I've been asked on more than one occasion why I refer to myself as a progressive rather than simply a liberal, the implication being that the two terms are pretty much synonymous. So let me set the record straight:
They're not. Synonymous, that is.
What's the difference? In a word, taxes!
Progressives like me believe in fully funding vital government services --education, health care, environmental protection, public safety, the regulation of private industry-- through a fair system of taxation. And by "fair" I mean based on the ability to pay. The more money you have, the more you should pay in taxes. That's the foundation of the graduated --or progressive-- income tax. Even Adam Smith, as I've written, accepted that notion of tax fairness. As taxes become flatter --the top marginal income tax rate, once 91% under Eisenhower, is now 36%-- fairness suffers.
Most prominent "liberals" have a different view. Let me give you an example. Oregon's Senator Ron Wyden, a staunch liberal, is pushing what he calls a "fair flat tax", the operative word being "flat", not progressive. On the other hand, candidate for Multnomah County Commission Xander Patterson, a true progressive whom I endorsed, proposed a graduated county income tax to fund programs the county doesn't have the money for. None of his "liberal" primary opponents did.
Liberals tend to coddle corporations. Why? Politics is one reason. Even the most liberal members of Congress, like John Kerry, rely on corporate money to fund their campaigns. But ideology also plays a role. All liberals believe in the magic of the free market, and many, especially "neoliberals", believe in the deregulation of private industry. Very few, therefore, are outspoken on the need to raise the corporate share of the overall tax burden.
Nor are there many liberals sincerely beating the drums for national health care, perhaps the single most pressing issue of our time, let alone anyone calling for an adequate national retirement system. As David Sirota points out, liberals like Senator Barack Obama often propose half measures to ease health care burdens on industry. Obama's "health care to hybrids" proposal is little more than a bribe to the auto industry.
National health care is a "big" idea requiring a "big" investment of taxpayer money, and liberals aren't inclined to think big. Progressives are. Or at least this progressive is. I've written on more than one occasion that relieving the private sector of its health and pension obligations for employees would be a boon for business. And a boon for public education, where health care costs are spiraling out of control.
The tradeoff, of course, is a higher tax burden. And "tax" is a dirty word in American politics. That's true for conservatives and for liberals.