Got Any Spare Change (Theory)?

March 24th, 2013 at 2:33 pm

As far as I’m concerned, people like me spend too much time on the facts and not enough time on how to build a movement that would marshal those facts on behalf of progressive change in economic and fiscal policy.

As I’ve written many times, my experiences on the road and in the media often leave listeners and viewers saying “wow, those are really convincing, cogent, and well-documented arguments…but what should we do with them?”  To which I do not have satisfactory answers.

To the contrary, I suspect the Koch brothers are perfectly happy to have folks like me running around arguing about the correct deflator to use or the percent of the Ryan budget’s spending cuts affecting low-income programs, while they continue to buy “research” that says otherwise and policies that exacerbate inequality.

That doesn’t mean we give up on factual analysis.  It’s what we do best and I will not be convinced that facts are irrelevant.

But neither will I kid myself that facts matter anywhere near as much as they should, or that they will win the day anytime soon.  Despite evidence to the contrary, we will be stuck with austerity economics and “Obamacare kills children” for the indeterminate future.  More damagingly, we may well be unable to ban assault weapons or take actions against climate change, all due to…what?  A missing movement?  An inadequate theory of how change occurs?  Lack of money?  Votes?

These thoughts came to mind this morning reading Frank Sharry’s interesting piece in the WaPo about how the immigrant rights applied what they learned from the gay rights movement to get to where they are today:

To get to this point, we learned three crucial lessons from LGBT activists: We had to build a movement. We couldn’t be afraid to challenge our friends in power. And we had to give our cause a human face.

He goes on to point out the while the LGBT activists had deep financial resources, the immigrant rights movement has votes.  And especially after Mitt’s garnering only 27% of the Latino vote, that’s an awfully resonant selling point.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the economic rights movement is comprised of those of us fighting for:

–measures that would push back against rising inequality, like full employment;
–higher minimum wages and more collective bargaining;
–better quality jobs;
–affordable health care;
–financial market oversight and accountability;
–fiscal budgets that raise the revenue needed to provide sustenance and opportunity to the least advantaged.

What do we in the economic rights movement have going for us, besides some killer Power Point presentations and engaging blogs?  Unlike the LGBT movement, we don’t have the money—by definition, our opponents have cornered that market.  Thanks to the unions, we have some troops and clout around elections, and that’s been very helpful.  But despite the fact that large swaths of the electorate have been hurt by negative trends, bad policy (trickle down tax cuts, debt obsession, and austerity budgeting), stagnant incomes, and sticky poverty rates, we don’t seem to have the votes we should.

Like I said, I don’t have the answers, and I’ve gotta go drive kids around to soccer games (perhaps that’s what’s holding us back!).  All’s I’m saying is we might have a better future if along with all the powerful graphics, we thought a little more about what it would take to actually implement progressive economic change.

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25 comments in reply to "Got Any Spare Change (Theory)?"

  1. Fred Donaldson says:

    The political solution to your question is even more politics. Two parties that espouse different social value views, but the same basic economic principles, now also decide in favor of the class that sustains them – the wealthy.

    Other nations have third and fourth parties that concentrate almost solely on things like minimum wage, paid leave, universal healthcare. When you vote for them, you vote for your pocketbook, not whether or not the Easter bunny should be included in public school books.

    Both of our major parties have tremendous baggage if they try to attract votes from the other social issue spectrum. Why would a very religious, pro-life person vote for a liberal, who may agree with a hike in the minimum wage, but also vigorously supports abortion or extreme secularism.

    The Democratic Party will never attract the working class vote, because it has too many litmus tests. Do you agree that guns should be nearly banned? Do you approve of in-state tuition for folks who are not even American citizens? And on the other side, do you believe that we should have prayer in school and the world was created less than 4,000 years ago?

    An economic party with candidates that only stood for fairness in income distribution and all the common sense worker protections, might elect ten or fifteen Senators, a couple dozen Representatives – not enough to select the Senate Majority leader or Speaker of the House, but enough to create a swing vote that represented the people’s financial interests, a block that would need to be consulted for its support.

    A small third party would also be immune to the usual Washington advancement pressures. A minority party would be doomed to never electing a President on its own, but it would also permit its members to be their own man or woman.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Yep–very good thoughts.

      • The Raven says:

        I don’t think you want to call your movement “economic rights”—that sounds too libertarian. Libertarians are always talking about economic freedom. Or maybe you do, for exactly that reason.

