What Elizabeth Warren Gets About The Common Good
“…(P)eople don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” — Chris Rock
“Harder to talk about than sex”
I became aware of the suffering hidden in plain sight in our society, ironically, because of my work consulting at institutions I’ve come to love: wealthy independent schools.
Leafy, sprawling campuses. Classrooms filled with teaching resources. Dining commons to rival upscale restaurants. These schools are amazing places, with incredible resources and very talented teachers and students. As a former public school kid, I am still awed by the possibilities I see all around me every time I step onto such a school campus.
And I am troubled. Because I also know that most public schools struggle to make their budgets, which are often bare- bones to begin with. Dedicated teachers have to plead for funding for vital programs and classroom supplies. Here in NH, school districts are suing the Republican governor to force him to fulfill his constitutional mandate to provide quality public education to ALL students.
This is a painful divide, between the privileged and the rest of us. Inequity takes a toll on us all.
You, too, probably have moments when you become aware of this looming gap. A family in town has to sell their home because they can’t make mortgage payments. A twentysomething working several jobs because of college debt. Young parents paying more for child care than for the rent on their apartment so they can both work the two jobs needed to make ends meet. A friend who doesn’t want to leave her job because she’s scared to lose her health insurance.
People — friends, neighbors — on the edge through no fault of their own.
Perhaps you are one of these millions of Americans.
Or perhaps our country’s income inequity is just a distant rumor that you hear about through troubling headlines. A CEO takes millions of dollars in salary while laying off hundreds of workers. Over 500,000 families a year go bankrupt because of medical bills. Or, a recent newspaper headline: 45,000 people a year die unnecessarily because of lack of health insurance. Uninsured, working-age Americans have 40 percent higher death risk than privately insured people.
The recognition that something is way out-of-kilter in our society can be hard to focus on. We grow up with narratives of equality while we are surrounded by evidence of inequality. At times we may feel it’s better not to notice. Or as one person said during a conversation about money in our lives: “this is harder to talk about than sex.”
Yet we need to talk about it, because income inequity, like the climate emergency, is a national security threat. It eats away at the spiritual core of our lives. Great concentrations of wealth are correlated globally with increasing authoritarianism, the rise of despotic leaders, and intolerance of minority groups. (Sound familiar?); it corrodes the sense of “we-ness” and cohesion that is the foundation of psychological well-being in a society.
To make it worse, a self- replicating system has been created that perpetuates the gulf between the “haves” and the “haves nots.” The “ladders of opportunity” that once defined America no longer exist. And it’s going to get worse if we don’t do something. The distribution of wealth is now so lopsided globally that some economists believe that no amount of economic growth will result in a more equal distribution of wealth among people; without some form of government intervention, life is permanently tilted against the “have nots.
This is not to demonize “rich people.” Many wealthy people do great things in this world. And the truth is that we are all prisoners of money in this society, rich and poor. We conflate psychological well- being with material wealth and that creates problems for people on both sides of the wealth divide. Noone is happy; the “anxieties of affluence” are very real.
Is this the kind of society we want for America?
Yet to really think about the social and economic problems we face takes some big thinking. We are way past the time when little fixes will help.
Which brings me to Elizabeth Warren, who understands more fully than the other candidates for President what a danger the wealth inequality is to our country.
The Common Good: What’s In It For All of Us
Senator Warren is offering us a vision for how we might live as a society — one in which the “common good” is more than a cliché, and our interdependence is a source of strength, not fear. She is unapologetic about fixing what is wrong, and wants us all to take on the task of repairing our society now. In her recent New Year’s Eve speech in Boston, Sen Warren asked us to “Imagine how you could thrive, if America was safe for everyone…How would you live your life? If you were no longer stretched to make ends meet, who would you be?”
