‘The Middle Out’ and Neoliberal Ideas About the University

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Cover of The Middle Out by Michael TomaskyThe Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity by Michael Tomasky

Published in September 2022

I’ve been looking for a book to challenge my progressive economic leanings. The Middle Out is not that book. Maybe you have some suggestions?

In The Middle Out, Tomasky (who edits the political journal Democracy) endeavors to provide a political road map for Democrats. He observes that conservatives tend to think in terms of values, whereas liberals see the world through an economic lens.

Tomasky argues that progressive economic policies are deeply intertwined with values such as fairness, opportunity and justice—and that Democrats need to make a case for progressive policies in those terms.

Suppose you are worried about inequality, climate change, wealth concentration, workers’ rights, childhood poverty, access to health care and childcare, concentrated poverty, rural poverty, and the hollowing out of the middle class. In that case, you will likely vibe with the arguments in The Middle Out.

If you are a fan of Biden’s economic policies and are excited by the clean energy spending embedded in the Inflation Reduction Act, then you will have little to quibble over with this book.

I’d love for those of you who support free trade and are worried about the federal deficit to read The Middle Out. Until recently, I would have defined myself as more centrist regarding economics and economic policy—but I think I’ve moved left economically with much of the Democratic Party.

Again, please suggest some book that defends a set of centrist economic ideas.

While The Middle Out will likely not persuade any conservatives and may or may not move centrists, the book is very good at defining some terms. Tomasky provides a useful history of the emergence of neoliberal thinking as a response to the dominant Keynesian thinking of the 1950s and 1960s. He traces the rise of progressive economists such as Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, both now top economic advisers in the Biden administration.

One thought inspired by The Middle Out is leveraging the ideas in the book to create a taxonomy of neoliberal thinking about higher education.

We know what neoliberal ideas look like when applied to the economy. Free trade good. Deficit reduction good. Market-based solutions to social problems very good.

What happens if we apply a neoliberal framework to the workings of the university?

Can one be both an economic progressive and a higher ed neoliberal?

To judge if you fall into that neoliberal camp in your thinking about higher education, answer the following three questions:

  • Are you supportive, or at least curious, about nonprofit universities working with for-profit companies on online programs?
  • Do you think it is likely a bad idea for your institution to do away with legacy admission preferences?
  • Are you against the taxation of university endowments?

If you answered yes to two of the three questions above, you are a higher ed–specific neoliberal. Congratulations.

Progressive ideas applied to higher education would focus on equity, access, debt relief, public investment and adequate funding of state universities and community colleges. A higher ed–centric progressive answers “no” to the three questions above.

How progressive economic ideas merge, conflict and advance one’s thinking about elite private institutions is an interesting question to ponder.

The Middle Out may (unintentionally) cause some of us to ask some uncomfortable questions about what we believe about higher education.

Where is that In Defense of Middle-of-the-Road Economics book I’m looking to find?

What are you reading?

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