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Now or Never: a NEW New Deal

If the Biden administration can dramatically improve the lives of all Americans before the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats can keep (or swing) the Senate in 2022 and keep the White House in 2024 and beyond. This requires rolling back 40 years of neoliberal/​neoconservative rule (i.e. socialism for the top 1%, austerity for the rest of us). Biden's playbook should be FDR's first term. In short, a New New Deal. Anything less, and Democrats are finished and the USA will remain fractured beyond repair.
Frank da Cruz
10 November 2020
Most recent update:  Tue Sep 12 06:58:03 2023 EDT
Coulee Dam Construction 1938
Putting America back to work: Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, mural by William Gropper for the US Dept of the Interior, 1938. Click image to enlarge.
I started re­search­ing the New Deal in New York City while Obama was still president; you can see the results here. The idea was to remind Americans of a time when we all (or mostly all) came together, led by a government we could trust, to rescue the country from disasters caused by runaway unregulated capitalism and forces of nature: the Great Depression resulting from the 1929 stock market crash and a severe years-long drought starting in 1934. Massive federal spending by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, carried forward through World War II, transformed a broken and impoverished country into the world's greatest economic powerhouse and ushered in an era of widespread stability and prosperity. Like me, fellow War Baby Joe Biden lived through the postwar boom and remembers it well. Unlike the 75% of the population who are too young to remember, Joe knows what is possible.

Today we have a crisis comparable in magnitude to the Great Depresssion: Civil-War level polarization aggravated by an economy that works for only the super-rich, plus a deadly pandemic killing (at this writing) at a rate of about one 9/11 every two or three days for the past nine months with no end in sight (and as of December 10th, every day), and a growing environmental catastrophe of temperature extremes, raging wildfires, hurricanes, heat domes, tornados, floods, increasingly toxic air and water, species extinction, and on and on. And a federal government completely unconcerned with all of it.

How did we get here?

USA income distribution 1960-2018
USA income dist­ribu­tion 1960-­2018. Source: Zucman and Saez;  click to enlarge.
The Obama administration came on the heels of decades of growing economic disparity, senseless wars, privatization, oustsourcing, decaying infrastructure, and environmental degradation brought on by a relentless assault on New Deal programs, laws, and regulations. With his overwhelming electoral mandate Obama could have been the next FDR, but instead he pivoted to Wall Street, the insurance companies, big pharma, and the banks, allowing millions of good jobs to be exported[1] and millions of families to lose their homes, and he launched an overpriced for-profit medical insurance program that left tens of millions without medical care and many more tens of millions with unafford­able medical bills[2].

USA household income brackets 1979-2007
US household income brackets 1979-2007. Source: Congressional Budget Office; click to enlarge
It was the last straw. Millions of Americans woke up to the fact that establish­ment politicians had never done anything but squeeze them dry. Hence Trump: the non-politician "outsider" who promised to put everything back as it was when "America was great", circa 1950. Maybe he even believed it himself but for whatever reason, it didn't happen.

So what have we learned from the last two presidential elections? Above all, that a LOT OF PEOPLE are EXTREMELY ANGRY at establishment poli­ticians. If neither Republicans nor Democrats will do anything to undo the damage of the past decades, then why not vote for Trump? In 2020, a vote for Trump — who was running with no platform — was, for many, a vote to obliterate the whole rotten system.

President Biden

NY Times 5 Jan 1935
NY Times January 5, 1935.
But Biden won after all, most likely with a hostile Senate and definitely a hostile Supreme Court. All hopes are pinned on Biden's "humanity" and "decency" and "compassion" and "bipartisanship" to "heal the wounds" and gain the cooperation of Republican politicians and restore "normalcy". That won't happen. There is, however, a way to win over Republican voters[3]: rather than mouthing empty platitudes, Biden can take DECISIVE ACTION, following a script based on FDR's first term, and launch a New New Deal.

