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Progressives need to embrace progress
Stasis won't lead to a prosperous or equitable society.
I don’t think many people really care about living up to the letter of their movement’s name. If you ask conservatives why they don’t want to conserve nature, or pro-lifers why they favor the death penalty, it’s not going to force them to do a deep rethink of their value system. So I don’t expect progressives to lose sleep if I tell them that some of their cherished beliefs and policy approaches stand in the way of “progress”; they’ll just assume I’m using a different definition.
But the problems are deeper than semantics. Many current progressive approaches are detrimental to progress not as others would define it, but as many progressives themselves would. Whether it’s a social safety net, green energy, or affordable housing, progressives are often committed to a set of procedures and methods that end up being detrimental to their goals. And yet these procedures and methods are rarely questioned, because they weren’t planned but accumulated over time — sometimes in response to pressures from specific interest groups, sometimes as compromises with the political constraints of the past, sometimes for reasons unknown. But whatever the reason, it’s increasingly clear that many progressive approaches will simply not “get ‘er done”. And this puts the entire modern progressive project in danger of frustration and failure.
So let’s talk about some of these problematic approaches.
They used to say that money is just little green slips of paper. Well, now money isn’t even that; it’s just numbers in a ledger. Those numbers sometimes have the power to motivate human beings to produce real tangible things — if you pay construction workers to build a building, then now you have a building. But the numbers don’t inherently produce more stuff — simply writing down the words “Green energy gets $400 billion” does not actually specify the number of kilowatt-hours of power that become available to consumers.
In a frustrated post last month, I talked about how the unprecedented spending in the Inflation Reduction Act is having trouble creating actual green energy, because local communities are holding up solar and wind projects and transmission lines using environmental review laws (NEPA) and various other veto points. The entire push for green energy is now in danger of failing, because progressives focused entirely on writing the checks and not on creating the institutional capacity necessary for translating those checks into physical goods. The IRA is now threatening to go the way of California’s High Speed Rail project, a progressive dream that received its first big checks 14 years ago, and yet which has yet to produce a single mile of usable train line.
I’ve been mentally using the word “checkism” to describe the progressive belief that all we need is the political will to write bigger checks. Checkism is clearly on display with California HSR, whose estimated cost has ballooned to over $128 billion thanks to the same real-world obstacles that have held up its construction. This has not prompted calls for revising our institutions in order to make construction cheaper and easier and quicker; instead, progressives have simply called for more “investment”, i.e. writing bigger checks.
Meanwhile, influential progressives like the people at the Roosevelt Institute — a think tank that anecdotally wields great influence in the Biden Administration — continue to defend the existing permitting process:
This “clear consensus” exists only within an echo chamber. Jerusalem Demsas recently wrote a scathing story in the Atlantic explaining how NEPA has been used to challenge refugee programs, protect oil drilling, and protect exclusionary zoning. NEPA has also been used to block congestion pricing in NYC. In fact, there are reams of examples of how NEPA has been weaponized against progressive priority after progressive priority. But admitting the need for NEPA reform and other institutional reforms violates the story that all we need is more political will and bigger checks.
Checkism also manifests in many progressives’ conviction that skilled labor shortages can’t exist. One of the Biden administration’s big priorities is reshoring American industry, and it has written big checks to build semiconductor fabs in the U.S. Those fabs are, of course, being held up by NEPA and other red tape. But the new fab projects are also struggling to find qualified workers, because America does so little semiconductor manufacturing that not many Americans know how to work in a fab. One commonly proposed solution is for companies to just raise wages — i.e., cut bigger checks. But wage hikes do not create skills out of thin air; even for a smart, educated worker, learning how to operate the incredibly high-tech equipment in a semiconductor fab can take a long time.
The obvious solution to this is skilled immigration. Korea and Taiwan and Malaysia have tons of workers who know how to work in chip fabs, and higher American salaries mean we could easily just bring them over tomorrow. Instead, the administration has chosen to focus on training programs, which will take years to complete — and which will struggle without bringing over skilled foreign workers to actually do the training.
Checkism also leads to poor education. San Francisco, for example, recently passed a ballot measure that will give an additional $60 million to its public schools. But those dollars won’t necessarily translate into better-educated kids; audits show that SF schools hire many more administrators per student than other school districts, leaving less of the money for education itself. As a result, SF schools underperform their peers significantly in terms of outcomes — as Darrell Owens recently pointed out, the literacy rate for Black high schoolers in San Francisco is considerably lower than for other California schools.
Again and again, checkism leads to a very predictable and destructive cycle. Progressives finally muster the electoral victories to write big checks for their priorities — green energy, high speed rail, industrial reshoring — and then the physical resources can’t be marshalled due to regulations and procedural requirements that progressives themselves support. Nothing gets built, paper costs balloon, and this prompts progressives to call for even bigger checks to be written. And so on, and so forth.
The problem here isn’t really a waste of resources — few real resources are actually getting used, which is the whole problem. The problem is that progressive goals are not actually being accomplished. We need green energy and high speed rail and semiconductor fabs. These are good and worthy goals! But as a method of attaining these worthy goals, checkism is not fit for purpose.
Stasis subsidies for everyone
NEPA is what I call a “stasis subsidy” — a way of making Americans feel richer by giving them the option to block any changes in their lives. A stasis subsidy has real value to the people who receive it, because it gives them a bit of control over the world around them. It’s also a very easy subsidy to hand out; unlike most welfare programs, you don’t have to actually do anything, you just have to make rules that stop things from being done. The costs are enormous — higher consumer prices, higher rents, lower wages — but they’re hidden costs, which often don’t show up until later, or show up in ways that normal people don’t recognize.
