Currently, there seems to be no consensus on what a progressive candidate should stand for, particularly in terms of the economy. Reregulating the financial system, as important and difficult as it would be to achieve, will not by itself rebuild the middle class. Neither would Medicare for all, as critical as that would be, or ending our wars, or even forcing China to revalue its currency. The rot in the US economy is too great to be healed by simply stopping many of our destructive policies.
It seems to me that the centerpiece of a progressive economic agenda has to be about creating and maintaining jobs: permanent, high-skilled, good-paying jobs. And not just a million jobs here and there, but tens of millions of good jobs, to bring under- and unemployment down, lift the new (and old) poor out of poverty, and retain what remains of the American middle class.
The self-sustaining job creation engine that has propelled growth for the last two centuries is broken. That job engine was fueled by the manufacturing sector. Particularly since the Age of Reagan began, those industries have been out-sourced, and with them, much of the middle class and their jobs. In 2007, manufacturing accounted for 11% of all jobs, whereas in 1970 it accounted for 24%. So the 13% of the jobs that used to be in the factories could easily soak up the 9.6% of the working population that is currently unemployed, as well as about half of the 7% that are “involuntarily” part-time workers.
Each manufacturing job leads to many more service jobs. According to a 2003 report by the Economic Policy Institute, each manufacturing job supports almost three other jobs in the economy. But that also means that the loss of each manufacturing job leads to three others being lost. There is simply no way to turn around the jobs situation without turning around the decline of manufacturing.
So how can we kick start a manufacturing boom? This is where economic logic meets environmental necessity. We need to drastically cut carbon emissions if we are to have any hope of keeping the same planet as the one that civilization developed on. We need to rid ourselves of oil before its coming decline in availability rids us of our ability to transport ourselves or our goods. And how do we reach those goals? By creating a transportation system based on electricity, electricity that is powered by the wind and the sun. Such a system would be centered on electrified passenger and freight trains, with electric cars and transit mainly moving people to and from train stations, within densely populated town and city centers, which will also have to be built or rebuilt.
Reconstructing transportation, energy, and urban infrastructures will more than take up the productive energies of the almost 27 million underemployed and unemployed people. (According to the latest statistics, there are 14.8 million officially unemployed people, plus 9.5 million involuntarily part-time and 2.5 million “marginally attached” — that is, people who want to work but can’t for a longer period of time than the “unemployed”). In fact, these rebuilding projects would probably soak up many of the people employed in the kinds of low-level service jobs that the “post-industrial” economy has been so good at creating.
These new jobs would involve both constructing the new systems and working in the factories that provide the trains, cars, rails, electric transmission system, wind turbines, solar panels, and many other products that would be needed to put a green transformation in place. A manufacturing renaissance would ensue only if those factories were located in the United States, whether run by foreign or domestic firms. From Alexander Hamilton’s advocacy of the protection of “infant industries” to China’s meteoric rise, governments have supported industrialization on their own soil, and this transformation must also stay within the US.
A believable explanation of how to restore the US economy would serve as an anchor for a Green New Deal. Progressives could take the offensive instead of falling back on the defense. In fact, we could put the conservatives on the defense. Their version of how the great job creation engine works is based on the fantasy of standing back and letting “the market” do it’s magic. We can pray to the gods of the market to somehow come up with tens of millions of jobs, or we can use the government to build badly-needed systems and finance the employment of tens of millions of people. That’s not socialism; that’s called realism.
A program based on a self-sustaining jobs machine, with manufacturing at its core, would allow progressives to add other planks to the platform in a holistic, integrated, reinforcing way. A public banking system could be used to funnel capital to critical infrastructure projects, such as a high-speed rail system, instead of into the casino economy. The military-industrial complex could be turned into an infrastructure-industrial complex. Medicare for all would mean less costs for all businesses. Workplace democracy, the idea that employees should own and operate their own firms, would guarantee that firms, factories and jobs would stay in the United States. States and localities would have new sources of revenue to maintain our collapsing infrastructure and repair the education system, which are needed for all of the new jobs and construction.
Even taxes for the middle and lower classes could go down if transportation, energy, and urban systems were built using debt-free greenbacks, as in Lincoln’s day. The revenue from these systems, the savings from retiring the national debt with greenbacks, and fair taxes on the wealthy and corporations would all lead to little or no income taxes for the bottom 80% of the population. Drink that, Tea Partiers!
With a possible political debacle staring us in the face, it behooves the progressive community to look “outside the box”, as the New Dealers did in the 1930s. As in the 1930s, not every desired outcome can be achieved, but the programs implemented then and since grew out of ideas that took time to percolate and circulate among wider audiences. A Green New Deal will take many, many news cycles to generate. If we can look to the future, we can give ourselves time to build campaigns that are based on the idea of “rise and shine” as opposed to “inevitable decline”.
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the City University of New York.