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Thinking Big

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Times are changing. Instead of obsessing about what they’re against, progressives have begun to think about what they’re for—to prepare once again to play their role as agents of bold ideas and political and social transformation. Finding new confidence and imagination, they have begun to renew their political capital. The essays in this volume draw on that new store of capital to sketch the outlines of a progressive agenda for 21st-century America.

Authors such as Van Jones, Dean Baker, Andrea Batista Schlesinger and Miles Rapoport cover a wide array of topics and, in their policy recommendations, present a few contrasting ideas. But all these essays reflect a belief in the need for fundamental change. The problems discussed here cannot be solved, the authors agree, through charity, through volunteerism, or even by well-meaning local and state governments, though surely all have a role. The contributors make the case for the kind of concerted action that can only come through the agency of our national government. They argue that we need programs that serve our national and international needs and encourage faith in our public institutions, creating a positive cycle of political change and space for further reform.

There are many good reasons to be worried at this critical moment in history. To navigate these troubled times, we need a rare combination of ideas, action, resolve, and leadership to meet the challenges that lie before us. Thinking Big is an indispensable piece of that puzzle, arriving just when it’s most needed.

With a foreword by Robert Kuttner, author of Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.

The Progressive Ideas Network is an alliance of multi-issue think tanks and activist organizations working together to amplify the power of ideas in advancing today’s progressive movement.

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1. Building Shared Prosperity

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FOR the better part of three decades, our country has been stuck on a single, simplistic idea about the economy: less government equals more prosperity. American leaders have sought to create a marketplace unfettered by rules and regulations. Let people fend for themselves, they said, and innovation and entrepreneurship will flourish, the economy will grow as never before, and the benefits will eventually lift the fortunes of all.

That was the promise. We have seen—and lived—the reality. From 1989 to 2006, the highest-earning 10 percent of U.S. households collected over 90 percent of the nation’s income gains. Today the top 1 percent of American families receives 23 percent of all personal income, up from just 10 percent in 1979. Corporate executives earn 275 times as much as average workers, compared with 27 times in 1973.

It’s been a fine time to be a CEO or a hedge fund manager, in other words. But the great majority of Americans are less secure and hopeful than they were a generation ago. Jobs are disappearing. Real family incomes are falling. Retirement security is a fading ideal. Health care is becoming a privilege rather than an expectation. In the struggle to keep up with expenses (or avoid falling too far behind), Americans are working longer hours, borrowing more, and living closer to the financial edge.

 

2. Investing in Our Future

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AMERICANS have always expected life to be better for the next generation. But now, according to recent polls, they no longer do. Imagine: for the majority of Americans, the past is brighter than the future. The American dream is becoming an American memory.

This pessimism reflects an alarming trend: as a country, we have stopped investing our resources in a shared future. In previous eras, a vision of a shared future united the country around great national initiatives. In the mid-1800s, federal legislation spurred the railroad boom, opening the country to a growing population. In the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority permanently transformed an entire region, creating a completely new set of industries and opening a new way of life for millions. In the decades following the Great Depression and World War II, encouraged by our victories over great forces, we made even greater investments. Through legislation like the GI Bill and the early Highway Acts, we manifested a sense of collective power and interdependence not matched before or after. In the 1950s and 1960s, federal infrastructure investment peaked at almost 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). At the same time, we spent 7 percent of our economic output on education and 2 percent on research and development. The results proved the power of public investment—in the decades that followed, the United States enjoyed one of the most remarkable periods of economic growth in world history.

 

3. Capturing Democracy’s Surge

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AFTER an extraordinary and groundbreaking election year, old assumptions about what a presidential candidate had to look like have been retired forever. The 2008 campaign would have produced the first female presidential nominee of a major party, had it not given us the first African American nominee instead. After the Democrats had made their decision, the Republicans delivered the second-ever female nominee for vice president.

