What kind of change?
June 21, 2018
We have a capitalist system that is dominated by mega-corporations. And they make the economic rules that generally prevail, that is, other businesses must go along or risk failure. The most important rule is that profits take precedence over other considerations. In the process of pursing profits, corporate executives strive to keep the price of their corporate stocks on Wall Street exchanges as high as they can, viewing shareholders as their principal constituency or stakeholder and benefiting personally as well. Of course, the corporate executives benefit from rising stock prices in their corporations as a major part of their compensation is in “stock bonuses.” (Check out Marjorie Kelly’s Owning Our Future for an excellent critique of the shareholder primacy position and arguments in favor of a reconstitution of corporate boards that would include all stakeholders, not just top executives and major shareholders. This would have an affect, for example, of helping to make the distribution of salaries/wages less unequal, protecting jobs, improving the quality of services and products, reducing outsourcing, giving more attention to the reducing the harmful environmental effects of the corporation)
The profit-first obsession is a central aspect of capitalism and that has been so throughout U.S. history, especially with the onset of industrialization, but with one important exception. During the New Deal era, from the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 until the 1970s, there were relatively high and progressive tax rates at the federal level that reduced profits somewhat. Though law firms and lobbyists found ways to reduce the amount of tax corporations paid. Nonetheless, the overall distribution of income became more equal than either before and after this period because of New Deal policies, WWII, the rapid growth of the post-war economy, and the expansion of the public sector.
The government played a significant role. Banks were regulated. The inter-state highway system was built, which was – and still is – the largest infrastructure project in U.S. history. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful, as civilian production replaced military production. Farmers received government support payments. Government financed major educational, housing, and income benefits for millions of veterans. This period also saw the introduction of government housing programs. Early in this period, the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed to make housing and mortgages more affordable, establishing the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (Thomas M. Shapiro, Toxic Inequality, p. 158). Historian Anthony J. Badger provides an extensive analysis of the early months of the Roosevelt administration in his book, FDR: The First Hundred Days. He writes:
“By June 16 , after one hundred days of frenzied activity, sixteen pieces of major legislation gave the federal government the power to decide which banks should or should not reopen, to regulate the Stock Exchange, to determine the gold value of the dollar, to prescribe minimum wages and prices, to pay farmers not to produce, to pay money to the unemployed, to plan and regenerate a whole river basin across six states, to spend billions of dollars on public works, and to underwrite credit for bankers, homeowners, and farmers” (p. xiii).
The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a pension system for the elderly and public assistance for female-headed families. The National Labor Relations Act of the same year strengthened and encouraged the growth of unions. Unemployment insurance was included. In 1938, labor standards on minimum wage and maximum hours became law. Medicare and Medicaid came into being under the Johnson administration. Under Nixon, payments for social security participants were increased and then indexed. This system had already been expanded in 1938 to include the children and wives of deceased fathers (i.e., survivors’ benefits), and in 1953 the disabled.
The programs were far from perfect. African Americans were typically kept from obtaining anything like equal benefits. For example, Shapiro writes: “the implementation of the National Housing Act [in 1934] legitimated and hardened the residential segregation, inner-city concentrated poverty, and spatial isolation that characterized America’s housing patterns.” He writes further that administrators classified “integrated neighborhoods as unstable.”
Later, in 1970, the first environmental laws were passed into law. The officially-estimated poverty rate fell from in the 60 percent range in 1939 to about 12 percent in 1969.
The growth of the economy, with a relatively shared distribution of the opportunities and benefits, was made possible, in the final analysis, by the unique conditions in which the U.S. found itself at the end of WWII. The U.S. war economy had thrived, managed by government agencies, while countries in Europe were still suffering from the ravages of the war. So, there were abundant foreign markets for U.S. products. Consumption was up. The combination of full employment and rationing during the war years created enormous pent-up consumer demand that was unleashed after a short hiatus following the war. Unions were strong. Military spending grew during the Korean War and continued afterward as the Cold War unfolded.
