« "The Boomer School of Hard Knocks" | Main | The End of the Rainbow »

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Arguing for a Populist Agenda

Here's a response to the argument by Steven Rose that Democrats are making a mistake by talking about the economic problems of the middle class and promoting a populist agenda. This is Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute:

Populist Persuasion, by Lawrence Mishel, American Prospect: Steve Rose has been my friend and intellectual colleague for many years and I hold him in the highest regard. But I strongly disagree with his recent piece for the Progressive Policy Institute and the earlier version posted on Donkey Rising. Rose does not believe a populist economic agenda is warranted or is useful for attracting middle-class voters to the Democrats...

That's a shame. The vast working and middle classes in America have not fared well over the last six years and, in fact, have not fared well since 1973 (excepting about five years in the 1990s). ... Those in the middle, both economically and politically, are extremely aware of the great economic challenges they face and are disappointed in Republican leadership on the issue. This provides an important opportunity for Democrats...

Rose's claim that government policy only helps the poor is terribly wrong and only reinforces the conservative pitch to the middle class: that Democrats just want to take "your money" and give it to the poor, and otherwise have nothing to offer you; that you're better off on your own...

Rose does have some insights that are important and useful. In particular, it is true that most people's incomes and wages have been increasing. This is because people gain skills and experience and thereby attain higher pay year by year. Nevertheless, Rose does not explain that young workers start "lower" and grow their earnings "slower" than their predecessors, so that it can also be true that for groups of workers (such as those without college degrees) wages are lower now than in the past. There really is an attack on the living standards of the working and middle classes...

I believe this recovery is unique in the degree to which overall growth, particularly as reflected in rapid productivity gains, has not translated into rising incomes and wages for the vast majority. I am far from alone in this view. ... As Rob Shapiro (a former DLC economist and Clinton Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce) and Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, have recently noted, figures such as former Clinton Treasury secretaries Bob Rubin and Larry Summers as well as a panoply of progressive organizations, from the DLC to the Center for American Progress to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to the Economic Policy Institute, are all putting the issue of stagnant wages in spite of productivity growth "at the heart of their agendas." Bill Clinton has also recently highlighted this issue. Rose is clearly missing something others are seeing...

Rose argues that only low-income or poor people (and those persistently so) have economic interests aligned with Democrats. ... The truth is there are policies that are or can ... materially benefit large segments of the middle class, and policy fights that require mobilizing political forces against powerful economic interests -- the class-interest populist economic policies that Rose says we need to move beyond. ...

One of the most astonishing claims that Rose makes in his PPI paper is this:

On a wide range of other issues, Democratic policies have unquestionably had a direct impact on workers' lives -- the 40-hour week, overtime pay, and sick leave, to name a few -- but most of those policies have long since become widely accepted. They go largely unchallenged even in Republican administrations, so the Democratic Party reaps little benefit for having championed them in the first place, even though it is still perceived to be the party of business regulation.

I would agree that Democrats have not benefited much from their role in protecting and extending such policies, primarily because they do not exploit their advantage in this area. But it is simply not true that these policies are not politically disputed. It was just a few weeks ago that the GOP, at the behest of the National Restaurant Association, tried to alter the minimum wage law so that "tipped workers" in seven states (where the laws provide protections beyond the federal law) would see their wages lowered.

From the moment the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 they began attacking the 40-hour work week and the right to overtime pay. Their comp and flex time proposals would have permitted employees to work more than 40 hours in a week without premium overtime pay. The Bush Labor Department recently pushed through changes that eliminate the right to overtime compensation for millions of workers -- and would have done worse if Democrats had not raised a ruckus.

What "sick leave" right is Rose talking about? Half of the workforce has no paid sick leave at all, and no federal law guarantees so much as an hour per year of paid sick leave. Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy, are trying to enact a minimum standard but have been unable to get so much as a hearing in Congress.

Recall that the first act of the Congress in 2001 under George W. Bush was to overturn the Clinton administration's OSHA ergonomics regulations that would have helped prevent injuries for millions of workers... The GOP, meanwhile, tried to eliminate trade adjustment assistance in 1995 and more recently has tried to replace it with very weak "wage insurance." The last recession also witnessed a political fight over securing extended unemployment insurance.

Then there are the rulings by the NLRB that take away the right to form a union from various parts of the workforce, including from many workers who are currently represented by unions: the latest issue, soon to be decided, could disallow rights to collective bargaining to eight million workers by labeling them "supervisors" even if they have no responsibilities for hiring, firing, or discipline. This would affect many nurses, accountants, computer programmers, engineers, and secretaries. Simply doing nothing to modernize and strengthen union-related labor laws is sufficient to facilitate the ongoing decline in unionization that has undercut living standards and rights on the job for many millions of workers. Family leave policies, civil rights protections, enforcement of basic wage and hours laws, and safety and health protections (need to hear the story about mine safety?) are all vulnerable and being weakened. "Widely accepted" and "unchallenged," my foot.

The Democrats would be wise to listen to some of what Rose is saying: do not treat citizens as victims of the economy; do not assume most individuals are worse off now than they were previously; and respect people's aspirations and optimism about their future. ...

Rose comes to these conclusions because he ... tracks workers' and families' income and wage growth over time rather than compare the income of a given group (e.g., middle fifth or high school graduates) today against that same group at an earlier time. It is important to appreciate what Rose reports: most people do see their incomes improving over time and very few are on a downward trajectory. This is why many people rightly report that they are better off and expect to make further gains.

While such an analysis rightly reflects how people directly experience the economy, it does not reflect how groups, classes, and communities are faring. ... It can still be true ... that groups of workers as a whole have wages today that are lower than in the past. It occurs when the entry-level wages in the group (say, high school graduates) are now lower, and the gain in earnings as they age is slower, than their predecessors. ...

A progressive political movement that does not seek to establish broadly shared prosperity is not worthy of the name "progressive." Determining how to do so -- what policies to pursue and how to be in the political position to determine policy -- is one of the central tasks of our movement today. We will not accomplish our goals if we are not willing to challenge established economic powers -- through, yes, populist measures -- and implement policies that will and can be seen as benefiting both middle-class and low-income voters. This is doable. Unfortunately, Rose's analysis distracts us from these essential tasks.

    Posted by on Tuesday, September 5, 2006 at 11:43 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Arguing for a Populist Agenda:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.