Progressives are, of course, not the only ones who dole out stasis subsidies. Conservatives have used single-family zoning to preserve the “character” of their quiet suburban neighborhoods for many decades, and they still engage in a lot of NIMBYism. Using NEPA to protect oil drilling certainly protects the existing profits of conservative businesspeople, and the existing jobs of people in red states.
But progressives have been all too eager to use stasis subsidies themselves, especially when it comes to housing. To give just one egregious example, the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America recently teamed up with Republicans to block a housing development — much of which would have been “affordable” (i.e., subsidized) — on a golf course.
Demsas explains how this bias towards the status quo ends up harming progressive goals:
Caution and deliberation are good in moderation, but waiting cannot relieve this uncertainty; it merely changes its form. Doing can cause harm, but not doing won’t preserve the world in amber. Neighborhoods in desirable communities that don’t build more housing see skyrocketing prices and demographic shifts toward high-income, white, and older residents. And nations that don’t build the necessary renewable-energy infrastructure will be subject to the very environmental degradation that 20th-century activists tried so hard to prevent.
The unforeseen consequences of blocking change should weigh as heavily as the ones that come from allowing it. Those lost students, missing refugees, absent neighbors, and failed government projects may never intrude on our sight line or cause us frustration during our commutes, but they cost us all the same.
As I said before, simply observing that stasis is the opposite of progress won’t be sufficient to get progressives to think beyond stasis subsidies. Progressives need to realize that this is not the 1970s, and “development” no longer needs to mean a highway through a disadvantaged neighborhood or a chemical factory dumping waste into the local river — it means a solar farm, or an affordable housing project, or a clean high-tech factory that supports a local economy. Stasis subsidies aren’t protecting poor people or the environment anymore; they’re hurting.
The laundry list
The final progressive approach that has started to be self-defeating is the insistence on tying every progressive project to a long-standing list of unrelated priorities. For example, former Obama advisor Steven Rattner recently noted all the riders that are being attached to the CHIPS Act spending:
[T]he success of the Chips and Science Act is threatened by a flotilla of unrelated objectives and unreasonable restrictions that Congress and parts of the administration have attached to the grant-giving process…
Applicants [for government funding] will be evaluated based on their plans to “create opportunities for minority-owned, veteran-owned and women-owned businesses…and commit to using iron, steel, and construction materials produced in the United States.”
The documents also ask for commitments to affordable housing and to investing in K-12 schools and community colleges…Much attention has been paid to the requirement to provide child care for employees…
[Recipients of government funding] should collaborate with “workforce partners” ranging from educational institutions to “workforce development organizations” and create “sectoral partnerships,” whatever that means. And they should detail their “wraparound services to support individuals from underserved and economically disadvantaged communities,” including transportation or housing assistance.
Then there are restrictions on stock buybacks and dividends.
This is essentially a list of a bunch of stuff that progressives want to do that has nothing to do with building semiconductors. Progressives want to provide child care, boost minority-owned businesses, invest in education, and create affordable housing. As well they should. But by tying to force a semiconductor competitiveness bill to accomplish all of these objectives, progressives risk making it impossible to build the very factories the bill is trying to promote. And that benefits no one.
(As for “Buy American” provisions, they’re just foolish; the focus should be on buying from any country that isn’t China.)
Including “workforce partners” also smacks of another longstanding progressive approach — routing government funding through nonprofit organizations. This approach has proven disastrous in San Francisco, where shady nonprofits appropriate most of the public money for themselves, while finding ways around laws against political involvement. Such an approach quickly degenerates into a form of clientelism.
In other words, progressive policy pushes are increasingly weighed down by a sort of free-floating laundry list of policy priorities, interest groups, and nonprofit orgs that ride on the coattails of every bill. A much better way would be to split these priorities off and work on them independently — for example, to fund education and child care without forcing chip factories to do it. The risk of bundling everything with everything is that nothing gets done despite all the dollars spent, and progressives are left futilely calling for yet more funding as disgusted voters turn back to the Republicans.
America has changed, and progressives must change as well
I chalk many of these problematic approaches up to the legacy of a past era, when progressive ideas and interests were in the minority. A century ago, if a big infrastructure project got built, it often displaced Black and Latino communities, who had little voice and were ignored by the mostly White public. Nowadays, however, there’s far more public concern for, and attention to, the needs of disadvantaged minorities. A century ago, factories were engines of pollution, and people who wanted to protect the environment were outnumbered; today, laws mandating clean air and water are much stronger, and most Americans value their local environment much more. A century ago, government was small and under-resourced, so mustering the political will for an expansion of government funding was the key sticking point for progressive campaigns — now, government spending is 42% of the U.S. economy, and big-ticket spending items are at the top of every presidential to-do list.
In other words, today’s progressive ideas and approaches were crafted when the main task of progressivism was protecting the disadvantaged from the depredations of big companies and the tyranny of the majority. Today, however, the sticking point for progressive dreams is usually just a lack of state capacity. Progressives are a bit like an advancing army that’s being held up by a minefield that they themselves laid back when they were in retreat.
In other words, progressives should refocus on the idea of progress — i.e., of actually getting things built and producing progressive outcomes. They should refocus on goals and be flexible on methods, instead of instinctively defaulting to the same old approaches they used in 1996 or 1976.
Update: Ezra Klein has a long and excellent column discussing many of these same issues. Highly recommended.