Building and paying for a social democratic America

By Mstyslav Chernov (Self-photographed, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are part of the American left, middle, or the non-crazy right, you need to read Lane Kenworthy’s “Social Democratic America”. I’m coming a little late to this party. His book was published in early 2014, and I wish I had heard about it at the time.

Kenworthy lays out an honest, clear, evidence-based argument for why the U.S. should adopt policies that improve the economic conditions of all Americans and – this is important – how we can afford these policies. He also offers a hopeful view for liberal activists and politicians that success is indeed possible in our modern, highly polarized, money-saturated political system.

Kenworthy takes the Nordic countries – mainly Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – as the models for what successful, just economies look like. There are solid reasons to do so. The citizens of the Nordic countries tend to more economically secure and prosperous. And – note this conservatives – the Nordic countries score as well as the U.S. when it comes to economic “freedom”, as defined by the Heritage Foundation.

So, how is this all possible? Step one: taxes. Tax everybody more.

Back in 2007 – at the peak before the housing, financial, and economic crashes – all forms of government in the U.S. (local, state, and federal) spent 37% of GDP, a measure of our national income. Kenworthy would increase that to 47% though a variety of new and increased taxes:

  • 5.0%  National consumption tax (VAT) at a rate of 12%, with limited deductions or a small flat rebate
  • 2.0 %  Return to the 2000 (pre-Bush) federal income tax rates
  • 0.7%  Several new federal income tax rates for households in the top 1%, increasing the average effective tax rate for this group by an additonal 4.5 points
  • 0.6%  End the mortgage interest tax deduction
  • 0.7%  Carbon tax
  • 0.5%  Financial transactions tax of 0.5% on trades
  • 0.2%  Increase the cap on the Social Security payroll tax so the tax covers 90% of total earnings, as it did in the early 1980s
  • 0.3%  Increase the payroll tax by 1 percentage point

Depending on how they’re structured (the devil is always in the details), many of these new taxes would hit higher income people harder. But when I wrote above that Kenworthy had an honest plan, it was mainly because of the inclusion of a value-added tax. The VAT, which is a form of sales tax, would hit people who spend most of their money the hardest – in other words, lower income people.

The fact is everyone will need to pay more in taxes. I’m not arguing here that the wealthy already pay all the taxes or that they don’t pay enough. The fact is we end up having roughly a proportional tax in the U.S. And note again that many of the taxes in Kenworthy’s plan are aimed at top income earners.

No, for me it’s mostly political. Given the power that the wealthy have over how we set policy now, I think it’s unlikely that they will shoulder the entire burden. Also, I think there’s an element of citizenship here. If you pay some of these additional taxes, then you are a very real part of the American system – the much celebrated taxpayer! No one can – or should – question your membership in the club.

But more tax revenue is not the end of the story. Now comes part two: spend that additional money on universal programs that improve the economic well-being of all Americans. Some of Kenworthy’s suggestions are:

  • True universal health insurance
  • One year of paid parental leave
  • Universal early education
  • An increased child tax credit
  • Wage insurance
  • The government as employer of last resort
  • Increasing the minimum wage

The overall effect of these and his other suggestions would be to better insure Americans against the vagaries of economic life – which, by the way, is exactly what wealthier individuals do as soon as they can afford it: buy insurance to protect what they’ve managed to accumulate or buy additional services, like day care, to make working life easier. This is simply a program for expanding those protections for everyone. And by expanding these protections, lower income Americans would see their higher taxes offset in real services and benefits. By the way, this does not suggest that government employees have to actually provide the service. They just help people afford it. That’s exactly the way Medicare works – private doctors are paid by the government insurance program.

Altogether, this is the essence of the Nordic model: pay high taxes and use those taxes to fund services and programs that increase economic security and well-being and enhance economic competitiveness for everyone.

Obviously there’s much more in the book. One particularly valuable service Kenworthy provides is taking on the more frequent objections to his plan with evidence from the social sciences. Certainly, evidence doesn’t always win the day (the reality and danger of man-made global warming, for example), but any self-respecting liberal likes to have that in her or his back pocket.

I have more to say about Kenworthy’s book, but I’m going to spread it out over some posts. While you’re waiting, pick up a copy.

