An Economic Bill of Rights:
A Vision for a Moral Economy
A core principle of the Williamson administration will be to realign public policy with the most basic elements of our humanity. The purpose of data and statistics, especially economic ones, should be placed in service to the human condition.
One of my favorite lines from Mahatma Gandhi is when he said that “the idea that economics is a verifiable science is one of the greatest evils ever foisted on the human mind.” The laws of physics, for instance, are objectively the same no matter where they’re applied. The laws of economics, however, often stray into subjectivity when applied to real people’s lives.
Economists and politicians huddle together to discuss the plight of the economy, too often discounting as merely anecdotal the experience of the single mother of two who is struggling to make ends meet. In fact, she’s rarely invited into the room, and the lack of human dimension involved in calculations being made in her name are tragically disconnected from the human experience. This creates an economics which might be technically correct, but not necessarily moral. Economics as much as anything else must be ethical, it must respect the sacred imperatives of reverence for human life, or it is unworthy of a free society.
That’s why it’s possible for economists to go on television day after day and tell us the economy is basically doing well, when in fact, that begs the question, it is doing well for whom? If unemployment is down, that’s good; if millions of Americans are employed yet not at a living wage, then that’s something for us to attend to.
America’s economy not doing well for the 1 in 4 Americans who carry medical debt, or have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, or struggle to feed their children. In fact, the rate of poverty in America is higher than in any other advanced democracy. The plight of the poor, the near-poor, and the afraid of becoming poor, is a national crisis largely ignored by the political elite in this country. Tweaking things here and tweaking things there might disturb the monster of economic despair; but it does not slay it.
Some level of economic anxiety is now a feature, not a bug, of the American experience. According to a recent CNBC poll, 70 per cent of Americans report feeling financially stressed. People’s job or career choices are too often determined not by a natural passion or proclivity, but by their need for health care benefits, enough money for child care, or an ability to pay off their college or medical debt. Quite simply, that is not the way to have an abundant or a prosperous life.
Such factors accumulate and result in a life riddled with lost opportunity.
I am running for president to address that – not just the symptoms, but also the causes, of this era of American despair. When you do, you see a great big elephant sitting on the coffee table in America’s living room. That elephant is our need for fundamental economic reform.
People are not struggling because one party has failed and the other might do better. Not at all. People are struggling because the entire political system over the last fifty years has left millions of people behind, creating and countenancing the destruction of America’s middle class. Forces of economic royalism that have sucked the majority of America’s financial resources into the hands of one per cent of Americans are headquartered in both political parties, and the Democrats will win in 2024 – as well as for the foreseeable future – by reclaiming its traditional values as the party that tells those forces to get the hell out.
I am a Democrat because I was raised to believe that the Democratic Party is the party of the people. That is not, however, a fact universally acknowledged by American voters today, and that is the fundamental threat to our party’s success. We will win in 2024 by becoming once again the party of unequivocal advocacy for the working people of the United States.
I see the Declaration of Independence as America’s mission statement. As with any individual or group, the principles of a mission statement are the set of commitments on which we stand. It’s in constant reference to what President John Adams called America’s First Principles that we find our North Star. Staying true to that vision, we move forward. When we ignore it or abandon it, we falter.
We are faltering now, and for just that reason.
We have allowed the economics of corporate greed to overpower the principles as well as the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and it is the responsibility of our generation to rescue them.
The Declaration of Independence lays out America’s social contract, namely that government is here for its people – and not the other way around. All men are endowed with certain inalienable rights and governments are instituted to secure those rights – the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Now, over two hundred years later, we need to ask ourselves whether government is or is not doing that job. For millions of Americans, the answer would be a resounding no. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “a necessitous man is not a free man.” A person dying from lack of health care due to an insurance company’s incalcitrance is hardly guaranteed the right to life. A child raised in a domestic war zone is not at liberty to play safely in her front yard. A person having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet; or struggling to feed their children; or being poisoned by environmental toxins spewed into their neighborhood because it’s a “sacrifice zone,” are hardly free to pursue happiness.
Make no mistake about it. Those are not hypotheticals; they are the lived realities of millions of Americans. Economic hardship is a form of modern oppression, in part underlying every single social problem in our midst, from incarceration to depression to addiction. There is no overstating the deleterious effects of chronic economic pain on our society – simply because of the effect it has on people’s lives – that the poor, the near poor, and the afraid-of-becoming poor now make up a majority of American citizens. For the 60 per cent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the fear of economic disaster is never far from one’s mind.
We all know this. The time has come to say it. And it’s time to do something about it.
