Calling Oneself a Liberal or a Conservative when One is Not

by Merrill Ring (with help from Andrew Bachevich and Andy Winnick)

The political label a person assigns to themselves is not always an accurate identification of what their views are.

A couple of issues ago, I wrote a piece arguing that Governor Jerry Brown, usually thought of as a liberal is, in fact a conservative.  Here it is:

The Conservative Governor of California:  When asked about The Healthy California Act (SB 562), a bill that proposes that California have its own single payer health care system, Governor Jerry Brown’s answer was “Where do you get the extra money?  This is the whole question.”

Now that is the answer of a genuine conservative:  the “whole question” has to do with money, with how one pays for a proposed project.  There is no question at all about whether it is a good proposal or a needed project.  There is no point to discussing issues about the excellence of the proposal until the money question is settled.

That is what a true conservative is:  someone who asks of a progressive policy how it is to be paid for.

Asking that question is the function of conservatives in a political system.

So-called conservatives get themselves and the country into serious trouble when they start having ideas themselves.  There are very few real conservatives left running around out there.  But Jerry Brown is one.  

This time I want to reverse the labelling:  the outstanding historian and commentator, Andrew Bachevich, says that he is a conservative.  There are, however, strong reasons for thinking of him as a liberal, a progressive one at that.

In a recent piece at Tom’s Dispatch entitled ‘The Great Hysteria’, Bachevich (in addition to much else) sets out 10 recommendations for current political action.  Eight of those are certainly items that any and every progressive organization and thinker would agree with (a few details aside.)  One might even think of his presentation as central piece of someone’s Progressive Manifesto.  Below are the 8 – the other two (numbers 4 and 10 in his ordering) will be discussed later.

First, abolish the Electoral College. Doing so will preclude any further occurrence of the circumstances that twice in recent decades cast doubt on the outcome of national elections and thereby did far more than any foreign interference to undermine the legitimacy of American politics.

Second, rollback gerrymandering. Doing so will help restore competitive elections and make incumbency more tenuous.

Third, limit the impact of corporate money on elections at all levels, if need be by amending the Constitution.

Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby eliminating the all-volunteer military and restoring the tradition of the citizen-soldier. Doing so will help close the gap between the military and society and enrich the prevailing conception of citizenship. It might even encourage members of Congress to think twice before signing off on wars that the commander in chief wants to fight.

Sixth, enact tax policies that will promote greater income equality.

Seventh, increase public funding for public higher education, thereby ensuring that college remains an option for those who are not well-to-do.

Eighth, beyond mere “job” creation, attend to the growing challenges of providing meaningful work—employment that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative—for those without advanced STEM degrees.

Ninth, end the thumb-twiddling on climate change and start treating it as the first-order national-security priority that it is.

Why would Bachevich make those recommendations and think of himself as not a progressive but as a conservative?  My  guess: it is probably because he regards such steps as clearing the crap of the past out of the way rather than regarding  those changes as the creation of something new, a step into the future.

Now for the two recommendations that do not fit into a progressive action program.

Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter.

That proposal is definitely not included in any progressive plan.  And for good reasons.  Andy Winnick, has an economists’s response to it, a response that is part of the progressive outlook.

I agree with all but the balanced budget.  Everyone finally really needs to understand that issue is total bullshit.  It is wrong headed and economic nonsense.  It is the equivalent of saying that all home mortgages should be abolished and everyone required to pay for their homes and cars with cash.  Nonsense!  If the asset will provide service for 5 years or 30 years or whatever, then paying for it over that period makes perfect economic sense.  Building infrastructure at the national or state level from current revenue is simply economic foolishness and would lead to totally inadequate levels of spending for everything. Which is the hidden goal.

Try asking any corporation to survive and plan using only cash flow - they would say it would lead to total economic collapse.  They should build a new factory with a projected productive life span of decades from current annual net income - they would say this would be nuts, and it would be.  They say this about the government only when their agenda is to simply find a way to have smaller government, lower taxes and because they do not give a damn about providing necessary public services.

Besides which, government bonds are a necessity in our financial system.  They are a liquid and safe place to hold reserves and every bank, insurance company, pension fund, etc. wants to hold some government bonds.  If we did not have them, we would have to invent the equivalent.  And not just in the U.S., but as part of the reserves of the entire global financial system.  And these bonds are the vehicle for government borrowing.

Why is it better to say to people, we demand that you pay taxes under penalty of going to jail, but it is terrible if the government says to people, won't you please voluntarily loan your government some money at some reasonable interest rate so we can build x,y, or z.  There are some distributional issues re the interest payments, etc. - but trying to abolish the idea of government debt is simply economic foolishness.

Winnick, however, treats Bachevich’s reasoning as if the proposal by (say) Paul Ryan.  “would lead to totally inadequate levels of spending.  Which is the hidden goal… their agenda is to simply find a way to have smaller government, lower taxes and because they no not give a damn about providing necessary public services.”

Bachevich is more subtle than that. Notice his explanation for recommending a balanced budget:  “thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter.”  The balanced budget is his idea of a mechanism for bringing under control not social spending (the butter) but military spending and thereby the vast military machine that we have created (the guns).  Ryan and the standard conservative wants to restrict spending on social justice but leave the military budget to as large as traffic will bear. Bachevich has the conservative desire to restrict spending but he has a progressive aim in mind. 

He is certainly mistaken that the recommended mechanism for achieving a progressive aim is, as Winnick makes clear, a very bad idea – and he is no doubt naïve to think that that if Americans were forced to choose between guns and butter, that we would agree to choose the butter – your garden variety conservative would not.  Bachevich may think of himself as a conservative because he seizes upon a conservative means but his end is progressive.

The final recommendation is something that progressives are not in agreement.

Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.

Some on the progressive left agree with that proposal – others do not, as they think that it is not likely to achieve the goals that Bachevich mentions, quite progressive goals at that.  On the other hand, this proposal is not part of the conservative game plan:  for instance, the Tea Party did not try to start a new party but to seize control from the inside of the Republican party. 

In the end, there is nothing that Bachevich says that qualifies him as a conservative although he identifies himself as such.   It is curious how one can mis-identify oneself.