.

In Booth’s telling, Sweden’s welfare state is a deliberate choice to facilitate a sort of radical individualism.  Swedes agree to pay high taxes in order to obtain public goods that facilitate freedom.  By paying into the welfare state, Swedes purchase a freedom that ensures they will not be otherwise obligated to others, nor resigned to rely on anyone else in turn.

This may be a jarring sentiment to American ears.  In the United States, conservatives are too often allowed to claim the mantle of freedom as the absence of government intervention.  Big government is cast as an oppressor, the free market as a liberator.

This argument hasn’t always reigned supreme in the United States though.  In his famed 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “necessitous men are not free men,” recognizing that the American ideal of freedom requires basic security and standards of living.  Without proactive government intervention, the distribution of real freedom in America is wildly unequal: the rich and financially secure enjoy far more freedom than those barely making it.

The Swedish case for the welfare state is echoed in some of the arguments made in favor of a basic income today.  A guaranteed income for all would free people to pursue higher-order ideals than mere survival.  With basic needs met, more of our lives could be focused on passions and intellectual pursuits than simply grinding away at work in order to pay for food, shelter, and healthcare.

The radical autonomy of the Swedish welfare state is in some tension with the communitarian strain of liberalism in the United States associated with Michael Sandel and other political philosophers.  Communitarians emphasize not just individual rights and freedom, but obligations and duties individuals owe to their local communities, ranging from families to neighborhoods to nations.  For communitarians, freedom is not the ultimate goal so much as a richer and more interdependent fabric of community life and collective good.

Swedes, on the other hand, aim to free individuals of the trappings of obligation.  If the government fails to provide childcare, this condemns parents to step in to fill the void.  Same for eldercare—without government-sponsored nursing homes, children may be forced to care for aging parents.  That curbs freedom, it’s thought.

Booth spends much of his tour across the Nordics poking holes in the myth of Scandinavian utopia.  He finds the Norwegians to be anti-social loners; the Finns hooked on anti-psychotics; the Icelanders to be reckless finance Vikings weirdly obsessed with elves; the Swedes lulled into conformity by their welfare states.  All of the Nordics are struggling to reconcile their traditional heterogeneity with an influx of multicultural immigration, and grappling with the effect on public support for the welfare state.  He finds curiosities and disturbances in each distinct culture, but also finds much to admire.

But ultimately, Booth endorses the Scandinavian reliance on government institutions to improve individual autonomy: “To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need to be in charge of your life, to be in control of who you want to be, and be able to make the appropriate changes if you are not.  This cannot be a perception, a slogan like the American Dream . . . .  In Scandinavia it is a reality.  These are the real lands of opportunity.  There is far greater social mobility in the Nordic countries than in the United States or Britain and, for all the collectivism and state interference in the lives of the people who live here, there is far greater freedom to be the person you want to be, and do the things you want to do, up here in the north.”  Indeed, Booth has outright backed Bernie Sanders and his bid to bring elements of Scandinavian social democracy to the United States.

As Booth demonstrates, the Scandinavians are by no means super-humans, nor are their societies perfect utopias.  But they do happen to be humans who have done exceptionally fine jobs of crafting fair and just societies to a degree that exceeds most everyone else.  When societies band together to take care of basic needs and pool collective risks, people are left with more room to explore their humanity, and greater ability to actuate their freedom.

Those of us in the United States would be wise to realize that big government is not the inherent enemy of freedom.  Indeed, it may often be its enabler.

Bernie’s soda stumble

Sen. Bernie Sanders has managed to run a wildly and unexpectedly successful presidential campaign not just as a proud democratic socialist, but as a democratic socialist who unabashedly wants to raise your taxes.  While he leans most heavily on raising revenue out of the highest earners, he would also increase taxes on low-income and middle-class families to pay for a host of new government programs.

And a growing legion of Democratic primary voters have decided they are completely okay with this.  The Sanders campaign has insisted that voters consider both sides of the ledger, arguing that tax increases are worth it to pay for new government-provided goods like single-payer healthcare with reduced out-of-pocket costs, and like free college with no out-of-pocket tuition.  Millions of voters seem to agree.

This is a revolutionary political achievement.  Sanders has cracked the decades-old Democratic taboo that says it’s political suicide to even suggest middle-class tax hikes.  He has asked us to embrace not just Scandinavian-style policy, but a Scandinavian-style mindset that tolerates higher taxes in exchange for more collective goods and, in turn, more choice and freedom.

Which is why it is such a disappointment to see Sanders seemingly abandon these principles in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary.  Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney has proposed to provide universal preschool for the city’s four-year olds.  He has also proposed paying for this initiative by implementing a soda tax, levying a 3 cents-per-ounce on sugary drinks.  As Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times explains, “That means a tax of $4.32 on a 12-pack of soda, which typically costs between $3 and $6 at the grocery store. It would come to 60 cents of tax on a 20-ounce bottle, which usually retails for about $2.”

