Fresh Air

This may seem like a weird time for progressives to feel optimistic, but a confluence of recent events suggests the faintest breeze of hope in the air.

Granted, the winds of corruption and shortsightedness still dominate. More so than at any time in recent memory, high-level officials are indistinguishable from right-wing lobbyists, gutting government's ability to regulate corporate power. The Justice Department is throwing the fight against the tobacco companies; the White House is busy editing the science out of regulations that might restrain polluters.

Meanwhile, the administration and its congressional allies continue the fiscal recklessness that has been their hallmark since they got here. If they continue to have their way -- and they recently added a new slew of regressive tax cuts to their 2006 budget -- it will eventually be impossible for government to fulfill essential functions, from safety nets to investment in future technologies. (I know, that's the point: Starve the beast.)

Given this gale force of business as usual, where's this hopeful little breeze coming from? In fact, from a number of places:

  • Infighting: There is clearly more dissension within conservative ranks. It might be that midterm elections are within sight, and members of Congress are paying a little more attention to polls showing their popularity ratings coming in just above that of Lyme disease. There's been uncharacteristic pushback from former White House allies on George W. Bush's domestic (stem-cell research, Social Security “reform”) and foreign agendas (the war in Iraq).

  • Speaking of Social Security, the more people learn about the president's plan, the less they like it. What's so notable here is that one of the most sophisticated and heretofore successful spin machines in the history of politics has been unable to sell the public on the benefits of privatization.

  • A counter-theme is evolving. As these political phenomena are unfolding, leading newspapers have been providing a critically important “back story” regarding trends in economic inequality and mobility. A theme -- moving away from risk shifting and back to risk sharing -- is emerging.

    The subject of this theme surfaced in 2004 in a prize-winning series by Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Gosselin ( As stated in the introduction to the series, the piece questions “[w]hy so many families report being financially less secure even as the nation has grown more prosperous. The answer lies in a quarter-century-long shift of economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families. Safety nets that once protected Americans from economic turbulence -- safeguards like unemployment compensation and employer loyalty -- have eroded or vanished … . The result is a daunting "New Deal" for many working Americans -- one that compels them to cope, largely on their own, with financial forces far beyond their control.”

    And remember, Gosselin wrote this before Bush was offering future Social Security recipients the chance to play the stock market with what would otherwise be a guaranteed pension.

    More recently, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both ran series on, among other things, the sharp increase in income inequality and the lack of income mobility (including the amazing factoid that there's more economic mobility in France, Canada, and Denmark than in the United States).

    In other words, while markets are delivering less equitable outcomes, the rules and norms that formerly offset those outcomes have eroded.

    It just may turn out that the failure to sell Social Security privatization is the tipping point where enough people say, “Enough, already” to the risk shifting that underlies the conservative agenda.

    The final hint I have that help may be on the way comes from the words of someone who not only gets what the risk-shifters are up to but can talk about it in some of the most compelling ways I've heard in decades.

    Here's the way it looks to Senator Barack Obama, from a graduation speech he gave a few weeks ago. There are those, he says, who believe:

    “ … That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government --divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on.

    In Washington, they call this the “ownership society.” But in our past there has been another term for it: social Darwinism -- every man or woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity … .

    But there is a problem: It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it's been government research and investment that made the railways possible and the Internet possible. It's been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that allowed us all to prosper. Our economic dependence depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.”

    Did someone just open the window? Where's that breeze coming from?

    Jared Bernstein is a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

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