The members of the study group express their unanimous concern with the large size of the government debt, and accordingly, they formulate proposals that do not increase the budget deficit. In order to pay for the costs of tax incentives to employers and tax credits or direct wage supplements to workers, the report proposes “taxing those on the winning side of growing economic inequality” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 15). It suggests three possible ways to raise tax revenues: “expanding the number of families that pay estate taxes, limiting tax deductions available to better-off households or raising minimum taxes for corporations that rely on tax havens” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 15).
These are good proposals. They involve the redistribution of money from corporations and the wealthy in order to provide those in need with the necessities of life. They are the kind of measures that a socialist government, that is, a government whose levers are in the hands of delegates of the people, would enact. They are the type of measures that a popular socialist party seeking to take political power would propose.
However, the effectiveness of the proposals in improving the quality of life of the working class depends on their size and scope. How great will the new tax revenues be, and how much additional money will be in the hands of low-wage workers? In the U.S. political context, corporate interests finance the careers of politicians and the two major political parties, so the political system must respond to corporate interests, even as it pretends to defend the interests of the people. Given the historic tendency of corporations to seek to set wages and taxes at a minimum level, one would expect that, if the proposals were to be enacted, they would be limited in size, although they would be useful for politicians pretending to defend the people.
The report observes that persuasion should be effective with employers, because paying decent wages is in the interests of employers. It is true that employers have a long-term interest in paying decent wages to all workers, for various reasons. However, since 1980, the U.S power elite has demonstrated that, in the current historic moment of world-system structural crisis and national decline, it is prepared only to respond to the demands of its short-term profits. In recent decades, the U.S. power elite has dismantled the industry of the nation, invested in finance rather than production, turned its back on the U.S. working class, imposed the neoliberal project on the peoples and nations of the world, launched aggressive wars in the Middle East, and demonized nations that seek an independent road. The U.S. power has given little sign of concern for the well-being of the people and the nation nor of understanding its own long-term interests in global political stability and ecological sustainability. It has given us little reason to believe that it could be persuaded that paying decent wages to its workers is in accordance with U.S. interests, and that it should comply with its patriotic duty. If the U.S. power elite were ready today for such a turn toward popular needs and the good of the nation, there would have been more signs of it prior to now.
Decades of indifference to the needs of the U.S. working class by the political establishment, and decades of aggression against the peoples of the world, should instruct us. The U.S. power elite has demonstrated that it is morally and intellectually unprepared to lead the nation in the current historic juncture. It can no longer be a question of persuading or pressuring the elite to take necessary steps. The need for a restructuring of political power, forged from below, has become evident. There is in the USA today need for a popular political and social movement that seeks to take political power, arriving to control the executive and legislative branches of government, without a debt or obligation to anyone other than the people and the nation. In such a political context, the full implementation of the type of measures proposed by the report, with a size and scope necessary for accomplishing changes in the conditions of life of the working class, would be possible.
The report maintains that the measures it proposes are capable of obtaining bipartisan support. It laments the decline of bipartisanship. It maintain that, without bipartisanship, “our democracy cannot work, and nation cannot cohere” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 111). If bipartisanship cannot be renewed, “America is no longer governable” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 111). The call for bipartisanship is laudable, and it is indeed a welcome relief.
However, the authors of the report do not see that, in the context of the present framing of national debate, a governing consensus is not possible, because none of the conflictive political bands of the moment has an understanding and a proposed national project that could possibly enlist the support of the majority. The ultra-Right finds scapegoats responsible for the nation’s decline, energizing some, but offending the majority. The Right formulates untruths about American history, tapping into the sentiments of those who want to recapture a greatness lost, but provoking resistance among a majority that senses that the Right’s reading of American history is a half-truth, inasmuch as the American promise of democracy always has been contradicted by the American reality. And the Left turns to identity politics, resentfully lashing out at past and current social sins, alienating a majority at the outset. Given the inherent theoretical and political limitations of each political band, a governing consensus cannot be attained by patching together pieces from each. What is needed is not a compromise that integrates limited understandings, but a reframing of the analysis and a new understanding, making possible a reformulation of the issues in a politically intelligent form that would be capable of obtaining the consensual support of the majority.
We need a national turn to the Left, but not to a Left that takes to the streets and shouts slogans, armed with self-righteous virtues and superficial understanding; rather, toward a Left that studies, organizes, and educates, developing a scientifically informed and politically intelligent national project proposal, rooted in basic moral values. Perhaps as a reflection of the current weakness of the Left, the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings study group does not express concern with a possible rise of a renewed Left. Rather, the study group is concerned with the rise of a scapegoating and white nationalist ultra-Right, symbolized by the election of Trump. Its political objective is to rescue the political establishment from the consequences of its lack of commitment to the nation and to the people, by forging a Right/center-Right consensus that would attend to the needs of the white working class, undercutting the rising ultra-Right.
Accordingly, the study group presents itself as a bipartisan group of scholars, half leaning to the Left and half leaning to the Right, that has sought a bipartisan consensus concerning proposals that Democrats and Republicans in the Congress could support (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 12). The report maintains that, in spite of the current conflictive national division between Left and Right, bipartisan compromise is possible.
Our bipartisan working group offers the recommendations that follow. This doesn’t mean each of us agrees with every claim or supports every policy proposal. But we put them forward as a package—we believe the components fit together as a package. We all agree that the nation must take vigorous action to restore upward mobility for working-class Americans. America is increasingly polarized along party lines. Washington is close to paralyzed. Many on the right and left no longer agree even about facts, and different factions prioritize different essential American values, picking and choosing from what was once regarded as a universal creed. Our working group is determined to resist this division and the logic behind it—that left and right can never see eye to eye. We still believe it’s possible for conservatives and progressives to cooperate. Over the past year, we listened and negotiated and ultimately compromised with one another to create a plan that we believe is the best way forward (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 18).
The bipartisan discourse that the study group attained in its yearlong considerations reflects the limitations of such a bipartisan approach. As I will explain further in a subsequent post, the report has a subtle white-male-centric reading on American history, demonstrating no understanding of how the United States came to be a global power. And it has a Northern perspective on the dynamics of international trade, apparently oblivious to the decades long demand of the neocolonized peoples of the world for a more just international economic order. It does not discern that the world-system has overextended its economic, geographical, ecological, and political limits; that the nation’s decline is rooted in its incapacity to respond creatively and constructively to these global dynamics; and that, therefore, the world and the nation must find an alternative road.
The members of the study group seek a bipartisan consensus concerning the need for concrete steps to improve the economic and social conditions of the working class, a consensus that includes the committed participation of both established political parties as well as corporate executives. Their political agenda is to rescue the political establishment from the current threat of the ultra-Right. They are not capable of envisioning a genuine renewal of the American promise of democracy; or the development of a just, democratic, and sustainable world system. With their limited assumptions, goals, and methodology, they arrives to propose good measures for the improvement of the conditions of the working class. But they do not understand that the renewal of the nation requires the transformation of the political structures of the nation as well as the political-economic structures of the world-system. Beyond specific measures, we need an alternative understanding and political project, which can only emerge from an analysis of the dynamics of the nation and the world-system from the vantage point of the dominated, exploited, and excluded, with their political empowerment as the primary objective. We turn to the theme of the political empowerment of the working class in the following post.
Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study (OA/AEI/BI). 2018. Work, Skills, Community: Restoring opportunity for the working class. (Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution).