The progressive debate we need

The president isn't offering strong alternatives to the GOP's regressive ideas. OWS could fill the void

Topics: Occupy Wall Street, Democratic Party, Great Recession, ,

The progressive debate we need Protesters at Occupy Florida in Miami, Saturday Oct. 15, 2011 (Credit: AP Photo/Jeffrey M. Boan)
This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

Republicans are debating again tonight. And once again, Americans will hear the standard regressive litany: government is bad, Medicare and Medicaid should be cut, “Obamacare” is killing the economy, undocumented immigrants are taking our jobs, the military should get more money, taxes should be lowered on corporations and the rich, and regulations should be gutted.

Four years ago the most widely-watched TV debate among Republican aspirants attracted 3.2 million viewers. This year it’s almost twice that number. And for every viewer assume a multiplier effect as he or she shares what’s heard with friends and family.

Americans are listening more intently this time around because they’re hurting and they want answers. But the answers they’re getting from Republican candidates – tripping over themselves trying to appeal to hard-core regressives – are the wrong ones.

The correct ones aren’t being aired.

That’s partly because there’s no primary contest in the Democratic party. So Republicans automatically get loads of free broadcast time to air their regressive nonsense while the Democrats get none.

But even if the President had equal time, the debate about what to do about the crisis would still be frighteningly narrow.

That’s because the President’s answers don’t nearly match up to the magnitude of the crisis.

Without bold alternatives, Americans desperate for big solutions are attracted to bold crackpot ideas like Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” proposal, which would raise taxes on the poor and cut them for the rich.

This is where the inchoate Occupy Wall Street movement could come in. What’s needed isn’t just big ideas. It’s people fulminating for them – making enough of a ruckus that the ideas can’t be ignored. They become part of the debate because the public demands it.

The biggest thing the President has proposed is a plan to create 2 million jobs. But that’s not nearly big enough. Today, 14 million Americans are out of work, and 11 million more are working part-time who’d rather be working full time.

The nation needs a real jobs plan, one of sufficient size and scope to do the job – including a WPA and a Civilian Conservation Corps, to put the millions of long-term unemployed and young unemployed to work rebuilding America.

I’m not criticizing the President. Without energized, mobilized, and organized progressives, even the best people in Washington can’t overcome the monied interests.



For example, America’s long-term debt needs to be addressed, but not the way the President is doing it. He wants to lop $4 trillion off the budget over the next ten years. This almost certainly means sacrificing education, job training, food stamps, and everything else now listed in the so-called “non-defense discretionary” budget, as well as cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

What about halving the military budget instead? It doubled after 9/11, and military contractors are intent on keeping it in the stratosphere. So is Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Result: Defense cuts this size won’t be on the table unless progressives vociferously demand it.

And what about really raising taxes on the rich to finance what the nation should be doing to create a world-class workforce with world-class wages?

Here again, the President’s proposal is paltry compared to what should be done. He wants to raise taxes on the rich by ending the Bush tax cut for incomes over $250,000 and limiting certain deductions.

Yet income and wealth are now more concentrated than they’ve been in 70 years. The top 1 percent gets over 20 percent of total income and holds over 35 percent of national wealth; the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.

Meanwhile, effective tax rates on the rich are lower than they’ve been in three decades.

We need to push for higher marginal taxes on the top, and more brackets. Incomes of more than $5 million should be subject to a 70 percent rate. (The top marginal rate was never below 70 percent between 1940 and 1980.) And these rates should apply to all income regardless of source, including capital gains.

This would allow for a bigger Earned Income Tax Credit (that is, a wage subsidy) for lower-income workers. And lower taxes on middle-income workers.

There should be a 2 percent annual surtax on all fortunes over $7 million. This would only hit the richest half a percent of Americans at the very top of the heap. And would yield $70 billion a year – enough to improve our schools and make college affordable to everyone.

And a tax on financial transactions. Even a tiny one of one-half of one percent would generate $200 billion a year. That’s enough to make a major contribution toward early childhood education for every American toddler.

The President’s healthcare law is a good start but it’s not the solution, either. We need Medicare for all. Medicare has lower administrative costs than private insurers. And it has the bargaining heft to reduce drug and hospital costs as well as shift the system from fee-for-services to payments for healthy outcomes.

The President’s financial reforms are also a beginning but they’re way too weak to stop Wall Street depredations. (At this moment, for example, no one even knows the exposure of Wall Street banks to European banks and, through them, Europe’s debt crisis.)

We need to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and break up the biggest banks.

The President has talked about fixing Social Security by raising the retirement age. But the best way to ensure the program’s long-term solvency is to lift the ceiling on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes (now $106,800.) Yet this, too, is off the table.

Workers also need more bargaining power. The ratio of corporate profits to wages is now higher than it’s been since before the Great Depression. Workers should be able to form unions through a simple up-or-down vote, without delay.

None of this is possible without strong and consistent pressure from the progressive side. Regressives are setting the agenda.

The President isn’t even talking about the environment any more. Yet climate change is a reality, and our survival depends on reducing carbon emissions.

We should tax carbon-based fuels, and divide the revenues equally among all Americans. It’s the best way to get us to switch to non-carbon fuels, and stimulate research and development of them. And by dividing the revenues, the typical American would come out ahead even though some prices would increase.

Finally, we need public financing of elections and strict limits on so-called “independent” expenditures. Corporations should have to get the approval of every shareholder before spending corporate funds – the shareholders’ money – on politics.

I have no idea whether the Occupiers will morph into the kind of progressive force necessary to put these ideas into play. But if Americans stand together and demand real reform, we can have a real national debate in 2012.

Tonight’s Republican debate may attract lots of viewers. It need not capture their minds.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>