Ask For Little, Get Nothing
Jonathan Tasini is the the executive director of Labor Research Association. He is returning from a hiatus to write his occasional column for TomPaine.com, “Working in America.” His blog, Working Life, chronicles the labor movement and other issues affecting American workers.
Mind-boggling. Cowardly. Tone deaf. When I read what passes for the economic agenda for “liberal” Democrats and even progressives, I can’t help but think that they have lost their minds, their imagination or their spines. And I have judiciously left out the expletives that come to mind so my editor will let this piece run.
Let me remind the quivering political leaders and think-tank, inside-the-Beltway experts about the economic insecurity most people face in their daily lives. The divide between rich and poor has never been greater; wages are barely keeping up with peoples’ bills, driven down in part by the corporate global pursuit of the lowest w age possible; personal debt is at an all-time high; 48 million Americans lack health care and millions more pay for inadequate coverage. As for the government, it’s a fiscal disaster mainly because this administration, aided and abetted by some Democrats, has blessed a wholesale raid on the public till by those for whom avarice knows no limits. Yes, Iraq was central to the election but it’s clear that people voted for Democrats because of a general unease about their economic futures.
And what is the response of the newly-elected Democratic majority? Nancy Pelosi pledges the House will raise the minimum wage, give tax credits for college education and allow the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices. My friends at the Economic Policy Institute are offering a “pay to play” health care solution (meaning, companies can cover their workers through private insurance or pay into an expanded version of Medicare). Everyone apparently agrees that rolling back the insane Bush tax cuts is off limits because such legislation won’t survive a veto; Democrats will simply block any extension of the tax cuts past 2010.
Welcome to the soon-to-be Democratic minority. I mean it. If voters, having rewarded the Democrats with a majority in Congress, get in return this mealy-mouthed mush, why should they keep these people in power? Despite the mainstream media trumpeting the growing influence of the economic populists, signs still point to a middle-of-the-road, cautious-as-hell, sensibility.
Folks, wake up. You want to wield power? Act like it. Get some courage. Be bold. Talk about what has to really be done to change the country. The winds are blowing our way because it is truly desperation time out there for millions of voters.
Health care: Sure, the government should be able to negotiate for cheaper drugs. But, lord, repeat after me—single-payer (or, if you prefer, “Medicare For All”). Employer-based health insurance has failed. It’s over. Nothing else will solve the crisis in health care, a moral and economic crisis, until we wrench the system entirely out of the hands of the leeches in the drug and insurance industries.
Taxes: C’mon, even some Republicans are appalled at the fiscal incompetence and irresponsibility shown by the Bush administration. Push for the rollback of the tax cuts for the rich now—and force the Republicans to defend the continued enrichment of less than one percent of the American public. Raise additional revenue by calling for a Wall Street Fairness Tax. Every day, billions of shares are traded through financial systems that often have huge fluctuations. Rather than rewarding speculators who move “hot cash” in and out of investments, we should encourage what economists sometimes call “patient capital”: making an investment in a company you think has potential and holding on to it. The Wall Street Fairness Tax would decrease volatility and reduce the incentive to jump in and out of investments quickly—which is also destabilizing for U.S. companies and for other countries. The Wall Street Fairness Tax would be 0.25 percent of the value of a trade. Long-term investors would not feel the tiny tax because they are putting their money into a company for the long haul. The Wall Street Fairness Tax would generate significant revenues, which we could use for either a tax cut for middle- and lower-income people or for domestic programs like single-payer health care or for a massive investment in public infrastructure.
Education: If you want to promote education as a path to economic security (which, frankly, is misleading) promise a free, four-year public college education to every American who agrees to spend the first post-graduate year working in public service for a non-profit or community organization. Finance it with the tax revenues held back from the multi-millionaires or the Wall Street Fairness Tax by simply asking voters: do we want our kids to have the best education possible, or do we want millionaires and Wall Street speculators to have enough money to buy another yacht?
Trade: it’s a no-brainer to stop anymore so-called “free trade” agreements, which have utterly failed to promote the welfare of the globe’s citizens. But, future trade deals will not be fixed with the band-aid of “enforceable labor and environmental provisions,” as some folks want, or tinkering along the edges on issues such as layoffs. We have to start with an entirely new vision of what trade means. The first page of every trade agreement should state that trade should take place for the benefit of the people, not corporations. It should spell out the specific goals in advancing prosperity and a decent standard of living—and, then, outline how corporations can serve that purpose. We need to replace the World Trade Organization, which is run by un-elected lobbyists and shills for global corporations, with a body we might call Global Prosperity—an open, democratic, transparent organization which figures out how to best manage an equitable allocation of work on an exhausted, depleted planet.
Corporate Rights: Take them on. In the past 100-plus years, corporations have accumulated rights never envisioned by the founders (which makes you wonder about the intellectual integrity of the conservative jurists on the federal bench who view themselves as “strict constructionists” but behave as shills for the expansion of corporate rights). Corporations now have Constitutional rights that were supposed to be just for individuals: for example, corporations have a 1st Amendment right to free speech (for more on this, check out the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy). And, if you can believe this, just the other day, the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation recommended that it be made more difficult to indict or sue companies accused of wrong-doing—as if Enron had never happened.
From my vantage point, fighting for the minimum wage is a cop-out aimed at avoiding the debate that corporate power is the central threat to a decent standard of living. Look at it this way: People elected Democrats so they can…earn $7.25 an hour? You’re kidding? For full-time work, my calculator shows that comes out to a whopping $15,000. How inspiring.
Sure, raise the minimum wage. But, the truth is people, in their hearts, know that until we reign in corporations, no one’s wages, benefits or job security are safe. It’s not simply that people should have the right to choose a union without fear of being fired. We need to reclaim the sovereignty of our jointly held Commons from the corporate, free-market ideology that has sucked the vitality out of our communities in direct contravention of the Constitutional protections of individual civil rights and liberty.
Immigration: Stop sounding like Republicans. Democrats are being cowardly and pathetic on immigration, parroting Republican fear-mongering that is eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric over taxes back in the 1970s, Instead of the economic bogeyman being taxes, it’s the “immigrants are coming to steal your jobs.” Sure, Americans are scared out of their wits about their economic futures. But, immigrants are not the threat—corporate power is. People are flowing into the country because they are economic refugees, battered at home by, among other things, our country’s insistence on shoving so-called “free trade” down their throats. You want fewer people to come here? Fine—make it possible for them to earn a decent living at home. But, if you think that building a fence or getting “tough” on immigration laws will really address the issue, switch to the Republican Party. If you want to act like a Democrat, call for legalizing people already here, but couple that with new, broad union organizing rights, a ban on so-called "free trade" and a rewriting of corporate rights—all of which will do more to promote prosperity and fair immigration, here and abroad.
Public Financing of Elections: You might consider this an odd element of an economic plan. But, take it from one who has seen this up close, we will never make progress on taking back our economy until we rid our elections of the corrupting influence of money. With all due respect to the call for a higher ethical standard, I don’t trust half the Democratic caucus to hang up the phone when the lobbyists promise to write checks (after all, incoming House majority leader Steny Hoyer has expressly promised that there will be no “business bashing” in the Democratic-led House).
We may not win some of these battles. But, we need people who don’t stick their finger up to see which way the wind is blowing but work to change the way the wind is blowing. They are the people who stand up and refuse to be silent because they know what is right and what is wrong. They are not swayed by how the wind blows because they know they have the power to change its direction.
Actually, what I have outlined are majority positions, if people feel they come from authentic leaders who stand for something. And, more important, they are the right things to do.