Over the past 40 years, millions of people have lost their secure comfortable lives — union jobs, health plans, retirement plans, and in many cases even their homes — due to arrogant privileged elites of both parties selling them out. The real way to "heal the divisions" is to improve the lives of the angry public by restoring its long-lost prosperity and security.

The way to do this is with massive federal spending, just like in FDR's New Deal and World War II. First with stimulus packages so life can go on until the pandemic is over, and then with public works programs to restore our crumbling transportation, health-care, and education infrastructure, and to build a new clean-energy network and everything else that badly needs doing but that never gets done because there is no profit in it for investors. And finally to find a way to make health care a right for every single person in the country, regardless of ability to pay (if the COVID-19 pandemic taught us nothing else, it is now apparent that if we deny health care to some, we increase the risk to all). The party that provides decent jobs with living wages and good benefits, affordable housing, and health care for everybody before the 2022 mid-term elections (or at least makes credible progress in that direction) will win large majorities in both houses of Congress and prevent a Trump resurgence in 2024[4]. Remember, when FDR delivered for the American people instead of for Wall Street and the banks, he won four consecutive terms.

How to pay for it

The New New Deal can be funded by some combination of taxing the rich and large corporations as they were taxed in the prosperous postwar years, taxing investment income and closing tax loopholes, ending subsidies for powerful interests such as Big Oil, cutting investment in weapons and war and repurposing most of the military as a much-needed domestic disaster-response / reconstruction force rather than a taxpayer-funded world-domination tool of the multinational corporations, and even (if necessary) by "printing money" as FDR did... a concept that provoked horror at the time but in fact works just fine if done right; read about Modern Monetary Theory; somewhat controversial perhaps, but I'd say that if it's OK for banks to print money for home loans, it's also OK to print money to pay real people to do useful work — it flows directly to small businesses and their workers, and from there it spreads throughout the real economy, as opposed to the sham economy of Wall Street, the banks, big investors, and "complex financial instruments". This is not a time to be screaming bloody murder about the deficit; if Republicans can run up trillions of dollars of debt in giveaways to the rich, Democrats can spend trillions on making America functional again, for all of us.

Consequences of not acting

Angry voters vote for Republicans because Republicans offer them targets — scapegoats — for their anger; it's their entire platform. Whereas Democrats offer "hope and change" which they never deliver. But the days are gone when parties can win with happy talk and empty promises. If angry Trump voters (and for that matter, angry Biden voters) don't see TANGIBLE RESULTS in the first 18 months or so, we'll have a solid Red Senate in 2022 (like in 2010 after Obama turned his back on "Main Street"), and this time probably a red House too. Biden will have no power to accomplish anything good (assuming he ever wanted to) and Trump or a clone will be president in 2024. So for Democrats, it's time — as we used to say in the Army — to shit or get off the pot. The billionaires and elites have had a nice ride for the past 40 years at our expense, but time's up.

The Roosevelt Administration lasted 12¼ years, and its domestic afterglow lasted approximately until Reagan in 1980. But even the "good" post-FDR years were poisoned by misbegotten wars like Korea and Vietnam plus CIA sponsored coups in countless countries including Iran, Guatemala, Congo, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Afghanistan, and on and on. In any case, it doesn't seem fair that after just 12 years of good government, Americans and the world suffered through 35 years of so-so government with a very dark side, followed by 40 years of uninterrupted looting and pillage. It can't continue, it's not sustainable, the pendulum has to swing back. Remember: Republicans will never do anything to take the pressure off poor, working, and middle-class people, so if Democrats don't do it either... Next Stop: Mad Max.

Postscript 21 January 2021...
Biden takes office

Biden's first day in office was promising. The past week or two, op-eds in the major publications were finally saying what I said above back in November, good. For example, "Democrats, Repeat After Me: Help People Fast by Ezra Klein in the New York Times, 21 January 2021, where he examines the mechanics of "helping people fast" and concludes that all efforts are likely to die in the Senate unless the filibuster is eliminated. So eliminate it! And then, by simple majority vote, make Washington DC and Puerto Rico* states to get a slight bit more balance in the Senate, and for extra safety also the US Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa — twelve more Democratic senators, payback for all the small-population red states that wield grotesquely disproportionate power in the Senate. Fair is fair.
* "Una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos!" —Jennifer López. Of course it remains to be seen if any of these places would want to be states, and who could blame them if they don't.