There were also international efforts to extend new deal principles to all nations. On July 22, 1944, according to Robert Kuttner, “representatives of forty-four nations met at the Mount Washington resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to plan the postwar monetary and financial structure.” He continues: “The idea was to create a global currency system that would insulate domestic full-employment economies from the deflationary pressures of private finance – a global counterpart to the economic and financial assumptions of the New Deal” (Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism, p. 44). As it turned out, the post-war economic recovery “relied on the anomaly of American economic supremacy,” which used its economic surplus to finance the initial recovery of Europe through the Marshall Plan and, to a lesser extent, other countries through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (p. 47). Kuttner summarizes:
“Between 1948 and 1952, the Marshall Plan would spend some $13 billion, about 5 percent of America’s GDP. In Europe, the IMF never played more than a token version of its proposed role, and with the Marshall Plan delivering grants in aid that dwarfed the World Bank’s resources, the World Bank soon shifted its activities from European reconstruction to third world development” (p. 52).
There was also a military aspect to U.S. international relations, as “leader” of the “free world.”
“When Marshall Plan aid ended in 1952, rising military spending took over, to play both a capital-supply and a Keynesian role. American military aid to NATO countries increased from $211 million in 1949 to $4.2 billion in 1953 – more than the annual level of Marshall Plan aid at its peak” (p. 58).
During the 1970s, the New Deal system began to be challenged from increasing economic competition from Europe and Japan, the first signs of deindustrialization, a rise in financial speculation as exchange rates and capital controls weakened. The pressure to reverse the New Deal also stemmed in the 1970s from inflation pushed by rising fuel and food prices, tight money policies by the Federal Reserve, and the political mobilization of the corporate community, accompanied by an increasingly effective multi-prong strategy to reduce labor costs and beat back unions. The globalized economy, made possible by advances in sea and air transportation and worldwide electronic/digital communication, increased the leverage and profitable opportunities for corporations, while leaving the domestic workforce at a growing disadvantage. Not the least of it, corporations and the rich translated their enormous economic power into political power in ways to shape legislation to satisfy their interests.
By the turn of the century and especially after the elections of Bush and then, even worse, the election of Trump and with Republican-controlled Senate and House, there is the question of whether democracy can survive. Some even raise the specter of fascism. (See Alexander Reid Ross’s book, Against the Fascist Creep.) The federal government is dominated by right-wing forces and pervasive corporate influence. There is an unstable President in the White House. There are ominous trends involving war, particularly the potentiality of nuclear war, the steady increase in the disruptive and catastrophic effects of climate change, and the depletion of vital natural resources. Michael T. Klare cogently analyzes this latter issue in his book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources. Here’s some of what he writes.
“…the major industrial powers have embarked on an extended, calculated drive to gain control over the world’s remaining preserves of vital natural resources. Governments and giant corporations – or the two acting in conjunction – have adopted ambitious plans to explore uncharted areas, pursue legal claims to disputed territories, acquire exploration and drilling rights in promising resource zones, introduce new technologies for extractive operations in extreme and hazardous environments, and develop military forces that can operate in these regions.”
“All five of the Arctic powers have devised detailed blueprints for the exploration and demarcation of their northern territories and the eventual exploitation of any hydrocarbon and mineral resources detected there.”
“National and corporate leaders are painfully aware that existing reserves of many vital resources are disappearing and that urgent action is needed to ensure that their country or their company will have sufficient supplies to survive. They are determined, therefore, to put in place whatever measures are needed in the coming decades to replace existing reservoirs with new sources of supply” (pp. 14-15)
There are other reasons to be concerned. Nations ravaged by war and poverty create the conditions for the un-stymied growth of violent and extremist movements. Amidst it all, healthy soil, one of the prerequisites for human life, is being depleted by a monocultural, industrialized agriculture. Deforestation continues unabated. Fresh water sources are being drained and/or contaminated. The oceans suffer acidification and become enormous waste dumps for plastics and other debris. Jeff Goodell provides an in-depth analysis of how, because of unabated global warming, the seas are rising and coastal cities are at risk of being inundated in the not-distant future. See his book The Water Will Come. Here are some of his concluding words.
