Smug Centrists' Self-Satisfied Sanctimony Seems Sad, See?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Sunday, the editorial board of The Washington Post asked what they surely thought was an utterly reasonable question: "There’s an effective and progressive solution for climate change. Why won’t Democrats embrace it?"  The "effective and progressive solution" that enthralls them is a carbon tax.  The lack of self-awareness revealed by their question made my jaw drop.

These editors, after all, are the very same people who have spent the last year or so gleefully joining in on the baseless attacks on Medicare-for-All by saying that such plans would "raise taxes."  As my most recent Verdict column (and, to a lesser extent, my most recent Dorf on Law piece) explained at great length, this is utterly bonkers.  Whatever else one thinks about Medicare-for-All or about Senator Elizabeth Warren, she is absolutely right that the labeling debate about health care costs is a political trap.

Why? As I said last week: "[S]he knows that every news outlet would play only the first five words of her saying: 'My plan will raise taxes but would reduce other costs by more than that.'"  Which The Post's editors certainly would have done.  Their dismissal all but writes itself: "Even Warren finally admits: 'My plan will raise taxes,' effectively killing her campaign.  We told you so!"

But now those editors wring their hands, wondering why no Democrat will embrace "an effective and progressive solution for climate change" merely because it is a tax.  Why, they ask themselves, would those Democrats be such cowards?

The lesson here is not merely found in the clueless hypocrisy of the "Just admit it's a tax, Liz!" crowd.  It goes much deeper into the problem underlying the entire centrist approach to Democratic politics, which is becoming more and more difficult to stomach.

To back up a step, we need to take a few moments to discuss carbon taxes to understand why they are relevant to the whole left-versus-center struggle in the Democratic Party.  Roughly speaking, as I described earlier this year, neoliberalism is a policy approach that accepts the standard efficiency-obsessed economic approach and tries to prove that one can get left-ish policy implications out of it.

To be clear, this is not necessarily or obviously a bad strategy.  To take an example from a very different policy area, conservatives love to attack social welfare programs based on various racist tropes about laziness and dependency.  Ronald Reagan hammered on the idea that "strapping young bucks" (by which he invoked the specter of shiftless minorities) were refusing to work because of welfare payments, and in particular, there was the worry that government support for children of unemployed parents would give those parents no reason to work.

Hence, conservatives decided that mothers and children could not  receive welfare payments if there was an able-bodied man in the house.  This, of course, gives men who are able-bodied but still unable to work an economic incentive to leave the household.  If that happens, then the policy would be inefficient in the sense that it  causes people to change their behavior compared to what they otherwise would have done.  "Why distort people's decisions?" is a standard efficiency-based question.

So a neoliberal response to that problem would be to say that we can be more efficient if we do the more "liberal" thing, which is actually to provide income supports for people who cannot find work, even if they are able-bodied.  Which, I admit, is a satisfying twist on efficiency analysis.  Doing this, however, can in turn reinforce all kinds of illiberal assumptions, which are too complicated to discuss here.  Still, it is all too tempting to say, "See, even following the logic of your analysis leads to a liberal result!"

Similarly, in the debates over environmental policy, neoliberals gave all kinds of intellectual ground to conservatives by agreeing that carbon taxes were more efficient than "command and control" regulations.  Why?  Because (as The Post's editorial briefly reminds us) a tax will give businesses the "freedom" to decide how best to reduce their carbon output, rather than simply complying with (or evading) specific pollution regulations.

And there truly is an appealing logic to that.  There is nothing "liberal" about command-and-control regulation, after all, so if we could set up a policy that allows more flexibility in compliance, why not adopt it?  The problem, however, is in then lauding the genius of "market-based policies" as if there is no government command or control in deciding what gets taxed, how large the taxes are, how the tax is enforced, and so on.  Conservatives, who hate taxes, can then talk about setting up efficient markets to trade pollution credits, again ignoring the fact that those credits are entirely set up by government fiat and administrative line-drawing.

Again, I have nothing against carbon taxes, and if I were choosing from among various anti-pollution policies, I might use various tax policies as part -- perhaps even a large part -- of my plan.  The point here is that neoliberals have been acting for decades as if they can induce conservatives to engage in a reasonable conversation about anti-pollution measures by adopting the language of anti-government crusaders, agreeing that supposedly heavy-handed regulation is worse than supposedly enlightened market-based policies.

Has anyone noticed how well that has worked to convince Republicans to adopt "effective and progressive" policies to fight environmental change?  Neither have I.  Instead, Republicans have simply moved ever further to the right, now denying that there are any reasons to worry about climate change and deriding all environmentalism as being based on Big Government and taxation.

As I noted above, this has now bitten one of the biggest cheerleading squads for supposedly sensible centrism -- the editors of The Post -- on their collective heinie.  "But gee, we were so reasonable about agreeing to use freedom-based market solutions like carbon taxes.  Why are Democrats afraid to propose them?"  The answer, of course, is that neoliberals who are perfectly willing to demagogue progressive ideas like Medicare-for-All have made it impossible for Democrats to be seen as tax-lovers under any circumstances.

Which brings us to the broader intramural debate about centrism and progessivism.  Post columnist Helaine Olen on Tuesday pointed out the absurdity of the centrists' smug attacks on Warren, especially Senator Amy Klobuchar's dismissal of Warren's plans as "pipe dreams."  (Somehow, Klobuchar has gotten a lot of positive press because of that comment in last week's Democratic presidential non-debate.)

Responding to the idea -- the idea that is centrist heartthrob Joe Biden's core argument for his candidacy -- that moderate centrism among Democrats will lead to solutions, whereas principled progressivism will lead to stasis, Olen wrote: "All of this is the definition of wish fulfillment as politics.  Think of it as fantasy politics for moderates."

Think of it this way.  Republicans simply refused to deal with Barack Obama (and Biden) for eight years.  Every single one of the candidates now running for president on the Democratic side is notably to the left of Obama (as are voters).  Meanwhile, Republicans have moved much farther to the right in the years since Obama left office.  Somehow it is going to get better if Democrats elect a person with a policy agenda that by design excites nobody and promises, at best, minimal and incremental change?

For years, Paul Krugman has been deriding this idea, calling it (among other colorful names) "fanatical centrism."  Rarely, however, is it quite as obvious that the fanatical centrists have no idea what damage their own rhetoric is doing as it is here.  "Don't do that, it means higher TAXES!"  "Do that, because TAXES are market-friendly and efficient.  Hey, where are you going?  I'm making sense here ... "

It would be funny if it were not doing so much damage.