        I think any actual movement is likely to arise from the nascent House coalition of Tea Party Republicans and House Progressives. Strange bedfellows! But right now, that coalition is holding back the centrist agenda. So how could these disparate factions be brought closer? What do they have to offer each other?

      • Nick Batzdorf says:

        Unfortunately, the two parties that could get rid of the electoral college (and open our system up to more parties) aren’t in any hurry to do so and see their power diluted.

        But the big fish, the first step to solving every problem (at least every problem with a political solution), is to take all the money out of our elections. It’s hard to imagine “moderate” politicians – i.e. the ones intelligent enough to know better than to advocate the things they do – pushing the insane stuff they push if they didn’t need so much money.

        I believe that’s politically possible, because it’s easy to explain and therefore to sell. “Evil big government wasting your tax money and giving it to [lazy people/illegal immigrants/themselves” is easy to explain. “Only criminals will have guns” is even easier.

        So how about something like “Government of the people?”

        Okay, it could use a little work…

        • SeattleAlex says:

          Love the idea of changing our electoral system from first past the post to proportional representation. It is really the ONLY solution if we want to get rid of this ridiculous two-party system with all its ridiculous pandering. This way a fringe minority group such as the tea-party would no longer be able to control an entire half of the political system. This also fixes the rampant gerrymandering problem and makes sure that a party who receives the majority of the votes gets a majority of the seats i.e. this fixes the House of Reps. Plus the green party and wonderful politicians like Jill Stein might finally have a say. Sure there be some more compromising, but isn’t that what everyone has been pining for?? Some also argue it results in weak coalition governments, but we can’t get much weaker than our current government now can we.

    • Jill SH says:

      Fred: Whoa whoa!
      “The Democratic Party will never attract the working class vote…”
      I happen to remember, prior to Reagan, when the Dems WERE the party of the working class. It’s been the party that traditionally stood for the working man and woman; the base was the union vote. Those issues you mention are Republican-fabricated wedge issues designed to pull workers away from the party that has a lot more interest in making this an economy that works for them, including getting many more employed, and better employed. The current distraction of deficit obsession, driving too much of the political discussion, is the Republican frame.

      Let’s put two things together: high corporate profits and lots of cash sitting in corporate coffers vs. stagnant wages and increasing inequality in the economy. Why oh why don’t masses of corporate workers proclaim a nation-wide general strike in demand of higher wages? The corporations could afford it. More cash in the hands of those working would increase demand that would lead to higher employment. (Actually –wink wink– I think this is what unions used to do.)

      In my feeble attempt to understand the Tea Party mentality, I think all those folks are really hurting because of the drift into economic stagnation and inequality, and the accompanying insecurity. But they can’t get mad at the hand that feeds them (employers), so they get mad at the government (which in this political climate isn’t helping as it should). Especially as they are being constantly distracted by Rs pointing to the social issues you name.

      So I keep yelling: We need jobs, more jobs, better jobs, better-paying jobs. Then we can all help pay off the debt.

      In the meantime let’s raise the minimum wage. That might get the ball rolling. It’s a good cause to focus on. And it would help my son and daughter-in-law who just had to move back in with me.

    • Kevin Rica says:

      The modern Democratic party has too many litmus tests like:

      “Why shouldn’t an illegal immigrant have your construction job?”

      The modern Democratic Party has been waging war on Archie Bunker at least since the end of the Carter Administration.

      Is it a wonder that the Reagan Democrats have never come back?

      They know that they would take any job an illegal immigrant takes if the wage were high enough. And they know that Teddy Kennedy took the side of the Chamber of Commerce.

  2. Sandwichman says:

    “What do we in the economic rights movement have going for us?”

    As you mentioned, the economic rights movement has the “troops and clout” of the unions. But that doesn’t do much good if they’re not deployed strategically on behalf of fundamental economic rights. Let’s face it, they’re not.

    That strategic void in the unions cuts right down to the level of collective bargaining. Instead of bargaining for “rights”, unions in the post-WWII period bargained, first, for a “bigger piece of the pie” and then as their strength atrophied, holding on to as much of the pie as they could.

    To have real clout, unions would have to possess a strategic vision that linked their micro-level collective bargaining focus to a macro-level vision of social change. If we go back to the birth of modern trade unionism in the 19th century, we can see such linkage in the struggle for the eight-hour day in the U.S. and before that for the ten-hour day in Britain.

