A New Declaration of Independence: 10 Ideas for Taking America Back from the 1%
This story originally appeared atSalon.
Here’s where we are in the course of human events right now: 14 million Americans are jobless and millions more are underemployed. Those still working have seen wages fall after 30 years of stagnation. The 1 Percent of top wage earners could buy and sell the rest of us without so much as a low balance warning on their checking account apps. The tenth-of-1 Percent earns millions more every year in barely taxed capital gains and derivatives while everyone else struggles to pay down trillions of dollars of debt. Massive, growing income inequality is now belatedly acknowledged by political and media elites, but many of them seem befuddled as to its cause and importance.
It is our belief that many of the problems facing Americans today can be directly connected to the unchecked power and complete unaccountability of the 1 Percent, a group that benefits from every unequal boom of the modern era and escapes each disastrous bust unscathed. The 1 Percent is insulated from the negative effects of its disastrous policies by its paid representatives in government. The elite 1 Percent ensures the slavish loyalty of its political handmaidens by flooding their campaign coffers with money squeezed from the 99 Percent as deposits, fees and interest.
What unites the outraged 99 Percent is that we have all “played by the rules,” only to learn belatedly that the game was rigged. Having been promised modest rewards for working within the system, by taking on debt or voting the party line, we find ourselves, bluntly, shit out of luck. Let the facts be submitted to a candid world:
For the young, higher education was said to be a ticket to class mobility, or at least a secure career. Instead, middle-class students have taken on billions of dollars of inescapable debt during a prolonged jobs crisis. Lower-income students are blatantly ripped off by usurious scam artists working for educationally dubious for-profit schools. Even those seeking to join the professional class, through medical school or law school, find themselves with mountains of debt and dwindling job prospects. The rapidly rising cost of higher education pushes bright students into lucrative but socially destructive fields, like finance. Prestigious universities are still largely the finishing schools of the elite, with the most common and pernicious form of affirmative action being that given to the children of the 1 Percent most likely to write schools the biggest checks.
For progressives, years of working within the political system to elect Democrats led to a congressional majority that was still more responsive to major corporate donors and powerful industry lobbies than to grass-roots liberal activists — or even organized labor, once the party’s most powerful and respected ally. The crimes of the Bush administration remain uninvestigated, the national security state remains unchecked in scope and size, the military-industrial complex ensures that Dwight Eisenhower’s prescient speech remains relevant 60 years later, and the useless tactics of triangulation and one-way bipartisanship remain inexplicably popular among the Democratic Party establishment.
For millions of middle-class and striving blue-collar American families, the promise of homeownership as the world’s safest investment became another money-making bubble for Wall Street that remains Main Street’s intractable mess. Those members of the middle class unfortunate enough to do as an industry of wise men counseled them and invest in the stock market and real estate have seen the fruits of a lifetime’s worth of labor evaporate in multiple busts and crashes that the wise men always escape from economically intact. The mere specter of limited relief for underwater homeowners inspired 1 Percenter rage so all-consuming that they bankrolled a “populist” movement to channel it. Minority homeowners defrauded by unscrupulous lenders are blamed for an international recession sparked by the venal and simply foolish behavior of megabanks.
The 1 Percent aims to exploit a fiscal crisis caused by its own reckless behavior by wiping out pensions earned (and paid into) by public employees and tearing up fairly negotiated union contracts. Meanwhile, they use their media outlets, political foundations and lobbying shops to foment resentment of unionized workers whose crime is benefiting from a system that corporations and conservatives worked to completely dismantle for private employees a generation ago.
The threat that our modest social welfare system for the elderly will be sacrificed to the gods of austerity has already led significant numbers of young people to assume that there will be no Social Security in place by the time they reach what used to be referred to as their retirement years. And that belief is tacitly encouraged by the “moderate” members of the austerity club, who seek to maintain a system of low taxation of the 1 Percent in the face of declining income for the 99 Percent by gradually phasing out the services government provides for the majority. The austerity sages are considered the most serious and wise in all of the nation by our corporate press, which defines “the center” of every national political debate as “whatever the elites want.”
The weight of the 1 Percent upon us has become unbearable and intolerable. We at Salon therefore respectfully submit our own Demands.
In Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan, in Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza, and at other parks and public squares across the nation (and the world), Occupiers are daily creating the more perfect democracy they’d like to see. As part of that process, groups and individuals and intellectuals and pundits have put forth proposed “demands,” to address the myriad problems laid out above. From Occupy Wall Street’s principles of solidarity to the General Assembly’s proposed New New Deal to Robert Reich’s list of essential progressive reforms to the Working Group of the 99 Percent’s Petition of Grievences, we’ve read the proposals and humbly offer our own, for ways to begin to make the richest nation on the planet fair for those of us who can’t afford a congressman.
