What Do We Do Now?
Learning the wrong lessons from this cycle will cost us our democracy
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
If we listen carefully, beneath all the frustration, exasperation, and demoralization at the state of our politics is something quieter that we are missing. And if we are going to reconcile our current frustration and move forward as a country, we must listen to, hear, and understand this gentle voice from the inner core of what makes us America, or the “grand experiment of the United States” will not survive.
The expressions of neo-Socialism and angry, racist, misogynistic rage that have defined so much of this election cycle are grounded in real experiences of real people as the consequences of our policies and politics. There is something deeply shared both left and right: a profound lack of hope that progress is possible because our economic and political systems don’t respond to or work for a majority of people. Both of these movements are the consequence of leaders missing or misunderstanding the local effects of their policies and failing to adequately support the people who fall through the cracks. There is a blindness — either intentional or not — to our technocratic approach to policy, to our complacent globalist assumption that growth raises all boats and that the microeconomic consequences of macroeconomic progress will sort themselves out, or worse that there aren’t any.
Of course people are angry, and they are right to be. We hammer at poverty alleviation and immigration reform while millions of formerly middle class families slide toward permanent unemployment and poverty. We rail about inner city violence while responding to violence with more violence by militarizing our police forces and failing to commit more resources to community policing or holding ourselves accountable for crimes. And we rant about the emergent global effects of climate change while wringing our hands and not touching sacred cows like renewable fuel standards and the farm bill. Wage stagnation, dwindling entrepreneurship, increased inequality — not just of wealth but of mobility, increases in the visibility (if not actual frequency) of violence by the state. Most Americans don’t feel represented by their leaders because they are not represented by their leaders. They are citizens left behind by political parties more interested in point scoring than leadership and policies that are ignoring or blind to their pain. The real question for us is how that pain is expressed and whether we can make it productive.
As we look for how to solve our challenges rooted in inequality and opportunity, we can’t afford to curb innovation. We should not cap profits or progress. We should ADD policies that make up for the opportunity gaps that exist in markets that are working, but imperfectly — as all markets do in practice — around labor, taxes, and trade before we look to attack inequality directly. In a more service-oriented economy increasingly driven by technology, it is unlikely a healthy labor market works by the same assumptions and rules as the industrial era model we still rely on when there was a reliable, linear relationship between work and value. For huge swaths of the economy, this means that hourly wages no longer accurately capture the value created by work, and no increase to a $15/hour (or $40) minimum wage is likely to fix that math. We need to inspect the fundamental relationship between work and value, and we need those efficiency gains that currently create profits only for the executives and shareholders at the top to accrue to everyone who helps create them. So make everyone a shareholder: develop and enforce business rules that require meaningful employee profit sharing. And for those whose jobs we can no longer supply, we need to stop talking about helping 55-year-old former steel workers retrain as web developers or take handouts — both are offensive. Instead, enable modern manufacturing tax zones that promote 21st century advanced and artisan manufacturing that thrive on the experience and craft of our most experienced AND take advantage of the global labor market at the same time. And when we do provide job training, career transition, and vocational support, that we do them in the context of workers’ experiences and in the name of independence and long-term mobility — not expediency or statistics.
Addressing this relationship between work and value must be backed up by ensuring that our progressive tax system is in fact progressive in practice by balancing rates across different types of income (carried interest vs regular income) and including a progressive capital gains tax that rewards long-term investment over short-term gaming of the system (high velocity algorithmic trading). And if we are going to participate in global markets — and we must — we must also ensure that our trade rules are not written by corporations who can buy seats at that table and that all our businesses and all our citizens (as well as all the citizens of the countries with whom we trade) should be represented in those negotiations. The same goes for enforcing competition — monopolists cannot be allowed to control the levers of monopoly regulation — competition should be unleashed to drive new innovation just as it drives rent seekers out of lazy markets.
These ideas are not the foundation for some Robin Hood theory of redistribution. Nor is this necessarily a backhanded prescription for a universal basic income (although the concept is intriguing). And this is definitely not a perfect or comprehensive list of prescriptions that will solve inequality in all its forms. This is a beginning focused on opportunity that does not even directly address the very real scar tissue of our racist past or current wounds of the present. Fundamentally, these are examples of what a realignment of our policies to our core values might look like. We should be skeptical of snake oil claiming a single solution to problems this complex, but these types of ideas in combination will work if we’re willing to confront our own blindness.
If we are ever going to fix these policies, we must also (perhaps first) fix our politics. Our current public debate (such as it is) would have you believe that either our country is falling apart at the seams or is thriving beyond any moment in history — the economy is either leaving Americans behind or innovating in new industries at unprecedented levels and leading the world. These false dichotomies — thriving or failing and government or markets — are dishonest and lazy. This isn’t either-or. Part of why people don’t trust politicians is that both of these narratives ring false and oversimplified — because they are. Our country IS thriving and leading the world AND leaving some of our own citizens behind. Recognition of where we are and how to move forward requires of us a renewed emphasis on the service of public service and a willingness to confront truths and priorities that don’t show up on donor call-sheets. It’s about driving harder on the progress and globalization that has lifted more people out of poverty in the last decade that in all of human history AND taking care of citizens who need their government to look out for them and perfect imperfect markets to create an environment where 100% of Americans can thrive while we continue to engage and lift up the world around us. And If our democracy is going to thrive and represent all of us instead of the increasingly oligarchical system we live in, we need structural changes like campaign finance reform, a consistent, principled end to gerrymandering, and universal, automatic voter registration that enforce the kind of balance we espouse but don’t practice.
But perhaps most importantly we need to invest in and build stronger, more community-centric political parties that elevate the experiences of everyday citizens so that they cannot be ignored by leaders more focused on their own power than serving the people they represent. These sorts of policy fixes will be durable only if our institutions do not revert to our current imbalanced norms. Realignment requires sustained pressure, and our political parties need to reclaim responsibility for providing structure and leadership for the next round of challenges we will face. Our parties need to be defined by and responsive to the energy and passion of their members not defined by the ambition and advancement of leaders. And party leaders must be stewards of ideas and servants of their members who work to create real opportunities for the community to engage and participate in a system that is responsive to their needs, their values, and their pain. And these opportunities for engagement must extend beyond voting and donating — opening up processes like rules committees and candidate recruitment to meaningful participation on ideas, priorities, and platform, so that more perspectives are represented in the essential work that only gets done outside of the harsh glare of the campaign cycle.
Ultimately, this is a question of what we value more: progress or power. So that our mistakes might be fuel for perfecting our union, not fuel for burning it down.