Private Wealth, Public Squalor: America’s Dilemma

Robert Borosage

In the first six months of this year, Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block the Senate majority from increasing the minimum wage, providing paycheck fairness to women, and enabling those with student debt to refinance at lower rates, paid for by insuring millionaires pay a minimum tax.

Senate Republicans joined Democrats to pass extension of unemployment insurance and comprehensive immigration reform. But Republican House Speaker John Boehner has refused to allow either measure a vote in the House, despite likely majority support for both.

Profits are at record heights and wages near record lows as a portion of the economy. CEO pay soars to new heights. The wealthiest 1 percent pockets nearly all of the nation’s income growth, while typical household income continues to decline. We are five years into the official “recovery” that has yet to reach most Americans.

Republicans clearly are willing and able to block President Obama’s agenda to get the economy moving. So what is the Republican plan for widely shared growth?

Repeal Obamacare? Really. Depriving millions of workers health care coverage that they have received for the first time will revive the economy?

Lower taxes? But the rich and corporations are already making out like bandits. Why would giving them even more money make a difference?

Drill, baby, drill? Build the pipeline? Energy efficiency is more competitive than offshore exploration or more drilling. But Republicans may have a long-term jobs agenda here: Accelerate catastrophic climate change and the extreme weather events will provide jobs in repairing the destruction. Mourning in America as a growth agenda.

Go back into Iraq and stay in Afghanistan? Military Keynesianism – with the military serving as a stealth industrial and stimulus plan to boost the economy – served Reagan well. He doubled the military in peacetime, building a generation of weapons that we did not need, helping to lift the economy out of recession. But Reagan had the good sense to get out of the Middle East when the going got tough, invading the tiny island of Grenada instead.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently delivered a speech warning that slow growth – with accompanying high unemployment and stagnant wages – might be America’s future. Lew suggests a range of measures – immigration reform, tax reform, infrastructure investment, education and training investment – that would make some difference.

But truth-telling comes more easily when one is out of office rather than in it. Former Clinton Treasury Secretary and Obama advisor Lawrence Summers now warns about “secular stagnation,” and calls for a massive public investment program to rebuild America as a possible remedy.

A new reality is only beginning to creep into our political discussion: America has too much private wealth and too much public squalor. We have staggering public investment needs: in building a modern, sustainable infrastructure; in education, from pre-K to affordable college; in public research and development; in a manufacturing strategy linking worker training with commitments to capture a lead in markets of the future, like the green industrial revolution that is already beginning to sweep the world. And we can afford this by raising taxes on the rich and forcing the global corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.

It is hard to think of any other way out. But Americans faith in government has been eroded. They sensibly see Washington as corrupted, serving special interests and big money, not the common good. They want investment in areas like education, but worry the money will be wasted. Government and unions too often get the blame, even as extremes in private wealth and corporate profits fail to produce decent jobs or growth.

This won’t change with conventional politics. Where is our modern-day Huey Long, vowing to “share the wealth” and invest in the common good?

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