Postscript 30 April 2022...
Nothing happens, nothing changes

Progressive Democrats backed off and allowed their Green New Deal package to be split in two. The first part (the "American Rescue Plan") passed and 1.9 Trillion Dollars was appropriated for infrastructure improvements. The second part ("Build Back Better") was not passed. Now, well into the second year of Biden's first term and mere months away from the midterm elections, virtually nobody has seen the benefits of the first package because "the money must make its way through city councils and contract-bidding processes; in some states, the path to deploying funds has been even longer as governors wrangle with conservative legislatures"*. FDR knew that a "business-friendly" approach would backfire, as would letting each state administer the programs. So he implemented his New Deal directly by having the Federal Government itself hire the workers and contractors and purchase the materials and in one case (the Civilian Conservation Corps) he put the Army in charge. That's how the New Deal was able to start so quickly — just three months from inauguration day! — and that's where the Biden administration went wrong; it sent the money to state and local authorities where politicians and bureaucrats could argue about it, sit on it, misdirect it, and, in the end, block progress indefinitely.
* Alexander Burns, "If Biden's Plan Is Like a 'New Deal,' Why Don't Voters Care?", New York Times, 21 April 2022.

Postscript 29 March 2023...
Maybe it's not "The Economy, Stupid" any more

In the 2020s, according to a recent study:
...which says that Americans are motivated more by racial and cultural factors (resentment, hatred, fear) than by economic factors such as income and prices. Those feelings were always there but suppressed for decades, and then unleashed in 2016 by Trump. Couple this with the fact that neither major party will ever do anything real to turn the tide in a significant way towards economic or any other kind of justice, and that one of the parties is openly fanning the flames hatred. Divide and Conquer, it works every time. What does "woke" mean? Basically not to disparage, ridicule, insult, attack, or discriminate against others based on race, color, gender, nationality, immigration status, ethnicity, or any other ascribed characteristic. Now that politicians feel free to rant openly against "wokeness" we can see what "Make American Great Again" really means. It's not a great leap from here to actual fascism (and from there all the way back to concentration camps and/or slavery). I'm not optimistic.

Commentary (from reader comments on articles in The Nation):
  1. Of course the offshoring of American jobs started before Obama, e.g. with Clinton and NAFTA, and before that with a steady trickle of manufacturing jobs to Asia and elsewhere. The point is, why did our government do nothing to protect good manufacturing jobs in this country?
  2. Obama presents his side of the story in a 16-page New Yorker article, Nov 2, 2020, pp.24-29: "The Health of a Nation". Yes, he met with massive opposition from the insurance industry, the AMA, Big Pharma, Republicans, and all the other vested interests, but it appeared to me that he was too ready to cave; rather than "reaching across the aisle" he might have fought harder and made his case directly to the people, perhaps fomenting a progressive answer to the all-powerful Tea Party.
  3. Even if the Georgia Senate runoffs don't yield two Democrats, there are other legal ways Biden could achieve a Senate majority. Republicans have been playing hardball for 40 years, why should they be the only ones? If the Biden administration allows Republicans to obstruct all its initiatives, Democrats and democracy itself are doomed.
  4. Obviously that's not a comprehensive list; other items would include funding states and cities and localities impoverished by the virus and/or Trump; canceling college debt; helping veterans of recent wars like we did after WWII; refunding and reforming public education so students are taught to think, analyze, and evaluate, rather than believe every crazy thing they hear; reopening the many hospitals that have closed during the pandemic and hiring back the laid-off doctors and nurses...  The list has no end.
Further reading: