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A Liberal Reworking Of Liberal Ideas


Economics

A LIBERAL REWORKING OF LIBERAL IDEAS

Inflation may be down in the economy, but it's still high in the policy-advice business. In 1980, the conservative Heritage Foundation published Mandate for Leadership, a l,000-page road map for Reagan's transition to power. In 1988, its Mandate for Leadership III for the Bush transition team weighed in at 953 pages. Now the conservatives are silent. But the liberals have more than taken up the slack.

The Citizens Transition Project, headed by Mark Green, New York City's Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, has sent President-elect Clinton a 1,200-page tome by 80 authors. Changing America: Blueprints for a New Democracy is a liberal how-to manual with "hundreds of reforms--large and small, short-term and long-term, legislative and administrative--for a better America."

RETREADS. There's lots more. New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo offers his economic advice in America's Agenda: Rebuilding Economic Strength. The Brookings Institution has its reasoned, pragmatic Setting Domestic Priorities: What Can Government Do? The Progressive Policy Institute, closely linked with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council and Clinton's campaign, has its own transition guide.

Many of the unsolicited ideas in these reports don't rate Bill Clinton's attention. Some of the papers in the Citizens Transition Project tome, for example, are rhetoric-heavy and analysis-light. Green himself relies too much on such phrases as "laissez isn't always fair" to demonstrate competition's limited benefits. Others are simply retreads of old proposals, such as Ralph Nader's call for a federal Consumer Advocacy Office. The Cuomo report ducks when it comes to curbing the federal deficit. Most of the proposed tax hikes and spending cuts in the report await the "recommendations" of a yet-to-be-formed National Budget Commission.

Despite their disagreement, these papers hold some powerful ideas in common and reveal how the liberal agenda has changed. For one, while liberals still fret about income inequality, their main focus is getting the economy growing. And they now assume that while the government can drive social change, it cannot solve all social ills.

The key to economic growth, say the liberals, is investment spending, public and private. As the Cuomo study puts it: Our "investment shortfall extends from factories and equipment to public infrastructure, from work force training to research and development for new products, from bridge maintenance to innovative technologies."

To raise public and private investment calls for an activist government, say the liberals. The 1980s showed that simply cutting tax rates and

relying on the free market to do the rest just won't work in today's global economy. By and large, the liberals want Washington to encourage private-sector investment by passing an investment tax credit and cutting capital-gains taxes, but only for long-term investments. They also want to shift defense research and development spending to civilian purposes and create a universal health-care system.

Meanwhile, the liberals have abandoned their reliance on government to solve social problems. They now emphasize individual responsibility: The government should help out the homeless and reform the welfare system, but policy should put more weight on self-help and rewarding work.

Liberals are still activists. But their old cry for government to solve any problem is hardly a whisper today.Christopher Farrell in New York


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