The foundation of the Democratic Party must rest upon the bedrock of equality. It is a reflection of the central principle of our nation that all men and women are created equal.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out his plan for a “Second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union address, he embraced that principle. He envisioned a nation in which all citizens were guaranteed certain basic inalienable economic rights. In other words, the American political system would provide the People with equal opportunities to work hard, live life fully, and even prosper.
Unfortunately, that vision is threatened. Rampant inequality is plaguing our nation to a degree that we have not witnessed in nearly a hundred years.
In the last half century alone, the chances that a child will eventually make more money than her parents have fallen from 90% to a mere 50% today. The problem accelerated starting during the 1970’s as wages for American workers began to stagnate. In 1980, the top 1% of wage-earners made 27 times more than the bottom 50% of wage-earners. Today, the top 1% makes about 81 times more than the bottom 50%.
Reducing that inequality must be the guiding star of the Democratic Party. A Democratic Party without answers to this most pressing of problems would be empty and aimless, a party pretending to work for the People while lost in the wilderness of irrelevance.
This is the second part of a four-part series explaining why Democrats must adopt FDR’s call for a Second Bill of Rights to take on that challenge and secure economic liberty for all Americans. You can read part one, an overview and framework for my argument, here.
In this post, I’ll focus on jobs and education. Part three will focus on bolstering consumer protections and opposing monopolies. Part four will focus on providing security from sickness and other infirmities through programs like a national single-payer health care system.
Achieving true individual liberty means not depending on others to provide for life’s basic necessities. Perhaps the most basic of basic necessities is a productive way to make ends meet without undue fear of losing that means.
Therefore, the Democratic Party’s Second Bill of Rights must empower individuals to succeed by calling for good, affordable educations and good paying jobs with secure benefits.
First and foremost, that requires bracing for the rising tide of automation.
Automation is an existential threat to the American workforce. According to a well-regarded 2013 study conducted by researchers at Oxford University, a staggering 47% of current jobs in the United State are at high risk of becoming completely automated.
Entire job categories will be wiped out. And soon. Another study done by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 38% of all sources of U.S. employment are at high risk of disappearing as early as the beginning of the 2030’s.
The mainstream Republican Party is certainly not ready to confront a labor market disruption on this scale. Absurdly and alarmingly, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated in an interview that an artificial intelligence revolution that could impact American workers is “not even on our radar screen” and predicted that we are 50 to 100 years from that kind of technology taking over human jobs. Blissfully unaware, he went on to say, “I’m not worried at all. In fact, I’m optimistic.” (Just as a reminder, this is a member of the United States presidential cabinet who makes actual policy decisions that affect actual world affairs. I will allow the reader time to shudder in disgust before continuing).
It is up to Democrats, therefore, to prepare for the inevitable and to lead the People through perilous economic times. That means easing the current transition from the manufacturing-dominant economy of our past to the service-based economy of today and tomorrow. That means preparing citizens for jobs in industries like technology, health and human services, education, hospitality, and advanced manufacturing.
Thus, it is of the utmost importance to implement widespread job re-training programs for adults already in the workforce making a living in vulnerable industries. Think truckers learning to code. Think taxi drivers learning to take care of the elderly. Think cashiers learning how to teach.
To that end, local and state governments should support specialized high school programs and post-high school apprenticeships that concentrate on teaching marketable job skills and offering paths to union membership. The federal government should partner with local and state governments to fund those programs.
About two-thirds of American adults do not have a four-year college degree, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the rising tide of automation. Out of pure necessity, Democrats need to find these citizens alternative paths to the middle class before they are left marooned on islands of unemployment. Encouragingly, we are beginning to see state and local governments teaming up with large employers and nonprofits to teach new in-demand skills like computer programming to potential employees.
By way of example, consider Skillful, a program led by the Markle Foundation to encourage skills-based hiring, training, and education. Among other things, Skillful runs workshops and offers coaching to people hoping to break into high-growth, automation-resistant fields like information technology services and advanced manufacturing. Skillful has already begun working with the state of Colorado to advance its aims and was the recent recipient of a grant from Microsoft worth more than $25 million.
“We need new approaches, or we’re going to leave more and more people behind in our economy,” said Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, when speaking about the initiative with The New York Times.
Democrats should be the tip of the spear in developing those approaches.
Legislators, by way of further example, can coordinate with increasingly popular “coding schools”. These schools, sometimes called “boot camps”, have emerged to help both new and established tech companies meet their insatiable demands for computer programmers. After completing full-time courses of only several months, graduates of coding schools find themselves in very rich hiring environments. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that employment for software developers will have risen by 17% as of 2024 when compared to 2014 levels, a much higher rate than expected in other professions.
Not insignificantly, the median pay for a software developer in 2016 was approximately $102,000 a year. That’s about $47 per hour.
Aside from government partnerships, Democrats should encourage apprenticeships in areas like the technology sector and advanced manufacturing by providing incentives such as tax credits to businesses that offer them.
Areas of policy focus should also include combating global warming by supporting a job-creating green economy revolution. That means, in part, using the awesome power of government to subsidize entrepreneurs and fledgling companies in the alternative energy industry until they can stand on their own.
We must also champion a pro-job approach by pledging to fix our aging state and national infrastructure while employing thousands to do it.
