Economic Harmony on the Left

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

If there's one thing to which the world of Democratic economics is utterly unaccustomed, it's agreement. Democrats fight with each other all the time on trade. They disagree about whether to push for balanced budgets or increased spending. Some emphasize growth; others call for greater distributional fairness.

So the big news from Barack Obama's meeting Monday with 20 economic advisers is that there was far more agreement than disagreement about how to fix the nation's deepest fiscal ailments.

Given the range of perspectives and interests represented, such concord was remarkable. The advisers ran the gamut from Clinton administration centrists, such as former Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers; to former George W. Bush administration Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill and SEC chairman William Donaldson, both presumably still Republicans; to such avowed liberals as former labor secretary (and my American Prospect colleague) Robert Reich, economist Jared Bernstein, and labor leaders John Sweeney (president of the AFL-CIO) and Anna Burger (chair of Change to Win). Also there, for good measure, were former Fed chief Paul Volcker and everyone's favorite mega-rich guy, Warren Buffett.

"There was no dissent over whether there should be a stimulus," says Bernstein, "just over whether it should be $50 billion or a lot bigger. There's real consensus that the economy has structural problems, ranging from people like Reich and me to CEOs who look at the markets and say we really need better rules."

That doesn't mean that differing views weren't voiced in the meeting or that the party has reached a consensus on trade. But, adds Bernstein, Obama is "more of an 'and' guy than an 'or' guy. He's for growth and fairness."

One way to square that circle is to boost spending on repairing America's rickety infrastructure, an idea that has captured both the center and the left of the political and economic spectrums. Several participants recommended infrastructure projects as one way to help restore consumer confidence and boost the stagnating incomes of American families. "People need to be confident that the next president will help create jobs that will actually enable families to keep up with rising prices," says Sweeney.

During the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency, two of those present Monday, Rubin and Reich, had dueled over which policy Clinton should emphasize more: reducing the deficit (Rubin's position) or increasing public infrastructure investment (Reich's). It was Rubin who prevailed then. But concern about underinvestment in America has risen since 1993. While some of Monday's participants "were concerned about the deficit issue," Sweeney adds, "there was significant support for a policy that would help create good jobs, green jobs, infrastructure jobs."

Some of the issues that have long divided key elements of the Democratic coalition are receding as America's economic landscape is reshaped. Nothing illustrates this change more clearly than the announcement by Teamsters President James P. Hoffa last week that his union would no longer support drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Teamsters had been a mainstay of the pro-drilling ANWR coalition and in the 2004 Democratic primaries attacked John Kerry for leading the opposition to drilling. But that was then.

"The times have changed," Hoffa told me yesterday. "We have to have a new energy policy; we can't drill our way out of this. We have to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels and explore such alternative sources as wind, water and solar."

Considering that Hoffa represents hundreds of thousands of people who drive for a living, the Teamsters' turn away from drilling may seem startling. But Hoffa clearly believes that the upward pressure on oil prices, both real and manipulated, won't be significantly reduced by more coastal or Alaskan drilling. Also, his union is engaged in a long-running organizing campaign of port truck drivers that is inextricably linked to environmentalists' efforts to clean up the toxic air that envelops many of America's harbors. In league with the enviros, the Teamsters support upgrading and greening the harbor truck fleets, a move they believe would force a restructuring of the industry and enable drivers (who are, currently, poorly paid independent contractors) to work for major trucking companies and be organized into a union. Lastly, the Teamsters' shift squares their position with Obama's.

For all these reasons, the Teamsters and turtles are together today as they have not been since the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. In a party now headed by an "and" guy, not an "or" guy, this comes as very welcome news.

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