I’m ready to wager that when the campaign of 2012 is all over, President Obama’s speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas will be seen as the turning point that led to his victory in November 2012. Readers of this blog know that I have long cited Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Movement (outlined in his own speech at Osawatomie 101 years ago) as one of the high water marks in American politics. The great historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the progressive reform movement “was the effort to restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was widely believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the great corporation and the corrupt political machine.” That of course is the effort that we must undertake today.
My first request is that you read the whole speech. It is one of the finest examples of progressive political oratory in my lifetime. It is part history lesson and part economics seminar. It is throughout, bracingly beautiful.
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.
It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
Remember that in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history, and what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class – things like education and infrastructure; science and technology; Medicare and Social Security.
Yesterday on my Facebook page, one of our regular correspondents, Alex Bowles wrote, “I’m beginning the think the entire Fox/GOP nexus comes down to a single objective: not pricing externalities.” This fundamental notion of the Right is ironically, “the socialization of unwanted costs.” I think this is a profound insight that will go to the heart of the battle for American Democracy in the next 11 months. The core idea of this “free market” religion is that every individual and firm should try to “maximize their welfare”, leaving it to the rest of us to clean up their mess. Anyone watching last Sunday’s 60 Minutes, would see this principle in action where Mortgage bankers at Countrywide and Citibank took huge bonuses, while committing fraud and sticking taxpayers with the bill. Anyone observing the Coal industry lobbying , sees this principle in action–stop regulation, so the Taxpayer has to pay for the cost of their pollution.
As I have pointed out in my new book, Outlaw Blues, these battles between the oligarchy and the people have been fought since Jefferson battled Hamilton for the soul of America. We may never reach a final resolution until the Supreme Court stops proclaiming that “Money=Speech”, but if Obama’s speech yesterday is the frame on which is willing to battle for the next 11 months, it is a fight worth engaging in.