But well before anyone had been nominated or elected, democracy itself was the winner. The supposedly “front-loaded” Democratic race was longer and closer than anyone had expected, with hotly contested results far beyond the usual battlegrounds. More than fifty-eight million Americans voted in primary contests across the country in 2008. That’s a 65 percent increase over the previous record of thirty-five million, set in 1988. Youth voter participation doubled over its 2004 level; in a few states, it rose fourfold and more. African Americans voted in numbers that conventional wisdom and party insiders had considered impossible. In states where people could register and vote on primary day, over three hundred thousand people made use of the opportunity. The number of people contributing to political campaigns through the Internet and other small-donor channels increased dramatically. So did the number of people working for candidates. More than two million people gave money to Barack Obama’s campaign. Nearly as many are said to have volunteered.

 

4. Upholding Community Values

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BETWEEN Barry Goldwater’s defeat and Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency, American conservatives forged a cogent and effective political narrative. The signature policies of the conservative movement—tax cuts, privatization, deregulation—were grounded in a simple set of guiding principles: freedom is the highest public value; competition is the engine of progress; markets are intrinsically fair and rational; big government constrains liberty and fosters dependency. These principles, in turn, rested on a starkly individualistic worldview that emphasized the autonomy of the self and the voluntary character of society. While conservatives did not win every battle, they succeeded in establishing their ideology as the norm; it became the default position in American politics, giving the Right a structural advantage that proved decisive over time.

After more than a quarter century, the conservative chokehold has begun to loosen. The obvious part of the story involves a disastrous war, a deteriorating economy, and an unpopular president. Conventional political analysis (unable to see beyond the obvious) would have the next administration use its mandate to advance policies with broad, poll-tested support—“low-hanging fruit” left over from the Bush years—instead of questioning the foundational principles that have defined our public discourse for the past generation.

 

5. Rejoining the World

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SIXTY years ago, it was the United States that advocated most eloquently for passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first global expression of the inherent rights of all people. We were the richest and most powerful country on Earth, and the problems of other nations seemed to have little practical bearing on our prosperity. Nevertheless, the American commitment to multilateral solutions was bold and unwavering. Today, by contrast, many of our biggest challenges are clearly global in nature. Yet even as domestic policy has become more and more obviously intertwined with foreign policy, the United States has chosen to distance itself from international organizations and negotiations.

In one area of policy after another, the Bush administration took a go-it-alone approach, to the shame of our country and the dismay of the rest of the world. Climate change is an obvious and appalling example. Policies that encourage sprawl and runaway consumption here at home lead to higher temperatures and water levels in Myanmar and Miami alike. As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States bears a special burden of responsibility. Yet, over the past eight years, Washington stood conspicuously apart from global climate negotiations. As a result, the United States itself now looms as a huge barrier to progress in convincing poorer countries to adopt more sustainable practices. On economic questions, the Bush administration consistently carried the water for private capital, leading to policies that have lowered wages, widened the chasm between rich and poor, and left millions with little choice but to migrate (from rural areas to cities, from one country to another) in pursuit of a more secure life. On the national security front, the administration took a concern shared by many nations—terrorism—and turned it into an American-branded war of us against an ill-defined them. Through blatant disregard for suspects’ rights and the rule of law, American leaders have alienated many of our natural allies.

 

6. From Financial Crisis to Opportunity

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THE year 2008 was disastrous for the economy and, by extension, for modern economic orthodoxy. We had two decades of pro-business regulation, where the government was deliberately structured in ways to shift wealth and income to the rich and powerful. This formula led directly to the mortgage meltdown and the financial collapse, and now to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Nevertheless, as the crisis deepened, leading members of the old priesthood were regrouping. Totally discredited by events, thoroughly repudiated at the polls, they presented themselves in a new guise, as savvy pragmatists and experienced hands—the “best economic minds in the country” who alone could be trusted to get the machinery of the economy working again.

