Home / General / What Is a “Policy Imagination”?

What Is a “Policy Imagination”?


There were many annoying things about the news media’s recent re-discovery of the new conservative intellectuals – among them, the argument from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and his ilk that the reformicons are too the vanguard of the new party of ideas because “the current Democratic agenda…[is] so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the ’60s.”

To begin with, there’s Krugman’s rejoinder that all of the reformicon’s ideas are basically warmed-over Reagan era policies, with perhaps a soupçon of maybe going forward, we ought to give a smidge more tax cuts to the middle class rather than to the 1%. (An accurate assessment, I would add.)  There’s also the fact that, well, the conditions that justified those policies then have come around again: the minimum wage was allowed to stagnate for over a decade under Republican rule, so we need to raise it so it can actually reduce working poverty; inequality has reached heights not seen since the Great Depression, so we may need the kinds of tax rates that brought it back down between the 30s and the 70s.  Environmental regulation is needed, not for retro cool, but because we’re facing a climate change crisis that requires it.

On the other hand, I do think there is something to a different argument, sometimes made from the left of the Democratic Party (and from within the Democratic Party’s left), that the Democratic agenda falls a bit short of a full-fledged weltanschauung. In general, the Democratic Party offers worthy solutions – the minimum wage , for example – to an important problem (working poverty), but without thinking in a detailed fashion about what we want the world to look like, how we get from here to there, and how wage policy fits into the larger objective of an egalitarian economy.

And it’s in these kind of gaps that the policy imagination matters.

By “policy imagination,” I mean the both the scope and variety of ideas available to policymakers, activists, and pundits, and their own intellectual horizons – whether they can envision a world different from today, and how different they can get. Policy imaginations can help us move beyond slapping Band-Aids on social ills that may require more profound treatment, and inspire us to think about long-term, big picture problems in creative ways. Or they can condemn us to prescribing the same solution to every problem, regardless of whether that makes sense.

As a policy historian, I’ve spent a good deal of time studying the policy imagination of 20th century liberal Democrats, especially the New Dealers. And contrary their reputation as either pure pragmatists (a la Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) or weak-kneed liberals intent on nothing more than rescuing capitalism (a la the New Left historians), one of the things that really struck me was the sheer breadth and ambition of their policy imagination. To give a visual example:


This is my favorite primary source I’ve ever found in the archives. It’s a model of the economy as seen as a figure eight intertwining public and private sectors (the left- and right-hand loops, respectively) and sits on top of a back board that holds figures for all of the different holes; as you slide the back board up and down (simulating increasing and decreasing the Federal budget relative to the present), the values for the different currents of the American economy shift.

It was designed by an economic analyst named Lewis Baxter, who worked for “Economic Security Associates,” a private sector Broadway firm of analysts I’ve never been able to track down, on behalf of a bunch of Harry Hopkins’ aides who had been detailed to the Committee on Economic Security (the same community that designed the Social Security system that many see as the accomplishment of New Deal liberalism) in 1933. I stumbled upon it purely by chance in the over-sized exhibits section of the CES’ records in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

The assumptions behind the chart tell us an enormous amount about the policy imagination of the New Dealers. First, right at the bottom is the assumption that the Federal government can and should provide “assured jobs in public service for all potential producers otherwise unemployed” – also known as a jobs guarantee. This is a hugely ambitious stance to take, and it demonstrates that the New Dealers, especially those who had worked for Harry Hopkins in the Civil Works Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and Works Progress Administration, had a policy ambition that went far beyond a limited, pragmatic rescue of capitalism that would be abandoned once the emergency was past. Indeed, in the accompanying “Explanation of Chart,” Baxter describes his chart as describing a state of “permanently stabilized national prosperity,” in which any decrease in private employment would be matched by an increase in public employment. (The substance of my dissertation research was tracing the intellectual construction of this proposed system throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and the extent to which it survived into the post-war era.)

Second, we can see that, for a group of liberal Democrats, these thinkers were surprisingly willing to look beyond the norms of capitalism. This chart depicts the public and private sectors of the economy, not as two distinct entities with distinct missions or the former as a parasitic growth on the latter, as inherently intertwined. Not only were their fates linked, but the supposed differences between the two didn’t exist. As Baxter writes, “governmental activities constitute, in effect, an auxiliary industry, which might always utilize advantageously the entire current labor surplus; and that such “industry” differs from the others only with reference to the nature of its “products” and the method of marketing them.” Increase public workers from 8% of the workforce to 30% of the workforce, and “total income remains constant. The average personal income remains constant. The sole change is that the average producer is buying less individually and more co-operatively!”