In terms of sources of payment for these programs, recreational marijuana legalization is a particularly low-hanging fruit. In Colorado, the end of prohibition has delivered the state over half a billion dollars in tax revenue and fees with sales surging past $1 billion in 2016 alone. That’s money that can be used to pay for undertakings in infrastructure and programs of social uplift (although other sources of revenue will obviously be required).
Furthermore, the recreational marijuana industry has the added benefit of creating jobs. In Colorado, the industry created 18,000 full-time jobs just in the year 2015. Notably, marijuana sales overall in the United States are expected to reach $20.2 billion by 2021.
Additionally, we must embrace our union sisters and brothers once more. Organized labor was a pillar of the national party until the late 1960’s and early 70’s when a new generation of Democrats squeezed out the old New Dealers and their allies. Now, mainstream Democrats sometimes publicly distance themselves from unions while quietly accepting their money and volunteers on the campaign trail.
How can the primary left-wing party in this country not stand shoulder to shoulder with the working men and women of this country? If you don’t think the Democratic Party has lost its zeal for advancing union rights, go ask your well-educated liberal friends what they think of unions. Don’t be surprised if you hear poorly concealed condemnations that unions work “in theory”. As a reminder, these are the people who brought us the weekend, 40-hour work weeks, sick leave, paid time off, mandatory overtime pay, workers’ compensation, sexual harassment laws, parental leave, the end of sweatshops, and the minimum wage.
Speaking of the minimum wage, we must embrace one that keeps up with the rate of inflation. All Democrats should support a $15 national minimum wage. Notably, Hillary Clinton started her 2016 primary campaign supporting a $12 national minimum wage. But Democrats ended up adopting a $15 minimum wage as a plank position in the general election after Bernie Sanders orchestrated a successful whip operation for delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention. Just recently, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has her eye on a 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, unequivocally stated her support for a $15 national wage even though she was once characterized as an upstate New York “Blue Dog” Democrat. That’s something for the left wing of the party to brag about.
This is not an economic agenda for the “white working class” of Middle America, but rather an economic agenda for all working people. The entire point of adopting a broad economic populist agenda is to do the most good for the most people, regardless of race, creed, or any other division. Just as the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens, a Second Bill of Rights must guarantee economic fairness to all citizens.
For that reason, the Democratic Party must embrace those activists working to close the racial wealth gap and replace the school to prison pipeline with a path towards economic prosperity. While unemployment rates have declined to historically low levels in recent months, African Americans have faced an unemployment rate double that of whites over the last six decades. That simply needs to change.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
Economic security for all means fighting hard to eliminate the gender pay gap as well. As of 2009, women earned only about 80% of what men earn for the same jobs. For that reason, we need more legislation like President Obama’s first major achievement, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which effectively reversed a Supreme Court decision that had imposed a deadline on filing a pay discrimination claim that an employee could easily miss if she was unaware that her employer was paying her less than her male counterparts. Democrats can also set examples for the private sector by elevating more women to high courts and endorsing them for office.
Furthermore, it’s high time that our nation joined the rest of the Western world and adopted federal paid maternity and paternity leave. Americans shouldn’t have to choose between investing in their children’s futures or their careers.
Economic populism is also a valuable lens through which to view the struggles of the LGBT community. It is fundamentally unjust to deprive someone of her livelihood due to her inherent sexual orientation. True equality means more than same-sex marriage. It means the freedom to prosper in the profession and community of your choosing. Just as we have worked to outlaw racial discrimination in housing, employment, and the sale of goods and services, Democrats around the country must win office and pass laws forbidding discrimination against people due to their sexual orientation.
In terms of education generally, access is key. All people should be guaranteed a good, affordable education. And that must begin early in life.
Democrats should advocate for free early-age education since it’s pivotal in allowing parents, particularly women, to work without undue worry. It also obviously benefits their children. Quality, fully-funded public education puts all of our kids on a more equal footing.
For those students who want a college education, they should be able to access free or nearly free public institutions of higher learning. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, designed to eventually offer tuition-free state university educations to students from families making less than $125,000, is an example of a good start (with significant room to improve like an extension to cover part-time students). In any case, our people shouldn’t have choose between a good education and crushing debt.
Widespread productive employment will also help us with one of our greatest challenges as a society: widespread cynicism in our politics. When people feel that they cannot control their future, they are more prone to ignore big societal questions.
Political disengagement is a cancer to a democracy. When people see no distinction between politicians from different parties, it paves the way for thoroughly unqualified, ambitious individuals like Donald Trump to take power. Furthermore, without a watchful citizenry controlling the levers of power, the unscrupulous powerful monied interests do what unscrupulous powerful monied interests have always done: make more money at the expense of the common man. As their influence grows, so does the disease of cynicism.
A step forward in combating cynicism is helping people obtain the proverbial tools for the jobs they want and need. For that reason, the Democratic Party must make one of its most important goals fostering self-sufficiency for as many people as possible. The People must control their own fate.
If the Democratic Party can secure citizens’ liberty by helping them make a decent living free from the strangleholds of impoverishment and deprivation, the People will be reassured that voting and political engagement make a difference.
Being free doesn’t just mean having access to the ballot box. Being free means having the fundamental human right to live the life you want.
The Democratic Party is poised to become the party of true self-determination and equality. Let us embrace it.