February 22, 2005

Galbraith And Philosophy

Michael Tomasky's point on how contemporary Democrats have no overriding philosophy is well-taken. As something of a side-issue, I'm reading Richard Parker's very thorough (and very interesting) new biography of J.K. Galbraith right now, and it sort of strikes me that there aren't very many Galbraith-type figures hanging around the Democratic party establishment these days. You've got very wonky, technocratic figures hanging around the think tanks, but must of these folks tend to stay above the partisan fray, and try to figure out specific solutions to specific problems rather than applying a larger worldview. Now maybe this is liberalism's strength, as Jon Chait puts it, but it also means that the Democrats fall prone to infighting when two solutions (and their advocates) clash—in a way that Republicans simply don't.

So where does Galbraith fit in? Well, I'm not very far in the biography (he's just falling under the spell of Keynes and Hitler hasn't even invaded Poland yet), so I'm not sure. But here you have someone who first thinks of very wonky solutions to specific problems (i.e. agricultural mishaps during the Depression), but also draws up a wider philosophy about—I think—the mechanics of power and the problems with economic inequality. And he laid it all out in layman's terms. Oh yeah, and he had a lot of influence over various Democratic administrations (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson).

Offhand I can't think of many thinkers fitting that role for the Democrats today. A number of liberal academics, perhaps, could fill that role—Jacob Hacker's thinking on economic risk should get far more attention than it appears to have received—but they tend to be marginalized in favor of people like Peter Diamond, Jason Furman, etc. Brilliant people, and they've both done invaluable work on Social Security, but as far as I know neither have the economic philosophy thing down pat. Maybe I have this wrong—I obviously don't hang out with Democratic insiders much—but that's how it appears from the outside. By the by, tremendous thinking on Democratic political philosophy gets done in the pages of my former employer, Boston Review. Everyone should be reading through its archives.

The real question is: What exactly do the Republicans have that creates conservative "philosophy"? And, more importantly, why does it lead to such terrible policy outcomes?
-- Brad Plumer 3:15 PM || ||