Her crucial point is that our well-being as citizens is measured by more than our material wealth. When private greed drives a society, rather than an emphasis on the common good, we all suffer. Even many of the rich agree, as reflected by the billionaires who signed an open letter to the NY Times endorsing Senator Warren’s wealth tax because it “would slow the growing concentration of wealth that undermines the stability and integrity of our republic.”
Political philosopher Danielle Allen has written that: “As a measure of human flourishing, empowerment is more important than wealth. Wealth ….cannot buy what makes nations flourish: social cohesion, freedom, and healthy institutions. Social cohesion is created by cooperation, and cooperation occurs only if individuals have equal standing. The role of government is not to stay out of the way of markets. It is to secure the rights that undergird empowerment, cohesion, and participation. Securing these rights requires combatting monopolies.”
Combatting monopolies and restoring a responsible capitalism is at the core of Senator Warren’s candidacy. More than any other candidate, it seems to me, Senator Warren understands how to save the free enterprise system from the monopoly capitalism that threatens us all.
Saving Capitalism From Itself
Senator Warren’s work even before she was elected to the US Senate has been about trying to rein in the more predatory aspects of modern- day capitalism. Earlier in her career, she wrote several carefully researched books on families and bankruptcy. (Her own family almost lost their home when she was a child because of her father’s sudden heart attack, and her path to becoming a law professor involved some hardscrabble moments).
Travelling to bankruptcy courts and reviewing thousands of individual cases, Warren found that Americans filing for bankruptcy were not irresponsible deadbeats or people trying to game the system, but were consumers suffering from economic woes resulting from illness, layoffs, or divorce; in other words, people resembling her own childhood family. So, it makes sense that one of her signature achievements was helping to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
And as a Senator, she has been fierce in raising the alarm about irresponsible corporate behavior and the lack of accountability at the top. Her alarm is justified: over and over we read these days about the economic and environmental damage caused by corporations who have few incentives to put the social good at the forefront of their behavior, whether it’s the fossil fuel companies promoting climate denial that may destroy our planet or Boeing ignoring problems with the 737 Max 8 leading to the death of hundreds of passengers.
Not to mention the oversized influence of corporate money on politics. Both Republican and Democratic elected representatives are way too close to — and often become — corporate lobbyists and media apologists for powerful corporations.
Warren is running a different kind of campaign, not accepting corporate donations, using house parties for dialogue and discussion rather than fund-raising, making personal contact with voters (remember all those selfies, numbering now over 80,000) and emphasizing direct voter contact through a network of volunteers and organizers rather than pricey TV ads and other media buys.
She wants to motivate voters to the kind of political action that is an antidote to the despair of our times.
OK, But How Radical Is She, Really?
Actually, not much, unless we take the current Gilded Age in America as normal — which it isn’t. The wealthy used to pay much higher taxes than even Elizabeth Warren is proposing with her “two cents” tax on billionaries, and, back in the day, their tax rate was higher than working people.
Not anymore. In 2018 the tax rate for the richest 400 families in the country was just 23%, lower than that rate paid by the bottom half of American households. Billionaires have a lower tax rate than schoolteachers. In 1980, by contrast, the 400 richest had an effective tax rate of 47 percent. In 1960, their tax rate was as high as 56 percent.
So what we take as “normal” now is way out of kilter with our own history. It’s no coincidence that a recent economic analysis by two economists who have influenced Senator Warren is entitled The Triumph of Injustice.
Senator Warren doesn’t want to “soak the rich” as much as use that enormous capital currently sequestered in the super, super-rich to fund social programs (including universal health care) and to address needed climate-related, infrastructure, and other pressing priorities and needs.
About The “Two Cents” Wealth Tax
Senator Warren wants to focus only on households with a net worth of $50 million or more — roughly the wealthiest 75,000 households in this country, the top of the 0.1%. These households would pay an annual 2% tax on every dollar of net worth above $50 million and a 3% tax on every dollar of net worth above $1 billion.