Democratic socialism on a sliding scale! And yet the person who designed this chart and the people who commissioned it and used its arguments in internal memos within the Committee on Economic Security, all thought of themselves as liberal Democrats. Crucially, their policy imagination allowed them to look beyond the status quo of their day and imagine the reinvention of the entire economic and social order of the United States, without running for the hills at the utterance of the dreaded “s” word. And while this vision didn’t quite reach fruition, I would argue its spirit inspired the creation (and rapid expansion) of the Works Progress Administration from 1935 on, which (as I will argue in later posts) ended the Great Depression. Kind of a big deal.

So what does this have to do with the Democratic Party today, and our original topic, the reformicons? Just this: policy imaginations matter. The fact that the policy imagination of the New Deal has lasted to the present day is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather to be celebrated. The Democratic Party should build on our rich intellectual heritage to develop a more robust policy imagination equal to the challenges we face today.

And our friends, the reformicons? I think their problem is they’re caught between two increasingly unstable and mutually exclusive policy imaginations – the neo-feudal vision of the Tea Party, and the neoliberal world of the money men. And the problem is that a large and growing demographic has seen both and doesn’t like either.

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  • cpinva

    “I think their problem is they’re caught between two increasingly unstable and mutually exclusive policy imaginations – the neo-feudal vision of the Tea Party, and the neoliberal world of the money men. And the problem is that a large and growing demographic has seen both and doesn’t like either.”

    that has always kind of been the problem with the republican party, before and after its current iteration; how to get people to vote for you, while being careful to not let them know what you’re actual agenda is. it’s a tricky balancing act, especially when you no longer can control all of the media. there’s always going to be some asshole who will drop a dime on you.

    there will always be that 27% true-believers, who will vote republican no matter what. and also a confirmed democratic base, who will always vote democratic. it’s the “undecided” that both parties are trying to appeal to. the college “reformicons” are discovering, much to their dismay, that when your party’s agenda consists mostly of pushing policies blatantly intended to harm as many people as possible, those “undecided” tend to decide, for the democrats running for office.

    go figure.

    • Pat

      So your comment touches more on the demographics of the Republican voters, which is an important and ongoing discussion on these threads. While the true-believers do exist, I think it’s a mistake to imagine most Republican voters as a monolithic bloc, even the old white folks or the evangelicals. There are likely ways to peel off various microgroups.

      • CrunchyFrog

        I think that generally has been the case, but I’m not so sure any more. Oh, you’ll get the very occasional defection (usually from someone raised in a wingnut household who changes their politics after moving out) but not in significant numbers any more.

        The problem is the right wing media megalith that has evolved over the last 30 years. At this point someone who subscribes to a wingnut viewpoint is completely and utterly isolated not only from other viewpoints but from countervailing facts. They believe en masse that their taxes have gone up under Obama, that the deficit is exploding as well as federal expenditures on social programs. And of course they believe en masse a lot of other stupid things (warming hoax, birth certificate, Obama as Muslim atheist, etc.), but the fact that basic, verifiable economic facts can’t penetrate into the wingnut megalith means you can’t change minds to peel away any voters.

        Consider the best chance the Democrats have for recruiting hard core wingnuts – the ACA. There are millions of wingnuts who have insurance now, or better insurance, because of the ACA, but I challenge anyone to find more than a handful who is even aware of the fact that they are benefiting from “Obamacare” – and of those who are aware I’ll bet most of them still are against it because they believe that somehow the GOP or the free market would do better.

        • Davis X. Machina

          …and of those who are aware I’ll bet most of them still are against it because they believe that somehow the GOP or the free market would do better.

          You can’t refute a theology.

        • Funny you should mention that:

          “According to the poll, only 18% of the public say they or their families are better off now that the major provisions of the health care law have been implemented. Another 35% report that, while their lives have not improved, the Affordable Care Act has benefited other people in the United States. Add those two numbers together and that means 53% say that Obamacare has helped either their families or others across the country.
          Forty-four percent tell us that the health care law has not helped anyone in the country.” (CNN)

      • cpinva

        sorry for such a delayed response.

