Start of a New Era

Jeffrey Sachs makes the case that we could be at the beginning of a new progressive era. The first came after the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century,  the second followed the gilded age of the 1920s. Perhaps we are ending the third gilded age, and beginning down the long road of correcting it…..Arlen

The New Progressive Movement

By JEFFREY D. SACHS

New York Times, Nov. 12, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and its allied movements around the country are more than a walk in the park. They are most likely the start of a new era in America. Historians have noted that American politics moves in long swings. We are at the end of the 30-year Reagan era, a period that has culminated in soaring income for the top 1 percent and crushing unemployment or income stagnation for much of the rest. The overarching challenge of the coming years is to restore prosperity and power for the 99 percent.

Thirty years ago, a newly elected Ronald Reagan made a fateful judgment: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Taxes for the rich were slashed, as were outlays on public services and investments as a share of national income. Only the military and a few big transfer programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits were exempted from the squeeze.

Reagan’s was a fateful misdiagnosis. He completely overlooked the real issue — the rise of global competition in the information age — and fought a bogeyman, the government. Decades on, America pays the price of that misdiagnosis, with a nation singularly unprepared to face the global economic, energy and environmental challenges of our time.

Washington still channels Reaganomics. The federal budget for nonsecurity discretionary outlays — categories like highways and rail, education, job training, research and development, the judiciary, NASA, environmental protection, energy, the I.R.S. and more — was cut from more than 5 percent of gross domestic product at the end of the 1970s to around half of that today. With the budget caps enacted in the August agreement, domestic discretionary spending would decline to less than 2 percent of G.D.P. by the end of the decade, according to the White House. Government would die by fiscal asphyxiation.

Both parties have joined in crippling the government in response to the demands of their wealthy campaign contributors, who above all else insist on keeping low tax rates on capital gains, top incomes, estates and corporate profits. Corporate taxes as a share of national income are at the lowest levels in recent history. Rich households take home the greatest share of income since the Great Depression. Twice before in American history, powerful corporate interests dominated Washington and brought America to a state of unacceptable inequality, instability and corruption. Both times a social and political movement arose to restore democracy and shared prosperity.

The first age of inequality was the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century, an era quite like today, when both political parties served the interests of the corporate robber barons. The progressive movement arose after the financial crisis of 1893. In the following decades Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson came to power, and the movement pushed through a remarkable era of reform: trust busting, federal income taxation, fair labor standards, the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage.

The second gilded age was the Roaring Twenties. The pro-business administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover once again opened up the floodgates of corruption and financial excess, this time culminating in the Great Depression. And once again the pendulum swung. F.D.R.’s New Deal marked the start of several decades of reduced income inequality, strong trade unions, steep top tax rates and strict financial regulation. After 1981, Reagan began to dismantle each of these core features of the New Deal.

Following our recent financial calamity, a third progressive era is likely to be in the making. This one should aim for three things. The first is a revival of crucial public services, especially education, training, public investment and environmental protection. The second is the end of a climate of impunity that encouraged nearly every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud. The third is to re-establish the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington.

Read the rest of the article here The New Progressive Movement

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.”

 Boldface added by BPR Editor.
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2 Responses to Start of a New Era

  1. Wishful thinking, Mr. Sachs? I don’t see any substantiive uniting of the many splintered progressive groups. And the corpocracy is stronger than ever and won’t be bowled over by any progressive movement. It will take far more than a progressive movement or any other movement..

    • Don’t be so pessimistic, Gary. For the first time in 30+years we have the beginning of a movement that is uniting a lot of people, especially young ones.
      Conditions have gotten so bad that it can be hidden no longer. Sure, it will be a long and difficult path, with the outcome uncertain, but at least we have the beginning of the energy and involvement needed to make real changes. Think back to the American Revolution, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement. When conditions get bad enough, change can happen. Maybe we’ve gotten to that point.

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