A New Economy from Old Roots?

Dave Johnson

How do we build a new economy out of the collapse of the old economy? How do we start fresh to begin creating jobs again, while building in economic and environmental sustainability, as well as workplaces that respect human needs and rights? How do we change things so that we all get to share the benefits of the economy rather than just contributing to the increasing wealth of a few vastly wealthy people?

While we look for a vision for a new economy, we should examine what has worked in the past. America had periods in which regular people enjoyed sustained increases in their standard of living. For a long time it was a conventional wisdom that each American generation would do better than the previous generation, more people would receive good educations, medical care would get better, the middle class would grow, leisure time would increase, poverty rates would decrease, retirement would be easier, etc.

But this pattern stopped. Beginning in the late 1970s and especially in the 1980s incomes began to stagnate, wealth increasingly concentrated at the top, working hours and workplace pressures steadily increased, availability of good health care started to decrease, etc. The standard of living of most Americans began to and continues to decline. At the same time corporations became more predatory as consumer protections vanished. Meanwhile outsourcing, deunionization and other anti-worker policies led to increasingly unpleasant, stressful and unrewarding worklives for more and more people.

Many of today’s problems are traceable directly to the policy results of anti-government propaganda that was blasted out from well-funded conservative think tanks starting in the 1970s. The anti-government campaign led to defunding of many national, state and local government programs that improved education, helped the poor or enriched people’s lives. We suffered deregulation in many areas where the government had protected consumers, workers, investors and the environment. Huge reductions in taxes for the wealthy were either offset by tax increases for the rest of us or government borrowing. And that borrowing has led to increasing problems of paying the interest and threats to funding even basic programs like Social Security and education.

So what worked, before the conservatives trashed the place?


One thing we know for sure now, learned the hardest way thanks to the financial crisis: regulation worked. Regulation was necessary, it worked, it kept firms from taking risks that could bring down the economy. And we can also see now how regulations protected consumers from predatory corporate activities, workers from wage theft or unsafe working conditions, and the environment from exploitation and destruction.


Before Reagan the tax rates at the top were very high. After you reached – and took home – a certain very high income you paid a high percentage of the rest in taxes. This had many beneficial results – even for the people who paid higher taxes. Government could afford to keep the physical, education and legal infrastructure in good condition without borrowing. Government could afford to invest in programs that improved our standard of living, health, knowledge and technology, which helped businesses grow. Businesses thrived in such well-watered soil.

The high tax rates also kept the bad side of human nature in check. When it took years to build up a fortune businesspeople had to rely on the health of the greater community to nurture their own wealth-building enterprises and keep them thriving over a long period. They had to think and act long-term. The roads needed to be kept in repair, the schools needed to provide excellent education to potential employees, the courts needed to be functional to enforce contracts, and they wanted the communities they were going to have to stay in to be pleasant places to live.

But once taxes were lowered vast windfalls could be realized from a single event and it made more sense to try to fleece the community with quick-buck schemes than to rely on it. We began to see corporate raiders break up solid, ongoing companies, steal pension funds, etc., while encouraging communities to cut spending on schools, roads, etc. It became more profitable sell off or outsource our manufacturing capacity. And then, as things fell apart, the few who benefited could just fly away in their private jets or sail away in their huge yachts. The greater community was no longer any use to them except as crops to be harvested. Vulnerable consumers are the only crop that is coming up in this economy.

Big Government

Government is We, the People making the decisions. “Big government” is simply another way of saying that more of the important decisions are made by the people. Shrinking government means handing the decisions over to big corporations. In the real world this is the choice. And in the real world big corporations make decisions that benefit them, and only them. Before you badmouth government think carefully about what the alternative is.

Old-Fashioned Government Planning

As I said in a post here a few months ago,

The phrase “industrial policy” sounds so Walter Mondale, 1970s, smokestacks and brick factory old-fashioned. I suspect the subject turns people off, eyes glaze over, hands reach under the table for iPhones and Blackberries…

But here we are without an industrial policy. How’s that working out for us? Every other country has one. China seriously has one. We instead have huge trade deficits. We don’t make things here so we have to borrow money to buy things made elsewhere.

To add insult to injury, recently Deutsche Bank released a research note advising investors that the U.S. was not a good investment because of our lack of a government industrial policy. See Deutsche Bank: Absence of US Clean Energy Policy Will Send Global Capital Elsewhere.

While we envision a new direction for our economy, maybe we should also be looking at returning to a few old-fashioned ways of doing things, too.