Sort by

Game Plan for the 99 Percent

David Callahan

One exciting thing about politics today, for all the dysfunction, is that we are living in an era of big and sweeping visions. The conservative plan for America -- say, as encapsulated in Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America -- would be devastating for many ordinary people, but you can't accuse the right of small thinking. The ideologues who now run the GOP are swinging for the fences, which is a big reason that traditional political dealmaking in Washington has virtually ground to a halt.

What's been missing, though, is similar sustained grandiosity on the left. To be sure, some good progressive roadmaps have been put out there. One of the best -- albeit in my biased opinion -- is when Demos teamed up last year with the Century Foundation and the Economic Policy Institute to offer a far-reaching blueprint for creating long-term economic growth and taming the budget deficit. The plan envisioned major new investments in early childhood education, infrastructure, broadband connectivity, and research and development -- and made an evidence-based case that such new public investments held the key to future prosperity. It also proposed changes to the tax code that would raise new revenues from the wealthy by closing loopholes, enacting a financial speculation tax, and so on.

Alas, it's been hard to keep repeating these big and good ideas amid the day-to-day emergencies that have consumed Washington. That's especially true when most Democratic leaders have had no interest in articulating a sweeping alternative vision and then sticking with that vision. In Congress, conservatives have been the visionaries, Democrats the incrementalists and dealmakers.

Since the Occupy movement began, though, signs have emerged that this may change. Obama's speech in Kansas may not have been chock full of big ideas, but it laid out an expansive narrative about inequality, the economy, and taxes -- echoing many of the themes the President articulated when he proposed the American Jobs Act and the Buffett Rule back in September.

Today comes another hopeful sign, as members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduce an ambitious piece of legislation entitled the Restore the American Dream Act. The Act parallels in some ways the People's Budget that the CPC put forth last year. The most notable element of the Act is a huge new role for the government in direct job creation. The Act would create 400,000 new jobs by spending on school construction and improvement; 100,000 jobs for young people by putting new funds into a Park Improvement Corps; another 250,000 jobs for young people on campuses by channeling $850 million into the Federal Work Study Program; the creation of a new Community Corps to hire people to improve their communities; and more.

This is the most ambitious job creation proposal put forth in Congress. And while there are plenty of details to quibble with here, the thrust of the proposal is exactly right: The U.S. faces an unemployment emergency especially among young people, and we should start acting like it's an emergency. Along the way, we should seize the opportunity to fix a bunch of stuff in our society that badly needs fixing -- like our crumbling roads and schools.

The revenue piece of the Act includes new taxes on millionaires, a financial speculation tax, eliminating subsidies to oil companies, forcing polluters to pay a Superfund tax, and getting employers to cough up payroll taxes they are now dodging by misclassifying workers. Oh, and no small detail: The Act would also scrap the income cap on Social Security taxes -- in effect, handing both employers and affluent employees a massive tax increase right there.

Other parts of the Restore the Dream Act include adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, letting Medicare Part D negotiate drug prices, and making Medicaid more generous.

This is a big wish list, and largely a good one. What's missing, in my view, is a broader principled argument for new investments and taxes, along with a tightly reasoned case for how all of this new government will benefit every American -- including the affluent -- in the long run. Also, I'd prefer to see a major tax reform plan rather than the revenue proposals included in the Act.

Still, no piece of legislation can do everything and it's nice to see that somebody on Capitol Hill is thinking big on behalf of the 99 Percent.