September 24, 2015

Millions of working people need economic help. What would work?

The New New Deal

To close out our series on work, produced in partnership with The Nation, we’re looking ahead to the big proposals and spiritual realignments that might spell a major change for working and middle-class people who feel as though the recession never ended.

Look no further than this chart, produced by one of our big thinkers this week, the Bulgarian-American economist Pavlina Tcherneva.

US-growth brings inequality-90vs10%

Today even as the economy grows the gains are topsy-turvy. In the latest economic expansion (from 2009 to 2012), the incomes of the top 10% rose more than 100% while for bottom 90%, they actually sank. But we still see a steady-as-she-goes approach to economic policy in the White House and in the primary campaigns, for the most part, too.

When Franklin Roosevelt first conjured a “new deal” for American workers, he was still a candidate. It was June 1932, Roosevelt was accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party. The state of the union was dire. Just as we’re shifting to digital, gig-based, flexible work, Roosevelt was witnessing the collapse of the agricultural economy and its replacement by organized industrial work.

Roosevelt had a story to tell about the Depression. “Enormous corporate surpluses… the most stupendous in history” had failed to pay out to small actors in the American economy: not in higher wages, lower prices, or in dividends. Those profits didn’t go into innovation, either, but into speculation and idle investments. A massive financial bubble had built up — then burst.

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The speech was long on specifics — massive public-works projects, the reduction of tariffs, debt relief — in service of “a more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.” (Some of Roosevelt’s fellow travelers in the Democratic Party went so far as to propose a second bill of rights around economic freedoms, including the right to honest work and to a fair wage. That never took hold.)

At the end, Roosevelt comes to his “true goal,” the spiritual underpinnings of the New Deal. It’s worth quoting at length:

What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security — security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security — these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead.

Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws — sacred, inviolable, unchangeable — cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.

With two shows on the triumph and troubles of working people behind us, we wanted to think F.D.R. big, and to name a solution (or three) that might represent a new new deal, a platform in search of a candidate for working people.

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The workers’ cooperative

Our leadoff guest was the alternative economist, historian and activist Gar Alperovitz. The story of the New Deal was the consummation of experiments tested the state level, and Alperovitz says that’s happening again. So the top-down changes happen last he reminds us — for now we have ferment at the local level in the form of cooperatives.

Forget the Sixties-era variety: 130 million Americans take part in coops of one kind or another, like credit unions, CSAs, community gardens, and land trusts. There are worker-owned farms and solar plants in Cleveland, the public purchase of power stations in Boulder, a whole new-economy coalition in our hometown of Boston. Our guest last week, Astra Taylor, asked why Uber shouldn’t work like a cooperative, too: drivers sharing a simple technological platform — and the billions of dollars that comes with it. She’s not alone.

The child allowance

Look down a list of EU member nations’ public benefits, and you see — again and again — a recurring per-child benefit, varying in size from 30 dollars in Britain to more than 230 dollars in Germany. Canada, too, has what is called a “child benefit.” Our guest Matt Bruenig, policy expert and pundit at the Demos think tank, has written repeatedly that an American version of the allowance — say, $300 per month, per child — could cut this country’s startlingly high rate of child poverty in half, and force a 15% reduction in adult poverty, too.

Bruenig is impatient with the knee-jerk criticism of the child allowance that it will incentivize having children. Anyway, we may need a few more kids!

Children cost about a thousand dollars a month; the benefit’s only 300 dollars a month. Doesn’t take a genius to know that’s a money-losing proposition. Beyond that we do have some studies from elsewhere in the world that tend to show that these benefits, maybe, increase fertility by 3 to 7 percent. That’s really not problematic, and if anything, given the age structure of our population and the declining fertility rates that we’ve had recently, a little bump in fertility could actually be a positive thing.

The basic income

The basic income’s substantially more ambitious: cash for every citizen just for breathing. But that hasn’t stopped Switzerland from considering just this kind of annual, universal grant. (And Alaska has distributed an annual check to all Alaskans since the 1970s — and even Sarah Palin loves it.)

