In Praise of Radical Moderation
Alice Rivlin’s Last Book, “Divided We Fall,” and Some Personal Reflections on a Remarkable American
Alice Rivlin was tiny in physical stature – barely above 5 foot tall – but a giant as a public servant, an economist, an intellectual, and a great human being. One of America’s best in my lifetime. And as readers will learn at the end, someone I was not only privileged to know and work with, but also a huge force in my life (as well, I know, in the lives of countless others).
For those of you who don’t know of Alice, who died of lung cancer in May 2019, her incredible Wikipedia entry doesn’t do her justice: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Rivlin. Founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve, President of the American Economic Association, Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, and on and on. And all as a trail-blazing woman, a role model for many more like her in the economics profession and in public service.
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Alice was a self-described “radical moderate” – a thoughtful Democrat who tirelessly advocated and pursued policies to fulfill the Constitution’s preamble of making this country a more perfect union, but always willing to work for bipartisan compromise when it almost always proved necessary. By all means, try to get the whole loaf, or something close to it, but always remember: half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.
Alice was also an inveterate optimist, knowing there will always be next time, another bill, another election, just keep moving forward.
Both these qualities are on full display in her last book, Divided We Fall (Brookings Institution, 2022), which was about 2/3 done before she died and which was finished posthumously by her son, Allan Rivlin and his wife, Sheri Rivlin. The book is both a history lesson that sweeps through America’s nearly 250 years – from the Founding Fathers to today – in just a few short chapters that demonstrates powerfully and with punch how this country was built on compromise. For budget geeks like herself – she was preeminent in the field – she provides a detailed accounting of multiple bipartisan federal budget deals that have been negotiated in recent decades, as well as the failure to reach compromise during the Obama administration (which she attributes to neither Speaker Boehner nor the President having sufficient support within their respective parties represented in Congress to make the compromises that were necessary – higher taxes and trimming of entitlement spending – to secure deal, then and now).
As she was dying, Alice was as pessimistic about our future as I’ve ever heard her to be. Indeed, she begins the book with these words: “The American experiment is in danger of failing.” Her book is a Cri de Coeur -- a plea to the American people that unless they, too, recognize and support political leaders who are willing to compromise, especially on ways to share the nation’s prosperity, the American experiment will fail.
As Sheri and Allan acknowledge in the introduction, things have only gotten worse since Alice’s death. She didn’t live to see how the nation’s greatest health emergency since 1918 – the COVID pandemic – that not only has killed a million of our citizens, and counting, but ripped an already polarized electorate even further apart. Or how close to the country came to losing its democracy in the January 6th insurrection. At points, Sherri and Allan wondered whether they could fulfill Alice’s dying wish that they complete the book, given that Alice’s life work, trying to work out bipartisan compromises on so many issues, seemed so threatened. But they preserved and finished. Thank goodness they did. Because it is a must read for all who care about the future of America, not only about we have gotten to this awful place and but also how we might get out of it.
Alice saw the world through the lens of her own background as one of the nation’s preeminent “political economists,” one who spent her life both in the world of serious economic research and policymaking, where economists are joined by political activists and professional politicians. As such, Alice’s diagnosis for how the country got off track – specifically, how we became so sorted into blue and red party labels – is multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary: a heavy emphasis not only on economic forces that have contributed to growing “vertical” inequality (by income group) and “horizontal” inequality (inequality across regions), but also a growing rift on culture and race. She doesn’t parse the precise contributions of each factor, which is prudent because I don’t think we’ll ever know. But were she alive today, I think Alice would agree that reducing the two types of economic inequality she usefully identifies is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for reducing political polarization.
Polarization mattered to Alice because it makes bipartisan cooperation extremely difficult, if not impossible. That’s bad because policy solutions to our national challenges – climate change, a structural federal deficit that is worsening over time, income and wealth inequality, suppression of voting rights and more recently the counting of votes, and so on – require bipartisan compromise, which Alice documents that through time has been essential for all major legislation enacted to date (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, various tax cuts or tax reform, and so on). As people sort themselves into parties made up along ideological lines that are also roughly in parity, then at least at the federal level, each election becomes a fight to death, with control over both Congressional chambers always at stake in every election, with the country’s fate resting on a knife’s edge. With each party thus insecure, neither party– though Rivlin singles out especially Republicans who have moved much further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left – is willing to compromise on much of anything. All the while, our national problems continue to mount, with Congress increasingly dysfunctional
So, how does the country get out of this apparent doom loop? Alice gives her best shot at answer in her closing chapter. Given her background, it is not surprising she offers several suggestions for rules changes in Congress that would promote more bipartisan cooperation and consensus building, beginning with ending the filibuster. As she importantly reminds readers, drawing on the definitive history of the filibuster by Brookings’ Sarah Binder, the framers and the Constitution never endorsed or included the Senate filibuster, which is fundamentally inconsistent with majority rule. Where the Constitution imposed super-majority voting requirements – for treaties and impeachment, for example – it is very specific. No mention of a super-majority is made for routine legislation. As Binder documents, which Rivlin cites, the filibuster rule developed by accident because in redrafting the Senate rules in 1806 Aaron Burr neglected to include rules that “called for the previous question” and only later did the Senate adopt rules for ending debate (the super majority cloture rule, initially 2/3 later lowered to 60 percent). Rivlin documents that increasingly, the filibuster has been used to obstruct rather than promote compromise.
