04/09/2012 01:20 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012


Time to go radical.

Reasonable is not working.

If I hear one more politician or ersatz journalist rail about the need to find bi-partisan common ground in the sweet spot of a centrism where immediate deficit reduction and job growth live in some sort of economic harmony, I am going to get sick. It isn't going to happen.

It can't.

Over the last thirty years, conservative orthodoxy has simply pulled too much demand out the economy. That is what happens when (1) wages stagnate, the result of unions collapsing and globalized wage arbitrage taking over, and (2) bankers get unregulated free rein to peddle "products" that put consumers in long-term hock, which is what they accomplished when everyone was allowed to use their home as a credit card. Once those same bankers turned mortgages into cash for speculators via the now-infamous mortgage-backed securities, the con was complete. The ensuing real estate bubble created the impression that there was a free lunch (in the form of ever rising asset values).

And then the bubble burst.

Today, consumers are still over-leveraged (thanks to that explosion of private debt over the last decade), but banks can't lend enough (given the shakiness of their balance sheets -- where all those mortgage-backed securities are still being held at par -- and the perceived need to adhere to credit standards that were ignored in the run up to 2008). So private spending is still weak.

The March jobs report was a big disappointment. The private sector produced a mere 120,000 jobs that month. Wall Street (and just about everyone else) expected the number to be in the 200,000 range and it wasn't even close. The recovery from 2008 continues unabated. But its pace is anemic and uncertain. In this world, conservatives continue to talk about immediate deficit reduction, business confidence and fears of inflation, certain that dealing with the first and the second is necessary to curb the third and produce jobs.

All of this, however, is pure economic bunk.

As Paul Krugman has continually pointed out to anyone willing to listen, we have not begun to put a dent in the job losses that came in the wake of 2008. The percentage of "prime age" workers who are actually employed -- a real number, unlike the unemployment rate, which is distorted by failing to count those who stop looking -- went down by about five points during the collapse and has gone up by less than one in the "recovery." At the same time, our nominally low inflation rate (about 2% overall, even with the recent gas price hike) shows no sign of precipitously rising any time in the near future. Businesses are not hiring and producing because there is not enough demand (unemployed debtors don't have a lot of walking-around money), not because they are worried about the tax and regulatory environment.

The near term solution to all of this was a sufficient stimulus and some inflation. The conservatives, however, made the former impossible, and the chattering classes (including a lot of professional economists who should know better) have scuttled the latter. What we have, therefore, and have had for some time now, is an economic crisis that our political culture seems powerless to confront and solve.

The problem here is not a lack of ideas. We have known how to pull ourselves out of depressions and severe recessions for at least 80 years. You do it by getting the government to increase consumer demand given that the private sector can't or won't. This typically involves some form of government spending -- either on infrastructure (which creates both an immediate bump up in demand and also helps with long term productivity), welfare spending (food, housing, etc., which just increases demand), or targeted tax cuts (which increase demand so long as they are properly targeted to those who will spend the money rather than bank it).

None of this, however, is politically possible now. A deficit which could create problems in the medium and long term is being used to eliminate any rational economic response to demand problems in the short term. It is also being used to eliminate any policies which could devalue private debt, which is what inflation and/or various forms of foreclosure relief would do. And the folks manning the barricades as deficit hawks circa 2012 are the same people who brought you the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and the two unpaid-for wars of the last ten years, which cumulatively turned the Clinton surplus into Bush's sea of red ink.

But hypocrisy has no cost in American politics.

So it is practiced with abandon.

I am a believer in incremental progress. I understand that American federalism is very slow. It is far easier to stop something than it is to pass anything. And that was the Founders' collective intent. Over our two hundred plus years of history, therefore, progressives have always had to fight a two-steps-forward-three-steps-back war against reactionaries and the status quo. Their opponents changed -- from slaveholders to industrialists to stock speculators to sexists. But the process rarely changed.

Except when it did.

Because, from time to time, progressives have abandoned the marble temples of incremental American federalism and...

Gone radical.

They've raised hell, hit the streets, jumped to the front of the bus, crossed the bridge, burned the draft cards, or camped out on the Mall. Unable to change the conversation from within, they altered it from without. Unwilling to defer to authority, they defied it. And underestimated by a smug establishment, they created a new one.

That is where we are today. The system isn't working. Twenty years ago, in his presidential campaign, former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas made a point of admonishing unreconstructed New Dealers and trade unionists to stop bashing business. And the Democrats heard him and stopped. But now the other side has turned bashing labor... or women... or gay people... into a cottage industry. And that has to be stopped too. Progressives have to hit the streets. The kids have to vote like they did in 2008. The Wall Street occupiers have to return to Zuccotti Park. The conversation has to change.

The people who change it will not be the bankers, hedge funders, or politicians checking out the "internals" on their polls. Because we have to stop talking just about margin... or return on investment... or individual responsibility... or the swing voter. And begin talking about redistribution... and economic fairness... and justice.

We need to rediscover what it means to be a citizen in a democratic republic.

Rather than just a consumer in a capitalist economy.

We need to go radical.