Monday, October 19, 2009

A New Economic Philosophy for the Left: Rise Up Economics

I believe that what's missing from the Democratic Party and the left in general is a cohesive economic philosophy that could guide our policies and present a compelling vision of the future to the general public, allowing us to build a real movement for change.

While President Obama's election was an important victory, he doesn't provide us with much of a vision beyond vague promises of hope and change. He himself comes from an organizer's perspective: it doesn't matter what the issue is, just find out what people care about and bring them together to do something about it. This has shown as he has backed away from some of his key policy proposals such as the public option in health care reform.

We need both a world-class messenger like Obama, and a message that's worthy of his skills. Now that there's some semblance of an effective political operation based on the Obama campaign, the netroots, and a united (on the issues at least) labor movement, what we need now is something to rally around that's not just a specific issue or policy goal, but a simple, compelling view of the world, an overarching political and economic philosophy.

I propose Rise Up Economics.

Rise Up Economics is a new philosophy that says the economy should be set up to benefit the vast majority of middle and lower income Americans, not the people at the top. The money that in the past has gone to tax cuts for the rich, corporate welfare, bailouts for the banks, and massive bonuses for CEOs should now go directly or indirectly into the hands of working people.

It is demand-side economics: when working people have more money to spend, it increases demand and helps the whole economy rise up.

It's the opposite of Trickle Down Economics. You've got to hand it to the Republicans: they just came out and said that what's good for big corporations and the wealthy is good for all of America, and they set out to cut taxes on the rich and corporations and paid for it by cutting programs for the poor and running up the national debt, alleging that the wealth would trickle down to the rest of us.

Now that we're in power, it's time to set out an audacious plan to provide real economic assistance to the vast majority of working people in the middle or below. We need to make the wealthy and the corporations pay their fair share of taxes again and tax carbon pollution, the financial industry, and the oil and gas industry, and distribute those funds directly to working people in the form of tax credits and indirectly through important government programs like health care and education.

Many current issues are key to Rise Up Economics: we need to strengthen the right to join together with our co-workers in a union and get a contract with wage increases by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Uniting in unions is the traditional way to get more of our economy's wealth to flow to working people, and even though only less than 12% of workers in America belong to a union, getting that number up to 15 or 20 percent would have a profound effect on raising wages for everyone.

We also need affordable health care coverage for all, more education funding, job creation projects in infrastructure and green technologies. I think it helps to take what are now separate and independent campaigns and unite them in a simple, repeatable package that the public can easily understand: Rise Up Economics.

The key new idea is providing income directly to working people through new tax credits. I think the public is incredulous that we spent trillions bailing out the banks, which are now making record profits again, and we didn't get a damn thing. The tax cut that was passed was minuscule, and hidden within paychecks so nobody really noticed it. And the stimulus funding will be helpful but it doesn't touch most people directly.

We can start out with modest tax credits that provide a few hundred dollars that folks can count on every month. Eventually, we should establish a serious Income Security Tax Credit that provides enough income so that everyone is starting out above the poverty level, about $10,000 a year.

We need to truly stimulate the economy on a permanent basis by providing a level of income security that most people just don't have now. With unemployment pushing 10%, people with jobs facing cuts in hours, businesses moving to an employment model where employees are independent contractors with no benefits of any kind, it has become apparent that our economy is set up in a way where we are totally reliant for income on jobs that we really can't rely on much at all.

As corporations figure out ways to eliminate jobs and pay as little as possible and move operations all across the globe to find the lowest labor costs, and new technology makes some human work obsolete, it's time to face facts: we have an economy where we desperately need good jobs, but it's not in the corporations' best financial interest to provide them. We need them, but they don't need us.

We will never have true economic security if we are reliant on corporations to provide us with enough good jobs. We should try to get the government to create as many good jobs as possible, but even that would probably fall short. At some point, to ensure economic security for all, we need to establish a level of income security that is independent from our jobs.

Basic income security as a human right: that's what Martin Luther King and many others in the progressive community advocated for in the '60s as the guaranteed annual income. It's time to revisit this as a key issue for the 21st Century. A movement for a basic income for all has already begun across the globe, and it's building here in the US as well.

With all the talk about socialism from Fox News and the rest of the right, how about a modest proposal that keeps the best of capitalism--free enterprise, individual ownership, the marketplace--and mixes it with a strong dose of social programs. The best of both worlds: filing down the rough edges of capitalism.

There may be many ways to accomplish this: instead of providing income directly to people, we could expand existing programs for the poor and make them strong middle class programs like Social Security and Medicare. We could make middle class working people eligible for food stamps, housing vouchers, Pell Grants, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

There are also many ways to pay for what would be a massive outlay of money to millions of people. We could start by reversing trickle-down economics: make the wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share in taxes again. How is it that the highest tax bracket is $250,000? How about new ones at $1 million, $5 million, $20 million etc.?

Cap and trade or a carbon tax could raise billions in revenue; we should make sure it goes to working families. Henry George and his followers have proposed land use taxes that would be much more fair and equitable than current taxes. And the state of Alaska gets revenue from the oil industry that it puts into a permanent funds and pays out a dividend to all residents. We should capture profits from the oil and gas industry and others to spread out amongst everyone.

We could pay for it by eliminating billions in corporate welfare that supposedly goes to help create jobs. We could also pay for it by eliminating the many government programs that would be made obsolete over time: food stamps, welfare, unemployment.

And then there's the deficit. Reagan never paid for his trickle-down economics; Bush never paid for his tax cuts or for the invasions of Iraq and Afganistan. We can budget for a reasonable deficit, especially if it means a stable and productive economy.

We are many, many years away from providing a basic income for all. Yet I think it is important to project a vision of how the world could be: a world where everyone has enough income to at least get by, people work for what they need on top of that, and workers have more power than they do now because they won't need the jobs as desperately as they do now.

As John Lennon said, Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. Imagine a world where we share the wealth so that everyone has at least enough to get by, where there's no poverty except among the most downtrodden drunks and addicts. Imagine work and jobs taking more of a secondary role in our lives instead of dominating most of our waking hours. Imagine working less and living more. Imagine less crime because of less desperate need. Imagine a better life and a better society where we're all in it together. Imagine Rise Up Economics.

What's your vision for the future?

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