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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The Meagerness Of The Republican Debates, The Smallness Of The President's Solutions, And The Need For A Progressive Alternative
Poster by Eric Drooker
This post was written before last night's GOP debate but easily anticipated the silliness that spewed from this sorry collection of candidates. The salient points remain: (1) the GOP has nothing to offer; (2) the President's failure to pursue bold alternatives has created a vacuum that is attracting Americans to "crackpot ideas" like Herman Cain's 9-9-9; and (3) this is where the Occupy Movement can play a critical role -- as a progressive force agitating for big ideas and real reform. -- Lovechilde
Republicans are debating again tomorrow night.
And once again, Americans will hear the standard regressive litany:
government is bad, Medicare and Medicaid should be cut, “Obamacare” is
killing the economy, undocumented immigrants are taking our jobs, the
military should get more money, taxes should be lowered on corporations
and the rich, and regulations should be gutted.
Four years ago the most widely-watched TV debate among Republican
aspirants attracted 3.2 million viewers. This year it’s almost twice
that number. And for every viewer assume a multiplier effect as he or
she shares what’s heard with friends and family.
Americans are listening more intently this time around because
they’re hurting and they want answers. But the answers they’re getting
from Republican candidates – tripping over themselves trying to appeal
to hard-core regressives – are the wrong ones.
The correct ones aren’t being aired.
That’s partly because there’s no primary contest in the Democratic
party. So Republicans automatically get loads of free broadcast time to
air their regressive nonsense while the Democrats get none.
But even if the President had equal time, the debate about what to do about the crisis would still be frighteningly narrow.
That’s because the President’s answers don’t nearly match up to the magnitude of the crisis.
Without bold alternatives, Americans desperate for big solutions are
attracted to bold crackpot ideas like Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” proposal,
which would raise taxes on the poor and cut them for the rich.
This is where the inchoate Occupy Wall Street movement could come in.
What’s needed isn’t just big ideas. It’s people fulminating for them –
making enough of a ruckus that the ideas can’t be ignored.
part of the debate because the public demands it.
The biggest thing the President has proposed is a plan to create 2
million jobs. But that’s not nearly big enough. Today, 14 million
Americans are out of work, and 11 million more are working part-time
who’d rather be working full time.
The nation needs a real jobs plan, one of sufficient size and scope
to do the job – including a WPA and a Civilian Conservation Corps, to
put the millions of long-term unemployed and young unemployed to work
I’m not criticizing the President. Without energized, mobilized, and
organized progressives, even the best people in Washington can’t
overcome the monied interests.
For example, America’s long-term debt needs to be addressed, but not
the way the President is doing it. He wants to lop $4 trillion off the
budget over the next ten years. This almost certainly means sacrificing
education, job training, food stamps, and everything else now listed in
the so-called “non-defense discretionary” budget, as well as cuts in
Medicare and Medicaid.
What about halving the military budget instead? It doubled after
9/11, and military contractors are intent on keeping it in the
stratosphere. So is Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Result: Defense
cuts this size won’t be on the table unless progressives vociferously
And what about really raising taxes on the rich to finance what the
nation should be doing to create a world-class workforce with
Here again, the President’s proposal is paltry compared to what
should be done. He wants to raise taxes on the rich by ending the Bush
tax cut for incomes over $250,000 and limiting certain deductions.
Yet income and wealth are now more concentrated than they’ve been in
70 years. The top 1 percent gets over 20 percent of total income and
holds over 35 percent of national wealth; the richest 400 Americans have
more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.
Meanwhile, effective tax rates on the rich are lower than they’ve been in three decades.
We need to push for higher marginal taxes on the top, and more
brackets. Incomes of more than $5 million should be subject to a 70
percent rate. (The top marginal rate was never below 70 percent between
1940 and 1980.) And these rates should apply to all income regardless of
source, including capital gains.
This would allow for a bigger Earned Income Tax Credit (that is, a
wage subsidy) for lower-income workers. And lower taxes on middle-income
There should be a 2 percent annual surtax on all fortunes over $7
million. This would only hit the richest half a percent of Americans at
the very top of the heap. And would yield $70 billion a year – enough to
improve our schools and make college affordable to everyone.
And a tax on financial transactions. Even a tiny one of one-half of
one percent would generate $200 billion a year. That’s enough to make a
major contribution toward early childhood education for every American
The President’s healthcare law is a good start but it’s not the
solution, either. We need Medicare for all. Medicare has lower
administrative costs than private insurers. And it has the bargaining
heft to reduce drug and hospital costs as well as shift the system from
fee-for-services to payments for healthy outcomes.
The President’s financial reforms are also a beginning but they’re
way too weak to stop Wall Street depredations. (At this moment, for
example, no one even knows the exposure of Wall Street banks to European
banks and, through them, Europe’s debt crisis.)
We need to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and break up the biggest banks.
The President has talked about fixing Social Security by raising the
retirement age. But the best way to ensure the program’s long-term
solvency is to lift the ceiling on income subject to Social Security
payroll taxes (now $106,800.) Yet this, too, is off the table.
Workers also need more bargaining power. The ratio of corporate
profits to wages is now higher than it’s been since before the Great
Depression. Workers should be able to form unions through a simple
up-or-down vote, without delay.
None of this is possible without strong and consistent pressure from the progressive side. Regressives are setting the agenda.
The President isn’t even talking about the environment any more. Yet
climate change is a reality, and our survival depends on reducing carbon
We should tax carbon-based fuels, and divide the revenues equally
among all Americans. It’s the best way to get us to switch to non-carbon
fuels, and stimulate research and development of them. And by dividing
the revenues, the typical American would come out ahead even though some
prices would increase.
Finally, we need public financing of elections and strict limits on
so-called “independent” expenditures. Corporations should have to get
the approval of every shareholder before spending corporate funds – the
shareholders’ money – on politics.
I have no idea whether the Occupiers will morph into the kind of
progressive force necessary to put these ideas into play. But if
Americans stand together and demand real reform, we can have a real
national debate in 2012.
Tomorrow’s Republican debate may attract lots of viewers. It need not capture their minds.
Robert Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He writes a blog at www.robertreich.org. His most recent book is Aftershock.