Monday, July 24, 2017

Rollout of the Democrats' "Better Deal"

Sen. Chuck Schumer after his pre-rollout rollout on Sunday, presents the Democrats' A Better Deal for American Workers New York Times 07/24/2017.

The column version doesn't give me more encouragement than yesterday's version he delivered on This Week. This one continues with the litany Democrats have been maintaining for so many years now of apologizing for being Democrats:

In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there. We also failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake. This is the start of a new vision for the party, one strongly supported by House and Senate Democrats.

Our better deal is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum. Nor is it about tearing down government agencies that work, that effectively protect consumers and promote the health and well-being of the country. It’s about reorienting government to work on behalf of people and families. [my emphasis]
A few decades back, it became a joke to say, "What we have here is a problem of communication." The joke was that this is a nicey-nice way of papering over disagreements that are over substantive questions, not just word choices. The Republicans have communicated very well that they want massive tax cuts for the very wealthiest. I understand what they're doing, it's not that they've failed to communicate that. It's that I think it's a bad idea.

So Schumer saying the Democrats are not communicating well enough is something similar, an excuse for not being able to get voters to identify the Democratic Party as anything much more clearly than being a party of urban elites. In the first paragraph just quoted, he tries to say two different things at once. One is the party now has a new vision. But they are adopting this new vision not because anything was wrong with their previous approach, only that they've had a failure to communicate effectively.

This is not very convincing as a re-positioning statement.

And he continues with the Democrats' chronic habit of framing issues in Republican terms. The Democrats are the party that has at least some visible remnants of the New Deal idea of positive govenrment, of government as an activist democratic entity that can and should work for the general good and particularly for the well-being of working people, poor and otherwise. The Republicans have long since successfully positioned themselves as the anti-government party. As in St. Reagan's famous campaign line, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." (Although he often pronounced it, "gubment.")

When Schumer writes, "Our better deal is not about expanding the government ...", he's repeating what long since has become a me-too refrain of Democrats saying, we're against the gubment, too!

Schumer talks up antitrust enforcement. But he's hardly sending a clear message. An obvious antitrust message might be, "Break Up ExxonMobil!" Or, "Split Up the Too-Big-to-Fail Banks!"

Here's Schumer's version:

Right now our antitrust laws are designed to allow huge corporations to merge, padding the pockets of investors but sending costs skyrocketing for everything from cable bills and airline tickets to food and health care. We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition. [my emphasis]
There's a big difference in saying, we want to break up this monopoly that is acting in destructive ways, and saying, "we'll allow some regulators to consider breaking up some monopoly or other if they decide it's bad." One sounds like tackling an identifiable problem, maybe even like the classic populist stance of standing up for the People against the Elite. Schumer's version sounds like the Democrats making a half-hearted gesture at being Democrats, apologizing for it as he does it.

And this is another case of the Democrats rolling out lists. He has a list of three themes, then a hodgepodge of proposals. Which adds up to a muddled message.

And the message he does deliver is full of telltale signs of the Democrats' adherence to neoliberal economics. American voters may not use the term "neoliberal" very much. But they do recognize some of these arguments and don't put much faith in them.

The neoliberal Gospel holds that it's wrong for the gubment to directly create jobs. Doing so for the explicit purpose of creating jobs is derided as creating "make-work jobs." But creating jobs is, you know, making work. So accepting that framing, as the Democrats have for decades now, is already buying into the notion that there's something wrong with jobs directly created by the government. Because, of course, gubment is not the solution to our problem, gubment is the problem," amirite?

The neoliberal buzzwords for sounding like you maybe possibly want to do something to increase jobs without doing so directly include: "infrastructure"; "training"; and, "education." Obviously, infrastructure, training and education are good and necessary things. But "infrastructure" is easy to say, while committing public funds to specific projects to accomplish specific goals with an explicit purpose of stimulating the economy and creating jobs where people will get not only trained but paid is much more specific. But "infrastructure" in the abstract sounds great. And a package of tax breaks for hedge funds combined a privatization program (everyone loves toll roads, right?) can also be packaged as "infrastructure." Which is what Trump's plan is about, to the extent it's a real plan at all.

Of course, corporate-deregulation treaties packaged as trade agreements like TTIP and TPP are a major part of the neoliberal scheme. Democrats and Republicans have justified those in the United States since the debate of NAFTA ratification by saying, we know they will costs some jobs, but there will be more jobs to replace them, and we will have retraining programs to take care of the displaced workers. Jobs went away, the new jobs weren't in the same areas the jobs were lost, and the retraining did little to ameliorate the situation, when it happened at all. At this point, "training" in this context is like a ritual incantation with little credibility.

Chuck's substitution for a program to create jobs or actual training programs is, yes, you guessed it, tax cuts for business! (Remind me again how the Dems are different than the Republicans; sometimes it's hard to keep up.)

A federal jobs program can be complex. But it doesn't require a new Manhattan Project effort to discover how to do it. They can be a combination of directly creating positions and actual job-training relevant to available local jobs. It requires good administration to be done in an optimal way. But it's not a mystery. And much more straightforward to explain than some trickle-down hocus pocus with tax cuts for business.

This Better Deal effort so far looks like the Democrats think they can coast to electoral victory in 2018. I would rather see some urgency about getting the base voters out next. And "gosh, we apologize for being Democrats but we're really not so bad" is just not the best way to achieve that.

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