Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Michael Lind: On Neo-Liberalism

Can Obama be deprogrammed?: The president is a prisoner of the cult of neoliberalism
By Michael Lind


By neoliberalism I mean the ideology that replaced New Deal liberalism as the dominant force in the Democratic Party between the Carter and Clinton presidencies. In the Clinton years, this was called the "Third Way." The term was misleading, because New Deal liberalism between 1932 and 1968 and its equivalents in social democratic Europe were considered the original "third way" between democratic socialism and libertarian capitalism, whose failure had caused the Depression. According to New Deal liberals, the United States was not a "capitalist society" or a "market democracy" but rather a democratic republic with a "mixed economy," in which the state provided both social insurance and infrastructure like electric grids, hydropower and highways, while the private sector engaged in mass production.

When it came to the private sector, the New Dealers, with some exceptions, approved of Big Business, Big Unions and Big Government, which formed the system of checks and balances that John Kenneth Galbraith called "countervailing power." But most New Dealers dreaded and distrusted bankers. They thought that finance should be strictly regulated and subordinated to the real economy of factories and home ownership. They were economic internationalists because they wanted to open foreign markets to U.S. factory products, not because they hoped that the Asian masses some day would pay high overdraft fees to U.S. multinational banks.

New Dealers approved of social insurance systems like Social Security and Medicare, which were rights (entitlements) not charity and which mostly redistributed income within the middle class, from workers to nonworkers (the retired and the temporarily unemployed). But contrary to conservative propaganda, New Deal liberals disliked means-tested antipoverty programs and despised what Franklin Roosevelt called "the dole." Roosevelt and his most important protégé, Lyndon Johnson, preferred workfare to welfare. They preferred a high-wage, low-welfare society to a low-wage, high-welfare society. To maintain the high-wage system that would minimize welfare payments to able-bodied adults, New Deal liberals did not hesitate to regulate the labor market, by means of pro-union legislation, a high minimum wage, and low levels of immigration (which were raised only at the end of the New Deal period, beginning in 1965). It was only in the 1960s that Democrats became identified with redistributionist welfarism -- and then only because of the influence of the New Left, which denounced the New Deal as "corporate liberalism."

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the New Deal system -- large-scale public investment and R&D, regulated monopolies and oligopolies, the subordination of banking to productive industry, high wages and universal social insurance -- created the world's first mass middle class. The system was far from perfect. Southern segregationist Democrats crippled many of its progressive features and the industrial unions were afflicted by complacency and corruption. But for all its flaws, the New Deal era is still remembered as the Golden Age of the American economy.

And then America went downhill.

The "stagflation" of the 1970s had multiple sources, including the oil price shock following the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and the revival of German and Japanese industrial competition (China was still recovering from the damage done by Mao). During the previous generation, libertarian conservatives like Milton Friedman had been marginalized. But in the 1970s they gained a wider audience, blaming the New Deal model and claiming that the answer to every question (before the question was even asked) was "the market."

The free-market fundamentalists found an audience among Democrats as well as Republicans. A growing number of Democratic economists and economic policymakers were attracted to the revival of free-market economics, among them Obama's chief economic advisor Larry Summers, a professed admirer of Milton Friedman. These center-right Democrats agreed with the libertarians that the New Deal approach to the economy had been too interventionist. At the same time, they thought that government had a role in providing a safety net. The result was what came to be called "neoliberalism" in the 1980s and 1990s -- a synthesis of conservative free-market economics with "progressive" welfare-state redistribution for the losers. Its institutional base was the Democratic Leadership Council, headed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and the affiliated Progressive Policy Institute.

Beginning in the Carter years, the Democrats later called neoliberals supported the deregulation of infrastructure industries that the New Deal had regulated, like airlines, trucking and electricity, a sector in which deregulation resulted in California blackouts and the Enron scandal. Neoliberals teamed up with conservatives to persuade Bill Clinton to go along with the Republican Congress's dismantling of New Deal-era financial regulations, a move that contributed to the cancerous growth of Wall Street and the resulting global economic collapse. As Asian mercantilist nations like Japan and then China rigged their domestic markets while enjoying free access to the U.S. market, neoliberal Democrats either turned a blind eye to the foreign mercantilist assault on American manufacturing or claimed that it marked the beneficial transition from an industrial economy to a "knowledge economy." While Congress allowed inflation to slash the minimum wage and while corporations smashed unions, neoliberals chattered about sending everybody to college so they could work in the high-wage "knowledge jobs" of the future. Finally, many (not all) neoliberals agreed with conservatives that entitlements like Social Security were too expensive, and that it was more efficient to cut benefits for the middle class in order to expand benefits for the very poor.


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