Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Left is still a no-show in American politics

The time for sitting it out is over

Harold Meyerson has a nice piece in the Washington Post today, "A loser of a tax deal" about the declining share of GDP that goes to wages and salaries. "The earned income share of GDP peaked in 1969 at 53.5 percent," Meyerson writes. "In 2012, it was 43.5 percent."

"Where did those 10 percentage points of GDP--currently about $1.5 trillion every year--go instead of to U.S. workers?" he asks. Simply put: corporate profits, a huge transfer of wealth to the owning class.

When those profits are distributed to shareholders, the lion's share goes to the very wealthy, whose income from dividends and capital gains, Meyerson points out, are taxed at a much lower rate than income from wages and salaries. Into the bargain, retained profits are frequently invested by corporations in overseas production rather than domestically. This, of course, reinforces foreign low-wage competition with American workers.

All of this, Meyerson tells us, is redistributionist--a charge frequently lobbed at liberals, but which more accurately describes the right-wing agenda. "Far from mitigating the consequences of this shift [in income from working people to the wealthy], the U.S. tax code reinforces the redistribution from wages to profits," Meyerson writes.

"None of this upsets Republicans, but it would be nice if Democrats realized these tax breaks undermine everything they stand for," he concludes.

Meyerson's column is a helpful, fact-based assessment of the recent fiscal-cliff deal. It is only a minor quibble to observe that Democrats likely do realize that the current tax code, with its favorable treatment of unearned income and overall generosity toward corporations and the wealthy, does undermine what they stand for.

And it's certainly worth pointing out that President Obama might have gotten more in negotiations, if he had been rougher on Republicans. But the deal, unpalatable as it might have been for the Left, nevertheless represented a significant reversal of Bush-era tax cuts in the face of powerful irrational resistance from the Right. The tax on dividend income, for instance, went up 33 percent. That would have been a more meaningful step, if the payroll tax hadn't gone up even more.

In the long run, the fight for economic justice is going to take something more than an aggrieved awareness of how far we are from that happy state. It will take a level of Democratic electoral vigor that isn't possible with a Left that is eternally divided about the wisdom of participating in "bourgeois" politics.

Right now unions and minorities, organizationally and individually, are the only participants in the electoral process who organize and vote based on the interests of working people. A scattering of environmental and feminist organizations and other nonprofits are involved, as well. But there may very well be as many as ten million or more leftists, with organizing, communication and policy experience, who could be running, working and voting in local, state and federal elections; and doing so in a way that would reestablish a liberal agenda as a thing to be reckoned with here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.


  1. 401k's and pension plans made shareholders out of all of us. When unions play the bigger is better game like corporations do, it hands power over to the few in control of those entities. True that corporations have wrestled control of wealth and use the excuse of doing what's financially best for shareholders, thus excusing the handover of power to Wall Street's reaction. Are shareholders the 1% or the diluted mass of people dumping their money into 401k's, unknowingly feeding the beast? Forgive me if I drag a left/right argument into a corporate/local battle, but I think the only way to get the true progressive Left back is via local and grass-roots causes. Once unions became so big that they represented corporate working stiffs, they gave leverage to corporations away from the local union individuals and individual factories that they grew from. Shipping jobs overseas is a lot easier as corporations merged and took choice out of the buying marketplace.
    As long as you still see the Democratic Party representing the Left, you will not get progressive ideas backed. They are now centrist. Left only exists in smaller decentralized organizations and I find them to either be local in nature or cause-focused, geographically dispersed virtual organizations connected mainly by the internet.

  2. Whoa, KP. Chill. You're convicting an awful lot of people, here, for things they didn't do and/or don't believe..

    Let me begin with unions. However big a few union pension funds may be, they are not out there lobbying for lower taxes on unearned income. And they are much more likely to have a socially responsible and, yes, a green investment portfolio.

    Not all unions are progressive and, yes, some unions are quite undemocratic, but, even then, not nearly so undemocratic as corporations.

    Unions may be national, but they got there long after corporations became national and global. Nor is there any such thing as an effective global union. Unions are big (and weak) because the opposition is big. The alternative for unions is to be small (and weak) or non-existent, as is rapidly becoming the case for some.

    I would like to also nod briefly at other union-related considerations, like the fact that unions in the U.S. were forced to negotiate for health care insurance because, unlike other industrial democracies, we do not have national health care. Unfortunately, this made American industry uncompetitive with Germany, Japan and other industrial countries during the late '70s and '80s.

    The response to that was not national health care. It was right-wing arguments for right-to-work laws, and a Reaganite attack on unions, major contributors to three decades of wage stagnation and a rising gap between rich and poor here.

    Shipping jobs to non-union states and then overseas happened for a number of reasons. Private profit in health care driving up costs was one of them. So, ironically, were cuts in corporate income taxes that permitted them to amass capital for overseas, not domestic, investment.

    You seem to think that progressive movements started as local movements. That's only true to the extent that such things begin with the organizing efforts of a few people.

    Anti-slavery, women's suffrage, the right to organize, civil rights, equal pay and lots more were always national issues that needed a national movement--one that frequently acted locally--as in sit-down strikes and civil rights sit-ins and marches.

    Besides, federal money still subsidizes some of the best local projects, like community gardens. Further, three hundred million Americans are not going to go green on their own, or get us to some happy postindustrial future without federal action.

    And, no, I do not see the Democratic Party as representing the Left. On the contrary, I've written repeatedly that it does not and that I think this is so because the Left sits out electoral politics. As a consequence of that passivity, we have conservative economics and precious little space for progressive innovation. More on that in an upcoming post.