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The cry, TINA! (There Is No Alternative!), goes back at least 40 years. Connected indelibly to British PM Margaret Thatcher, it’s far from being ‘just a British thing.’ TINA has had worldwide impact—back then, through the decades, and today.

There Is No Alternative

For Thatcher, TINA represented unbridled enthusiasm for European-American style capitalism; and she was convinced that nothing should stand in its way. “Help me liberate those who create wealth,” she implored in 1979, “and make the wreckers run for cover.” “Personal freedom and economic freedom are indivisible,” she declared in 1976. You can't have one without the other.” “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher proclaimed in 1987. “There are individuals and families only.” (source for quotes here)

British intellectual Herbert Spencer influenced Thatcher’s views. Spencer believed firmly in laissez-faire government and the free-market system. He also thought that Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ should apply liberally in society. With those thoughts in mind, Thatcher’s leadership platform championed fiscal austerity and smaller government, deregulation, free trade, privatization, and a rollback of the welfare state. In America, Ronald Reagan followed suit.

To set the hook, politicians talked incessantly about how their policies would target and elevate ‘the middle class,’ such that the term achieved dog-whistle status.

While TINA got support from—and generated considerable economic prosperity for—the economic elite, it got a big boost from an unlikely audience—the middle class. TINA elevated middle-class lifestyles not by a little, but by a lot—to levels that many beneficiaries thought unimaginable. To set the hook, politicians talked incessantly about how their policies would target and elevate ‘the middle class,’ such that the term achieved dog-whistle status. Consider how Thatcher used it: "If middle class values include the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives and rewards for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the State, and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property, then they are certainly what I am trying to defend. This is not a fight for privilege, it is a fight for freedom."

The impact was more than economic. In America, people, parties, and politics migrated to the Right. And what’s extraordinary is that the deal wasn’t sealed by ‘likely suspects” Ronald Reagan and G.H.W. Bush. In the 1980s through the early ‘90s, they played table-setting roles. Democrat Bill Clinton sustained his predecessors’ direction. With that, the Decade of the 1990s became the Decade of TINA. The gap between rich and poor, between the affluent and those left behind, and between those with power and the powerless, grew bigger and bigger. And it hasn’t stopped.

To remain viable, Neoliberalism adjusted a bit. One adjustment is called Progressive Neoliberalism, which blends Progressivism and Neoliberalism in hybrid form. Progressive Neoliberalism accentuates each side of a coin—the social side (Progressive) and the economic side (Neoliberal). By including Progressive ideas/priorities (President Obama did that famously), TINA morphed, remained relevant, and elongated its grip. The problem? Progressive Neoliberalism is warmed-over Neoliberalism.

It was easy to get away with, too, because TINA didn’t have a rival—and not just because Thatcher said so. And when Bernie Sanders, AOC, and others began speaking expressively about an alternative, the response of 40 years earlier happened yet again: “That’s SOCIALISM!”

But here’s the thing. It isn’t Socialism. What’s more, unbridled TINA is a destructive social force. The challenge is identifying a responsible alternative—one that fits the times—and being smart about how to advance it.

What concerns me considerably is that TINA (Neoliberalism) has been in vogue for a very long time, such that it’s unlikely that middle-of-the-road (centrist) ideas and policies will be enough to undo it. Because of that, America and the world need a new TINA with impact—a progressive TINA.

There’s nobody better to show the way than Columbia University’s Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, the champion of Progressive Capitalism. Stiglitz’s analysis doesn’t start with economics; it begins with democracy. He starts his 2019 book, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, with these words: “No economic changes will be achievable without a strong democracy to offset the political power of concentrated wealth. Before economic reform, there will have to be political reform.” (xxvii)

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He’s right. Wealth runs America. A combination of tax cuts and electoral policies, political changes, fiscal preferences, and broad-based institutional changes have conspired to create ‘Neoliberal America.’ And let me add yet another item to that list—public beliefs/attitudes. The thinking Thatcher espoused long ago is very evident in society today, here and abroad. And it’s a big reason why economic inequality prevails.

Stiglitz writes: “Greater economic inequality is leading—in our money-driven political system—to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.” The answer? “It is only engaged citizens who can fight to restore a fairer America, and they can do so only if they understand the depths and dimensions of the challenge,” he concludes.

Progressive Capitalism isn’t like warmed-over Progressive Neoliberalism. It replaces Neoliberalism and—this is important—it doesn’t do-away with Capitalism. Instead, it provides a countervailing force, which Neoliberalism has weakened intentionally. What’s that? Progressive Capitalism elevates the role of the public sector so that the public sector does what only the public sector can do.

Richard North Peterson expresses it well: “[Progressive Capitalism] acknowledges government’s role in protecting the environment; investing in infrastructure, technology, research and education; ensuring competition; preventing corporations from exploiting workers, and guarding against the undue influence of powerful institutions and individuals who believe that their sole societal mission is to liberate themselves from all legal constraints and moral considerations.”

The market, Peterson continues, can’t do what the public sector can and must do. The market “can deliver a Pareto optimum solution for the production and sale of widgets. But not everything in the world is a widget. Markets cannot by themselves provide optimization for insurance, or common property, or primary education, or healthcare, or safety, or large-scale research and development that is in the public interest.”

There is a vital role for the public sector to play. And if there’s anything that the pandemic is telling us, it’s this: the public sector is failing America. We need more and better performance from it.

Thinking about TINA historically—but looking at it through the lens of today—reminds me of the Prologue in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953). The novel’s protagonist, now in his sixties, discovers a box from his childhood—a box that contains his diary from the year 1900. He reads ebullient thoughts written by a teenager about what he believes will be the beginning “of a Golden Age.” That future never arrived, of course. A world war, a global economic depression, and another world war came instead.

From the novel: “The past is like a foreign country; they do things differently there.” “A foreigner…is compelled to listen to it.”

TINA strikes me that way. It’s time to stop living in the past, listening to a foreign language. Progressive Capitalism is the new TINA. ‘There is no alternative.’

You can listen to the spoken version of this article on Anchor.FMat Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear. UTR is also available at AppleSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerRadioPublicPocket Casts, and Overcast.

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Frank Fear

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