Getting the Whole Loaf and Going for it Now

By Merrill Ring
 
Is political advice, such as that given by Paul Krugman, that we must think and act only in small ways good advice?  Surely not.
 
Several significant fundamental political issues are being explicitly raised in the Democratic primary campaign.  (Nothing like that is happening in the Republican primary.)  Those (connected) issues concern the value of experience versus judgment in an elected official, the importance of continuity versus change (or evolution v revolution) in the public life of the country, whether it is having a vision of what needs to be done or the ability to achieve results that is the crux of political leadership.
 
Paul Krugman has been claiming that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are on the wrong side of at least two of those issues.  Sanders and friends are “idealists” and that is a very bad thing for Krugman. 
 
Politics, according to Krugman and others, is about getting “half a loaf” instead of the idealist’s effort to get “the whole loaf”.
 
Robert Reich has the beginning of a good reply to Krugman.  Krugman’s view assumes that the loaf in question is at least a decent sized one.   But imagine, Reich says, that the whole loaf is small.  Let us think of it as only a French roll.  If so, a half loaf amounts to very little, certainly not enough to sustain body and soul.
 
Reich’s way of filling out Krugman’s analogy needs to be supplemented, to be made less quantitative.  What if the whole loaf is (also?) stale or even moldy?  If we aim only at a half loaf, we would be, according to the picture held up by Krugman as the very essence of good politics, working to achieve half of what none of us would want.
 
To be less analogical, what if the range of allowable ideas in the political arena is narrow and out of date, contain nothing by way of what a vision of a better world and life would be? If we then follow Krugman’s advice, aim at nothing more than a part of what is on the market, we shall be politically crippled.  
 
Good politics starts with examining orthodox ideas about where we are and what is possible.  Krugman knows that about economics – but he is so dedicated to these limited pictures of what politics is about and by a commitment to Hillary Clinton, the he cannot give sensible directions to political action.  Bernie Sanders starts with a critique of our situation and the standard ideas for improving it and then fashions an account of what is needed. Both the critique and the projection of what a significantly better life would be are part of politics too. 
 
Politics is not being a technician, about knowing how to cut the loaf, but is crucially about what kind of thing we are cutting and about having a vision of what is needed.
 
Obama has been notorious for thinking that he could offer a cut loaf to his Republican opponents (offer a compromise) instead of asking for it all and then seeing what they were willing/able to compromise on.  So he ended up getting (at best) a quarter loaf. He has no vision about having a vision nor has Krugman.  Bernie has one.  If he has to compromise in the face of recalcitrant opposition so be it – but you have to start with the ideas, with the vision, with a good wholesome whole loaf.
 
Krugman has also been defending the idea that incrementalism, continuity with small gains, is the way to effect change.  He is mistaken about that too.
 
I have some young friends, with two children under 6, living in Houston.  They badly want to get out of Texas with its noxious moral, intellectual and political ambiance, for their own sake and for the development of the children.  They want to get back to the west coast.

Suppose Krugman were to offer them advice.   “Do not think of moving too far west in one swoop: that’s being idealistic.  You should aim at Dallas – it is westerly but not too far.  Then in maybe 4 or 8 years, if the world cooperates, you can take another westward step – say to Austin.  That way, in the bye and bye, you will make it all the way to your goal, to the blest coast.  And along the way don’t dream too often of where you want to end up – be happy that you are taking steps in the right direction. It is still Texas you will be in but, hey, you can’t have everything in one move.  Imagining that you can is baloney idealism.”
 
So if you are in a bad place and can conceive of a good place, don’t try to get there in one step – small increments ar the way to go.
 
There is an important distinction that must be kept in mind here.  To have as a policy taking only small steps is one thing, a bad one.  It is like telling the alcoholic to cut back one drink at a time and to be pleased that she/he is making progress:  some day you will be on the wagon.  That is not the same as an intelligent piece of advice:  reminding those who proposed changes that there will be opposition, that not all your goals are going to accomplished smoothly.  That is not advice about how to act, that is not policy advice: it is good advice about what to expect on the way.
 
Krugman is not offering a reminder of the difficulties of achieving your aims – the policy of incrementalism is not an external hindrance: it erects prior limitations upon how to act.
 
Bernie Sanders is not an idealist:  he knows perfectly well that there are huge roadblocks to pulling off what he is advocating.  He knows perfectly well, and says, that he can’t accomplish those aims by himself.  It will require a “revolution” – that is, a massive effort on the part of the citizens of this country will be necessary to break the power of the 1%.  That is not idealism (unless you are a deep pessimist and think that the power of the elite is so entrenched and overwhelming that it cannot be broken.)