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Issue No. 72 (July 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Several of you who read my critique of the mainstream left’s “Take America Back” conference (held June 1-3 at the Washington Hilton) were left wondering if my standards for judging policy conferences aren’t too harsh. One of you -- a noted writer on political subjects -- even asked, “Aren’t you expecting too much from politics?”
Well, actually, no. And the proof is at hand: On June 22, not three weeks after “Take Back America” mercifully ended, another grand policy conference came to Washington DC. It too had a cornucopia of speakers, and it too chose to parade them at a pricey but forgettable downtown hotel, the Hyatt Regency not far from the Capitol.
But the New America Foundation’s intense, day-long “National Policy Forum on America’s Economic Future” was -- despite its laughably ponderous title -- anything but hackneyed or dull.
New America Foundation is just as politically conscious an organization as the one that sponsored “Take Back America.” In his opening remarks, Senior Fellow Steve Clemons defined its politics as “radical centrist,” by which he meant desirous of coming up with practical solutions to our most serious problems.
Nevertheless, in every important respect but one (which I’ll get to at the end), “America’s Economic Future” was the polar opposite of “Take Back America”:
-- The speakers reflected a true cross-section of policy attentive America. Business, government, the “third sector” (think tanks and other nonprofits), and the Fourth Estate had 5-6 speakers each. At “Take Back America,” business was nonexistent (unless you want to count the speaker from the Rockefeller Family Foundation!), and nonprofits ruled the roost.
-- The views of the speakers at “America’s Economic Future” covered the waterfront. Liberal Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (IL) gave a passionate speech, but so did Republican Rep. Mike Oxley (OH). Long-time social democrat Sherle Schwenninger made a valuable contribution, and so did long-time libertarian Bill Niskanen. At “Take Back America,” by contrast, speakers ranged from pretty darn left to pretty damn left.
-- Most important of all, the questions raised at “America’s Economic Future” were open-ended; and the solutions proffered were tentative and provocative, not definitive. We were, just as Clemons urged, searching for practical new answers to fundamental public problems -- not flashy new ways to convince Americans that Leftist Is Bestest.
On offshoring of jobs, for example, there was the usual China-bashing, especially from the elected officials (Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, fretted that the increasingly globally responsible Washington Post would view his remarks as “isolationist” and “xenophobic”). And there was plenty of intellectual hand-wringing over how to pressure China to manipulate its currency in ways that would favor the U.S.
But corporate restructuring guru Al Checchi appeared to speak for the majority in the audience when he said, At the end of the day, free trade does maximize wealth for the world as a whole. But it does hurt some Americans in the short run, and we should seriously help them.
More provocatively, industrialist Sidney Harman declared that he feels no need to offshore jobs, because (a) labor costs are a small fraction of his total costs, and (b) the interest, creativity, and inventiveness of his workers is a big reason his firm is successful. But you can’t take advantage of American workers’ interest, creativity, and inventiveness, he implied, if you don’t inspire it, encourage it, and harness it!
When one audience member said to Sen. Dorgan, Suppose we had some Asian politician here analyzing the structural reasons for America’s trade failings -- the irresponsible middle-class housing subsidies, the mindless consumption, etc. -- a good portion of the audience smirked. And Dorgan had little to say in response.
That’s how it went all morning and afternoon . . . seven straight hours of policy wonk ping-pong. The stakes were high, given that nearly everyone in the audience was connected with a think tank, a media outlet, or a Congressional office. The conference was so intense that we didn’t even break for lunch (gorgeous turkey, chicken, and vegetarian sandwiches were handed to us in our seats).
On corporate accountability, Rep. Oxley gave a measured defense of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (which cracked down on corporate malfeasance in the wake of the Enron scandal), and industrialist Sidney Harman was more fulsome in his praise, saying the Act forced his company to improve its internal auditing and hold its executives more accountable.
But Jim DeLong, of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, registered a powerful dissent. We desperately need new ways of assessing the value of information-tech companies and other innovative enterprises, he said, but these are discouraged by Sarbanes-Oxley.
And Phillip Rudolph pointed beyond Sarbanes-Oxley when he described his development of the “global ethical sourcing program” for McDonald’s Corp. in the wake of the Nike and Kathie Lee Gifford scandals.
For a global brand to succeed today, he said, it’s not enough to have your internal house in order. You’ve also got to stay on top of worldwide labor, environmental, and human rights issues, and deal with them proactively in your companies. Otherwise you’ll end up like Kathie Lee.
Nobody liked what the steadily rising tide of income inequality means for our economic future. Former AT&T Broadband CEO Leo Hindery, Jr. told a subdued crowd that salaries in the U.S. are now more unequal than they’ve been since 1927, and Gene Sperling, one of President Clinton’s former economic advisors, could have been speaking for nearly everyone in the room when he said the true goal of public policy is to maintain a growing middle class.
