Skip to content
TPMCafe: Politics, Ideas and Lots of Caffeine
Two Cheers for Special Interests
I'm probably not the best person to rebut Mickey Kaus' attacks on the Davis-Bacon Act since I don't really know anything about it, but even accepting his characterization of the issue for the sake of argument I don't buy it. Here's what he has to say:
A Democrat who is serious about using the state for the public good, as opposed to protecting the AFL-CIO, will realize that Davis-Bacon creates a huge hidden impediment to effective government action (if it involves building anything)--and will affirmatively welcome any initiative that undermines the Act. A Democrat who is worried more about union support will do what Drum and Reed do.So here's the shape of the river. Davis-Bacon strengthens unions, but it makes it harder to do some worthwhile government stuff. In particular, with Davis-Bacon, $X worth of appropriations for, say, building public housing will get you Y units. Without Davis-Bacon those $X would get you some larger number of units zY. So, according to Kaus, Davis-Bacon is bad, QED. Right? Well, not really.
That kind of thinking strikes me as precisely the sort of "policy literalism" that rightly gets critiqued in "The Death of Environmentalism" and that's done little good for progressive politics. It's true that if all you care about is how much public housing we build this budget cycle that Davis-Bacon looks bad, but liberals have every reason to look at the situation more broadly. With Davis-Bacon, you get stronger unions and you get unions as your allies. Those strong, friendly unions then serve as a constituency for appropriating money for federal construction projects. As a result, over the long haul money will be appropriated for such projects and the things will get built.
The limiting factor then become the large interests at work who are trying to starve the government of revenue.
Scrap Davis-Bacon and the GOP doesn't call off the tax cut jihad. But progressives will have knee-capped unions, one of the only forces in American society that's actually capable of serving as a constituency for the principle that the government ought to have revenue. And unions, rather than owing you a debt that might be repaid in terms of support on other topics that aren't narrowly in their interest, see that it's every interest-group for themselves and the whole progressive coalitions continues to break down.
That's a very bad deal on the whole. It's true that you'll probably never achieve an Ideal Policy Utopia as long as politicians are sometimes kowtowing to union interests rather than an abstract conception of the public good. But it's much more true that you're never going to have a politics wholly dominated by an abstract conception of the public good. Politics is the art of the possible, and trying to advance the public interest is necessarily a case of searching for satisficing solutions to problems.
Unless we're just going to abolish capitalism (which would be a bad idea) there are going to be powerful corporate lobbies at work in the political process. Unless those lobbies are checked by some other lobbies, they're going to totally dominate the political process. Unions, historically, have been the major counterweight. If there's going to be a progressive politics in this country capable of accomplishing anything, it's going to need a reasonably strong union movement to be a reasonably large part of it. The notion that you'll be able to advance a sustained anti-poverty agenda while simultaneously crippling unionism is absurd.
Does that mean liberals should never deviate from the AFL-CIO line? Of course not. If it were really the case that the only way to have federal construction projects was to repeal Davis-Bacon, then that'd just be the thing you'd have to do. But that's not how it goes in the real world. It's both a question of how much money you appropriate and how cheaply you can get things done. There's simply no possibility of public housing advocates (or whomever) building a lasting political alliance with the tax-cut-and-union-bust people to accomplish anything. The earnest neoliberals would win the battle tomorrow and then get stabbed in the back the next day.
Now arguably there was a time in America when the coalition backing the Democratic Party was so entrenched and overweening that elements of that coalition really were a substantial barrier to progress. I haven't made a study of the question, but I'll grant it as a possibility. That moment, however, is clearly not September 2005 when unions are a shell of their former selves and Democrats hold zero percent of the political power in Washington. For different elements of the progressive coalition to start stabbing each other in the back to try and maximize their share of table scraps would be suicidal. Coalition-management is a perfectly legitimate element of politics and it's really just silly to pretend otherwise.
Overheard in TPMCafe Blogs
Overheard in Discussion Area
Recommended Reader Blogs