The President’s State of the Union Address
January 27, 2021
7. Economic Rights
I spoke earlier of affordable electricity an economic right. We Americans have always placed great importance on our political rights, beginning in the 1770s when the political liberties of our founding ancestors were under siege by a British king. But political rights are just one side of a two-sided coin, and—unfortunately—we Americans have never given nearly enough attention to the economic rights on the other side of the same coin.
Everybody needs at least enough income to buy the basic needs of life—adequate food, adequate clothing—and adequate shelter, which of course includes electricity and other utilities. And let us not forget, the basic needs of life in modern America also include guaranteed health care when you need it; dependable transportation; insurance that the law requires you to buy; and income security in your retirement years. Along with these lifelong needs, young adults face the dilemma of whether to get a job or—if they can afford it—pay the costs of a college education or starting their own business.
Economic needs are a lifetime concern for everyone who is not rich—and that’s almost all of us, for we are and always have been a middle-class nation. Expressed another way, most Americans have always known how to be resourceful, to pursue happiness on small incomes, and oftentimes did not know that they were “poor.”
But that was our first two hundred years. Today, if we regard our basic living necessities as economic rights, then it becomes clear that economic rights are the real American dream. Today, if you can’t afford these needs—all of them—your lifestyle, your life choices, and your political rights are limited at the starting gate.
How much genius have we wasted because bright but truly impoverished American citizens simply could not afford to develop the talents they were born with, and become all that they might be—in this world famous land of opportunity, to which so many still hope to immigrate?
Nobody—nobody—can make a rational argument that economic rights are not fully as important as political rights—as essential as voting rights, and civil rights of every kind. Indeed, our Bill of Rights is the singular innovation that has made America unique—and great—ever since 1789, when we began this great experiment in self governance.
Political rights and economic rights—each is essential for maintaining the other. If you are dealing with the many stresses of being poor, it is often hard to take off from work to exercise your political right to go vote. But if you can’t or don’t vote, one of the most basic and important protections against being poor is not helping you—and we all know that some candidates for public office care more about personal economic rights than do others. Have you ever failed to get out and vote for a candidate who favored a higher minimum wage that would make it a little easier for people to afford basic living needs?
Within the coming month I will initiate a constitutional amendment to incorporate economic rights into the Bill of Rights. Along with it I shall send a bill asking the Congress to enact into law a requirement that every American worker must be paid at least a living wage—at a level adequate for paying basic living costs in each region of our nation. I will shortly have more to say about new jobs and living wages.
A companion bill will expand our wonderful Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans’ Health programs in ways which guarantee every American citizen has health coverage for life.
For well over half a century we have talked this health insurance topic to death. While a minority has been hell bent on protecting their profits, tens of millions of Americans who could not afford the exorbitantly high price of health insurance suffered and died before their time. While every other developed nation on the planet long ago created health care security for their citizens, for long decades we have dithered over a silly ideology that despises the thought of government using tax dollars to sponsor health care that really, really well serves the common good of all the people.
No more. We are going to put a stop to the American disgrace of our citizens in their middle age facing medical bills so enormous that they lose their homes and are reduced to poverty—not to mention the loss of health and productivity they need to build up savings and social security credits for an economically secure retirement in their sixties.
My friends, Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans’ Health Program are single-payer systems under the full faith and credit of the United States of America. Between the three of these enormously successful government-sponsored health programs, there is no American in any situation that cannot be assured of health care when you need it.
These three programs most certainly have the negotiating power to hold down—and bring down—the outrageously inflating prices for drugs and medical care. Remember: the problem is not the health care “costs” we continually hear about. The real problem is health care “prices.” And somebody sets every one of those prices—with profit carefully built in. Your government does not have to make a profit—all it has to do is administer a breakeven budget. And that’s just the first of many advantages in a single-payer system.
Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Health Program are long-established economic rights. Let’s get on with using them to cover every American.
As to poverty-level wages and income more generally, we are long past time and way overdue to fix the persistent and shameful problem of poverty in the most fabulously rich nation in the history of the world. Accordingly, I will shortly describe how our American free enterprise system can easily afford to pay these new—and definitely higher—living wages without a dime of it passing through our federal budget.
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8. Economic System
I have said that every working American needs to earn at least a living wage, that every household needs a living income, that political rights and economic rights are two sides of the same coin. Widespread poverty still degrades life for a great many of our American compatriots, and so there is more that must be said on the economic side.
We very much need some reforms and refinements to the economic system we use in the United States. In a democratic free nation that prefers to run its economy on the basis of free enterprise, the question before us is how to ensure that every last American citizen gets a reasonable share of America’s big economic pie—at least enough to stay alive on, which means big enough to buy all those economic rights. Well, let me say right now: We can do it. I want to talk about how we will do it, as well as why we must do it.