Still, even with the other rules changes Rivlin offers, none will happen unless members of Congress, specifically want to promote compromise. And with Members increasingly polarized, viewing compromise as a 21rst century four letter curse word, there is little to no chance any of the changes Rivlin recommends will be adopted. The proverbial chicken-and-egg problem….
The same critique applies to Rivlin’s thoughtful suggestions, applied from her work with former Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and other colleagues with the Bipartisan Policy Center, for reforming the budget process, including moving to two year budgets, making continuing resolutions and debt ceiling increases automatic (thereby removing threats of government shutdowns), and surprisingly, bringing back earmarks, which she correctly notes were never large in total, and are useful for lubricating negotiations over much larger issues and thus often critical to bringing about the compromises that are necessary for government to function. As with the larger process reforms, members of Congress – and the public – must want government to work, rather than showboat on cable TV channels.
Alice closes with an appeal to everyone to become more involved in civic life and institutions at all levels. To get off our proverbial couches and away from Twitter, to show up at public events and make the case for compromise, and to work at democracy – because we ultimately get the government we collectively deserve.
Allan and Sheri provide a thoughtful postscript, attempting to channel Alice, both in what they correctly intuit her likely reactions to the multiple events in the three-plus years since she passed away. Of course, she would have been horrified, deeply saddened and fearful after January 6th and in the politicization of the response to the COVID nightmare. The question: given all that, would she still be giving the same advice about the need for compromise and bipartisanship now, even as the country has become much more polarized (if that is possible) than it was in the spring of 2019?
The short answer about the advice is yes, she still would have the same message. She would note, as Allan and Sheri point out, that despite polarization, a number of bipartisan bills nonetheless made it into law in the Trump administration, and more recently during the Biden administration. And she would agree with the cautiously optimistic note on which the postscript ends: that a coalition of progressives (who the Rivlins acknowledge are the “beating heart” of the Democratic party but comprise a clear minority of the US electorate overall), moderate Democrats, independents, and traditional Republicans (especially those Republicans in the Senate who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill) will ultimately save democracy. As Rivlin notes in her book, during the 1930s the US also was deeply polarized, and FDR had to assemble a similar coalition to pass the multiple bills that made up the New Deal.
As I write this, we are only three weeks away from the November mid-terms, while early voting in some state is already underway. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that even fewer moderates in both parties – but especially among Republicans – will be serving in Congress next year than now. And if the latest polling is any indication, not only will Republicans take the House, which will have more hardliners unwilling to compromise, but there is some chance they could take the Senate as well. The key driving factor behind the seeming reversal in fortunes for Democrats, after the enthusiasm surge post-Dobbs, is the economy, trumping (yes, pun intended) concerns about the very real threat to democracy posed by the impending victory of many election-denying Republican candidates who will count the votes – as long they win. That’s not democracy. That’s autocracy.
Nor is the economic news likely to get any better after the election. With inflation so stubbornly high, and supply interruptions likely to continue on account of the war in Ukraine and a likely double whammy of another COVID surge and a flu surge this winter, the Fed will have to slam on the brakes hard to get core inflation down to the 3% range (the pain probably will be too great for the Fed to squeeze the rate down to 2%). How far into 2024, the next election year, the recession will extend is anyone’s guess at this point. Note that there is very little Congress (even a Republican Congress) or the President can do about inflation, other than to substantially reduce the deficit and thereby curtail aggregate demand (so that the Fed doesn’t’ have to do this all by itself). But with political power likely to be divided between the President and Congress over the next two years, this prospect is remote, more likely nil (the most likely outcome, with divided government, is fiscal policy on auto pilot, but not incrementally tighter).
So, what would Alice say all about this – a situation in which a bad economy leads enough of the electorate to choose autocratic candidates simply because voters want a change, even if the out-of-power party offers no sensible alternative? The world has a history of that happening. I worry every day that it will happen here, in some form, as early as 2024 (even without a constitutional crisis precipitated by certain state officials that override the popular vote).
Whatever Alice would say about all this if she were still here – whether she still would retain her life-long optimism – I can’t say. But I do know what I would say to her, but never told her in this way (how many times does this happen in life? It’s a good lesson: if you’re thankful for someone doing something to help you, say it while they are still alive).
Thank you for everything you have done for me Alice, hiring me twice during your career, deigning to co-author a book with me (about the economics of the Internet), and mentoring me and giving me sound (sometimes tough) advice when I needed it. With much regret, in my last email exchange with you, you correctly critiqued an essay I had drafted about middle class anxiety. I felt badly that I had disappointed you, but your comments led to an improved final version. https://www.brookings.edu/research/meeting-the-automation-challenge-to-the-middle-class-and-the-american-project/. I didn’t realize at the time that you not only were ill but working hard to finish your own last book.
Alice was larger than life, in inverse proportion to her height. This nation would not be so troubled if there were more Alice Rivlins, in both political parties, advising our political leaders, and all of us as well.
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