Our 2011 Program:
It’s about security for working people and the middle class
Why and how we must expose and fight back against the dirty little secret of right wing economic policy
As a multi-issue organization, Penn ACTION will be taking on a lot. But while we will be engaged in many different struggles—health care, women’s health, unemployment insurance, fair taxes, education, and starting this week, the fight to preserve Social Security—there is a core commitment and a unified strategy that lies behind all our work. The core commitment is to provide security for working people and the middle class.
Market Economies and Insecurity
We know that a market economy can be a great generator of income and wealth. But from the beginning, capitalism has also been a generator of uncertainty and insecurity. Capitalism initially generated great wealth not just by creating opportunities for entrepreneurs but by generating insecurity, specifically by forcing people to leave their lives in the countryside and take up new occupations in factories. The huge labor force of unskilled workers created by government action drove down wages and increased profits for the owners of business. Those profits provided uch of the capital that led to new investment.
The 20th Century Fight for Security and a Broad Based Prosperity
In the twentieth century, progressives worked to transform market economies, creating security for working people and the middle class so that the riches generated by the market were widely shared. They fought for strong labor unions, a minimum wage, government efforts to insure full employment, unemployment insurance, strong schools and colleges and universities affordable to everyone, Social Security, occupational safety regulations, and health care for seniors and those with low incomes. The result was not just greater security but a broadly shared prosperity with increasing wages for working people and the middle class. And that did benefit everyone: higher wages and full employment created the demand for goods and services that led to continued high levels of business investment and profits.
The economic security created by liberal and progressive action had two other important effects: it created a more generous and inclusive community. It is no accident that major steps to integrate African Americans into our society took place up during these years or that the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement got started at the same time. When people feel secure, they are more likely to be open and welcoming to those different from themselves as well as to new ideas.
And, at the same time, the broad prosperity of the mid-twentieth century enabled our country to begin to repair the damage that our growing economy had done to the environment and to set aside more land for parks and recreation areas. Again, security enabled people to look beyond their immediate situation, and think about the kind of world they want to leave to their children.
The Right Wing Response to the Economic Difficulties of the 1970s
In the mid-1970s we ran into some economic difficulties that led to a short term decline in corporate profits and investment and slower growth in productivity. In response, progressives called for new public investments in education and in our infrastructure and economic reforms in our economy that would encourage private investment for the long term. But a few extremely wealthy people and some corporate CEOs, began to use their resources to push for a different economic strategy.
Their goal was and is to return to the distant past and generate insecurity in working people in order to drive down wages and benefits so as to increase profits. That strategy has guided much of the economic policy put forward by the right in the last thirty years. They have fought to make it harder for labor unions to organize; to reduce wages and benefits in the public sector; to undermine support for people in bad times such as unemployment insurance; to reduce benefits for health care and the aged; to make it easier for corporations to take jobs overseas; and to block new spending for elementary, secondary and higher education because that, too, can lead to higher wages.
The right wing’s thoroughly dishonest campaign against health care reform, the horrible attacks on labor in Wisconsin and Ohio, the slash and burn budgets proposed in Washington and Harrisburg, and the efforts in Pennsylvania to undermine public education with vouchers and to sell the state wine and spirit stores are the latest examples of this economic strategy.
All these right wing efforts have had two aims. The obvious one is to reduce government spending so as to reduce taxes on the very rich and corporate CEOs. The less obvious, but more important, one is to make life insecure for working people in order to put downward pressure on their wages and benefits.
And, of course, as security wanes, and the conditions under which most Americans live become harsher, the predictable result is that we will all start thinking more about ourselves in the here and now, and less about each other and the future. Don’t think for a moment that the right wing fails to understand that insecurity brings strife, intolerance and a disregard for the environment in its wake. They count on those sentiments to win elections.
The movement towards security in the twentieth century and the retreat from it in the last thirty years were not fore-ordained. I know the right wing likes to call us Marxists, but they are the ones who say that growing inequality and insecurity are the result of economic changes no one intended. Nothing could be further from the truth. The achievements of the 20th century were the proud creations of the political movements built by our grandparents and parents, movements that changed public policy. The retreat from those achievements in the last thirty years are the dishonorable product of a right wing movements that also changed public policy, but for the worse.
The Costs of Insecurity
As we can see from the record profits of our corporations today, the right wing strategy works for the very rich. But it doesn’t work for the rest of us. An economic strategy that depends on generating insecurity is also a strategy that creates enormous inequalities as well as pain for working people and the middle class.
Over the last thirty years, we have seen an enormous increase in inequality in this country. The worst of it came between 2000 and 2007 when average incomes grew in the US by $1,460 per person and all of that growth went to the richest 10% with over three quarters going to the richest 1%. Incomes for the bottom 90% of America families actually declined during this period.
It is not just that incomes become unequal. It is that life has becomes so much harder for working people while the middle class shrinks. Jobs at good wages disappear and are only partly replaced by jobs at much lower wages. Workers keep their jobs only by accepting lower wages and health care benefits. Government support for working people declines as the minimum wage loses its value and Social Security, food stamps, and health care and other social services fail to keep up with inflation. And cutbacks in the public sector make life more difficult: Schools become crowded and dangerous while teachers become less experienced. Streets are dirtier and parks and playgrounds fall into disrepair. Public transportation is scaled back while fares rise.
And what does this pain bring us? The right wing strategy works for CEOs in the short run, but it is self-defeating in the long run. An economy cannot grow by producing luxury goods for the top 1%. The CEOs and the very rich make far more than they can spend. In addition, continued economic growth will only take place if our economy becomes more productive. That requires greater investment in new technology and in educating our work force. However businesses that can make short term profits by pushing wages down have less incentive to invest in the equipment and training that makes for more productive workers. And in a world of ever greater insecurity individuals have less incentive to invest in their own education.
Thirty years ago, we started down the wrong path, to a political economy of greater insecurity, low wages, and a diminished public sector. Right now, with Republicans ascendant in many states and in control of the US House of Representatives, we can see them pushing to go to the end of that path.
Our plan at Penn ACTION is to join with other advocacy groups and organized labor to reverse this trend, by fighting for greater security for working people and the middle class. That is the fundamental aim that underlies everything we do.
Our strategy is straightforward. We know we won’t win every battle in 2010 and 2011. But we have to make sure that the public understands the costs of right wing policies in Harrisburg and Washington. We have to hold the federal and state officials who vote for these policies accountable for their actions. And we have to organize, especially in key US and State House districts, to build a base of support to win them back in 2012.
The challenge is huge. And the only thing that can stand up to the economic resources of the right is the unified voice of progressives and labor. But if you and people like you are willing to join the fight we can beat this right wing trend back, and turn our country around.
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