In This Episode
What does a bold, progressive economic agenda look like? Policy experts talk about the big ideas that can shape the Democratic Party’s platform. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
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[voice clip] If there is one thing we are all interested in, it is our future. More than anything else, we want to know how we are going to get on, earn more money, build better homes, have higher standards of living. One thing is certain. Our grandfathers never dreamed of the progress which American industry has achieved in recent years.
[voice clip] [singing] This is the pattern of American progress.
[voice clip] First, get the best product that you can sell, then tell everybody about it. They like to be sold. They like it because you can make them like it.
[voice clip] It’s a whole new way of life. Like so many people these days, we live in the suburbs and Dave need the car every day for business. When he was gone, I was practically a prisoner in my own home. But that’s all changed now.
[voice clip] The realization of the American dream, the envy of the entire wor— [reel spinning sound]
David Plouffe: There’s something big happening out there. A lot of Americans now believe the American dream is not a reality for them. More parents than not, think their kids to be worse off than they are. And we know that the recent McKinsey study says a 1/3rd of American jobs are going to be lost over the next decade. There’s a massive tsunami that’s already happening to people that’s going to increase. We’re not talking about that in Washington. What are we going to do about this? Of course, we want to give them hope, but I think we have to give them a reality, because I think if we don’t, people are going to tune us out. We’re just saying the same old thing. So I don’t know what the answer is. I know it’s not one answer. It’s a lot of different things.
David Axelrod: I don’t think there are any magic bullets, but we ought to demand of each other and of people running for office, the biggest, boldest and most thoughtful ideas we can because I think we’re living through a historic change. After the industrial revolution came the progressive era. That was a very big and bold answer to the challenges that that industrial revolution created. Where is the progressive answer to this? And it can’t just be demand more tax dollars from the wealthy. What are you going to do with those dollars? How are you going to invest them?
Jon Favreau: David Plouffe and David Axelrod, the two architects of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, said this to me a few months ago. But they’ve been talking about the economy this way since I met them in 2008, and so have most of the smartest policy minds, strategists and politicians in the Democratic Party. The fact that we’re still dealing with these same problems after eight years of a president who had a more progressive economic agenda than anyone since LBJ, tells you something about the magnitude of the challenge. In the last episode, we walked through the decisions over the last 50 years that led to a record level of income inequality in America that rivals any other Western democracy. And we talked about why Democrats have had such a tough time passing policies that would reverse this trend. For this episode, I talked to some of the best policy and political minds in the party, from the left to the center left, about ideas that are big and bold enough to actually meet the moment. I’m Jon Favreau and you’re listening to The Wilderness.
[voice clip] What’s happened to the Democratic Party? How did they get disconnected, and do you see anything coming out of Washington, D.C. from Democrats that’s going to reverse that trend?
[voice clip] A better deal?
[voice clip] For the youth of this country don’t believe in the old ways. They wanted Bernie Sanders. More of them support socialism than capitalism.
[voice clip] How many seats do you have to lose before you stop apologizing for yourself?
Jon Favreau: One thing we all seem to agree on, no matter who we voted for, politicians have to go bigger when it comes to the economy. And whether or not you think that was a blind spot for Democrats in 2016, it isn’t anymore.
[voice clip] Right now, the focus has got to be on economic issues.
[clip of Sen. Elizabeth Warren] Definitely not going back to the days when Democrats who wanted to run for a seat in Washington first had to grovel on Wall Street.
[clip of Sen. Bernie Sanders] Whoever runs for president has got to focus on the needs of workers and create an economy that in the wealthiest nation of the world—
Neera Tanden: To my mind, I think though, issue, it’s not that we don’t have answers—we haven’t been thinking boldly enough.
Jon Favreau: This is Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, and one of Hillary Clinton’s top policy advisers.
Neera Tanden: To me, I think we have to think in a way that’s different than we have in the past. I think, in a lot of rural or exurban communities you’re listening to talk radio and a kind of right-wing noise machine that has told them that liberal elites hate them, and that we judge them and we’re negative. And that’s what we’re fighting against. I think a lot about President Obama in 2012: he had an argument about saving the auto industry that was actually focused on, you know, protecting people’s jobs. And that was a story that they like, got. And, you know, it’s not like he won a majority of these voters, but it was enough.
