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The Wages of Limitless Pragmatism

letsgetitdone's picture

Jason Rosenbaum, who runs the Seminal Blog at FireDogLake gives us an object lesson in what passes for "pragmatism" in Washington today. It is a pragmatism without a sense of limits. And we have seen it from the President, his closest advisers, and the "official" progressives resident in Washington and New York "think tanks" and institutes, in the media and in the "access blogosphere." He says:

"While I’m very sympathetic to the arguments of letsgetitdone and others that the deficit simply isn’t a problem our government should be concerned with right now, political realities dictate different behavior from our politicians. People still list the national debt as a concern unprompted due to decades of brainwashing by the business-friendly right wing in this country. This leads less brave or creative politicians to disastrous ideas like the cat food commission."

I guess I think political realities are what we choose to make them, and that if we choose to refuse to speak the truth about our problems, as progressives often do because they believe it's much too hard to communicate it to the public, then very often it turns out that the public never gets to the truth, and the lies that politicians and the professional activists who hope to influence them tell, as well as the truths they know but fail to tell, enmesh us all in a web of actions and consequences that do not, and cannot, possibly solve our real problems.

So, year after year, the wages of a limitless pragmatism that will not tell the truth, or that will tell outright lies, in the service of small, arguably non-existent gains, are the accumulation of our nation's problems. Until the weight of those problems will, finally, bring the United States to its figurative knees.

Please, please, save us from pragmatists like these and give us instead a new generation of leaders. A generation who believes again in truth and justice, and knows that real pragmatism, the noble philosophy of Peirce, James, Dewey, and Singer, has its limits in values that we must not compromise. A generation who will answer Bill Greider's call: "Who Will Tell the People?"

Jason goes on to talk about four junior Democratic Congresscritters who are "going rogue" on deficit spending. The four have formed a working group to define cuts in spending of $70 Billion, over 10 years, (which, I note, is an average of about $7 Billion per year), in defense, energy, housing and agriculture.

This makes him very happy, and he says:

"We’re not talking cutting Social Security while extending tax cuts to the rich and promoting endless war, we’re actually talking about spending less on defense, subsidies to oil companies and handouts to giant agribusiness? Right on!

And:

"It’s not too terribly hard to find other ways to waste less federal dollars than by cutting Social Security. But sometimes it seems these ideas never make it to Congress, much less cause Congressmen to organize themselves. And if we’re going to talk about the deficit, these ideas must be on the table. Indeed, the American people support them."

There may be very good reasons for wanting to make the cuts Jason refers to, because, even if the Federal Government has no solvency problem, and no deficit problem, Federal money spent with bad or valueless effects is not Federal money spent on the public purpose.

But the very idea that we should agree that there is a deficit problem, when we know there is none, and then proceed to make cuts in programs for the sake of making cuts, so that we can participate in an orgy of deficit cutting along with the deficit hawks, and validate the view that there is a deficit problem, is both profoundly dishonest, and also an idea that is bound to produce cuts in programs that progressives value.

To run with this idea is to get involved in a horse trading feedback process, a race to the bottom, like the one we lived through during health care reform, where some Congresscritters say, we'll sacrifice some things we like, if you sacrifice some things you like. And, of course, the things we like will include some aspects of Social Security and Medicare, as well as some funding people need badly for education, or maybe we will have to make a concession involving some plan for deficit reduction in the long term, that constrains us when we need deficits later on, or that forces us into surpluses that in turn will produce new recessions.

And, when we're negotiating over these cuts and a proposal is made to cut something we don't really want to cut, then the deficit hawks will throw back in our faces the fact that we agreed that there was a real deficit problem. And they will say: "we all must share the pain here, for the good of the country," and so the progressives negotiating in this process will have to compromise, or admit that they were not telling the truth when they said there was a long-term deficit problem. And, in compromising, they will lose more and more of what is valuable purely for the purpose of meeting some abstract long-range deficit reduction target which the Catfood Commission recommends.

Like the game the progressives played in the health care reform debate, this too is a losing game. It will produce legislation that makes our situation worse. it is purely defensive. It fails to tell the people the truth about reality, and it will create a continuing problem of having to live the lie that there is a long-term deficit problem.

As the years go by, this lie that we don't believe, will force us to make more and more cuts, constrain our economy more and more, fail to create greater social and economic justice for our children and grandchildren, and continue the march of the United States towards plutocracy. This kind of limitless pragmatism is not real pragmatism. It is the false kind that gets us some immediate gratification at the price of our future.

We must reject it. If we believe there is no deficit problem, then we must talk that way, and act that way. We must tell the truth to the people, and let them decide what they will believe, and how they will vote.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).

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vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

"[P]olitical realities dictate different behavior from our politicians...."

Foul is fair... and has every right to be, under the circumstances. If this political philosophy were a Spike Lee joint, it would be called "Do the Wrong Thing." What could possibly go wrong with such a "pragmatic" approach?

Here's my $0.02 on "pragmatism":
http://vastleft.blogspot.com/2009/12/mor...

Submitted by Anne on

“unbelievably lazy.” And that “lazy” is on a number of levels: the lazy of it’s just too hard to educate the public, the lazy of self-interest (“if I do something about this, it might negatively impact ME”), the lazy of not wanting to take the time to educate themselves.

That last one is probably the worst one, as I think there are very few in the Congress or the WH who actually know what they’re talking about. They’ve completely bought into the urban myth of deficits to the point where they believe it to be true, and so everything they say revolves around a falsity. Fruit of a different poisonous tree, which still makes it poisonous, so why are we saying it's okay for people to keep eating it?

People like Rosenbaum are actually arguing that it would be too hard to change – there’s that word again – the political reality, so we should just buckle down and work with it. Accept it – even if it has grown out of a fiction. We’ve heard this on pretty much every issue, haven’t we? Seems strange that an administration that ran on “change,” and the party structure that pretty much fixed the nomination process to make sure Mr. Hope and Change was installed as president, would be so reluctant to do the work that bringing change requires, but then again, there was nothing in Obama’s track record that suggested he was going to change anything.

And, at the bottom of “unbelievably lazy” is a comfort level with fiction that should be condemned, not condoned. I mean, come on. If people still listed “the world is flat” as one of their beliefs, would Rosenbaum suggest we should just go with that because it’s too hard to change their minds? I think so. And really, how unbelievably lazy would that be?

Submitted by Anne on

thinking, but I think “lazy,” “corrupt” and “complicit” are interrelated to the point where it’s hard to tease out just one element.

We all know that it’s hard to change the status quo, so to some degree, I think this is often a case of inertia, of finding a way to merge into the system as opposed to driving the “wrong” way on a one-way street.

That status quo exists because it works for those that function within it; whether that’s about job protection, about laying the groundwork for a move into a more lucrative private-sector job, and even, occasionally, to serve – really serve – the public. Seems like there are fewer and fewer of the latter, and the only thing I see that would reverse that is 100% public financing of elections. I will be long dead, I’m sure, before that ever happens.

But that’s about the people who function within the system; people like Rosenbaum, and too many of the so-called “progressive” bloggers, have chosen to be lazy about working to change the political reality, lazy about pushing back against the power structure, lazy about accepting these fictions and thus strengthening their credibility. In Rosenbaum’s case, his messaging on health reform was driven by his job with HCAN, something that should have been given more weight when measuring his opinions.

There is a time when being pragmatic makes sense, when no harm comes to anyone as a result, but the kind of pragmatism we are seeing, and being told is the path to “success” or “change,” is the kind that does hurt people – usually the very people the “pragmatic” approach purports to be seeking to help.

I think I’m just rambling now, so I hope whoever reads this is getting where I’m coming from and what I’m trying to say (I’m rushing because I need to be working, not commenting!).

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

"Lazy-plus" is a less bracing (and I think, less accurate) frame than "corrupt" / "complicit."

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

There must be limits to pragmatism, and those limits relate to the demands of Justice. I like this post I did some time ago on the subject, though it was far too friendly to Obama and probably was mistaken in its judgment that he was the best of the realistic candidates for the Presidency in 2008. I'm now ready to admit that Hillary would have been marginally better.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

And unlike Obama, who was uncritically worshiped by so many, Hillary is disliked by many on the left. This would have made it much easier for the SCLB (h/t Chicago Dyke) to mobilize itself to push her, and the discourse, to the left.

We can't go back in time, but if such an opportunity should come around again, we can learn from our mistakes and jump on the Hillary bandwagon ASAP.

I know this isn't a popular position, but if it comes to a choice between Hillary and any Republican in 2012, I know how I'm going to be voting (and she will get as much of my money as I can give, too).

If it's Obama vs. a Republican, I'm staying home or voting NOTA.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

But let's do everything we can to see that it doesn't come down to Hillary or a Republican. I just can't imagine a Clinton doing very much for regular people.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

I have a lot of friends and family members without the best educations and who aren't qualified for very many "creative" class jobs. Under Clinton, back when he did nothing but help ensure low unemployment, very few of them were unemployed for extended periods of time like they are now. Many people saw more police on the streets to make neighborhoods safer. Some of these people (my parents included) saw better funding for their children (first generation college student here, not to mention PhD) and were able to save money for the first time in their lives.

Having jobs, reasonable and improving schools, and a a positive net worth seems like more than nothing. Just saying, cause I grew up with a lot of people I think many would call "regular" folks and most of them voted for Hillary over Obama for very reasonable reasons.

Submitted by lambert on

What Anglachel said. I just don't see how you can make this argument, lets. Via Krugman here:

midwest-median

(Sorry about the background, too lazy to convert to JPG now).

NOTE I grant this says nothing about income disparity, but that's not the issue raised. And I grant this says nothing about the Washington Consensus that all Presidents since Reagan have shared, including Clinton, but that's not the issue raised either.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Administration largely happened because of the early phases of the long bubble. We need to view from the perspective of what might have happened if he had done what Robert Eisner wanted him to do rather than what Rubin and Summers wanted him to do. Then we would have not only prosperity but much more equality too.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

It would sure be nice if you could separate Hillary from her husband. She is not "a Clinton." She isn't Bill's daughter. She is his wife. And she would not be an instant clone of Bill if she were President, even if she WERE related to him. Why would you assume that she would be, I wonder?

Moreover, if you count women and children among "regular people," you won't have to stretch your imagination too far. Hillary has been working to their benefit for decades. But I guess you'd have to actually investigate her record, not Bill's, to find that out.

I too long for a super-lefty to swoop in and right the country's wrongs, but I don't see anyone running yet. Who knows, maybe people are waiting till after the November elections to see how vulnerable Obama is. That would probably be the smart thing to do.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

I appreciated a lot of what Bill did that made my life as a single parent possible (I won't say "easier", as it was never anything like "easy"), even when he later pissed me off (about welfare "reform" etc.), and couldn't vote for him a second time (another fruitless round of trying to send messages to the Ds) BUT...

Women are not mere appendages of their husbands. Hillary != Bill.

And equally, children are not mere appendages of their fathers. Chelsea makes her own way, thank you very much.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

And I don't think they are appendages. I just think they are neo-liberal social-climbing elitists, and I don't trust any of them.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

on Clinton.

What made my life possible as a single parent was the increase in the Earned Income Credit, among other things.

Especially in the past decade, as a result of increased funding during President Clinton’s administration, the EIC has become a very important federal program in reducing poverty and creating more incentives (motivation) for people to work. After Medicaid, it is the federal government's second largest program that assists persons with low income.

That has exactly to do with Bill Clinton, and nothing to do with economic accidents.

Bill Clinton's best line IMO was the one about "people who work hard and follow the rules." If O ever could make himself utter anything that showed half that much empathy without making himself the center of it, I'd feel it a reason to change my sad assessment of him.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

The earned income credit was great. And I'm not saying Clinton didn't do anything for working people, just far less than I expected and hoped for from a Democrat. Perhaps I'm just too old. But when someone says Democrat, I think FDR and also Eleanor, and I measure everyone against them. Of course, everyone falls short. But it's a question of distance, and since Jimmy Carter, I've been seeing people who don't even begin to measure up, though I will grant that Bill Clinton was a better President that Jimmy Carter, and that Hillary would have been too.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

from the viewpoint of Hillary bring a biological Clinton or in anyway having her actions determined by Bill. I'm looking at it from the standpoint of shared experience.

