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Jared Bernstein Headshot

Got Any Spare Change (Theory)?

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As far as I'm concerned, people like me spend too much time on the facts and not enough time on how to build a movement that would marshal those facts on behalf of progressive change in economic and fiscal policy.

As I've written many times, my experiences on the road and in the media often leave listeners and viewers saying "wow, those are really convincing, cogent, and well-documented arguments... but what should we do with them?" To which I do not have satisfactory answers.

To the contrary, I suspect the Koch brothers are perfectly happy to have folks like me running around arguing about the correct deflator to use or the percent of the Ryan budget's spending cuts affecting low-income programs, while they continue to buy "research" that says otherwise and policies that exacerbate inequality.

That doesn't mean we give up on factual analysis. It's what we do best and I will not be convinced that facts are irrelevant.

But neither will I kid myself that facts matter anywhere near as much as they should, or that they will win the day anytime soon. Despite evidence to the contrary, we will be stuck with austerity economics and "Obamacare kills children" for the indeterminate future. More damagingly, we may well be unable to ban assault weapons or take actions against climate change, all due to... what? A missing movement? An inadequate theory of how change occurs? Lack of money? Votes?

These thoughts came to mind this morning reading Frank Sharry's interesting piece in the Washington Post about how the immigrant rights applied what they learned from the gay rights movement to get to where they are today, "To get to this point, we learned three crucial lessons from LGBT activists: We had to build a movement. We couldn't be afraid to challenge our friends in power. And we had to give our cause a human face."

He goes on to point out the while the LGBT activists had deep financial resources, the immigrant rights movement has votes. And especially after Mitt's garnering only 27 percent of the Latino vote, that's an awfully resonant selling point.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the economic rights movement is comprised of those of us who are fighting for:

  • Measures that would push back against rising inequality, like full employment;
  • higher minimum wages and more collective bargaining;
  • better quality jobs;
  • affordable health care;
  • financial market oversight and accountability;
  • fiscal budgets that raise the revenue needed to provide sustenance and opportunity to the least advantaged.

What do we in the economic rights movement have going for us, besides some killer Power Point presentations and engaging blogs? Unlike the LGBT movement, we don't have the money -- by definition, our opponents have cornered that market. Thanks to the unions, we have some troops and clout around elections, and that's been very helpful. But despite the fact that large swaths of the electorate have been hurt by negative trends, bad policy (trickle down tax cuts, debt obsession, and austerity budgeting), stagnant incomes, and sticky poverty rates, we don't seem to have the votes we should.

Like I said, I don't have the answers, and I've gotta go drive kids around to soccer games (perhaps that's what's holding us back!). All I'm saying is that we might have a better future if along with all the powerful graphics, we thought a little more about what it would take to actually implement progressive economic change.