Jon Favreau: So, what’s our story in 2018 and what’s stopping us from telling it? We’ll get into the specific ideas soon, but I want to start by talking about the political context. For all the arguments and debates we’re having within the party right now, there seems to be more consensus than I’ve seen in a long time around the belief that the government should play a much larger role in reining-in the free market, and making sure that people can count on a good job, a decent income, quality health care, reliable child care, a useful education, and a dignified retirement. A lot of the center-left policy folks and Democratic politicians who used to propose incremental technocratic solutions like tax credits and public private-partnerships, now seem to agree that we need significant government investments and intervention in order to help people deal with the downsides of globalization. I don’t just see this as politically driven either. It has to do with the state of the economy today. The headlines might be rosy in terms of low unemployment and high corporate profits, but a recent United Way study found that more than 40% of American households, 40%, cannot pay for the basics of a middle-class lifestyle: that’s rent, transportation, phone bills or child care. The study also showed that 66% of Americans earn less than $20 an hour, which equates to an annual salary of $40,000. When you add these Americans together with the 16 million who are below the poverty line, you get 51 million households who are seriously struggling in the richest country on earth. Completely fucked up. By the way, these aren’t voters who necessarily believe that big tax cuts and fewer regulations are the answer. I spoke with Jocelyn Kiley at the Pew Research Center who told me about a major study they did in 2015 about people’s views on government action.
Jocelyn Kiley: When we asked people about whether the federal government should play a role in a whole host of different policy areas, we find a lot of support for the federal government playing a role in keeping the country safe and strengthening the economy, even in things like managing the immigration system, responding to natural disasters. And so people see a role for the federal government.
Jon Favreau: More support for government action isn’t limited to the Democratic base either. There’s plenty of evidence that swing voters in competitive districts feel the same way. Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, has done extensive research on these voters.
Sean McElwee: So it’s like a long known trend in polling research that if you ask folks broad questions about government in general, they tend to be quite conservative. But when you ask them very specific questions about proposals, they tend to be much more liberal. And so we’re starting to see this in polling data where if you look at Pew and Gallup, you are seeing pretty dramatic increases in the amount of the general public who are willing to ultimately agree with increases in the size of government. For the time being in the 2018 and 2020 cycles, here’s not a lot of risk of Democrats going too big and too broad in terms of ensuring basic rights and liberties through government.
Jon Favreau: Of course, not everyone who calls themselves Democrats agree with this notion of more aggressive government action on behalf of the middle class and the poor. Heather McGhee, distinguished senior fellow at the progressive think tank Demos, explains:
Heather McGhee: The really big, expansive and ambitious vision of what government should do to ensure a decent standard of living for people is still actually a minority opinion among Democratic donors outside of labor unions. And so I do think that the reason why Democratic politicians are not as populist as they should be, is that they spend a huge portion of their time talking to very, very wealthy people who fund their campaigns. That’s one piece of it. I also think that the political class in general is just very comfortable with the status quo.
Jon Favreau: There’s a lot of truth to this. In fairness, though, there are a lot of other Democratic politicians and liberal policy experts who genuinely believe that some of these more ambitious proposals are impractical, unrealistic or unworkable. Some worry that more regulations would hurt hiring, or the government is ill equipped to manage massive new programs. And then there’s one of the most common complaints among the Washington establishment: the deficit.
[voice clip] We think the deficit and the national debt are at immoral levels.
[voice clip] We just got to stop spending money we don’t have. We’ve got to balance this budget. We have an obligation.
[voice clip] The greatest threat to our national security is our debt.
[voice clip] Our chronic overspending problem.
[voice clip] We borrow a million dollars a minute.
[clip of Sen. Hillary Clinton] I pay for everything I’m proposing. I do not add a penny to the national debt.
[clip of President Obama] How serious are you actually about debt and deficit reduction?
[clip of Rep. Paul Ryan] Let’s remember, today’s deficits are nothing more than tomorrow’s tax increase.
Jon Favreau: The deficit, too much spending, too much borrowing. It’s a concern you hear all the time from pundits and politicians of both parties. Whether it’s universal health care or free college, the question is always: yeah, this sounds great, but how are you going to pay for it? During Obama’s presidency, Washington’s fetish over debts and deficits dragged us into a three-year shit show that caused one government shutdown and almost led to a global economic meltdown when Republicans in Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling without drastic spending cuts.
[news clip] The news tonight is out of Washington, where the nation is on the brink of fiscal crisis.
[clip of President Obama] Republican House members have essentially said that the only way they’ll vote to prevent America’s first-ever default is if the rest of us agree to their deep spending-cuts-only approach.
[clip of Rep. John Boehner] The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today.
[voice clip] I have never seen it this dysfunctional. And I ask people on all sides, how is this going to end? Nobody knows.
Jon Favreau: I should also point out that it’s not just politicians and pundits who worry about the government spending and borrowing too much. It’s something I heard a lot when I did our focus group in Michigan.
[speaker] While I like the Democratic Party would be addressing a lot of social issues, my problem is that budget wise, this reckless spending—a very much of a blank-checkbook mentality. What really tipped the scales for me was the concept of, you know, Bernie Sanders promoting free college tuition and a lot of liberal-thinking people thinking a $15 hour minimum wage for every job would be great, with me thinking: but that’s going to kill the small business owner who is not a franchise.
David Binder: The biggest criticism of the Democratic Party that I get from people is that they tend to be giving too many handouts.
