Make Blue America Great Again

We need more ambition in the parts of the country where progressives can win

Happy Monday!

I’m very excited to get my first real week here at Slow Boring off the ground. But first I wanted to thank everyone who subscribed on Friday or over the weekend. The show of support is incredibly gratifying, and with your help I think we can make this thing work. We’re going to do four weeks of free content, after which most of the content will be for paying members only, so sign up now while introductory rates apply.

I’d also like to encourage members to participate in the comments sections and open threads. I’ve traditionally been very comments-averse myself, even while thinking that comments seem like a good idea in theory. But I realized that paid membership programs are the right way to make this work. Since the only people in the comments are the people who are sufficiently bought-in to pay money, you’re not going to have drive-by trolling. I’ve been delving in and engaging, and I hope you will, too.

Now, on to the main event: I want to talk about the important question of what progressives do in politics in the places we govern.

An upside to NIMBYism?

Since people know I’m interested in the geographic bias of the political system and also in the consequences of housing scarcity in coastal cities, one question people sometimes ask me is whether NIMBYism is politically beneficial. The idea here is that housing scarcity in California drives people out of the state and into more conservative areas, which helps Democrats fight Senate skew.

I think this is probably wrong, factually speaking. California has what’s basically a state-level version of the Congressional Budget Office called the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and when they looked at net migration to and from California, they found that “families with kids and those with only a high school education predominate among those moving from California to its top destination states,” while “college-educated 18 to 35 year olds led the way among those moving to California.” That makes sense as it’s working class families with kids who suffer most from housing scarcity. But that means it’s probably disproportionately Republicans leaving, which is also what most of the anecdotal reporting says. By the same token, exit polls say Beto O’Rourke won native-born Texans in 2018 while losing transplants.

But more fundamentally, I don’t think finding ways to look on the bright side of bad policy choices is a good idea.

Friday’s post was mostly on the bummer theme of how, if progressives want to get anything done in federal politics, we need to reconcile ourselves to trimming our sails quite a bit. But the other side of the coin is that you need to reach for the impossible to some extent or you’ll never achieve anything. Creating an actual statewide high-quality universal preschool program that delivered great results and made everyone happy, for example, would be a great way to build momentum nationally for such a program.

It’s in the blue states like California where the stuff progressives want to be doing with their energy — dreaming big, organizing, demanding stuff — could actually accomplish something. But it’s going to take hard work and also, yes, some technocratic fussing.

Social democracy in one Bay State

My go-to example for this is Massachusetts, the state that pioneered both marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, which became progressives’ two big national successes.

  • At 6.9 million people, Massachusetts has a larger population than Finland or Denmark.

  • While some people say you can’t create a state-level social democracy in the United States because of the lack of monetary sovereignty, Finland is part of the Eurozone and needs to follow EU fiscal rules, and Denmark has its currency pegged to the Euro.

  • Massachusetts has open borders with the rest of the United States, but Finland and Denmark have open borders with the EU.

  • In PPP-adjusted terms, Massachusetts’ GDP per capita is a bit higher than oil-rich Norway and decidedly higher than Finland or Denmark.

Long story short, Massachusetts has the material resources to make social democrats’ dreams come true. And even though Elizabeth Warren’s election results there indicate pretty clearly that she pays an electoral penalty for being seen as an unusually left-wing Democrat, she still easily wins statewide elections — “hey, those ideas are unusually left-wing!” is not an obvious loser there.

If the way forward for Democrats is to reconcile themselves to the realities of the political map, the way forward for progressives is to try to put forward a vision that’s actually exciting and appealing to the unusually progressive electorate of places like Massachusetts, then implement it in those places in a way that makes progressive politics look successful and appealing to voters everywhere.

  • You probably can’t do “Medicare for All” in one state because of interactions with the federal Medicare program, but you could definitely do an ambitious public option with auto-enrollment that’s designed to gain market share over time.

  • You could definitely do free public college, or if that’s too expensive, you could do free community college.