One fever, five people, and at least a dozen ways to be grateful

Recently a fever swept through our household. Both of my children and I each were laid low for a few days. Now that we’re fully recovered, it’s time to be grateful. Thats right, grateful. I can think of twelve reasons:

  1. I’m grateful for living in a scientifically advanced world that has knowledge of viruses.
  2. I’m grateful that I can get sound medical advice based on that scientific knowledge.
  3. I’m grateful for living in a medically advanced society that has proven and safe fever-reducing medicines.
  4. I’m grateful that I live in a society where both the medical advice and the medicine were easily accessible.
  5. I’m grateful that I live in a society where both the medical advice and medicine were easily affordable.
  6. I’m grateful that I live in decent shelter with the invaluable technology of air conditioning. (I live in Singapore. If I lived in the far north or south, I’d be talking about central heating.)
  7. I’m grateful that I live in a society where clean water and proper nutrition were easily available and affordable – right in my home, no less.
  8. I’m grateful that we are able to hire help to get groceries and cook and clean while the sickness swept through the house. (More on that in a separate post.)
  9. I’m grateful my wife works hard to get the money and benefits necessary to cover the cost of our portion of #’s 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.
  10. Though my wife did not have to miss work because of our illness this time, I’m grateful that she works in a job where she could if necessary without jeopardizing her income, as is true for many hourly workers.
  11. I’m grateful that I have a supportive family overall. Even the kids chipped in to help once they started feeling better.
  12. I’m grateful I live in a stable society not torn apart by natural disasters or the human-made disasters of war, ethnic conflict, and religious conflict.

I’m sure if I take the time, I could think of more. You can probably think of some yourself.

Let me make some points:

  • If you live today in an advanced, stable society, you are incredibly fortunate. Be thankful for those who went before you and everything they accomplished and built. Honor their memory by expanding it for the next generation.
  • A decent society figures out a way to provide #’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12 to everyone. As for #’s 9 and 11, that’s up to you. You likely already provide #9 on your own. You are to be commended.
  • Everything I’m thankful for on this list became possible because of the right mix of government services and intervention; private, profit-seeking initiative; decent individuals and strong families; and people striving to create a vibrant civil society. It takes everyone and every institution working together to make civilization possible.

Waiting for conservatives to take capitalism and personal responsibility seriously – fracking edition

Today we get a report from Reuters on new research from Oklahoma that the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling into underground wells is likely linked to earthquakes in that state.

Hey, conservatives, listen up.

You often claim to oppose socialism. But this is a kind of socialism – the BAD kind. The oil and gas companies get their profits, while outsourcing a huge cost – earthquakes – to the people of Oklahoma.

And you often claim to support capitalism. This is not capitalism, and it’s not good economics. Capitalism requires that you are responsible for the entire cost of your product. That’s the only way we can properly price a product. That’s the only way we get efficient markets. Etc., etc. Normally this is the kind of stuff conservative economists would tell you, but instead what we usually get from that crowd is opposition to “burdensome” government regulations. Well, sometimes, regulations are just designed to make sure costs are privatized, not socialized. We certainly need some sort of regulation in this case – or maybe just really, really expansive and expensive insurance policies.

Also normally, conservatives, you go on and on about personal responsibility. But where is the personal responsibility of these oil and gas drillers if they allow the costs of earthquakes to be spread to everyone else? This is a basic moral issue, and I don’t hear many conservatives jumping up and down about this one.

Either way, look, fracking is a bad idea for many reasons – water quality, air quality, methane leaks that increase global warming among them. And I have found this assessment to be shared by liberal and conservative people I know. So, opposing fracking and this kind of wastewater disposal shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for many people.

But when a multi-billion dollar industry gets it’s head wrapped around an idea – and then gets to freely use its billions to legally corrupt our democracy and influence our legislators – well, bad things ensue.

Bad for our democratic republic. Bad morally. Bad capitalism.

Elizabeth Warren for Senate Majority Leader, Not President

warrenI don’t have much interest in electing Democrats as such. I’m interested in electing progressives. But in our two-party-dominated system, you do the best you can. And in that light, I found this article by Eric Laursen to be hopeful. In it he describes how the Congressional Progressive Caucus – a group of left-leaning House and Senate Democrats – is beginning to change the conversation in Washington, D.C. Now, maybe the hope in this article is false hope. The change really isn’t significant yet, and Republicans representing the plutocrats and religious right remain thoroughly in charge.

But allowing myself to believe for a moment that there’s a chance of progressives having a real influence, let me reflect on the current possibilities for federal progressive leaders.

First, the presidency. I share the skepticism of many on the left about Hillary Clinton. I believe that she is far too indebted to wealthy interests to be counted on to reliably represent the other 99%. However, I do think she is perhaps the Democrats – and progressives – best choice for president, but only because I believe that she would put up Supreme Court nominees that are friendlier to progressive viewpoints than any Republican.