Indeed, the emergency is real, and the answers won’t be easy. But the first imperative is to stand up to the fearmongering and the effort to rewrite history. To hear some of the captains of contemporary economic policy tell it, they’re up against a natural disaster, akin to a hurricane or an earthquake. In fact, this disaster was man-made—it was the foreseeable (and widely foreseen) result of policies promoted by no small number of our “best minds” and would-be rescuers.

 

7. Health Care for America

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LONG before anyone was nominated or elected, the voters of 2008 had gotten one message across loud and clear: fix our dysfunctional health care system! For obvious reasons (and big reasons that aren’t so obvious), the leaders of 2009 must heed that call.

America’s health care system is in meltdown. More than 45.7 million of us have no health insurance. But even those with good insurance face rising costs and a growing risk of losing the protection they have. Every year, tens of millions of Americans go uninsured for long periods—when a layoff, a divorce, or illness itself disrupts their ability to get or pay for coverage. (Forty-one percent of working-age Americans making $20,000 to $40,000 per year lacked insurance for at least part of 2007.) Still more millions are seriously underinsured, though many don’t realize it since insurance companies tend to be secretive about the conditions and procedures they refuse to cover— until we actually need the care.

In an economy that’s gone bad and getting worse, countless American families—insured and uninsured alike—live in dread of being plunged into poverty or destitution by a major health problem. In fact, more than half of all individual and family bankruptcies are triggered by medical bills.

 

8. An Inclusive Green Economy

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IN the twenty-first century, America will be defined by its response to two great challenges. One is global warming, which threatens irreparable harm to our planet and its people. The other is the increasingly unequal economy of our own country, which is now more divided between rich and poor than at any time in living memory. The necessary response to these intertwined realities is to build an inclusive green economy, strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

A powerful logic connects the two missions. The shift to a more efficient, low-carbon economy will have profound health benefits for poor people, who suffer disproportionately from cancer, asthma, and other pollution-related ailments. The effort to curb global warming and oil dependence also contains enormous potential to create new jobs and avenues of opportunity, by creating pathways to ensure that the work that most needs doing—rebuilding, retrofitting, and restoring our cities and towns, our infrastructure and public lands—is done by those who most need the work.

 

9. The Promise of Opportunity

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OPPORTUNITY is one of America’s most deeply held values and one of our most precious national assets. Throughout our history, Americans have been stirred by the vision of a society in which everyone gets a fair shake regardless of origins or ancestry. That ideal has inspired social movements and political breakthroughs. Universal public education developed our national genius and propelled millions out of poverty. Emancipation, Reconstruction, and women’s suffrage acknowledged the equality and voice of all our people.

In the twentieth century, the New Deal’s assurance of basic economic security put the nation back on stable economic footing even as it enabled millions of Americans to move from destitution to economic participation. The civil rights revolution led to legal safeguards that protected all Americans while integrating more millions into our economic engine and social fabric. It would be wrong to idealize the past; obviously, we have never fully realized the opportunity ideal. Nor have we fully overcome the legacies of discrimination and exclusion. Nevertheless, in fits and starts over two centuries, this country was moving in a direction that gave hope to most Americans, including those who needed hope the most.

 

10. A Strengthened Middle Class

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AMERICA did not ask to be divided into warring camps of red and blue. Across the country, people have far more in common than anyone would guess from the polarized politics of recent decades. Most Americans hope to achieve and hold onto a middle-class standard of living. That means, among other things, a job that pays enough to support a family; a safe, stable home; good schools for our children and the chance to help them go to college; health care that doesn’t bury us in debt; a dignified retirement; and time off work for vacations and major life events.

We want these things not only for ourselves but for one another, because a large and stable middle class turns out to be the foundation of our well-being as families, as communities, and as a nation. Middle-class societies, as political thinkers from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson have pointed out, are more socially cohesive than those divided by extremes of wealth and poverty. Concentrations of wealth threaten to turn economic power into political power and subvert democratic institutions. Poverty and economic insecurity leave people too caught up in their day-to-day struggles to engage with public and community affairs.

 

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