April 14, 2009

In Defense of Populism

Adam McCall, a student at Emory University in Atlanta, has written an excellent article on Populism. I encourage you all to read it.

In Defense of Populism
By Adam McCall

I have a couple of conservative friends who are attending a mock “Tea Party” at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta tomorrow. Being born and bred in and around Boston, I know a thing or two about such events. And, while I don’t necessarily agree that the situation the United States face now is similar to the state of affairs they faced then, I do believe that the media has underplayed the legitimacy of the populist backlash against the Obama-Bush economic policies of the last year.

Regardless of election-time appeals, Wall Street economists dominate the ranks of both parties. Functionally, there has been little change in the macroeconomic policies pursued by both former President George W. Bush and President Obama. Former Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson, current Treasury Sec. Timothy Geithner and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers, as well as their advisers, all spent time working in and around Wall Street. Unsurprisingly, all of their proposed solutions rely on bailing out investment and commercial banks and insurance companies.

Still, I have many friends who trust the elites more. It’s foolish, they say, to get upset about bonuses paid to incompetent managers, the death of the auto industry and the anarchic mess on Wall Street.

This is regrettable; truth is, it has become all too easy for these elite policy-makers to pick and choose which sectors live and die. Trapped inside their own bubbles, government bureaucrats keep Wall Street and the artificial economy afloat. They subsidize the creation of abstract value rather than the people who make America work, the people who make things.

Though there’s been a large outcry about the potential tax hikes on the upper class under the new administration, there has been little recognition of the fact that the bank bailouts represent a large re-distribution of wealth — upwards, to American elites. The idea that strengthening the banks alone will resolve the crisis of confidence in our economy reflects trickle-down economics at its worst.

Whatever happened to Obama’s campaign promises to help the working class and ignore the advice of the Washington wise men?

As these risks become more apparent to many Americans, conventional wisdom has focused on delegitimizing populism as a bastardization of American thought. Even among the intellectual class, there’s a reticence to acknowledge America’s long and proud tradition of populism, reflected in leaders such as former Sec. of State William Jennings Bryan and former Presidents Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.

Jackson’s example remains instructive for us today. His distrust of banks and concentrated power in the hands of special interests that he put into practical policy as president seem to be the agenda that Obama has failed thus far to pursue. Like Jackson, Obama was elected after promising to fix similar problems after succeeding the unelected heir of a political dynasty. For his presidency to succeed, Obama must recognize the need to re-affirm the populism he preached on the campaign trail, which harkened back to Old Hickory’s.

So what can Obama do to avert further outrage? Expand on current plans to protect homeowners from foreclosure, for starters. Protect the rights of workers to unionize by passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows for unions to be formed after workers sign a petition. Put more money into “shovel-ready” infrastructure jobs and less in tax cuts. Support American manufacturing jobs and prevent jobs from being shipped overseas by bailing out the auto industry and supporting efforts to buy American.

These populist steps are necessary. As countries around the world stand idle, ignoring calls from Obama to stimulate their own economies, Obama must radically take steps to spur our own into a brighter day. While some of these policies may be discouraged as protectionist, the reality is that other countries already have “national champions” of industry and trade barriers of their own. It does the United States no good to allow high paying unionized manufacturing jobs to go elsewhere. Low prices at Wal-Mart mean less and less as employment fails to rebound and wages stagnate.

If Obama continues on his present path, wingnut tea parties will be the least of his concerns. The 2010 mid-term elections approach with Obama Democrats, such as Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, under fire from all quarters for their role in allowing the abuses of the bank bailouts. Will it take defeat at the hands of a dissatisfied public to turn Obama back toward populism? One hopes it doesn’t come to that, but it might if Obama doesn’t provide the answer to his own calls for change.

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