What “progressive economic vision” should CST lead us to endorse? This is a thorny, vexed question, and in particular, I think it is infected by a kind of nostalgia for “the good old days” – that is, the days of rising wages and good work for all, of welfare state expansion – in short, for the economy of the 1950’s and 1960’s. (Or the somewhat more absurd nostalgia for laissez-faire and rugged individualism.)
Just as the image of the 1950’s nuclear family should be seen as what Andrew Cherlin calls an “unusual interlude” not a forever-fixed form, so too economically, this era should now be seen as an “unusual interlude,” rather than something that can endure forever. The combination of the social formation and solidarity of Depression and war, the insulation of the US economy from real international competition (even in the fixed exchange rate regime of Bretton Woods), and the immense use of cheap natural resources – as well as significant productivity gains – led to growth rates, especially in the 1960’s, that made social distribution “easy.” We simply did not have to deal with certain trade-offs, or strains that pulled in contrary directions. The growth rates throughout the 1960’s were 4-6% – far above the 2.5% that economists now shoot for. Moreover, this general picture and our standard view of union factory workers living the good life masked Michael Harrington’s “Other America,” which, once it was discovered, proved stubbornly difficult to deal with. Finally, the rosy picture tends to overlook the incredible environmental costs one needs to charge to this era, and which especially came due when oil was no longer cheap, but so much of our built infrastructure depended on it. The “Reagan rollback” is surely a factor in rising inequality and stagnant wages, but it is not the only factor. We simply don’t live in the world of 1967, and no amount of unions and redistribution programs can recover key aspects of that economic world.
The answer, however, is clearly not for CST to become cozy with libertarian, laissez-faire economic individualism. So what are the real alternatives? In reading widely in economic commentators, it seems to me that there are three possible visions – understood in broad terms, with multiple, overlapping personal and policy decisions – that are on offer. The first I associate with the works of Tom Friedman, Lester Thurow, and others, for whom the sustaining of innovation through education (above all), flexibility, and government support of innovation (across the board, not simply “picking winners”) is really the key challenge. Friedman is particularly keen on getting ahead of the technology curve on green energy, a win-win situation economically and environmentally. We could call these writers the “Asia-philes,” because they most often have pointed to countries like Japan, South Korea, and now China as key economic competitors who have been able to focus their resources on precisely these ends, while we have been letting them slide. We have to work harder and invest in the future, which means education, high skills, science, and the like. And we need a social ethic that recognizes how government can and must support this, but must do so smartly. So they tend to be more critical than most liberals of our school system, its faddishness and failure, and even of a general American complacency. Friedman approvingly quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “We are like the 40-year-old who keeps talking about what a great high-school football player he was.”
A second alternative could be found in the somewhat lower-profile (but proliferating) work by authors like John DeGraaf, Diane Coyle, Robert and Edward Skidelsky, and Juliet Schor – but who have their ancestry in concerns of social critics of affluence in the 1950’s and 1960’s, who saw the suburbs not so much as the fulfillment of egalitarian dreams but the mindless and (necessarily) endless cycle of shopping and consumption. Coyle’s title is very telling: “The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters.” The point of these authors, following especially the constant finding that increased wealth beyond security does not promote happiness, is that we need to shift to an economy that is stable and sustainable, rather than constantly seeking “growth.” We could call these writers “Euro-philes,” because they often cite with approval the key trade-off Europeans have made in choosing to work less, but also consume less. Notice the tension here with the “Asia-philes.” The goal is not to re-up growth by becoming more competitive; rather, the goal is solidify what we have, so that we can spend more time on… well, I suppose on leisure and culture, but perhaps on boredom and ennui? (Indeed, these stereotypes are limited – in fact, European countries vary widely on this trade-off – though all make it more than we do. Germans land somewhere between the “ideal European” and “ideal Asian” type; Britons are a hybrid of American and European, etc. The point here is peg the overall shape imagined for the future.) But seriously, Juliet Schor’s “true wealth” assumes what many others do, which is that people truly thrive when they are able to spend time and energy with families, neighbors, community choruses, gardens, churches, and the like. An economy of constantly sped-up efficiency would just produce less and less time for these activities, either because of intense jobs at “the top” or miserable, underpaid, erratic jobs at “the bottom.”
A third alternative – perhaps less “progressive” – is kind of carried forward on the shoulders of David Brooks, but which might also be found in some of the less-hardliune conservatives. We could call these writers, “American-philes,” not because they simply want to reproduce the 1960’s, but because they are actually reaching further back, and believe in the importance of character-building intermediate associations. Importantly, they are not individualists, but they think what is kind of unique (and uniquely democratic) about America is the spirit of voluntarism, of joining together, of freely associating. They take significant inspiration from works like Bellah’s Habits of the Heart and Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which suggest a real and steep decline in these kinds of communal networks, and perhaps more importantly, the character they sustain. They openly criticize today’s “conservatives” for neglecting the traditional conservative stress on restraint and community, in favor of economic and social libertarianism. They believe that, with a better culture, capitalism and community can actually support one another – although this is not happening now. They champion education as well, although one that more thoroughly emphasizes character, rather than technological prowess.
Which is CST? Let me just say three things here. First, it’s evident that this is actually a constructive place to have conversations about prudential judgment. You have to be playing on this field in order to get somewhere – and not imagining societies of individualist pioneers or 1950’s GM workers. Second, it’s also evident that each of these positions does in fact have significant roots in contemporary CST. Both Laborem and Centesimus had significant things to say about the importance of education and skilled work for human development. All the contemporary documents suggest that our economy is bloated with consumption, to the detriment of “being.” And the documents maintain throughout that subsidiarity does mean the fostering of associations (of all sorts, including businesses) that break through “the market-state binary.” Thirdly, I do not necessarily think these visions are strictly speaking in competition with one another. This is partly why this could be a constructive conversation. All have some sense of the importance of education and the environment. All see the constructive role for government in the economy. All resist a simple call to return to “unions and welfare state.” They have certain elements that seem to be in tension. Both Friedman and Brooks see their views as representing Middle America, but I do think that Friedman’s flat world and Brook’s character-rich community pull against one another, for example. I think a possible problem for all of them is that they clearly represent the standards of the “creative class,” which values education and interesting work highly, which tends to have excess funds and suspicions of consumerism, and which (to some extent) is building social capital, though not in the form of the Rotary Clubs of yesteryear – insofar as they have time for it. In developing this vision, the writers all seem to want to raise up lower-income folks through these same paths – this is even true of Brooks’ intermediate associations vision. While conventionally, such statements conjure up small, working-class Midwestern towns that band together (think Janesville, Wisconsin), the real state of such “Fishtowns” is often a collapse of any kind of coherent social life, as in the chilling portrait of formerly prosperous Oelwein, Iowa, in Methland.
More broadly, I think it is important for proponents of CST – including the bishops – to be more forceful in orienting the field of play for Catholics. It would be mistaken for USCCB analysts to simply “pick one” of the above visions and give it a Catholic imprimatur. But it is important to highlight what elements are necessarily part of a sound, prudent CST vision. It cannot be “private property” versus” help the poor.” I am open to (and recognize) the problems with each of the above visions, and perhaps CSTers are good folks to identify what these (usually pragmatic) visions lack in terms of moral structure. But I think focusing the discussion is necessary to get beyond what I perceive as an impasse between those who over-idealize Reagan and those who over-idealize Kennedy and LBJ. I think engaging the three visions above, rather than the impasse of the 1970’s and 1980’s over and over, is a much better way forward.