In the next two years leading up to the 2020 election, it will be hard for Democrats to focus on policy rather than politics. A President who loves confrontation and a Democratic Party outraged by his behavior will create new and unpredictable challenges. But it would be a mistake to let those challenges drown out efforts to clarify what Democrats truly stand for. Prescription drug affordability and infrastructure improvement are important issues, but don’t provide the kind of long-term vision the party needs.
The message needs to be simple. It should be about jobs.
Work is a strong and unifying value in America. Work is not only what people do to earn a living, but something that can provide a sense of accomplishment, of contributing, of being a valued member of their community. We need, therefore, a new social contract that stays true to the idea that if you work you should have a shot at the American dream—the kind of training and pay package that will enable you to earn a good life. That means a private sector that treats its workers like team members by training and rewarding them in line with the profits they help create. Instead of providing huge windfalls to corporations and the wealthy, and hoping they will trickle down to workers, let’s accomplish the same objective more directly.
We can harness the private sector’s unique knowledge of what skills are in demand with, for example, tax incentives that encourage them to partner with community colleges to help build those skills. We can fund apprenticeships. We can encourage companies to link worker pay to company performance and to share ownership with their workers. Unions used to stand up for workers; they’ve been weakened, and that’s a problem. Instead of hoping to restore the past, we need a new model of corporate responsibility energized by a revised tax law that gives big rewards to companies that treat their workers well. This should improve productivity with benefits that even trickle down to shareholders.
We must also recognize that most of the middle class now depends on two earners. These families face not just a money squeeze but a time squeeze as well. They need child care, time off for caregiving, as well as for lifelong learning.
In addition, we should raise the minimum wage and reduce taxes, including payroll taxes, for the bottom half, thereby sending a message to working and middle-class America that we have their back, that boosting their paychecks is a top priority.
By enacting a VAT, or if that’s not possible, by taxing large accumulations of wealth at the very top, along with some revisions to the 2017 tax law, all of this is possible. More importantly, it’s what working families want.
Earlier this year, I took some policy ideas on the road, talking to middle- and working-class Americans in three cities as part of a book I just completed—The Forgotten Americans. Overwhelmingly, I found Americans are most concerned with their low pay and their poor benefits. They noted the existence of plenty of jobs out there, and the fact that jobs are easier than ever to find thanks to the Internet (and a strong economy). The problem, they insist, is that there aren’t enough good jobs. As one participant explained, “I can find a job easily at McDonald’s or Taco Bell,” but I can’t do better “if I don’t have that schooling behind me.”
We must stop obsessing that slightly higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations might reduce GDP growth by some paltry amount. They likely won’t, and even if they did, GDP growth is a false god in the face of a faltering democracy, climate change, and the effects of trade and technology on people’s lives. Supply-side economics has been tried under three Republican presidents, and it has failed. Without a robust effort to reskill America and create decently paid jobs, we are doomed to become a second-class society, in which a lack of education and training makes us uncompetitive, and deindustrialization, opioids, and weak family ties destroy entire communities.
Yes, we need to address climate change, affordable health care, immigration reform, and other issues, but providing decent-paying jobs should be the top priority. In focus groups I have done with “the forgotten Americans,” I’ve found that that’s what they say they want; it’s also what it will take to restore their faith in government.