Jon Favreau: David Binder, pollster for President Obama.
David Binder: . . . a little bit too loose with taxpayer dollars without the sort of accountability that we want to see with our money. You do see some Democrats that are defending Democratic safety net programs, but a surprising number will say that there is so much waste and fraud going on in public spending programs, and even Democrats will agree to that.
[voice clip] The reality is we need some of the things that Bernie talks about, but we can’t blow a hole in the deficit and to the tune of 10 trillion dollars. It’s just not realistic. We have to realize that and balance priorities.
[voice clip] You know, they should be angry and not back down on feeding the hungry, educating people, getting them health care, taking care of the elderly, and, of course, fixing the deficit.
Jon Favreau: So how much should we really care about the deficit? I asked Stephanie Kelton, an economist at Stony Brook University, who was also Bernie Sanders top economic adviser, and she has a different take than a lot of the D.C. policy wonks.
Stephanie Kelton: I don’t think most people have the slightest idea what a budget deficit is. I use a simple example: suppose the government spends a hundred into the economy, but it only taxes 90 back out. We label that a government deficit. So somewhere somebody scratches down on a ledger: minus 10 for the government. You’re in deficit.
Jon Favreau: Basically, a deficit occurs when the amount that the government spends exceeds the amount that the government gets from tax revenue.
Stephanie Kelton: We say: shame on you, that is very bad that you did that. But we completely missed the fact that somewhere in the economy, there’s 10 bucks out there that wouldn’t have been there if the government had balanced its budget. The government’s red ink is our black ink, and their deficit is our surplus. And this is just like by accounting definition. So every time somebody talks about the need to “rein in the deficit” or “balance the budget” what they’re really saying is that their goal is to shrink the private sector’s surplus. And I think if people understood it in those terms, they’d be a whole lot less enthusiastic about running around and trying to shrink budget deficits and so forth.
Jon Favreau: I then asked what it would look like if we developed economic policy without worrying so much about the deficit.
Jocelyn Kiley: If we stopped gauging public policy based on whether it adds to the deficit or not, but instead, we say: the success of my budget is measured based on whether I achieved the things I was trying to achieve. So what would be possible is, if we looked at our resources, all of the labor that we have available in the U.S. today, people who are there and could be put to work, all of the factories and the machines, all of the potential use, harnessing our technological know-how and so forth, and we said: our objective is to make the maximum use of the resources that we have—target child poverty, target African-American youth unemployment, target, you know, whatever it is—figure out what problems you’re trying to solve with your budget, recognize that you can’t do everything because resources really are limited so there are constraints, and then prioritize and put together a budget that addresses the problems that you’re trying to solve, without putting too much of a strain on resources or you’re going to create an inflation problem and that would be evidence that your budget has failed in some sense.
Jon Favreau: Sounds pretty reasonable right? Now, I should point out that even some of the most liberal economists don’t share Stephanie’s views here. A lot of liberals and lefties believe there’s a limit to how much you can completely dismiss deficits and debt. But there’s a broad agreement that politicians should spend a lot less time worrying about the deficit, and a lot more time worrying about problems like unemployment and poverty. As much as I heard voters in focus groups say that there’s too much government spending and waste, they were even more passionate about how there’s not enough government action on the cost of health care or fixing the roads. Republicans complained about the deficit for Obama’s entire presidency, only to spend $1.5 trillion on a tax cut for the rich once they controlled Washington—didn’t even blink. And one thing Democrats can learn is to lead with our vision, instead of our response to someone else’s bad-faith criticism. Becky Bond, former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders campaign, explains.
Becky Bond: People see Medicare for all as a pretty radical idea, right? But they don’t necessarily think it’s a radical idea that when people are sick, they ought to get to go to see the doctor. I think getting back to this idea about idealism and the big solutions, I think that we can go out and talk about: what are the real solutions to our problems, here’s what we need to do to get there, it’s going to be really hard, it might take a long time. And even if we have to compromise, at least let’s be clear about what it is that we’re for, and let the people actually weigh-in, because actually, sometimes if we go for what’s needed, as opposed to what is seen as politically possible, sometimes—oftentimes we do better, even if we might lose more, but sometimes we win.
Jon Favreau: So where do we start? What kind of policies would actually solve our biggest economic problems? What do people actually need to live and work with some measure of dignity, to start believing that their kids aren’t going to be worse off than they are? We’ll have some answers after the break.
