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The Limitations of Markell’s Political & Economic Vision

As soon as Vice President Joe Biden announced his decision not to run for President, Gov. Markell endorsed Hillary Clinton. I’d like to respond briefly to the rationale offered by the Governor.

The News Journal article says, “Markell has expressed concern about the leftward shift of the Democratic party, a movement recently led by Sanders, as self-described Democratic socialist. Delaware’s governor has said that Democrats should pursue an economic agenda focused on growth, not ‘redistribution,’ and he said policies like raising the minimum wage will not fully address the country’s economic challenges. ‘I think relying on a strategy where all you’re trying to do is turn out your base of liberal Democrats is not a very compelling electoral strategy,’ Markell told Politico over the summer.”

The claim that we should focus on growth rather than redistribution fundamentally misunderstands the current economic and political situation. A huge chasm has emerged in the U.S. and globally between the 1% and the rest of us.

  1. The 1% (who earn over $6 million a year) did not emerge naturally out of changing market conditions. The emergence of the 1% was the result of deliberate political decisions, particularly the lowering of the marginal tax rate on top earners and the successful attacks on the ability of working people to organize to protect their economic standing via unions. (See Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century  and Hacker and Pierson, Winner Take All Politics for more detail.)
  2. Focusing on “growth” is not going to change the fact that most of the benefits from the economy go to the top 1%. If we want to grow the middle class, we need to restore the system of progressive taxation that grew the middle class after the War — a point made by Harold Meyerson in today’s Washington Post.
  3. Condemning “redistribution” implies that the situation that currently exists results naturally from the “free market,” whereas radial left-wingers want to interfere with the “free market” and “redistribute” wealth. However, that is not an accurate description of reality. As Robert Reich explains in his new book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, there is no such thing as a “free market.” Markets are created by governments that establish property rights, coin money, enforce the law, etc. Without government, we have not a “free market,” but a Hobbesian “war of each against all.” The particular system of distribution we have in 2015 resulted directly from the upward redistribution of wealth that occurred beginning in the early 1980s. Reestablishing the system of progressive taxation that underwrote the most prosperous period in world history and produced a prosperous middle class (1945-1980) is no more redistributive than the current regime. None of it is “natural.”

In addition, while Markell is correct that raising the minimum wage “will not fully address the country’s economic challenges,” it will help low paid workers — a growing sector of the economy. Thus, it’s a vitally important part of a plan to get this country back on track.

As far as the Democratic primary campaign goes, I wish that Democratic party leaders would respect the right of the People to decide who they want as their nominee and not try to put their hands on the scale with early endorsements. That said, I also understand the desire of Party leaders as citizens to participate in the political process by endorsing the people they want elected. I understand that tension well, as someone who leads a non-partisan political organization but is also, as you might expect, an active citizen myself.

Here again, though, I take issue with Markell’s rationale. Sen. Sanders is obviously running for President right now, but turning out the Democratic base as an “electoral strategy” is not “all” he is trying to do. Benie and his supporters are also building a movement, and one that will hopefully last well beyond 2016. Moreover, it’s not just the party base that supports Sanders, but also a huge number of people who have not previously been motivated to get involved.

Hopefully, We the People will reclaim our right as sovereign citizens to rebuild the middle class by restoring the economic policies that underwrote this country’s Golden Age of Prosperity.

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