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America the insecure
In politics, promoting security in its broadest sense -- both emotional and economic -- is more saleable than railing against inequality
Over the past half century, most Americans experienced the steady erosion of their economic security. This was just as true for the shrinking middle class as for those in lower income brackets.
Jobs are more tenuous. Housing is more expensive. Guaranteed pensions have been replaced by individual savings accounts dependent on the viccissitudes of the stock market. Out-of-pocket health care costs escalate annually, even as losing inadequate health insurance remains just a layoff notice away. Many young people now enter adult life saddled with an unprecedented level of debt.
More than two decades ago, Jared Bernstein, who was recently named chair of President Joe Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, dubbed this state of affairs “the Yo-Yo (You’re On Your Own) economy. He urged replacing it with the WITT (We’re In This Together) economy, where government enacted programs that promoted economic security for all.
Bernstein, now 68, earned a Ph.D. in sociology before honing his economic skills at the labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute and liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. During the Obama administration, he served as Vice President Biden’s chief economic adviser. In his current post, he plays a significant role in fashioning Bidenomics, which the president says is designed “to grow the economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down.”
Today, the president offered a potent symbol for that approach by traveling to Michigan to walk the picket line with striking United Auto Workers. It is reportedly the first time a president stood side-by-side with striking workers.
The president’s detractors and the media have portrayed his appearance as a political ploy to shore up his tepid support among blue collar workers. Michigan is going to be a major battleground state in next year’s election.
But let’s not forget that former president Donald Trump, who will make his own appearance in Michigan on Wednesday, never said a word during the 40-day walkout at GM in 2019. He appointed a National Labor Relations Board hostile to union organizing; and he named Supreme Court judges whose rulings over the past few years made organizing public employees, farmworkers and service workers far more difficult.
Unions built the middle class
Biden’s appearance will hopefully serve to remind working Americans that unions played a crucial role in building the middle class. From the end of WWII until the mid-1970s, unions used collective bargaining to spread the income and wealth being generated by America’s booming economy to a majority of the population. As a result, the spread between those at the top and those at the bottom declined sharply.
Economists dubbed it the Great Compression. But today, after 50 years of neoliberal economic policies, the U.S. has the greatest level of wealth and income inequality in its history. It is tied with Turkey for the highest GINI coefficient (a measure of income inequality) among the 38 advanced industrial economies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Rhetorically, the UAW leadership has focused on income inequality as the major issues in their strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (I hesitate calling the three unionized auto manufacturers “the Big Three” since they sell just 43% of new cars). Union officials point to the huge profits posted by the companies, which their CEOs and boards funneled into stock buybacks and exorbitant executive pay increases.
In addition to a substantial wage increase for workers, the union wants an end to the two-tier wage system, where recent hires earn a fraction of what higher seniority workers make. It also wants workers in the companies’ new electric vehicle plants to make comparable wages, not fall to the levels being paid by non-union Tesla and foreign car makers, which located almost all their new EV plants in Deep South right-to-work states where the laws make union organizing extremely difficult.
I hope the UAW makes significant strides on each of those fronts. Bolstering blue collar paychecks will be good for the economy. Moreover, a settlement clearly viewed as a win for workers will embolden organizing campaigns across the country, both at the new EV auto plants but also in the service and warehouse sectors, where low wages, family unfriendly work schedules and dangerous working conditions are the day-to-day reality faced by millions of workers in the bottom half of the income distribution.
However, while fighting inequality through a fairer distribution of wages at the firm and industry level makes a lot of sense, it is less effective as social policy and difficult to win and enforce in the political arena. Us versus Them is great for rallying the progressive left or workers on the picket line. But it has never succeeded in building a majority movement among the American electorate.
Why that’s the case is worth exploring, perhaps on another day. But as we head into another presidential election season, the president’s reelection prospects and those of the Democratic Party will hinge on their articulating a vision of our economic future that brings the country together, not further divides it, which Us versus Them rhetoric tends to do.
It has long been an article of faith among leading progressive thinkers that the Democratic Party’s greatest successes over the past century came by passing programs that served everyone and reduced economic insecurity. Unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Obamacare — each provided an extension of the social safety net that previously didn’t exist.
In a fascinating interview on the New Yorker website this week, Astra Taylor, whose new book The Age of Insecurity is just out, lays out the case for putting reducing insecurity at the heart of the Democratic Party platform in 2024. Just 43, she’s already made documentaries, served as an organizer (she co-founded the Debt Collective that aims to eliminate student debt), and this year delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting System (previous lecturers included Jane Jacobs and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
She says insecurity is just as central as wage and wealth inequality to understanding the disaffection that has given rise to rightwing movements across the globe. Further, addressing peoples insecurities holds out the greatest hope for channeling that anger in a progressive and productive direction. “To have any hope of mobilizing against the institutions that are invested in profiting from the destruction of our planet, we’re going to have to build a formidable mass movement,” she says. “So we need everybody.
“One thing I like about the concept of insecurity is that it gives us a basis for finding commonalities,” she says. "Where inequality encourages us to look at extremes—to think about the billionaires versus the billions of people who have very little—insecurity encourages us to look sideways and see what we might have in common with people, even if those people have a bit more than us, or even a lot more than us.”
In health care, it is easy to come up with a set of principles that would appeal to everyone by putting an end to the insecurities generated by the current system. Everyone will be insured. Movement between programs or insurers (for whatever reason) will be seamless and automatic. No one will ever pay more than a set percentage of their income in out-of-pocket expenses. Everyone will have access to the same quality of care, no matter how much they make or where they live.
It is heartening to see young activists embracing a vision of reform that would be right at home in FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society. At a time when the mass media is filled with stories and columns expressing existential dread about the end of democracy, it’s enough to give this old man hope.
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