Fiscally Responsible Progressivism is Not an Oxymoron

Hoan Dang is more progressive than one might think.

The at-large County Council candidate met me a few weeks ago in bustling Denizens Brewery for a change-of-scenery interview and quickly got into the weeds discussing the Montgomery County budget.

It would be understandable to assume Dang would be somewhat of a fiscal conservative. From a refugee family, Dang grew up with the story conservatives love to trumpet: fleeing communist Vietnam for capitalist America, then excelling in a career in engineering and finance. In our interview, Dang expressed himself as a budget wonk and finance expert that even some Libertarian-leaning voters on the Bethesda Beat comment section praise, but also as a progressive.

That’s right. We arranged this meeting at a Progressive Maryland happy hour where he expressed his support for the $15 minimum wage.

The “tax-and-spend liberal” as an epithet epitomizes the linear logic that assumes a trajectory of tax increases funneling money into a nebulous black hole, producing bloated and unpopular government projects that malfunction and call for more spending and more tax increases. Nobody likes this trajectory, but the flaw in reasoning here is that there must be the nebulous black hole.

Even if the black hole is made into a transparent glass box, the assumption is that what we’d see is an entanglement of accordion-like sheets of procurement expenditures smushed into it, “because that’s how we’ve always done.” Again, this may be the case, but where the assumption is wrong is that the box must be emptied. Instead, a procurement expert can get elbow-deep in the box and iron out these accordions of expenditure lists into easy-to-follow, bullshit-free budget allocations.

Speaking as a procurement expert, Dang emphasizes the importance of knowing where to spend and where not to, using the anologies of “rocket ships and pens.”

When purchasing parts for rocket ships, you don’t want to skimp on quality. While higher quality parts may cost more, lower quality parts may lead to costlier malfunctions. A cheap pack of pens that leak ink, meanwhile, are easy and cheap to replace – so it might not be the best idea to jump in and assume we need fashionable, status-signaling government pens.

This all should be obvious, but the role of a procurement expert would be to distinguish the finer lines between expenditures that fall closer to the rocket ship category versus those closer to pens.

For some reason, budget wonkishness connotates fiscal conservatism in the ideological sense. I’ve gotten this sentiment from Progressive Maryland colleagues as well. In the interview, Dang (similarly to Ashwani Jain, whose Obama administration ties suggest economic centrism to some) expresses unequivocal support for the $15 minimum wage.

Later on in the interview, I sprung what I thought would be the controversial question of the evening – the privatization of the Department of Liquor Control, which supporters of centrist candidates like Bill Frick overwhelmingly favor.

“Now is not the time,” according to Dang, who predicted an even greater budget shortfall in the coming year. Instead, Dang outlined efforts to restructure the management of the DLC, which aim to make it run more efficiently. It would not be necessary to unravel it into privatization and add insult to the county budget shortfall injury.


Personally, I am pretty ambivalent on this issue. I’ve never felt particularly inconvenienced when purchasing a beverage of choice in Montgomery County; if anything, it’s cheaper than in DC. (One exception – I have been inconvenienced when I realize that the MoCo Liquor in Silver Spring is closed on Sundays. Seriously, who observes this crap anymore. I hope it’s just to give employees a day off and not some religious bullshit, but I digress.)

For the record, I am not rehashing this interview as a way to make an official endorsement. Who am I to make endorsement anyway. I think it’s fair to contextualize all of my interviews, as there should be aspects of them I agree with and others that I don’t.

Other than County Executive, I’m not disclosing here who I’m voting for, but I speak openly about where I stand on the issues.

As far as the council election goes, I like to keep three things in mind, in this order, when I choose to vote:

1. Their stance on the issues.

2. Diversity in expertise – such as a budget expert complementing an environmental expert or transportation expert, etc, to increase breadth of knowledge.

3. Diversity of minority representation (race, gender, LGBTQ etc)

So, make of all this what you will.

About a week ago, Seventh State‘s Adam Pagnucco addressed the MoCo debt, ending with the bold statement that “you cannot oppose growth and favor expanding school construction and transportation investment” followed by “Bear that in mind as we head to Election Day.”

In the context of Pagnucco’s past writings, this can be read as a clear attack on the Elrich wing of MoCo progressives. Pagnucco has disclosed, on multiple occasions, his support and contribution to Roger Berliner’s campaign.

This is fine.

I’ve made my CE allegiance clear and don’t feel the need to feign neutrality here.

My argument, Executive race aside, is that with procurement expertise on the council, we CAN have both. We can keep the influence of business interests and developers in check while remaining fiscally responsible. It’s one thing to attempt to spur growth by chasing after shiny objects, but they need to be grounded on an often not-so-shiny foundation. This can be a bitter pill for some of the more-growth/bigger-is-better advocates to swallow.



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