Hamiltonian Democrats

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's come to this: The chief project to restate Democratic economics for our time was unveiled a couple of weeks ago, and it's named after the father of American conservatism, Alexander Hamilton.

Necessarily, the authors of the Hamilton Project preface their declaration with an attempt, not altogether successful, to reclaim Hamilton from the right. The nation's first secretary of the Treasury, they note, "stood for sound fiscal policy, believed that broad-based opportunity for advancement would drive American economic growth, and recognized that 'prudent aids and encouragements on the part of government' are necessary to enhance and guide market forces."

Which is true, as far as it goes. Hamilton believed in balanced budgets and in the government's taking an active role to build the infrastructure and fiscal climate that business and the nation need to succeed -- ideas as alien to the current administration as support for collective farms. But Hamilton also feared the common people, dismissed their capacity for self-government and supported rule by elites instead.

That might be enough to deter most Democrats from naming their firstborn economic revitalization scheme after him, but the authors of the Hamilton Project are made of sterner stuff. They include Peter Orszag, an estimable Brookings Institution economist; investment banker Roger Altman, formerly of the Clinton Treasury department; and, chiefly, former Treasury secretary and current Citigroup executive committee Chairman Robert Rubin, whose iconic status within the Democratic mainstream has waxed as the median incomes of Americans under the Bush presidency have waned. Rubin has also become a seal of good housekeeping for Democratic candidates seeking money from Wall Street. When Bob Rubin talks, Democratic pols don't just listen; they scramble for front-row seats and make a show of taking notes.

Much of what Rubin and his co-authors have to say in their statement is on the money. Since the mid-'70s, they note, "prosperity has neither trickled down nor rippled outward." They acknowledge that recapturing broadly shared prosperity in an age of globalization is a daunting conundrum. Still, they have some recommendations: Balance the budget (a principle they elevate to a fetish). Have the government invest more in "education, health care, energy independence, scientific research, and infrastructure," since market forces "will not generate adequate investments" in such social essentials. Provide compensatory wage insurance for the many workers forced to take lower-paying jobs as middle-income jobs grow scarcer.

Unfortunately, some of Hamilton's disdain for democracy seeps into their statement as well. The problem of "entitlement imbalances is so large," they fret, "that the regular political process seems unlikely to produce a solution," so they recommend a bipartisan "special process" insulated from popular pressures. They also place such traditional Republican boogeymen as teachers unions on the list of problems that need to be solved. On the other hand, their list of national problems includes nothing about a corporate and financial culture that richly and reflexively rewards executives who offshore work to cheaper climes and deny their American employees the right to join unions.

Indeed, much of their statement amounts to whistling by the globalization graveyard. The authors place great stress on improving American education -- a commendable and unexceptionable goal, but one that may do little to retard the export of our jobs since, as they acknowledge, it's increasingly the knowledge jobs that are going to India and even China. But then, Rubin was the guy who promoted both NAFTA and unfettered trade with China. In a sense, the Hamilton Project can be seen as Rubin's sincere but inadequate attempt to grapple with the consequences of the policies he championed. Like the side agreements to NAFTA, which were advertised as protecting worker rights and environmental standards but which in fact did neither, the Hamilton Project comes up short on genuine solutions. There's nothing in the statement about raising the minimum wage or mandating a living wage; the word "unions" is nowhere to be found, though unionizing our non-offshorable service sector jobs is the surest way to restore the broader prosperity for which Rubin and his co-authors pine.

What the Democrats need is a project that takes as hard a look at corporate boardrooms as the Hamiltonians do at teachers unions. For, so long as our problem is at least partly American capitalism's indifference to American workers, the Democrats won't find a solution in the example of Alexander Hamilton or the muffled cadences of Robert Rubin.


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