Last month, our president told 800,000 federal employees to make do without paychecks for 35 days. Full-time workers lined up at soup kitchens. Families frantically begged for loan deferments, credit extensions, and acts of mercy from their banks. Air-traffic controllers put in ten-hour shifts, then worked as Uber drivers to make ends meet. The contract workers who clean government offices, guard government doors, and serve government meals are still not guaranteed one cent of the pay they missed.
The January shutdown bore all the ugly hallmarks of the Trump presidency, from overt racism to tone-deaf privilege. And—beneath it all—an administration that sees the livelihood of ordinary Americans as a bargaining chip they are willing to trade away.
For our president, it was the latest notch in the belt of a man who has broken every populist promise he made. Elections—and history—will put him in his rightful place. For our country, however, the past month was one chapter in a saga that began long before Donald Trump and that demands an equally profound reckoning: the mounting injustice of our modern economy.
It’s a story about GDP or stock prices or innovation. It’s also the story of a global superpower where 18.5 million people live in deep poverty. Where we reward vast wealth with tax cuts, loopholes, and endless ways to ensure dollars earn more dollars, but value actual labor at only $7.25 an hour. A place whose laws steadfastly protect multinational corporations like Philips Lighting and General Motors when they harvest millions from government tax cuts while laying off workers from Fall River to Detroit; but where laws stand idle when a farmworker in the Yakima Valley or a waitress in Boston are forced to work overtime without pay, when a housekeeper in Phoenix faces sexual violence on the job, when FedEx and Uber misclassify drivers to evade giving them basic benefits, when Jiffy Lube destroys their workers’ leverage to negotiate better wages and WalMart refuses accommodations for pregnant workers and fast-food franchises deny their employees predictable hours.
Here, our medical innovations subsidize global health, but our citizens die rationing insulin they can’t afford. Here, we dehumanize immigrants with one hand while exploiting their cheap labor with the other. Here, we let redlines course through housing markets and neighborhoods, segregating schools 50 years after Jim Crow. We subject the poor to endless tests of character for our taxes to cover their next hot meal. But the rich face no such scrutiny when our taxes float their stock prices. We let the wealthy divert and dilute resources from public schools, public transit, and public housing meant to level the inevitable tip of capitalist scales and then criminalize the marginalized when they can’t hang on.
This is the story of our modern economy and of a government that aided, abetted, and encouraged its rise. It is the challenge of our time. American capitalism has undeniably done more good for more people than any other economic system. But capitalism as we know it today is badly broken and—rightfully—under attack. The sooner we confront that, the sooner we can strip it to the studs and build something better. A moral capitalism, judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets.
Today, the United States government is called to be an economic activist; to remedy the injustice it has let fester on its watch; to jump off the sidelines of an economy with the highest disparities of almost any advanced nation on earth and demand, with the full force of its mighty laws, that we do better.
First, our government must aggressively address and redress economic abuse. Decades of trickle-down dogma created a tsunami of deregulation, union-busting, and rampant consolidation that destroyed any semblance of balance between corporate power and worker clout.
Reform efforts should end predatory corporate practices. From non-competes and no-poach agreements to outdated antitrust laws that have failed to check the consequences of monopoly power for both consumers and employees. Congress must flex its muscles and actively disincentivize the shareholder-first mentality that gave corporate America over $1 trillion in stock buybacks last year while working America got pink slips. Instead, we must defend a system of fair taxation that demands significantly more from those at the top.
Particular industries require extra vigilance, from the technology companies that commoditize our data, invade our privacy, and endanger our democracy—to the pharmaceutical companies that price patients out of life-saving treatment. Strong and smart regulation is not a weight on growth but a necessary condition for a capitalist system capable—and worthy—of survival.
Unfortunately, economic abuse has not just been perpetrated by private hands. Our public sector shares blame, creating and condoning discriminatory systems that keep people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, and others under a heavy economic thumb. Racist housing policies, segregation of neighborhoods and schools, a broken criminal justice system, and inequitable delivery of federal dollars make it nearly impossible for black America and other historically oppressed communities to survive, compete, and build wealth.
Just 15 percent of the nearly $550 billion our government issued in contracts last year went to minority- and women-owned businesses. That’s not opportunity building, it’s opportunity hoarding, for those already in the driver’s seat of our economy.
Second, government must be a fierce guarantor of economic protection. From independent contracting to low-wage job growth and gig employment, our federal labor protections have failed to keep pace with the economic reality for most American workers. We need to catch up. That means a livable minimum wage, health insurance detached from employment status, paid family and sick leave, and a massive expansion of the number of Americans assured these benefits in a modern economy. It means anti-discrimination laws that apply to all, a full-throated defense of a worker’s right to organize, unionize, and strike—and a justice system that protects class action, ends forced arbitration, and promises recourse to any who are wronged or abused.
