The New Progressive Political Agenda
Updated: Oct 17
I understand the political skepticism of people whose memories are limited to events of the past 40 years. Nothing in their direct experience suggests the nation is progressing toward a more perfect union. The only indicators that life in the U.S. has gotten better are the abstract measures of the GDP and stock markets. Any increase in income has been necessitated by an even greater economic need, and life has become increasingly precarious. Some believe the nation is trending toward fascism while others believe it is headed toward socialism. I understand also the skepticism of people who believe the U.S. government has become so corrupted and dominated by corporate interests that it is incapable of reestablishing justice, promoting the general welfare, or securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves or our posterity.
In light of this skepticism, I began this series of blogs by defending the Founders’ covenant with the American people to create a government that would secure liberty and justice for all. I reviewed the history of the nation’s halting but persistent progress toward a more perfect union. I attempted to reframe “reparation” for past oppression as the fulfillment of the Founders’ promise of a government that would secure an equal opportunity for all to pursue a life of happiness. I don’t claim to have easy solutions to the nation’s problems. But if we are unwilling to return to the wisdom of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to heal the nation’s wounds, I fear this nation of the people, by the people, for the people will cease to exist.
The best hope for the future of the nation that I see on the horizon is the new progressive political movement. Past movements to reclaim and to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, and women have been most successful when they have coalesced around common initiatives to reshape public opinion and elect progressive political leaders who were committed to the founding principles of the nation. The new progressive movement is broader and more inclusive than recent past movements. Socioeconomic class has joined ethnicity, race, gender, and other protected classes on the list of oppressed people. Many White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, rural and urban, have joined the ranks of the exploited and oppressed. In addition, the rights of future generations are being threatened by environmental degradation.
This new progressive movement first came to widespread public attention in the U.S. with the eruption of street demonstrations against economic globalization in the late 1990s—notably the Battle of Seattle in 1999. The Occupy Movement, which began in 2011, was a protest of the corporate economic bailouts that left millions unemployed and homeless during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Both of these movements are part of the ongoing class struggles of the working poor and shrinking American middle class against economic exploitation by multinational corporations and wealthy individuals—the “one percent.” Class warfare returned to general public awareness during the 2012 and 2020 presidential candidate debates between “progressive” and “moderate” Democratic candidates. Those who suffer from socioeconomic oppression and fighting for intergenerational equity are natural allies with those struggling for ethnic, racial, and gender equity and justice. All share common oppressors and can only achieve a common victory.
Their best hope for success is to join forces with the emerging progressive political movement. However, I simply do not believe the American people will ever consent to the agenda of a political movement that they believe is taking the nation toward socialism. In addition, proclamations such as "we don’t need to make American great again because it’s already great” fall on deaf ears among the disenfranchised, poor, and oppressed. In the sense of securing liberty and justice for all, America isn’t great, has never been great, and there is nothing great to go back to. I am convinced the progressive agenda must be reframed in terms of the covenant between the U.S government and the American people made in the founding documents of the nation. Fulfilling the Founders’ promises of a government to secure the God-given equal rights of all people is not socialism, it is fundamental American democracy. The nation is not perfect and has never been perfect, but it has always continued moving forward, haltingly but progressively, toward a more perfect union.
Most of the essential elements of a successful new progressive political era are already in place. The progressive agenda simply needs to be reframed to create a coherent and compelling vision of a fundamentally better future that is achievable by a government committed to fulfilling the promises in the founding documents. We are all of equal inherent worth and are endowed by our creator with equal and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fundamental purpose of government is to secure those rights. The government must continue evolving toward a more perfect union by ensuring justice, maintaining domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
The major agenda items on the current progressive political agenda all fit neatly within the framework of ensuring liberty and justice for all. Food, warmth, shelter, health care, and education are among the most important economic necessities of life. The new progressive agenda would simply ensure that these basic needs are “fully met for all,” without regard to ethnicity, race, gender, class or membership in any other protected group. Major government assistance programs already exist for all of these economic necessities. The only remaining challenge is to ensure that having these basic needs met, by one means or another, is treated as constitutional rights rather than as discretionary federal budget items to be increased or cut at the whim of Congress.
Universal access to basic health care is probably the most controversial item on the new progressive agenda. The primary concern seems to be costs to taxpayers. The federal government currently spends about $1.1 trillion for health care per year, about 30% of the $3.6 trillion total U.S. healthcare costs. Even the critics’ estimates of the costs of “Medicare for All'' put forth by 2020 presidential candidates amount to no more than current consensus estimates of future costs of health care in the U.S. As I have explained elsewhere, those currently paying for health care would simply pay for all health care through a single government payer rather than through Medicare payroll deductions, insurance payments, co-payments, and other out-of-pocket payments. The differences would be that all costs, including dental, vision, and hearing, would be covered. The government has proven more efficient than private insurance companies in administering health insurance programs. In addition, greater bargaining power of the government could be used to reduce healthcare costs significantly over time.