Hillary Clinton came out in favor of the plan, implicitly arguing that universal pre-K is sufficiently important to justify the tax increase.  But Sanders strongly opposed the mayor’s plan.  He argued that it’s a regressive tax that disproportionately hits low-income consumers, who tend to buy more sugary drinks. “Mayor Kenney deserves praise for emphasizing the importance of universal pre-kindergarten,” he wrote in a Philadelphia op-ed.  “But at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it should be the people on top who see an increase in their taxes, not low-income and working people.”

There are a few curiosities about Sanders’s position.  For one, a tax on soda would hardly be the first sin tax to disproportionately impact the poor.  Mayor Kenney’s plan is reminiscent of the Clinton administration’s Children’s Health Insurance initiative, which provided healthcare for low-income children and was funded by an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes.  Yet low-income Americans tend to be heavier smokers than the wealthy, meaning that the poor bear the brunt of higher cigarette taxes.

In their recent legislative biography of 1990s era Ted Kennedy, authors Nick Littlefield and David Nexon explain the political strategy behind this funding scheme for CHIP.  By paying for a new government program through a tax increase targeted at cigarette smokers and manufacturers, congressional liberals were able to catalyze public health groups as a constituency backing the proposal as a counterweight to opposition conservative anti-tax interest groups.  When tax increases are more diffuse, the anti-tax groups often go unopposed during the legislative process.  In this way, liberals were able to ride the momentum of the anti-smoking push of the 1990s to finance an important new social program.

Today in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney is attempting to replicate this strategy by garnering support from public health organizations to counter the anti-tax messaging of conservative groups and the American Beverage Association.  Like cigarette taxes, a soda tax can be pitched as not just a funding stream, but a good in itself as a health-improving deterrent against bad consumption habits.  Kenney is making the same calculation today that Kennedy, Clinton, and other liberals made in the 1990s: that any regressive impact of a sin tax is outweighed by both the health gains from the tax and the gains for poor children from the program the tax is funding.

This is a quintessentially Sanders style of analysis, which is why it’s so odd to see him dispensing with it at this stage of the game.  Take Sanders’s proposal for free college tuition.  Sanders has proposed treating public college the same way we treat K-12 education, where all students can attend for free.  It turns out that this is a fundamentally regressive proposal.  The rich reap most of the benefits from free college, largely because they tend to attend more expensive schools, and because colleges already impose a sort of private progressive redistribution via financial aid packages.

Sanders justifies his free college plan by arguing that any regressive impact is counteracted by his progressive tax plan—that the rich will more than pay their fair share through higher taxes.  Specifically, he plans to pay for free college through a tax on Wall Street high-frequency financial transactions.  Here, Sanders asks us to consider both sides of the ledger, arguing that it’s worth enacting a somewhat regressive social program—one that disproportionately benefits the rich—coupled with a progressive funding scheme.

Philadelphia’s pre-K plan is the opposite: a progressive social program coupled with a somewhat regressive funding scheme.  But Sanders isn’t evaluating both sides of the ledger now.  It would be one thing if he was arguing that the value of universal pre-K is too uncertain to justify a regressive new tax.  Given the uneven findings around the long-term impact of pre-K, it’s a case he certainly could be making.

But Sanders isn’t making that argument.  He agrees that pre-K is important, but nonetheless rejects Philadelphia’s plan out of hand because it relies on a “totally regressive tax.”

Bernie is better than this.  He has done wonders to shake the Democratic Party out of its fear-driven Tax Pledge Lite dogma.  Just five months after saying “I don’t see how you can be serious about raising working and middle-class families’ incomes if you also want to slap new taxes on them—no matter what the taxes will pay for,” Hillary Clinton herself has come around to embrace a tax that impacts low- and middle-income Philadelphians.  That quick evolution, however slight, is directly traceable to Sanders proving that it’s not a political death knell to raise taxes outside of the top 5 percent.

To get a robust social insurance system in the United States, our debate can’t just focus on taxes in isolation.  Instead, Americans must look at both costs of a policy and its benefits, and decide if a given program is a good deal.  If they come to agree that new social insurance programs are worth paying for, that’s a far bigger achievement for liberalism than telling Americans they can have new benefits paid for entirely by the rich’s money.

That is the reasoned calculus the Sanders campaign has been offering throughout the 2016 primary.  While a progressive tax code should of course tilt toward taxing the rich, the scope of Sanders’s social democratic vision also requires broad-based buy-in from working Americans.  He shouldn’t abandon a message with massive long-term political import for the sake of a futile last-ditch effort to win cheap political points.

Why we need Big Government in the twenty-first century

For years, it has been an article of faith in American politics that more government is bad for the economy.  Candidates for office run against Washington and condemn the overreach and toxicity of government, with hardly anyone batting an eye.