Jon Favreau: We just talked about the need for big ideas to address an economic reality that’s left a lot of people in crisis. I want to talk about some of the most interesting proposals here, with one caveat. I fully realize there are plenty of smaller, more incremental policies out there that could make a real difference in people’s lives. I also realize that some of the ideas we’re going to talk about will be tougher to achieve than others. Some because of the politics, others because policy experts haven’t worked out all the details that would make them successful. For now, that’s OK. This is meant to be an exercise in dreaming big and thinking outside the box, something our party and our country could most definitely use right now. So let’s dive in. We’ve talked about how reversing income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. And one of the most direct ways to do that is to focus on policies that would raise people’s incomes. First, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Right now, it’s only at $7.25 an hour. That’s not a living wage. It’s a poverty-level wage. It hasn’t been changed since 2009, and it hasn’t kept up with the cost of living in decades. Because Washington won’t do shit about this, a lot of cities and states have voted to raise the minimum wage on their own. In January of 2018, workers received minimum wage increases in 18 states, and many of those will eventually reach $15 an hour.
[news clip] To protest the fight for 15, marching outside of McDonald’s corporate headquarters. [chants]
[speaker] We deserve dignity. We deserve $15 an hour. We deserve to be able to take care of our kids. My son, I can’t even buy him and shoes.
[news clip] California edged out New York by mere hours as the first state to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage.
[news clip] De Blasio plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
[news clip] Voters in Colorado, Maine and Arizona all voted to increase the minimum wage to—
Jon Favreau: One of the main criticisms of minimum wage increases is that businesses will hire fewer employees if they’re more expensive. And even though the verdict still out on that, the bulk of analysis in places that have mandated a higher minimum wage show no significant effect on employment. Another concern is that even though a minimum wage increase would benefit an estimated 45.5 million workers, that’s still hundreds of millions of Americans who wouldn’t be getting a raise, including a lot of people in poverty. That’s where the idea of refundable tax credits come in. One of the most successful of these programs is the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, which we talked about in the last episode. Enacted in 1975 and expanded under Clinton, these are essentially tax refunds in the form of cash payments that help low and middle income people who work. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich lays out why these income subsidies are good ideas, especially now.
Robert Reich: Undoubtedly, artificial intelligence and related technologies are wiping away many good jobs. They will wipe away many middle-class jobs over the next 20 years. Some people will have the right education and be the right place and have the right connections to ride the wave of technology into fabulous jobs. But we’re talking about a very small segment of the American population. So the question then becomes: well, what do we do to provide a foundation of security, economic security under the vast majority of Americans? Well, #1) you expand the earned income tax credit, which is a wage subsidy, essentially. It’s already the largest anti-poverty program in the United States. It can be, and should be, enlarged.
Jon Favreau: In September of 2017, Representative Ro Khanna of California and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio proposed doubling the EITC, so that a family with two kids earning a salary of $18,000 would get a salary bump of as much as 64%. Another idea along these lines has been proposed by Senator Brown and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado: a child tax credit that would give low- and middle-income families around $3,000 per child per year that’s distributed monthly— an idea that would cut child poverty in half.
Robert Reich: There’s a lot of conservative support for this historically. And eventually you use the enlarged earned income tax credit as a step toward a guaranteed minimum income, a universal basic income. And that is not in the cards yet. We have not had the economic and social and political pressure to put it on the table, but in 10 or 15 years, we will.
Jon Favreau: Universal basic income is the idea that all citizens would receive a certain sum of money every year that would help them stay out of poverty, and they would receive this basic income regardless of whether they work or how much money they make. It’s an idea that’s catching on in all parts of the world, from Finland, where some people receive 560 euros a month, to Stockton, California, where Mayor Michael Tubbs is rolling out a pilot program.
[clip of Mayor Michael Tubbs] $500, no strings attached. The idea is to have a conversation about kind of the economic system of this country, but also highlight stories of what something as small as $500 could do.
Jon Favreau: This is actually an idea that Hillary Clinton almost endorsed. In her book “What Happened” she writes about the program she was going to call “Alaska for America” after the example of Alaska, which, since 1982, has been sharing its oil revenues with citizens in the form of cash payments. But there are some folks on the left who aren’t so sure about universal basic income. Stephanie Kelton is one of them.
Stephanie Kelton: What scares me about the program is the impact on inequality, especially wealth inequality, because if the poor are given their 30 grand and told: figure out how you’re going to, you know, cover all of your expenses with this 30,000, they’re going to burn right through the whole thing just on consumption. Whereas the rich are going to take their 30,000 and buy more shares of Apple or whatever. So I think it’s gotta exacerbate inequality.
Jon Favreau: Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council for Presidents Clinton and Obama, worries about it for different reason.
Gene Sperling: I think universal basic income is well intentioned, but I worry about it in a few bases. And I don’t worry about it because it’s too big and bold and progressive, I worry about it because I’m worried it’s going to crowd out the big, bold, progressive things we want to do. If you decide you’re going to spend all your money on giving every American a chunk of money, whether they really need it or not, I think the cost is enormous. And I think when you connect that to the vision that we still expect that everybody contributes, everybody works hard, everybody carries their load—I think that is a more unifying message, it’s more consistent with a deep American character.
Jon Favreau: Bruce Reed, domestic policy expert and former adviser to both Clinton and Obama, agrees.
