"The Stakeholder Society"

Give everybody $80,000. After that they're on their own.

By Dustin Beilke
Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The idea is at once simple and grand, basic and big: Upon entering college or turning 21 (whichever comes first), every American will receive $20,000 a year for four years, to dispose of as he or she sees fit. Initially the program will be funded by a "wealth tax" on the people who have derived the most benefit from the United States' increasingly skewed distribution of income and property; it will eventually be paid for by $250,000 contributions from the estates of deceased program recipients. The $80,000 will give a genuine head start to every young person, regardless of his or her parents' wealth or parenting abilities; it will also deprive future generations of the excuse that they never made anything of themselves because they lacked the money to pursue their opportunities.

After that, "The Stakeholder Society," Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott's bold new proposal in the form of a 229-page essay (plus notes), gets more complicated. The authors, both professors at Yale Law School, spend almost the entire book anticipating the arguments that opponents will wage against their idea. They devote a chapter to the liberalism vs. libertarianism vs. utilitarianism debate. They fill pages with discussions of such subjects as the philosophy of Tom Paine, the funding of the Head Start program, the truth about Social Security "insurance" and the constitutional implications of the North-South compromise that deemed each slave three-fifths of a person -- to name only a few.

Ackerman and Alstott, who loudly, proudly and repeatedly refer to themselves as liberals, seem at once overly sensitive and overly naive when it comes to the political environment into which their plan will be unleashed. I say "overly sensitive" because they spend so much space worrying about the arguments that could be (incorrectly) made against their proposal. And I say "overly naive" because they don't seem to understand that the fate of their program would be decided not by a national debate between libertarianism and utilitarianism but by an endless series of 30-second television commercials depicting the $255 billion annual program as the most un-American idea since socialized medicine.

The cynic in me would like to wisecrack, Yes, this rather appealing idea is un-American. Indeed, the grim prospects before most of today's young people are the direct result of 20 years' worth of economic policies that have been carefully devised to put the desires of investors and corporations before the needs of the working population or the next generation. What we have now is a nation in which the minimum wage buys less than it did in 1970, real wages decline every year, two-worker families have to work longer hours to do marginally better than one-worker families did in the 1950s, college students graduate with ever-increasing debt loads and the share of wealth that the top 1 percent holds has gone from 13 percent to almost 40 percent in just two decades.

Social Security was a radical idea when it was proposed, but the undeniable need for it was enough to propel it into reality anyway. Let's hope that the same fate awaits the stakeholder idea or some form of it. More probably, though, the 1-percenters -- the people who can afford to produce the 30-second commercials, and who disproportionately fill the seats in Congress -- will provide the shove that will cause the idea to collapse under its own weight.

Dustin Beilke

Dustin Beilke has written for the Nation, the Progressive and Newsday, among other publications. He lives in Madison, Wis.

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