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.
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?