Bruce Reed: I think that work and dignity are more important to people’s self-respect and well-being. We’ve seen what happens in communities across the country when work disappears. And the opioid epidemic is the classic example of how lives take a downward spiral when there’s not enough work to go around, I think we’re going to have to think big. I like universal work.
Jon Favreau: Universal work. Now, there’s another big idea. Politicians like Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker have all voiced support for the federal government to guarantee a job to everyone who wants one. Neera Tanden gives us the broad strokes.
Neera Tanden: We could say as a country like: if you’ve been unemployed for a long period of time, if you’re in a community that has high rates of unemployment for a long period of time, we’re going to focus on ensuring a job is there for people. Like we’ll invest through the states or even cities or counties in particular needs: rebuilding hospitals or rebuilding roads—to try and get people to work with a decent job.
Jon Favreau: Stephanie Kelton is a fan, too.
Stephanie Kelton: I have for a very long time been an advocate of a pretty ambitious program that’s designed to address the potential displacement of labor as automation continues and inequality, and that is federally-funded but locally-administered jobs program. Kind of a new New Deal, you know, modeled on the Work Progress Administration.
Jon Favreau: The Works Progress Administration, started in 1935 under FDR, employed 8.5 million people over the course of eight years to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression.
[old clip] How big is the WPA road program? In its first 18 months of operation, the mileage end to end would have spent five times around the earth. Many cities have been freed from the peril of disease by the provision of modern scientifically-correct sewage system . . . the Works program answers the need of both the individual and the community. In all parts of the country, the letters WPA are a symbol of progress and improvement.
Jon Favreau: What would this kind of program look like today? What projects would it focus on?
Stephanie Kelton: We like the idea of locally administered, because local communities know best what their needs are. They don’t need the federal government trying to design a job for, you know, everybody who wants to work and can’t find work anywhere else in the economy and handing those jobs down. We want them to bubble-up from the bottom. I sometimes talk about a “Care Economy,” so care for the community, care for people, care for planet. So if you were aiming at one or all of those ideas, then, you know, the jobs can be anything. I think people tend to think of, you know, a guy with a shovel filling a pothole or something like that. Those jobs can happen as well. But you can be very creative with the type of work: maybe an elder-care facility could use a few extra hands because seniors are there without much company during the day. The sky is really the limit. And you would let people think creatively about the type of work that they value.
Jon Favreau: And there are plenty of other examples of jobs that would benefit the entire country: repairing bridges and public housing, making buildings more energy efficient, cleaning up highways or national parks, becoming EMTs or child care workers or tutors.
Gene Sperling: There are so many jobs that the market’s not providing that our country needs. If you are a parent of a child with autism, our country treats you horribly. We do nothing for you. That is a huge need. I want the assistance in classrooms helping tutor kids who are falling behind in second or third grade. So I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. It’s hard, it’s expensive. But I think that that is the type of future that Democrats should be thinking and struggling because it is about helping people do something with their lives, have economic security and contribute back to their communities and their nation.
Jon Favreau: A job guarantee would also help solve other disparities. One of the best arguments I’ve heard in favor of this proposal came from activist and organizer Ady Barkan, who’s the director of Fed-Up, a national campaign for full employment.
Ady Barkan: If everybody has a job because they know that the government is there to give them a job, raising kids or building bridges and installing public art, then it means the following. Number one, you don’t have to be afraid of your boss when he’s grabbing you or making sexual comments. And you can complain and stand up for yourself and not be afraid of retaliation because there’s a $20 an hour job waiting for you if you get fired or quit. Number two, it reduces the impact of racial discrimination for the same reason. Number three, it empowers workers to form unions and act collectively for the same reason. So a jobs guarantee doesn’t just transform the lives of the people who are currently unemployed or excluded from the workforce because they just can’t find work. It also transforms the lives of tens of millions of Americans who have a job but are afraid of losing it or can’t stand up for themselves.
Jon Favreau: There’s also the very important matter of making sure that people have the skills and education to succeed at whatever jobs they do. Gene Sperling has thought about this topic for years.
Gene Sperling: Right now, too many people lose a career, lose a job because of an industry change or trade and find it devastating to their hopes and dreams. I don’t think there’s any industrialized country that does so little to help workers transition from one job to the other.
Jon Favreau: Fortunately, Gene’s been working on a few solutions.
Gene Sperling: I think we need a simple universal skills program, which says to anybody: we don’t care why you lost your job or how you lost your job, you are eligible for a set of training support, and you are eligible for basic income to support you through that if you are taking a serious full-time program to learn a new career. And right now, you have to go through hoops. You have to show that your company was hurt by trade. We shouldn’t care why a person lost a job. We should have a program that has simple, clear eligibility, and real rigor to help them see which programs are predatory, and which type of programs have had successful records and will really lead to a job. So you need, I think, industries to come together and say: here’s where we have shortages, here’s where we expect to have the demand for skills, here’s credentials that we agree on—if you learn this credential in any community college or any program, you will be eligible for any job openings that happens anywhere.