After the recession, basic income seems to be gaining traction on the left and on the right, after a long period of discredit. In 1969 “minimum income” was a pet policy of the Nixon administration, supported by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his poverty-fighting mode and by the conservative economist Milton Friedman (see above). Back then the minimum income passed the House of Representatives, then died as senators quibbled over how much it would pay out and whether it’d stop workers from working.

Dylan Matthews, a policy wonk and senior editor at Vox, asks us to take a second look. He concedes it would cost “real money” — hundreds of billions, even a trillion dollars — but it could conquer poverty, strengthen low-wage workers by providing a fallback alternative to bad jobs, and finally provide something like real freedom to every citizen of a wealth country.

Pavlina Tcherneva: A Job Guarantee

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Finally, there’s the Job Guarantee, a fundamental change in the American attitude towards work. Right now, the jobless depend on the thin and patchy safety net of unemployment insurance. Our guest, the economist Pavlina Tcherneva, proposes turning unemployment offices into employment offices, so that when you fall out of the workforce, you fall into a socially useful job: rebuilding infrastructure, urban agriculture in a food desert, and caring for kids or the elderly. It’s a Works Progress Administration for the digital age, taking its cues from social entrepreneurs and community leaders about the projects they need most.

Tcherneva’s insight is that high unemployment and social neglect tend to combine in poor neighborhoods across this country. Meaning that “we have a coordination problem” — it’s proof that our unemployment regime, as it is, isn’t working.

Alissa Quart: More Civic Poetry

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Alissa Quart wears two hats in these discussions: first, as a poverty reporter and the editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (also home to Barbara Ehrenreich and Astra Taylor), and as a poet. Quart tells us that as a child of bohemian Greenwich Village, she has a heightened awareness of how the last four decades of high capitalism have changed life on the street. And she argues for more “civic poetry,” poetry about “the hard stuff of life: money, crime, gender, corporate excess, racial injustice.” Quart points to Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, to Robin Clarke’s Lines The Quarry, a poem composed from workers’ comp data. An excerpt:

917 assemblers & fabricators
150 athletes & sports competitors
1,104 car mechanics
4 writers & authors
160 bakers
471 bartenders
1209 bus & truck mechanics.

Here’s Quart’s argument, and a sample of her own poetry:

Sinking It All Into

They were afraid.

Subtraction was

their favorite term.

 

If we were arriviste

we’d have arrived all ready.

 

Securities speak.

They say, “Take comfort.”

 

Money cancels criticism.

 

If she were a he she’d be

indignant by now.

 

Her role, at this time:

an internal continuous

improvement consultant.

 

With one additional purchase,

you would have purchase.

With ability to purchase

you would be talking by now.

 

“Their Daily Bread”

Finally we return to the resonance of work. As Pope Francis departs, leaving a message of solidarity behind. As he spoke before a joint session of Congress, the pope addressed himself to our subjects in this series on work,

the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society.

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The theologian Harvey Cox was in our studio to address the figure of Francis, in hopes that his next encyclical comes on the subject of human labor and human love:

Working is part of being human. The person should be at the center of the economy, he says that all the time. Working is central to who we think we are, our worth as human beings, our making a contribution to the society. It’s just heartbreaking to the pope, and to many of us, that there are millions and millions of people all around who are yearning to work — and they don’t have jobs. As one of your guests already mentioned, 30 percent in Spain, 40% in Italy, 25% of black people living in America. They want to work not just to earn a salary… but because that’s the way you are a part of the human enterprise.

This concludes a three-part series on work in America today: from labor history to precarious work. Thanks for listening and reading along. If you like the series, please come and subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, and send any questions, comments, or suggestions to our Open Source inbox.

Guest List
Gar Alperovitz
political economist, writer and founding principal at the Democracy Collaborative.
Felicia Wong
president and CEO at the Roosevelt Institute.
Harvey Cox
theologian and professor at Harvard Divinity School.