Third, government must be a reliable supplier of public goods. From primary and secondary education to infrastructure and national defense—we operate robust public systems for that which we deem essential to our national interest. Which makes their equitable and universal delivery worthy of public investment.
However, we fail to extend this mentality to two systems American families most depend on—health care and child care. Existing federal structures barely touch the level of need. At a time when the vast majority of parents work outside the home, our current Child Tax Credit gives eligible families—already a tiny sliver of the country—$2,000 a year, at most, to defray costs. Meanwhile, the annual price tag of full-time infant care in Massachusetts is over $17,000—higher than in-state tuition at our public university. And the devastating inequities of American health care grow more painful by the day, with GoFundMe pages becoming as common as insurance coverage.
It is time to create universal, public systems for both health care and child care, where access isn’t restricted by employment, income, or geography—and where affordability comes with a government guarantee.
Finally, government must mobilize our economy around our national interest. In recent decades, Washington has taken a stubbornly passive approach to economic mobilization, time and again deferring to market forces, corporate profit, and private instincts. Not since the Great Society have we proactively channeled our economic might toward higher, nobler needs—health, safety, security, and livelihood.
But today a threat at our doorstep gives us the opportunity to change that. Climate change. An arrow aimed at all of us. But striking hardest where government insufficiency always does: those we have historically repressed or systemically left behind. Black and brown, Indigenous and Appalachian. Cancer Alley. Eastern Kentucky. Puerto Rico.
Where people are more likely to live near toxic facilities or environmental waste and less likely to have access to the health care and legal advocacy necessary to survive. More likely to be paralyzed by disruptions to public services when violent storms and floods and fires sweep through and less likely to have the resources to recover. More likely to see their jobs decimated by our changing energy landscape and less likely to reap the benefits of new technology, innovation, and industry.
From environmental crisis to economic exclusion, climate change exemplifies the far-reaching failures of a government that has refused to marshal its resources toward the common good—leaving its citizens vulnerable and inequities deeply rooted.
But this is also an opportunity to put moral capitalism into action. We should heed the call for a Green New Deal and other aggressive climate strategies championed by lifelong advocates, activists, and elected leaders. These solutions move beyond singular policy reforms and mobilize a nationwide response to a worldwide crisis. They demand we do more than just react to economic winds but sound a public call to arms across our entire economy—new jobs, new technology, new education, new industry, all powerfully backed by the United States government and aimed at a threat none of us will escape. Done right, done well, and done boldly, our climate efforts could reorient our economy around common good, shared survival … and a future with space for all.
This is the level of public activism our broken economy demands and our people deserve. And at this particular moment in history, we are reminded of exactly what happens if we take another path. If we choose not to act, someone else will.
Three years ago, a man named Donald Trump usurped America’s economic story. He offered a simple explanation for the hurt so many carry: It’s the other guy’s fault. The brown guy. The immigrant. The gay one, the woman, that one over there, who looks different and sounds funny. He—like many an aristocrat and supremacist before him—deftly turned us on each other, defusing the force that abusers of privilege fear most: solidarity among the people they oppress.
So Americans today fight each other over the scraps of our system, instead of uniting to fight a system that finds them worthy of only scraps to begin with. A system that fails the coal miner in Harlan forced to defend his hard-earned pensionandthe nanny in the Bronx battling for basic benefits. That siphons the livelihood of the fifth-generation dairy farm in Oshkosh and the first-generation immigrant business in El Paso.That ignores the profound human cost of poverty on the reservation in South Dakota and the depleted communities of Appalachia.
Their stories are different, their experiences distinct. But they share the burden of a system that leaves most Americans behind. They hail from places where polling locations suddenly disappear; where payday lenders prey on local economies; where lead poisons children’s water; where neighborhoods spend years fighting injustice on their own before anyone in power shows up. They disproportionately shoulder the hard words that make life hurt—eviction, pollution, addiction, bankruptcy, violence.
They bear the swollen, stubborn scars of a government that has, for much of a half-century, abdicated its role as guarantor of economic equity and a country that has made it difficult to be middle-class, excruciating to be poor, and downright impossible to be poor AND. Poor and black. Poor and brown. Poor and female. Poor and gay. Poor and sick or old or addicted.
President Trump has spent two years amassing these economic casualties. He has built bunkers of privilege throughout government, mighty fortresses from which he takes aim at those with no shield. But we don’t stand a chance against him until we come together to neutralize the weapon he depends on most: an economy that keeps most American families hanging on by the skin of their teeth.