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Beyond the Beltway: A Response to Jeffrey Sachs' Progressive Vision

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In last weekend’s New York Times, Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs predicted and championed a new progressive movement that will allegedly restore “honest and effective government for all,” revive “crucial public services,” “end the climate of impunity” that encouraged fraud on Wall Street, and “re-establish” the supremacy of “people votes over dollar votes” in Washington, D.C., whatever that means. These ends will be accomplished by essentially replicating the Obama presidency thus far. If this prediction has any merit, it is a prudent time to heed Bill Buckley’s admonition to stand athwart (progressive) history and yell, “Stop!” Happily, three formidable obstacles undermine Professor Sachs’ progressive prophecy.

First, his inspiration is misplaced. Professor Sachs takes inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement. He shouldn’t. Whereas most hardworking, law abiding Americans see in the Occupy movement unruly scenes of violence, drug use, social disorder, and disorganization, Professor Sachs sees the beginnings of a new era in modern politics. Contrary to this wishful thinking, the people in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere have not started America on a path to renewal. They have started themselves on a path to social alienation, criminal records, and, as reported at the Occupy Atlanta encampment, tuberculosis. Unsurprisingly, there has been no popular outcry against the reestablishment of law and order, and sanitation.

What the Occupy crowd and Professor Sachs seem to miss, or not appreciate, is that bigger government equals bigger businesses and less consumer choice. It also, as Dennis Prager correctly notes, leads to smaller citizens. Increasing the size and scope of the federal government inexorably restricts individual decision-making. Subjecting citizen initiative to the policy paternalism of Washington is, aside from being bad policy, also fundamentally un-American. Professor Sachs’ vision runs contrary to the truth Ronald Reagan noted: we are a people with a government, not a government with a people. Finally, he gets the Progressive analogy wrong. Whereas earlier Progressives were law abiding citizens who championed some admirable causes, like women’s suffrage, today’s Occupy rabble trash private and public property and have no discernible, coherent agenda.

Second, his perspective is selective and incomplete. The root cause of Professor Sachs’ misperception of America lies in his vantage point. He suffers from Baby Boomer Ivory Tower Syndrome (BBITS), a chief symptom of which is, among other things, a surprising inability to accurately gauge the convictions of the intended conscripts of this purported Progressive army, whom Professor Sachs presumably encounters on a daily basis. The vast majority of those in his targeted age range would be generations X and Y. They have no memory of or inclination towards the earlier Progressive movements; they are not the SDS of today; and their relationship to the federal government is not defined by what happened at Kent State or in Vietnam. They are wholly different creatures than 1960s student radicals (see below).

Instead, thanks to the Reagan economic boom, a substantial number of those in generations X and Y have lived lives of unparalleled comfort and plenty, immune from draft cards, and obsessed with technological materialism (iPhones/Pods/Pads, etc.), mindless entertainment (reality TV, video games, fantasy football), and symbolic, empty forms of social activism (using recyclable shopping bags, driving a Toyota Prius, donating a Facebook “status” to tsunami victims). They are decidedly less politically radical -- the largest political club on the Berkeley campus is the College Republicans -- and they’ve lived through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations, which (generally) agreed that raising taxes to support big government was a feature of a bygone political era, or at least not a prudent path to political victory. Also, these generations are famously entrepreneurial, e.g.. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Groupon, etc. Their focus is on what they can build up in the private, not public, sector.

These traits lead to a unique political ideology commonly found in dynamic urban areas. For example, in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, California, where this column is written, the prevailing orthodoxy of those in the 25-40 year old range seems to be: “I’m fiscally conservative, but socially liberal.” For better or for worse, this demographic is notoriously laissez faire concerning government intrusion (hands off) because it is unaccustomed to, and therefore not reliant upon, government provision. For the Xs and Ys, the goal is self-sufficiency. No one takes the bus, or clamors for high speed rail, when they can instead fight traffic in a BMW 3 series, or a Prius.

Third and finally, Professor Sachs ignores political reality. One line from his recent book, The Price of Civilization, demonstrates his misguided thinking: “Yes, the federal government is incompetent and corrupt – but we need more, not less, of it.” Voters across America disagree: the elections last week produced important small government/anti-tax wins across the country, including in the bell weather states of Colorado (rejected tax increases), Ohio (rejected Obamacare) and Virginia (elected more Republicans statewide). And, Mr. Obama’s progressive interventions have spawned and empowered the Tea Party and the Tea Party Congressional Caucus, which has single-handedly ended his short-lived progressive agenda in Congress. How Professor Sachs can observe these trends and discern a new Progressivism is bewildering.

Professor Sachs is a very bright man who has made important contributions to important issues, including the plight of the needy overseas. He is, however, deeply mistaken on domestic policy. There is no progressive movement afoot. There is, however, the enduring influence of President Reagan, which he correctly notes. The Great Communicator brought economic morning to America, and the eventual GOP nominee would be wise to channel his optimistic, trenchant critique from 1980: recession is when your neighbor loses his job; depression is when you lose your job; recovery is when Barack Obama loses his job. Offering a positive and contrasting vision to the Obama/Sachs vision of a progressive, declining America ruled by an ever larger and incompetent federal government will be the task of the coming months. It should not be difficult.

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