Frankly, this does not seem like asking a lot of the Uber Rich, yet this proposal would raise almost $3 trillion dollars in tax revenue over the next ten years. That’s not a typo and it gives you some idea of the amount of wealth concentration in America today, far beyond that of any other developed nation.
But Is She Going to Screw Up Our Health Insurance?
Actually, it’s already screwed up. Warren wants to fix it. The profits of the health care insurance companies are off the charts: $23 billion last year. And those profits are not plowed back into health care innovation and treatment. As a friend of mine remarked, sometimes it seems there are more people working on billing and “customer service” than there are delivering health care.
Americans spend $11 trillion dollars on health care each year. The primary reason for family bankruptcies are medical bills that spiral out of control. And those of us who have decent health insurance through our employers or unions are vulnerable to the whims of the market; policies change and often it is not clear why. How many of us even know exactly what our insurance covers?
A New Kind of Medicare
The “Medicare For All” that Warren proposes is not the Medicare we know now. Warren’s plan calls for a gradual transition over three years in which everyone will eventually become enrolled in a revamped Medicare system — a sort of “Medicare Plus” — that will include the doctors and hospitals that people currently rely on. What will be changed is the expensive, costly middlemen currently dragging down our health care.
Senator Warren has offered a detailed transitional plan that will eventually result in universal coverage that is comprehensive, with mental health, physical, dental, and long- term care with no premium or out of pocket expenses for consumer. And she shows how she will fund this system. You can find the details of her plan here.
There is now a lot of misinformation and scare-mongering coming from Senator Warren’s opponents. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter whether all of her revenue projections are exactly on target or whether everything can happen in exactly the time frame she proposes. Senator Warren is a pragmatist. She argues over and over that it is better to put your values and goals up front and start from there, rather than negotiating from a compromised position that undercuts where you are trying to go. This is a woman who gets things done. She showed that in her tenacity creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, bringing a variety of viewpoints to the table and accomplishing the amazing achievement of getting an important new Federal agency established.
So Can She Get Elected?
The ability to mobilize voters and Get Out The Vote is the key to winning an election. Warren can be electrifying on the stump in speeches, and warm and empathic in smaller Town Halls.
What’s remarkable about the over 80,000 (to date) selfies taken with her is that she sees them as a great way to hear what is on peoples’ minds. It’s part of Warren’s way of connecting with people. This is the stuff that powerful social movements are made of.
She wants us to be brave and think big enough to solve the problems we face. She seems the embodiment of John Gardner’s observation that “what we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”
A Magic Wand?
Recent political science research indicates that many voters actually want a female president but mistakenly believe others don’t. In simulated elections with a nationally representative sample of voters (including both men and women, Democrats and Republicans), the researchers report that “being female actually gave candidates a small but clear advantage. Holding everything else equal, voters as a whole were 6 percentage points more likely to choose the female candidate over her male opponent.” Male and female, Dem and Rep voters preferred the female candidate. These outcomes are consistent with recent polling.
Yet here’s the kicker: only one-third of those in the study believed that “other people” would vote for a female president. And get this: when asked who their choice would be if they had a “magic wand” to elect someone President, Elizabeth Warren was the overwhelming choice. This, too, is borne out by other research. As Political data analyst Nate Silver summed up the electability issue: “If everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!”
Warren recently answered the electability question this way: “We win when we offer solutions big enough to touch the problems that are in people’s lives. Fear and complacency does not win elections. Hope and courage wins elections.” She added, “I’m not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone. I’m running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families….This is a time of crisis. And media pundits, Washington insiders, even some people in our own party, don’t want to admit it. They think that running some vague campaign that nibbles around the edges is somehow safe.”
Here’s what IS radical about Sen Warren’s campaign: the focus on the common good. Underlying her plans is the belief that we have some obligation or need to take care of each other. That living in a society with deep injustice curdles the spirit of all its member, no matter how much material wealth you have.
In a time of fear, suspicion, and division, we need to be reminded not only of our core values, but also that they are attainable, firmly within our reach.
Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.