I am running for president because I have seen all this up close. I have had a long career working with people whose lives are falling apart. But when my career began, the person living with trauma seemed to be the exception – the diagnosis of a critical illness, the death of a loved one, sudden failure in some part of one’s life. But today, people whose lives are riddled with anxiety seem more like the rule than the exception, and the question we need to ask is why. For when we do, we see there is something very different about the America I knew when my career started, and the American we see now.
A major difference is that in those days, there was a thriving middle class. The soulless dictates of trickle-down economics had not yet re-defined human beings as mere consumers, turned every point of human need into a profit center, or succeeded in casting the tentacles of corporate greed into every single area of our lives. We were still, for better or for worse, one nation. We were not yet like random atoms floating in a meaningless world of harsh economic survival.
For that reason, fundamental economic reform is imperative. The role of government should not be to merely help people survive an unjust economy; the role of government should be to end the injustice. The role of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” is to help people thrive, not merely survive. Government exists to serve its people, not the donors of the party in power; its role is not to chop wood and carry water for a class of corporate overlords. We should not be a government “of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.” The role of the government should be to advocate unequivocally for the safety, health and wellbeing of its citizens – to guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the American people.
According to the Declaration of Independence, when government is not doing its job then it is the right of the people to alter it. I’m running for president to help us do that.
Presidents before us have paved the way. President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the 1862 Land Grant Act providing resources to create the first public colleges and universities, enabling the children of workers and farmers to go to college.
In the 1930’s, Franklin Roosevelt declared that the Four Great American Freedoms included not only the freedoms of speech and religion, but also freedom from want and freedom from fear. His response to what he saw as the predatory nature of American corporations was the creation of a massive array of programs he called the New Deal, and the empowerment of workers with the right to organize unions. In response to the expressed yearnings of Americans for a post-WW2 era of genuine security and prosperity, he introduced the concept of an Economic Bill of Rights. He believed this would solidify and codify the rights of every American to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course corporate executives opposed his ideas, and they opposed them vehemently. But in Roosevelt we had a president who simply didn’t care. His response? “I welcome their hatred.”
Roosevelt didn’t live to see the realization of an Economic Bill of Rights. But the idea was kept alive, including in the 1960 Democratic Platform as well as the urging of Martin Luther King Jr. There are echoes of it in the current revitalization of the American labor movement. I introduce it now as the basis for the economic u-turn that is at the heart of my presidential campaign. Once again, the people of the United States are demanding economic justice, and the Democratic Party should be listening to those demands, responding to those demands, and turning them into political power.
As president, I will.
I propose a 21st Century Bill of Rights, to include:
An Economic Bill of Rights will initiate a season of repair in America, an economic and societal u-turn which – while it will not be completed in four years – will be fundamentally begun in four years. It is a vision and a construct, both a goal for our society and a process by which we will achieve it. It is meant to inspire and to guide us to a new beginning, and from my first day in office it will be my roadmap. I see it not only as the bulwark for my presidency but the path to a better future for all Americans.
The basic premise of an Economic Bill of Rights is this: that an economy exists to serve its people; the people do not exist to serve the economy. Economic inequality is now worse than at any time in the last hundred years. A Second Gilded Age has taken hold in America, and it’s our turn to repudiate it the same way former generations repudiated the first one. They did not cower before corporate tyranny, and neither should we. Capital should not be a power that lords over people; it should be a power that is ethically and wisely employed in a way that creates dignity, wealth and opportunity for all who are willing to work for it.
From universal health care, to free public college and tech school tuition, to free child care, to paid family leave, to guaranteed sick pay, to a guaranteed living wage, Americans should be granted the same rights – the same economic rights – as are the citizens of every other advanced democracy. These positions are considered moderate in other advanced democracies, and they should be considered moderate positions in the United States as well. Only those who stand to gain financially from withholding these rights; those who have no ethical problem with creating wealth at the expense of other people being able to; or those who have an ideological opposition to the use of government to support its people, would criticize and obstruct the achievement of these rights.
Our political imaginations have been severely limited in the last fifty years, our hard-won rights have been placed under siege, and Americans have been insidiously trained to expect too little. I offer an agenda for an Economic Bill of Rights as a way to free our minds from the invisible chains that bind us, a reminder that the people themselves are the source of America’s wealth, the source of our tax dollars, and the source, with God, of our greater good. The people themselves should be the beneficiaries of the good that the people themselves produce. So said Jefferson. So said Lincoln. So said Roosevelt. And with the realization of the plans I have laid out here, in our time, so shall say we.