Public-Market Accelerated Incrementalism

On Monday I wrote about (and, I hope, destroyed) the arguments of two Ivy League law professors who would undermine our Constitution and, for all intents and purposes, eliminate one branch of government in the service of enacting legislation that is wildly popular in places like Cambridge and New Haven.

What professors Doerfler and Moyn, of Harvard and Yale, suggest is just not going to happen for practical reasons (it would require the addition of dozens of new states cobbled out of the District of Columbia) and shouldn’t happen for fundamental reasons (it would open us up to radical right-wing legislation just as well as leftist proposals).

But their underlying point is well-taken. We have a system right now that is, in fact, frustrating the policy preferences of the bulk of Americans on a host of issues. About two-thirds of us are at least mostly pro-choice and yet, thanks to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, some states are now banning abortion altogether. About 80% of us support common sense gun laws, like universal background checks and red flag laws, and yet Congress, bolstered by court rulings, is not doing much of anything even that modest. Most of us are at least somewhat concerned about climate change and yet the Court has made it much harder to enact regulations to help fight it.

But we have the system we have. We simply are not going to abolish the Senate or the Electoral College, get rid of extreme partisan gerrymandering or change the ideological composition of the Supreme Court any time soon. So what’s the answer? Something I’ll call Public-Market Accelerated Incrementalism. (I know. I have a knack for the catchy phrase-making. It’s a gift.)

This isn’t so much a strategy as it is an explanation of what’s already happening.

First let’s discuss the Public part. Despite all the road blocks I listed above, we’re making progress. Just within the last few months legislation has been passed dealing with guns, computer chips, drug prices, the federal deficit and climate change. Before that, Congress addressed some of the problems in infrastructure. We can argue that none of those bills went as far as they should have, but none of them were inconsequential either. And all of that was accomplished either on a bipartisan basis or with the barest of Democratic majorities in the midst of a national mood that rivals the Civil War era for its polarization. Not a bad day’s work, folks.

Even modest government action combined with market preferences for progress will accelerate change. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Which brings us to the Market part of my argument. Climate change is the best example of what I’m trying to get at. Even without the $369 billion over ten years in the climate bill (dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act” for political reasons) progress was being made in the private sector. We already had our carbon dioxide emissions down to 1990 levels and emissions per capita were down 20%. Solar and wind projects had reached a tipping point where they make more economic sense for utilities than coal and gas. Even the most popular vehicle in America, the Ford F-150, was going green with an all-electric model.

Journalist David Wallace Wells, who has written about climate change extensively, pointed out in a recent essay in the New York Time that he sees the government action as accelerating changes that were already underway in the private sector. He writes: “But already today the United States has reduced emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels, and was projected to reduce them further even without the benefit of the (climate change bill). As recently as a few weeks ago, before the bill was revived, it might have felt like the United States was permanently stalled on climate action, but in fact the country was already moving to decarbonize, if not fast enough.”

He goes on to say that, while current projections are that even the accelerated benefits of private-public action won’t be enough, that doesn’t take into account the impossible-to-quantify multiplier effects of the interactions between the government programs and the market. He’s optimistic.

So am I, and not just about climate change. Liberals also lament the lack of action on voting rights and other issues related to equality, race and gender. It even looks like the Supreme Court will deal another blow, if not a death blow, to affirmative action next year. But that’s going to be too little too late. The Wall Street Journal editorial board loves to bemoan “woke capitalism”, but all that is is the free market responding to the preferences of its consumers. Young people with money (or the promise of having it someday) are highly attuned (I would say obsessed) with issues of identity. Corporations want to capture these young consumers before they establish their lifelong buying habits, and so they’re just as woke as they can be.

Look, woke I am not. But I also would be blind not to see that some inequalities still exist in our society and I’m for eliminating them. I just don’t think we need to kill the whole idea of fairness in the name of promoting it. Reverse discrimination is still discrimination. But here again I see positives in the interaction between government and the marketplace. A conservative Court is there to correct any of the excesses of the hard-left that find their way into corporate or campus culture, though I also think that corporate culture itself has a way of washing out and coopting radical ideas.

The main thing is to not get so hung up on the idea that it’s the government — whether that’s the courts, the Congress, the President or the bureaucracy — that can solve all our problems. The private sector has a role to play too and the private sector is increasingly progressive.

Progress is like water. It’ll find its way around blockages. It’ll seep through cracks.

Say it with me, people: Public-Market Accelerated Incrementalism! Comes trippingly to the tongue, don’t it?

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Public-Market Accelerated Incrementalism

  1. “Just within the last few months legislation has been passed dealing with guns, computer chips, drug prices, the federal deficit and climate change.”

    And that list doesn’t even include the bipartisan Pact Act to get VA health care funding to veterans suffering chronic health issues after being exposed to burn pits during their service. (which Ron Johnson had to be shamed into voting for after initially voting against it).

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  2. There is however a perfectly good word to use instead of “Public Market Accelerated Incrementalism” —- it’s called “industrial policy”. Methinks perhaps you invented a new term because you think industrial policy won’t go down very well, but PMAI isn’t exactly a spoon full of sugar. I would argue that industrial policy is as American as apple pie — and national highways.

    The concept in this country dates back to that ten-dollar founding father without a father Alexander Hamilton who wanted to move the US away from being an agrarian society by beefing up manufacturing, building infrastructure and establishing a national bank. You can draw a straight line from Washington’s desire for the country to rely less on British imports of manufactured goods to the CHIPS act and the IRA efforts to decrease reliance on China for semiconductors and solar cells respectively.

    In 1862 Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act which established a public-private partnership to build a transcontinental railroad. And then there was Eisenhower pushing for the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Both of these two gentlemen were Republicans I might add. And let’s not forget that one of the reasons that renewables really started taking off in this country, with a subsequent huge drop in cost, was because of the $90 billion in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earmarked for clean energy.

    Say it with me Dave — “industrial policy”

    A couple of additional points:

    “Most of us are at least somewhat concerned about climate change and yet the Court has made it much harder to enact regulations to help fight it.”

    One of the many great things about the IRA is that it amends the Clean Air Act to define carbon dioxide that comes from the burning of fossil fuels as a “pollutant”. The Supreme Court claimed Congress never gave the EPA the authority to move the country away from the emission of greenhouse gases. Now, Biden through the EPA and other agencies, can move to further restrict CO2 and CH4 emissions from power plants or automobiles.

    This additional authority is needed because, even though CO2 emissions have gone down in the US as you said, it’s not enough. At the current rate, the world is on the verge of passing a temperature increase of 1.5 C by the end of the decade and 2.0 C by mid-century. That’s a very dim outlook for our kids and grandkids. We need to pull back from these thresholds and it is incumbent on the United States to lead the way for the rest of the world.

    Because of the very long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere (it takes about a million years for a CO2 burst into the atmosphere to fully dissipate), what’s important are the cumulative CO2 emissions and not just the CO2 emissions that were emitted over the past year – which China clearly leads. But in terms of cumulative emissions, which actually sets the global mean temperature increase, the US leads the world by far.

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