Our list is meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not a final product.
1. Debt relief
Total household debt in America is $13.3 trillion — 114 percent of after-tax income. That millions of working Americans owe every penny they make to hugely profitable financial institutions is absurd and grotesque.
We demand immediate relief for the 99 Percent, particularly the poor and young students and college graduates. The Debt Jubilee is an ancient idea, and an attractive one in an era of growing economic feudalism, as the poor increasingly devote all their labor to repaying the rich. It is not in the national interest to force the impoverished to become wage slaves to pay off insurmountable debts owned to payday lenders and hugely profitable bankers.
Every other rich nation on earth heavily subsidizes higher education. We force mere kids to mortgage their futures, then ensure that the debt follows them the rest of their lives, regardless of their living circumstances. Student loan debt hurts not just the graduate but everyone else in society, too: The cost of healthcare would surely decrease, and the availability of primary care for disadvantaged populations increase, if new doctors were not regularly graduating school $200,000 in the red.
And real and widespread relief for homeowners in crisis is urgent. Even millions of homeowners who “did everything right” find themselves underwater, or illegally foreclosed upon by banks running roughshod over the rights of homeowners by robo-signing fraudulent foreclosure documents by the thousands. Banks servicing mortgages are (rightfully) more worried about getting sued by the owners of securities made up of Americans’ debt than they are about getting in any sort of trouble for bullying or illegally seizing the homes of regular people. Everyone should get a shot at a renegotiation of their mortgage, at fair rates, and with support from the government.
2. A substantial jobs program
Most American cities are filled with beautiful old buildings and monuments and parks dating back to the recovery programs of the New Deal, as well as increasingly decrepit bridges and roads and structures that have been neglected by the last couple of decades of shrinking infrastructure investment. A real, direct jobs program, done in the WPA style, would rebuild our cities and towns in addition to putting thousands of people back to work.
3. A healthcare public option
Medicare is probably the single most popular government program in the country, which is no surprise, because government-subsidized healthcare tends to be the most popular government program in every nation that has implemented it.
If a true single-payer system would be too disruptive, we can put the building blocks in place by giving people a public option. Expanding the pool of Medicare recipients to include healthy younger people paying into it would instantly improve the program’s fiscal outlook. Nationalizing the underfunded Medicaid system would instantly reduce the deplorable inequity of our healthcare system, too. If this new Medicare could negotiate drug prices — like the Veterans Administration, our wonderful, totally socialized healthcare program for one group of Americans — it would save even more. (Hey, why not combine the proposal with debt relief for young doctors?)
4. Reregulate Wall Street
Taking the “unsophisticated” broad view, it seems painfully obvious that Wall Street deregulation undid the stabilizing effects of 1930s-era Wall Street regulation. We’re on a boom-and-bust cycle, and a shrinking number of growing megabanks now regularly threaten the entire world economy. It’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t be better off with a worldwide network of small, independent credit unions than massive financial institutions daily innovating new and more arcane methods of shifting vast sums of imaginary capital around, but in lieu of smashing the banks with brickbats why not just reinstate the rules that effectively limited their behavior for 40 years or so? Bring back Glass-Steagall. Pass the Volcker rule, too. Ban banks from trading derivatives. Limit their behavior and tax their earnings.
5. End the Global War on Terror and rein in the defense budget
Brown University estimates that our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have cost 236,000 lives and $4 trillion. Millions more people are displaced refugees. If 10 years of war have weakened al-Qaida, we should draw down. If it hasn’t, we should seriously rethink our tactics. Regardless, there’s no way the world’s sole remaining superpower can justify spending more than every other country on Earth combined on its military. There’s no coherent reason why the Pentagon’s budget should be rising inexorably every year, while the rest of the country grows shabbier and poorer. Spending more on defense now than we did at the height of the Cold War is insane.
The billions spent yearly to rain death on faceless strangers thousands of miles away should be the first program on the chopping block if we’re serious about tackling the deficit. That money could better be put to use both here at home and abroad. USAID and the State Department could surely do more to defeat those Who Hate Us For Our Freedom with that money than the Defense Department has so far managed to.
6. Repeal the Patriot Act
Speaking of expensive wastes of resources that are also in direct violation of the nation’s founding principles, let’s dismantle the expansive domestic surveillance state, hurriedly established at a panicky period of national crisis and then enshrined as permanent without a word of serious debate.
The extra-constitutional “delayed-notice search warrants” given to law enforcement by the Patriot Act have been used far more for fighting the war on drugs than the war on terror, which is to be expected from a law that was essentially a massive laundry list of tools and privileges that prosecutors and FBI agents had wanted for years that had thus far been denied to them by pesky constitutional checks on their powers. The government even has its own secret legal readings of the act, allowing it to do secret things we can know nothing about.