    In my view, one of the most illuminating episodes came in the 1871 engineers’ strike in Newcastle, England for the nine-hour day. I outline a strategy for what I call chapter, “Time on the Ledger” in the forthcoming book, Toward a Good Society in the Twenty-first Century: Principles and Policies

    • Sandwichman says:

      Somehow my last message sent itself as I was typing. So here’s a retake on the last paragraph:

      In my view, one of the most illuminating episodes came in the 1871 engineers’ strike in Newcastle, England for the nine-hour day. I outline a strategy for what I call “commons” unionism in my chapter, “Time on the Ledger” in the forthcoming book, Toward a Good Society in the Twenty-first Century: Principles and Policies. I think that without a social accounting perspective that links up the micro and macro level strategies of unions, they can only continue to perform a defensive and increasingly peripheral role in American society and politics.

    • Sandwichman says:

      And I should point out that the unions’ “bigger piece of the pie” strategy got easily sidetracked from a bigger portion of the pie to just a bigger pie (GDP) and eventually settled for even a smaller portion of that bigger pie (which, whenever the pie shrinks, turns into a smaller portion of that smaller pie).

  3. The Raven says:

    Partly, I suspect that since these ideas are new, the stories about them have yet to be told. There are easy stories to tell about how saving will make us all rich. There are not easy stories to tell about how Keynesian pro-employment policies will–there are not even the words.

    Partly, I think these ideas need champions. It is much easier to find people who will get out and try to make themselves richer. There are no green or red Kochs.

  4. Perplexed says:

    -“To the contrary, I suspect the Koch brothers are perfectly happy to have folks like me running around arguing about the correct deflator to use or the percent of the Ryan budget’s spending cuts affecting low-income programs, while they continue to buy “research” that says otherwise and policies that exacerbate inequality.”

    For the facts to overcome entrenched power, they just might need the help of a truly representative democracy to empower them. The means by which representative democracy does this is to attempt to have “government policies” be an expression of the collective, one person – one vote weighted, “will of the people” as expressed through their representatives. Allowing ANY dilution or manipulation of this relationship between the electorate and their respective representatives alters the power relationship from one person – one vote to some other form of government that, while not well defined, is something other than “democracy.” (When the power shifts to the plutocrats though, we do have a name for that.)

    If we continue to allow our candidate choices to be restricted to those “approved” by our plutocrats, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Do we really think we are “getting away with something” by having our plutocrats fund our election campaigns and choose which candidates will get funded? Are we so clue-less that we are unable to see that they are getting the money to buy and/or coerce our representatives from monopolies and other forms of government subsidies and interventions that ultimately result in “taxes” on us that are then used to fund their political objectives? How ironic (not to mention idiotic) is it that the money they use to buy and coerce our representatives is ultimately provided to them by us! What better evidence do we really need that there truly is a “free lunch” for those who can obtain the power and control needed to get one.

    We have choices. If we think its right to have the plutocrats fund our elections we can tax them directly and let the campaign funds be directed to the candidates by the voters! We don’t need to sell them “veto power” over our candidates to have them pay for the campaigns if we think that’s who should be paying. SCOTUS says we can’t limit speech. Do they also say we can’t require that it be properly identified? Do they also say we can’t limit and make it a criminal offense to interfere in any way with the relationships and fiduciary duties between the electorate and their representatives? If so, maybe we need to change their name to “The Peoples’ High Court” if it has so altered their decision-making that they no longer understand that it is the “We the People” (actual people, not corporations) that are “supreme” under our constitution; not any particular court.

    In a truly functional democracy, the poorest 25% of the population would have political power equal the richest 25%. Think for a second about how far we really are from that. I for one, do not want any representative of mine spending 20% of their time begging rich people for money (especially in a country with a wealth Gini in excess of .87), and ultimately ousted from their job if they are unsuccessful. If we don’t truly have a representative democracy, what is it that we actually do have?

    We need to move quickly to 100% public financing of political campaigns with voters deciding where the money goes. Non-publicly financed “speech” can be identified as such along with its true source. A truly representative democracy would solve many of our most pressing problems. We should change from whatever it is we have now to this form of government and give it a try.

  5. Russ Abbott says:

    On Google+ I commented on Ezra Klein’s interview with Chrystia Freeland, who said that “Republicans have felt since the time of Ronald Reagan that they are the party that represents the true America, and that the Democrats might sometimes win, but it’s kind of an aberration.”

    It seems to me that not only have they believed it, they have convinced a good part of the country that Republicans are the true Americans. Remember when Sara Palin said of being in a small town that it’s good to be back with “real America.” Too many of us implicitly believe that. We accept the notion that people in cities are not as real Americans as people in small towns, that to be conservative is to be more like real Americans than to be liberal.

