Noam Scheiber’s new profile in The New Republic of top White House aide Valerie Jarrett is predictably attracting lots of attention – mainly for its detailed reporting on her unparalleled influence with President Obama and on all the bureaucratic and political machinations she’s engaged in to retain this clout.
But although it can be fun to read such accounts of who’s up and who’s down in the corridors of power, Scheiber’s article is much more important for its very sharp interpretation of the brand of liberalism Jarrett (and Mr. Obama) represent. The author insightfully portrays the President and his confidant-in-chief as “Boardroom Liberals” – whose views on how the economy can and should work in particular reveal themselves to be nothing less than an especially insipid version of the “trickle down” theories championed by most of their conservative rivals.
Here’s Scheiber’s definition of the term: “It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.”
To me, what’s truly dippy – that really is the right word – for this perspective is not its allegedly blind faith in the beneficence of elites, corporate or otherwise. There are many good people in business and elsewhere in the one or ten percent who work hard to do right (by any reasonable definition) by the nation as a whole, and often by the world as a whole.
What’s truly dippy is the alleged belief that the greater good can be achieved on a regular, reliable basis by businesses leaders in particular pausing periodically from their predominant responsibilities of earning profits to dole out favors to the less fortunate. Even dippier – they act magnanimously not mainly because they’re required by regulations, but because they’re just so darned magnanimous naturally – or will become so with friendly nudges from enlightened politicians and/or peers.
You don’t have to support standard trickle down ideas to recognize that the notion of genuine, widespread prosperity as a natural by-product of explicit, basically voluntary corporate largesse makes far less sense than the notion of such prosperity as a natural byproduct of normal business operations.
In fact, when you think about it, Boardroom Liberalism is so loony that none of its supporters could possibly take it seriously as a strategy for national economic success. And there’s a good chance that was never the point. After all, as any fundraiser could tell you, the kind of elite flattery it entails will get you everywhere. Not to mention the implied policy and regulatory coddling.