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Putting the Progressive Agenda under the Microscope

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Yesterday in Washington D.C, Bill De Blasio and a bunch of people from the left wing of the Democratic Party announced a Progressive Agenda on economic inequality. It’s essentially a marker being laid down for the presidential primaries in 2016: if a certain major Democratic candidate for the nomination wants to call themselves a progressive, they need to sign onto these 13 points.

As a political strategy for trying to influence the Democratic Party, it…seems to be working? So far, we’ve already seen Hillary Clinton’s policy speeches – on immigration, on criminal justice, and on higher education – coming out markedly to the left of where people might have expected, based on Hillary’s 2008 campaign. If and when we get a speech on economic inequality, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few parts of this agenda make it in.

So what’s actually in this agenda?

1. Lift the Floor for Working People »

  • Raise the federal minimum wage, so that it reaches $15/hour, while indexing it to inflation.
  • Reform the National Labor Relations Act, to enhance workers’ right to organize and rebuild the middle class.
  • Pass comprehensive immigration reform to grow the economy and protect against exploitation of low-wage workers.
  • Oppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment.

2. Support Working Families »

  • Pass national paid sick leave.
  • Pass national paid family leave.
  • Make Pre-K, after-school programs and childcare universal.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Allow students to refinance student loan debt to take advantage of lower interest rates.

3. Tax Fairness »

  • Close the carried interest loophole.
  • End tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
  • Implement the “Buffett Rule” so millionaires pay their fair share.
  • Close the CEO tax loophole that allows corporations to take advantage of “performance pay” write-offs.

It’s a bit odd. Some things here are high-profile, cutting-edge progressive policies ($15 an hour, immigration reform, paid leaves, universal Pre-K/after-school/childcare, etc.) that have proven to motivate large numbers of activists and are generally popular. Some things are worthy progressive policies, but probably not something that would dominate public discourse in the primaries (NRLA reform, expanding the EITC). Overall, it’s a solid list – getting the Democratic Party on board for these policies and getting these proposals into law would make a huge change in living standards and quality of life for huge numbers of poor, working class, and middle class families.

But there’s a lot that’s seems oddly small-bore, for something that’s supposed to be a progressive marker, defining the left-most edge of the possible. Why refinancing student loan debt rather than making college free? Why is the progressive vision of tax fairness closing loopholes rather than a proposal to massively redistribute wealth and income from the 1%? Why just opposing existing trade deals and not carving out a positive progressive agenda on world trade?

That’s the thing that makes me think, for all that I like the policies here, comparisons to the Contract on America are mistaken. The Progressive Agenda is missing a quality of directionality; after reading this list, I know a lot about what these progressives like and don’t like, but not a lot about what they would want the world to look like. Say what you want about the Tea Party wing, thigh, and breast of the Republican Party,  but they have a pretty clear vision of what their world would look like: “a government small enough to drown in the bathtub,” an explicitly Christianized state, the total repeal of the welfare state and all forms of social progress made in the 20th century, and so on and so forth.

And this gets me into why I’m a giant policy wonk and some of my frustration with how the left does public policy. I got my start in public policy working as a policy intern for Robert Reich when he ran for Governor of Massachusetts – most of what I did was research local policy issues, comparisons of our platforms vs. our opponents, and the like, but I also got a valuable lesson from Professor Reich that public policy should start with a vision of what you want the world to look like – a policy imagination, if you would – and then you work out the steps to get from where you are now to there. A lot of the progressive policy world doesn’t really do that – center-left think tanks are in the business of crunching the numbers, and coming up with reasonable proposals that might actually pass Congress, not thinking about what our destination should be. And thus my very first blog was basically me working out what a long-term, big-picture policy agenda would look like that would get to the world as I want it to look.

This quality is what differentiates a lot of the elements of the Affordable Care Act – $15 an hour, universal Pre-K, immigration reform, these things speak to a vision of the “good society.” Closing the carried interest loophole doesn’t – it lacks the power “to call spirits from the vasty deep.”

 

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