Lane Kenworthy's Social Democratic America

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 7 2014 12:57 PM

Lane Kenworthy's Social Democratic America

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Sunrise over Stockholm.

Photo by Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

It's too bad for Lane Kenworthy that his new book, Social Democratic America, was published on Jan. 3, 2014, because otherwise I'd be comfortable calling it the best public policy book of 2013.

His argument, essentially, is that the existing American welfare state can and should be further bolstered as the primary tool for ensuring a future of broadly shared prosperity. He doesn't delve deep into the details of program design, but he calls primarily for:

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  • Completing the project of universal health insurance
  • A more generous Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit
  • Paid parental leave
  • Sickness and wage insurance
  • Active labor market policies

He argues against the right's notion that these policies are unaffordable, saying that broadly higher taxes and then even higher taxes on the highest earners should be compatible with continued economic growth. At a time when more and more left-wing people are inclined to deride welfare state capitalism as "pity-charity liberalism," Kenworthy also argues against the further-left's notion that what we actually need is a revival of trade unionism, a rollback of globilization, or much more extensive labor market regulation. In a few brief but forceful sections, Kenworthy also makes the case that progressives need to start caring more about the cost-effectiveness and quality of public services and not simply see things like schools and transit systems as means for creating highly paid public sector employment.

As readers of this blog know, these are exactly my political opinions so it's no surprise that I loved the book. If you're interested in reading a fleshed-out, coherent, book-length account of this kind of politics rather than a scatter-shot blog form of it, this is the place to go.

There is, however, an interesting difference in framing here. Kenworthy calls his agenda "social democracy" arguing, roughly that the idea is to bring U.S. public policy closer into line with what's practiced in social democracy's traditional Nordic homeland. I think most social democrats would say that what Kenworthy's pushing here is neoliberalism. Perhaps left-neoliberalism or progressive neoliberalism, but explicitly not social democracy—not an effort to reshape the machinery of capitalism. It strikes me that Kenworthy's framing may make this agenda more attractive to progressive book readers, though I think the fundamental issue is that a bigger welfare state doesn't speak to the emotional desire to épater le bourgeois. Either way, though, it's a fantastic book and I hope everyone reads it.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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