But how do we keep a President Clinton the Deuce from straying too far? By having a progressive Congress. I realize that might sound ludicrous after the Republican congressional victories last year, but according to some reports, it does not seem out of reach to win back a Democratic Senate in 2016. If that were to happen, then the battle could be on to get Elizabeth Warren elected majority leader, which would be quite a coup if successful. Outgoing minority leader Harry Reid has already admitted that his heir apparent, Chuck Schumer, needs Warren and Bernie Sanders to keep him on the progressive track. Why not just eliminate the middle man? As for harassing Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary, I think Sanders is the right person for that role.

Regarding the House, well, that might take longer to turn around. As has been pointed out, the future of the House is really up to whether Democrats can win back statehouses across the country and take charge of the redistricting process. (Incidentally, that process should be in the hands of independent commissions and not any political party.)

Yes, much of this amounts to a bunch of long shots. But I think progressives would benefit from thinking more about the long game of securing progressive legislatures and a progressive Congress, rather than thinking that a single president – even ones that come to office with a lot of hope – will turn things around all on her or his own.

Come on, progressives, it’s time to talk freedom!


Image by on Wikimedia Commons

We have had four presidential announcements now – three Republican (Paul, Cruz, Rubio) and one Democratic (Clinton).

Of the three Republican announcements, the word “freedom” rings out twelve times. You hear “liberty” 26 times.

How many times do you hear the words freedom and liberty in Clinton’s announcement? Zero, zilch, nada.


As I’ve written before, come on, progressives, we have got to own the concept of freedom!

Freedom and liberty are THE central animating ideas of America. Yes, the concept of equality matters, too. But what is it people want equality of? Freedom!

We cannot keep ceding the ground of freedom and liberty to the right. That’s partly for rhetorical reasons. Many Americans define themselves by their love of freedom and liberty. We’re foolish not to talk those people in terms they understand. But we also have to claim that ground because progressive morals, attitudes, and policies actually DELIVER more freedom and liberty.

Why do we want expanded and guaranteed voting rights? Because in a democratic republic, people should be as free as possible to have the opportunity to choose their leaders.

Why do we want money out of elections? Because all people should be free to have their voices heard by their government, not just those of great wealth.

Why do we oppose discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and sexual orientation? Because we believe people should be free to live their lives and judged by their qualities and actions, not the accidents of their birth.

Why do we work to ensure that people have enough food, a quality education, affordable health care, and financial security? So that they can be free by having the resources and capabilities necessary to pursue their dreams and achieve their aims.

I could go on. The point is that we progressives have to frame our values and goals in terms of freedom and liberty. It’s sweet justice that, unlike conservatives, our framing also matches the reality of our beliefs.

Just sayin’ – Iowa caucuses edition

Let’s take it as a given that the United States is the world’s preeminent nation state and that the U.S. president matters a great deal to international affairs.

That said, there are three BILLION people in China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore (where I live now) that likely don’t care what the three MILLION people in Iowa think will make a good president.

And for that matter, I don’t think I do, either. Well, not more so than any other group of Americans.

Let’s play the generational politics blame game – just for fun

As a good liberal, I prefer to see people as individuals rather than groups. I like to judge people by the content of the character and their actions, rather than characteristics they were simply born into.

But let me take a moment and play the generational blame game in politics. This is going to sound a bit harsh, I suppose. But indulge me – just for fun.

See, I’m 45, so I’ve been labeled “Gen X” for my entire adult life, and my generation has been accused of being a bunch of listless, lazy, directionless, aloof, disconnected slackers – especially when it came to politics. And who was saying those things? Baby boomers, for the most part. After all, they were the ones writing the stories before we came of age. And we, as a group, could only seem dim compared to the energetic glow of the generation that preceded us, with all of its social consciousness, moral superiority, and whatnot.

But where did baby boomer politics get us? The rise of plutocratic right. The rise of the religious right. Inaction on global warming. A stagnating standard of living for the vast majority of Americans. The war in Iraq. A rightward drifting Democratic Party, especially on economic policy. The rise of the Tea Party. Bill Clinton. GEORGE W. BUSH.

No, really, as a member of the much-derided Gen X, I can’t say thank you enough.

And now my generation is coming of political age. We’re starting to enter positions of leadership. But thanks to spending a childhood and early adulthood steeped in the right-wing resurgence, who are our leading lights? Paul Ryan. Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio. Yep, we’re changing things now.

And who are the leading national Gen X progressive political leaders?

<Sound of crickets.>

No, really, help me out here. Maybe I’m missing something.

So, again, thanks, baby boomers. We really appreciate helpful advice over the years and for leaving us in such great political shape. It’s almost enough to get me off the couch.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming, where we forget generational politics and set about making the world a better place.