By Orin Levin-Waldman
First published in the Yonkers Tribune.
As we approach the November election with what appears to be a not very good choice between an apparently corrupt and dishonest Democrat and a somewhat buffoonish Republican, we are left to ponder the real issues that aren’t being addressed. Hillary Clinton offers the same bromides we have heard before. She’ll fight hard for working Americans by providing more subsidies where needed, and in an appeal to Bernie Sanders’ voters free college for those families whose income is less than $125,000. And Trump, of course, will make America great again without really telling us what that means.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that both candidates offer empty platitudes which explains much of why a large chunk of the American electorate is angry. Why, you might ask, should they be angry? Because wages have been stagnant for more than 40 years now? Because once well-paying manufacturing (and also unionized) jobs have been replaced with low-paying service jobs? Because higher paying service jobs require skills and the cost of higher education and other retraining programs are too high.
Because the Affordable Care Act did not make healthcare accessible and affordable to all as promised. Because we are living in a global economy and we are forced to enter into trade pacts that only leave American workers more vulnerable. Because the demise of labor market institutions like unions and the minimum wage, that served to bolster wages in the past, have only resulted in growing income inequality, and hence the disappearance of the middle class.
But these are only the economic issues that have piqued voters’ anger while the political class remains tone deaf. Are voters also not angry about politicians who seem content to ram unpopular legislation and/or executive directives down their throats?
After all, it is never the case that the policy is bad or misguided, rather the public wasn’t communicated with hard enough. Could it be that when terrorism hits our shores that Americans will have become tired of being told that it is a matter of insufficient gun control? Or maybe they don’t want to be told how to practice their faith by the President who proclaims to know more than everybody else.
At the moment, the race would appear to be a statistical dead heat and there is no reason, other than the fact that nobody trusts Hillary Clinton, that she shouldn’t be leading Trump by double digits. It isn’t that Trump is any more trustworthy, rather he speaks what is on their mind, which is a political system dominated by insiders who instead of listening to the voters simply manipulate them. They see a system totally non-responsive to those without resources and totally unaccountable. When he says the system is rigged, he appears to speak what people believe.
They see a president that says the Constitution and separation of powers is too inconvenient for him; so he’ll govern through executive orders. There is no question that the nation’s immigration system needs to be overhauled, but you don’t simply ignore the sensibilities of the American public and issue an executive order to immigration officials in the Executive branch to not enforce existing immigration laws. What many voters see is a president effectively saying that certain laws don’t apply to those who govern.
They see a presumptive Democratic nominee publicly reprimanded by the FBI director for careless handling of classified information on an un-secured private email server, but who will not face criminal prosecution because “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring forth charges. Why? Because she is the presumptive nominee and a criminal prosecution can upset a national election. Or is it because the Department of Justice is loathe to prosecute cases it isn’t sure it can win? And yet, what the American public sees is a two-tiered justice system: one for the elite, and another for the little people.
What the American people see in Hillary is a 2016 version of Marie Antoinette: let the little people eat cake. Now they are going to trust her to make their lives better. And yet despite the promises made by Trump to make America great again and how amazing things will be, it is probably the case that few are under any illusions that a Trump presidency will bring back manufacturing and restore the middle class.
To a certain extent, each candidate follows the established formula. Play to those who make the greatest contributions to their campaign. Then purchase the quiescence of others with different programs. After all, the goal isn’t really economic development and shoring up the middle class; it is about winning elections. And yet, the sad part is that many voters already understand this. Obviously the political elites have not gotten the memo.
So let’s try this again. The election should be about the middle class and investing in people and their human capital. That requires a distinction between economic growth (which is what Wall Street is all about) and economic development, which is about actually investing in people and creating jobs. Our candidates are really concerned about growth. Shoring up the middle class at this point probably requires a pseudo mercantilist policy where the larger public interest takes precedence over the pursuit of individual self-interests.
It isn’t enough to simply protect jobs; wages have to be protected too. A wage policy that will bolster the wages of the middle class is essential and so too is the restoration of institutions like unions that give workers voice. Just as American workers need portability in their pensions, they need it in their healthcare. This means that healthcare should no longer be employer based. We should either have a single payer system or employers as part of their benefits would give their workers vouchers so that they can purchase their own insurance. This might bring competition into the health insurance market, thereby driving down premiums.
We need to recognize that manufacturing jobs are not coming back and that the service jobs are the new blue-collar jobs. That means they need to have the dignity that manufacturing jobs of yesterday had. Because this dignity came from unions, service workers need to be organized. If employers aren’t going to reward higher productivity with higher pay, then they need a little push with mandated minimum wages. A mandated minimum would enable employers who want to pay their workers more to do so without having to worry about being undersold by the competition that won’t.
Alas none of the candidates are really talking about helping the middle class. They are simply following the standard formula of empty platitudes and where possible purchasing their quiescence. Perhaps that is why there is so much anger.
Wage Policy, Income Distribution and Democratic Theory By Oren M. Levin-Waldman.
Just published: Wage Policy, Income Distribution, and Democratic Theory:
Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D., Professor at the Graduate School for Public Affairs and Administration at Metropolitan College of New York, Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, as well as faculty member in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. Direct email to: