How do we build a progressive majority?

Electoral victories are sometimes built on hopes and dreams, sometimes on fear and anger, sometimes on both. Over the past 30 years progressives have often resorted to emphasizing fear of the Republicans – completely justified, in my view. President Obama’s 2008 campaign, however, showed that progressives can also win by inspiring hope. And yet, particularly in bad times, hope can be a hard emotion to come by. The President stepped into what may be the worst economic situation in American history, which I will explain in a bit. Since the President couldn’t wave a magic wand and make up for decades of economic decline in two years, enough people in enough suburban districts got confused and voted for Republicans in 2010. While their wins are certainly sobering, it doesn’t mean we have to give up on hope – on the contrary, it is important to be as audacious as ever. What I want to suggest is that we need to think in the long-term, say, in at least a ten-year time frame, so that we can articulate programs and policies that have a realistic chance of solving our economic problems. Note that I didn’t say, “a realistic chance of political victory”, because there is a difference. Right now, anyone with the audacity to propose sweeping changes will be accused of tilting at windmills…or wind turbines, as I will explain below. But people want solutions that will solve their problems. What to do? If you propose realistic solutions, you will be accused of being politically unrealistic. I think the way to deal with this is to say, “these are our long-range goals. We can’t get them now, but if you help us build a progressive majority, this is what you will get – and you’ll like it a lot better than what you’re going to get from the Republicans”. So what are some long-range solutions? The first step is to simply start thinking about long-range solutions, because the progressive community has been so busy fighting against conservatives that there hasn’t been much energy put into thinking in the long-run. But since I just published a book (warning: book plug about to occur) called “Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class”, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts – and I hope this inspires readers to share their thoughts too. I said that Obama may have inherited the worst economy ever, and the basis for my saying that is my viewpoint, which I spend much of my book, explaining, that manufacturing is the most important part of any wealthy economy. You may have noticed that lots of blue-collar workers have been losing their jobs – I just heard the head of the Steelworkers’ union, Leo Girard, say that 40,000 factories were shut down during George W. Bush’s term in office. The difference between the Great Recession and the Great Depression is that Roosevelt was president when the U.S. stood as the great manufacturing colossus of the world; the problem really was one of demand and getting money into people’s hands. Now, there is a demand problem, but it’s very much compounded by the problem that our main wealth-generating engine, manufacturing, is in decline. So, what to do? Well, the President did a pretty good job of explaining the situation in his op-ed recently in the New York Times: “We need to rebuild on a new, stronger foundation for economic growth. And part of that foundation involves doing what Americans have always done best: discovering, creating and building products that are sold all over the world… We want to be known not just for what we consume, but for what we produce. And the more we export abroad, the more jobs we create in America. In fact, every $1 billion we export supports more than 5,000 jobs at home.” Up through the 1960s, we always had a trade surplus. Our trade deficit, that is, the difference between the goods we bought and the goods we sold, in 2007, just before the Great Recession, was about $850 billion; if we had a trade surplus of $150 billion instead, that would mean 5,000,000 more manufacturing jobs, using the President’s figures. And since each manufacturing job supports three other jobs in the economy, according to the Economic Policy Institute, that would just about take care of unemployment as a problem. How’s that for some hope? So, how do we rebuild manufacturing? Here is where we can get around the inevitable cries of “socialism” and “get the government off our backs”, because probably the economic endeavor that governments have always done best, throughout history, is to build things. We need to build, build, build. And what was the single biggest building program that our government ever undertook? The Interstate Highway System, championed by a Republican president, Mr. 1950s himself, Dwight David Eisenhower! Did you ever hear anyone call the Interstate Highway System a socialist plot? President Obama has put some money into what could become the 21st century equivalent – high-speed rail. The stimulus bill directed $8 billion toward high-speed rail. While that is a small amount, consider that in 1954 Congress only authorized $175 million for the interstate system, while in 1956 Eisenhower was able to get through a $27 billion commitment. So small beginnings can turn into history-changing systems. According to the US High-Speed Rail Association, it would take $600 billion to construct 17,000 miles of high-speed rail, spread out over 10 years. Since I like nice round numbers, let’s say that an Interstate High-speed Rail System, along with new and improved regional transit systems, cost $1 trillion over one decade to build. If all of those tracks and trains were built in the United States – a crucial assumption – then a market like that would go far in encouraging the re-establishment, not only of an American train industry, but even more crucially, the industries that provide the machinery and parts for trains, the foundation of an industrial economy. Another national system that could provide a long-term market for manufacturing would be an Interstate Wind System. The stimulus led to greater-than-expected wind installations in 2009, which could be a first step toward an efficient national wind network. Having a national wind network would mean that there would always be wind-generated electricity available to the country, because the wind is always blowing somewhere. In my book, I estimate that a system that could provide about half the electrical needs of the country, plus the improved electric grid required to carry the electricity, could cost around $2 trillion dollars, again over 10 years. Such a system would allow us to provide carbon-free electricity to the electricity-based high-speed rail and transit systems, and enough of the rest of our consumed electricity to lead to the closure of most if not all carbon-and-pollution-spewing coal plants. There are many other systems that the government can build, and should build simply in order to avoid ecological problems and to avoid the collapse of necessary infrastructure, like the bridge in Minneapolis. We could encourage construction of efficient buildings in the center of cities and towns, solar panels, energy retrofits of buildings, electric cars, and even retrofitting manufacturing plants to use less and pollute less. All of this building would not only lead to millions of jobs in the short and medium-term, it would provide a secure base for a thriving middle class – now there’s a dream for you! As for paying for all of this, since we would be creating new wealth and new wealth-generating capacity, there are many ways to go. First, the government could simply lend the money, and would probably make a profit on the investment. Or, it could attract private investment. Since money is simply a reflection of the wealth of the country, it would even be economically justifiable, I would argue, to simply create the money to pay for the construction (which would be better than borrowing the money, but that’s another story). Of course, we could try to recoup some of the $1 trillion in corporate handouts that the fiscal commission uncovered, by getting rid of free caviar for the rich. Basically, the investment would pay for itself many times over. Now imagine that a program based on building the manufacturing base, and rebuilding the transportation and energy infrastructure and cities and towns, swept a solid majority of progressives into Congress. And I don’t just mean Democrats – I mean progressive Democrats, not Ben Nelson Democrats that President Obama has to deal with, or the old Southern Democrats that FDR and LBJ had to deal with. I mean, what if the President had a Congress that would pass anything he wanted? I said I was audacious… Of course, the sad truth is that such a progressive majority would probably take longer than a second term of the Obama presidency to put together. But then we’d remember the Obama presidency as the start of the American Renewal, wouldn’t we?

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