Obama Has Real Power as President to Fix Inequality Without Congress — Let's See Him Use It
There are enough people guessing what the president will do. This is about what he almost certainly won’t do, but what I would like him to do.
The president has material power without the Congress, and personally, I would like to see him use it. He could issue an executive order for the government to grant contracts only to companies that pay their workers above some higher minimum wage. Or he could reject the XL pipeline on two national security grounds: its contribution to global warming and the dangers of leaks, explosions; and he could stop the virtual pipeline of dangerous tar sands and fracked oil shipments by train and waterway by insisting immediately on safe puncture-proof tanks. He could direct federal agencies to monitor and control dangerous chemical use and storage to prevent future versions the Great West Virginia Water Disaster. I would love to see him act in dozens, if not hundreds, of areas for the public good, and give the moral grounds in the SOTU.
Beyond material power, the president has even greater power — cognitive power — and he hasn’t used it much. Cognitive power is the power to put important ideas in people’s minds by shaping public discourse. He has the unique power to change how America thinks simply by discussing crucial ideas over and over.
American democracy is based on empathy — citizens caring about other citizens and working through their government to provide public resources for all, making both decent lives and flourishing markets possible. He used to speak of empathy as “the most important thing my mother taught me.” But he was misinterpreted by conservatives and dropped this most central idea. He started talking, as Elisabeth Warren has so eloquently, about the crucial nature of public resources, but he messed up once (“You didn’t build it”) and stopped. He needs to take up that theme, get it right, and repeat it in every speech.
We know he’s going to talk about economic inequality, as he should. He will probably mention worker salaries, which haven’t risen in 30 years. But he needs to state a simple truth: Workers are Profit Creators! Corporate “productivity” — the profit-per-worker — has risen, but the profit creators haven’t been getting a fair share of the profits.
One of the reasons for low salaries is that out of work workers can’t bargain for fair wages as individuals. The absence, or weakening, of unions leads to Wage Slavery : take what you are offered or someone else will. The president needs to talk about Wage Slavery and how unions offer freedom from wage slavery . This is a crucial idea missing from public discourse, especially in states where conservatives are trying to legislate wage slavery via so-called “Right to work laws,” which are actually exploitation laws. The president should be talking regularly about how unions contribute to freedom — and getting the unions themselves to talk about it. If the idea isn’t mentioned, it won’t enter the public mind.
Next, pensions. Pensions are delayed payments for work already done. Say it, Mr. President. When pensions are cut, the wages already earned by workers are being stolen. Pension funds are often taken by companies and local governments and spent on other things. That is theft. There needs to be transparency — public reporting yearly — on what is being done with pension funds. The president could issue and executive order that any company, state, or municipality receiving money from the government must adopt the transparency principle for pension funds.
The president has occasionally used the idea of investment where conservatives talk of “spending.” Drop “spending,” Mr. President. When you spend money, as when you buy a product, the money is gone. But when you invest, the money is still there. Paying for early childhood education is a wise major investment in the brains of our children. Remember that by the time a child is five or six years old, half of his or her neural connections have died off — the half least used. A child’s brain is shaped and developed in those important pre-K years. Funding serious pre-K is one of the most important investmentsout country could make. The investment isn’t gone. It is there inthe child. Talk about brain shaping during pre-K, Mr. President. Every one in the country should know about it.