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Political Animal

By Kevin Drum
The Washington Monthly

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH....Over at Foreign Affairs, Brad DeLong has a very nice review of Richard Parker's John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. Here is his summary of Parker's explanation for why the Democratic party no longer has the energy to embrace Galbraithian politics and economics:

Too many party intellectuals and politicians drink cocktails on Martha's Vineyard, in Parker's view, and too few spend time on the shop floor learning what issues are important to those sweeping up or manning an assembly line or tending the convenience-store cash register from midnight to six am. Thus, the mass base of the Democratic Party has withered, and without a mass base Democratic politicians listen too much to their rich contributors and turn into Eisenhower Republicans - people who are interested above all in balancing the budget.

The entire review is worth a look - although I'm not quite sure I buy Brad's ultimate Horatio Alger conclusion. But you should read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

The review also brought back to mind a post that Brad Plumer wrote a few days ago while he was reading Parker's Galbraith biography. Unlike Democrats of Galbraith's era, Brad complained, today's Democrats have policy visions galore but no overarching economic vision. Conversely, Republicans have economic vision to spare.

There's something to that - although I don't think Brad identifies the Republican economic vision quite correctly: I'd say that its key tenets are sound money (i.e., low inflation) and small government. In practice, this translates into a preference for tight monetary policy and low taxes on capital. Neither of these directly drives economic growth, though, which is why the economy routinely does poorly under Republican presidents.

But what about Democrats? If I had to describe Democratic economic vision in only a few words, I'd say its tenets are full employment and a thriving middle class. Regardless of the policy choices that various administrations have used to pursue these goals - which include such disparate things as Social Security, the minimum wage, support for labor unions, and the Earned Income Tax Credit - these two things do directly drive economic growth. This is why the economy does better on practically every measure you can think of under Democratic presidents. It's not a coincidence, it's a result of the fact that the things liberals care about really do drive growth.

Unfortunately, "full employment" is practically an archaic term these days, one that probably has more negative than positive resonance even among those who would benefit from it. As for taxes, the middle class has largely been hoodwinked into believing that low taxes on capital are actually good for them - or that they shouldn't worry about economic policy at all and base their votes instead on important stuff like gay marriage or gun laws.

My advice? We can't - and shouldn't - return to the 50s or 60s. The world is different today and we know more about how it works. But Democrats should regain their fervor for increasing employment and keeping the middle and working classes healthy and thriving. As far as I'm concerned, that means pushing for things like national healthcare, union friendly legislation, broader and more progressive taxation, and so forth. You might have different ideas. But as long as your goal is to stimulate more and better employment among the middle and working classes, we're both singing out of the same hymn book.