Centrists Don’t Care About Jobs

A couple days ago I wrote a piece for the Plum Line about how centrists have been rather wrong-footed by the new populist uprising in the form of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Don’t you lefties see, they plead, we need to focus on jobs? Yes we do, I argued:

But this has brought about a reaction from center-left types, who insist that the progressives have their priorities wrong. In the process, they mischaracterize the progressive view, and set up a false dichotomy between that and establishment positions. Progressives see inequality as a fundamental part of why our economy is not working as it once did, not a problem to be placed above job creation.

Mulling it over, I think the centrist reaction here is more telling, and more cynical, than I’ve made out. Because when you read pieces from folks like Bill Keller (as establishmentarian as they come) the centrist jobs plan has no actual content:

The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. Yes, you want to provide greater security for those without independent means (see Obamacare), but you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. Yes, you can raise taxes on the rich, but you don’t want to punish success.

Nowhere does Keller actually explain how the centrist program would create jobs, except for vague gestures at deregulation, business confidence, and “entitlement reform.” Neither monetary nor fiscal stimulus is mentioned (except under his left-left heading), and when it comes to short-term job creation that’s the entire policy menu.

I think, therefore, the new centrist focus on jobs is best viewed as a tactical retreat cloaking the traditional elite agenda of austerity and deficit reduction, which has been discredited due to its utter intellectual collapse. There are a variety of cultural, financial and political reasons for this kind of thinking (best outlined by Michal Kalecki) but the important thing is that they have nothing to do with jobs or growth, so they’re completely impervious to traditional evidence. And this makes perfect sense—as Paul Krugman points out today, the American elite has almost never been in such a dominant position. Who needs a stronger job market when profits are high and workers cowed?

Therefore, we see a lot of sublimated thinking and rationalizing for what amounts to class instinct.

Now, there are some centrists like Ezra Klein that seem honest in their desire for jobs over inequality, and have a much more clear-eyed explanation why. But he’s the exception that proves the rule.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.