What kind of economy?

The first in a series from The Nation: an article by James K Galbraith, toward a new progressive economic agenda.

In a debate over the Democratic future, no one should confuse the Hamilton Project with the Republican past. Robert Rubin and his associates have invited a broad dialogue on economic inequality and strategic investment, and on many specific policy questions–including education, health, taxes and wages–they will define the high-profile, wholly respectable neo-Clintonian position in the season ahead. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But these advances come at a price, which will be exacted in two areas: the world trading system and domestic fiscal policy. Both of these are far more fundamental to the Hamilton mission than any particular social policy reform. Indeed, one purpose of the Hamilton Project, it seems clear, is to propose just enough creative social advances–such as wage insurance, better teacher pay and healthcare reform–so as to divert discussion from the bedrock commitments to free trade and a balanced budget.

Progressives shouldn’t let this happen. And yet we have our own work to do: Our trade position is obsolete, and there is for now no clear progressive fiscal policy. We need to be talking trade and budgets, not simply because they are too important to bargain away, and not just to contest Rubin’s worldview, but to build one of our own that is realistic, compelling and also serves larger purposes, including environmental survival and social justice.

Deficit-fetishism also bolsters the perennial campaign to cut the Social Security system, now taken up by the alarmist David Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, and by Ben Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve System. Here the Hamilton Project strategy document is extremely reticent–it barely mentions Social Security by name. But it is riddled with code words about the long-term “entitlement problem,” which, it avers, can be solved only by a “bipartisan commission” acting on well-known options, behind closed doors. This is not reassuring.

In fact, Social Security is in better financial shape than ever, holding vast stocks of Treasury bonds on which interest can and will be paid. No economic or budget imperative requires that Social Security be cut, now or later. In private discussion Hamilton leaders let on that they understand this. But they are prepared, nevertheless, to include Social Security cuts–pension cuts for America’s elderly, many of whom would otherwise be poor–in some sort of grand deficit bargain. Progressives must be absolutely categorical in rejecting any such deal.

Healthcare costs are a big problem. But they are a problem affecting both public and private healthcare, not Medicare and Medicaid alone. And it’s highly unlikely that the problem of rising healthcare costs will extend to the point projected by Bernanke and Walker, who imply that healthcare will absorb one-third of the GDP within a generation–two or three times as much as in any other country. If that happens, as Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has pointed out, we could cost-effectively contract out medical care to the Canadians and the French.

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