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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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