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Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Some Change (Theory)?

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Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Some Change (Theory)?

By Jared Bernstein 

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Comrades with keyboards, I need your help.

First, allow me to stipulate three points:

1) As I will show in a moment, the share of the country that thinks we are on the “wrong track” is historically very high.

2) The ’08 presidential debate will generate some good ideas to get us on the right track.

3) These ideas may or may not come to fruition.

So, the question becomes: what has to happen to ensure that progressive changes have at least a fighting chance?

Since you can often find a poll result to back up whatever crackpot theory you like, it’s important not to cherry-pick. That’s why these graphs are highly revealing, albeit unsurprising.

They show a composite trend line through a bunch of different polls asking similar questions as to whether folks think our country is on the right or the wrong track. The wrong track share has been trending up consistently and now stands around 70%. These figures only go back a few years, but historically, this is a very high level going back many more years (do troll around this link–you’ll get a real sense of how deep these negative sentiments are right now).

Now, I know it’s annoyingly early, but a presidential campaign is begun, and if you’ll forgive me for being reductionist, Rudy McRomney’s agenda doesn’t reflect the sentiments in the wrong track graph. The R candidates may be distancing themselves from Bush himself, but on the war (onward to victory) and on the economy (extend the tax cuts), it’s pretty much biz as usual.

The D’s seem more in tune with these sentiments, and I look forward to seeing and hearing more about their plans. We’ll have ample time to dissect them.

For now, allow me to take the economist’s prerogative, and “assume a progressive agenda.” Don’t be put off by this assumption. It’s generally a bad idea for candidates to get too specific too early. But we can be confident, for example, that each of the D candidates will have a health care plan that is either single payer, universal coverage, or something close to it. And this is arguably an idea whose time has come. Same with global warming. (Edwards is furthest along in both cases.)

Yet, even if the majority desires big changes in these areas, as I think they do, such changes may well not occur. What needs to change for the electorate to be open to good ideas—in fact, not just open, but insistent upon them being implemented?

Our history suggests that it sometimes takes a catastrophe to turn things around. But there are two other conditions wherein large, new initiatives can be undertaken. One, when most people aren’t paying much attention, and the other, when they are.

The best example of the former condition—lack of attention—is the Bush years. The wealthy were already doing extremely well, yet we watched, or didn’t watch, the White House and Congress enact large tax cuts that essentially transferred our hard-won budget surplus to the top income classes. And while they were busy playing reverse Robin Hood, they got the country mired in a tragic war, at tremendous cost in life and treasure.

Well, I think it’s fair to say that these events have gotten our attention. The wrong track polls show that the failure of the conservative movement is not just an intellectual phenomenon for DC think tanks to ponder. And note: this is not merely a failure to address challenges. It is a failure that has exacerbated these challenges, from global warming (anti-conservation) to inequality (the tax cuts) to foreign policy.

One theory of how change occurs—not one I necessarily endorse—maintains that left-leaning centrists may have an edge in getting us back on track. We’re not ready for a president or Congress to significantly alter the health care system tomorrow, but we are ready for one to plot the course for the next five to ten years to get us there. We’re not ready to implement extensive conservation standards, like 40+ per gallon fuel efficiency tomorrow. But we are ready to start moving in that direction incrementally.

Granted, it sounds unsexy, but when it comes to significant political changes, this is a conservative country, with deep-pocketed vested interests that will fight you tooth and nail at every step of the way.

Of course, all this is very top down, and for any progressive agenda to have a chance, it’s got to be met by bottom-up demand, and that means serious grassroots (and netroots) organizing.

Anyway, we should take advantage of the fact that it’s early in the game and begin to hammer this out. How do you think we reach in and tap the clear dissatisfaction in that “wrong-track” graph? What’s your change theory? Brother, can you paradigm?

Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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