On one side, oceans of wealth and power. On the other, precarity and powerlessness. But we have the tools for reform
Joe Biden at the White House in September speaks about his American Rescue Plan. ‘What I propose is an alternative – to pitchforks, anarchy and civil war.’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Rising interest rates, a falling stock market, a seesaw in the price of gas, a high dollar and chaos in world finance – we see in all this, once again, the folly of trying to run the world’s largest economy through a central bank. It’s time to rethink the basics: what has happened in America? And what should be done?
Adam Smith wrote: “Wealth, as Mr Hobbes says, is power.” Today in the United States we find islands of wealth and power on one side and an ocean of precarity and powerlessness, alongside poverty, on the other. This is a structural development over 50 years, the effect of politics and policies, but also of industrial change, globalization and new technologies, with intense regional, social, demographic and political implications.
From the 1930s to the 1970s America had a middle-class economy centered in the heartland, feeding and supplying the world with machinery and goods while drawing labor from the impoverished south to the thriving midwest – an economy of powerful trade unions and world-dominant corporations. This has become a bicoastal economy dominated by globalized finance, insurance and high-end services on one coast, and by information technology, aerospace and entertainment on the other.
Finance and technology do not create many jobs, and the conduct of business in those sectors is rapacious and predatory, shading often into fraud. Some years ago we calculated the rise of income inequality measured between counties during the 1990s boom years, and found that half the increase was due to income gains in just five counties: Manhattan, Silicon Valley, Seattle. There have been other big gainers since, but the fact remains: the largest income and wealth gains in America have become highly concentrated in a few very specific places, sectors – and people.
Yet practically all new jobs created in the past 30 years have been in services, and most of those in “stagnant services” – the profusion of restaurants, retail shops, hospitals and clinics, offices and entertainment venues, fueled by household incomes (and borrowings) exceeding requirements for material goods. Pay in these jobs is mediocre and employment is unstable. Families compensated by having two or more earners, each sometimes holding two or more jobs, where 50 years ago the norm was one earner with a steady job paying a living wage. Then Covid blasted the sector.
For better or worse, we can’t go back: globalization and the digital revolution are irreversible facts of life. The June 2021 White House Review on the supply chain made this very clear, using semiconductors, rare earths, batteries and pharmaceuticals as examples. Our advanced sectors need world markets – including the Chinese market – as much as they need access to the world’s resources. US consumers benefit from imported goods and from the efficiencies of the information age.
The question is: what do we do now? We can adjust, and build a fair and secure middle-class society, free of poverty and of oligarchy alike, with tools that are broadly familiar. These tools include:
Expand social insurance
Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and Snap already greatly reduce poverty, insecurity and hunger in America. They can be broadened and strengthened. If we can’t get Medicare for All, then drop the age of eligibility to 55 – that would cover a large part of the most vulnerable population and reduce in a stroke the burden of private health insurance on employers.
Raise the minimum wage
A federal minimum wage at $15 per hour would provide a raise to at least 20% of all working Americans. It would solve in a stroke the supposed problem of “labor shortage” – without hurting any employer relative to any other. Nor would it encourage immigration, since US workers would step up to take decently paid jobs.
Implement a job guarantee
A federal job guarantee is well-prepared proposal that would eliminate involuntary unemployment, set a basic wage standard, and provide willing workers with continuous employment on useful projects, giving private employers a labor pool from which they can easily recruit the workers that they need.
Stabilize energy prices and supplies
The TVA and other agencies provide stable power under long-term contracts. Why should oil and gas be run by private equity on a boom-and-bust basis? Stabilize energy prices and supplies – with regulation, quotas, price controls (as in Germany right now), long-term contracts and public utilities – and many other problems would become much easier to solve.
Build public services, infrastructure, and fight climate change
And do this while cutting military commitments and spending. The main job of infrastructure is to improve the quality of life, with clean water and air, good transport and communications, and – urgently – to change the resource mix so as to mitigate, so far as possible, global warming. We cannot meet these needs and at the same time devote our talents and resources to wars – the limits to that are clear after Afghanistan and Iraq. It is past time to end the illusion that the United States can or should run the world.
Shift taxation toward land rent
A great principle of classical economics was that taxes should encourage labor and enterprise while discouraging waste in both the public and private spheres. In the 1980s, taxes were shifted away from personal and corporate incomes and capital gains and toward payrolls and sales – and the unsurprising result was the rise of an oligarchy of hyper-wealthy persons. The remedy now is to tax these accumulations and the associated rents – land values, mineral rights, technology “quasi-rents” – so as to bring the new plutocrats back to earth. A stronger estate-and-gift tax can spur the transfer of great fortunes to foundations and non-profits, such as hospitals, universities and churches, while working to prevent the emergence of dynasties, financial and political.
Reform banking before it’s too late
Is this program realistic? Perhaps not. But consider the path we’re on. What I propose is an alternative – to pitchforks, anarchy and civil war.