Thursday, December 8, 2016

listening to a *real* liberal: Thomas Frank's "Listen, Liberal"

This is the longer version of what will also appear in reduced form as a newspaper op-ed.
I've grown fond of saying that the world would be a much better place if we had many more real conservatives and liberals. For example, imagine how much public life would improve if we had many more people who were as tolerant and compassionate as a lot of "liberals" claim to be. 

Many people embrace another ideology (e.g., libertarian) or have a de facto lack of ideology (e.g., some forms of "moderate"). But why aren't there all that many "real" conservatives and liberals? I can think of four interrelated answers.

1.) We don't have coherent, general, working definitions of conservative or liberal, so many people are embracing something that is convenient but unclear. For example, what is a conservative? (While we're at it: What is a progressive—and how does that differ from a Democrat or liberal? See also: here on Kiriazis, and here for my forthcoming article on Thomas Leonard's book in Markets and Morality.

2.) Many people avidly embrace one of these labels, when they are only interested in a subset of issues with respect to that label—e.g., social conservatives or liberals who value certain civil liberties. (As I have written elsewhere, this results in different types of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.)

3.) From Public Choice economics, we know that most people (reasonably) spend little time thinking about political economy—resulting in a non-existent political philosophy, incoherent policy prescriptions, little policy imagination, and here, little connection between self-chosen labels and reality. 

4.) Some people are (far) more interested in political parties and political power than public policy. Such partisans are not concerned with a coherent ideology or effective policy all that much—and become enablers to political malfeasance, especially by those they support.

The presidential campaign of 2016 illustrates all of this confusion nicely. Neither major-party candidate for president in 2016 could have emerged from a process dominated by real liberals or conservatives. Avid supporters of Clinton were forced to turn in their liberal badges, given her character flaws and policy preferences. Avid supporters of Trump also had to ignore profound character flaws—and could, at most, claim certain narrow definitions of conservatism for their candidate. And yet, each was popular enough to win a major political party nomination.

We're not in Kansas anymore? 

With Listen, Liberal (LL), Thomas Frank steps into this "labeling" fray with passionate complaints about Democrats—from the perspective of an ideologically-consistent liberal. Frank has written about politics and policy for a long time, especially as they relate to economics. His most famous book goes after "conservative" politicians and voters through the example of Kansas, arguing (among other things) that GOP voters often vote against their economic interests. 

There are two key problems with his thesis in What's the Matter with Kansas. First, the same voter critique can be leveled against Democrats when one looks at Democrats' governance of various cities. (As he makes clear in LL, the Democrats at the national level can't be considered much better. So it looks like Kansan voters were, ironically, a decade ahead of him!) And his thesis is fatally flawed since its policy scope is so limited; there's (much) more to life than economics and finance. (Similarly, LL has little on social or military policy.) 

As President Obama's administration wrapped up its first year, Frank became increasingly upset with the President's missed opportunity, hypocrisy, cowardice, reliance on rhetoric and flowery talk, etc. For example, these two pieces in Harpers are indicative (of his reasonable anger) and provocative (for those with ears to hear).

With LL, Frank wades into these waters to chastise those on the Left who claim to be liberal, but support illiberal politicians and their policies. The difficulty of reading this book is that his policy recommendations are a mess—and often, illiberal by any reasonable definition. Frank also focuses on economic policy, with little to say about social or military policy, so it's blinkered in this way too. But still, the book is worth an otherwise-quick-and-easy read to get a sense of what a real liberal might think about the Democrat Party.

If you want a quick sense of Frank's approach in the context of a recent political campaign, think Bernie Sanders. After losing the Democrats' nomination to Hillary Clinton in a semi-rigged outcome—and before selling out by endorsing the anti-thesis of his campaign—Sanders focused on big banks, cronyism and elites, a "rigged system", income inequality, etc. (In a way, Sanders was the Left's version of Trump—in substance and, to some extent, in style. But Clinton's machine was too powerful for him to win—and Trump benefited from a huge GOP field that fractured support and allowed him to emerge victorious.)

Frank describes his motivation for the book in the first paragraph: "excessive hope" about Obama led to disillusionment, anger, and his book (1). Throughout, he pounds Democrats in general—and singles out particular Democrats—on his way to saying that Democrats have sold hope as a false bill of goods. He says it's time for them—and their supporters—to own up, take responsibility, and repent. 

