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Date: 2024-05-21 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00023328
PDA / RALPH NADER ELECTION SUPPORT
1. THE ECONOMY: For the Many, not the Few

INFLATION & GROWTH: by Robert Kuttner

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Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess
1. THE ECONOMY: For the Many, not the Few

INFLATION & GROWTH:

Robert Kuttner

“I am running for Congress here in Middletown [yes, this is hypothetical] because our government needs to serve working families as it has in the past. Donald Trump got one thing right when he said, ‘We need to make America great again.’ But my Republican opponent has voted against every measure that might actually make America great again for regular people, or help you and your kids thrive economically. He has voted for every measure that enriches billionaires who ship jobs overseas and treats their employees like so many expendable machine parts.

When I was growing up, you could buy a house on one income. People had decent pensions. You could go to college without being burdened by debt before your economic life even began. Imagine if some politician forty years ago had said, ‘I have a plan on how to pay for college. We will end free tuition at public universities and stick kids from working families with decades of debt.’ That politician would have been laughed off stage. But that’s just what both parties did.

When I was growing up, big corporations had unions and a sense of reciprocal duty to repay the loyalty of their workers. Banks and airlines and power companies were regulated in the public interest. Small business was not being gobbled up by big business. You could get medical care without paying a fortune out of pocket or being told, ‘You can’t see this doctor or go to that hospital or have this procedure.’ That’s not intrusive government. What’s intrusive is today’s unaccountable private ‘regulation.’

We once had a kind of compact in this country between the people and their government and between corporations and workers. That’s not nostalgia. It’s the way things were and could be again. Now, they weren’t that way for everybody. There was a great deal of racial discrimination. Women were denied the opportunities available to men. But we were making progress. Today’s economy is so productive that there’s plenty to go around—if the top doesn’t take it all. If working families got the same share of the economy’s productivity that they did half a century ago, if wages had risen with productivity, the typical family would be earning around $100,000 a year.

What went wrong? I’m sorry to say both parties (for the most part) got into bed with giant corporations and with Wall Street. They helped corporations and bankers move jobs overseas where labor was cheap. They cut regulations and taxes on the very rich, while working people were hit with higher payroll taxes, while private regulation by employers and insurance companies invaded our lives. Things don’t have to be like this. We have a climate crisis and a crisis of collapsing roads and bridges and electricity grids that need investments that could create jobs right here in Middletown. We could end the kind of globalization that serves billionaires and instead bring jobs and economic development home.

So I hope you will give me your vote. Thank you.”

Progressives like Sherrod Brown have shown that you can get elected in unlikely places with this kind of appeal. Progressives today complain about the original gerrymander—the U.S. Senate—as if rural people were hopelessly and irrevocably conservative. When I was working for Senator Proxmire in the 1970s and the Senate was very solidly Democratic, you could literally drive from Washington State to Pennsylvania without passing through a single state that had a Republican Senator. Why? Because the Democratic Senators of that era in rural states, as well as urban states, delivered for working people. It can be that way again.

The long term problem is the capture of economic policy by neoliberalism, deregulation, privatization, globalization, the shift in who pays taxes with catastrophic results for the distribution of income and wealth and for the weakening of unions. I have a piece in the current New York Review of Books going into the details—and there are more in my own book Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy—but here’s the basic story. There was a long shift away from the legacy of Roosevelt and the New Deal model, and three successive Democratic presidents who were by no means progressive: Carter, then Clinton, and then, I’m sorry to say, Obama.

Thanks to the long legacy of Roosevelt’s tangible help to working people, as late as the 1996 Presidential election counties that were below the national median income and at least 85 percent white split evenly between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. In the 2016 election, however, the same counties went 658 for Donald Trump and 2 for Hillary Clinton. That’s the legacy of going Right on economics and thinking that you can come compensate by going Left on cultural issues. On the contrary, you buy the running room to make progress on divisive social issues by being the champion of all working class people.

We need to be persuasive on a long-term progressive economic vision, while having a strategy for surviving short-term. The long-term requires a lot of public investment with jobs—especially production jobs—front and center. We need to use the climate crisis as an opportunity to shift to a productive, equitable green economy rather than a command that working people tighten their belts. And we need a kind of New Deal for the young. They’re in an economy where you are more likely to have gigs than payroll jobs. And Democrats need the young to turn out, because when the young turn out they vote for Democrats.

If this election is about people’s frustration with the price of gas, we lose. But Biden is not on the ballot, and a lot of good people are on the ballot down-ticket. Trump and the Supreme Court have given the Democrats a kind of gift—Trump inserted himself in the process to get all kinds of unelectable Republicans nominated; he reliably keeps reminding voters how crazy he is; and of course the January Sixth Committee has done a superb job of filling in the details. The Supreme Court has given Democrats a gift by showing how at odds it is with public opinion on everything from kids being massacred in classrooms to women being criminalized for trying to pursue their reproductive rights.

Justice Thomas also handed the Democrats a political grenade to use against Republicans when he wrote in his concurring decision in the Dobbs abortion case that the Supreme Court could also reverse three earlier decisions: overturning criminalization of sodomy, allowing same-sex marriage, and even permitting contraception. So the House took the first step by passing the Respect for Marriage Act—which codifies the court’s 2015 Obergefell decision protecting same-sex marriage—and forty-seven Republicans voted for it. It split the GOP beautifully.

Bottom line, we can win back America based on pocketbook issues. The best analogy is to the 2018 election when, because Democrats and moderates got organized (they were all appalled by Trump), Democrats were able to pick up forty-one House seats.

There is a decent chance if Democrats play this right—use wedge issues against Republicans and then bring it back to the pocketbook issues where there’s a 40-year frustration that we can tap into, this will not be the typical first midterm election of a new president. We have a very good chance of holding the Senate, even picking up a couple of seats, and we might even hold the House. So don’t mourn. Organize.

Mark Green: Imagine in Middletown, someone on the street walks up to you and asks, “Professor Kuttner, the RNC simply says inflation is up, gas prices are up, Biden’s the President, Isn’t Biden responsible for that?”

Robert Kuttner: Here’s the elevator pitch: First of all, inflation is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s going on in every major country. That’s partly because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has created shortages everywhere. But it’s partly chickens coming home to roost. We had this idiotic idea that all we had to do was outsource jobs, and have far-flung supply chains, and that’ll be great for corporations and very convenient. But in fact, as soon as we had a crisis like the COVID crisis, important supply chains collapsed, and on top of that we have all of this corporate price gouging where corporations are taking a free ride on the premise that this is now an inflationary economy. And corporate concentration is at least as much to blame as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

None of this is Biden’s doing. If there were a Republican President you’d see exactly the same inflation. We need to attack inflation at its roots. And in the meantime, we need to help working people earn a decent living.

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