Re-establishing Democratic governance

Charles Bruner is a longtime advocate for policies that support children and strengthen families. -promoted by Laura Belin

About this essay

I studied political science at the beginning of the 1970s at one of the elitist of universities, Stanford University. My graduate school class, if not all radicals, shared a serious critique of American government and the military-industrial complex, the Vietnam war, the academic privilege and not freedom that embodied the Stanford administration, and the failure for society to listen to youth and follow-through on the vision expressed in the decidedly liberal document, The Port Huron Statement.

I returned to Iowa in 1975 feeling alienated and full of angst at my better understanding of the darker side of American politics. But I had no clue how to contribute to changing it. Fortunately, I found a group of 20-somethings in Iowa – largely through the Community Action Research Group (Iowa’s Public Interest Research Group) – doing that work in the policy field on the environment. They connected me to a job at the Iowa Welfare Association funded by the Compensatory Education and Training Act, the federal jobs program that provided nonprofits with funding to create jobs. It gave me space to learn and grow, as it did for others in my group.

We may not have achieved a lot in our 20-something lives, but it opened opportunities for us to pursue public interest work and to learn and develop expertise for our future lives. I even went into electoral politics as a state legislator. Government funded our on-the-job training and entrepreneurship, and it needs to do so again.

So many 20-somethings want to improve our environment, enrich our connections with one another, and help those starting out in life or facing challenges in going ahead. It will never be in the private sector’s interest to invest substantially in that potential workforce. Yet the strength of our society is not in its private sector productivity and profitability, but in the contributions people make to one another and for the public good, including stewardship for generations to come.

This essay is my reflection on how, over the last forty years, we have gotten off-track in our vision for government’s role in society and how we are now, often through supporting current 20-somethings, poised for something better.

FROM NEW DEAL TO SMALL GOVERNMENT

Democracy requires a government that is “of, by, and for the people.” As societies become more complex, government itself becomes more complex – but it retains a vital role in establishing the infrastructure that provides a voice and opportunities for all.

As a result of the Great Depression and the threats from authoritarianism abroad, the New Deal brought in a new activist role for government – including curbing the excesses of capitalist greed and its concentrations of wealth. It included public works and supports that themselves created employment opportunities, both in the public sector and financed by public sector investments.

By 1980, however, the New Deal had run out of gas. The Democrats’ Big Tent that had ruled Congress was, in some senses, rightly categorized as a compendium of “special interests” that did not speak to the public good. One Republican campaign advertisement from the 1980 election showed a Tip O’Neill-like driver in a car running out of gas and going in the wrong direction. The message was that Democrats were out of touch and unaware of their predicament.

The ascendancy of Ronald Reagan came not from the middle and mainstream part of the Republican Party but from the right. In addition to liberal bashing, a dominant theme of Reagan’s message was that “Republicans have a better idea for government … Less.” Government was presented as the problem and not the solution.

For the last forty years, this has been a dominant theme and rallying cry among Republicans, who often have run against government at the same time they run to become government.

PITTING GOVERNMENT AND PROSPERITY AGAINST EACH OTHER

In many respects, Democrats have sought to operate within that general framework and paradigm – calling for limiting the size of government in order to foster economic prosperity. Implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, Democrats have advanced the postulate that the private sector (not government) creates jobs and economic prosperity.

Particularly within state governments, policy makers of both parties have sought to present themselves as advancers of private sector economic development – not only with a new array of tax incentives and regulatory relief, but also with a view that taxes thwart economic growth and public sector expenditures are at the expense of business growth, particularly small business.

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 represented the extremity of this position – in many respects laying bare the fact that, as government is circumscribed, the power of those with wealth and power in the private sector are advanced – above those of the more diverse public. COVID-19 further showed the limitations of a diminished public infrastructure to respond at precisely the time it was most necessary to do so. The crudity of the president himself also singled out the anti-democratic nature of an approach which castigated those who disagreed and implicitly endorsed those who took undemocratic means to impose his will.

While the 2020 campaign was clearly a referendum on Trump and his own demeanor, it has now opened the door for a new expression of who we are and wish to become as a society. Are we compassionate and inclusive in our governance, or are we narrow and divided and abrogate the responsibility to govern ourselves and leave it to those with power in the marketplace?

