I’ve occasionally heard some version of “I only criticize X because I love it and I want it to be better.” Most of the time, that comes across as little more than a shibboleth to let someone engage in petty dunking, while pretending to be inspired by noble motives. But sometimes it does seem sincere.

Ezra Klein is someone with whom I agree on very little, but one thing that’s clear about him is that he loves progressivism and progressive ideology – and that in turn has led him to forcefully highlight and criticize many of progressivism’s failures. One good example of this is an article he wrote pointing out many of the problems facing California. This is a state where virtually all levels of government aren’t just dominated by Democrats, but the far left, progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And yet, as Klein correctly notes, California is uniquely bad at actually achieving the goals that progressives claim to value, lamenting that among other problems:

California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, when you factor in housing costs, and vies for the top spot in income inequality, too. There are bright spots in recent years — electric grid modernization, a deeply progressive plan to tax the wealthy to fund poor school districts, a prison population at a 30-year low — but there’s a reason 130,000 more people leave than enter each year. California is dominated by Democrats, but many of the people Democrats claim to care about most can’t afford to live there.

As he sums up his case:

California, as the biggest state in the nation, and one where Democrats hold total control of the government, carries a special burden. If progressivism cannot work here, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?

I hope California keeps being weird. But it needs to do better.

Recently, Klein has written another interesting article in this vein, this one worrying about the problems with what he calls “everything-bagel liberalism.” (Terminology quibble incoming – what Klein often calls “liberalism,” I will refer to as “progressivism.” He switches between those words as though they were synonymous, but that’s a semantic point I refuse to concede.) Klein begins by describing something resembling good news coming from San Francisco – some new housing units actually completed, a studio apartment complex called Tahanan. He notes:

Tahanan went up in three years, for less than $400,000 per unit. Affordable housing projects in the Bay Area routinely take twice as long and cost almost twice as much…San Francisco cannot dent its housing crisis at the speed and cost at which it is building affordable housing units. But if the pace and price of Tahanana were the norm, the outlook would brighten.

So how did Tahanan do it? The answer, for liberals, is a bit depressing: It got around the government.

This particular unit was built, according to Klein’s description, by using “gobs of private money to avoid triggering an avalanche of well-meaning rules and standards that slow public projects down in San Francisco – and nationally. You might assume that when faced with a problem of overriding public importance, government would use its awesome might to sweep away the obstacles that stand in its way. But too often, it does the opposite. It adds goals – many of them laudable – and in doing so, adds obstacles, expenses, and delays.”

This is the problem that Klein identifies as “everything-bagel liberalism.” Or, as I would call it, everything bagel progressivism. Klein points out that “one problem liberals are facing at every level where they govern is that they often add too much. They do so with good intentions and lament their poor results.”

The key issue is that progressive policy makers refuse to acknowledge the reality of trade-offs. Pursuing more of one good thing means less of some other good thing. In the private sphere and in our normal lives, we all make these kinds of trade-offs all the time, according to what outcomes we value the most. But refusal to acknowledge this among progressives leads to the system just locking up. Here’s one example of that from Klein’s article:

Tahanan is the first affordable housing project in San Francisco built using modular housing. All of the units above the ground floor were fabricated at a factory in Vallejo, Calif. “That definitely helped with meeting the time- and cost-saving goals,” Foster said. But some local unions were furious, even though the factory in Vallejo is unionized. That might have been enough to kill Tahanan in a normal planning process. For that reason, Foster’s group isn’t planning to use modular construction on its next affordable housing project. “It just was too big a political lift,” she said.

Here, then, is another place where progressive goals conflict. Local union jobs are a good thing. Modular housing can make construction cheaper and faster in a state facing a severe housing shortage. Which do you choose?

I don’t share Klein’s notion that “local union jobs” are somehow intrinsically good in themselves, but the trade-off he describes is real. Here’s a somewhat more mundane example of the same idea. Jobs with high pay are good. Jobs that provide comfortable working conditions are good. But, all else equal, one comes at the expense of the other. Some employers spend a lot of money providing a comfortable and pleasant work place, and that can come at the expense of employee pay. Other jobs may provide an unpleasant, bare bones work environment, but offer higher wages. Which do you choose?

The liberal (as opposed to progressive) answer to that question is to let people choose for themselves. If someone is fine with enduring a rugged work environment so they can take home a bigger paycheck, that’s fine. And if someone wants to take a smaller paycheck in exchange for a more comfortable workplace, that’s fine too. Neither is a problem that needs to be solved. But the worldview of everything-bagel progressivism rejects this – it wants more of everything that’s good, and doesn’t want any of it to come at the expense of anything else. But trade-offs are a part of reality, and as Thomas Sowell likes to remind us, reality is not optional. Klein recognizes that this refusal to accept trade-offs is what plagues these projects:

But more profoundly, it is damning that you can build affordable housing so much more cheaply and swiftly by forgoing public money. Government needs to be able to solve big problems. But the inability or the unwillingness to choose among competing priorities – to pile too much on the bagel – is itself a choice, and it’s one that California keeps making.

It’s not mysterious to me why California politicians keep making that kind of choice – with political incentives being what they are, it would be surprising if they behaved any differently. But Klein has come perilously close to seeing the alternative here. Situations like building adequate housing isn’t a big problem the government needs to be able to solve – it’s a problem that would be solved already if the government wasn’t blocking off every possible escape route. The fact that private money can achieve far more with far less than public money can is a feature, not a bug. And I suspect that until progressives no longer take it as given that we need government to be able to solve big problems, the little increments of improvement Klein manages to identify will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.