        ” While the true-believers do exist, I think it’s a mistake to imagine most Republican voters as a monolithic bloc, even the old white folks or the evangelicals. There are likely ways to peel off various microgroups.”

        agreed, up to a point. the “monolithic bloc” would be the hard-core, 27% of republican voters. they would happily vote for josef stalin, as long as he was a republican. those 30 million Russians he slaughtered? merely a “youthful indiscretion”.

        the other 73%, while not quite as hard-core, are still rarely going to vote for a democrat. you maybe try to attract them, after you’ve done all that you can do to get the undecided vote.

  • Jordan

    the minimum wage was allowed to stagnate for over a decade under Republican rule, so we need to raise it so it can actually reduce working poverty;

    This is mostly right, but there was an actual, real minimum wage hike under Bush (by 50%!). (I think it also had something to do with letting states set their own minimum wage laws, maybe?)

    It was absolutely a response to the 2006 Democratic victory, of course, but nevertheless it still had real republican support and occurred under Republican “rule”.

    But anyways, your post is great and fascinating. Are there these types of proposals in our own setting? Are there novel, good ones out there?

    (I mean, a jobs guarantee or an income guarantee or whatever sounds great for me, but do those count as “old ideas?)

    • Pat

      I think a minimum wage increase has to be paired with a Social Security increase, or at least a promise to pair Social Security increases as a response to inflation. This year, the old folks got an extra $3 a month (!!) to live on, which they helpfully pointed out to me would not even buy a gallon of milk.

      Too often the Democrats hold back on automatic wage increases, because the promise of more money gets poor people to the polls on off years.

      • Chad

        As far as I understand, almost all of the annual COLA that Social Security beneficiaries receive just goes toward offsetting the increase in their annual out-of-pocket Medicare expenses (premiums? co-pays? not sure). This per my grandmother. Which is just one reason that chained CPI is an abominable idea.

      • dh

        Democrats need to hammer home four things about Social Security.
        1) Social Security has its own account and doesn’t contribute to the National Debt.
        2)Social Security isn’t that broke. If we do nothing SS will still make full payments until 2036 at which point it will only pay 75% of promised benefits.
        3)Social Security can be fixed by lifting the maximum cap on taxable earnings.
        4)Social Security benefits should be increased, not decreased.

        • urbanmeemaw

          I have not heard any politicians or “pundits” pose the question, “If Social Security benefits are cut, are children, relatives or friends prepared to supplement income cuts if need be?”

        • cpinva

          “1) Social Security has its own account and doesn’t contribute to the National Debt.”

          I know dr. krugman, who I greatly admire, keeps saying this, but it isn’t true 100% of the time.

          1. it is true, if FICA receipts for the fiscal year meet or exceed SS payments for the fiscal year.

          2. it is not true, if FICA receipts are less than SS payments for the fiscal year. trust fund bonds then need to be cashed in, to make up the shortfall.

          3. if there is a budget deficit, in a year when trust fund bonds are cashed in, to make up a FICA/SS shortfall, than one can arguably make the case that SS contributed to that deficit (because borrowed monies were required, to cash in those bonds). of course, one could make that very same case for any expenditure for the year.

          remember, a budget and an income statement are two different things, and what dr. krugman is talking about, unknowingly, is the country’s income statement, not its budget.

          • DonN

            That isn’t how it works. There is this thing called the Social Security Trust Fund which you need to read about. That is why he quite accurately insists that it doesn’t contribute to the debt. Once that is drawn down then something almost like you describe is true. That is a couple decades away, at least. Also, Krugman, much like many center-left economists would be happy for social security to be paid from the general fund.


    • The decade in question was from 1981-1989 (so not quite a decade).

      But the 2007 increase was enacted by a Democratic Congress, so the extent of Republican rule shouldn’t be overstated. And while 82 Republicans in the House voted for it, more (116) voted against it and none of the 82 votes were necessary for passage. The Republicans in the Senate actually filibustered the increase until $257 million in business tax credits were added to the bill.

      And yes, there are, and I’ll get to them in the future. But as a policy historian, I think old ideas are good – a lot of public policies have been abandoned not because of their efficacy but due to circumstances that no longer apply and ideologies we do not share.

      • Jordan

        Oh! My bad (sorry).