President Joe Biden’s election offers the opportunity to replace this forty-year paradigm about the role of government and the public sector in advancing economic prosperity. If nothing else, Biden wears compassion on his sleeve and can be a much-needed “Healer in Chief.” But his presidency can be much more.

BUILDING BACK DIFFERENT

It is his agenda and the ability to enact it that really is key to a return to a “we the people” view of our government and its institutions. “Radical” means “going to the roots,” and it does mean not only “building back better” but “building back different.”

In that respect, while it may not be articulated as such, the American Rescue Plan Act and the upcoming infrastructure legislation can set that “radical” or “transformational” new course. At a minimum, it can be an equal and opposite reaction to the radical course begun in 1980 and culminating in the Trump presidency.

In our society, government is not the problem. Inequity of wealth and opportunity and exclusion of significant parts of our society in achieving their dreams are the problems. Capitalism is healthy only to the extent that the government ensures it does not descend into monopoly and accumulation of wealth instead of entrepreneurship, and does not achieve its profitability at the expense of public safety and the public good.

Biden’s plans and proposals present a fundamental rethink about government’s role in relation to capitalism and the economy. The proposed investments in “infrastructure” include investments in health care and education (human capital infrastructure) as well as investments in roads and bridges and a green economy (physical infrastructure). Moreover, these investments are directed to the broad segment of American society and their ability to raise families and support one another – not to those currently at the very top of the economic system.

In particular, the Biden plans call for major new investments that create jobs through public sector investments – in health, human services, education, and in an improved physical infrastructure, including those directed to energy and the environment. The Biden Plan for a 21st Century Caregiving and Education Workforce not only creates and supports millions of jobs in the direct care helping worlds, it elevates their compensation and status so those workers can sustain own families and make careers of their work.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed the need for nurses, child care workers, home health aides, community health workers, and many others on the frontlines enabling seniors to live in dignity, parents to get to work, kids to have safe and nurturing environments, and persons with disabilities to fulfill their goals and often themselves work and contribute to the economy. They rightfully have been recognized as the sheroes (most are women) of the response to COVID-19 and given a well-deserved recognition as “essential workers” in society.

While automation and artificial intelligence are replacing many jobs in the manufacturing and transportation economies and even the service industry, these essential workers in the helping and education fields are in increasing demand. At the same time, most of those who need these services are not in the position to pay their full value and cost. Rather than looking at public sector spending as being a drain on the economy and costing jobs, these jobs should be looked at as part of the economy.

The Biden plans for education similarly call for much greater investments in public education, particularly in poor communities, where public investment has been less and unequal to more affluent communities. Again, this is an area for job growth. Simply reducing class size, for instance, requires more teachers but also produces better education.

In terms of the frontline helping workforce of child care workers and community health workers and home-health aides, this includes raising their compensation from the $10 to $12 levels that currently exist and often don’t even compare to entry positions at Subway or Walmart – to at least $15 per hour. In the American Rescue Plan Act, this is justified both as creating new employment and as being one of the best ways to stimulate the economy. This frontline helping workforce, 90 percent women and disproportionately women of color, deserves better for the value of the work they do and should be paid more. In addition, these workers will put their earnings back into the local economy, with much greater multiplier effects, certainly, than tax cuts for the wealthy.

This view of government and the persons it employs as part of the economy extends to the development of a workforce to advance energy conservation, preservation of the natural environment, and addressing climate change. There are many opportunities at the community level to use both new and appropriate technology to help people and their communities reduce their carbon footprints and become more energy independent. Many of these lend themselves to “small is beautiful” responses that are as much achieved through human labor as technology. The investment in such a Green Jobs workforce also provides opportunities for young and old adults who want to address climate change as a public good to do so.

HOW TO PAY FOR IT

Of course, these actions must be financed, and the next big step for the Biden administration and for Congress will be to make permanent many of the provisions initiated in the American Rescue Plan. Financing those policies on a permanent basis requires rolling back a good share of the tax provisions that most benefited the wealthy, which Republicans enacted through the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

The difference in direction in terms of tax policy will be very clear. One of the major provisions within the American Rescue Plan was expanding the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child for those ages 6 to 17 and $3,600 per child for those from birth to age 5, and making it fully refundable (in effect a child allowance). That tax provision benefits almost all families with children, but particularly those most struggling to economically support their kids.

