After the 2018 elections: What are the emerging policy areas in which Progressive Democrats are (or should be) working?

By Andy Winnick

A sweeping overview of what we on the Progressive left need to support and, for those in power, to do in domestic policy beginning right now. This program needs to be taken to heart.

A key issue in the U.S. and throughout Europe and elsewhere is Inequality and Inequity, the growing gap not only between rich and poor, but more widely the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else. This widening gap has been well documented as it pertains to income, and even more importantly to wealth. Perhaps the most concerning aspect is that the very rich and the near rich live lives that are very different from those experienced by 95 to 99% of the population. Crucially, they exercise access to, if not control over, public policy that supports their interests and not those of the vast majorities of the populations in the U.S. and many other nations. This has led to angry, nationalistic populism and to a shifting to more authoritarian national leadership: which includes the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. and to similar patterns in many other nations including Italy, Austria, Hungry, Poland, Australia and elsewhere. Even France and Germany are having to confront a rising wave of nationalist populism. The key issue facing those who support the values of liberal democracy is how to first constrain and then reverse this trend. This must become the over-arching goal of progressives in the years ahead. This will require confronting and reversing the growing disparities in income and wealth, and the degree of control over public policy exercised by these wealthy elites.

This necessitates a multiplicity of policy goals that can be collected into four broad topic areas.
1. Providing essential services to meet the fundamental human needs of our peoples for food, housing, health care, childcare, education and retirement and to do all this while, and in part by, providing decent jobs with reasonable incomes for all.
2. Doing (1) while fighting to limit climate change and the massive dislocations that are and will be caused by global warming and climate change.
3. Reversing the growing gaps in income and wealth between the richest and the rest, and in so doing finding the funds to pay for accomplishing the goals of the first two areas; that is, funding those services, providing those jobs and fighting to limit or reverse climate change.
4. Limiting the control by the rich over the public policy making organs of government so as to allow, indeed to compel, government at all levels to achieve the goals in areas 1, 2 and 3.

In other papers and presentations, I have set forth detailed programs in all four of these areas. Here I just want to focus on nine specific proposals that are already coming to the fore.
 The Green New Deal (GND) in part funded by a new public Infrastructure bank
 A Guaranteed Minimum Family Income
 Medicare for All
 Tuition Free Public Higher Education
 Fully funded pre-school/childcare, early childhood and K-12 education
 Taxing Wealth and Stock Market Transactions
 Taxing High Income
 Establish a Public Infrastructure Bank
 New regulations on the funding of political campaigns and on lobbying activities.

The Green New Deal (GND)

Key Concept – (On this see material from the Sunrise Movement, which has been endorsed by some 35 people in Congress.)

Rebuild Energy and Transportation Infrastructure and retrofit buildings to greatly reduce energy consumption and end Greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce and even reverse Climate Change, while in the process creating tens of thousands of well paid jobs, many of which do NOT require a college education. The key point of the GND is to fight Climate Change and stimulate economic growth at the same time. These are NOT contradictory goals, despite the claims by big business and the rich to the contrary.

Fund GND in large part via a publicly controlled infrastructure bank that is partially publicly funded and also attracts private money. See the article: The Financial Secret Behind Germany’s Green Energy Revolution. Such an infrastructure bank was the primary mechanism used by FDR to fund the New Deal in the 1930s. And it existed until 1957. A similar institution needs to be built today.

A Guaranteed Minimum Family Income

Build on the existing Earned Income Tax Credit program and the Child Tax Credit program by applying these to all families, even if they have no children, and by rapidly raising income thresholds over time and with inflation. Potentially combine these with existing food and rent support programs. Establish the concept that no one in our society should be forced or allowed to live below such a defined minimal level. Ideally, pursuing the GND and creating well paid jobs in the process, would go a long way to reducing the need for these programs.

Medicare for All (A code phrase to begin to move toward guaranteeing health insurance for all.)
Begin by lowering the threshold age for Medicare and by allowing increasingly younger people to buy into the program. In this way, slowly expand Medicare as a “Public Option” that would allow everyone down to the income threshold for Medicaid to buy in. Combine this with an expanded Medicaid program, in a similar manner to that used under the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare). That is, expand access to Medicaid by raising income eligibility thresholds. Keep both processes going until thresholds for the two programs meet and everyone is eligible for one or the other. Reinstate the requirement that everyone must be covered by a specified program of health insurance that covers all ten areas specified in ACA. Do not allow reduced coverage programs or any limitations re prior illnesses, gender differences, age differentials or lifetime limits. Mount major public relations program to encourage those in states that have not expanded Medicaid to pressure their State governments to end their opposition. Note – Private Health Insurance firms will still have a role providing supplementary coverage for the 20% of costs that Medicare typically does not cover. And some folks may prefer not to buy into Medicare and to keep private coverage. But over time, if Medicare remains considerably less expensive and as Medicare coverage can be expanded beyond the current 80%, this would reduce the need for private supplementary coverage, thus leading to the steady shrinkage of the private health insurance sector.

Provide Tuition Free Public Higher Education

Fund all public institutions of post-secondary education at a level to allow tuition free operation. Impose reasonable restrictions on required non-tuition fees. Regulate room and board, book and other charges. We do not charge tuition to attend public high schools. We should join with other advanced industrialized nations (such as Germany) in extending this model to public post-secondary education.

