hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2002
what needs to be done: a suggested platform for idealistic liberals

three phrases, six words that will make the Democrats the majority party:
"Middle Class, Common Sense, Golden Rule"

Middle Class (unavoidably polarizing) issues: progressive taxation, refundable tax credits for health care and education, eliminating many special interest tax credits and subsidies, supporting private-sector unions, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

Common Sense (unifying middle ground, reforming) issues: Gun Control, Abortion, War on Drugs, National Defense, Education, Public sector unions, Environment, Special interests, Death Penalty, Tort and Regulatory reform, Judicial reform, Immigration

Golden Rule (spiritual, moralizing) issues: "Employer of last resort", Foreign aid, Nation-building, Education & Equal-Opportunity programs for the poor/disadvantaged, No State lotteries, Voluntary humanitarian military missions

Middle Class issues:

guiding idea: "Everyone who is willing to work for it should be able to afford the essentials of a decent, middle-class life"

These should be the "bread and butter" issues for Democrats, which distinguish them from Republicans, and convince the average worker that their lives will be better under Democrats than Republicans.

The key polarizing idea is "progressive taxation" (the liberal word), or "coercive income redistribution" (the conservative/libertarian word). Liberals may think that it is unwise to redistribute income through the tax code (for incentive, efficiency and technical reasons), but it is not immoral. Conservatives believe such redistribution is immoral, and/or very very unwise, and thus any social safety net and the consequent redistribution should be kept to a bare minimum.

A good exposition of the liberal point of view is an article by Paul Krugman, in a review of Dick Armey's book "The Freedom Revolution":


Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid: Blessed be the Trinity. No privatization, some reforms (like means-testing) may be considered. Bottom line: the safety-net must be preserved.

Progressive taxation: (unrepentant class warriors . . .wheee! just kidding)

Private Sector Unions: We should not idealize unions: Sometimes they are corrupt, and sometimes they seek special favors at the expense of the broader public. But unions are almost the only political counterweight to big money, and the loss of that counterweight is clearly bad for society. Unions help keep us a middle class society, and we should give them all principled support.

Health care tax credits: Universal Health insurance through refundable tax credits: We choose tax credits instead of Single Payer because 1)tax credits are simple to implement 2)they have some bipartisan support 3) less risky politically. If tax credits don't work, we can move on to Single Payer.

Education tax credits: Daycare, preschool. For School Vouchers(!?), see below.

Taking on special interests in favor of public interest: examples: Cracking Down on Tax Havens, making corporations count stock options as an expense, ending the strange practice of giving broadcasters public airwaves licenses for free, instead of auctioning them off on behalf of the public.

Common Sense issues:

"Common Sense" issues are either non-ideological issues, or issues that we wish to make non-ideological, by uniting people over a broad middle ground. Especially, we attempt to take the sting out of polarizing “culture war” issues, and try to form a broad consensus which can heal the polarizing wounds. This might require taking on people on the right and left. Also, “common sense” issues refers to reforming programs that have failed (eg. the War On Drugs), and taking on certain powerful special interests.

War on drugs: The War On Drugs is the most important race-relations issue in America today. End the war on drugs, and use the freed up resources for the war on terrorism and violent crime. Money for drug treatment, selling to children remains a federal crime, no selling drugs and no using drugs in public areas

Abortion: A moderate position on abortion (safe, legal and rare) No state funding for abortion, incentives to "choose life" and for adoption, funding for birth control and sex ed (subject to its being effective)

Education: Three broad principles 1) A voluntary national test, spelling out what kids should know and giving parents/teachers the tools to teach them. 2) Equalizing funding between rich and poor school districts (a good compromise: more state/federal money for poor school districts) 3) School vouchers, in order to put power in the hands of parents, and not district bureaucrats, teachers unions, and politicians (a good compromise: more charter schools)

national defense: Anti-Star Wars, pro-everything else. But defense should not have an unlimited budget: In any well-run organization there are uncomfortable trade-offs and competition for resources. Inefficient, marginally useful programs must be reformed or shut down. Difficult decisions must be made, and the Military brass + defense contractors must not be able to bully politicians from making them.

Gun control: Sensible efforts to keep guns out of the hands of children, criminals and the mentally unstable, while protecting the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to own guns for hunting, sport, and to protect their family and property

Public sector unions: Good compensation, but greater accountability. In particular, Public sector managers (who are accountable to Politicians, who are accountable to the Public) must be given greater flexibility to fire workers they don't think are up to snuff

Environment: Pro-ANWR drilling , anti-letting mining companies mine on federal land for free, tradable emission permits, BTU tax. etc.

special interests : “no fault” auto insurance reform (taking on the trial lawyers), free trade (taking on the protectionists), etc.

death penalty: supporting the death penalty, making sure we get the right guy (ie. no testimony from "jailhouse snitches", videotaped interrogations, money for good defense lawyers, etc.)

tort and regulatory reform: sticking it to both trial lawyers and fanatically anti-regulation corporations

judicial reform: reforming affirmative action so that it 1) helps disadvantaged minorities 2) does not antagonize whites. Perhaps using the military as a model.

immigration is the big unresolved issue in American politics. Being the son of an immigrant, I don’t know how native Americans viscerally feel about this issue, so I’m going to defer to others. I would suggest however, that if native Americans completely shut the door on future immigration, America will be losing a part of its soul.

Golden rule:

“Golden Rule” issues are those that require us to make sacrifices for the good of others. Americans are very generous people: They just don’t think government is an effective vehicle for their generosity. But there are some things that can only be done by Governments. We can give a homeless person a meal: we can’t get him a job. Similarly, if we are serious about helping Africa / South America/ Asia, the federal government must play a large role. Private charities tend to be inefficient and piecemeal. Liberals should support “Golden Rule” programs because they are the right thing to do, and also because it will raise their standing with Evangelicals and the religious.

"employer of last resort": guaranteed, sub-minimum wage, above the poverty line, 50 hr a week job;

foreign aid, nation-building, One percent of GDP: Extensive supporting quotes from "the Sermon on the Mount")

education, equal-opportunity programs in general for the poor

opportunity for US servicemen & women to volunteer for humanitarian military interventions (e.g. Rwanda) Right now there is no such volunteer program in place because the military feels it might hurt cohesion.

No state lotteries: gambling is a sin, and government should not be encouraging (or outlawing) sin, even if gambling is a relatively harmless vice in small doses. Our children should go to school on clean tax dollars, not gambling money.


Using conventional labels:

liberal on the war on drugs, fiscal policy, health care, private sector unions, non-violent crime

maverick on welfare, education, tort reform, death penalty, regulatory reform, campaign finance reform

conservative on violent crime