I think both Clintons believe that the Administration they were involved in was very successful and I also think that is the model Hillary would have in mind for a new Administration. The circumstances would be different so nothing would be exactly the same. There are also differences in the style of Bill and Hill.

But, bottom line, I think we'd be looking at a another neo-liberal presidency and I just don't want that if I can help it.

Submitted by lambert on

... but again (as the chart I give shows) the statement that "I just can't imagine a Clinton doing very much for regular people" shows an imagination that in this instance is not moored in the actual performance of the Clinton administrations, with the metric of what "ordinary people" care about the most.

If neo-liberalism were more resilient than it is, it would be doing what the Clinton administration did. Instead, it's got Obama preaching sacrifice for the unterbussen, and leaving literally everything else intact, including and especially the rent seeking by his owners.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

To the possiblity, that whether either Clinton viewed Bill's presidency as a success, Hillary was completely capable of seeing what went wrong, what was done wrong from the start, and I'm certain there were many things she didn't agree with(kinda like me, my partner, and my best friend, both of whom I'm completely simpatico with politically, and whom I still argue policy with), and could, oh I don't know, correct those mistakes this time around.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Not so much resistance as skepticism that a neo-liberal politician can easily change her spots. Take health care, for example. Every story to come out of the Administration suggests that those who were part of it learned the lesson that you don't go to Congress with legislation, but ought to let them fool around to develop something and then use your weight at various key points to influence the outcome.

No one learned the lesson that the Clinton health care proposal wasn't transparent to people and made a perfect target for the lying liars to rip apart on the Internet. Had Clinton proposed Medicare for All then and gotten in back of it there would have been no early defeat for his Administration and no Republican victory in '94. But that's beside my point, which is that I've never seen any evidence that Hillary can easily admit to error, learn from it, and move on. And maybe that's one of the things that bothers me the most.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

But I really feel that you've "never seen any evidence", because you don't want to see it, and you've accepted the Versailles narrative about her.

Clinton was openly honest about the problems with her attempt at health reform throughout the campaign. Her campaign learned from their mistakes during the early primaries, adapted and moved on. Many of her constituents have related stories to you directly about how responsive she was to constituent's reactions to her votes and announcements. All during the primaries, she pointlessly and repeatedly flagellated herself for trusting Bush about Iraq(not about the vote for the AUMF, which I know bothers some people, but I felt her defense put the blame where it belonged, on Bush).

And that's just examples from recent history. Her entire career is littered with examples of her astounding intellect and intellectual curiousity. You like micro-credit? Clinton saw to it that her husband met Muhammad Yunus while he was still the governor of Arkansas, and helped start a microcredit bank in Arkansas, that is still in place today.

Hell, she used to be a Republican in the 60's. If that's not admitting error, learning from it, and moving on, I don't know what is.

Even here, you are equating what the Obama administration has done, and is doing, with what she might have done, though you do later point out that it's beside the point.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

People have provided you with charts, links to policies, real-life events from the campaign that you can Google if you don't remember them, and real-life experiences of what it's like to be a constituent of Hillary Clinton's.

In response, you have provided us with nothing but your opinion.

Could you consider the possibility that you may be wrong about her and Bill?

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Madamab and Aeryl,

Two things.

First, if Hillary gets nominated either in 2012 or 2016, I'll be happy to take my chances with her. I could really get enthusiastic if she was nominated in 2012, because I'd be overjoyed to get rid of Obama, But

Two, I want a New Dealer for President next time. Can't help it. I want somebody who will appoint Jamie Galbraith Secretary of the Treasury and Bill Black head of the SEC. I want someone who will appoint L. Randall Wray as the President's top economic adviser in the White House. I want someone who will appoint Dawn Johnsen as Attorney General. And I want someone who I believe has tremendous integrity and motivation to change American Politics. I think that person is Elizabeth Warren, not Hillary Clinton. So, I'm for Elizabeth Warren for President.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

What we were arguing about was not whether Elizabeth Warren, in some fantasy world, is running for President and whether or not she'd be better than Hillary. The point is whether or not Hillary is a) guaranteed to run the White House just like Bill did, should she become President, and b) an elitist neoliberal who doesn't give a shit about "regular people."