My fellow Americans, we waste a lot of money. This nation is home to giant corporations that earn mega-billions of dollars every year—but use offshore offices and manipulative accounting devices to avoid paying their fair share of U.S. taxes. The taxes they don’t pay amount to billions of dollars that must be made up in the taxes everybody else has to pay.
Then there’s the exorbitant phony profits carried off by parasitic traders who buy up thriving companies, raid their pension funds, sell off their assets, lay off their employees, then use premeditated bankruptcy to leave town with all the money. In their wake are chaos, poverty and ruin where there used to be productive, loyal, American businesses. Why have we continued to let these outrages happen?
We read about obscenely huge salaries paid to corporate CEOs, plus big bonuses they receive regardless whether the corporation prospers and even while their employees are paid peanuts. Is that reasonable? I ask: What are corporations’ responsibilities to the society that birthed them? These big prosperous organizations benefit hugely from the privilege of being “made in the USA”—so don’t they owe a fair deal back to the USA?
A lot of our waste is fairly invisible—such as tax loopholes that were initiated sixty or eighty years ago as incentive to develop some industry that was desirable at the time. In many cases those loopholes are still there today, failing to collect the rightful taxes half a century after they should have been abolished.
This is a long list of wrongs, folks, and I’ve barely begun. In every case, all the little guys have no choice but to pay their small fair shares of the nation’s tax bill. But they, and all the rest of us, also have to make up the taxes the big rich corporations should have paid but did not. This sorry situation didn’t happen overnight, so today I’m going to dig a little deeper. I’m going to talk about how we ourselves allow such unconscionable economic wrongs to develop in the first place, and how we are going to fix them.
My fellow Americans, our nation has serious economic problems, and they are growing worse. The state of our union forces us to take an up-to-date look at the capitalist economic system we have used since before this nation began. Capitalism is the system and the corporation is its vehicle.
As a way of doing business, capitalism and corporations have served us well—mostly. But there have been times—like the Great Depression, and the real estate crash of 2007-08—when capitalism nearly ruined us. We very well know that free market capitalism can be grievously undependable, so what can we do differently?
We long ago rejected the economic mess called communism, because it operates so unnaturally it can only be maintained by despots who value state control more than personal freedom. The hybrid economy called socialism is of course a very different matter—socialism is a system that combines compassion with common sense, and can be operated with complete democracy, as many European countries do today.
We use socialism very sparingly in this country. In general, our only uses of socialist economics are to place our local, state and federal governments in charge of enterprises that inherently are public functions. These include things such as streets and highways, parks, water and sewer systems, and other natural monopolies.
They are social enterprises that work best under government supervision, and should never be privatized. Our best examples of socialism used wisely in the USA are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration. No programs ever served the American public better than these do.
It is natural for government to run some things and private business to run others. Historically, we Americans have agreed that capitalism is our preference for the private side of our free enterprise economy. We still do. In general, that great capitalist gambling casino we call the stock market has also served us well.
But as every gambler knows, casinos have drawbacks. We are taking enormous risks by running the private part of our huge economy—complete with Wall Street, stock markets and financial speculators—as if America were one giant casino By any definition, stock markets are a form of gambling. And we all gamble: we put our savings and our pension funds in stocks, hoping our money will be safe, and make us more money.
Unfortunately, throughout our history since colonial times, the stock market suffers a crash or serious recession, on average, about every twelve to fourteen years. Sometimes longer, sometimes less, but 12-14 years is the average between serious downturns. We always dig our way back up, recover, and start all over again—but only after millions of people suffer bankruptcies, foreclosures and years of misery.
What a waste of money and human comfort. Recoveries are possible only because we are a free and democratic society, free to exercise options, to ever start over and try new ways of doing business.
In plain simple language, here’s how capitalism works. People have no choice but to buy the economic necessities of daily living—things we all must have, such as adequate food, transportation to get to work, and paying the electric and doctor bills. Capitalism refers to these goods and services that people must have as “demand.” Corporations and other sellers supply that demand by selling us things—manufactured goods like pots and pans, and services such as insurance. In theory, the supply equals the demand.
But in many ways this is no longer true. Today supply often exceeds demand. Economists call it supply-side economics. Manufacturers don’t just respond to what the people need and demand. No, they manufacture a humongous supply, and then pull out all stops on advertising to create demand that will spend, spend, spend to buy their supply. The emphasis has been shifted: away from the citizen consumer, and to the ever-growing corporation supplier.
Supply-side economics started in 1980. And it brought to an end the longest period of unbroken prosperity in the nation’s history—thirty-five years when we had the largest middle class and the lowest poverty ever, before or since. During those good years our government regulated corporations more tightly than at any other time in our history.