Jon Favreau: A universal skills program for people who lose or change their jobs or do a lot of good. But what about the young people who want to pursue a higher education but just can’t afford the absurd price of tuition today? Heather McGhee, again:
Heather McGhee: We’re talking about things like debt-free college. The idea that if you go to public college, you should not graduate with any debt. There’s just no reason for it. There’s no justification for it. It’s a drag on our economy. It’s racially inequitable, and it makes working-class families suffer more than wealthy families who can afford to not be indebted.
Jon Favreau: The cost of college has increased twelve fold since 1978. As Heather noted, reducing the cost of college would allow for more low-income students to attend, and it would lighten the burden that typically falls heaviest on students of color.
[clip of Sen. Bernie Sanders] What you’re going to have to do if you really want to grow the middle class, is say that everybody in this country, regardless of their income, if they have the ability, they’re going to get a college education. And today I just introduced legislation that would make public colleges and universities tuition-free.
[interviewer] Where’s the money going to come from?
[clip of Sen. Bernie Sanders] A tax on Wall Street speculation. And that’s exactly where it should come from.
[clip of Sen. Elizabeth Warren] Right now, we have, as you started out, 1.2 trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt. And what we know about that debt that’s outstanding is that it is crushing individuals and it is now acting as a drag on the economy.
Jon Favreau: The benefits of embracing debt-free college would have bigger economic impacts. There’s a strong correlation between rising student debt and the decline in home ownership and car ownership. If we can limit the cost of a college education, we may be able to boost the housing market, the auto industry and a bunch of other businesses in the United States. Again, there’s a lot of disagreement over how much a jobs guarantee would cost and how exactly it would work. Same with debt-free college. And different policymakers have suggested different versions of the proposal. But the general principle that it should be the government’s role to make sure that everyone who wants a job can find one, and that everyone who wants a higher education can afford one, is the kind of bold commitment that Democrats could really rally behind. By the way, so is the commitment to truly universal health care.
David Frum: I’ve really come to believe that universal health insurance, it has to be accepted as the thing that’s here to stay.
Jon Favreau: That voice you hear is none other than David Frum, a recent convert to the cause of universal health care, who used to be a speechwriter for, believe it or not, George W. Bush.
David Frum: It has to be welcomed because we don’t know really how to deal with the increase in inequality in a more globalized economy. People at the top benefit from a global market. People at the lower 2/3rds suffer from global competition. We don’t know what the answer to that is, but what we can do is take away some of the worries that ordinary people have. And the most pressing of those worries in the United States was what happens if I get sick? To the extent you can alleviate that, you can gain some social stability.
Jon Favreau: If you don’t get insurance through your employer or get subsidies through Obamacare, you probably spend an average of around $10,000 on health care in 2016, a year where the United States spent $3.3 trillion on health care, more than any other country in the world.
[voice clip] Right now, the 35 leading economies in the world pay half of what the US pays for in drugs. And that has to do with the value with which those countries place access to health care, and health care as a right, versus what we do.
[voice clip] Rising costs of U.S. health care is a huge threat to the US economy.
[voice clip] Huge expenditures relative to GDP for medical care, and that puts us at an enormous disadvantage against other countries in the world.
Jon Favreau: Of course, the idea of universal health care is by no means a new one. To learn more, I spoke with Dr. Adam Gaffney, a single payer advocate who’s an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Adam Gaffney: This kind of proposal goes back a long way. Truman proposed National Health Insurance after World War Two. It was prominent again after the passage of Medicare. Many thought that Medicare could be transitioned into a fully universal program. And we’re having that discussion again today in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.
Jon Favreau: Even with the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans remain uninsured, partly because health insurance companies keep raising premiums on people who buy private insurance. The basic idea of single-payer universal health insurance is relatively simple. Take a tax-funded program similar to Medicare and expand it to all Americans. Through a program like that, you cover everyone. But Adam talks about how it does much more than that.
Adam Gaffney: It’s about getting rid of under-insurance, about eliminating copayments and deductibles that deter people from going to the doctor, going to the hospital or filling a prescription. But it’s also about establishing a level playing field so that some people aren’t relegated to inferior tiers where they can’t access the same doctors, the same hospitals. So what we need is to establish an equitable playing field where everyone has the same good high-level of access and to do all of that affordably.
Jon Favreau: If you look at the polling, there’s broad public support for Medicare for all, even in red and purple states. But as we saw with both Hillary Care and Obamacare, that doesn’t mean that the politics of getting it passed will be easy. I recently spoke with Andy Slavitt, who used to run the Medicare and Medicaid programs during the Obama years and is now working to change the politics around this issue.
