August 15, 2007
opportunity economics and civic participation
The Hope Street Group is an organization founded by young business people who believe in growth, innovation, and opportunity, but do not believe that the current economic system provides opportunities either adequately or fairly. They favor more investment in human capital, reform of taxation and financial markets, and programs to give people second chances at entrepreneurship. Hope Street Group has laid the groundwork for effective political action and will soon be better known thanks to a $1 million Omidyar grant.
I am a member of HSG. I know there are debates about whether GDP growth is an adequate measure of progress, and about whether we can achieve social justice through investments in human capital (rather than changing the bargaining power of labor versus capital). I have nothing original to contribute to those debates, and I'm agnostic about some of the key questions.
But I believe that democracy and civic participation work better when people have a sense that the pie is expanding, and specifically, when people believe that there can be more for all if we cooperate voluntarily. There is a powerful, optimistic kind of populism that says: We can make wealth, and everyone can be better off, but we need to make sure that everyone is included in productive work. This is much better than the kind of populism that presumes there is a fixed quantity of goods, of which the powerful have taken more than their fair share. Optimistic populism promotes public investments in education and infrastructure, whereas resentful populism assumes so much distrust that it ultimately undermines public programs. Resentful populism also generates bad politics: division, hyper-partisanship, retreat into interest groups, and ultimately demobilization; whereas a populism of abundance encourages dialogue, participation, innovation, and creativity.