The Levers of Power

by DEAN BAKER

As we mark the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, his most important legacy has gone largely overlooked. Reagan helped to put a caricature of politics at the center of the national debate and it remains there to this day. In Reagan’s caricature the central divide between progressives and conservatives is that progressives trust the government to make key decisions on production and distribution, while conservatives trust the market.

This framing of the debate is advantageous for the right since people, especially in the United States, tend to be suspicious of an overly powerful government. They also like the idea of leaving important decisions to the seemingly natural workings of the market.

It is therefore understandable that the right likes to frame its agenda this way. However, since the right has no greater commitment to the market than the left, it is incredible that progressives are so foolish as to accept this framing.

In reality, the right uses government all the time to advance its interest by setting rules that redistribute income upward. As long as progressives ignore the rules that are designed to redistribute income upward, they will be left fighting over crumbs. There is no way that government interventions will reverse a rigged market. For some reason, most of the people in the national political debate who consider themselves progressive do not seem to understand this fact.

To take the most obvious example, fighting inflation has come to be seen as the holy grail of central banks; a policy that it is supposed to be outside of the realm of normal political debate. On slightly more careful inspection, the inflation fighting by the Fed and other central banks is actually a policy that is designed to ensure that the wages of ordinary workers do not grow too rapidly.

When central banks jack up interest rates to tame inflation, the CEOs at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan won’t be out on the street. The people who lose their jobs will be factory workers, store clerks and other less privileged workers. Raising unemployment among the group of less-educated workers keeps their wages down.

In other words, controlling inflation is about making sure that the wages of less-educated workers don’t rise relative to the wages of more educated workers. And, the central banks have a license to push as hard as they like in this direction.

Incredibly, the vast majority of progressives go along with this central bank squeeze. They accept the absurd notion that this upward redistribution by the central banks is simply apolitical monetary policy and agree not to criticize the central bank. As a practical matter there is nothing that Congress could plausibly do in the way of downward redistribution that would offset the upward redistribution from the Fed’s tightening.

This is not the only policy lever that progressives are happy to turn over to conservatives. The exchange rate has enormous impact on the relative wages of workers who have been subjected to international competition through trade policy. If the dollar is over-valued by 20-30 percent against other currencies, then this is giving a subsidy to foreign producers relative to domestic ones of this magnitude.

Doctors and lawyers are smart enough to know that this sort of competition will drive down their wages and incomes. This is why they maintain strong barriers that prevent them from being subject to international competition in the same way as autoworkers and textile workers.

Unfortunately, the people who represent ordinary workers fail to understand this simple point. Therefore, exchange rate policy rarely is featured prominently in political debates, even though it is another huge cause of the upward redistribution of income that we have seen over the last three decades.

Similarly, patent and copyright policy lock off large areas of the economy in monopolies assigned to large corporations and wealthy individuals. The United States now spends more than 2 percent of GDP, $300 billion a year, on prescription drugs that would likely cost less than one-tenth this much if they were sold in a competitive market. The $270 billion handed to the drug companies each year through government-provided patent monopolies is five times as much money as what was at stake with the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Yet, here as well progressives largely ignore patent and copyright policy.

The battles that occupy progressives’ energies are almost invariably trivial in their impact relative to these three fulcrums of the economy. In effect, conservatives have managed to gain control of the most important levers of economic activity and left the crumbs for progressives to fight over in the political sphere.

It would be very hard to challenge the right’s control over these levers, but the first step is to simply recognize them. Unfortunately, there is little appreciation among progressives of their importance. Instead we get great histrionics over policies that really won’t have very much impact, even if they might be wrong-headed.

It seems that progressives have taken a pledge to be the Washington Generals of national politics. The policies that have led to the most massive upward redistribution of income in the history of the world go largely unchallenged, while we instead fight endlessly over the Reagan-Bush tax breaks to the rich.

DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

 

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Ellen Taylor
The Voyage of the Golden Rule
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Franklin Lamb
Return to Ma’loula, Syria
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”