Chapter Seventeen:
Beyond Poverty

With the National Economic Security Program (NESP), we have attempted to define what it will take to guarantee everyone the opportunity to avoid poverty. In deciding what to include in this program, we incorporated only those elements that seemed strictly necessary to establish economic security. Consequently, we excluded many desirable reforms that fail to meet this specific requirement.

In particular, some people recommended that we include a separate guideline on education. At present, a high-school diploma is generally necessary to avoid poverty. But a just society would guarantee a living-wage job opportunity to every adult regardless of their level of formal education. Education should be a means for advancement, not a necessity for survival. Thus, an explicit guideline on education does not meet our program's criteria for inclusion.

We certainly need to improve our schools, and implementing NESP will help in that regard. For one thing, our schools need to do a better job of teaching students how to think for themselves and to question those in authority. Our capacity to develop as a nation depends on our ability to develop the intellectual and creative skills of our people. By adding staff to the classroom and giving students greater incentives to learn, NESP will contribute to the improvement of our educational institutions. Better schooling is one of many examples of how the benefits of economic security will ripple through society. Implementing NESP will expedite progress in many areas that aren't explicitly identified in NESP.

A grassroots movement focused on the bread-and-butter issue of economic security can galvanize support from a strong majority of the American people. In this way, we can overcome our divisions, build broad-based unity, and then take on other fundamental social problems as well. In this regard, the most pressing task is to move beyond incremental reforms that are mere "window dressing" and fundamentally restructure our political and economic system.

Increasingly, ruling elites throughout the world are returning to a system of unregulated "free markets." They argue that private enterprise will solve virtually every problem, if only the government and labor unions will get out of the way and let the market work its magic. As economist Doug Dowd summed it up, “They claim the economy will take care of itself.” Toward this end, free-market absolutists try to discredit the government and eliminate regulations that protect the general welfare. Trust busting, public utilities, progressive taxation, union organizing, and rent control are prototypical targets on this right-wing agenda. Draconian cuts in social-welfare benefits that amount to only a small percentage of the total federal budget serve this larger strategy of tarnishing the government's image. With these tactics, wealthy elites aim to establish governmental policies that allow them to further increase their profits, no matter the human and environmental costs.

Unrestricted free markets, however, carry the seeds of their own destruction. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and eventually consumers are unable to purchase enough goods and services to keep themselves and the system going. This increasing concentration of wealth produces a chain reaction of bankruptcies and unemployment, leading eventually to general economic collapse.

To prevent this often-demonstrated sequence of events, American and European governments since the 1930s have taken vigorous action to control the lust for money and power on the part of wealthy elites. Elected by the people and representing their interests, public officials have proactively promoted the general welfare. In the midst of the Great Depression, for example, President Roosevelt, insisting that the wealthy must recognize their "enlightened self-interest," established new policies that affirmed an active role for the federal government in regulating the nation's economy. After Roosevelt, until the mid 1970s, we had a "somewhat mixed economy" that could be described as "quasi-democratic capitalism," as opposed to "profit-driven capitalism."

Most European countries adopted economic policies based on a similar approach, though they generally have given their national governments a stronger role than has been the case in the United States. Since the Great Depression, Western economies have generally been somewhere in between the model of totally free markets and the model of state socialism, which emphasizes government ownership and price controls. But only the Scandinavian countries established "truly mixed economies."

Since the mid-1970s, however, wealthy elites and right-wing ideologues have mounted a steady assault on governmental responsibility throughout the industrialized world. This campaign has been largely successful in steadily moving the global economy back toward unregulated free markets, especially in the United States. These forces have not yet been completely successful, however. Even in the United States, the right-wing hasn't totally dismantled social-welfare policies established initially by the New Deal. The American system remains somewhat mixed, though it is primarily and increasingly profit-driven.

The pendulum may soon swing back toward democratic capitalism. The defeat of Gingrich's Contract with America, recent widespread strikes in France, and the electoral victories of social democrats in several European countries are encouraging signs. If and when new movements for economic justice build steam, we the people need to improve on the policies of the New Deal and European social democracy, while embracing their key principles. We must make democratic capitalism more efficient and more effective. Maximizing decentralization in the administration of federally-funded programs, for example, will minimize the problems associated with government bureaucracies.

But we must fundamentally alter the current profit-driven system. We must challenge the claim that maximizing profits is the top priority and put "people before profits." We must insist on public controls that will protect the environment and enhance the quality of people's lives. We must insist on public policies and public enterprises that will meet needs that the profit motive will never address. Where the private sector is not doing the job, we must enact public policies that will.

The National Economic Security Program (NESP) is only a first step in this larger project to establish democratic control of the economy. Free-market dogmatists assert that only the private sector, motivated by the quest for profit, can create jobs. NESP is based on the proposition that this claim is blatantly false. The federal government can and must guarantee every adult a living-wage job opportunity - as well as assure the retired and disabled a non-poverty income. Confronting the issue of economic security, therefore, challenges the dominant ideology that idolizes profit. Establishing economic security for all will require restructuring the economy so that it is driven by human need (as well as profit). The generation of personal income cannot be left completely to private enterprise; the government must be substantially involved in this vital responsibility.

Working for economic security does not require forsaking other issues, including additional systemic reforms. It's not an either/or question. We can integrate support for specific, short-term goals with support for longer-term end s, and vice versa. But the necessity for economic security is so compelling that the building of a movement with this objective should be a prominent item on our social agenda, if not the first priority. We urge you to join us in this effort.

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