Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where Have You Gone, Ted Halstead?

Back in December of 2010 Clive Crook had some harsh words to say about the launching of the centrist organization, No Labels. To say he wasn't impressed is putting it mildly:
Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.
Oh dear. Accentuate the negative, as any marketing expert will tell you. Put the stress on what you are not. No Labels! Well, come to think of it, keep your labels, as the website says: then, united in the belief that you do not have to give them up, put them aside. I think it means keep them out of sight. Wear your label but hide it, with pride, under your coat.
I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough?
Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof.


The thing is, I think Crook is correct. Taking a look at the No Labels website, you see a really slick site talking about working together and all that, but there is no there there. There are no policy ideas, just sentiment.

Which is something that has bothered me about centrists at least as of late: the movement, seems based on niceties more than it does about ideas.

It wasn't always this way. There were what I would call centrist thinkers that proposed ideas that could have been the basis for a real, sustained movement. About ten years ago Ted Halstead along with Michael Lind, put forth a book called The Radical Center. In many ways, this book was a manifesto for centrism in America. Halstead was one of the founders of the New America Foundation and he was able to craft a book crammed with ideas that were not totally left leaning or conservative, but were distinctly American.

Halstead was busy during the Bush years writing opeds promoting centrist ideas. Here's an example from an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2004:

here are seven big ideas for improving our national condition, each of which defies the conventional political spectrum and could be ripe for the picking by either party:
  • Every baby a trust-fund baby. Just as the nation broadened the ownership of land in the 19th century through the Homestead Act, and of houses in the 20th century through the mortgage interest tax deduction, expanding the ownership of financial assets should be the cause of the 21st century. British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the example by championing a law that endows every British newborn with financial assets from birth. We should follow suit and inaugurate a new era of universal capitalism in the United States.
  • Universal coverage for universal responsibility. Why not approach health insurance like car insurance by making it mandatory? Coupled with public subsidies for those who need them, mandatory insurance could cover all 43 million uninsured Americans and lower the cost of coverage for those who are insured (by broadening the risk pool to include the young and healthy, the 18- to 34-year-olds who are the most likely to be uninsured), all while costing the government less than Kerry's plan, which is said to reach 27 million uninsured.
  • Tax consumption, not work. You would never know it by listening to politicians, but more than 70% of American families pay more in payroll taxes than in any other tax. Yet no other tax does more to retard job creation or to reduce take-home pay, especially among low-income workers. By eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a progressive national consumption tax, we could create a lot more jobs and generate a lot more savings -- thereby solving our two greatest economic problems at once.
  • End all farm subsidies. Our farm subsidies are vestiges of the past. They harm farmers and the environment, create agricultural gluts, retard global free trade, hurt Third World countries and cost taxpayers $20 billion a year. By ending these subsidies, we could not only alleviate these various problems but free up the resources to, say, endow every child from birth with financial assets. While we're at it, let's end all forms of corporate welfare, which would free up an additional $50 billion for better uses.
  • Family-friendly workplaces. Although the traditional family is no longer the norm, our workplaces have yet to adapt, penalizing those who need flexibility to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities, often by depriving them of good jobs and basic benefits. This two-tier labor market should be ended by making basic benefits citizen-based instead of employer-based and by giving all workers the flexibility of today's part-time workers, along with the benefit security of full-time workers.
  • A race to energy independence. It is a cliche that the United States should pursue energy independence with the same vigor that once fueled its race to space. Yet we lack a viable plan to light this new fire. The answer may lie in another recent revolution -- the biotech one -- in which a competition between private industry and a public consortium greatly accelerated the mapping of the human genome. Why not apply a similar model to energy efficiency by funding a high-profile contest between public and private parties?
  • Building a global middle class. At a time of a ballooning trade deficit and global overcapacity, the U.S. needs other countries to consume more and to export less. The best way to accomplish both is by exporting the middle-class development model (such as 30-year mortgages) that created mass affluence in our own nation half a century ago. By recasting the globalization debate around the overarching goal of building a global middle class, we could promote prosperity and stability at home and abroad.
Halstead was not just griping about the current state of political parties, he was actually putting forth ideas.

Halstead stepped down as chairman of New America in 2007 and his bio says he's involved in a new green startup and sailing around the world with his wife. Frankly, I wished he would get out of his boat and get back to providing some new ideas.

The reason at times that I've become cynical about centrism in the United States is because it doesn't seems to stand for much of anything, presents few new ideas, and does very little except complain.

I miss not having thinkers like Ted Halstead around. We need someone like that to fire the imagination of centrists in America.

In December I agreed with Crook's assessment of No Labels and wrote the following:
My ongoing problem with No Labels is that I think it is another weak-willed effort to come up with some effort calling on politicians to be nice and nothing more. There is little talk of ideas that might be able to move the country forward.

What I’d love to see is a true centrist ideology, along the lines that Crook talks about or maybe the classical liberal model found in the Free Democrats in Germany or the Liberal Democrats in the UK. Yes, civility is important, but frankly I want bold ideas and people willing to back them up.

I feel bad talking smack about a movement that is all about civility. But at the end of the day, I also think that ideas count for something as well in a democratic society.
Come back, Ted Halstead. We need you.

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