  • All kinds of Green New Deal stuff about energy and transportation infrastructure is doable on the state level.

  • Child allowance and other strategies to reduce poverty are very doable on the state level, as are preschool and child care plans.

  • As David Madland points out, state governments can even create wage boards and move to a system of sectoral collective bargaining.

State government is not a panacea or a long-term alternative to building national political power. But it is potentially a very effective way to make people’s lives better. And more to the point, it is potentially a very effective way to build national political power by showing people you have good ideas that work and that you know what you’re doing.

But a more ambitious version of state-level progressive governance would also have to confront the question of whether or not Blue America’s political leaders do, in fact, know what they’re doing.

Who is Blue America for?

I grew up in Manhattan, went to Harvard, then moved to DC, so I am personally a pretty out-of-touch person.

But my broad sense is that most middle class Americans think of the big blue states, especially New York and California, as nice places to live for rich snobs, not as places that have really high quality public services. People who wouldn’t want to live in Finland (it’s too cold, too dark, bad food) could still concede that it would be nice to have all these free social benefits. But while taxes really are higher in blue America, it’s not like San Francisco has the country’s best public schools or SUNY is the most impressive public university system.

That’s not to say these are horrible places to live! But what you get in New York is access to a unique set of cultural amenities. California has cultural amenities, great weather, and access to the natural beauty that lurks right outside the major cities. To gain access to those amenities you need to deal with high housing costs. So if you’re rich and enjoy that stuff, you can have a nice house in Brooklyn. Alternatively, if you’re rich and live someplace cheaper, you can have a giant mansion, a couple of fancy cars, and a boat. If you’re young, you can have dismal accommodations in a big liberal city but have fun going out and meeting people. But a middle class couple with a generic job and a couple of kids isn’t setting out to blue America for the higher material living standards.

That’s because there are huge regional differences in the cost of living in the United States, they disfavor the blue coastal areas, and they’re driven by housing costs.

If you’ve read anything that I’ve written ever, you know the reason is land use regulations. Reforming those policies is critical to making blue states great places to live, places that people associate with prosperity and policy success rather than eccentric lifestyle preferences.

And while public housing, affordable housing set-asides, and other forms of non-market or “social” housing can be a piece of the puzzle, market-rate housing is essential.

One reason it’s essential is that a well-governed, great place to live should be accessible to middle class people, not an upstairs/downstairs economy of rich people and the subsidy-dependent. But another reason is that robust market-rate housebuilding grows the economy and the tax base and at least makes it conceivable that you’re going to provide first-rate public services instead of just paying off old pension debt. And growing the tax base matters. It’s not true that you can’t build a robust welfare state in a governance unit that needs to balance its budget. But it is true that in state and local politics you are playing with real money. Cash spent on the library can’t go to the parks. Cash spent on the bus means higher taxes. To be popular and effective you need to deliver value, especially if you’re not sitting on a geyser of tech IPOs throwing off tax revenue.

Subway socialism

Over the past few years I’ve gotten really interested in the so-called “sewer socialists” of Milwaukee.

In the early 20th century there was a big base of German immigrants in the Milwaukee area to whom socialism was not a scary foreign concept, so socialists were able to win elections and control municipal government. In office, they built one of the first municipal public works departments, and they were proud of the DPW’s accomplishments. Other socialists from elsewhere around the country were, as socialists in America typically are, left-wing intellectuals detached from practical governance. And they made fun of these Milwaukee guys for constantly talking about their public works rather than overthrowing capitalism.

But what the Milwaukee guys got was that if you want non-market provision of stuff, there comes a time when you actually need to go do the stuff. You can say that Vienna proves excellent public housing is possible. But the New York City Housing Authority also proves that really awful public housing is possible. If the biggest city in America provides public housing that’s awful, that’s both a humanitarian disaster and also naturally discredits the idea more broadly.

Here’s a recent article in a tunnel-building trade publication talking about digging tunnels in New York vs in Germany (emphasis added):

Although the material and equipment costs are similar (within 10%) for projects in the United States and in Europe, labor costs are substantially higher in the United States as outlined above. For example, in California the average billing labor rates for qualified tunnel workers is about $70/hr and the average New York labor rate of qualified tunnel workers is at over $100/hr, whereas in Germany (one of the high labor rates countries in Europe) the comparable labor rate is about $30/hr. In other European countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, etc., labor rates are even lower. The EU legislation allowing workers from lower paid countries such as Spain and Poland working in other EU countries keeps the labor cost low.

Union rules are significantly different in Europe vs the United States, especially as related to overtime and number of workers in a tunnel. For example, in New York, the number of workers at the face of the tunnel can be up to four times the number of workers required in Germany or Austria for similar projects. Overtime in the United States is paid using a factor of up to 2 or 3 of the base rates; while in Germany for example, overtime is compensated by time off instead.

New York is paying triple German salaries and then overstaffing by as much as four times!

That kind of featherbedding and graft is the opposite of sewer socialism. And it’s very telling that while in Germany they actually have a strong role for labor unions in the workplace, in the United States what we have instead is the sandhog union ripping off the taxpayers. And American mass transit is sadly shot through with this kind of scam.

Transit Matters has an excellent proposal to upgrade the MBTA Commuter Rail into something like a German S-Bahn serving the whole Greater Boston area.

Some of what they propose is hard infrastructure.

  • They want to dig a North-South Rail Link connecting North Station to South Station so that trains can run through the city rather than stopping in the middle.

  • They want to electrify all the tracks, so fast-accelerating electric multiple unit (EMU) trains can be used.

  • With the EMUs in place, they want to add some infill stations to provide transit service to parts of Boston that currently lack it.

  • They want to upgrade the train stations to have high platforms so you can step on and off the trains without stairs.

But in some ways the most important part of the program is organizational. The fares should be the same whether you’re riding what they call Regional Rail or the T.

But to make this work, you need to run trains without conductors to collect the tickets. You’d use either fare gates (like on a subway) or sporadic spot-checks with proof of payment. It’s not a novel idea by any means, but it does mean taking on the entrenched interests of a particular labor union, just like ending the overstaffing of tunnel boring machines would. But if you paired this proposal to upgrade the region’s transit with this Brookings Institution proposal to legalize apartments near Boston-area transit stations, you’d really be getting somewhere.

Progressive politics needs ambition

Now I hear you saying, “wait wait this started with talking about how we should build social democracy in blue states and ended with a bunch of deregulation and union-busting — it smells like neoliberalism.”

Well, yes and no. If you could cut tunneling costs in half, then many more tunnels would pass cost-benefit muster and you’d build more tunnels. Heck, with more cost-effective tunneling you might end up increasing your overall tunnel budget. An efficient public sector isn’t the same as a small one. In many ways, it’s just the opposite. A well-performing public sector is the kind of public sector you’d want to expand. And a state that provides excellent public services in a cost-effective way could attract businesses even while imposing wage boards to boost incomes.

What’s needed is not exactly for blue state governance to be more left-wing or less left-wing, but for it to be more ambitious.

There are some good things happening in the blue states. Portland did a good zoning reform last year. Colorado is doing paid leave. But Democratic presidential campaigns, even Joe Biden’s, had vast policy agendas that likely wouldn’t have made it through the Senate even if Democrats had done a bit better in the election. And the agendas in states like New York and California where Democrats have actual governing majorities are much more timid than that.

Now, if blue state Democrats got more ambitious, they might just fail. But to recycle yesterday’s Weber quote, “man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” And that to me means trying to do big things in the places where progressives actually do win elections.

But we can’t just blame the politicians. The nationalization of media and political attention has created a situation in which the way to be a progressive superstar is to become a backbench member of Congress who engages with online progressive politics in an appealing way. If we want big things to happen in state government, then we — literally, you who read this and I who write it — need to make it the case that the road to stardom for someone like Ayanna Pressley or AOC is to run for governor and try to enact these policies in states where success might actually be possible.

It’s up to us.