“Liberal”, “Progressive”, “Free Market”, “NeoLiberal” – what’s up?

A friend asked the following question of me on Facebook the other day:

What’s wrong with the word LIBERAL …. This word … progressives … is only a diluted weak solution of the real thing …. the L word has become like the N word … it can’t be mouthed in public. I know what Liberal means I don’t have a clue what progressive means … you’d think Neoliberal has some relationship to LIBERAL which it doesn’t. Am I the only person that can’t keep track of these shifting meanings which I think are meant to deliberately confuse the public .

I commented in reply:

Hmmm….. Neoliberal refers back to the 19th century British “liberal” political philosophers. Nothing like the 20th century American usage. That’s why I aways refer to these policies as “free market” – a la Milton Freedman, the Libertarian Party, and many others like Ayn Rand.


For me the word “liberal” in the US was high-jacked in the late 1980s by the centrist Democrats who took up the rhetoric and policies of the free market ideologues who justified Reagan and Thatcher. Bill Clinton successfully won the presidency based on his combination of socially liberal policies with the free market religion that has brought us the last 40 years of wage stagnation, giant increases in inequality and run amuck financial shenanigans. Additionally I associate these liberals with the bi-partisan militarism that has brought us fifty years of pretty nearly continuous public and secret wars.


I agree that “progressive” lacks definition in the present moment. I’d be glad to go back to “liberal” when the liberals embrace government action to foster the needs of the vast majority of Americans and forsake their militarist foreign policy. For example, H. Clinton, when asked what she regretted about her promotion of the Libya intervention said that she wished she had thought more about what would come after Ghaddafi!! – this only a few years after Bush’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan where thinking about what would follow “shock and awe” was clearly non-existent. A policy that almost 15 years later we are still struggling with and paying interest on the national debt used to fund it.


Sorry for this long rant.

But I didn’t really answer his question about what “progressive” means. For me progressive includes the following ideas about how we should organize our politics and economy.

First, capitalism is one of the most important innovations in all of human history.  It has brought us enormous benefits. Capitalism however contains in its DNA a number of unfortunate features. Notable are its instability; it is prone to booms, “irrational exuberance” in Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s argot, and depressions or “Great Recession” in the breading on the post 2008 collapse of the financial sector.

Capitalism breeds inequality. Nothing further needs to be said concerning this feature. Except, we must not focus on the individuals in the top 1% without noting the amazing concentrations in the corporate world. Despite all of the blather about how important small business is, the vast bulk of sales and profits fall into the hands of just a few thousand companies worldwide. This means that decisions about how to invest much of the world’s capital resides inside the companies far from anyone’s eyes or comment. So, decisions about the shape of agriculture, energy, transportation, and more are being made to suit the needs of this very small group of companies without regard for the needs of society or the sustainability of the investments.

Capitalism is always seeking to avoid costs or drive them down. It seeks to get someone else to pay for part of its production. We see this in the effluents and pollution that it spews out. Economists call this feature externalized costs. Somebody else pays. The CO2 emissions are not any capitalist’s responsibility. They can’t be because every capitalist acts as an island alone, sovereign and independent. No one is responsible for the system as a whole. Thus one of the lies to the specious notion of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.

Capitalism tries to depress the wages of every worker. You can see this in the virtual flatline of real wages in the US over the last forty years. From 1973 to 2015 productivity rose 73% while wages rose by only 11%. The rich and corporations kept the difference. Recently the surge in part-time or temporary work, the so-called “gig economy” reflects employers further shedding any responsibility to employees. Here is where a living wage policy can put a floor under all workers. To equalize the power relationship between employers and employees we need to reverse the last fifty years of erosion of the right to organize unions.

Finally, capitalism knows no boundaries or restraints. When you combine this feature with the invention of the manipulative power of advertising capitalism can create a market for which there is no demand. Consider the rise of bottled water in the US in the mid 1970s, this in a country with ubiquitous, safe, incredibly cheap public water. This industry sells water at over 300 times its costs and creates billions of plastic bottles that become part of the waste stream, some ending up in the mid-ocean gyres of plastic. Or, consider housing. 

A big issue that is being ducked across the board is the change in the structure of the economy to produce few high paying jobs that don’t require at least a college degree if not a more advanced one. As people are painfully aware the low skill manufacturing jobs that produced the American middle class of the post WWII era are pretty much gone from our shores. These will never return. Period. We seem to have a bifurcated job market now. The majority of jobs are being created in low-paying, low-skill service industries like retail and healthcare. The other jobs being created are high paying high skill jobs where the first barrier to entry is at least a college degree but preferably an advanced degree. It is unclear how many of these will be produced in the future. Automation in its many forms appears to be eliminating many jobs in both sectors. It is probable for instance that long distance truck drivers will  disappear over the next ten years as autonomous vehicle come to maturity. What is the future of work?