Income security for those disabled and elderly is another major item in the progressive political agenda. The risk of having an insufficient income to meet basic economic needs as a result of major illness, permanent disability, or aging is a logical concern even for those in the American middle-class. Current Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits are barely sufficient to provide an opportunity for survival, and many slip through these social safety nets and live out their lives in abject poverty. With persistent low interest rates on individual savings, dependence on investments in the stock market for retirement income leaves millions of relatively affluent Americans in a continual state of economic insecurity or precarity.
Medicare for All, including long term health care for the aged, would significantly reduce economic precarity by covering all health care costs for everyone. In addition, the U.S. government currently makes Social Security payments of about $1 trillion per year and spends nearly $300 billion on other income assistance programs. Government costs of Social Security and Medicare programs are currently funded through payroll deductions on annual wages and salaries up to $137,000. Those affected by this withholding cap make up only 7% to 8% of all Social Security participants but account for about 40% of all U.S. personal income. Raising or eliminating the withholding cap could significantly increase funds and allow government retirement benefits to reduce income precarity for millions of Americans. The aged and disabled still have an equal right to participate fully in society.
The Internal Revenue Service could be used to ensure a minimum discretionary income to cover basic economic needs that cannot be met efficiently by other means. This program could be administered as a “negative incomes tax” which has been proposed previously, and is similarly to the current Earned Income Tax Credit. This would be a tax cut rather than an increased government expenditure. Asking those with high incomes to pay more to cover the costs economic security programs would be consistent with asking those who have benefited more from past economic oppression to pay more of the costs of ensuring economic justice for the oppressed. Any additional costs to middle-income tax payers would be more than offset by increased economic security.
If we have a right to life and the pursuit of happiness, we have a right to enough wholesome nutritious food to support healthy, active lives. Food security is a logical priority on the new progressive political agenda. The U.S. government already provides nearly $70 billion in food assistance, including $68 billion through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. While SNAP payments can be used to buy food items, only about 15% of the retail costs of food in the U.S. goes to pay for the actual food. The rest pays for food processing, transportation, packaging, and advertising. In addition, government food assistance funds apparently are often used to buy “junk foods” that are a major cause of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other diet related illnesses. In “food deserts”, both urban and rural, the only foods available are highly-processed, packaged, and advertised junk foods. The right of all to food security could likely be secured without significant increases in current government funding—simply by making more locally-sourced, minimally-processed, nutritious food accessible to all within their local communities. Support for such programs has been proposed by progressive candidates for president.
The government is also currently spending $51 billion for housing assistance and another $3 billion for energy assistance for low income households. These programs could be coordinated to ensure every household has access to clean, comfortable, energy efficient, modest-size residences. Recipients of housing aid and their neighbors could be given an opportunity to help with new construction or renovation of existing residences. This would reduce costs and provide a sense of home and community ownership, similar to the current Habitat for Humanity approach to providing affordable housing.
Federal and state governments are currently spending nearly $160 billion for higher education—in addition to funding public schools for preschool through 12th grades. The basic problem is that much of the public higher education budget is being spent training students for the corporate workforce rather than educate them to participate fully in a democratic society. The high cost of higher education and resulting large student debts virtually forces graduates to take the jobs for which they are trained, regardless of ultimate consequences for their quality of life. The fundamental purpose of education is to help students understand how the world works and how they fit within it so they can decide how to relate to others and to their natural environment—how best to live their lives. Current state and federal funding would likely be sufficient if funding was focused on providing an education for a successful life in democratic society. Colleges and universities could provide assistance in finding internships and apprenticeships to prepare students for meaningful employment, including employment in government and public service.
Additional government costs of many other items on the new progressive agenda would be minimal. Addressing systemic discrimination and securing equity and justice in law enforcement is a matter of changing institutional culture, not additional funding. Some of current public safety funding for law enforcement and prisons could be shifted to fund programs that address the root causes of criminal behavior—reducing the need for law enforcement. Non-violent prisoners could be released on parole and some minor offenses decriminalized, such as possession of marijuana. The public defender program probably would need to be increased significantly from the current $2.3 billion, but current funding might otherwise be sufficient to ensure personal safety and security.
Vigorous enforcement of current antitrust laws and rooting out corporate corruption would save far more wasteful public spending than they could cost taxpayers. The only constitutional justification for government funded economic development programs is to “promote the general welfare,” not to benefit specific individuals or prop up the stock market to protect corporate investors. Barring corporations from participation in political processes might require a constitutional amendment but would allow more effective use of existing government funds. The government agencies and means of ensuring the constitutional voting rights of all are already in place and a “new Voting Rights Act” has already been passed in the House of Representatives.
