Sunday, February 01, 2009

The South vs. America

Via Mattbastard through Sarah, Michael Lind has been publishing some interesting articles of late about the relationship between the South and the rest of the United States. A southerner himself, Lind is extremely critical of what passes for economic thought and government among southern states.

Lind basically says that the South has declared war on the United States, trying to undermine the government, economy, and everything that makes the nation work. He hilariously goes to the Confederate Constitution to demonstrate the absurdity of southern economic arguments, showing how it explicitly banned the federal government from helping manufacturing in one article and then turning around and supporting internal improvements in another. For Lind, this shows the hypocrisy and short-sighted nature of southern politics. I don't disagree even if it is a bit of a facile historical analogy. He writes:

Imagine that. The Confederates, in their constitution, tried to ban all government infrastructure spending to facilitate commerce, but then had second thoughts and included lights, beacons, buoys, and harbors—but nothing else, really, we mean it! The political descendants of these people are the ones who today want to bind the Confederate—excuse me, I mean the US Congress to rigid and inflexible “pay-go” rules no matter what the circumstances and, like the Confederates, want to make transportation rely on user fees like tolls on interstate highways rather than pay for public goods out of taxes.

Of course, after a generation of kow-towing to Southern politicians and Southern politics, the American people have turned their backs on these ideas. This is why the Republicans are increasingly a regional party--obsessing with abortion and gay marriage, keeping America a white man's nation, supporting destructive wars wherever we can find them, and calling for lower taxes and no worker and environmental protections as a way to deal with economic crisis--and this is not a winning platform in a nation in trouble. What's more is that ever since Richard Nixon put the Southern Strategy into play, these ideas have been favored by the Republican Party and its not as if they have a strong intellecutal countertrend at this point to move the party in a different direction. The Republicans are stuck with these ideas right now, even as most Americans have rejected them. The South is trying to fight an economic and cultural civil war against the rest of the country, but it's 1864 and the 21st century equivalent of Sherman's army is marching on Atlanta's steps, waving the banners of freedom to marry who you want, of government equipped to help people through hard times, and of basic human rights, even for those we don't like. The war's been going on for 40 years, it's just that now we are on the verge on winning it, even as southern policies have taken the nation to the brink of economic destruction.

Lind also calls for a Third Reconstruction that wants massive federal action to ensure a more equitable economic future to everyone, destroying the South's race to the bottom economic theories. I do think he plays a bit of a parlor game here in defining Reconstruction. Let's be clear--the first and second Reconstructions (and by the second Reconstruction we are talking about the Civil Rights Movement and laws concerning it) were about African-Americans and their rights within the United States. Many African-American scholars have called for a Third Reconstruction, arguing that until the government forces changes to the non-legal but structural racism that ensures that African-Americans stay in a lower social and economic caste, equality has not been achieved. While I am certainly comfortable expanding that vision in modern America to include people of many minority groups, Lind leaves an explicit discussion of race out of his definition entirely. And that's not quite right. Reconstruction really is about race and a Third Reconstruction needs to be about race in no small part. It also has to be national, to include housing conditions in Chicago and police brutality in Los Angeles, not just a regional discussion of improving the South's economic standards.

But then again, Lind has shown his questionable racial policies in the past, as I have discussed here.

Despite these quibbles, I of course do think that a southern economic model is not good for America. Lind basically wants a progressive economic platform of high minimum wages tied to inflation, revenue-sharing among states and a national economic development plan that would help equalize development around the nation. This would stop the race to the bottom by eliminating states undercutting each other for economic development. He says that such measures "would not turn Mississippi into Vermont," but of course this would be a good thing if it did. The South wants to turn Vermont into Mississippi; how someone could argue this is a good idea is beyond me. One other minor quibble with this bit--he doesn't center strong unions as part of his plan. Escaping unions has long been a major reason for capital flight; federal action to eliminate this incentive would be a huge step in ensuring manufacturing jobs for Americans throughout the nation for years to come.