I will be celebrating (mourning?) my twentieth year since coming to work in Washington next year. I came here with the Clinton team, and even though I was President Clinton’s liaison to the progressive community, I still came to town with a bunch of moderate Democrats. Given my banging away on so many topics in my blog posts, I do get asked from time to time whether I have moved to “the left” over the years. The answer is absolutely not. I still believe virtually the same things about politics and the economy I believed a couple of decades ago, including:
1. That the America I grew up in during the 1960s and ’70s, which had a broad and prosperous middle class and a sturdy safety net for those down on their luck or too old to work, was a great country to live in for most Americans, but that the middle class had been squeezed right and left by big corporate interests and the conservative movement.
2. That the growing extremist conservative movement, which had taken over the Republican Party, blindly worshiped the free market along with the wealthiest and most powerful among us, and was determined to roll back social progress of all kinds.
3. That the Democratic Party was deeply flawed because too many Democrats were not willing to fight for progressive policies that would help the middle class and poor, but that they sure were better than the scary extremists who controlled the Republican Party.
4. That party politics alone would never win the progress we needed; that we need a strong progressive movement to fight the good fight.
5. That the New Deal and Great Society policy victories of the 1930s through the early ’70s were what moved this country forward more than any other set of policies. Social Security and Medicare gave senior citizens a measure of economic security they never had before. Labor unions were able to grow and expand, ensuring that middle-class incomes would rise, and that more working class people would get a secure foothold in that middle class. Banks were strongly regulated and kept to a reasonable size, ensuring that the financial crises that periodically wracked the country’s economy in the decades before and after those years didn’t happen. The minimum wage, the end of child labor, OSHA, and the 40-hour work week ensured more dignity and safety on the job. A wave of school building, the GI Bill, Pell Grants, the development of community colleges, and other educational initiatives meant that more Americans got good educations than ever in history. Civil rights, voting rights, and new anti-discrimination laws for women meant far more fairness and equality of opportunity for all Americans. Unemployment compensation, Medicaid, school lunch programs, food stamps, Head Start, and legal services meant that even low-income Americans had a modest amount of financial security in the hard times. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Superfund acts made our environment far cleaner for all citizens. All of these new policies helped create the wealthiest economy, and most prosperous middle class in world history, and that our goal in politics should be to build on that success rather than tear it down.
I believed all that the day I moved to Washington to be part of the Clinton administration, and I believe it still, so I don’t feel like I have moved to the left at all. I feel very certain that I am solidly within the mainstream of the Democratic Party and progressive thought in America.
But I do think something important has changed. The corporate stranglehold on our media, government, and ideological parameters has shifted, and the Bob Rubin wing of the Democratic Party has grown steadily stronger.
When we Clintonites came to town, Rubin and protégées like Larry Summers came with him, and they won more battles than they lost. But us crazy populists inside the administration, with the help of some key Democrats in Congress, the labor movement, and other progressives in the party, still won some battles, too. The concentration of power (both economic and political) in several industries, banking especially, has grown — exponentially and dangerously. Let me turn to several examples of articles that have come out in recent days to make my point.
Check out this really scary article by Bill Greider on “How Wall Street Crooks Get Out of Jail Free.” This is one of several articles that has come out in recent months, most prominently by former S&L prosecutor Bill Black, about the complete failure of the justice system to prosecute a very fundamental crime called “control fraud”:, the crime where executives of the company use their control of the company to commit fraud against their customers, investors, shareholders, and/or fellow employees. That is exactly what happened with the S&Ls in the 1980s, and it is a big part of what happened in the financial collapse of the last few years. But as Greider explains, our system has become so warped by power and money that none of the many crooks who were at the heart of the economic crisis of the last few years has gone to prison — and the implications of that for society as a whole are deadly.
Another tremendous piece that is a must-read is a new article by Richard Eskow. I am very biased on this score, because I have written a couple of pieces myself on the topic of how big the mortgage crisis is versus the budget issues in the headlines, but Eskow lays down some great charts that really do a great job of summarizing the numbers on this. The difference we could make in terms of economic impact by actually standing up to the Wall Street bankers and writing down underwater mortgages is so much bigger than anything going on in the federal budget fight (as important as that it is).
Here’s another thing to check out: Neil Barofsky’s powerful and stunning indictment of where we went wrong on TARP. The big banks did get rescued, and things came out great for them, but all the promises made about protecting home values and preserving home ownership did not.
Finally, let me strongly urge you to read Stephen Lerner’s terrific rejoinder to Glenn Beck’s ridiculous attacks on him. In a country where bankers commit blatant fraud on their own shareholders, investors, customers, and fellow employees, thereby crashing the entire economic system; where middle-class homeowners get (sometimes illegally) foreclosed on by bankers who don’t bother to keep their paperwork in order; where those same fraudulent bankers who crashed the world economy not only don’t get prosecuted but actually get to keep their jobs and get to pay themselves record bonuses… in that kind of country, it is only right and natural that organizers like Lerner want to try and take to the streets and disrupt things.
So, no, I am not one iota more radical than I was when I came to D.C. with the Clinton administration two decades ago. I still believe in helping elect good Democrats, and working within the system to make change. But if the system itself becomes more and more corrupted by concentrated power, it is up to all of us to take to the streets, do whatever we can to take on these banks, and raise hell.