Apologists and Blame-Evaders

Frank shuts down the most common excuse for the Democrats' failure—that Obama and the Democrats did the best they could. As Frank notes, the Democrats had control of the political machinery (and something of an electoral mandate) for the administration's first two years. "This is a book about the failure of the Democrat Party—about how they failed when the conditions for success were perfect." (6) "Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how nontransformative he has been." (154) 

Defending Obama is a good idea if your goal is "to rescue the reputation of a hero who turned out to have clay feet." (154) But if we're concerned with policy and outcomes, it "would behoove us to admit the obvious forthrightly: that Obama could have done many things differently, that the Republicans aren't superhuman, and that the presidency is in fact a powerful office." (155) Unfortunately, blame-shifting is often easier than looking in the mirror.

If that's not enough to shake some sense into partisans, Frank pursues another angle in chapter 9—listing a handful of the cities and states that have failed under dominating blue governance: Rhode Island, Chicago, New York State, Delaware, and especially Boston. One might be able to casually and carelessly imagine that national Democrats should escape blame. But his local/state roster of failure—again, from any reasonable set of liberal or conservative standards—is beyond debate.

As Frank notes, all of this is particularly galling because the Democrats claim to be the champions of the working poor and the middle class (8). But by any set of possible standards for being a "champion"—as widely disparate as mine and Frank's—this is obviously a lark.

Cause and Effect

So, what's the deal? Frank points to the Democrats appealing to "professionals" and relying on political elites for policy. Neither of these is surprising, given the arc of the party over the last 40 years (e.g., away from labor unions)—and going further back, to the various principles and paradoxes of Progressivism. (I cover this in detail in my forthcoming JMM article on Thomas Leonard's book.) Frank singles out desegregation by busing and the Vietnam War as two key and illustrative examples (22). Really, Frank is making a standard critique out of Austrian economics—that the "knowledge problem" will bedevil even the "smartest" efforts to do public policy well. 

In chapter 8, Frank summarizes the problem as elites and professionals who are enamored with needlessly complex solutions (that don't work well). But he also mixes in a good bit of Public Choice economics with references to the mixed motives of agents in political markets. He cites "forgotten left-wing historians" (most notably, Gabriel Kolko) who observed "that the regulatory state began not with public-minded statesmen cracking the whip and taming big biz, but just the opposite—with business leaders deliberately inviting federal regulation as a way to build barriers to entry and give their cartels the protection of the law." (161-162)

Frank argues that national Democrat leadership dramatically reduced its interest in working people over the last 40 years (30). It's common for political parties to take various interest groups for granted. One thinks of African-Americans and social conservatives as today's most prominent examples. But even in those cases, Democrats will throw a race-based policy bone to African-Americans and it's understood that the GOP can't do much with social issues.  

In the case of the working poor and middle class, the gap is greater—and unnecessary. There are many feasible reforms that mostly lack political courage and policy imagination. But "many Democratic leaders see voters as people who have nowhere else to go." (121) Apparently, the thought is: why bother with the messy work of producing better policy? Of course, the recent presidential election—even with a rough GOP candidate—illustrated that these voters are quite capable of voting with their feet!

Frank traces this evolution to events in the 1970s and then sees it culminating with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 (120). Chapter 2 describes the Democrats' move away from "the party of FDR's New Deal coalition with its heavy reliance upon organized labor." With Labor fading—and already largely in the bag anyway—"Democrats had to become...the party of well-educated professionals." (45)

Frank provides historical details I had not heard previously: the 1971 "Powell memo" (48), a 1971 "manifesto" by a prominent Democrat strategist (48), and Lanny Davis' 1974 book (125). Frank also argues that 1960s labor unions "seemed like white-dominated organizations that were far closer to the comfortable and the powerful than they were to the discontented." (50) Crony capitalism among politically-powerful, upper-middle class workers in labor market cartels is hardly a recipe for caring about the average or the marginal in society.  

Outcomes in politics and elections bear out this shift in emphasis. Democrats now do quite well in terms of big money and especially with white-collar professionals. Speaking of the West Coast and the evolving post-1960s culture, Frank writes, "wherever you once found alternative and even adversarial culture, today you find people of merit and money and status. And, of course, you also find Democrats." (127)

Two other observations here: First, all of this was occurring at the same time as the political realignment on abortion. In the 1970s, both parties were well-represented in both camps. But by the 1980s, we had the largely GOP pro-lifers vs. pro-choice libertarians and pro-abortion Democrats. (Most Democrats shouldn't be called "pro-choice", since abortion seems to be the only prominent issue where they champion choice.) 