In fact, this one provision, at a cost of $88 billion, reduces child poverty in American by 42 percent, from the current 13.7 percent of all children to 7.9 percent. It benefits families of all races and cultures, but because so many of the lowest-paid and domestic workers are women of color, it also reduces what represent huge inequities in earnings and wealth by race.

In comparison, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act’s provisions to further eliminate the inheritance tax, exempt 20 percent of pass-through income for those making over $500,000 per year, and providing other cuts directed to the wealthiest individuals, came at a greater cost to the treasury but only benefited the top 1 percent of tax payers (and, in the case of the inheritance tax, the top one-fifth of 1 percent). Moreover, those provisions very disproportionately benefit those with inherited wealth and advantage, which in American society are very disproportionately white. Retaining such provisions in essence sustains racial inequality and runs counter to advancing equal economic opportunity.

The proof, of course, initially will be in the ability of the president and Congress to enact an infrastructure package that makes permanent many of the provisions around workforce and tax policy established in the American Rescue Plan Act.

Doing so will set the stage for the 2022 elections and the direction the country should head and what paradigm about the role of government it should embrace. My belief is that the tangible benefits of the actions taken – which positively affect virtually everyone in the working and parenting (and grandparenting) class, will translate into support for those who advanced that agenda.

There will be a clear contrast in votes among members of Congress – particularly between those who supported the Tax Cut and Jobs Act and then opposed the American Rescue Plan act and Infrastructure legislation and those who opposed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act legislation and then supported the American Rescue Plan Act and infrastructure legislation. Taking Trump’s personality out of the landscape, it will be a fundamental choice on where the country should go – for government as the instrument to ensure democracy or as its threat to that democracy.

Some on the progressive side rightfully will advocate for an end to white privilege and institutional racism and others on a laser focus upon global climate change as an existential threat created in significant measure by the energy industry. At the same time, the best way to dismantle racism and to ensure a safe environment is through hands-on actions that do so. The actions initiated in the American Rescue Plan Act do that, and they are designed to be administered in a way that builds upon all people’s aspirations and hopes for the public good.

There are tradeoffs, of course. Restructuring the tax code to capture more wealth from the wealthiest may result in Jeff Bezos being less able to purchase islands, yachts, and Picassos. At the same time, Amazon doesn’t make its profits by selling islands, yachts, or Picassos.

Building a stronger and better compensated workforce enables those now struggling to make ends meet to invest more in themselves and their children and to purchase precisely those durable and nondurable goods that Amazon provides. Amazon itself will do just fine.

Increasing purchasing power also builds a consumer market for the large array of mom and pop and true small businesses that contribute to main street and civic life in our communities. It further creates more opportunities for new entrepreneurial activity and personal creativity in the gig economy. In many respects, those who develop their gigs in creating new recreational and social activities are much more likely to do so as people have more wherewithal to pursue non-income producing activities.

In purely economic terms, the growth in our society can be balanced or unbalanced in terms of its impacts upon the population as a whole. Automation and artificial intelligence already have dramatically substituted technology and capital for human labor in the manufacturing sector, and increasingly they are moving to do so in the transportation and service sectors. As such private sector business moves from labor to capital/technology intensity, less of the benefits and profits are shared with working people and more go to owners. Without government recapturing a larger share of the profits from such advances in technology, the concentration of wealth will only accelerate.

There is a win-win solution – capturing a greater share of the profits achieved through technology (produced largely by human ingenuity based upon public investments in the health and education infrastructure of society) to reinvest back into the people. Every job created by public expenditure is and must be valued as just as much a job as one created by the private sector – and it fulfills a public purpose, which not all private sector jobs do.

A REALIGNING OPPORTUNITY?

The 2022 electorate does not to be steeped in economics to realize and recognize this. The electorate has been frustrated and distrustful of government and gridlock in large measure because government has not fulfilled these functions. The solution, however, is not to elect leaders who want to do away with government, but to empower those with a vision and plans to ensure government fulfills its mission.

In political science terms, the 2020 election was not a realigning election, but it was a repudiation of the divisiveness that was the basis for such realigning. 2022 can be that realigning election, at least as important as the one that ushered in the New Deal – but with an even broader conception of who we are. It can set the stage for the next forty years of politics and policy.

Top image: President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 on March 11 in the Oval Office, as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz, available via Flickr.

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