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  • A hodge podge of ideas. None that profound when you consider the amount of money people earned sitting around thinking off.
    Gar had an insight that is worth considering: Roosevelt rode his
    times. The solution would have to be supported by everyone with an across-the-board benefit – it would then be a case of riding the times.

    A flat a tax.

    Once that glide path had been attained, one could entertain the idea of
    a guaranteed income. The guaranteed income would have to eliminate all other social welfare programs – food stamps, and etc. (EIC would already be gone with the flat tax.)As with the flat tax, gaming the welfare loopholes would be end.

    One interviewee on the show positioned guaranteed income in negative
    way, saying, one could avoid the crappy job. Actually though, one could gladly
    take the crappy job and enjoy it. A happy employee would be good for business.
    There would have to be a minimum wage floor, but that already is underway.
    Given the complexity of the times, these two programs would be a welcome
    relief for people.

    Nonetheless, there would be some hardship – 2,000,000 or @ 1.5% of employed Americans, accountants and tax lawyers, would lose their jobs and many administrative welfare jobs would be lost – but many now doing administrative welfare jobs could be reassigned to quality of life issues.

    All this would require a succession of one-trick Presidents using Obama’s
    model of bailing out the healthcare industry to get a healthcare program.
    The flat tax would have to impact corporate America in some way.
    The guaranteed income program would have to benefit… uh, not sure… the military
    industrial complex? Eh, I just threw up in my mouth.

    Yeah, compromises would have to made: one step forward, two steps back.

  • Pete Crangle

    Really enjoyed this series. Big thanks to you Chris, the team, and the guests. Well done, as always.

  • Potter

    The Pope, this pope could not have come at a better time. He should come again a week before election day. Maybe, I hope, he will have a lasting effect. Maybe he will produce an affect in those who have so easily been smitten by some shocking demagoguery of late.

    I like all the ideas presented, but as Gar Alpervovitz said, the power structure or base has to change. That is cause for despair.

    But the message of this program is that I/we have to learn to be patient and positive even though I/we may not live to see the time when things do change ( from below). In other words I should know that that they are changing under the radar. I hope. I hope for life itself.

    I say- everyone, all people work, they work to stay alive whether they are paid for it to not.

    What is too much under the radar is the notion of the disconnection between moral issues and the practical or the “business” of living. And we do not have moral leadership that is strong enough or constant enough.

    Thank you for this very thoughtful series.

  • Pete Crangle

    Thinking about this series and Potter’s comment:

    Some individuals transcend the natural and cynical constraints of the
    institutions they represent. Others, transcend the institutions founded
    in their name, or by their leadership. Either manifestation becomes a
    transformational presence for others, and is capable of raising all of
    our consciousness above the dominant paradigm. But the later being,
    concerns him or herself not in building future institutions of power and
    control, but creating a path to elevate, transform, and anchor one’s
    experience both in the here-and-now, and beyond the temporal concern.
    And in so doing, puts us in touch with our core and common humanity,
    with the ordinary and our connection to it, but seen with fresh eyes,
    felt with a new beat.

    This is the essence of that which creates
    the space and the possibility for moral and ethical renewal, in the
    hopeful and the common sense that can be realized by the individual and
    the collective to which it shares a mutual attachment. It is more poetry
    than history. Which is why it speaks to us without the parlance of the
    political-economy or the parlance of space-time, and beyond the
    constraints imposed upon their ever-narrowing frame.

    A bullet, a
    sword, a plowshare have their moment, and their appointed tasks are
    realized by the nature of their deployment. They are ephemeral in their
    material fact. An idea, especially those which embrace our core and
    common humanity, has a force that can travel nearly endlessly within the
    flicker of the human heart and the frictions of our mind. It whispers
    to us its wisdom eternal. This is what leaders teach us. They remind us
    of that which is not their particular monopoly, but which gathers within
    us and in our shared being. This in fact, is the basis of the
    democratic ideal. We would be wise to see to its care, not for the past
    nor the future, but for the eternal moment which honors and cares for
    its constant realization.

