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Pro-Growth Progressives and 2008

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 9, 2005 12:00 AM

I got a copy of Gene Sperling's new book, The Pro-Growth Progressive: An Economic Strategy for Shared Prosperity the other day, and I couldn't help but think: "The pro-growth progressive? Let's hope that we have more than one!"

That's not really fair, of course -- the anti-growth forces have been around for a while. In fact, a passage from Sperling's book makes that clear:

 

On the morning of November 18, 1999, I was holed up in a hotel room with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, Commerce Secretary William Daley, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and Senior Advisor Karen Tramontano, staring out at throngs of angry protesters. After several hours we were escorted to special armored cars and driven to the back entrance of the nearby conference center. We weren't in a foreign nation in the midst of a coup. We were in Seattle for the opening session of a World Trade Organization meeting to launch a new round of global trade negotiations. Left-of-center activists were protesting the policies of a left-of-center president during one of the greatest economic booms of the twentieth century.

 

I remember that well, though some of today's news media -- who spun similar protests over the latest round of trade talks as evidence of Bush's unpopularity, rather than the persistence of anti-growth sentiments among some segments of the left -- seem to have forgotten it. Still we're hearing more from the anti-growth people, because there hasn't been much response from the pro-growth left. And it's not just international trade. As Ryan Sager recently observed:

 

In the closing minutes of the new documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," triumphant activists proudly point to vacant lots in their various communities. Their message: They were going to build a Wal-Mart here, but we stopped it.

 

Vacant lots. What a victory.

 

And what a perfect symbol of what's wrong not just with the anti-Wal-Mart ideologues, but the whole anti-development, anti-globalization, anti-everything left.

 

Sperling understands this, and that's why Sperling's book is so important. It represents an effort to reclaim political and intellectual ground from the rather negative group that has dominated domestic political discussion on the left in recent years.

 

And Sperling's credentials are rather strong: As President Clinton's National Economic Advisor and head of the National Economic Council, he had a lot to do with crafting the Clinton Administration's economic policies, which compare rather favorably with those of the previous Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter seems to be gaining in popularity among Democratic activists these days, which bodes poorly for the party's future.

 

Republicans might be tempted to root against Sperling here. To the extent that the activist left tugs the Democratic Party into Jimmy Carterland, that's probably good for the GOP's chances in 2006 and especially 2008. But the fact remains: Sooner or later, the Democrats will win the White House, and/or a majority in Congress, and when they do it will matter a lot whether they're promulgating the economic policies of Bill Clinton, or the economic policies of Jimmy Carter -- or Michael Moore. For the good of the country, Republicans should be rooting for Sperling, not against him.

 

That's not to say that I agree with all of Sperling's proposals. Universal preschool, for example, seems like a dubious proposal to me -- and there's some evidence that it might even be bad for kids, at least middle-class and upper-income kids. And I tend to favor Social Security privatization, on the basis that giving people control of their own money is generally a good thing. You can argue about these kinds of things, but in a way that's the point. You can have a sensible economic argument with the Gene Sperlings and Robert Rubins of the world. It's not so easy to do that where the more radical folks are concerned.

 

And Sperling gets the big picture right:

 

When pro-growth progressives take seriously the law of unintended consequences and the potential for silent trade-offs, a common theme often emerges: empowering people directly rather than trying to protect them by restricting or impeding markets.

 

We need more Democrats who understand that. I wish him success. So should you.

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