Do you believe people don’t work because they’re lazy? Why not offer them a job and prove it?
Jesse Myerson wrote a great piece in the Rolling Stone rolling out five bold ideas for reducing—permanently—the very serious problem of income inequality. As he says in the piece, while some of these ideas may seem outrageous, they aren’t new or untried ideas. In some places, such as Alaska, things like having the government buy up a bunch of stocks and bonds and pay the dividends directly to the people are already in place. The point of the piece is to be bold and to start pushing progressives to think big, particularly as there’s starting to be a lot more support for progressive economics in the larger public. It also caused right wingers to go on major meltdown alert, as Brian Beutler explains.
But conservatives went absolutely apeshit. So severe was the apoplexy that they failed to recognize that included in these ideas were a bunch of things conservatives like — replacing income taxes and replacing paternalistic welfare programs with cash transfers — and that already exist successfully in the non-communist world. It was amazing.
In their rendering, Myerson hadn’t sketched out a road to serfdom. He’d planned a massive frog-march to Siberia for our society.
Part of this was emotional affect. Myerson’s Twitter bio is satirically hashtagged #FULLCOMMUNISM. Combine that with the article’s hyperbolic framing and many conservatives reacted tribally.
He wisely points out that the reason they’re going over the top like this is not because they think Myerson’s going to get his way any time soon on any of these agenda items.
I don’t think the ongoing freakout over the Rolling Stone article is simply a reflection of cultural anxieties. It also reflects an effort to limit the scope of that debate, so that progressive ideas fall outside the sphere of mainstream public debate.
Conservatives, perhaps because they come to the conformist mentality more easily than liberals, tend to be more cognizant of how much political discourse is governed by the Overton window and not by niceties like intellectual honesty and rigor. So they’re attempting to make an example out of Myerson for the rest of liberals: Do not even consider bringing up policy ideas to fix our income inequality problems or this will happen to you. Conservatives are clearly afraid, particularly that the public might warm to these ideas. Which is all the more reason for liberals to start pushing harder. If conservatives are this afraid to have a discussion about income inequality, it’s because they know that it’s a weak spot for them and a strong spot for liberals.
This is particularly true for Myerson’s first suggestion:
1. Guaranteed Work for Everybody
Unemployment blows. The easiest and most direct solution is for the government to guarantee that everyone who wants to contribute productively to society is able to earn a decent living in the public sector. There are millions of people who want to work, and there’s tons of work that needs doing – it’s a no-brainer. And this idea isn’t as radical as it might sound: It’s similar to what the federal Works Progress Administration made possible during Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. vocally supported a public-sector job guarantee in the 1960s.
It’s a piece of received wisdom on the right that unemployment and use of social services is the result of laziness, not lack of opportunities. That’s the justification for cutting food stamps and unemployment benefits. The argument is that the jobs are out there, but people aren’t taking them because they have unemployment checks and food stamps, so all you need to do is take social services away and voila! Full employment. Advocating for guaranteed work, therefore, not only is the right thing to do, but it means calling the conservative bluff on this. “Okay,” you say to conservatives, “How about we start a new WPA and when people come in for food stamps and unemployment, we offer them a decent-paying job on the spot doing work that needs to be done anyway?” If they really believe that people aren’t working because they’re lazy, there’s no danger in making that offer, right? After all, people will turn it down and their point will be proved. But if we’re right—and we are—then we would be moving millions of people out of poverty and into good-paying work that will build up their resume so they can get other jobs elsewhere. That’s a situation conservatives desperately don’t want, so they’re trying to use hyperbole and pile-ons to prevent it from happening. And that’s why we need to keep pressing the point.
I’m happy to say that people seem to be figuring this out, as Hamilton Nolan at Gawker has echoed Myerson’s cry and is also saying it’s time to bring back the WPA.