    Democracy is as much a spiritual and
    sacred manifestation as any formal religious system. It speaks not for,
    or of the Gods and Goddesses at the boundaries of reality we may or may
    not recognize within ourselves, but the needs of our humanity in all its
    variation, and our common cause contained therein. It supplies
    day-in-day-out concerns and resolutions. It supplies the beauty of the
    impure, the blemished, the compromised, and yes, the wonder of
    mediocrity. Show us any functioning democracy and we will easily
    understand it to be infected by the plague of the mediocre. And yet, the
    adversary of the mediocre is not the perfect, but the fascist, the
    dictatorial, and the supremacists. The mediocrity of the many is nearly
    always superior in its human expression than the mediocrity of the few.
    This is the robust strength from which it draws, and this is the
    weakness of the autocrat, the plutocrat, and the oligarch. The
    democratic principles supply meaning and purpose in their continual
    realization. In this we find elevation. We find anchor. These principles
    have the audacity to serve. It requires only our vigilance to persist.

    The
    Pope, and the institution he represents, flawed a priori by being human
    and human conceived, flawed in acts and rhetoric of omissions and
    commissions, has reminded us of this virtue. He has not so much exposed
    the worst in us, but the potential and wonder for what is best in us,
    and how these matters must always exist in perpetual tension. In doing
    so he has crossed the boundary of the usual and the ordinary. I commend
    and thank him for it. This series, and many of these discussions here on
    ROS, tap into this. Chris and Mary, the team, and their guests do well
    for us; this is no inflation. I thank them for it. In particular, Mr.
    Alperovitz is clear on the power of movements and their ability to
    repair, but also, the necessity of their care and our intention for
    their realization. The interesting work is often in planting the seeds
    and helping a movement grow. I thank him for the reminder.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    “GLOCAL” ANTINOMIES AND PUZZLES

    NEW NEW DEAL VERSUS GLOBAL ARCHITECTURE

    This ROS
    discussion took place at the usual level.

    What’s
    missing from all these hankerings after a new progressivism is the dimension of
    “glocal” pressures, where the local or national are in a “traffic jam” with the
    global, hence glocal.

    Let us
    agree that had the U.S. took its 1945 end-of-WWII unique world-historical
    opportunity to fuse the two FDR visions namely “The Four Freedoms” and the “Economic
    Bill of Rights”, the U.S. might have achieved a real greatness, bringing
    something new to the world. Instead it wandered off into the criminal desert of
    neocon criminality giving us today’s “mayhemized” world.

    See: http://radioopensource.org/the-fate-of-the-union/
    (see FDR “Second Bill of Rights” in comments”

    The
    problem now is that in 2015 one faces this glocal world where an attempt to put
    a firewall around America to protect real wages and benefits runs into
    something like the Mitterand 1981 France problem

    Where Francois
    Mitterand tried schemes of franc, labor, wages, benefits protection and
    maintenance and found that gyrations in the economy, turbocharged by “torque”
    from globalism, forced him to abandon the idea of a firewalled France, by 1983.

    The great Egyptian analyst Samir Amin argues in his writings such as “Capitalism in the
    Age of Globalization” that the system at the global systemic level produces
    both great dynamisn as well as constant polarization. Samir Amin also implies
    that if you “de-polarize” the West and the Rest (North-South) (ie Third World
    develops and grows richer) than you cannot simultaneously “de-polarize’
    internally. (ie Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). You also can’t extort the
    outside world (Trump-because that loses you gains from trade, brain drain, etc.

    This means that rectifying the winner-takes-all upward distribution of the American
    economy (the local in glocal) is not only a matter of political will,
    progressivism, etc but also one of structure and as the very name of Samir Amin’s
    book tells you, “capitalism in the age of globalization.”

    Richard Melson