Mike Kueber's Blog

May 12, 2013

What is the difference between progressive and liberal?

Filed under: Issues,Philosophy,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:19 pm
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The San Antonio City Council elections are non-partisan affairs.  That means the candidates don’t run as Republicans or Democrats or any other political party.  Rather, they run as individuals.  This unaffiliated status, however, perplexes many voters, who are accustomed to voting for an “R” or a “D.”  Showing typical Yankee ingenuity, the voters have developed a proxy by asking candidates to characterize their political philosophy as conservative or liberal.  Sometimes, the question comes in two parts – fiscal vs. social. 

Earlier this year at the first District 8 candidate forum , we candidates were given the two-part variation of the question.  Rolando Briones said he was a fiscal conservative and a social conservative and I said I was a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.  Ron Nirenberg, however, did not like the choices and instead said he was a fiscal conservative and a social progressive.

My reaction to that liberal vs. progressive distinction was the same as expressed in a column by Huffington Post writer, David Sirota:

  • I often get asked what the difference between a “liberal” and a “progressive” is. The questions from the media on this subject are always something like, “Isn’t ‘progressive’ just another name for ‘liberal’ that people want to use because ‘liberal’ has become a bad word?”

Sirota went on in his column to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between a liberal and a progressive.  In Sirota’s mind, a liberal wants government to redistribute wealth more equitably, but retains a strong preference for the private sector over the public sector.  By contrast, a progressive wants government to impose its power over the private sector by using comprehensive regulations. 

In a similar column five years later, Sirota elaborated:

  • Without progressivism, liberalism turns the Treasury into an unlimited gift card for whichever private interests are being sponsored.  As a progressive, I’m often asked if there is a real difference between progressivism and liberalism, or if progressivism is merely a nicer-sounding term for the less popular L-word. It’s a fair question, considering that Democratic politicians regularly substitute “progressive” for “liberal” in news releases and speeches. Predictably, Republicans call their opponents’ linguistic shift a craven branding maneuver, and frankly, they’re right: Most Democrats make no distinction between the two words.
  • Economic liberalism has typically focused on using the government’s treasury as a means to ends, whether those ends are better healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid), stronger job growth (tax credits) or more robust export businesses (corporate subsidies). The idea is that taxpayer dollars can help individuals afford bare necessities and entice institutions to support the common good.
  • Economic progressivism, by contrast, has historically trumpeted the government fiat as the best instrument of social change — think food safety, minimum wage and labor laws, and also post-Depression financial rules and enforcement agencies. Progressivism’s central theory is that government, as the nation’s supreme authority, can set parameters channeling capitalism’s profit motive into societal priorities — and preventing that profit motive from spinning out of control.   

In reading other on-line postings, I have seen basic agreement with Sirota’s position.  Classic liberalism has historically supported a free market not burdened by excessive regulations, so when Reagan launched an attack on excessive regulations, it was only natural that his opponents attempt to differentiate themselves from classic liberalism and instead adopt a term that reflects their support for excessive regulations.  The term “progressive” eventually gained solid footing during the Clinton/Gingrich times.    

Getting back to the questions posed at my first candidate forum, it’s interesting that all three candidates claimed to be fiscal conservatives.  That reminds me of the Chuck Yeager saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots – i.e., no candidate in District 8 can survive as a fiscal liberal/progressive.  

In subsequent forums, however, I argued that it was impossible for Ron Nirenberg to be a fiscal conservative and a social progressive because progressives want a bigger government and a redistribution of wealth and both of those are anathema to true fiscal conservatives.  Such an argument might win debating points, but he won the most votes in the election.

p.s., in subsequent debates/forums, I converted from being a social liberal to a social libertarian, and explained that a social liberal suggested too much government involvement in private lives (i.e., the nanny state) and the term libertarian was better focused on keeping the government role as small as possible.

June 26, 2011

Same-sex marriage in New York

NY Times columnist Maureen Down’s column this weekend castigated President Obama for too frequently taking the position that he took in the Illinois state senate – i.e., instead of voting yes or no, he often voted “present.”  Maureen provided a plethora of examples, with her strongest involving same-sex marriage, which was legalized in New York a couple of days ago.  Obama has said that his position is “evolving” and that each state should decide the issue.

