Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Audacity of Idealism - Great Week for Progressives

Progressives and idealists are pinching themselves after President Barack Obama's joint Address to Congress on Tuesday and the release of his ten-year budget on Thursday.

In his Tuesday Address he outlined the plans to view the nation's economic woes as reason to raise its sights, calling for bold new efforts to improve healthcare, education and energy policy.

"The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach," he said. "They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on earth.... What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more....

"We have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.... And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

"Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is now. Now is the time to act boldly and wisely, to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jump-start job creation, restart lending, and invest in areas like energy, healthcare and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down."

Then on Thursday Obama's budget backed it up with numbers explaining how all of this can be accomplished. As Paul Krugman said in his column in yesterday's Times, "these new priorities are laid out in a document whose clarity and plausibility seem almost incredible to those of us who grew accustomed to reading Bush-era budgets, which insulted our intelligence on every page. This is budgeting we can believe in. Many will ask whether Mr. Obama can actually pull off the deficit reduction he promises. Can he actually reduce the red ink from $1.75 trillion this year to less than a third as much in 2013? Yes, he can.... [T]his budget looks very, very good."

And David Brooks, while more reserved in his overall assessment, commented, "Obama’s budget is far more honest than the ones that preceded it. It imposes real pay-as-you-go rules on future outlays. Intellectually serious efforts are made to pay for at least half of the cost of health care reform."

Yeah, yeah, yeah.... the plan raises annual deficits to their highest levels (as percentage of gross domestic product) since WWII, but the fact is that there's a responsible plan in place, as compared to the voodoo-economics of the Bush years, which turned a solid annual surplus in 2000 into record deficits by 2008. It will pay for itself, for example, by increasing taxes on rich individuals and polluting industries, and reducing war costs as well as subsidies on farm payments and the like. (Friday's worse-than-expected 4th quarter report from the Commerce Department that the economy contracted at 6.2 percent rather than the projected 3.8 percent gives sobering pause on the sheer scope the challenges facing these plans; and means that the administration will need to make adjustments.)

The Progressive's response to all of this: it's about damn time. For too long the country has suffered at the hands of people who justify smaller government under the perverse logic of screwing everything up and then using their incompetence at governing as justification for doing nothing. "See how government doesn't work?" they ask.

It's not about big government as an end in itself for the progressive libertarian, as readers of this page will recall; rather it's about government actually helping where it is properly equipped to help, but then staying out of the way in areas where it has no business - like matters of individual free-will and self-determination.

So far, the first six weeks of the Obama administration has come closer than any administration in several generations to realizing this appropriate balance between responsible progressive governmental activism on one hand, and libertarian governmental respect for individual freedom on the other.

In our constitutional system, some things (individual liberty) are non-negotiable; while others (economic policy) are properly delegated to the political process. In November 2008, the Progressive policy vision won. Now let's GO.