Four leftwing think-tanks organized a conference in Washington yesterday that drew 800 scholars, organizers and activists to strategize about how to use the current economic crisis to revive the idea of big government. The groups, the Institute for America’s Future (Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey), American Prospect magazine (Robert Kuttner), the Economic Policy Institute (Larry Mishel), and Demos (Miles Rappaport), brought together some big names (Paul Krugman) and many lesser-known ones to consider how to promote the idea that almost every economic activity is a public good that requires public investment and public oversight. The theme: “Thinking Big, Thinking Forward.”
The word was out: Praise President Obama every chance you get for supporting the stimulus package and for endorsing the idea that massive long-term government spending is the key to reviving the economy. Denounce the past thirty years as a period of neglect. Ridicule suggestions like those of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell that the proposed government expenditures will “turn America into western Europe.” (“Of course it will,” said one speaker, “And it should.”)
Today the Left seems less sanguine. After deciphering Treasury Secretary Geithner’s evasive $2.5 trillion bailout proposal and as details of Congress’s $789 billion non-stimulative spending package emerge–the amount dedicated to fixing the Alternative Minimum tax is especially annoying–the view from the Left is a calculated one: Grudgingly accept the compromise, but declare satisfaction with the “huge victory,” and press on to the next battle.
The conference was noteworthy in that it avoided social theorizing, identity politics, Marxist terminology and academic hair-splitting. The very astute Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol reminded the audience that every study of American society has established that its people are remarkably conservative, individualistic and free market-oriented. She urged participants to deal with concrete problems and to speak in everyday language. The more the Left speaks in abstractions about its aspirations and ideals, the more it holds out Europe’s example as a social goal, the more likely it is to fail.