But no one seemed comfortable with traditional leftist redistribution schemes. Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a think-tank synonymous with integrity in this town, suggested using new kinds of insurance (e.g., “national disability insurance” and “national wage insurance”) to protect genuinely poor people against risk. She also suggested scaling back on middle-class entitlement programs, instituting a “mandated savings” program, developing a “progressive consumption” tax, and much more; unfortunately, she didn’t have time to adequately explain any of her enticing-sounding measures.
Heath care brought everyone together -- out of fear if nothing else. Conservative Bill Niskanen warned of our “fabulously expensive health care costs,” liberal Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) warned that every business in his state saw it as their #1 concern, and moderate Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) blamed our so-called competitiveness gap on health care costs faced by employers.
It fell to Maya MacGuineas, again, to suggest the parameters of a practical solution: Employers shouldn’t have to pay for health care! “[The American people] are paying for it anyway . . . just less directly.”
Education was another key issue with obvious long-term economic ramifications. Leo Hindery, the former AT&T Broadband CEO, warned that we “can’t rely” on education reform since -- without government intervention -- we’re sure to lose at least 13 million jobs over the next 10 years because of offshoring.
But other speakers didn’t care to make the assumption that Americans had a birthright to those jobs, and assiduously sought ways to use the education system to make us more employable. Paul Magnusson, longtime Washington correspondent for Business Week, wondered why fundamental U.S. education decisions are being made by 14,000 separate school boards.
And Al Checchi, the corporate restructuring expert, went so far as to argue that the declining quality of K-12 education may be the most important economic issue of all. We’re living off a time when our K-12 education was better, he declared to a rapt audience that was initially put off by his stiff delivery but quickly warmed to his content. As our competitors’ K-12 becomes better than ours, our economic success will suffer.
Not the kind of insight you’re likely to hear in the halls of Congress OR at the “Take Back America” conference.
Where’s the vision?
“America’s Economic Future” did share one unfortunate trait with “Take Back America”: Few of the speakers expressed ideas that were visionary.
I don’t mean pie-in-the-sky visionary, I mean let’s-change-fundamentally-what-needs-to-be-changed-fundamentally visionary.
In the case of “Take Back America,” the explanation’s easy: The last remnants of real vision seeped out of the left with the coming of political correctness in the 1970s.
“America’s Economic Future” had a different problem: most of the speakers wanted to seem immediately “relevant” to the hard-boiled journalists and policy analysts that made up the bulk of the audience.
It was, admittedly, an intimidating crowd. I was underdressed in a button-down shirt and tie and tan silk jacket, and folks streamed in and out all day, few of them having the “time” to take more than a couple hours away from their Important Work.
The young guy sitting to my right in immaculate fitted suit didn’t have time to take himself out to the hallway before farting. The intelligent-looking woman sitting to my left didn’t have time to remove her half-eaten turkey sandwich and half-finished glass of Coke from her chair before she left.
But even these sorts of important people might have benefited, more than they knew, from hearing the more visionary proposals you can find in the standard radical centrist literature -- including New America’s two major contributions, Halstead and Lind, The Radical Center, 2001, and Halstead (ed.), The Real State of the Union, 2004 (along with Avlon, Independent Nation, 2004, Giddens, The Third Way and Its Critics, 2000, Miller, The Two Percent Solution, 2003, and my own Radical Middle, 2004); for a joint review, see HERE.
As it happens, many of the more visionary proposals in those books would have been right on point at “America’s Economic Future”:
-- On offshoring, Giddens, Real State, and I all argue that we need to work out ways to promote further global integration so long as it clearly benefits the current and future global middle class;
-- On corporate accountability, I argue for the passage of laws that would induce managers and stockholders to engage in long-term thinking rather than short-term thinking;
-- On inequality, Avlon and Real State plead for “intergenerational” equity, and Giddens, Real State, and I all argue for “green taxes,” i.e., substantial taxes on pollution and on use of nonrenewable resources;
-- On health care, Halstead & Lind, Miller, and I all argue for mandatory self-insurance (and I argue that weaving preventive and alternative health options into the basic care package could save us tens of billions of dollars per year);
-- On education, Miller proposes a “grand bargain”: increase teacher salaries in exchange for letting principals or school boards (a) provide higher pay to better teachers, and (b) fire ineffective teachers.
Pragmatism + vision = political success
I'd like to see radical centrist conference organizers appoint a “designated visionary” or two to present such proposals at future conferences.
That way, even if all the other speakers are fearful of being tarred by the brush of (gasp) idealism, the humanistic, paradigm-bending core of radical middle will get to make an appearance, work its magic.
Even the busiest people need a fresh and compelling sense, now, of where it is we want to go -- not just where we can go tomorrow. And on the evidence of “Take Back America,” they’re not going to get it from the backward-looking, union-centric, reparations-hungry, Wal-Mart-, India- and China-bashing left.
History is calling on the radical center to not only address our real problems in practical ways, but to give all Americans a fresh vision of how our lives and our world could be ordered.
“America’s Economic Future” admirably began the first of those tasks. Let us hope that future conferences (and more are planned) will not entirely ignore the second. Even the most sensible political ideas tend to flounder, in a democracy, without a galvanizing vision behind them.
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