Dean Baker is loaded for bear

"The Conservative Nanny State": Ammunition for the progressive on the warpath.

Published May 10, 2006 6:15PM (EDT)

If there is one phrase in the lexicon of right-wing rhetorical bomb-throwing that really gets my berserker blood rage going, it is "nanny state." Used generally to deride the idea of a government that endeavors to take care of its citizens, nanny state is another one of those terms always said with a sneer. The basic thrust being: If you're not good enough to flourish in the free market, then the hell with you. Poor people deserve to be poor. Can't afford health insurance? Too bad, the quicker you die off, the quicker the rest of us get to stop being annoyed by you. The macho strut factor cannot be ignored -- John Wayne didn't need a nanny to take care of him, and if you do, that's because you're weak and pathetic.

Given that preamble, you can now likely understand why, when progressive economist Dean Baker announced on his blog Beat the Press that his think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, had published his new e-book "The Conservative Nanny State," I downloaded the thing straightaway and started reading. Conservative nanny state? What could he possibly be saying?

Baker had me from the preface:

"This book is written in frustration and hope. People in the United States who consider themselves progressive must be frustrated over the extent to which conservative political ideologies have managed to dominate public debate about economic policy in the last quarter century..."

"The key flaw in the stance that most progressives have taken on economic issues is that they have accepted a framing whereby conservatives are assumed to support market outcomes, while progressives want to rely on the government. This framing leads progressives to futilely lash out against markets, rather than examining the factors that lead to undesirable market outcomes. The market is just a tool, and in fact a very useful one. It makes no more sense to lash out against markets than to lash out against the wheel. The reality is that conservatives have been quite actively using the power of the government to shape market outcomes in ways that redistribute income upward."

And that's what "The Conservative Nanny State" is about -- how the right uses Big Government to protect the interests of the rich and hurt the interests of the poor. From Fed policy on interest rates to intellectual property laws to "free trade" agreements that should actually be called "protectionist," Baker surveys the field of economic policymaking and then riddles it with holes using a rapid-fire howitzer. I've only read the first two chapters so far of this short (119-page) book, but he's got me hooked.

It's not that Baker is saying anything particularly new that progressives haven't been saying for years -- it's how he says it. Writing for the layman, he puts the last 25 years of economic policy into a framework that cleverly repositions the terms of debate. Once one can point out that the so-called free market does not exist, and in fact is being warped and twisted by the right far more than by the left, one becomes much more potent on the ideological battlefield.

So next time you feel like picking a bar fight on the topic of inflation, read a chapter or two of "The Conservative Nanny State" first. You'll be well armed.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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