The Emerging Progressive Agenda

By Carolyn Burstein
May 21, 2015

May 21, 2015 | By Carolyn Burstein

In a May 12 Washington Post blog, Katrina vanden Heuvel called recent events in advancing a progressive reform agenda a “stunning” development. She was referring to the convergence of agendas put forward by a number of grassroots groups, such as:

In addition, individual progressive leaders are also being heard. Examples include:

Given the groups and individuals involved, it is only natural that their specific perspectives on some issues would differ, but vanden Heuvel points out that what is “more striking is their scope of consensus.”

All groups and individuals agree that a truly shared prosperity is the challenge of our time and that only when working families enjoy higher incomes will inequality diminish. And the extreme inequality we are now experiencing is clearly the result of policy choices, rather than the inevitability of globalization or technological innovation.

The above-mentioned groups and individuals also agree that economic growth is the engine of greater equality. Stiglitz, in particular, has written not only in his May 12 Roosevelt Institute report, but in most of his other books, such as The Price of Inequality and The Great Divide, that promoting greater equality does not sacrifice economic growth – that the two are indeed compatible.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Bill deBlazio, in their joint op-ed in the May 6 Washington Post, rue the “increasing disparity between rich and poor, cronyism and an economic system that works only for those at the top” and conclude that such inequality is “bad for the middle class and bad for our economy.”

Indeed, EPI’s report includes this same point about inequality today: “public figures as wide-ranging as the president, Pope Francis and economist Thomas Piketty have brought inequality to the forefront of public debate.”

Central elements of the emerging progressive agenda are manifest in these areas and are often intertwined:

  • Place a higher priority on full employment through public investment in large-scale infrastructure renovation and innovation. Rebuilding roads and expanding other means of transportation, as well as modernizing bridges, power grids, and sewers is an excellent means of decreasing unemployment. This type of investment lays the foundation for long-term competitiveness, increased prosperity, and a high quality of life at all levels of society.
  • Focus on climate change by investing greater resources in renewable energy and energy efficiency (although all groups have not emphasized this element). De-carbonizing the power sector and tackling the inefficiency of our existing building stock will force us to underscore our commitment to long-termism and will send clear signals to clean energy companies that Americans are willing to fulfill their environmental commitments and believe in a sustainable future.
  • Raise the minimum wage to a “living wage,” and require every job in the U.S. to meet a minimum standard of quality – in wages, benefits and working conditions. If the rewards of growth are to be widely shared, then workers must be empowered to form unions and bargain collectively to ensure they capture their share of productivity increases rather than seeing profits accrue primarily to shareholders. To achieve greater bargaining rights for workers, stricter penalties will have to be imposed on illegal anti-union intimidation tactics. Excessive executive compensation must be curbed and management incentives that lead executives to plunder their own companies must be eliminated. EPI’s report, in particular, calls for broad-based wage growth.
  • Guarantee women’s economic equality, ensure national paid sick/family leave and high-quality child care. Crack down on wage theft and revise overtime laws to bring them into line with today’s economy.
  • Support progressive tax reform by raising taxes on concentrated wealth in order to provide resources for needed public investment. End the situation where huge multinationals pay lower taxes than small domestic businesses and billionaire investors pay lower tax rates on their investment income than working families pay on their wages and salaries. Revenue is needed to support long-term investment in an economy that must work for all. Raise the top marginal rate of taxes by converting all reductions to tax credits and limiting their use. Eliminate all corporate welfare and other tax expenditures that foster inefficiency and inequality.
  • Oppose trade deals that hurt American workers. This statement is a major part of deBlazio’s national agenda. Even Stiglitz, a believer in globalization, states that balance must be restored in global trade agreements “by ensuring [that] investor protections are not prioritized above protections on the environment and labor, and increasing transparency in the negotiation process.” The “Populism 2015 Platform” is in full agreement with Stiglitz. Other groups and individuals do not mention trade, but challenge all entrenched structures that fuel inequality.
  • Eliminate institutionalized racism whether in jobs, housing or any practice, and recognize a society of increasing diversity, which begins with comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform includes an end to all racial disparities, expanded voting rights, and an end to mass incarceration. Reform of our biased criminal justice system must reduce incarceration rates and related financial burdens for poor communities. Immigration law must provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.
  • Make basic investments in public education, including universal pre-K, various paths to debt-free college, and relief to the generation now burdened with student debt. Raising skill levels is critical to increasing growth over the long-term. This desire includes many facets of education, such as increasing apprentice programs, better on-the-job training, increased levels of work-based training – as well as investment in public education by eliminating all financial barriers to higher education.
  • Strengthen and expand shared security for the 21st century, especially for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, food support and housing assistance. As the “Populism 2015 Platform” states, “greater shared security makes the economy more robust by enabling entrepreneurs and workers to take risks, knowing that they can survive failures.” Both Bernie Sanders and Joseph Stiglitz emphasize Medicare for all. Several of the agendas call for greater access to good jobs that provide dignity, especially for the young and particularly in times of high unemployment.
  • Break up big banks (Summers, Ball et al do not include this element in their agenda, whereas this is an important element of the Stiglitz plan) and curb the excesses of Wall Street. Stiglitz calls for stricter penalties for companies and corporate officials who break the law. Related to this, he also calls for reducing the conflicts of interest in Federal Reserve governance and instituting more open and accountable elections to these offices.
  • Curb big money, especially “dark money” in politics, and crack down on corruption. These ideas are clearly in the forefront of the agendas of the Bernie Sanders, Joseph Stiglitz and “Populism 2015 Platform’s” agendas. The latter also includes a crackdown on payday lenders and any schemes that exploit vulnerable working families.

Only the “Populism 2015 Platform” calls for the use of U.S. military intervention as a “last resort” and pleads for a reduction in military budgets in favor of properly supporting humanitarian programs.

As Stiglitz has said in many of his works and repeats in his “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy,” markets are shaped by laws, regulations and institutions. And these rules matter. For the past 35-40 years we have chosen, through our political elections, the opposite path – believing that our markets could work perfectly guided only by themselves. The result has decimated America’s middle class and caused untold suffering among more vulnerable low-income individuals and families.

We finally seem to have a consensus emerging among grassroots non-profits and significant leaders that can be said to constitute a progressive agenda. This emerging consensus deserves strong support. We at NETWORK have worked toward nearly all aspects of the emerging progressive agenda and will continue to support an agenda that reverses stagnating wages and brings economic equity to all Americans, including undocumented workers.

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