Lane: America, the Titanic

Americans are scared — so scared that they often don’t think, or vote, rationally about today's issues. Creating economic security for them is key to navigating the iceberg sea of cultural conflicts we also need to deal with.

by Thomas Lane | 8/19/22 4:00am

In spring 2021, I wrote my first column for this paper. I argued that if President Biden didn’t do more to pass his agenda, young voters would have little reason to vote for his party in the 2022 midterm election. Those midterms are now fast approaching, and I saw it fit to reexamine developments since then. My point in that column was limited to commenting on whether Democrats would see success with young voters in the midterms. I’d now like to expand on it. If President Biden and the Democratic Party cannot demonstrate to voters that they both can and will solve ordinary voters’ economic problems, America’s democracy will further, and perhaps irreparably, erode.

When I say economic problems, I’m not here to hawk another article blaring the air raid sirens on inflation. Inflation has actually been coming down lately, and the predictions are that it will continue to decline. What I’m worried about is more long-term. There are several specific failures in the U.S. economy that threaten ordinary Americans: our bumpy transition to a green economy, our crumbling infrastructure, our broken healthcare system, record income inequality, growing corporate monopolies, and weak labor protections. These need to be addressed as soon as possible. Fortunately, two of them are being addressed right now, but the longer the rest fester, the more harm they cause, and the more harm they cause, the more danger they pose to our democracy.

Why economic problems? Why aren’t I writing about the supposed culture war? After all, that seems to be making up a lot of the news these days.. My theory is that underlying much, though not all, of the angst about usually overblown issues like immigration, reverse racism, cancel culture, “woke” education and the like is really just an underlying fear of economic insecurity. People in many parts of this country, especially my home of the Midwest, have seen their towns hollowed out, their once stable and well-paying blue collar jobs shipped overseas and their main street shop windows empty save perennial “for lease” signs. They have been long ripe for deception by demagogues holding up scapegoats — such as immigrants or antifa — who are supposedly responsible for all their ills, and sure enough, one such demagogue got elected in 2016.

Americans bit the bait because they were scared, and they still are. The Republican candidate for governor in my home state of Minnesota is the most extreme we’ve had not only in my lifetime, but probably in my parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes too. In neighboring Wisconsin, the state legislature is looking at ways to overturn the 2020 election over concerns about nonexistent voter fraud. All this because the contingent of voters who were worried about things like scary, socially progressive picture books in their kid’s elementary school or crime in big cities far from where they live ended up electing officials who had a much more sinister agenda. Where America hurts most, its democracy is rotting. Too many in this country won’t be able to think rationally about solving our real — and big — issues around racism, abortion rights, police brutality, gun control, civil liberties and separation of church and state until they feel their lives are more secure. Their minds are just too quickly reactive to anything perceived as social change. Americans need a safety blanket, and fast.

I’ll first start with the good news. When I wrote that first column, the new administration’s only major legislative accomplishment was emergency pandemic relief. This was important, but also the bare minimum. The government’s job is to make life gradually better in the long term, and not just to clean up after the sudden disasters that inevitably plague us in one form or another. Now however, President Biden has accomplished some big things that he deserves praise for. Via an over $1 trillion investment, Biden’s infrastructure bill will help clean up America’s embarrassingly lacking roads and bridges, public transit, water treatment and distribution, electric grid, pollution response and internet access. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a C- in their most recent report card from 2021. I’m hopeful that will now begin to change. While voters probably don’t cast ballots based on decidedly unsexy considerations like water mains, power lines and sewers, over the long term I believe these investments will help Americans feel more secure in their livelihoods and have better access to opportunity.

Just this month, Biden signed another landmark bill into law. While mislabelled as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — its impact on inflation is expected to be negligible because Congress frankly just doesn’t have good levers to do much about it — it will have a dramatic impact on climate change. It includes $369 billion for the green energy transition and related purposes. This is a huge accomplishment, even in the face of the fossil fuels-leasing increases that were included to placate coal baron and West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. Each ton of projected emissions increase from the leasing is met by 24 tons of projected reductions. Responding to climate change is not just key because it will literally save the lives of those who otherwise might die from the increased wildfires, flooding, desertification and other consequences it will have. That is huge, but it also will, just like the infrastructure bill, help alleviate economic pains of ordinary Americans. Two examples: phasing out combustion engines will eliminate gas costs for cars, and phasing out fossil fuels in power plants will lower energy costs in the long run even if they must be subsidized now to speed up implementation. Again, responding to economic problems will make Americans feel more secure and more willing to adjust to social change.

Now for the bad news. Our healthcare system is still supremely inequitable and unaffordable, and will be until we adopt some form of universal health insurance that can bring costs down while giving all access to this crucial public good. The newly-passed IRA will extend current Affordable Care Act insurance subsidies and allow Medicare to do some drug price negotiation, among other small fixes, but doesn’t address the underlying issue. Fortunately, this is a uniquely American problem, and our peer countries have far better — and cheaper — health systems than us that we can learn from. With those peers’ health systems in mind, Improved Medicare for All is the most serious, economically-sound proposal to fix the healthcare system currently. Hopefully mainstream Democrats will come around to it sooner rather than later. Even for families lucky enough to be unburdened by the specter of medical debt, the fear of it causes many of them to avoid seeking care for solvable problems until it's too late. Healthcare dysfunction contributes a lot to why Americans are so on edge all the time.

Then there is widening income inequality. The gap between the haves and have-nots is wider now than it’s ever been since the Roaring Twenties. The reason this makes Americans feel insecure should be obvious — having to make do with less each year while a wealthy few seemingly own the world is not exactly a reassurance that the future will get better. A more progressive taxation system is crucial to addressing this, and giving Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema the carveout she wanted in the IRA that preserves a gaping tax loophole for private equity certainly didn’t help. Corporate taxation is also tied up with this. The IRA’s 15% minimum corporate tax rate is a wise inclusion, but more action, such as new antitrust laws, is needed to break down the monopolies and oligopolies that are squeezing ordinary Americans. Releasing this stranglehold will help put Americans back at ease about their futures.

Ordinary Americans see the corporate world that dominates the American economy predominantly as their employers. That’s why the lack of new labor protections is my final inclusion on the bad news list. New union elections are up almost 60% in the last year, showing American workers’ discontent with their wages and working conditions. They’re right to be mad. The same corporate behemoths like Amazon that often don’t pay anything in federal taxes also have other enraging issues like — again to pick on Amazon — abysmally high workplace injury rates compared to competitors. At the same time, those companies are doing everything they can to prevent unionization. The National Labor Relations Board reports alongside more union elections a very high rate of alleged illegal union busting by employers. Over 40% of union elections are accompanied by charges of violations of labor laws — and those laws are currently far too weak. American workers don’t feel safe, and that needs to change.

We have to make Americans feel economically safe in order to address the social fears they complain about loudest. Creeping authoritarianism is a minefield of icebergs, and if Biden and the Democrats can’t — or won’t — be brave enough to bring the captain and crew to their senses to avoid a collision, the better, stronger, more compassionate America we want may crash and sink out of sight into the cold ocean. We can’t let that happen.

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