According to the Associated Press: "The nation's unemployment rate dropped to 9.4 percent last month, its lowest level in 19 months. That was because more people found jobs, but also because some people gave up on their job searches."
It's time to stop kidding ourselves. Despite the rise of private employment in December, the jobs crisis isn't over. While the narrow measure of unemployment is 9.4 percent, the more telling jobless rate also compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistic (U6) is 16.7 percent.
Meanwhile, the country is careening to the right and progressives are partly responsible. We can cry all we want about the distortions of Fox News, Rush, Palin and the Republicans in Congress, but the truth is that progressives (liberals, the left or whatever you want to call us) lack the compelling, coherent vision we need to deal with the enormous unemployment crisis.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself: Just what is the left's plan to create the 22 million full-time jobs we need to get back to a 5 percent unemployment rate (the going definition of full employment)? Where's our plan for creating the equivalent of 650 corporations the size of Apple, each employing about 35,000 people? Do we really think it's enough to beg the Republicans for a larger stimulus program?
So... where's the plan? There may be bits and pieces of it lying about, but there's no widely discussed and shared vision that progressives can claim as their own. We have nothing to compete with the right's mantra of shrinking government, stamping out regulations and cutting taxes, (especially for the well to do.)
Why is that? Whatever happened to the left's focus -- even obsession -- on the economy? Over the past generation most progressives have stopped talking about alternative economic visions. How different this is from a century ago. At the turn of the 20th century, radicals of all stripes had competing blueprints for creating a more equitable society that would upend the gilded age's concentration of power and wealth.
Those who believed in socialism saw state ownership and central planning as the answer. Others favored a society of producer cooperatives. Many more, including lots of government officials and academics, called for a mixed economy with a strong emphasis on bringing up the bottom through social security, the minimum wage, wage and hours legislation, unemployment insurance and socialized health care. No matter what kind of progressive you were, no matter your issue area of work, you had a plan for the overall economy.
So when the Great Depression hit, there was no shortage of ideas for how to retool America. Much of the Socialist Party platform from a decade earlier morphed into the New Deal. The freshly minted Tennessee Valley Authority created a regional planned economy, bringing a devastated rural area into the modern world. And of course, the government put shackles on Wall Street, which kept it from playing its dangerous speculative games and upending the economy for the next 50 years.
God knows the 1960s spawned another wave of alternative everything -- including economics. As part of the youth rebellion, all kinds of cooperative projects sprang up -- from collectively run businesses to communal farms. Some of these survived and even flourished. But most of that progressive energy evolved (or diverged) into a number of specific and often successful movements for change in everything from gender roles and identity to media, health, education, and the environment.
Meanwhile, alternative big-picture economics just about dropped out of view (except for a rump group of radical economists who got into academia and focused most of their energy there). I recall many discussions with progressive organizers during the 1970s and 1980s about how we needed to keep some focus on macro-economics -- the rising concentration of wealth, the growth of giant corporations, the rising power of finance. But, most progressives warned me that such conversations were irrelevant to the "real" day-to-day organizing we had to do. Focus on short-term winnable issues, I was told. By the 1990s and 2000s, most of us were firmly planted in our issue silos (healthcare, education, the environment, labor), doing good, practical work in our unions and nonprofits and government hideaways. But, talking about large-scale economic reform was considered pie in the sky.
And then, in 2008, the sky fell: We experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And we were not prepared. In truth, progressives as a whole haven't had much to say. It's hard to find anyone with a coherent program that matches the magnitude of the problem or offers a vision that could capture the imagination of the American people. Progressives don't share a common analysis or a common vision for the future -- or if we do, we're not talking enough about it. For all of our practical organizing prowess, we've offered no progressive alternative to the Tea Party.
Instead, it seems that progressives are digging even deeper into their issue silos, hoping to hold onto to what we've still got in the face of the right's impending onslaught. The cause du jour: defend, defend, defend -- Social Security, Medicare, the EPA, and even Obama's inadequate health care reforms.
We're hunkering down as if nothing very profound had just happened. We seem unable to act on the fact that we are going through a game-changing economic event. In fact, everything around us is changing... but us.
Maybe, progressives believed that Obama would do it all for us. But obviously, he's no FDR. He offered no compelling economic vision for the future. His advisors (most of them straight out of Wall Street), used the same economic models that failed to predict the crisis in the first place, to project that the bailout and modest stimulus package would bring unemployment down significantly by the mid-term elections. In fact, their flawed models made them certain that the unemployment rate would peak at 8 percent. Problem solved. Time to move on to other issues. Meanwhile, millions upon millions lost their jobs and homes... and turned on Obama and the Democrats.
Maybe the President couldn't have gotten a huge jobs programs through Congress no matter what he did. But that's not the point. During his first two years in office, Obama could have shown daily concern and involvement with the jobs crisis. He could have showed up at unemployment lines each week. He could have served as Educator in Chief to help Americans understand how Wall Street created the crisis and how it had to help pay for the mess it created. He could have given the unemployed hope. In the process, he could have fanned the flames of populism, helping us build a movement that might have forced Congress to put America back to work. Instead, we have the Tea Party, while Obama hires more Wall Street moguls, hoping that might do the trick.
But, we still don't have a plan.
And yet it's staring us in the face. Our narrative begins like this:
• Wall Street created and profited wildly from the crisis and from the public bailout. Their greed and their casinos caused the crash. And now, they're back to business as usual.
• It's time for them to pay for the jobs they destroyed and for the deep budget deficit created by the crisis and the bailout.
• It's time for a 50 percent windfall profits tax on all financial firms until unemployment falls to 5 percent.
• It's time for a financial transaction tax to slow down the speculative casinos--and to fund jobs.
• It's time to end the hedge fund tax loophole by treating all hedge fund billionaires' income as income instead of capital gains.
• It's time to put America back to work rebuilding our infrastructure, weatherizing our homes and businesses and teaching our children. And while we're at it, how about free-higher education at all public colleges and universities? Where will the money come from? Wall Street.
I don't claim this is the perfect progressive jobs agenda. In fact, no one person could create such a thing. Instead, we need an economic summit of progressive leaders to do the hard work of building a strong jobs agenda. They also need to come up with a strategy to ensure that every American knows about that agenda and has a way to act on it.
Nothing is certain but this: the vast majority of Americans want Wall Street to pay for the damage it has caused.
The field is wide open, because while the right might have rhetoric, it does not have a plan to create the jobs we need. In fact, their budget-crushing and union-busting will only exacerbate the economic mayhem. There still is time to build a progressive economic agenda. But first we'll have to climb outside of our comfortable silos and start talking with the American people -- and each other.
Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009. He is currently working on a new book, How to Earn $900,000 an Hour: The Rise of Wall Street Billionaires and the New Class War, (hopefully to be published in 2011).