A Neoliberal Says It’s Time for Neoliberals to Pack It In

My fellow neoliberal shill Brad DeLong has declared that it’s time for us to pass the baton to “our colleagues on the left.” As it happens, I agree with him in practice because I think it’s time for boomers to retire and turn over the reins to Xers and Millennials, who are generally somewhat to the left of us oldsters. Beyond that, though, there’s less here than meets the eye. DeLong says there are three reasons he thinks neoliberals should fade into the background:

  • Political: The original guiding spirit of American neoliberalism was the idea that Democrats had moved too far to the left and gotten punished for it with the election of Ronald Reagan. For years, neoliberals believed that if the party could be moved toward the center, it would be possible to make deals with Republicans that would lead to better governance. Needless to say, that didn’t work: Republicans, it turned out, were simply emboldened to move even further to the right. They showed absolutely no intention of compromising in any way with Democrats.
    But this is old news. Charlie Peters, the godfather of political neoliberalism, conceded it publicly long ago. For at least the past decade, there’s been no reason at all to believe that the current Republican Party would ever compromise with Democrats no matter how moderate their proposals. Anyone who has believed this since George W. Bush was president was deluding themselves. Anyone who has believed it since 2009, when Obamacare was being negotiated, is an idiot. There’s nothing about this that separates neoliberals from anyone else these days.
  • Policy: DeLong suggests that the folks to his left are basically just social democrats like him who “could use a little more education about what is likely to work and what is not.” But with the unfortunate exception of its jihad against organized labor, neoliberals have been social democrats from the start. Bill Clinton tried to pass universal health care, after all, and I think Barack Obama would have done the same if he’d thought there was any chance of passing it.
    So this is nothing new either. The question is, does DeLong intend to go along in areas where his neoliberal ideas are in conflict with the AOC wing of the Democratic Party? He plainly does not.
  • The world has changed: “We learned more about the world. I could be confident in 2005 that [recession] stabilization should be the responsibility of the Federal Reserve. That you look at something like laser-eye surgery or rapid technological progress in hearing aids, you can kind of think that keeping a market in the most innovative parts of health care would be a good thing. So something like an insurance-plus-exchange system would be a good thing to have in America as a whole. It’s much harder to believe in those things now.”
    But has the world really changed? I don’t think so—not yet, anyway. I’ll bet DeLong still believes in these two things, but now understands that Republicans will undermine them at every opportunity. That makes it Job 1 to destroy the current incarnation of the GOP, and the best way to do that is to have unity on the left. But if and when that’s been accomplished, I’ll bet he still thinks the Fed should be primarily in charge of fighting recessions. We just need FOMC members who agree.

At the risk of overanalyzing this, I think DeLong is still a neoliberal and has no intention of sitting back and letting progressives run wild. He has simply changed the target of his coalition building. Instead of compromising to bring in Republicans, he wants to compromise to bring in lefties. Now, this is not nothing: instead of compromising to the right, he now wants to compromise to the left. But I suspect that this simply means DeLong has moved to the left over the past couple of decades, just like lots of liberals.

And this once again circles around to just how progressive mainstream neoliberals are. That is, how progressive are they now, not in 1992. And the answer, I think, is pretty damn progressive. Take a look at what folks like DeLong and Paul Krugman were writing in 2009 during the Great Recession. They wanted a bigger stimulus. They wanted the Fed to support a higher inflation target. They supported cap-and-trade. They supported universal health care but plugged loyally for Obamacare because it was obvious that it was the most they could hope for from the current political system. They wanted to (temporarily) nationalize banks. Etc. There’s not a whole lot of sunlight between neolibs circa 2009 and today’s progressives.

In fact, if there’s a place where I think they (we) have really changed, it may be in our attitude toward the original social democrats in Europe. For many of us, becoming more like Europe was once a goal. But today Britain is moving toward Brexit. Germany has dictated a destructive monetary and fiscal policy for the entire continent. The Nordic countries have moved right and are now basically neoliberal states. The European South—Spain, Italy, Greece—is on life support. Aside from envying their social safety net policies, which were put in place long ago and are now just hanging on via inertia, there is little to look for in Europe. If we want to pave a new political way in America, we’re on our own.