Fully fund pre-school/childcare, early childhood and K-12 education
Establish national standards regarding teacher credentialing, class sizes and auxiliary services. Childcare and pre-school programs should have guaranteed availability, but be voluntary. Elizabeth Warren has proposed just such a program.

Raise marginal tax rates for highest earners and for corporations

There are a series of proposals to raise the marginal tax rate on high earners from a current top rate of 37% to anywhere from 39% (Sanders) to 70%, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for income over $10 million). These should be debated as to exact levels and thresholds, and then the receipts earmarked for specific programs, with some funds committed to deficit reduction. See NYT article by Saez and Zucman: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax Hike Idea is Not About Soaking the Rich and also the article by Leonhardt It’s Radical Not to Tax The Rich More.

Increase corporate profits tax from current 21% to at least 25% and, equally important, reduce many corporate tax deductions/loopholes so these taxes are actually paid.

Impose New Taxes on Wealth

Begin taxation on accumulated total wealth, not just income, in line with proposal by Elizabeth Warren and economists from UC-Berkeley. Impose a 2% tax on wealth holdings over $50 million, and 3% on wealth over $1 billion. This could yield about $$2.75 trillion over 10 years. Again, earmark part of this to fund specific programs as described earlier, with a portion going to reduce the deficit. See NYT article by Tankersley: Warren’s Plan is Latest Push by Democrats to Raise Taxes on the Rich. (Note – Property taxes on personal residences are already a tax on the primary source of wealth for the middle class, now it’s time to tax the sources of wealth of the rich.)

Impose New “Sales” Tax on Stock Market Transactions

This was initially proposed by Bernie Sanders during 2016 primaries. We could impose a “sales” tax of 10 cents on each share of stock bought/sold on any stock exchange in the U.S. The idea is that no one would buy or not buy a share if the price were 10 cents higher than that stated in the market. Since the New York Stock Exchange sees a monthly volume of about 1.5 trillion shares, such a tax would generate revenue of about $150 billion per month just from that one stock exchange. This tax could provide more than enough to fund many of this nation’s needed programs and also reduce the deficit.

Campaign Finance and Lobbying Reform/Regulation

If the majority of Americans in the 99% is to believe that they do indeed have control over “their” government, then there must be restrictions placed on the ability of the wealthy elites and the corporations (1) to fund political campaigns and (2) to influence those in office via what are loosely described as lobbying efforts. However, this is going to be extremely difficult in the U.S. given the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and earlier decisions holding that giving money is the equivalent of constitutionally protected free speech and that corporations have the same political rights (such as the constitutional guarantee of “the right of citizens to petition their government”) as human beings who are citizens. Moreover, given that the current make-up of the Supreme Court is even more conservative (due to Trump’s appointments) than the ones who made the earlier decisions, such efforts at reform, even if successful in Congress and signed by a new President after 2020, are all too likely to be overturned in the Courts. Nevertheless, efforts must be made to test the limits as to what can be done to limit the power of the economic elite and the corporations.

One of the most expensive aspects of political campaigning is the cost of TV ads. It is time to reinstate the idea of demanding that all TV channels, including cable channels, be required to provide equal and free time for all candidates that meet minimal thresholds of public support. The airwaves belong to the people. We license them to TV channels, and we can impose reasonable requirements on the Internet. It’s time we do so to preserve our democracy.

The Inevitable Tensions between Progressive and “Moderate” Democrats

Finally, progressives, including those recently elected to Congress, are going to have to confront the reality that a large portion of those in the Democratic party, in and out of elective office, are not likely to support the goals outline above. These “moderate” Democrats will claim, and indeed are already claiming, that such a program is “too progressive,” that it is really too socialistic, too extreme. They will claim that the American public is “not that progressive” as to support such a program and that advocacy of such a program will alienate too many Americans and result in lost elections and a failure to win the Presidency in 2020. They will claim the cloak of being “more practical,” as compared to the “too idealistic” progressives. This is exactly what the Clinton’s claimed in the 1990s and that Hillary argued in 2016.

Moreover, they and Republicans will claim that we cannot afford the earlier listed reforms, even if some might be desirable. They will claim that such efforts will slow economic growth and force the U.S. into unsustainable levels of annual deficits and national debt. But whether such statements stem from ignorance, a lack of political will, or by a desire to protect the rich and maintain the current system of political power, they are false. As was outlined above, one can clearly, indeed easily, identify the potential sources of the needed funds. The wealth exists. We have to find the political will to gather it together and apply it to these critical needs. And if we do, we can stimulate economic growth, greatly reduce economic and social inequality and inequities, and dramatically slow, if not stop, climate change.

The Task Ahead

It is and will be the job of progressives to confront such moderates and conservatives, while working with them when possible, and to reach out to the American electorate to convince them that a program such as outlined above is not only desirable, but is feasible, workable, and achievable. This will be no easy task, but it is what must be done if the elites and corporations are to be corralled, if the trend toward greater inequality and inequity is to be reversed and if the 99% are to have their “faith in the system” restored. Only in this way can our nation begin to halt the slide toward nationalistic populism and the rise of authoritarianism and what in Europe is coming to be called “illiberal democracy.”
David Leonhardt in the New York Times (Feb 3, 2019) quoting from the book, “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, observes that over the sweep of history, the main reason that societies have declined is domination “by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people.” Sadly, that is a description of America today. The task for progressives is to constrain and then reverse this trend. This will be no easy or safe task, but as Madeleine Albright, in Madam Secretary: A Memoir, said: “I was taught to strive not because there were any guarantees of success but because the act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”