The government now has vast powers to track and spy on us for whatever reasons it chooses, and both parties are mostly fine with that. When the NSA was found to be engaging in illegal domestic wiretapping and data mining, Congress responded by granting them more domestic wiretapping and data mining powers. As we’ve moved further from those panicky days that birthed the Patriot Act, the law and its associated unaccountable domestic surveillance state have, perversely, become more normalized. Those in favor of limited government should be the most alarmed at this.
7. Tackle climate change
We may be rapidly approaching the catastrophic point of no return when it comes to preventing major, devastating climate change. To keep warming below “dangerous levels,” one recent study says, we’d need to “reverse the rise in emissions immediately and follow through with steep reductions through the century.” Immediately — like now.
Frustratingly, even half-measures have found no support in Congress, where the industries doing the polluting have far more clout than mere scientists or human beings who’ll be alive in a future period of mass extinctions, hunger, flooding and drought. At the very least — and this is literally the very least the government should be doing right now to combat climate change — a price should be put on carbon emissions, either in the form of a direct tax or as part of a cap-and-trade scheme. This is a policy so self-evidently beneficial to the vast majority of mankind — it taxes a bad thing, so that corporations do less of the bad thing, while also giving the government revenue to spend on good things — that cap-and-trade’s defeat in Congress says just about all there is to say about the corrupting power of industry money on the government process.
8. Stop locking everyone up for everything and end the drug war
The American incarceration rate dwarfs that of our closest competitor, Russia, at 743 per 100,000 residents. A full quarter of the world’s prison inmates are American prison inmates. One in 100 American adults arebehind bars. These staggering numbers have been repeated over and over again for years by activists, reporters, academics and even the very rarecourageous politician, but the prison system just keeps growing, and growing, and growing.
The problem is that there is no political will to do anything about it. In fact, locking people up tends to be a popular campaign platform. In some locales, felons are both denied voting rights and also counted as residents of their prisons for the purposes of congressional apportionment, causing a perverse incentive to lock up more inmates. Tens of thousands of inmates are in long-term solitary confinement, which is essentially torture by another name.
As violent crime rates have fallen, the prison population has continued to grow, because of longer terms and mandatory sentencing and denial of parole. The U.S. holds its prisoners longer than any other nation in the world, and because rehabilitation comes a distant second to punishment in our prisons, recidivism is common. (It doesn’t help that, across the nation, ex-felons can’t qualify for welfare or subsidized housing or find work.) We’re actively creating a massive, mostly black and Hispanic underclass of permanent prisoners and future prisoners. America desperately needs more juvenile diversion programs and well-funded rehabilitation and education programs for those currently in the system.
A major contributor to our mass incarceration state is the “War on Drugs,” which after years of waging we’ve yet to win.
Full legalization of marijuana would lead to many fewer people being jailed for victimless crimes and immediately destroy a critical income stream for gangs and increasingly violent drug cartels. Legalizing marijuana would also give states and cities a desperately needed infusion of tax revenue. (Legalization or decriminalization of other drugs would be similarly beneficial, but a good deal more controversial.) Those who commit nonviolent drug offenses should never be sent to prisons for years. Those currently in prison for nonviolent drug offenses should be freed and rehabilitated into society.
9. Full equality for the queer community
Gay marriage is a no-brainer — rights granted to a majority are being denied to a minority based on arguments founded solely on bigotry — and should be recognized nationwide.
Let’s not forget, too, that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans are denied other rights, including, in most states, protection from workplace discrimination and housing discrimination. I suspect lots of Americans don’t even know the LGBT community lacks those basic protections, and that is itself an outrage.
10. Fix the tax system
There are a million ways the tax code could be made fairer, simpler and more progressive, and most of those ways are opposed by powerful entrenched interests. But it is an inescapable fact that for most of the 20th century, federal income tax rates were very high on the wealthy — very, very high, in fact — and most of that period also happened to be a time of widespread prosperity for rich and middle-class Americans alike. The experiment in slashing taxes on the rich seems to have failed everyone but the rich.
The system as it currently stands forces states to fund essential services with the most regressive taxes possible, mainly sales taxes, in order not to scare businesses elsewhere. The current system allows hugely profitable transnational corporations to get away without paying anything, to make killings “overseas” while operating at imaginary losses domestically. Warren Buffett, as we all know, is paying less than his secretary.
So let’s create a millionaire’s tax bracket, and a financial transactions tax. Let’s close the carried interest tax loophole and raise the estate tax and taxes on capital gains. Let’s get the highest marginal tax rate back up to, at the least, Reagan-era levels. Let’s stop all being held hostage, as a nation, to the fanatical anti-tax doctrine of the 1 Percent.