Even when Larry Summers claims to have an epiphany, he’s just reconfirming what he already believed

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

This starts out well, and then goes down hill. Larry Summers and his wife did a drive across rural America, and Larry Summers feels he learned something important by visiting these rural backwaters. Likewise, when I was younger I spent 2 years of my life hitchhiking all over the USA, so visiting these rural backwaters was a formative experience for me.

Larry Summers starts out sounding like he learned something new, but in the end he concludes that the Democrats need to do more to accommodate the traditional values of these backwaters, which has been the moderate Democrat strategy for most of the last century, so Larry Summers is really saying “We should keep doing what moderate Democrats have been suggesting.” That isn’t much of an epiphany.

From Larry Summers:

The phrase “way of life” is, I have come to think, an idea that those concerned with political economy could usefully ponder. It is fashionable to talk about business leaders and cosmopolitan elites who are more worried about the concerns of their conference mates in Davos, Switzerland, than those of their fellow citizens in Detroit or Düsseldorf, Germany. They are blamed for provoking a backlash against globalization. What I saw on my trip was how many profoundly different ways of life there are within the United States. I began to understand better than I had those who live as their parents did in smaller communities closer to the land.

Voters in most of the places we visited have tended to vote Republican in recent decades. In many places, signs for church suppers, hunting clubs and local fairs outnumbered political signs or even signs for commercial goods, which tells a cultural story. But the economic picture may be more complex. Starting with the federal government’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, and the federally funded Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the West, the free market had little to do with the settling and economic progress of the American West. The economy of many of the places we visited was the creation of the U.S. government. Depression-era programs paid for power plants, built hiking trails and helped cut roads through mountains. Western tourist economies are based around national parks, forests and monuments, and government land grants funded many of the universities.

The United States is a remarkable place because it is an amalgam of remarkable places. Americans want to live in very different ways. Perhaps more appreciation of that on the part of those who lead our society could strengthen and unify our country at what is surely a complex and difficult moment in its history.

Personally, I’ve now come to the opposite conclusion. I spent the years from teens to my 30s arguing that progressives should understand traditional life in the backwaters — the whole stretch from the late 1980s to the early 00s. I hitchhiked around and talked to truck drivers and auto mechanics and farmers and then later I joined up with labor groups that were trying to empower workers in the South.

What I wanted then, and what I want now, is 50 blue states. That is, 50 states with excellent education, excellent health care, high wages, and acceptance of people from different religions and races. But I no longer think that I can get 50 blue states by hitchhiking around and talking to people in the rural backwaters. Rather, a larger state, that can bring in a much more aggressive and confrontational program of modernization, is what is needed. The kind of aggressive and confrontational program that the Federal government ran in the South after the Civil War, the program of Radical Reconstruction, is the only thing that will work. I no longer give a damn what people in the Red states think. They can either help the country modernize, or we should adjust the Constitution so that these people have less power to block the rest of us.

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