    In fact, most Americans are far more liberal than Congress (, but that meme has not been successful in penetrating our collective psyches.

    So a good start toward an economic rights movement would be to spread the word that most people being in favor of economic rights is to be a real American.

  6. Tom Cantlon says:

    Your role is to keep articulating what the data says and what policies that suggests. Not to ignore the other, but different people have different roles. You can always improve on presenting these issues in ways that are more effective, in ways that get to people’s gut the same way “47% are takers” or “we need our guns to fight off Obama or the UN when they come for them” connects with some people, but even that, taking the policy suggestions and wrapping them in forms that will connect, can be done by someone else. By all means do what you can, but your strength you offer and which is needed is in what you do. I’m kind of talking to myself here because in my small role as a columnist for my local paper I stand somewhere between you and movement organizers. I’m not an academic, but I try to boil that down in useful ways for receptive or undecided people, and sometimes add some passion to it. Neither would I be a good organizer. I have my role and the best thing I can do is be as good at it as I can.

  7. Tom in MN says:

    I think what you don’t have the answer to is “What can we do?” That is, what is politically possible given the state of affairs that Donaldson points out.

    “What should we do?” That’s an easy one, increase the top income tax bracket rate until the deficit goes away with increases in school and infrastructure spending, and start paying down the debt as well. And while you are at it, put everyone on Medicare, raise the minimum wage and raise the exemption limit for Social Security. All your presentations show this all would be good for the country. It’s only politics that stops this from being done and the GOP idea that if they let enough of the country crumble then magic growth will occur.

    We are the richest country on Earth, we have all the spare change anyone could want.

  8. PJR says:

    I’ve felt that liberals/progressives have found it difficult to prioritize and focus. A liberal/progressive economic agenda can be popular, especially today, but it would require a downplaying (and maybe occasional compromising while playing defense) on social issues by candidates and legislators.

  9. Pauley says:

    We also lack a free, unfettered and expository press to educate voters with the factual analysis of economically moral issues rather than misdirecting think tank drivel feeding the corporate newstainment output.

    We therefore lack a sufficiently prominent soap box from which those who can speak clearly [Sanders/Krugman/Warren/Bernstein/et al] and reach the distressed/distracted/discouraged/disenfranchised/disengaged voters.

    When our presidents will not be the Roosevelts or Lincolns that we need them to be, we have no voice for We the People.

    We are in sorry shape…

  10. save_the_rustbelt says:


    You have great faith in the competence and integrity of government.

    Most of us do not share that faith. A news story today: despite sequester, Obama is releasing $500M to the Palestinians. What?!?!

    Beyond that, progressives cannot seem to advocate anything economic without bad mouthing the private sector. “You didn’t build that!”

  11. Bill Gatliff says:

    You need to read a book on corporate storytelling, I like “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative” by Stephen Denning.

    Long story short, sometimes facts can pull people forward. But sometimes, you need to push them by other means instead. In this case, perhaps by putting a human face to the poverty and inequality that the current policy framework creates. That’s an essential element of the LGBT success: stop being invisible.

    How you tell a story is way more important than what the story is. And the above book helped me figure that out. Highly recommended.

    • Nick Batzdorf says:

      Really good point in the second paragraph. Exactly right.

      Earlier on I hinted that it’s easy to sell simple ideas to the complicated problems of the world, and that’s why conservatives have such an advantage. (Fundamentalist religion is appealing to so many people for the same reason, of course.) This isn’t just emotional rather than intellectual, it’s aggressively anti-intellectual.

      Well, it shouldn’t be impossible to replace the “lazy people” image in people’s minds with actual images of reality.

  12. Smith says:

    Recognize the difference between immigrant rights, gay rights movements and a hypothetical economics rights movement. Immigrants rights clearly involved the entire associated community, meaning all of the Latino vote. The attacks from the right on the immigrant community tended to offend and threaten everyone in the community. And it was a very basic right, the ability to live and work in the U.S. that was at stake. Likewise with LGBT, the rights were basic and threatened the legitimacy of everyone in the group.

    Lack of economic rights threatens mostly only those unfortunate enough to be unemployed or notice their wages stagnated over a 20 or 30 year period. But for the 85% or 90% employed their is no immediate threat. It’s hard to notice stagnant wages when new technology gives you flat screen T.V.s and Iphones. Working the aisles at Wallmart not as radicalizing as the coal mines.

    2)Only in a crisis are entrenched interests weakened enough to be overthrown. This happened in 2008 when Obama beat McCain and the Democrats enjoyed control of the Presidency, the House, and a filibuster proof Senate. But Obama is a conservative centrist Democrat, like Clinton, not a Reagan transformational leader for Democrats. One must wait for another emergency for an opportunity to seize control. Meanwhile, challenge Democrats in primaries from the left.