Andy Slavitt: If you can picture coming back sometime in the 2020s and attempting to pass something, whether it’s single payer or Medicare for all or some amended form, you need a small volunteer army. Particularly these days, we’re going to need people all over the country who are turning their desires for health care into political wins. And to do that, we can’t just be talking to ourselves. We need to win over people who—believe it or not, there are Republicans and independents and people who are not affiliated politically, are fed up with the health care system, who really want the guarantee of health care.
Adam Gaffney: The way you win it is by making a clear case for a simple plan that will benefit nearly everyone.
Jon Favreau: Adam again.
Adam Gaffney: That is the inherent beauty of Medicare for all as a political project and as a policy project. What we’re saying is very simple: everybody in the country gets covered with comprehensive benefits without copayments or deductibles, and they can never lose that insurance. They have it from when they’re born. They have it, til they die. And if you make that case, it’s simple, it’s clear, almost everyone will benefit. Even those who are currently insured gain something. Even those who are not insured definitely gain something. And that is how you win this.
Jon Favreau: With all the programs we’ve talked about so far, there’s an underlying hope that they’ll reinvigorate the middle class. That they’ll provide for upward economic mobility. That they’ll make people believe in their children’s futures again. Turns out, if you care about all that, you should also care about unions. Here’s a statistic you might find genuinely surprising: children of non-college educated fathers earn 28% more if their father is in a labor union. Celinda Lake, Democratic pollster and strategist, speaks to how far-reaching and important unions are.
Celinda Lake: Anybody who cares about the Democratic Party ought to care about this effort to do away with unions. This effort for “right to work” and paycheck deception. Of course, the Republicans get it and the Koch brothers get it. They’ve got court cases up to take away card check-off for unions. They’re doing everything they can to destroy unions. And everybody who is progressive—whether you care about the environment, you care about choice, you care about LGBT rights, you care about immigration rights—you ought to care about unionization. This is a very, very dangerous and almost irreversible long-term trend here. In Robert Reich’s video series “The Big Picture” he lays out three pretty straightforward policies for how we can strengthen unions.
[clip of Robert Reich] First, make it easier to form a union, with a simple majority of workers voting up or down.
Jon Favreau: Reich is referring to something called “majority sign-up” which allows for workers to organize into a union if a majority of them sign authorization forms. The law protecting this right has been around since 1935, but employers often try to do everything they can to limit it. Reich wants to change this.
Robert Reich: Second, build in real penalties on companies that violate labor laws by firing workers who try to organize a union.
Jon Favreau: Again, it’s illegal for employers to violate these laws, but they only face financial consequences if they’re found guilty of firing workers who are trying to unionize.
Robert Reich: Finally, if you remember only one thing, remember this: we must enact a federal law that overturns so-called state “right to work” laws.
Jon Favreau: Right to work laws essentially guarantee the benefits of being a union member, while allowing a worker not to pay union dues. This, as you might imagine, removes most of the incentive to join a union in the first place, which is one reason that membership has declined. It’s got a political impact too, writer and researcher Sean McElwee explains:
Sean McElwee: When unions take these political hits, they have less capacity to work to mobilize their membership base, and they also have less money to donate to politicians that support the causes of working folks. So an example of this is “right to work”—there was a recent study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research suggesting that the passage of the right to work law reduces the two-party share of the vote going to the Democratic Party by about 3.5 percentage points.
Jon Favreau: That same report went on to say that Democrats control 5 to 10% fewer seats in state legislatures after a right to work law is enacted. The nice thing about strong unions is that they aren’t just good for union members. A study from the Economic Policy Institute found that if unions were strong today, as they were in 1979, wages would be higher not only for union members but also nonunion members. Unions also act as a counterweight to another problem we discussed in the last episode: too many mergers and monopolies.
[news clip] Wal-Mart may be ready to jump into the health care business. The Wall Street Journal says the biggest retailer on the planet is in the early stage talks to buy health insurance company Humana. This comes months after drugstore chain CVS agreed to buy Aetna.
[voice clip] This morning, Intel announced it’s going to buy Mobileye, the deal priced around $15 billion—
[voice clip] Wireless providers T-Mobile and Sprint are planning a $26 1/2 billion dollar merger. If regulators approve the deal, cell phone customers in the US would be left with a choice of three national providers.
Jon Favreau: We know that when a given industry has just a few companies that control the entire market, the consequences trickle down: less competition and innovation, less choice for consumers, and less bargaining power for workers. In the late 1880s and early 1990s, progressives push politicians like Teddy Roosevelt to take on the big railroad and oil monopolies. Lina Kahn of the Open Market Institute, an expert on mergers and monopolies, thinks Democrats should do it again.