“The sheer economic chaos that looms for some coastal regions is hard to grasp, much less anticipate and prepare for. Nor do these initiatives begin to grapple with the political and psychological trauma of losing entire cities and coastlines, as well as the hopes and dreams that adhere to those cities and coastlines” (p. 295).
At the same time, there are economic and political developments that have serious and sometimes disastrous impacts on a growing majority of Americans. The U.S. population is experiencing soaring inequality and stagnating wages amidst an expanding insecure, lower-wage, no-benefit job situation, an assault on all programs that provide benefits to most Americans, the shrinking of the middle class, and the continuation of poverty for 50 million or so Americans, along with tens of millions without health insurance or access to affordable housing.
Politically, the Republican Party, with support of substantial wings of the corporate community and most of the rich, have been able to create an increasingly biased electoral system in their favor through vast campaign contributions, the election of right-wing candidates to political office at all levels of government, massive lobbying, favored appointments to decision-making positions in government, pervasive political ads smearing opponents, the creation of faux grassroots organizations, gerrymandering, and voter suppression. (See Zachary Roth’s book, The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy.)
And their efforts have been augmented by a right-wing, reactionary populism, reflecting various mixes of xenophobic, anti-immigrant, racist, white supremacist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-public assistance, low-tax beliefs, and an unquestioning patriotism. There is also a violence-prone, armed, ultra-nationalist, white-supremacist segment of this right-wing. Kathleen Belew analyzes it in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
At the same time, goaded on by Fox News and other right-ring media, the rank-and-file right-wingers often dismiss the evidence from scientists and experts, claiming that their own views are as good as any others. This is troublesome because it feeds into and hardens the present ideological and political divisions in the society and makes compromise rare. Tom Nichols takes up this issue of evidence in his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters and writes: “…when democracy is understood as an unending demand for unearned respect for unfounded opinions, anything and everything becomes possible, including the end of democracy and republican government itself” (p. 238).
Is there an alternative?
Robert Kuttner thinks there is. One of his basic assumptions in his 310-page book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, is that the capitalist system, domestically and internationally, can be reformed and made more just and equal and environmental sustainable, while also rebuilding and strengthening democratic institutions – expanding voter access and participation in the political system, strengthening unions and opportunities for workers’ influence in workplaces, diminishing the impact of corporations and the rich on government, aiming for a “mixed economy,” and creating or re-fashioning the global economy and international relations in ways that reduce conflict and war, corruption, and the enormous inequalities that exist.
But, before any of this can happen, Kuttner argues, Democrats must take the U.S. House and Senate in 2018 and the White House in 2020 and to do so based on a “pocketbook-populist program” that produces real benefits for broad constituencies, contains the power of elites (especially financial ones), revives the power of the common people, rebuilds democracy, expands the realm of decommodified forms of social income that are not dependent on market wages, and teachs durable lessons about the failures of laissez faire (p. 296). That’s not all. There is a second condition that must be satisfied, that is, “the Republican Party needs to fragment along several axes – into Tea Party/Trump versus establishment factions on domestic policy; Putin-apologist and traditional national security factions on foreign policy; and white-nationalists America First versus Wall Street globalist factions on economics” (p. 292).
However, it will take more than the election of a Democratic majority and a Democratic president. To save democracy and to ensure that a progressive, leftist agenda is implemented, it will take well-organized social movements addressing on a sustained basis a host of important issues – and continuously mobilizing and educating citizens. Naomi Klein considers the possibilities in her book, NO Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. She offers reasons to be optimistic.
“…progressive transformational change is popular- more than many of us would have dared imagine as recently as just one or two years ago.
“…the spell of neoliberalism has been broken, crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of evidence. What for decades was unsayable is now being said out loud by candidates who win millions of votes: free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows, demilitarized the police, prisons are not place for young people, refugees are welcome here, war makes us all less safe. With so much encouragement, who knows what’s next?” (p. 263).