    • Perplexed says:

      -“Lack of economic rights threatens mostly only those unfortunate enough to be unemployed or notice their wages stagnated over a 20 or 30 year period. But for the 85% or 90% employed their is no immediate threat.”

      I’ve commented several times on this site about this “tyranny of the majority” that should exposed for what it is and brought to an end. Economists could help tremendously here with the truth about what is going on here if they chose to do so. By exposing the reality that “labor market” is largely an oxymoron when it is legal to prevent people from having access to the “market” (labor, the “product” of the 99%, is excluded from anti-trust protections). If there were actually an open market, and labor was actually sold on bid/ask basis like any other real “market,” it would clear and there would be no unemployment. If the price of wheat were to be kept high by denying full market access to 20% of the producers and forcing them let their wheat rot in the fields, they would sue and recover their losses. There is no similar protection for those whose “product” is labor.

      While it can be argued that having labor fall in a recession due to “market forces” may not be the best thing overall, imposing the full cost of the output gap on the powerless victims of these policies that allow denial of access to the “market” is unconscionable. There’s a reason its called unemployment compensation – the victims are being compensated (although nowhere near to the extent of their actual losses) for being denied access.

      If the costs of the output gap were shared by all, those “85% or 90% employed” would be much more concerned about solving a problem that is so costly and destructive. Having it be legal to impose the full costs of an output gap on a powerless “few” allows them to ignore the problem altogether and prevents the discussion of any, more humane, alternatives. I’ve yet to hear any sound rationale for allowing this to continue. I’ve not yet been able to trace the source of the meme that “unemployment” is a “market outcome” rather than a “lack of market outcome,” maybe Jared can help us with this?

      The only rationale I’ve been able to find for supporting this meme is a group-think application of Upton Sinclare’s observation that “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding.” – Upton Sinclair

  13. Th says:

    I have long bemoaned the poor use of the Democratic congressional caucus as the organizing agent for economic proposals. The Republicans show up on all the cable channels all day and the Democrats issue a press release. Weak, weak weak. If I had one suggestion as to how to change the game, I would have the House leadership identify 10 or so college debate/mock trial winning telegenic members of congress, train them in soundbiteese and push them in front of cameras 24/7. Your job (should you choose to accept it) is to provide the economic foundations for the sound bites.

    Sample sound bites: Of course the stimulus worked; Europe is in recession and we aren’t.
    It’s absurd to say, “We can’t afford it.” We stand in line to pay $4 for a cup of coffee.
    We do have a spending problem; we have underfunded infrastructure, research and education for the past 30 years.

  14. David Kaib says:

    I think the answer is in your post:

    “We couldn’t be afraid to challenge our friends in power.”

    In deep blue MD, a Senate committee just blocked a minimum wage increase, and Gov O’Malley, considered by many to be a presidential candidate in 2016, hasn’t shown any leadership. We spend an enormous amount of time complaining about regressive policies in red states, or about Republicans in Congress, but we let lots of Dems get away with opposing (or simply not supporting) economic rights. Part of that is too much focus on federal legislation, where the filibuster and Republican control of the House are a handy explanation for why things can’t move forward. But what about the states? What about executive action? What about simply making he case for economic rights?

    You can’t have power when you act like you work for politicians, instead of the other way around.

  15. Jonathan Oates says:

    Dear Jared,
    Interested to see you wrestling with this – it’s a big question, one we’re also wrestling with in the UK. I read something today in which the author enquired ‘where is the mass protest?’ He argued the biggest problem was the majority of people amusing themselves to death.

    You might be interested to keep an eye on the Coalition of Resistance, which is organising a People’s Assembly this June, in London. The idea is for a movement to crystallise, which may lead to the formation of a new party (if e.g trades unions switch their allegiance away from the Labour Party), or have the effect of transforming the Labour Party under such a threat (possibly constitution, personnel, and policy).

    I believe the intention is to have affiliated People’s Assemblies all round the country in due course (hopefully, well ahead of the 2015 General Election), and for the ‘movement’ to be associated in some way with other pan-European efforts.

    What looks encouraging is the mix of people and organisations signing up. These include the Green Party, Labour Party MPs, trades unions, cultural figures such as Ken Loach, as well as 50+ heterodox economists.

    Would such a movement be possible your side of the pond??? Could such a mechanism work similarly?

    URL is below