This post is already running long, so I will not go any further in outlining the new progressive political agenda. I will address the progressive agenda for climate change and other environmental challenges in a future blog post. My basic point is that all of the items mentioned above, as well as others, already receive significant government funding and public attention and are recognized as responsibilities of the U.S. government. The challenge of the new progressive movement is to make the case for funding these programs at levels that will ensure the “unenumerated” constitutional rights of all to an equal opportunity to pursue a life of happiness. Doing so would not move the nation toward socialism but instead move it toward fulfilling the historical covenant of liberty and justice for all.
Socialism vs. Socialist Government Policies
Obviously, there is considerable confusion, perhaps deliberate, concerning whether government social policies, or policies “to promote the general welfare,” mean the U.S. government is socialist or is trending toward socialism. However, U.S. policies that restrain corporate consolidation, provide various public services, and ensure equal opportunity are simply social policies carried out within a capitalist nation. Socialism and capitalism are fundamentally different economic systems. However, nations that are called capitalist or socialist commonly use policies of both systems to moderate the excesses inherent in pure forms of either.
The short piece below explains the basic differences between capitalism and socialism as systems of government and provides examples of socialist and capitalist policies. These definitions are consistent with those I was taught more than 60 years ago and have been in common use among economist since. The United States currently faces a far greater risks of stumbling into a system of fascism or totalitarian capitalism than drifting into socialism.
Capitalism vs. Socialism: What's the Difference?
By OSI MOMOH
Updated Jul 23, 2020
Capitalism vs. Socialism: An Overview
The terms capitalism and socialism are both used to describe economic and political systems. On a theoretical level, both of these terms also describe specific schools of economic thought. One of the most fundamental differences between the systems of capitalism and socialism lies in the scope of government intervention within an economy.
The capitalist economic model relies on free market conditions for the creation of wealth. The production of goods and services is based on supply and demand in the general market. This economic structure is referred to as a market economy.
In a socialist economic model, the production of goods and services is either partially or fully regulated by the government. This is referred to as central planning, and the economic structure that is created is known as a planned economy or a command economy.
In a capitalist economy, property and businesses are owned and controlled by individuals. The production and prices of goods and services are determined by how much demand they generate and how difficult they are to produce. Theoretically, this dynamic drives companies to make the best products they can for as cheaply as they can; capitalism is intended to drive business owners to find more efficient ways of producing quality goods. For consumers, this dynamic is intended to create a system wherein they have the freedom to choose the best and cheapest products.
This emphasis on efficiency takes priority over equality. An equal distribution of goods and services among all members of a society is of little concern within a capitalist system. According to the economic theories that underpin capitalism, inequality is the driving force that encourages innovation, which results in economic development. In a capitalist economy, the state does not directly employ the workforce. This leads to high levels of unemployment during times of
In a socialist economy, the state owns and controls the major means of production. In some socialist economic models, worker cooperatives own and operate the primary means of production. A worker cooperative is a firm that is owned and self-managed by its workers. Other socialist economic models allow individual ownership of enterprise and property, albeit with higher taxes and a higher degree of government controls.
The primary concern of the socialist model of economics is an equitable distribution of wealth An equitable distribution of wealth is meant to ensure that all members of a society have an equal opportunity to attain certain economic outcomes. To achieve this, the state intervenes in the labor market. In a socialist economy, the state is one of the primary employers. During times of economic hardship, the socialist state can order hiring, so there is close to full employment even if workers are not performing tasks that are particularly in demand from the market.
In addition to capitalism and socialism, the other major school of economic thought is communism. Many tenets of communism and socialism stand in opposition to capitalism, but there are important distinctions between socialism and communism.2
Most modern economies are mixed economies. This means they exist somewhere on a continuum between pure capitalism and pure socialism, with the majority of countries practicing a mixed system of capitalism wherein the government regulates and owns some businesses and industries.
In the purest form of a capitalistic system (sometimes referred to as laissez-faire capitalism), private individuals are unrestrained, and the economy operates without any government checks or controls. Private individuals and businesses may determine where to invest, what to manufacture and sell, and the prices of goods and services.
In a purely socialist system, all means of production are collective or state-owned. Some countries incorporate both the private sector system of capitalism and the public sector enterprise of socialism to overcome the disadvantages of both systems. In these economies, the government intervenes to prevent any individual or company from having a monopolistic stance and undue concentration of economic power. Resources in these systems may be owned by both the state and by individuals.3
1. International Monetary Fund. "What Is Capitalism?"
2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Socialism."
3. Economics Help. "Mixed Economy."
Investopedia website for links to references: https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/020915/what-are-differences-between-capitalism-and-socialism.asp