It appears that unless there are strong pressures from social movements of all kinds to bring pressure on elected officials, coupled with Democrats who have the courage and integrity to stand up for truly progressive and radical policy initiatives, the tide of right-wing policies will not be reversed. Bear in mind that challenges of those holding political office at the national level. Democrats are facing a political situation that consumes them, as they deal with the torrent of Trump’s lies, daily tweets, reactionary policy initiatives, threats of nuclear war, the evisceration of the State Department, a cornucopian view of the environment, and all the while Trump’s cabinet acts to gut as many government regulations as they can and the Republican Party in the U.S. Congress dances to the leader’s whims and make sure that the Democrats achieve very little of their agenda. (See the Democrat’s most recent platform at http://www.democrats.org/party-platform.)
There is so much to contest: the cuts in social/welfare programs, the attacks on Obamacare without an alternative or concern for the tens of millions who don’t even have health insurance, the brutal anti-immigrant initiatives, the further weakening of collective bargaining, the tax policies favoring the rich, the growing concentrated power of corporations in all sectors of the economy in the absence of anti-trust enforcement, the disregarding of how the Wall Street banks have grown even bigger and more reckless, the threatened end of net neutrality, the efforts to privatize the public schools and everything about government that is potentially profitable, the counter-productive tariffs and looming trade wars, and so on.
An agenda to think about
Within the political chaos and reactionary policies that emanate from Washington – and many state houses across the nation – Kuttner offers some provocative ideas, a framework of analysis and policy goals, on policies that might guide those who resist Trump, the Republican Party, their corporate and rich allies, and their know-nothing (or is it “everything”) core rank-and-file supporters. The value of his proposals is that they may help shore up the commitments and clarify the purposes of those who are working to restore democracy and move the society toward a sustainable economy, more equality, social justice, and a more diplomatically-focused foreign policy.
Kuttner offers six proposals that, he hopes, will help Democrats and those on the political left to identify useful pathways to a better future. They serve to widen and deepen political dialogue and even open possibilities beyond those Kuttner proposes.
#1 – Finance as a Public Good – Kuttner wants banks to be “turned back into something like public utilities, under either explicit public ownership or drastic regulation.”
There are precedents.
“…New Deal public and non-profit institutions such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Home Loan Bank System literally recapitalized entire sectors of the economy that had been paralyzed by private financial collapse. Government electrified rural America with public power. North Dakota has had a state-owned development bank for a century. DARPA has functioned as an investment bank for new technologies need for the national defense, many with commercial and public-good spillovers, such as the Internet. We need to reclaim this tradition” (p. 298).
The idea of public banks is explored in-depth by Ellen Brown in her book, The Public Bank Solution: From Austerity to Prosperity. Public banks would get their revenues from local sources as deposits, offering modest interest rates, and invest the money locally. It is not the whole solution to the financial problems that presently exist, but it would be a significant step in diminishing the interest payments on what we buy, reducing the speculative and reckless practices of the mega-banks (there would be alternatives to dealing with them), and curtailing the tens of trillions of dollars in offshore tax havens, “between one-third and one-half of the global economy – and a majority of these dollars emanate from Wall Street” (p. 10).
Brown also discusses several other public-bank options, including having bank functions in an expanded U.S. postal system and the creation of a “national development bank,” which would “have a mandate to provide finance to the private sector to promote development, insuring investment in areas in which the market would not otherwise invest sufficiently.” She points out that there are successful development banks in Brazil, China, Japan, India, and Germany from which the U.S. can learn. She also discusses how the U.S. Federal Reserve system could be freed from control by the large private bankers and mandated to encourage investment in the “real” economy and in large projects that are in the public interests (e.g., infrastructure).
#2 – Green Infrastructure on a Serious Scale – The evidence that the U.S. infrastructure is in bad shape and needs major investments to repair it is not controversial. Donald Trump recognizes the problem and has proposed a private-sector approach that would end up with major segments of the highways, ports, and bridges, passing the cost onto those who use the infrastructure in user fees, tolls, and rents. This is not what Kuttner has in mind. The American Society of Civil Engineering provides a more authoritative view of the infrastructure problem and assumes that the government will budget the money to pay for it. The ASCE puts the bill “for deferred maintenance in basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, public buildings, and the like at $4.6 trillion, and the gap in available funding at over $2 trillion.” Kuttner adds: “That doesn’t even count the need to move to ‘smart grid’ electric power systems, to devise new strategies of resilience to defend against coastal flooding, and transition to a post-fossil fuel economy” (p. 298). However, the investment would yield benefits to the public, including modernizing the economy’s infrastructure, providing millions of good domestic jobs, accelerating the transition to an economy based on renewable energy, and generating new technologies. It could be financed by bond via a federal capital budget and progressive taxes (p. 298).
#3 – Positive Nationalism and Different Global Rules – The money spent on “rebuilding and transitioning to a post-carbon economy would require complementary changes in trade rules.” Kuttner proposes that one way to protect American workers from unfair trade is “to impose social tariffs against the products of exploitative production.” The massive offshoring of U.S. manufacturing to Mexico, China, and other countries, for example, has in significant ways been related to the desire of corporations to avoid relatively high-wages, unions, and other employee protections, and environmental regulations, while getting tax abatements from their foreign hosts. From this perspective, the consequences in the U.S. have been negative on balance, as good jobs and taxes are lost, both of which have destabilizing repercussions for the displaced workers, their families, and communities. Thus, the answer Kuttner offers is not the open-ended kind of tariffs currently being instituted by the Trump administration, but selective tariffs designed specifically to protect American jobs from highly exploited labor and governments that don’t have strong environmental regulations. The social tariffs recommended by Kuttner would not apply to countries where such issues labor and environmental issues don’t apply.
At the same time, Kuttner does not consider the conditions of workers in low-wage, developing countries as relevant for his consideration and how their prospects, however bad, would be made worse by his proposed social tariffs than they already are. And he does not consider the fact that the lower prices charged for the imported products from these countries benefit U.S. consumers and some producers would increase or not be available for domestic consumption.
The point is that there are limits to Kuttner’s proposal on trade. John Smith delves into the complexity of the international trading system in his book, Imperialism in The Twentieth-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis. Unlike Kuttner, Smith argues that it cannot be reformed within the current global, capitalist system. He writes on this point as follows.
“In just three decades, capitalist production and its inherent contradictions have been utterly transformed by the vast global shift of production to low-wage countries, with the result that profits, prosperity, and social peace in imperialist countries have become qualitatively more dependent upon the proceeds of super-exploitation of living labor in countries like Vietnam, Mexico, Bangladesh, and China…. It is a crises of imperialism” (p. 314).
#4 – Restore Regulation of Market Abuses – There has been a major and effective Republican effort to advance wholesale deregulation of the executive branch, thereby enhancing the already extraordinary power of the rich and powerful and allowing the private sector to invest and carry out business operations increasingly without regard to or any significant penalty for any harmful consequences to the public, the commons, the environment, or the economy. Kuttner gives the example of how anti-trust regulation was all but eliminated under Reagan. The effects have been to more “concentration, price gouging, anticompetitive predation, deteriorated consumer service, and downward pressure on wages.” He points to the negative effects in the airline industry, where “worsening conditions for passengers are the logical consequences of increased concentration and the lack of meaningful competition wrought by deregulation.” Concentrated, oligopolistic control in the electronic industry has allowed Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apply to fend off competitors and make astronomical profits, while “abusing intellectual property protections, buying out potential rivals, and demanding that vendors in their supply chains sell only to them and not to their competitors.” The solution? Enforce anti-trust laws and other regulations and break up the mega-corporations. Another example. Rather than have banks and other private firms make excessive charges on student loans, have the government control the administration of the loans with the goal of making them less burdensome or eliminating them altogether in some cases. Allowing those with student loans to declare bankruptcy to make their financial situation manageable should also be considered.