        And thanks for the (far) better description of the 2007 bill.

        I’m looking forward to your future posts (I also think “old ideas” are good for the reasons you say).

      • Autonomous Coward

        I’m interested in what happened to those 82 GOPs who voted for it in 2007.

  • Davis

    This post is very interesting; I want to hear more. I especially want to know if the Roosevelt Administration was unique in this regard, so that all subsequent administrations acted strictly ad hoc.

    • Every Administration acts according to its own vision of the possible, and many Administrations act to try to arrive at the good society they desire. However, I would say the Roosevelt Administration was unique in its ability to imagine a world in which corporate capitalism didn’t exist; even quite liberal administrations like Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, always worked within those boundaries.

      • Brett

        They seemed rather fond of corporatist arrangements in the policies they did pass, like the NIRA. Was that just them passing stuff they thought would be acceptable?

        • Davis X. Machina

          There’s a lot in Sheri Berman’s books about the corporatist-social democrat nexus in interwar Europe….

        • No, there was a very strong corporatist/planning wing of the Roosevelt Administration, in strong tension with the anti-trust wing.

          But I should be clear: corporatism != corporate capitalism. Corporatism just involves negotiations between organized social interests, which doesn’t necessarily included corporations and certainly not the kind of legal autonomy they’ve been granted in modern U.S law.

          • Davis X. Machina

            Easy to remember for those of you who had Latin — corpus meaning ‘body’, in the sense of ‘a whole composed of parts united’ (Lewis and Short), so precisely ‘organized social interests’.

            What we’ve got with our sogenannte corporatism is an atomistic individualism, of fictive individuals — corporate capitalism.

            • Incidentally, for people who are interested in why American corporations don’t act corporately, I highly recommend Sanford Jacoby’s Modern Manors.

  • dh

    Off topic, but this makes me think of the MMT school of economists. One of their big policy ideas is a job guarantee. There is also a model of how they say the economy works, that I would bet is similar to the one above.

    A three minute video explanation of how MMTers think the economy works.

    • I’m quite familiar with MMT. But job guarantees don’t require MMT.

      • dh

        I didn’t mean to assert that they did. I only brought them up because they are the only group I come across that propose a job guarantee as a solution to our stagnant economy. I’m sure there are others, but this is the group I’m familiar with.

        • The MMTers, especially the folks at the CFEPS at University of Missouri-Kansas City, are gung ho for job guarantees.

          But so was Minsky, Vickrey, etc.

          • Autonomous Coward

            Wait, you mean Kansas City isn’t in Kansas?!?

      • PandaRaf

        On a separate note: would love to see what you think of MMT.

        • dh

          I second this.

        • It’s definitely a topic for a longer post. I find MMT intriguing, but a bit puzzling. I am under the impression from some MMT stuff I’ve read that in MMT theory, monetary supply can be expanded indefinitely, as long as taxation levels increase in step to keep up the value of money. But other MMT stuff I’ve read seemingly throws that out of the window.

          • dh

            My understanding is MMT believes that deficit spending should be spent on things that add value to the economy as a way to keep inflation down. I thought MMTers wanted generally low taxes. Their break with the likes of Krugman is they don’t believe there will be a time when the U.S. will have to raise taxes to pay for the deficit spending during a recession. I haven’t seen any MMT proposals to raise taxes along with increased deficit spending, but I am not in any way an expert on MMT.

            • Hence my uncertainty about inflation in MMT.

              • PandaRaf

                When it comes to this stuff, I’m a layman. A well-read layman, but a layman nonetheless. The sum of my economics education are intro to macro- & micro-economics.

                A lot of my progressive friends are totally into MMT, but I get the distinct impression that it could potentially be the liberal/progressive version of supply-side economics — i.e., the kind of economic “theory” that cannot fail; it can only be failed. And the fact that you have that kind of uncertainty doesn’t exactly make me feel comfortable.

                So I’d totally appreciate a solid, dispassionate take on MMT.

  • Avattoir

    This is off to a promising start. I’d just add one thing, maybe more for emphasis than anything else:

    A broadly-humanist coalition-based national political party needs a weltanschlauung like a fish needs a bicycle.

    Corollary etc:

    What weltanschlauug provides to yer hard core komic kommmie killer Tea Partier, like Tim Heulskamp, is a preverse [sic] sense of the givens that allows them to ‘move forward’ on the wrong assumption their foundation is sound.

