Global Policy Forum

Do Progressives Have to Be Loser Liberals?

The main difference between liberals and conservatives is often said to be the extent to which they are willing to interfere in the market to redistribute money. In this op-ed article, Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research defies this view, arguing that the difference does not lie in the redistributive policies a government does or does not implement, but rather in the actions it takes to determine the initial distribution. The issue is not “leaving our neighbor by the side of the road,” Baker states, but the fact that our neighbor has been thrown out of the bus. The real battle is thus not over shuffling around a few crumbs, but over setting the rules. The first step “to get our neighbor back on the bus” is to say as clearly as possible what exactly happened.  

By Dean Baker

January 24, 2012

“The two sides are fighting over what the role of government in redistributing resources from the affluent to the needy should and shouldn't be.”

This was annoying not only because it is so seriously wrong, but also because this statement came from one of the more astute observers of US politics alive today.

Anyone trying to understand the role of the government in the economy should know that whatever it does or does not do by way of redistribution is trivial compared with the actions it takes to determine the initial distribution. Rich people don't get rich exclusively by virtue of their talents and hard work; they get rich because the government made rules to allow them to get rich.

To take an obvious example, according to the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, we spend close to $300bn a year on prescription drugs. If drugs were sold in a free market, without government granted patent monopolies, we would spend around $30bn a year.

The difference of $270bn a year is more than five times as much money as is at stake with extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy. By making us pay far more for drugs, the government's patent policy is redistributing a huge amount of money from ordinary people to the shareholders and top executives of the drug companies. We need a way to finance drug research, but there are far more efficient mechanisms than patent monopolies that don't redistribute income upwards in the same way.

In a similar vein, our policy on labour unions is incredibly one-sided in management's favour. If a company illegally fires a worker for trying to organise a union, the complaint would go to the National Labour Relations Board. It is likely to take months - and possibly years - before the complaint is settled. Even if the worker can prove their case (employers rarely admit that they fired someone because they were organising a union) the fine to the company is trivial. As a result, breaking the law and getting rid of agitators can be very profitable for the company.

Rich first, everyone else... later

On the other hand, if workers stage a strike that violates the law, for example a wildcat strike at a time when a contract is in force or a secondary strike in support of other workers, a company can typically get an injunction immediately. If the workers continue their strike, their assets will be seized and their leaders thrown in jail.

Needless to say, this incredible asymmetry tilts the field in management's favour. It is difficult for workers to organise unions and it is often difficult for organised workers to push for better wages and working conditions. That is not just a market outcome; it is the result of deliberate government policy.   

The downturn we are currently suffering through is also the result of government policy. This is for two reasons. First, we got here because of the ineptitude of top policymakers in failing to recognise the housing bubble and the risks that it posed to the economy. The Federal Reserve Board just stood back and let the housing bubble grow to a size where its collapse would inevitably wreck the economy.

Furthermore, once the bubble burst, the Fed, Congress and the White House opted not to take the actions needed to restore full employment. While the Fed has taken steps to boost the economy, it certainly could have done more. Similarly, Congress did not approve a large enough stimulus package to offset the hit from the collapse of the housing bubble.

And, President Obama and the Fed have not tried to push down the value of the dollar to make US goods more competitive in world markets. A lower-valued dollar could create millions of new jobs, most of which would be in manufacturing. However, because an over-valued dollar benefits powerful interest groups, such as the financial sector, policy makers have been willing to allow the dollar to remain over-valued - at the cost of millions of jobs for ordinary workers.

There are many other ways in which government policy has acted to redistribute money from ordinary workers to "the one per cent". This was done through the setting of the rules. And the amount of money at stake in designing these rules dwarfs the amount of money that we might fight over when we talk about a tax policy that redistributes "resources from the affluent to the needy”.

If progressives restrict ourselves to fighting over the tax code, then we are playing in the sandbox. This is classic "loser liberalism”.

The real battle is over setting the rules, not shuffling around a few crumbs after the fact. The issue is not, as some have put it, leaving our neighbour by the side of the road. The issue is that our neighbour has been thrown off the bus. The first step towards getting him back on the bus is to say as loudly and clearly as possible exactly what happened.


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