Thursday, October 07, 2010

Thoughts on Kuttner's (and Obama's) Peril

Back in September our local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America met, as we do every month, to talk about a book or an essay or two that we've all read (or attempted to). That month the book was Robert Kuttner's A Presidency in Peril, and I wasn't able to be there (because I was doing this). Perhaps that's just as well, as the book focuses primarily on what Obama might have been able to do, but didn't, in regards to reforming Wall Street and restructuring our economy when he took office in 2008...an immensely important topic, to be sure, but the ins and outs of the highest levels of corrupt finance capitalism aren't something I want to spend a great deal of time reading about. But one chapter of the book focuses explicitly on the politics of health care reform, and there my interests are fully engaged. So herewith, though it's too late for our book group, some random thoughts:

Kuttner finished his manuscript and turned it into his publisher before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became a reality in March of this year; in fact, the last act he has in that long, frustrating, convoluted drama is the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat back in November. So his comments about health care reform are tied up in one of his larger claims--namely, that Obama unnecessarily created damaging political confusion by deciding to address health care reform immediately (in Kuttner's view, mistake #1), to rely upon the leadership of Congress (mistake #2), and to bring on board powerful health industry interests, like insurers and drug companies (mistake #3) (pp. 224-225). In Kuttner's view, what the people who elected Obama most wanted of him, and what the economic crises of 2008 and 2009 most clearly demanded of him, was comprehensive financial regulative reform, particularly one that reflected the populist frustration with failing and mismanaged banks which required expensive bailouts, and carried with it a punitive edge to appropriately identify and punish those responsible for that mismanagement and failure. Kuttner, in short, believes that pursuing the complex, multi-faceted issue of health care reform, and particularly the way it was pursued, invited all sorts of misunderstandings and mistakes, and dealing with such opened the door to compromises that both worsened the final law and made it ever-easier for its opponents to spin it as an irresponsible and unconstitutional socialist boondoggle. Perhaps his tone was colored by his suspicion that the election of Brown meant the complete end to the effort, but I suspect that even if he'd known that Obama and the Democrats would get a bill passed in the end, he'd still argue that the resulting law wasn't worth the cost.

What was the cost? For Kuttner, it was an opportunity to articulate a "progressive populism," a theme which he has recently made explicit in arguments in his own magazine, The American Prospect, particularly with those who believe that any kind of populist argument is an intellectual dead end. For Kuttner, while not entirely disagreeing with those who point to three-time presidential loser William Jennings Bryan as exemplifying "a know-nothing spasm of class resentment," believes that:

there are times when economic progress precisely requires displacing the malign influence of economic elites. What these broad-brush critiques [of Bryan] invariably miss is the fact that there is an ugly version of populism that scape-goats foreigners, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and others, and a constructive one that correctly identifies powerful economic forces that are blocking reform. Bryan had elements of both. But Roosevelt and Truman offered a progressive brand of populism, which was successful politics as well as economics (p. 221).

Kuttner takes it as an article of faith that "when progressive reformers fail to address popular grievances, the right fills the gap"; for him, the rise of the Tea Parties, and indeed all the usual resentments one finds whenever individuals with progressive ideas win elections, come down to economic and class concerns that have to be addressed somehow, by someone: "if progressives don't tell a coherent story about the culpability of rapacious elites and work to restore some balance to the economy, right-wing populists are happy to supply the narrative" (pp. 212, 221). This is much to simplistic, to be simplistic about it. Yes, of course, there is something which gets labeled "populism" that associates the causes of socio-economic and cultural dislocations and frustrations--I think usually wrongly--with foreigners and untrustworthy Others, and there is another thing called "populism" which associates those same things--I think usually rightly--with the destructive effects of finance capitalism. But to suppose that "the people" have "grievances," and will take those grievances in one direction or another, depending on who sells them the most enraging story first, is condescending in the extreme.