So, progressive politics seeks to prevent or ameliorate the results of these structural features of capitalism. We should not have a financial system that engages in gambling activities that can undermine the functioning of the whole economy. Industries should not be allowed to crap all over the place and expect someone else to pay to clean it up. Workers need to share fairly in the output of the economy. Families need to be supported through positive policies that provide the time and resources for them to care for themselves at the beginning of life and the end. And so on…. This is obviously a balancing act between the positive flexibility and innovation of capitalism and the needs of the greater society within which it must live. We do not need to achieve some perfect state of income equality, but we should not have homeless people as a permanent feature of our communities. It has been estimated that  transferring roughly $200 billion a year to the very poorest amongst us would lift everyone above the poverty line. That is less than 1% of GDP or a quarter of our military spending.

We have engaged in almost continuous warfare, public and secret, direct,  mercenary, and proxy over the past 50 years. Progressive foreign policy seeks to greatly narrow the definition of the national interest, use peaceful means to our ends, and stop justifying our actions in the world as examples of America bringing democracy to every corner while propping up autocratic, repressive regimes. This progressive policy would lead to a much smaller military and close most if not all of the over 750 military bases and innumerable secret ones on every continent. A draft lottery would replace the current “volunteer” military. To provide alternatives to military service we can greatly increase the size and scope of domestic service organizations like AmeriCorps.

Honoring every person is at the center of the progressive vision. We need to understand and acknowledge the role of racism in our history and in our present. The Civil War only marked a move in policy from literal slavery to a system of repression and segregation that continues to this day even as its more obvious elements have been formally abolished. Segregation in housing and education as well as inequities in jobs and income have been perpetuated largely through public policy. These need to be acknowledged and actively reversed.  A similar approach needs to be taken with regards to the fate of Native Americans. In accomplishing these two tasks we can also liberate white people from their false history of whiteness and understand better how the melting pot actually works.

Women continue to be under-paid, over-burdened, and blocked from full participation in many areas of life. We need to implement and fund a thorough-going family support policy. This will ensure that parents of newborns can be present during the important early months of life. Day care and pre-school programs must be universal and funded at a level that reflects the true importance of the work. A better work-life balance should be encouraged through work policies that not only provide healthy vacations but also facilitate entering and leaving the workforce without penalizing opportunities for growth and advancement. It goes without saying that a woman should decide on her own health needs and access to healthcare should be readily at hand. Government control over reproductive issues is not to be allowed under any guise.

The tax system needs to be reformed so that rich people and corporations actually pay taxes and at a progressive rate that reflects their dependency on the larger society and their increased capacity to support that society. As the progressive agenda is converted into practical results we need to have an information campaign that connects paying taxes with the benefits. People need to be able to see and feel how they are contributing to the overall welfare of the society.

Healthcare is a right not a benefit. Every person should have access to health care including dental care. We need to face down the medical establishment in this country, doctors, hospitals, and the allied industries, pharmaceuticals and medical devices so that they understand that we cannot have a health system that costs more than 50% more per capita than our developed country cohort and that delivers nearly 3rd world performance. We must recognize as all of the other developed countries have that market solutions in healthcare do not apply. This is simply because healthcare is not a commodity and those needing healthcare do not treat healthcare decisions in ways that fit into market solutions.This leaves us with a market where doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies set the prices.

Every other country establishes a national budget for healthcare and the providers job then is to deliver healthcare. There are a large number of different models of how this is done on the ground. We need to adopt one or more to our situation. But, the healthcare industry needs to be faced down politically. Insurance companies in particular add no value to healthcare. We do not need them. Why pay 15% or more of healthcare dollars to heath insurance companies when a government agency already provides the administrative services required at 2-3% cost?

In our modern world education in its many forms is central to every person’s capacity to develop and find a place for themselves that is useful and fulfilling. We need to make education a cradle to late life resource accessible at very low cost to students. In a world that is a flood with science, technology, and money, smart, well-educated people are our country’s most important resource. Human development should be our Job One.

Our country’s infrastructure has been allowed to run down through policies of deferred maintenance that ends up being no maintenance. This is needs to be reversed. In addition there are areas like electric power generation and distribution and the internet where new investment will be critical. In the near term investing in infrastructure work is required and will generate a large number of well paid jobs.

For the whole post-WWII era government has invested in science and technology. The bulk of this through military programs followed more recently by an expansion in investment in health sciences at NIH. As part of our understanding of how capitalism works we can understand how important it is that we continue and expand public support for scientific research. Capitalism is risk averse and short sighted. It simply cannot make investments in work that may take ten to twenty years to mature or may never. For example, without the seed corn of research funded by government Apple never could have invented the iPhone. Almost all of its key features are dependent on development work funded by government. In the future government will be able to make investments in research less driven my military needs but more by human social ones.