I think you lost on both those points.

If Elizabeth Warren does run against Obama, she's got my vote in a heartbeat, though. So, at least we can agree on that. And I appreciate your change of heart on Hillary too. I have rarely seen anyone who has such a degree of dislike towards her budge in any way, so you're way ahead of the crowd there. :-)

Hmmmm....Clinton/Warren 2012? As long as we're fantasizing here....

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

There are at least two types of Villagers. The first are the perps who know they are pursuing evil and lie, cheat, and steal to do their evil. Then there are many in the proggosphere who don't know what the fuck they are talking about so they repeat what they are told. Many proggers know when they lie on many issues, but not all. Economics and particle physics metaphors are examples of what many proggers don't understand, so they repeat the wonkish "think tank" talking point of the day.

Bowers, in his revealing PBR post (aka "Changing of the Guard") hints that proggers (the professional ones?) would defer to the think tanks and technocratic wonks, in other words intellectual laziness. Homie may be able to look at polls and point out meaningless context-free facts about them but when it comes to deep policy details discussion, when has he had a profound post? Having an obscure quote that was probably just Googled does not substitute for intellectual curiosity (remember when that was such a knock on GWB?).

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I can see that you've had it with Washington folks and their happy dances. Do have I.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Hi Anne,

And, at the bottom of “unbelievably lazy” is a comfort level with fiction that should be condemned, not condoned. I mean, come on. If people still listed “the world is flat” as one of their beliefs, would Rosenbaum suggest we should just go with that because it’s too hard to change their minds? I think so. And really, how unbelievably lazy would that be?

A great example for Jason to contemplate. Too bad he doesn't read Correntewire.com.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

And elected officials are not necessarily particularly bright nor widely read. They spend enormous amounts of time raising money. The result is that they are not particularly well-informed and believe the common wisdom, especially as it's repeated over and over to them by the people they raise money from.

That means a loud, clear statement of truths is necessary to getting good legislation. The pragmatic approach assumes that elected officials know the truth, but have to do something else for political reasons. That's peasant thinking -- "our betters know more than us, and we must provide loyal service" rather than a democratic "Here's what we want, and we expect you to work for it."

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I like:

That's peasant thinking -- "our betters know more than us, and we must provide loyal service" rather than a democratic "Here's what we want, and we expect you to work for it.

Thanks, Nihil.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

I think they are both part of the problem. Perhaps not in scale, but definitely both part of the problem.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Many of the "access" progressives just take it for granted that when they "sell" they're excused from telling the truth.

beowulf's picture
Submitted by beowulf on

"While I’m very sympathetic to the arguments of letsgetitdone and others that the deficit Iraq simply isn’t a problem our government should be concerned with right now, political realities dictate different behavior from our politicians.

:)

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

we shouldn't be concerned about Iraq?

Submitted by lambert on

.... a different post reminds me of the book reviewer who, on reviewing a book about penguins, wrote that he would have preferred the book to be about pigeons.

I can see "Why aren't you writing about ____ ?" as a valid argument if a post is on something trivial, and ignores or obfuscates a larger and more important issue ("Look! Over there! ____!") but I don't see a post demolishing the foundations of deficit hawkery as being in that category.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

I just see that beowulf is pointing out that lets' totally made up dialog from Obama, totally fits his actions on Iraq(and the economy, and health care reform, and....)

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

one of my favorite commenters on various sites. I got the point that Aeryl makes, but just wanted to make clear that on Iraq I'm all for immediate withdrawal consistent with the safety of our withdrawing troops. We never should have gone in. The longer we stay, the more we harm we do: both to ourselves and to the Iraqis.