by Martin Harris
At some risk of stretching an analogy, a comparison might be made of the view of Progressivism’s founders on equality with the view of today’s academicians on diversity. The latter, as is fairly well recognized any more, are enthusiastic for “diversity” on their campuses (campi?) as long as it is genetic or behavioral, but not ideological or philosophical; the former were (and still claim to be) enthusiastic for economic equality, but from the very start declared their own superior intellectual abilities and technocratic skills. Roughly a half-century after Wisconsin Guv Robert LaFollette founded the Progressive Movement as a technocratic above-mere-politics antidote to “Chicago corruption”, author George Orwell in his 1945 book “Animal Farm” described it well through one of his ruling class characters, a pig named Old Major, explaining that “all the animals are equal”, but that those in charge “… are more equal than others”. Such contemporary Progressive writers as Edward Bellamy in his 1887 “Looking Backward” novel visualized a year-2000 future when all property will be nationalized and everyone will receive an equal spendable stipend from the Nation; in contrast, then-Progressive academicians subscribed to the then-new concept of eugenics: that some people are genetically better-endowed with intelligence than others (the first formal IQ testing took place in 1904) and that the brighter elites have “the white man’s burden” (a Rudyard Kipling quote) to uplift the less-genetically-fortunate around the world. By the 1920’s, a half-dozen States had adopted forced sterilization for some criminals, and North Carolina as recently as 1977 had on the books a statute for sterilization of below-70-IQ persons. In 1927, SCOTUS Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the famous line “three generations of imbeciles is enough”. In that context, early Progressives saw (and still see) themselves, not as equals, but as “the best and brightest” with the obligation of governing us, the less-well-endowed. Now, in the economic context as well, it’s turning out that Progressivism isn’t demanding or producing equality any more, as some amongst us-the-governed are beginning to document. Two examples:
One is Len Schmidt of New Haven, who writes in an LttE to the Addison Independent comparing the regressivity of the Guv’s new gas tax with the special-financial-dispensation that his Golden Domers accorded to retiring UVM Prez Thomas Fogel, resulting in higher cost-of-stay taxes for the middle class, and taxpayer subsidy for the Progressively well-connected. Traditional capitalist theory encourages higher rewards for the more productive in innovation and/or management, in accordance with their successful efforts to produce value for consumers and thus for shareholders, but traditional Progressive theory specifically rejects such inequality of outcome and/or pay-for-results; except that Vermont Prog’s are now doing exactly both, while using Other Peoples’ Money (a little Margaret Thatcher lingo, there) to pay for it, previous promises to the contrary notwithstanding. And not just the gas tax; Schmidt writes as well of the proposed beverage tax and of the cut in EITC credits for low-income taxpayers, all steps which worsen income inequality instead of, as Prog’s always promise, improving it by reducing it. “They are currently working to dramatically raise taxes on working people while defending and strengthening wealth inequality,” as he accurately describes it. Conservatives who defend wealth inequality when honestly earned by talent, effort, or results inequality would not object to wealth inequality for a college Prez who had raised UVM’s academic standing and graduate quality to nationally-recognized levels, but that didn’t happen. Instead, it’s more like the Chicago-style Crony Capitalism which early LaFollette Prog’s quite justifiably deplored.
The CC phenomenon –think either Crony Capitalism or Chicago Corruption, as you may prefer– is similarly the subject of John McClaughry’s recent “Renewable Subsidies for the Rich” piece, just published on the TNR website. Like Schmidt, his complaint is that such economic favoritism is “un-Progressive”, but unlike Schmidt (Humble Scribe guess) he would approve such venture-capitalism (and the unequal rewards which flow therefrom when the ventures succeed) if there were evidence that the basic “green-energy” venture is indeed soundly designed in terms of basic technology and returns-on-investment. As McC points out, it isn’t. Quite the opposite: as he writes, “governments shower lucrative capital and operating subsidies on wind and solar entrepreneurs, then force the utilities to buy their electricity at up to five times the New England wholesale price for 20 to 25 years, charging the extra cost to their ratepayers. What a sweet deal!” Further on, he describes the State’s Comprehensive Energy Plan of 2011 thus: a Vermont Renewable Portfolio in which “…utilities would be required to obtain increasingly higher percentages of their electricity from renewables (including Hydro-Quebec). Achieving this goal would mean that rate-payers would be hammered all the harder. while the investors pocket even greater profits. Nice”.
In traditional capitalism, of course, investors earn such profits when venture-capital is placed at risk and succeeds in a free marketplace because it was entrusted to skillful entrepreneurs wielding advanced technology fully capable of carving, without State Aid, an honestly-earned niche in the free marketplace. McC would not disparage that sequence of events. Here he disparages both the inherent unsoundness of the venture and the lavish nature of the investments (bribe-level, one might say, considering the highly unusual guarantees for returns) and goes on to deplore, just as Schmidt does, the way regular non-investor taxpayers are forced to pay for it. He does not, as your Humble Scribe would, relate both writers’ complaints back to an unspoken State strategy aimed at raising the cost-of-stay so as to encourage the departure of a troublesome middle class most likely to object with their ballots to all such tax-raising and crony-capitalism exercises. Nor does he, as Schmidt similarly didn’t, tie the pattern of favoring the well-connected in academic and green-power elites, some by virtue of recognizing their campaign contributions, at the expense of the middle- and lower-middle-class, back to a contrast with how much such policies and practices reject early Progressive ambitions: to reduce income equality across socio-economic classes, and to replace the venal Chicago-politics sort of crony capitalism –personally-profitable favoritism among elites in governance and elites in “useful” ventures—with above-mere-politics governance-by-management experts. As both writers demonstrate, there’s a shortage of the LaFollette model of high-intellect high-probity high-governance-skill types in Montpelier. HS would add: in the contemporary Progressive Movement nationwide.