10/26/2007 03:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Rise of Captive-Industry Populism

In an American political culture dominated by mindless free-trade and free-market fundamentalism, we have all heard the arguments against economic populism. Conservatives tell us that any effort to force corporations to behave properly is "anti-business" and will result in harm to our economy. Traditional, old-school liberals often avoid power-challenging policies and instead propose to spend more taxpayer money to bribe companies to do the right thing. Progressive populism, as I have written before, is different than both of these ideologies when it comes to these issues in that progressive populism believes that A) the government, and not just the market, is needed to deal with corporate misbehavior and B) when the government deals with corporate misbehavior, it should use its legal authority rather than only the taxpayers' treasury to protect society. In my new nationally syndicated column out today, I explain how this all works and show how a powerful new form of progressive populism is taking hold in states and localities across the country: Call it captive-industry populism.

I got to thinking about this when I first read Princeton economist Alan Blinder's paper, which sent shockwaves of bad news through the media. What no one seemed to report was the good news in Blinder's otherwise alarming paper: That state and local governments have a huge amount of leverage over the geography-dependent industries within their jurisdiction.

In the column, I walk through a number of examples of how captive-industry populism is being put into action in states and communities throughout the country. This by no means is a comprehensive list of examples. If you think about captive-industry populism for a while, you will realize how applicable it is on many different issues - from health care to transportation to energy to the environment to land politics to labor organizing.

At the congressional level, captive-industry populism relates to almost everything. Every company wants to do business in the United States, and if Congress found the will to leverage that desire for access as a way to force corporations to abide by more progressive laws, it would be terrific. The problem, of course, is that Congress typically behaves like a wholly owned corporate subsidiary. So that leaves state and municipal governments, which tend to be treated by political activists as unimportant backwaters but, as I show in the column, actually have a huge role to play in better regulating our economy so that it works for more people.

As progressives, we should be looking for the strategies that allow us to marshal the most leverage for our agenda (and, in fact, the Progressive States Network, which I co-chair, is already trying to think of ways to push this strategy in our states). On economic issues, captive-industry populism is an ideology that perfectly fits that bill. I'm not saying we shouldn't also be going up against the Wal-Mart's or the Microsofts when they treat workers terribly, harm the environment or otherwise misbehave. But what I am saying is that captive-industries offer us opportunities where the odds in the fight are far less steep.

Go read the whole column here and let me know what you think. And if you'd like to see my column regularly in your local paper, use this directory to find the contact info for your local editorial page editors. Get get in touch with them and point them to my Creators Syndicate site.

Cross-posted from Working Assets