#5 – The Conundrum of Income, Work, and Wealth – Here Kuttner addresses the challenge of the growing robotization/automation of industries and how to assist workers who are displaced in the process. This requires large scale public intervention. What could government do to avoid a situation in which “millions of people [are] underemployed, badly compensated, or idle” (p. 299). There is and will be “plenty of work to be done caring for the young, the old, and the sick,” and government can help to ensure that their services are provided in the public sector by workers who received decent wages, job security, and benefits, or in the private sector with the same. The standard of a full-time job can be reduced to 30 hours and thereby increase the number of such jobs. And, for all citizens, programs can be instituted that supplement earned income.
Kuttner gives the example of the Alaska Permanent Fund that is funded by the oil corporations. The result: “Every Alaskan gets a check…. In 2015 the check was $1,884 for every resident of the state” (p. 302). Peter Barnes proposes that all corporations that extract minerals or profit from other parts of the commons should pay into a fund that provides “dividends” to the citizens of that state. Barnes puts it this way: “The idea is that all citizens have a right to income from wealth we inherit [from nature] or create together.” It is not a new idea. Thomas Paine proposed the basic idea back in the eighteenth century. His proposal was to create “a National Fund to pay every man and woman fifteen pounds at age twenty-one and ten pounds a year after age fifty-five. (These sums are roughly equal to $17,500 and $11,667, respectively, today.)” According to Paine’s plan, as explained by Barnes, “Revenues for the fund would come from ‘ground rent’ paid by landowners, the privatizers of natural wealth.” (See Barnes book, With Liberty and Dividends For All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough).
Something like this is already being considered or happening in a few places. Here are some of Kuttner’s examples. “In Vermont, legislators are considering a bill to create a state Common Assets Trust that would earn income from pollution permits, groundwater extraction, and other fees.” It’s estimated by a research team at the University of Vermont “that the trust could pay dividends to every state resident of about $2,000 a year.” Then, in North Carolina, “a band of Cherokees elected to pay half the profits of a tribally owned casino to its members in equal dividends, which last year totaled $8,000 per person.” In Sherman County, Oregon, “residents are reaping a windfall from the wind itself.” Barnes continues: “Using taxes and fees on several large wind farms, the county pays a yearly dividend of $590 per household.” (p. 128). Dividends could by paid by to all citizens by Google and Facebook for their use of the “public infrastructure – the Internet,” or by big fossil fuel companies for the privilege to extract oil and gas, or by pharmaceutical corporations for the public investment in the basic research for many of the drugs they sell.
There are also experts and authors who are exploring the option of a guaranteed basic income. Professor Steven Pearlstein considers this option in a Washington Post article, in which he reviews the book by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght entitled A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinion/how-to-ensure-everyone-a-guaranteed-basic-income/2017/03/24/69883d14-05a1-11e-69fa-ed7277644a0b_story.html).
Pearlstein says that over the last three decades “robots and intelligent software are quickly becoming so sophisticated and so ubiquitous that they are about to take over the work done by millions” of workers. The question then is how the society will deal with a world “where there aren’t enough good-paying jobs to go around?” A growing number of experts both on the libertarian right (e.g., Charles Murray) and on the left (Robert Reich) have addressed this question. Switzerland put the issue to its citizens in a nationwide referendum and three quarters of the voters turned it down. But it was a national issue. A first step perhaps. There are also “well-funded, large-scale, long-term experiments in Finland and Kenya to examine “whether providing a guaranteed income is an effective way to relieve poverty and cushion the effects of economic dislocation without encouraging idleness and sloth.”
The simplest form of a guaranteed income is one in which “the government sends every citizen an annual check in an amount sufficient to keep the wolf from the door when misfortune strikes but not large enough to satisfy anyone’s idea of a good life.” The program would be paid for with taxes that would have the effect of “clawing some or all of the money back from most households while hitting up the wealth for even more.” It would allow some people the freedom “not to work for a time in order to take care of family members, purse a passion, acquire education or contribute to a worthwhile community project. The guaranteed income would also give people the freedom to start a new business with an uncertain future, or “the freedom to say yes to a job that pays little but yields job and satisfaction.” The proposal is strongest when the guaranteed income is framed as an economic dividend to which all citizens are entitled, along the lines of Peter Barnes idea of basic income.