But after forty years of steadily killing off the governmental regulations that were originally put in place because they were needed to protect consumers from corporate abuses, we are faced with deeply serious problems that must be fixed. And they’re the same problems we had with corporate abuses so many times before, especially preceding the worst-ever Wall Street crashes of 1929 and 2008.
As regulations go down, corporate abuses go up. Along with them, sad to say, the economic wellbeing of All the People has been going steadily downhill ever since 1980. How many of you remember Enron? Lehman brothers and the bundled subprime mortgage derivatives? More recently, and repeatedly, the Wells Fargo scams? We seem to never learn what it takes to stop these problems once and for all.
Some corporations have grown so huge, so ubiquitous in our economic lives, that we call them “too big to fail”—as if we couldn’t possibly live without them. So many of them have grown excessively large by creating, or importing, huge supplies of stuff—and then advertising on every billboard, TV, t-shirt and tennis shoe to persuade people to spend the grocery money on stuff they don’t really need. Like good supply-side believers, they supply all this stuff whether there’s any need or demand for it or not. They refer to store shelves overflowing with cheap merchandise as “prosperity.”
Let me just say for the record: The deep satisfaction and happiness of true prosperity has nothing to do with giant container shiploads of cheap plastic merchandise. And this out-of-control supply-side economic blather would not matter if we all had plenty of money, and if corporate size and behavior had not become problems in and of themselves.
But we don’t all have plenty of money and they have become problems. Today many corporations have grown so gigantic that they no longer serve the common interests of the United States, nor do they serve We the People. Huge multi-national corporations in fact serve no nation—they serve themselves alone. An increasing number of corporations doing business around the world have grown so huge and so rich that their finances exceed the whole budgets of many nations.
Some corporations are themselves equivalent to nations without borders. Answerable to nobody, they cut to the bone their employees’ wages, their benefits, their pensions and every other conceivable cost—all for the purpose of transferring truckloads of wealth from their customers to their bosses and, coincidentally, the stockholders to whom they are legally obligated. Then they advise their impoverished employees to go apply for government welfare—further enriching themselves at further expense to the taxpayers.
They show no shame when they do these things.
Many have become so powerful their influence controls which trade goods sovereign nations may import and export. Expert at shifting money around the world at digital speeds, they have also become expert at avoiding their fair share of taxes owed to the many nations in which they do their business. Giant modern mega-corporations represent capitalism run amok, out of control, owing allegiance to no nation, and showing none.
Let us recall that tobacco and coal made perfect sense in their day. Corporations did too, in days gone by. They served American interests fairly well for over two hundred years. Today, however, many corporations have grown too big, and—not unlike communism—they are controlling. Today’s giant corporations are trying to control everything that stands in the way of their endless wealth accumulation. And so far they are succeeding.
Adding insult to injury, corporations’ controlling ways in recent years have been badly affecting American consumers, voters, and elections. No more. My fellow Americans, we need to make some corrections and it’s high time we get to it.
Today’s runaway capitalism is not like the old capitalism that served us until 1980—the year in which our elected leaders invited in supply-side trickle-down economics to guard the henhouse. That’s the year in which prosperity for the many started down the path to obscene wealth for a few at the expense of the public common interest of everybody else.
When large corporations eat each other, becoming bigger and ever bigger, that leads to monopolies, and monopolies mean the end of meaningful competition. An economy without real competition defines a society that is sliding downhill toward economic tyranny. Every tyrannical nation the world has ever known has a few super-wealthy aristocrats and hordes of hungry peasants. That’s why Americans have always been vigilant against those who would degrade our democracy.
By any standard, accumulating great wealth in the hands of a few offers no assurance—none—that they will use that wealth to create jobs here in America. Proof that they mostly don’t is seen in the fact of our enormous losses of jobs over the past forty years.
By any standard, the idea that some of that great wealth will “trickle down” to the rest of us was always a hare-brained notion—and, like supply-side economics, it has been a failure since it started. The only thing it has accomplished is making almost all Americans less well off than we used to be.
By any standard grounded in moral and ethical human behavior, the corporate leaders and politicians who worship this new supply-side religion are harming the American people. And they will continue harming us unless we turn our capitalist system back toward a more sensible, more humane, ways of doing business in this country.
This bizarre, rapacious new extreme form of capitalism—greedy for huge profits, the public interest be damned—is causing great divisions and great problems in our nation. Most damaging of all to our democracy is gross income inequality. I mean the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few super rich individuals, causing the middle class to keep shrinking and the number in poverty to keep growing.
My fellow Americans, this threat to our nation has been tolerated far too long, while Republicans cheered and Democrats went right along. These economic injustices are going to stop. Reversing them and repairing the damage begins today, right now.
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…to be continued…
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