I don't dissent for a moment from Kuttner's indictment of Obama's unreflective relationship with (even dependence upon) Wall Street experts and corporate industrial leaders. I don't expect him to be a Christian socialist and start criticizing people with great wealth (though I wouldn't mind it if he did), but I did expect him to recognize the need to pursue some truly genuine alternatives in how money is managed, how banks are regulated, and how medical costs are distributed in this country...and while the jury is still out on how many of the reforms which the past two very busy years have brought the country will ultimately function (assuming they do), the preliminary conclusion is obvious: Obama has not pushed populist reforms, but rather pretty mainstream, technocratic liberal changes, ones which accept the consequences of late-modern finance capitalism and mainly just hope to make it slightly easier for some otherwise usually excluded people to make the most of the economic opportunities which that system presents. I've said this before (multiple times, in fact), so I have no disagreements with Kuttner's presentation of the health care reform mess, correct?

Correct...but also incorrect. He correctly notes that the twilight struggle over a Medicare buy-in plan, or some other sort of public option, was the last real moment in which health care reform could have claimed to have been anything more than just a much-needed welfare program, and instead be something about putting health care collective into the hands of the people. Obama supported it, weakly, in principle. But he didn't strongly believe in it--and when Lieberman (for whom my contempt remains) "pronounced it a deal-breaker, in part because the liberals liked it so much and the insurance companies didn't" (p. 231), he was more than happy to see it go away, just so a bill could pass. (There has been some push-back on this story, but Kuttner's account of seems solid.) So, yes, Kuttner's right about the president's unwillingness to rally behind even the slightest serious populist policies while pushing health care reform. But Kuttner has little grasp of why those populist policies are what they are. "Populism," for him, is the poor-vs.-the rich, and really not much else. This is why he is capable of looking at Bryan and seeing in him half good-populist, half bad-populist. But Bryan is, in fact, an exponent of a far more comprehensive appreciation of what it means to stand with "the people" then Kuttner can imagine.

The core of Bryan’s arguments in the 1890s and early 1900s was form of “producerism.” He advocated policies which would privilege farmers and local manufacturers; his defense of the culture of the working man (and, yes, that did mean he had a specific gender and, to a lesser degree, racial picture of who that "working man" was) was all bound up with the defense and empowerment of small, mostly self-sustaining communities which such working people could be a part of. His condemnation of monopolies and trusts, his desire to regulate the railroads--all that and more was grounded in his conviction that real autonomy and equality depended upon a socio-economic structure in which the power over loans, prices, wages and currency was kept in local and public hands, rather than concentrated in private (and therefore invariably distant and elite) ones. This reveals the essentially conservative element of populist arguments--and the way in which a populist like Bryan, in combining what Kuttner calls both the good and the bad forms of populism, was in fact being as true to the complicated needs and hopes of majority of people. Ordinary people--in which I include myself, and probably most of those who read this as well--are by and large not happy with their livelihoods, and the productive heart of their communities, being taken away from them by decisions made by distant political and corporate elites; they would prefer to conserve their way of life against the ravages of distant, privileged others. This concern for conserving locality, and demanding collective reforms to make it possible--the demand for public ownership of the railroads in the 19th century, and the hope for a truly public guarantee of health care in the 21st--was arguably somewhat lost in the Democratic party which Byran briefly led throughout the 20th century; in the hands of the Progressives and New Dealers, Bryan's moralistic crusades against railroads and banks became procedural, concerned with regulating the heights of finance capitalism, rather than chopping them down and redistributing them.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Byran’s populist concern with agrarian virtues and producerist communities would have been streamlined into a top-down, welfare-based, bureaucratic proceduralism evenutally, and thus easy for thinkers like Kuttner to recast his rhetoric into a divisible populism, one side of which--the "angry" or "conservative" side of it--can be set aside, leaving the good, "liberal" side of it untouched. But even in saying that, it remains that not all proceduralism is automatically individualistic, abstracting people from the traditions of their local community. For example Social Security, in some ways the classic redistributive program, has in its liberal way done more than practically any other government or non-governmental program to make it possible for many more elderly people to continue to own their own homes after retirement, a key element in protecting the ongoing integrity of residential neighborhoods, which is certainly both a conservative and populist aim all its own. Similarly, it is a real possibility and hope that the Affordable Care Act (assuming the numerous incoherencies and injustices which its funding streams depend upon can be hammered out), though relying upon private insurers, will nonetheless serve as the foundation for the public and egalitarian transformation of health care in the United States. Kuttner is right to call for Obama to recognize what his agenda, in failing to be fully populist, is missing out on. But for his part, he needs to recognize that socially just and egalitarian policies need to respect the whole, communitarian populist insight, not just the one supposedly resolvable with a check.

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