But the conventional wisdom that government has only negative effects on markets forgets the invaluable role that government played in creating our national wealth in the past.  Re-learning this history and its lessons is critical to fostering widespread prosperity in the twenty-first century.

Government has had few defenders in politics over the last 35 years.  On the right, beating up on government has been a sure-fire way to gain approval on the right.  In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan issued a clarion call that government was the source of our problems, not its solution.  In the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared open warfare on government.  And in the Obama years, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ground the legislative process to a halt to breed frustration with government and reap electoral gains for his anti-government party.

Liberals have let the right’s government bashing go unchallenged, and at times have actively acquiesced to it.  Bill Clinton essentially conceded conservatives’ point when he pronounced the era of Big Government over in 1996.  The center-liberal position was that government needed to get smarter, more effective, and more efficient—not grow larger.  We see this today in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  Though her policy platform implicitly recognizes that government can intervene constructively in the economy, she has criticized Bernie Sanders for wanting to grow the size of government.  And while Sanders unabashedly favors expanding government programs, he also sees our current government as overrun with special interests and big money.  This too darkens our confidence in our governing institutions.

The net effect has been a steady cultural decline in our collective faith in the capabilities of government.   The right has attacked government as inherently destructive; the left has ceded the point outright or through silence, while bemoaning government as hopelessly corrupted.

But what if this widespread cynicism about government has it all wrong?  That’s the message of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s important new book, American Amnesia.  According to the two political scientists, the American experience shows that “government and markets, working in tandem, have steadily increased human welfare.”

Hacker and Pierson demonstrate just how indispensable government was in creating twentieth-century prosperity in the United States.  Beginning just after the turn of the century, government interventions vastly improved public health, extended lifespans, stabilized financial markets, and laid the groundwork for robust economic growth.  Government fronted the research and development that led to revolutionary technologies years later, laying the platform upon which companies like Apple, Google, and countless others would later thrive

The result was a century of phenomenal improvement in human wellbeing.  Because government interceded to craft a mixed economy, Americans became wealthier, healthier, lived longer, and enjoyed the fruits of innovation and technology.

For much of the twentieth century, government and markets worked in happy (if at times begrudging) harmony.  The heavy thumb of government stepped in when the market failed to account for harmful externalities like pollution.  Government produced public goods like roads, infrastructure, education, and scientific research that markets wouldn’t.  This laid the groundwork for the dexterity of markets to build off of public investment to innovate and improve quality of life.

The mixed economy became so institutionalized that we eventually lost sight of the role government played in providing these crucial market supports.  By the end of the century, government had become widely demonized while entrepreneurs were lionized.  Yet during this same period, the mixed economy stopped functioning as well as it once had.  Inequality steadily rose, wages stagnated, our financial sector once again periodically jeopardized the economy, growth and recovery slowed, and wealth flowed more and more to the highest earners.

The solution is for government to reclaim its place in creating healthy conditions for the mixed economy to operate.  The deterioration of the mixed economy has left “money on the table just waiting to be picked up,” write Hacker and Pierson.  Government action can create positive-sum outcomes, making “our already prosperous society much more prosperous.”

Two of the main ways government can cultivate a thriving twenty-first century mixed economy are to invest in public goods and to insure against common risks.  When government invests in physical and intellectual infrastructure that is collectively useful but no one firm would invest in on its own, our markets are made better off by this government intervention.  And when government protects us against risk, it greases the wheels of markets by giving entrepreneurs and workers the security to take chances.

Sometimes the social insurance and public good functions of government dovetail together.  Take our child poverty crisis, where one in five children live in poverty today.  A decent safety net would protect children from the ravages of poverty on humanitarian grounds alone.  But high childhood poverty is also a market failure that is bad for our mixed economy. Growing up in poverty stunts lifetime academic and professional achievement.  By one count, child poverty costs our economy some $672 billion annually.  It is impossible to know how many would-be innovators and leaders we have lost amid the squandered potential of children suffering in deprivation.  Investing in children to protect them from poverty is thus also a public good—and one that pays off handsomely in the long run.

Moreover, the absence of government action can often impose burdens on the private sector.  In the void left by government inaction to address the student loan and college tuition crisis, private firms are increasingly shouldering the burden of helping young workers repay their burdensome debts as another fringe benefit.  But when government tackles common social problems and provides access to benefits, like health care and pensions in old age, firms are relieved of some of the obligation to manage these extraneous benefit programs.  Government actions to take on the social insurance responsibilities that have traditionally (and bizarrely) been grafted on to our employers encourage a dynamic, nimble future for the American economy.

For too long, the virtues of government have gone unheralded in our politics.  To make the mixed economy work again, we re-learn a tried and proven method to success that has largely been forgotten: that in the story of American prosperity, government has always been an integral force.