Democrats face bigger problems than Pelosi

Posted June 22

Democrats have lost two more special elections. More writers have posted hot takes reiterating the lesson Democrats should have burned into our minds after the 2016 election debacle: resisting Donald Trump is not enough. If Democrats want to win, they need to articulate a positive agenda. This is a problem because right now, the Democratic Party doesn't have one.

Here's the bottom line. The Democrats must stand for more than abortion rights, the minimum wage, and trash talking. But those calls for a new vision are always curiously vague, demanding a vision but not suggesting one. But people desperately want a vision with substance and they rightly sense that big changes are needed to make that happen - it's why the calls to replace Nancy Pelosi as minority leader are growing ever louder. Democrats have been unable to express a bold, coherent economic vision - because they are afraid of the truth.

The truth is that the only real solutions to address the economic changes which have swept our nation are too radical for them to even suggest, let alone seriously back -- namely, universal basic income, or as some call it, Social Security for all.

While still too scary for Democratic politicians, Social Security for all has found support among a diverse and controversial array of thinkers -- former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, controversial conservative author Charles Murray, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Nixon (yes, really!).

The basic idea is simple: eliminate most other safety net programs and replace them with a one-size-fits-all cash handout which would be sufficient to provide a dignified, frugal life. In my book "Reversing the Apocalypse," I advocate for a funding mechanism that would be tied to the amount of job-killing automation in the economy. The more robots replace workers, the more companies making use of those robots pay into the Social Security for all pot, and the richer the benefits paid out.

We have two economies right now. One for the creative-class professionals and one for the people who labor in various states of exploitation to make sure those lucky folks can have sushi and SoulCycle classes when, where and how they want them.

The economic transformation underway is the central issue of our time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three of the most common jobs are cashier, sales clerk and fast-food worker. On average, none of these jobs pays enough to support a family, or is likely to provide benefits, or in some cases even inform you what your schedule might be far enough in advance for you to get a babysitter.

Adding insult to injury, all of these most common jobs, and many more, are threatened by automation. Research and data show that a large portion of our jobs have been or are in danger of being automated out of existence or seriously scaled back. Raising the minimum wage would help make low-wage service jobs more survivable in the short term, and that would be no small victory.

But raising the minimum wage won't change the structural fact that we have an economy which does not have nearly enough decent jobs for the number of people who need them. And $15 per hour doesn't help you much if a robot takes your job. With the rise and expansion of Amazon and the recent series of retail layoffs, the situation facing many American workers is a bleak one.

It's a sweeping solution to the problem, but Social Security for all is what we need. It's better than the big infrastructure push Democrats are so keen on. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of work to be done in the country now, so infrastructure is a good short-term fix for creating work for people.

At some point, though, all the bridges are built, broadband lines laid and airports modernized.

What then? Social Security for all is also better than another popular option with Democrats, which is to pray that some magic fairy dust will create a new industry with great middle-class jobs. Proponents of this idea will tell you a story about how technology caused displacements in the past, but these displacements were all just temporary pain as workers reskilled for a new industry. Unfortunately, there is little indication that such a new industry exists now or is just on the cusp of being born.

The best solution to our economic quagmire -- and the problem of the Democrats' lack of agenda -- is the one that has Dems so nervous they'd apparently rather keep losing to a Republican Party that for many has all the appeal of chicken pox.

But to have a chance at winning or making a difference, Democrats need to swallow the fear, skip the government make-work middleman, and just hand out cash to every single American citizen.

Social Security for all would allow American workers to pursue business ideas without fear of poverty. They could experiment with small-scale enterprises that may or may not be fundamentally economical without a subsidy. They could make the choice to stay home full-time with their kids or elderly parents.

Other policies flow from the core idea of Social Security for all. For example, in order for citizens to actually be able to live a dignified life without work, single-payer health care is a must.

Also, once we've actually provided a mechanism for a basic living for every American citizen, we could aggressively incentivize and encourage innovation. Once our people were secure, we could truly embrace a global economy without reservations. And as Bill Gates has pointed out, one way to help pay for these changes would be to institute a robot tax, or taxing the income generated by automated labor the way the government now taxes human labor.

Many Democrats have judged Social Security for all to be an idea too terrifying to take seriously. But the values behind it are actually a return to the historic ideals of the Democratic Party. In FDR's famous Four Freedoms Speech, he called for a universal freedom from want.

This freedom from want was not dependent on your SAT score or the number of hours you spent in a mind-numbing job search or passing a drug test. Freedom from want wasn't reserved for those who lucked into prosperous families or lucked into a genetic predisposition toward the type of symbolic manipulation and verbal precocity that happen to be highly prized in our modern economy.

In FDR's conception, freedom from want was your due just because you were a human being who showed up on this planet. We used to believe in that. If you'll recall, FDR won re-election three times on those old radical ideas. Perhaps its time for the Democratic party to stop running scared and embrace the policy that they know deep down is right.


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