Sunday, March 12, 2006

Between Progress and Liberty

"Politicians have stopped promising to fulfill our dreams, and now can promise only to protect us from our nightmares."

"I’m a Jewish feminist lesbian with democratic-socialist leanings who has been in and organized her fair share of protests– but I couldn’t agree more. I am so over conventional, organized protesting. No one cares about them. Especially marching on Washington– a total waste of time and resources. It doesn’t shame or surprise anyone, Bush and his people don’t care if there are 1 million or 20 million people camped out on the mall."

A recent post by Oliver Willis seeks to establish a seven-point mainfesto for progressivism. It's a noble attempt to set a clear brand identity for what has become a positive label for 'center-left/left' policy, with a pro-capitalist connotation that recognizes the change in the left due to the re-alignment towards market forces in the collapse of state-controlled economics. Problem is, to paraphrase recent comments by Jon Stewart, 'we have to first agree what reality is'. Likewise, progressivism has a very populist appeal, but that is because the issue is always stated in the most broad terms. When individual issues are open to debate as to their inclusion, progressives can get fractioned off due to their membership in other identity groups. Thus environmentalists are very easy to not only shave off of a progressive coalition, but can then be recuited to excerbate the total meltdown of such a tenous entity through their anger at the 'loss of ideals'. Progress for our Green implies fewer factories and cleaner air, while for our Objectivist libertarian, that progress means less jobs and fewer liberties to conduct commerce.

The two main opponents of progressivism are conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatives, by definition, advocate tradition and the status quo. They are skeptical of notions of "progress" and social change - in any direction - believing that it is best to retain social relations that have been proven stable by past experience. Libertarians, on the other hand, advocate their own brand of radical social change, which is in many ways opposed to the kind of change advocated by progressives. For this reason, libertarians claim that they are the true promoters of progress, and that the policies of progressivism are actually "regressive". A notable supporter of this view is Brink Lindsey, an economist working with the Cato Institute. Lindsey believes that by terming themselves progressives, liberals and social democrats have put a positive spin on what he claims to be regressive economic tendencies. Being a libertarian, he argues in favor of free market capitalism and believes that progressive economic policies (such as minimum wages, income taxes, payroll taxes, most social saftey nets and trade barriers) help to increase unemployment among the poor and unskilled, as well as increase costs for all members of society.

Progressives counter that free market capitalism can be demonstrated to be regressive due to negative social consequences caused by its rejection or mitigation of labor policies to improve corporate efficiency, and the fact that it is often at odds with fair trade and other movements that argue for labor rights and social justice in international relations and economics. They further believe that the kind of policies advocated by libertarians like Brink Lindsey would and have created severe poverty, widened the gap between rich and poor and allowed those who are already rich to gain an excessively high amount of both wealth and power over the rest of society.

Progress means different things for different people. Some would go so far as to take progress to include repressive and reactionary policies and institutions which get the label progressive merely because they are novel or original packagings. The move from liberal to progressive seems to conservatives to be calculated, although this argument relies on an apparent double standard in the conscious branding. Republican commenters wish to tar the idealism of progressive by saying they are just liberals in new clothing, having already so succesfully demonized liberals this both serves as guilt-by-association and a backhanded appeal to 'true' liberals to forsake these new impostors to their philosophy.

This relies implicitly on the concept of psychic income,as from this excerpt from Crashing the Gate by Markos of DailyKos and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD:
Without a doubt, there is very little mentorship in progressive organizations, because the money and the attitude are both lacking. They treat employees as though they should be happy to work in something "meaningful," even if it means living in poverty. There is an institutional hostility toward paying professionals--activists, writers, researchers, organizers, PR staffers, fundraisers, and so on--market rates for their work.

"Even the sweetest, most progressive family foundations do not want to pay for salaries," said Amy Kiser, development director for the nonprofit Ecology Center in Berkeley, California. "There is a preference for all-volunteer projects, and I'm guessing that speaks to some sort of purity."

The Right has no such attitudes. Many of the leaders come from the business world and understand the power of money to motivate and focus people. Rob Stein estimates that of the top eighty organizations he has studied in the VRWC, there are about 2,000 conservative leaders earning between $75,000 and $200,000. The Leadership Institute's Blackwell made $187,433 in salary in 2004, his top five lieutenants clocked in between $88,066 and $130,744. At Focus on the Family, the top five compensated employees earned between$78,411 and $106,856 in 2004. The pay is good, ensuring they keep their brightest and best, and creates a draw for talent from outside the conservative movement. No one ever failed to pay their rent or gave up eating out because they worked at a conservative organization.