Maureen made a couple of interesting comments about this position – (1) women recognize the term “evolving” as typical of a male who is commitment-phobic, (2) although Obama claims that his position flows from his Christianity, Maureen notes that Obama rarely goes to church and is the picture of a secular humanist.

Although I support same-sex marriage, I am a federalist who believes that each state should control this type of issue in their state.  Other issues in this category would be abortion, the death penalty, and marijuana.

But Maureen quotes a contrary opinion from the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, “You think it’s going to stop with this?  You think now bigamists are going to want their rights to marry? You think somebody that wants to marry his sister is going to now say, ‘I have a right’?  I mean, it’s the same principle, isn’t it? … This is crazy.”

I don’t think it’s crazy.  I don’t think the federal government should be telling states, like Utah, what their law on bigamy must be.  Ditto for brother-sister marriages, even though there are there are scientific reasons in addition to religious reasons for opposing such marriages.  But if you’ve seen John Sayles’ classic 1996 film “Lone Star” starring Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Pena, you might not completely reject the possibility of such a marriage.

May 20, 2010

Why I like the Death Tax

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:09 am
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There is no such thing as a good tax, but I think the Death Tax is the least bad tax.  

Taxes are a necessary evil.  They are evil because they take money away from the person who earned it, but they are necessary because we want government to perform certain services, and government needs money to pay for those services.  (The Libertarian Party suggests that the government should charge user-fees as much as practical, but it usually isn’t practical.)

The Death Tax (also know as the Estate Tax) is the least bad tax because (1) it raises a significant amount of money, (2) in a relatively painless manner, and (3) from those who can most easily afford to pay it.

  1. A lot of money.  The Death Tax applies only to huge estates (those in excess of $3.5 million in 2009), but its rate of taxation is quite high (45%), and thus it raises a considerable amount of money for government.  According to FairEconomy.org, the Death Tax raised $20 billion in 2003. 
  2. Relatively painless.  I say that the tax is relatively painless because it is triggered when the previous owner of the assets has died, so there is no pain there, and the new owner of the assets is receiving a windfall, so there is no pain there.  This process reminds me of the old story about how lawyers perfected the art of helping transfer money from one party to another, all while slicing for themselves a significant portion of the pie during the transfer.  Neither party really misses it.  That is what the government is doing with the Death Tax; i.e., borrowing a trick of the trade from lawyers.
  3. Ability to pay.  And finally, the Death Tax is assessed against those who are most able to pay it (large estates).  Although there has been a lot of talk about a flat tax, most of that talk is a product of the anger people feel toward a complicated tax code that allows some high earners to avoid paying taxes.  I believe that most people who think clearly about this subject believe that rich people should pay tax at a higher rate than poorer people.  That is called a progressive tax.

Another plus with the Death Tax is that it levels the playing field in America by taking money away from heirs who already have a huge economic advantage over other Americans.  This Death-Tax money can be used to pay for necessary government services without taxing non-heirs, so they will have a better chance to succeed. 

Mitt Romney has suggested that, if you want to raise taxes to discourage certain behavior (like carbon belching or gas guzzling), then you should reduce taxes elsewhere to ensure that you don’t grow government.  I suggest that the same principle works in reverse here – i.e., if you want to eliminate the estate tax, you should be required to increase taxes elsewhere.  Otherwise, you will exacerbate our deficit.

Let me know when you find a better way to raise $20 billion.

October 22, 2010 – addendum

While reading The Change by Arthur Brooks, I encountered an interesting quotation by Thomas Jefferson:

  • To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of  his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

I tend to give a lot of deference to anything uttered by Jefferson.  I also am sympathetic to a friend from McVille, ND who frequently mentions the word “confiscatory” in connection with the estate tax.  Perhaps there is an acceptable middle ground – e.g., limit the tax to million-dollar estates, make the rate progressively higher toward the billion-dollar estates, and never have a rate that exceeds 50%.