Monday, December 20, 2010


I actually agree with the thrust of this E.J. Dionne column -- though I don't understand the point of the hippie-punching lede, which seems inconsistent with what follows:

The central question in our politics is whether we can break out of formulaic discussions that always end up in the same place. Here's one major test: Can progressives change their way of thinking about business?

I don't know why Dionne is saying that we're the problem, because he immediately after that he describes the situation correctly:

We are already seeing a dreary replay of the old argument. Self-styled centrists say that President Obama has really ticked off business leaders and urgently needs to make nice with them.

Because the president has spoken occasionally about the irresponsibility of Wall Street and the very wealthy, these poor suffering multimillionaires and billionaires have hurt feelings. Obama is being told he needs to feel their pain, to show he truly understands why they are so aggrieved.

Ah, here's his point:

Progressives bristle at this, and why not? Many among the best-off -- particularly on Wall Street -- were grossly irresponsible stewards of the power surrendered to them through deregulation. They wrecked the economy, Obama bailed them out, and most are now richer than ever. Yet they have the arrogance to complain about the president pointing to their misdeeds. Many liberals want Obama to tell the wealthy where they can go.

If this were only about gut reactions, you could count me as a fan of the latter approach....

But we live in a market economy. Businesses create jobs, and a healthy business climate is one key to a healthy society. It's a conclusion that progressives sometimes reach grudgingly....

You know what? We don't want Obama to talk tough. (Actually, as Dionne notes, he's done a bit of that, and it's really meant nothing.) We want lawbreakers and fraudsters of the past decade punished. We want the worst future financial threats to be prevented legislatively. And, while you're up, we'd like a fairer tax code and a little more help for the leaner cats in this country -- the ordinary citizens. Dionne seems to want the same things -- but he inexplicably feels the need to take a swipe at the "angry left" nonetheless. I don't get it.


Now, where is Dionne going with all this? He's saying that, in our past, businesses, or at least some businesses, have been enlightened enough to support reasonable legislation, and we should encourage some of that now:

There have been moments in our history when important elements of business were "progressive" in the sense of recognizing that social reform was in capitalism's long-term interest.

In a seminal 1995 article in the American Prospect about business opposition to President Bill Clinton's health-care reform, the political writer John Judis recalled that during the Progressive Era, "business leaders and organizations played an indispensable role in developing and promoting the social legislation that first blunted the sharp edges of laissez-faire capitalism." Judis's conclusion still rings true: that "without a business community moderately supportive of social reform, little is possible in the present era."

I'm fine with that. I'm an angry lefty, but it wouldn't take all that much to make me less angry. In this financial crisis, I want fat cats to get their boots off ordinary citizens' necks. I want mortgages adjusted. I want the wealthy to back down on support for GOP assaults on Keynesianism. And I want the fat cats to do this because it's in their own self-interest. Don't they want consumers to have money to spend on their products and services? It'll never happen if they don't back the hell down. And you'd think some of them would understand that.

(We should, of course, pause to note that some business leaders may have supported enlightened legislation in the Progressive and New Deal eras because they didn't want angry commie and anarchist workers burning down their factories. A bit of such fear was clearly a good thing, as it might be today.)


That 1995 John Judis article from The American Prospect has some interesting details about the fight over health care reform in the Clinton era, and who the real enemies were. Interestingly, the Chamber of Commerce -- one of the real bad guys right now -- was conciliatory on health care. At least it was for a while. But look who put the screws to the Chamber:

Since the first months of the Clinton administration, conservatives had been complaining bitterly about {Chamber president Richard] Lesher's and [Chamber VP William] Archey's conciliatory posture. They were pilloried by Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and Human Events, and by the 75-member House Conservative Opportunity Society, chaired by Representative John Boehner of Ohio.

Yes, Boehner.

In one meeting, Boehner and the House Republicans in the Conservative Opportunity Society informed Archey and Lesher, according to one participant, that it was "the Chamber's duty to categorically oppose everything that Clinton was in favor of." Republicans refused to attend an awards banquet sponsored by the Chamber. Boehner, Representative Richard Armey of Texas, and Representative Chris Cox of Ohio contacted local and state Chambers to organize opposition to Archey and Patricelli, even urging that local Chambers leave the national organization. A Washington group, the Small Business Survival Committee, sent a letter to the Chamber board of directors signed by former board members protesting the organization's support of employer mandates. Like other Chamber critics, they equated support of mandates with support of the Clinton plan. Conservatives also mobilized talk shows. And House Republicans, determined to undermine the Clinton administration, threatened that if the Chamber persisted in supporting mandates, they would ignore Chamber lobbying on other issues.

It's true now and it was true a generation ago: the worst zealots, the wingnut Revolutionary Guard, the Taliban extremists of the right, were the Republican pols and commentariat. Part of the business community wasn't hardcore enough for these guys. So these businessmen had to be bullied by the GOP.

I'm not arguing that the business community is full of real softies. I'm saying that Dionne and Judis may be right -- there may be people in that community who are capable of understanding that thoroughly crushing ordinary Americans underfoot is not in their enlightened self-interest. And I can't help wondering if there are more such people in the executive suites than in Fox News green rooms.

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