For many years, the Economic Policy Institute has filled a lonely role in Washington politics–the premier left-liberal think tank standing up to the dominant conservative orthodoxy. EPI seldom prevailed in major policy debates, but it won high regard, even among conservative rivals, for its meticulous research and powerful analysis of the economic realities. Now the institute has turned an important corner and is embracing optimism. It is proposing a comprehensive alternative vision–an Agenda for Shared Prosperity–to stimulate and guide the progressive counterreformation.
“Americans are impatient with politics as usual,” EPI explains. “They are prepared to consider big and bold ideas for America’s future.” These include dozens of policy proposals for confronting the many social and economic wounds generated by twenty-five years of conservative governance. The agenda, to be rolled out in a series of policy papers (available at www.sharedprosperity.org), includes a concrete strategy for reversing globalization’s destructive impact on equity and general prosperity in American economic life; a novel proposal to create a new national pension alongside Social Security, one that will insure secure, ample retirement incomes for all; and an employer-based system to provide universal health coverage. Many other reform ideas envision everything from a “family-centered labor market” to rebuilding the country’s decayed infrastructure to reviving government-backed industrial development.
The healthcare plan in EPI’s package is a proposal devised by Jacob Hacker of Yale that essentially provides Medicare for all–a concept that already has influential endorsements from Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Pete Stark, who chairs the House Ways and Means subcommittee that will handle the legislation. This would be a big step toward single-payer, but it doesn’t go all the way.
The EPI agenda was generated by fifty or so economists, political activists and other policy thinkers who collaborated in a series of sessions through most of 2006. There’s a lot to discuss and disagree about in the various ideas. Do they go too far? Or not far enough? In a way, that’s EPI’s point. Given emerging political realities, now is the time to jump-start serious debate among progressives and put real flesh on a political agenda that seeks deep reform instead of palliatives.
In other words, EPI is rejecting the mentality that has blanketed the left for most of the last generation–“nothing can be done” given Republican dominance, don’t make things harder for Democrats by promoting big liberal ideas that speak to the scale of the problems. EPI is declaring an end to the retreat and silence. The Democratic Party is not there yet–not even close–but this new agenda should help push Democrats out of their center-right timidity. The 2006 election returns definitely changed the political calculation for them.
In particular, the EPI analysis provides a coherent counter-force to Rubinomics and the conservative, markets-first ideology by which Democrats governed under Bill Clinton. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin is pushing an updated version of his agenda through the Hamilton Project, which he and other investment bankers created at the Brookings Institution. Rubin now admits that the laissez-faire economy no longer benefits most Americans, yet he still doesn’t want to change it in any real way.
EPI’s catalogue of policy proposals confronts politicians with a different choice: Do you want to get serious about solving these deep injuries to society generated by right-wing governance? Or do you merely want to make sympathetic noises? This is a good debate for Democrats–and the country–to have. People haven’t heard an alternative vision articulated confidently for many, many years. A lot of Americans, especially younger people, may be surprised to learn that an optimistic agenda exists.