Like Kuttner’s other proposal it would take a major political upheaval favoring progressive Democrats to make the idea of a basic income or guaranteed income politically viable. Even then, it’s an idea that may not have priority, given its radical implications and given the plethora of other pressing issues. One thing is clear though, that is, that there is a growing shortage of good jobs and, as robots and artificial intelligence systems take over more jobs, either alternative sources of income are made available or poverty and misery will grow. What are some of the alternatives? An income policy that supplements the incomes of all citizens. A labor policy that reduces the hours of the workday or workweek with the goal of sharing employment. There are other proposals that are being discussed such as doubling the minimum wage, making it easier for workers to join unions, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and direct government job creation.
#6 – Reclaim the Public Realm – Kuttner opines that “good public services that are superior to private ones provides another teachable moment.” Here are two of his examples.
First, he refers to the problems with our current health care system. Indeed, there is a lot to say on that subject, especially the rising costs of health care and prescribed drugs and the tens of millions of people who are under-insured and without insurance. Kuttner likes the policy option of “Medicare for All.” He believes that it can be reached in stages, if the right political conditions exist. Here’s what he writes.
“It might be accomplished state by state. Alternatively, my colleague Paul Starr has suggested beginning with a subsidized buy-in option for people over fifty, called Midlife Medicare. We could next give Medicare cards to all children under twenty-one, who are cheap to insure, and finally bridge over to include young adults and extend Medicare to the entire population. The savings in the wild inefficiencies and middleman costs of the current health care system would more than cover the incremental costs of this transition” (p. 303).
We can learn from other “developed” countries, all of which provide some form of universal health coverage as a basic right of citizenship. Kuttner’s approach, if ever successful, would get us to universal health coverage eventually. As with most other of the policy recommendations advanced by Kuttner, there are vibrant movements advancing this cause nationally and in Ohio. Check out, for example, the website of the Physicians for a National Health Program (http://www.pnhp.org/facts/single-payer-resources) and the website of Ohio’s Single-Payer Action Network (http://spanohio.org) for in-depth information and initiatives.
Second, Kuttner offers a way to deal with the college debt problem, which has reached $1.3 trillion. He proposes that public universities and community college should be tuition-free, that is, completely subsidized. He also proposes that living expenses for moderate-income students should be partly subsidized. In addition, student debt for those who are out of college should be phased out. He likes what Bernie Sanders advanced during his presidential campaign.
“The Sanders’ campaign calculated that it would cost $75 billion a year to end the system of student deb, and that the program could be underwritten by a tax on speculative financial transfers” (p. 304).
It can be argued that we have done it before, that is the New Deal, therefore we can do it again. But the conditions today are very different from what they were then. For example, Republicans now control the federal government and over 30 state governments. There is a highly-organized network of billionaires lead by the Koch Brothers. Corporations, financial and nonfinancial, are bigger, whatever the measure, and more politically powerful than ever. The Democratic Party is internally divided between accommodationists, who favor modest reforms that don’t much rattle their corporate and rich funders, and those who want to keep the spirit of the Sanders’ “revolution” alive. (Take a look at Bernie Sanders’ book, Our Revlution: A Future to Believe In.)
There is no doubt that there are plenty of people on the left who are engaged in movements for change on a wide range of issues. And there are promising and committed people running for congressional seats, many of them women. The question is whether progressives in the Democratic Party and movement activists will be able to radically change the political landscape over the next two elections? If, ideally, they do win, there is another question. Will they champion and be able to enact policies that will reverse what the right-wing juggernaut is doing to us? One thing is clear. What is needed? It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Good ideas, educating, organizing, winning elections, and advancing a radical agenda politically – that might do it.