Second, Frank cites a 2004 book by John Sperling, The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, which now seems amazingly prophetic on the state of the two major parties and the outcome of the recent presidential election (132). I had never heard of it, but I have ordered it and will read it soon!

Frank argues that the prosperity of the Clinton years—and thus, his supposed success—acted to cement the deal for Democrats: "Prosperity meant that Clinton would not be judged on these grounds [helping working families]. Prosperity was the ultimate political trump card." Ironically, the lack of prosperity over the last decade led to a different Trump card raising its head in 2016.

Ripping Obama and the Clintons

One of the most impressive things about Frank's book is his no-holds-barred description of key Democrat leaders. As in the rest of the book, one is left choosing between Liberal and Democrat—or trying to argue (futilely?) with Frank. He is as frustrated as I am, but from a different angle: Why are there so few liberals? Frank hopes to increase that number, even though it would lead to pain for the Democrat Party and its sycophantic partisans. 

Frank spends two full chapters poking at President Obama (chapters 1 and 7). Aside from what I summarized earlier, Frank talks a bit about Obama's eloquence (153), but this was a particular frustration in Frank's Harpers essays

Frank has much more venom for the Clintons. In chapters 3 and 4, he rips Bill, pointing to his crime and welfare reforms (92), deregulation (100), and bailouts (101). As Art Laffer has noted, Clinton was a relatively good president from a free-market perspective—better than Bush I, and especially, Nixon and Bush II. Clinton benefited from Reagan's Cold War victory and the reduced military spending that followed. (A funny thing I'll revisit below: old Keynesians can't square this with the strong economy of the 1990s!) And Reagan/Volcker had already dealt with the pain of fighting high inflation in 1981-1982. But still, Clinton was a pretty good president on economics from my perspective—and thus, a lousy president from Frank's perspective. 

Frank rips Hillary too (chapter 11). He describes her political success as "meritocracy" and "resume as achievement" (224). Interestingly, he spends most of his energy here on non-economic issues. He rips her foriegn policy (229) and her "Internet Freedom" ideas (229-230). He argues that she stepped down from Secretary of State before mass surveillance policy problems could be laid at her doorstep (231-232). And then he blows her up on women's rights (233-236), without even mentioning her enabling Bill's sexual predation! Frank even criticizes “microfinance” (?!), before using it to crush her one more time: It "is a perfect expression of Clintonism, bringing together wealthy financial interests with rhetoric that sounds outrageously idealistic." (236)

In Closing…

Frank wraps up the book with a scathing mini-chapter / conclusion on Martha's Vineyard—both as a utopian, vacation reality and as a metaphor for the corruption and self-serving nature of the Democrat Party. Martha's Vineyard is privileged, private, secure, and rich. Frank asks his readers whether they're for Martha's Vineyard, the "meritocrats", and the "plutocrats"—or for the working folks? Ouch! Frank is not at all optimistic that the Democrat Party can be reformed. He closes by saying that he hopes that, at least, its self-righteousness veneer can be stripped away (256).

I need to close by noting that many of his takes on economics and policy should induce winces, groans, or laughter. First, Frank lays out some of the popular silliness on wage stagnation (2) and income inequality. (Check out my journal article on the latter.) Second, he often opposes voluntary, mutually-beneficial trade—domestic (see: Walmart [3] and Uber [209-214]) and especially international. Third, he complains about elites and notes that FDR started the trend, but then imagines that the New Deal was a good deal (38-39). Unfortunately, the data do not support that claim! Fourth, he gives us some screwball Old-Keynesianism. He notes Clinton's reduced deficit spending, but "for unrelated reasons, the economy proceeded to boom" (99). Right: "unrelated reasons", such as, your argument is "unrelated" to reality! The failure of the New Deal is laid at the feet of not enough deficit spending (145, 169). And he wanted Obama to pursue deficits in excess of $1 trillion (145). I guess Obama doubling the debt to $20 trillion was not good enough for Frank!

So, don't say that I didn't warn you: Frank's book is glorious and helpful in some ways, but difficult to stomach in other ways. But as Haidt points out in A Righteous Mind, it's important that we work on empathy in political matters. And while the Left often pretends to be tolerant, all of us should work on practicing it. This requires greater understanding, broad reading, open dialogue, and practice at extending grace. As such, I do want to offer Frank's book as a way to get a look inside the mind of a real liberal. Oh, if there were only a lot more of them.


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