(Middle) Class War
An Economist Explains How to Make America Fair Again
You can't accuse Robert Reich of being wishy-washy. The economist, who has served in the Ford, Carter, and Obama administrations and was secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, lets us know what side he's on with the dedication in his new e-book, Beyond Outrage: "To the Occupiers, and all others committed to taking back our economy and our democracy." Outrage is an e-book-only release intended to find a wide audience. It runs about 100 pages long—give or take, obviously, since font size is fluid in e-books—and it costs $2.99 (or $3.99 for an "expanded version" with three videos). Reich wrote it as a manifesto for progressives who want to promote an Occupy-friendly agenda in the next election.
Outrage is divided into three sections. The first explains the growing division of classes and why the United States' gradual slide into economic conservatism has ruined us. If you've been paying attention to our financial mess, this is the slightest of refresher courses, but Reich—an economics professor at University of California, Berkeley—knows to throw in the occasional head-turner of a fact to keep your attention. As an argument to the conservative and libertarian canard about how the wealthy should be allowed to choose the charities and causes they want to support rather than handing that money over to the government, Reich explains that the majority of tax-deductible donations from wealthy people and corporations go toward "investments in prestige" like universities and high-end artistic enterprises such as operas and museums. "I'm all in favor of supporting the arts and our universities," Reich writes, but "only an estimated 10 percent of all charitable deductions are directed at the poor," who really need those funds.
In an America where "more than one in three young families with children (headed by someone thirty or under) [are] living in poverty," Reich says, this is unacceptable. He argues that the middle class is our nation's true economic engine and that decades of stripping away the safety nets that allow lower-class citizens to become part of the biggest middle class in the world is the cause of 2008's economic collapse.
The second section is an extended rant against conservative economic thought. There's some partisan dickery that's sure to turn off the single brave conservative reader who's already ventured this far into the book, but Reich isn't just name-calling. He points out that the Republican imperative to cut taxes as a debt-reduction tool is disingenuous at best: "Extending the Bush tax cuts will add $1.2 trillion to the nation's budget deficit in just two years."
The final third of the book is devoted to solutions. Reich is full of good, big ideas. His previous—and superior—book about the financial crisis, Aftershock, proposed a bold tax plan that promised to energize the consumer economy by providing poor Americans with large rebates—$15,000 annually for those who make $20,000 a year, $10,000 rebates for those who make $30,000 a year, and so on, up to $50,000, where taxation begins in earnest. In Beyond Outrage, Reich suggests that since corporations are considered people, Democrats should popularize a Corporate Pledge of Allegiance promising "to create more jobs in the United States than we create outside the United States," "to keep a lid on executive pay so no executive is paid more than fifty times the median pay of American workers," and "not to use our money to influence elections."
Like the Pledge of Allegiance that Republicans hold dear, this would be entirely voluntary, and those companies that did sign the Corporate Pledge would get to advertise their products with a special logo displaying their dedication to patriotism and fairness. Ultimately, Beyond Outrage is all about fairness: Reich endorses Barack Obama for a second term, but he is clear that Obama needs to step up his support of middle-class Americans, even as middle-class Americans need to speak up for their own trampled rights.
Reich is absolutely a better bomb-thrower than politician. His new agenda of releasing short, prickly tracts every year or so is a good one, and if this e-book earns the audience it deserves, he could change the political conversation for the better. After a lifetime of serving the people, it turns out that his most important role is as a private citizen, speaking for the people who have no voice.