Lina Khan: We’re seeing excessive consolidation of economic power and that’s undermining our our markets, but also undermining our democracy, right? So in the last year, as we’ve seen Amazon buy up Whole Foods, as we’ve seen Amazon gesture to the fact that it’s probably going to enter health care, we’ve seen the stocks, the valuations of these big companies in other sectors totally plummet. Then I think that shows that the economy is not going to be able to promote a healthy middle class and promote a system that ensures a greater distribution of opportunity if we see so much power and control concentrated in these handful of companies. I don’t think it’s going to be too controversial for the party as a whole to embrace stronger antitrust. I think the key question will be whether Democrats apply those same principles to the tech platforms, and recognize that these companies have concentrated a lot of power, and are using that power in potentially abusive, exploitive ways.
Jon Favreau: In July of 2017, congressional Democrats rolled out an economic agenda that they call: A Better Deal.
[clip of Sen. Chuck Schumer] American families deserve A Better Deal. So this country works for everyone, again. Not just the elites, not just the special interests.
Jon Favreau: They got a lot of shit for the name, including from certain podcasters, but the ideas were pretty strong, especially around cracking down on monopolies.
Lina Khan: I think a better deal was really good in a lot of ways. The most significant thing was that it noted that permissive antitrust can lead to a host of harms, and that it has led to a host of harms, and that it has hurt us as consumers, but also hurt us as workers, and has hurt independent businesses.
[clip of Sen. Chuck Schumer] Large corporations in too many instances merge for their own interests so they, not the consumer, can dictate prices, the quantity and the quality of goods. We’re going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers, and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition. [applause]
Lina Khan: I think the legal reforms that the Better Deal was gesturing to were also quite positive. It’s become very, very difficult to actually bring antitrust cases, in part because the Supreme Court has introduced, you know, these absurd standards that make it impossible to win a case. So some of the reforms of the better deal was gesturing to would have really addressed that and make it easier for the government especially to bring cases.
Jon Favreau: The reforms in A Better Deal would create a sort of 21st century trustbuster to limit large mergers, and to stop abusive corporate conduct. I asked Lina how we get voters to connect to these policies, which can be kind of wonky and hard to understand.
Lina Khan: One is naming villains. Nobody likes Comcast. You know, everybody had an extremely frustrating conversation with their cable company. Airlines have wholesale just introduced new revenue streams through ancillary baggage fees, through charging you for everything, for extra leg space to, you know, checking in an extra baggage. So I think, you know, making an economic case in part through appealing to the fact that people are paying more for the same services—that’s important. But I think also the fact that, you know, wages have in part stagnated because there isn’t really as much competition in labor markets.
Jon Favreau: Jill Lepore, historian and staff writer at The New Yorker, agrees, and thinks we have to be bold enough to call out the big tech companies despite their lobbying power and their grasp on the economy. This shouldn’t be too hard given changing public sentiment in the wake of the 2016 election scandals involving Facebook and data collection.
Jill Lepore: I do think there should be a national political figures who are talking squarely and with conviction and courage about the monopolies of Silicon Valley—the Google, Amazon, Facebook problem—where a century ago there was no one in either party who was afraid to talk about monopolies, who was afraid to talk about Standard Oil, say. We don’t accidentally live in a world where these companies control all kinds of economic arrangements and all kinds of information. It’s not an accident. It’s the consequence of very bad political compromises.
Jon Favreau: The consequences of political compromises need political solutions. And we’ve talked about some here: increasing wages, and ensuring everyone has a job with the universal work guarantee, as well as the skills and education they need to succeed in that job, once and for all making sure all Americans have health insurance, reinvesting in our education and trade system, and strengthening our unions and our antitrust laws to put power back in the hands of working people. That’s what we need to do, take power back. And thankfully, as Jill Lepore reminds us, we’re not helpless.
Jill Lepore: There are things that I get worried about that I see that maybe don’t get enough attention. And one is a political culture that encourages passivity, that actually rewards the idea that we are somehow helpless before the forces of technological change, rather than that we as individuals, as citizens and families, as members of a community of people whose children go to schools, as people who vote, who run for office, who correspond with our elected officials—that we have control over what we build in the world in which we live, that we’ve built this place, that we built this politics, and that if it’s growth, and it is, that we made that. And that it comes to us to fix that, and that it’s not impossible to fix. People shouldn’t is just sort of say inequality is like a law of nature, like it’ll just happen. It doesn’t just happen, nor is it a natural consequence of globalization and of technological progress. It is a product of decisions that our elected officials make. And I think that rhetorical move has really not been made. There is the kind of throw up your hands about: oh, my gosh, and here’s this other crazy thing! As opposed to like, actual people made actual decisions and they were actual failures. And there’s legislation that has failed to do what it needs to do. And that is a piece of how to talk about the whole bundle of political conditions—that include income inequality and include polarization—that are conditions that we have created, that people that we voted into office created. And they need to be held accountable for having created. And there need to be people running for office who are pledging real solutions to fix those problems.
Jon Favreau: Amen.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal Services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.