Here it is 2014, and those long ago visions of “high speed” internet and the “information highway“ are still just that in some areas of the country. Even in metropolitan areas, “high speed” internet providers still can’t touch some of the speeds Asian countries are providing.
Remember how this was all supposed to play out? Back in the 1990s, high speed internet was supposed to usher in a new era of creativity and productivity for everything from work to school to doctor visits to surgeons performing operations remotely. Health care was supposed to take a giant leap forward with you having a physical checkup over the internet a hundred miles away from your doctor’s office. People were going to be able to watch movies and tv shows unimpeded, do video chats, and start a whole new age with the internet’s technical capabilities. As they say, “the future’s so bright I’m going to have to wear sunglasses”.
First, a little catching up. Last August, the New Deal Progressives (NDP) launched. Then from September to the December holidays, we traveled and listened to people across Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. We met almost 9600 people on college and university campuses, churches, town halls, people’s homes, and wherever people wanted to gather. Not a bad number for only using word-of-mouth to notify people.
All the stories people told us were pretty much the same as reported here. The economic depression we are in is very deep and there is no end in sight. People want jobs and relief, but both Democrats and Republicans are playing their usual games to avoid doing anything constructive.
What’s becoming clear is that people are now blaming Obama and the Democrats as well as the Republicans for the mess they have made of the economy, and for not showing any leadership and progress on fixing it.
My friend, mentor and colleague, Rev. James Lawson, calls our economic system “plantation capitalism.” Lawson was the nonviolent strategist for Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and the key figure in the desegregation of Nashville. His reference, of course, pulls forward the image of enslaved field workers in the Old South.
The image chafes in my mind. Yes, slavery, but today’s workers are not slaves. They are not the landless peasants or sharecroppers that emancipated slaves were forced to be. They are not the low-level, below-the-standard-wage employees that Southern blacks became when they migrated to the steel cities of the North. They are not second-class citizens isolated into segregated neighborhoods and limited to menial jobs.
Except, there is a growing body of evidence showing that this is exactly what a majority of workers of all colors is becoming. Between 1965 and 2011, while the top 10 percent gained an inflation-adjusted annual income increase of $116,000, the other 90 percent received a paltry $59. No wonder 75 percent of families report living paycheck to paycheck, and one in four Americans report using payday loans, pawn shops, auto-title loans and tax-refund loans to make ends meet. It’s why working people depend on check-cashing stores, purchase cars from “buy here/pay here” dealers and get re-treads from rent-a-tire shops.
There is no economic policy more important than job creation. The private sector plays an invaluable and dynamic role in providing employment, but it cannot ensure enough jobs to keep up with population growth or speed economic recovery—much less achieve the social goal of full employment for all Americans. Thankfully, there is an alternative: a job guarantee through a government-provided “employer of last resort” program offering a job to anyone who is ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage plus legislated benefits.
In recent decades full employment has been wrongly dismissed as not only impossible but economically counterproductive. Though the Employment Act of 1946 committed the government to the goal of high employment (it was amended by the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which targeted a measured unemployment rate of 3 percent), we act as if full employment would ruin us, destroying the value of our currency through inflation and depreciation, and weakening the labor discipline that high unemployment maintains through enforced destitution. Through the thick and thin of the business cycle, we leave tens of millions of Americans idle in the belief that this makes political, economic and social sense.
It doesn’t. The benefits of full employment include production of goods, services and income; on-the-job training and skill development; poverty alleviation; community building and social networking; social, political and economic stability; and social multipliers (positive feedbacks and reinforcing dynamics that create a virtuous cycle of socioeconomic benefits). An “employer of last resort” program would restore the government’s lost commitment to full employment in recognition of the fact that the total impact would exceed the sum of the benefits.
In America today, we are sometimes made to feel that it is naïve to be preoccupied with trust. Our songs advise against it, our TV shows tell stories showing its futility, and incessant reports of financial scandal remind us we’d be fools to give it to our bankers.
That last point may be true, but that doesn’t mean we should stop striving for a bit more trust in our society and our economy. Trust is what makes contracts, plans and everyday transactions possible; it facilitates the democratic process, from voting to law creation, and is necessary for social stability. It is essential for our lives. It is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round.
We do not measure trust in our national income accounts, but investments in trust are no less important than those in human capital or machines.