On our side, we face a steady stream of defections to the private sector where the pay is far better. As Napoleon said, an army travels on its stomach, a lesson progressive leaders have yet to learn. We train them young, teach them the ropes, and as they reach the age where they could take a more active leadership role in the movement, they decide they can't live with six roommates, default on their student loans, and eat Ramen noodles for dinner every night. They decide they want things like a car in good working order, they want to own a home, and they want to feel that their efforts are properly compensated. And the low pay also fails to lure committed people from the private sector. "People want to get out of the private sector and do work for them that feels karmically good to them," said Kiser. "But when they see how much it pays they are shocked. It keeps them out."

One of the big ironies is that progressive funders--who bear much of the fault for encouraging slave wages in progressive organizations--often run their own businesses or invest in for-profit ventures. And they would never treat their own employees in that manner. "I think that what's happened is that donors have developed two different brains," [major party donor and venture capitalist] Andy Rappaport explained to us when we met him in Redwood City, California, in August 2005. "There's our business brain, which holds our kind of rational, no-nonsense `This is how I earn my living, this is the way the world works' kind of stuff. And then there's our touchy-feely brain that deals with all of the social and political--and I think this is truer for the left than for the right, obviously. Progressive donors hold nonprofits to different standards and they don't naturally think about the application of things that many of us have learned in our for-profit endeavors to nonprofits.


Deborah Rappaport doesn't buy the notion of "psychic income"-- that good work is its own reward. "Everybody's looking to try to figure out what the lessons are to learn from the past forty years of the Republican Party, which I think in a lot of senses is a fool's errand at this point," she said. "But one of the things that I think we can learn is the professionalization of the organizations and the workers in those organizations. It's not just `Because you're doing good work, you should get psychic income.' It's `We value it, we respect it, we have high expectations of you and therefore we're going to compensate you appropriately.'"

Still, there is hostility from other progressives when they believe a liberal makes too much money, as if somehow that compromises the substance of his or her work. In reality, people should be properly compensated for their hard work. It's how we'll retain our top talent.

The Right doesn't have those problems, and as a result they have their best activists working on their issues. As long as progressives fail to grasp that simple lesson, we will continue losing our top people to the private sector, leaving the activist corps manned mostly by underappreciated, inexperienced, young liberals.

That the latter goal has been rather covert is a tribute to how caricatures of other people's psychology can lead to interesting misestimations of their beliefs and actions: conservatives, saturated with reports of liberal outrages and after absorbing and formulating responses to the most extreme of the other side's arguments, must think that liberals are all morally relative socialists. We all get so riled up arguing over intentions that no one keeps the issue on performance. So to those considering themselves liberals, conservatives say, do you want to be as dishonest as we are in talking about regulating abortion when we really want to ban it, or are you going to hide behind this new 'progressive' label when really you are all flag-burning, gay-marrying abortionists? This why-not-be-honest? hypocritical bullshit relies on the cliched but very real liberal guilt to work.

It is similar to the historically ignorant arguments that tar all modern-day liberals with comparision to the most extreme of Stalinist sympathizers and apologetics. Thus Truman and FDR can be both facists and socialists in their eyes.

So how does progressivism differ from liberalism, if we consider that the two are not one and the same by any means. Progress must be uniquely within the context of the present, thus progressive policies cannot just be retreads of old liberal ideas, even though they may no doubt contain some parts and will be portrayed as falling within a percived tradition of liberal social engineering no matter what their original political origins.

Let's look at Willis' seven points (paraphrased):
1. It's either forward with progress or trying to stand still and wish you could go backwards
2. America has a tradition of expanding liberties becuase of its ideals
3. The wealth of nations and their citizens depends on the freedom to innovate
4. Protest is not persuasion and we as a nation should not repeat past mistakes in national military strategy.
5. Equality in political rights is still a goal of progress and not an achievement
6. Regressive tendencies within the progressive movement must be guarded againest and excluded
7. and then the slogan: protect improve unite with examples.

So far this is as one commenter put it: Oliver’s post is the equivalent of saying you are for Mom and Apple Pie. You can’t argue against it, but it also does nothing to help you actually MAKE an apple pie, or help tell you how to be a good mom. So here's some specific policy prescriptions:

  • Removal of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, which speaks for itself
  • Decriminalization of cannabis and reform of repressive drug laws which look antique in the 9-11 era yet have become a loophole for paramilitary tactics in law enforcement.
  • Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants that work here and help our industry, rather than a punitive policy which tries to restrict labor and punish businesses and families.

On all these things, progressives and libertarians can find common ground. More or less laws, in and of itself is not progress.

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