    But I don’t think Paul Ryan’s a believer; what he’s got going is a fine sense of the preverted [sic] syntax and the sort of smoothness in delivery that Robert Preston portrayed so well in The Music Man – the highly-attuned grifter pulling off the Long Sting.

    • Pat

      um, what?

    • I disagree. I’m enough of a Geertzian that I belive that you can’t really have politics without one, even if it’s down in the subconscious.

  • MDrew

    Jesus Christ, why had you been limiting your guest posts to the soft stuff (no offense)? On the strength of this you’re clear and away the best writer here and one of the best thinkers.

    • Wow. Heady praise.

      I was busy finishing my dissertation, and was spending 24-7 thinking and writing about nothing but this stuff, so I wanted to just do the soft stuff for relaxation. I used to run a policy blog called The Realignment Project, but I stopped in 2012 because I was too busy to write for it.

      Now that I’m done with that, I can start to do more history/policy blogging, and for a wider audience.

      • Also, for fans of the soft stuff, I just finished Theon I.

      • MDrew

        Well, it’s one post. But it stands out.

      • sibusisodan

        Good! This was an awesomee read. Please do more.

        I’ve been really struggling with the idea of political vision. It seems both really important and really absent from US and UK politics.

  • The boringness of the Dems is something we may be stuck with. The GOP has a lock on the grand narrative of quelling the Red tide … see Corey Robin … and our counter to that seems to be, “what revolution? We just want decent pay, etc.”

    • Davis X. Machina

      Do you want to take the chance that your group doesn’t emerge at the end of history as the winner? You have to really be convinced Team Whoever has to win, in a necessitous sense.

      Rawls’ veil of ignorance, writ large.

      • Davis X. Machina

        (…even with edit, I bolloxed the italix…)

  • DrDick

    I think in this case, “policy imagination” means imagining that there is anything new or even vaguely useful being offered up by the “reformicons” (sic).

  • Sev

    Of course a good bit of their policy imagination was in response to an alternative that did seem on offer- that of the Communists, both abroad and at home. 1991 was the definitive end of the SPECTRE, though of course its attractiveness had faded long before that. I think most of us understood that it would be a problem- the dilemma of what to try and replace it with.

    • Yes and no. There was a fair bit of that (I highly recommend Engerman’s Modernization From the Other Shore on that topic), but I don’t really see it here. There’s no nationalization here, no emphasis on heavy industry or on production, no central planning a la the Five Year Plans, etc. Your William Z. Fosters, your Norman Thomases, etc. all would have found this kind of thinking way too conservative, unwilling to concede that capitalism was the central problem, a clumsy workaround that pales in comparison to the efficiency that would replace chaotic competition.

      At most, you can see a certain correspondence between the left edge of this kind of thinking (where it merged into production-for-use and public ownership of war factories) and Upton Sinclair’s EPIC programme, but it’s pretty tenuous.

  • Gwen

    I am watching “Gandhi” right now on our over-the-air movie channel. The scene where Gandhi basically tells the I.N.C. elites to go get a clue is pretty relevant to this discussion.

    As Democrats, we often parrot ideas coming from the party leadership. To continue winning, we need to make sure our leaders are down in the dirt where Americans actually live.

    I think this is part of why Elizabeth Warren is so popular… she speaks to a reality that is sometimes invisible from the glittering heights of D.C.


    “America is 30,000 municipalities….”

    But of course, even if the D.C. leadership sometimes seems a little out of whack, they’re a million times better than the Republicans.

  • j_kay

    We can make space alot cheaper using a space elevators today. I know it’s probably feasible because I ran a simulator on a design that worked. It’d be the Interstates or Panama Canal of our time, opening up space at high cost; both were progressive-era projects.

    The way to do a space elevator is as a suspension bridge of carbon fibers. Like them, it’d be safe because they’d have plenty of fibers in several ties. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it’d revolutionize space economics.

    But MMT is ANCIENT, positively 19th century. So, it’s unreliable compared to later and righter Keynesiasm. Where’d you run into that old skeleton?

    But, Obamacare and gays and saving the economy and leaving two wars is exciting for me. it’s been long enough since Communism or Reagan that Shrub’s messed their foreign policy and other kinds of trust.

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