Progressive Voice Needs Clearer Expression Prior to the 2012 Elections
Progressives need make a much simpler and more direct case for their positions going into the Fall 2012 elections. Tea Party advocates have managed to capture the rhetoric being used in most mass media today. The headlines would have us believe that the deficit is caused solely by government spending and can be cured only by “smaller government” and “program cuts” when, in fact, such cuts, coming in the midst of both consumer and business reluctance to spend, often increase unemployment and exacerbate the economy’s decline.
The media make little effort to identify types of government expenditure that, if supported by reasonable taxes to fund them, would stimulate the economy, increase jobs and/or improve the quality of public and private life in numerous ways. Investments in physical infrastructure, education, and scientific, technological and medical research, for example, would not just create jobs immediately, they would stimulate future growth.
We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the purpose of government is to promote the general welfare, especially when the private sector is unwilling or unable to do so—or when its actions actually harm the public good by polluting the environment, consuming non-renewable resources and/or denying workers living wages, benefits and working conditions or the rights to protect them. In the latter case, we depend on government to eliminate these “harms” by establishing and enforcing meaningful health, environmental and labor standards. Progressives need to emphasize the need for more, not less, governmental regulation of corporate abuses, often motivated purely by greed.
In recent years, those in control of the private sector (and their watchdogs and protectors in Washington) have increased and consolidated their wealth and power to the detriment of working and middle class citizens. If they were taxed at rates in place during the Clinton years, the deficit would be declining. Fair, reasonable taxes used to provide needed public goods and services would put people back to work without increasing the national deficit and maybe even reduce it.
Progressives need to make the case that in today’s global and highly competitive economy, government needs to use its taxing power to create markets (“demand”) for a wide range public goods and services that the private sector can then pursue. Such a policy would create “public-private partnerships” that benefit employers and workers alike. Further, they need to encourage average citizens to evaluate what kinds of expenditures improve their lives the most: expenditures for their own private use or consumption or expenditures from which both they and others benefit, that is, “public expenditures”.
Let me close by listing some of the public expenditures that we are putting in jeopardy if we continue to insist on cutting back government and government programs. In reviewing the list, think not just about the impacts on your own life of cuts in these areas, but of all the people who will lose their jobs in the process and thus have their basic livelihoods placed in jeopardy.
Threatened Public Expenditures: Public Infrastructure: walks, roads, highways, subways, train lines, airports, bridges, tunnels, street and traffic lights and signage, public water/gas/electricity companies, pipe and transmission lines, storm water and sewer lines and much, much more; Parks and Recreation: municipal, county, state and national parks, preserves and conservation areas; dams and reservoirs; Public Education: public child care and early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, adult and continuing education, community colleges and public universities; Arts and Cultural Programs: grants to schools, museums, and performing arts centers; grants to establish civic and cultural memorials; and grants to outstanding artists for public works; Public Safety: police and fire protection, homeland security, and disaster relief; Public Health Care: public health and mental health clinics, services for the aging and disabled, veterans clinics and hospitals, Medicaid, Medicare, and investments in pharmacological and medical research; Health/Environmental Protection: standards ensuring clean air, water and soils; reduced carbon emissions; and safe foods; Housing: FHA guaranteed mortgages, construction of affordable housing, rent subsidies, energy saving/environmental tax credits, and home heating and air conditioning subsidies; Income Security: unemployment compensation, earned income tax credits, public financial assistance (“welfare”), Social Security (“SSI” benefits, retirement benefits), and county public relief; Food Programs: federal agricultural subsidies and trade protections, food stamp programs, free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs, women/infant/children (WIC) programs, and food pantries; National Defense: support for armed services personnel, military equipment/hardware, and military research and development .
The list could go on and on, but the point is that Americans have lost sight of the extent to which our personal and collective welfare and happiness depend on “good government” at all levels and on “good public expenditures”, those paid for out of taxes we choose to allocate to them. As individuals we can spend money we earn in two broad ways: (1) on our own private consumer needs/wants or (2) on public needs/wants that we either share with our fellow citizens or that meet the special needs of those most disadvantaged among us. Let’s start insisting that candidates, parties and ultimately legislatures prepare clear budget proposals that we can all understand (“Here’s where we want to spend tax money and why”) and then be willing to pay taxes on public expenditures we need/want instead of borrowing money to pay for them. This will stimulate the economy and, if we allocate some taxes to paying down the debt, eliminate the debt over time. We will get only what we pay for!