Thursday, May 13, 2010

Robin Hood was Right

Robin Hood had its world premier last night at the Cannes Film Festival and could be a major summer blockbuster. As this timeless story comes back into our cultural consciousness, I'd like to take a moment to propose that the progressive community embrace this character as one of our own and think about how we can develop the Robin Hood ethos into a coherent progressive economic philosophy. Let's take this opportunity to shout it from the rooftops: Robin Hood was Right!

I saw Elizabeth Warren speak today at an event at SEIU, and she repeated this statistic several times: 200,000 Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure each month. Yes, 200,000 a month. The big Wall St. banks are getting richer at the direct expense of working people who are losing their homes and life savings. It's Robin Hood in Reverse, and just another example of how our economy is set up to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

The sad truth is that we haven't done much to reverse the Trickle Down Economics of Reagan and Bush. The Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans will probably expire, but that seems to be about it. While the Tea Party taps into the public's anger at the banks and the government that bailed them out, where is the progressive movement? Where are the calls for making the rich Wall St. bankers pay their fair share? Where's the bailout for working people?

We need a simple, repeatable economic message, program, and worldview that taps into the anger that people feel about the state of our economy. Keep It Simple, Stupid: Let's KISS it up here with a message that everyone will understand and a program that will provide real economic justice. We need Robin Hood Economics.

Robin Hood Economics would make the rich pay their fair share in taxes and provide a basic income to working people. Yes, tax the rich and give to the poor. And not just to the very poor in a way that separates them from working people, like welfare did. Everyone should receive a basic income, enough to provide for the basic needs we all share: food, clothing, and shelter. Then our jobs would be all about earning money for what we want and need above and beyond the very basic costs of living.

Robin Hood Economics would provide a permanent stimulus directly to the American people, helping small businesses create jobs and ensuring a robust economy that works for everyone, not just the few at the top. It would greatly reduce poverty for the poorest Americans, and allow millions to work less hours (and less second and third jobs) and spend more time with family and friends.

While Fox News will cry socialism, the reality is that this would keep all of the best things about capitalism--a free market, the entrepreneurial spirit, competition--without the unfairness, poverty, and unbridled greed we face today.

I think President Obama's heart is in the right place when he says things like "I do think that at a certain point you've made enough money," and "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." The problem is that we currently don't have any policies that actually do that, and we don't have a movement of people calling for that.

Part of the reason that we don't have people calling for taxing the rich and giving the money to the rest of us is that nobody wants to be called a socialist and nobody wants to be considered too far left and too far away from the mainstream that they aren't taken seriously. But then we are left with half-hearted and half-assed policies that people don't understand (the complexities of health care reform and financial reform come to mind) and aren't inspired to do anything about.

The billions that investment bankers bet with every day, that they swap and sell and chop and slice up into the derivatives that wrecked our economy--that money should instead be invested directly in the American people.

What would your life be like if we had Robin Hood Economics? What if you received a full basic income of $1,000 a month that you could count on, that would always be there for you through thick and thin? What would your life be like if your friends and family members also received $1,000 a month. What if all of your neighbors in your community got $1,000 a month? How would things change?

Would we have a stronger economy? Safer neighborhoods? Better communities? Would America be a better place to live?

Would you be able to work less and live more? Could you change jobs if you needed to? Could you stand up to your boss, knowing that you'd have at least some money coming in each month? Could you go back to school? Would students be able to study the subjects that they are really interested in instead of the ones that will result in a higher-paying career? Would people be better able to follow their bliss?

Does Robin Hood Economics sound too good to be true? Maybe. We'd probably have to start out with a small basic income and give to those most in need. But I think it's important to provide an alternative vision of how the world could be. As John Lennon said, imagine all the people, sharing all the world. We need to imagine a new America where we share the wealth and have an economy that works for everyone.

How would we pay for all of this? First of all, we should do as Robin Hood did, and hold the rich and powerful accountable. We should reverse all of the tax cuts for the rich, going back to Reagan. We should end the tax loopholes and all the corporate welfare that the big corporations get. We should tax carbon pollution and the profits of the big oil companies.

The state of Alaska has had a successful experience for 26 years providing an equal dividend from its oil revenues to all residents living there for a year or more. It has helped make Alaska the state with the most economic equality in the nation. There they have applied a key idea of one of the intellectual leaders of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine: the right of everyone to participate in the wealth of the nation.

In addition to making the rich pay their fair share, we should get rid of a lot of twentieth century government programs, the one size fits all, all or nothing programs like welfare and unemployment that pay people not to work. We can replace all those programs with a basic income and save lots of money on bureaucracy and paperwork.

I'm confident that we can work out the details of the policy. What we need is to build a movement around a new kind of economics that puts working people first instead of enriching the few at our expense. We need to tax the rich and give to the rest of us. We need Robin Hood Economics.

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