Full Employment as the New Progressive Paradigm

By Dan Kervick

Part One of a four-part essay

Progressives might have been permitted a short respite from anxiety after the election of November 7th, 2012.  They could find a measure of solace from the result: at least the country hadn’t fallen into the hands of an expert practitioner of one of the more barbarous styles of American capitalism, a man who had expressed open contempt for the 47% of Americans who receive assistance from the government he was seeking to head.   Of course, Mitt Romney’s disdain for government assistance extends only so far, since he has no objection to the sturdy fortress of legislative, judicial and police protections erected to both institute and protect private property.   He knows as well as anybody that without these government-funded protections many members of the propertied classes would not remain propertied.  But let us not dwell on the past.   We can move on knowing that at least there will be no Mitt Romney era.   Romney can now go back to his former occupation of buying, selling, dismantling, dismembering, repackaging and reselling the enterprises built by other people, throwing many of the people who work in those enterprises out on the street, and stashing the proceeds in island banks, far away from the greedy hands of the democratic rabble whose votes he recently begged.

Alas, the desired respite has been all but non-existent, because Washington has moved on immediately to renew the flagellation of the American people.   Right now, Democrats and Republicans in Washington are arguing over which forms and degrees of austerity to impose on us as the penalty we must pay to avoid the even larger smack we will be given if the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 – the “fiscal cliff” act – take effect at the end of the year.  This act was the bi-partisan gift of fiscal pain passed last summer when Congress and the White House could not agree on the appropriate form of torture to inflict on Americans as our punishment for daring to run large countercyclical deficits in our federal budget during an economic collapse.  Their solution was to agree on a joint homicide pact full of doubled-down, double torture – with an agreement to renew the negotiation later after the election.

As the argument goes forward, progressives are reminded that we now live in a two-party country that possesses only a conservative party and a reactionary party, and that the defeat of the reactionary party is not so much a cause for celebration as the renewal of the demolition contract for the less brawny of two wrecking crews.  The fact is that the progressive movement in America, at least so far as electoral politics goes, was bumped over the political cliff long ago and is barely hanging on by its fingernails at the edge of the precipice.   Ambitious progressive dreams of social transformation have now been replaced almost entirely by scrambling, draining efforts just to slow down the pace at which the plutocracy takes the gains of the past away from us.

We have a Democratic administration that now openly pursues and endorses policies that just a generation ago Republicans would not have dared to propose in public.  We are asked to feel grateful for a health care reform plan that entrenches the corporate power of Big Health and is an adaptation of the plan put forward by Republicans in the 80’s.  And if Barack Obama – who actually won the election – manages to limit the cuts in Medicare to just $100 billion or so, he’ll count it as a victory.  Any plans to expand the role of social insurance programs or the role of democratic government in the equitable provision of public goods and services?  Out of the question!   Under our new resolutely conservative system of bipartisan bean-counting, any reduction in public spending is considered a good in itself, even if that reduction causes offsetting private spending on the same goods and services to mount even higher than the amount cut from the public outlay.

Moving into 2013, the United States faces profound economic stagnation, mass unemployment and underemployment, an ever-growing gap between the rich and the rest, pressing economic insecurity, a crumbling infrastructure and a failing education system – and, oh yes, we have a whole planet under environmental assault.  The country needs vigorous, aggressive government action more than at any time since the Great Depression.  In the past, we might have gotten that kind of action from a sturdier generation of leaders.   But here’s what we are getting instead: following an inadequate package of stimulus spending passed at the beginning of his term in 2009, President Obama immediately pivoted away from jobs, growth and economic recovery toward deficit fear-mongering and the politics of austerity.  He pushed and passed a Republican-style health care plan based on mandated participation in private sector health insurance programs; appointed the Simpson-Bowles commission to hawk Pete Peterson’s budget hysteria; attempted to negotiate a “grand bargain” to slash the federal deficit in the midst of an enduring recession calling for larger deficits; signed the Budget Control Act which now hangs like a Sword of Damocles over a sick economy; and is now once again back at the table with Republicans haggling over how to shrink the government.  He has, it is true, proposed a jobs act filled with a lot of supply side sops to business.  That might have helped, and Republicans are primarily to blame for killing it.  But even that middle-of-the-road that act went missing in action during Obama’s campaign, because it doesn’t fit in with his favored narrative of responsible, conservative penny-pinching.

Obama seems convinced that if only he can persuade a conservative business community that he too is a conservative guy who believes in shrinking government and running a tight budget based on abstemious principles of sound finance, they will finally recover their lost confidence, deign to tap those mountains of corporate savings they are hoarding, and release the riches into the economy to create new enterprises and new jobs.    Sucking up to the “job creators” by dismantling more of the legacy institutions of a vanished progressive era is Obama’s real Jobs Act.  Of course, Obama himself is responsible for helping to engineer the climate of economic fear and pessimism.  He did that when he told the country that we were “out of money” and bought into the deficit hawks’ ignorant fears about debt-to-GDP ratios and budget deficits.

The triumph of conservative, Hooverite economic policies is not just an American problem.  In Europe also, plutocratic contempt and haughty moralism rule the scene.   Much of the continent has regressed under the pressure of economic failure into a punitive mentality of governmental irrationality and self-destructive hate, administered along the jealous national fractures that run through the marble ideals of the European community.   Despite the manifest evidence of the failure of austerity economics, the chief architects of austerity are committed to redoubling their sniffy efforts at inflicting pain on their despised neighbors – and even their own beleaguered populations, especially immigrant populations.   The only conclusion that can be drawn from this behavior is that generating economic prosperity is not the real goal of these leaders, but that they are instead motivated by the urge to inflict punitive social discipline, and to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the ruling prerogatives of economically dominant groups.   It’s hard to avoid noticing that the battle lines have broken down along some traditional ethnic and religious frontiers, with northern Protestant countries laying into the traditionally Catholic and Orthodox countries on the Mediterranean periphery.   (Northern Europeans seem to take special delight in the role reversal: the descendants of the great European ancestors who lived along the sea whose name means “center of the world” are now relegated to “peripheral” status by the descendants of the formerly subject and backward peoples of the cold barbarian hinterlands.)

So how have we ended up here?  What is left of the progressive movement in the developed world?  What is responsible for four decades of progressive failure amidst the rise of a neoliberal order that has delivered a society that is more insecure, unequal, brutal, uncivil and degrading – and is now failing even on its own limited terms?  Why have progressives been unable so far, in the midst of the worst economic experience since the Great Depression, to articulate and spread a riveting and powerful vision of social and economic transformation, to reverse the trend toward neo-feudal social and economic hierarchy, and to build a politically powerful coalition to advance the causes of equality, solidarity, democracy and progress?

I won’t pretend to have all the answers to this deep historical and social question.  But I would like to propose one specific and almost forgotten cause around which to organize a resurgent progressive movement.   Progressives must rediscover and reassert the ideal of a full employment economy, with an activist government permanently mobilized and organized to provide a productive job for every person who is both willing and able to work, but whom the private sector has not employed.   Public enterprise guaranteeing full employment must take its rightful place alongside private enterprise to achieve the important public purposes that the private sector cannot achieve on its own, and to restore the balance of social and economic power and status which is essential to a viable democratic society.   Let me explain why the pursuit of a full employment economy is politically, economically and morally necessary, and why progressives must take up this cause as a foundation for political revival.

End of Part One

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