Tony Maxwell, a retired African-American naval officer, was trying — without much success — to get his Jacksonville, Florida neighbor to go with him to the mid-term election polls and vote. The young neighbor, a high-school-dropout, had no interest in taking the ride.
“Voting,” the young man declared, “doesn’t change anything.”
That world-weary attitude suits some Americans — those who sit atop our deeply unequal economy — just fine. These affluents don’t want things to change. They’ve worked too hard to rig a set of structures and policies that keep their wealth safe and growing, at everyone else’s expense.
Now Democrats, thanks to Tuesday’s mid-terms, have a comfortable working majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Can these Democrats use this newly won majority to reach that dispirited young man in Jacksonville? That all depends — on their eagerness to think big and bold, on their willingness to challenge the concentrated wealth and power that’s keeping things from changing.
Any such challenge, of course, will not actually produce significant new legislation in the immediate future. Democrats may have the House come January, but conservative Republicans will still control the Senate and have a like-minded pal in the White House. Over the next two years, getting any big and bold new legislation into law will be next to impossible.
But just pushing for such legislation could point us — and move us — in a positive direction. Just holding hearings on legislation that takes on our economic powers-that-be, just encouraging rallies on this legislation and taking floor votes on it, would send all of America the empowering message that meaningful change can conceivably happen.
This sort of aggressive and progressive pushing would, to be sure, represent a major break with the Democratic Party’s recent past. The various congressional majorities Democrats have won over the last few decades have typically shied away from anything that smacks of big and bold. The reforms these majorities have championed have often been overly complicated and cautious — and deeply compromised by a fear of annoying potential Democratic Party deep-pocket donors.
That fear may be easing. A number of leading Democrats with eyes on the 2020 presidential election — and the increasing size of the party’s progressive activist base — have over the past year advanced proposals that could help spark real change in who owns and runs America.
Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont started the big-and-bold ball rolling with his 2016 presidential campaign. He’s still adding fresh new ideas to the political mix. This past September, for instance, Sanders introduced legislation that would discourage corporate execs from underpaying workers to feather their own personal net-worth nests.
Under this new Sanders proposal, corporations with 500 or more employees would have to pay a tax that equals the cost of federal safety-net benefits — from programs like food stamps and Medicaid — their underpaid workers have to rely on.
Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts is challenging corporate greed and grasping, too. Her Accountable Capitalism Act, unveiled this past August, would refocus large corporations on serving “not just shareholders but their employees and communities as well.” This Warren proposal would set 40 percent of corporate board seats aside for corporate directors that corporate employees elect.
Warren is also thinking big and bold on the housing front. Her American Housing and Economic Mobility Act proposal would invest $450 billion over the next decade to bankroll “the construction and preservation of housing that’s affordable to working families.” To offset the price-tag on this effort, Warren’s initiative would up estate tax rates on the nation’s 10,000 wealthiest families.
Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey is looking at establishing a new “baby bond” program that would aim to “make sure all children,” not just kids from wealthy homes, “have significant assets when they enter adulthood,” as much as $50,000 for kids from poorer families. A big chunk of the dollars for Booker’s baby bonds would come from raising the tax rate on capital gains, an income stream that flows overwhelmingly to America’s rich.
Senator Kamala Harris from California, for her part, is advocating for a tax credit that would up the income of couples making less than six figures up to $500 a month.
“Our tax code,” Harris noted last month when she announced her “LIFT the Middle Class Act” plan, “should reflect our values and instead of more tax breaks for the top 1 percent and corporations, we should be lifting up millions of American families.”
Other ambitious ideas for challenging the concentration of America’s wealth and power are coming from progressive activists and scholars. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project has proposed an “American Social Wealth Fund,” an independent public investment enterprise that would take in “regular injections of cash from the government” and “make regular dividend payouts to its shareholders — all American adults — based on a five-year rolling average of the fund’s investment performance.”
Funds for this solidarity fund would come from a variety of taxes of private wealth, everything from a tax on corporate mergers and acquisitions to a new levy on the IPOs — initial public offerings — that Wall Streeters game to hit stock-market jackpots.
Still other big and bold ideas are rolling in from overseas, most notably from the British Labour Party. This past September, the party’s chief economic official, John McDonnell, called for legislation that would require large UK corporations to transfer 1 percent of their stock a year, over a decade’s time, into a special fund that benefits workers, who would then receive an annual fund dividend.
Last year, the Labour Party endorsed an even bolder proposal for narrowing the vast pay divide between corporate execs and workers. Labour wants the government to deny contracts for goods and services to private companies that pay their top execs over 20 times what they their workers.
That idea of leveraging the public purse against inequality, notes Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies, has already surfaced in the United States. Five states have so far seen legislation introduced that limits or denies tax dollars to corporations that reward top execs at worker expense.
The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could give ideas like these an airing and debate, and that majority’s new freshman class — symbolized by the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — certainly has the progressive commitment and charisma to attract wide swatches of America into that discourse.
If all this action materialized, would large numbers of our politically dispirited sit up and take notice? We will never know unless we try.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, has just been published. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.