EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of three installments in a podcast series on American work produced in partnership with Open Source with Christopher Lydon, a weekly program on WBUR. Listen to the first podcast here and the second here. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or listen anytime at radioopensource.org.
To close out our series on work, produced in partnership with Open Source with Christopher Lydon and The Nation, we’re looking ahead to the big proposals and spiritual realignments that might spell a major change for working- and middle-class people who feel as though the recession never ended.
For proof of the problems we face, look no further than this chart, produced by one of our big thinkers this week, the Bulgarian-American economist Pavlina Tcherneva.
Today, even as the economy grows, the gains are topsy-turvy. In the latest economic expansion (from 2009 to 2012), the incomes of the top 10 percent rose more than 100 percent, while for the bottom 90 percent they actually sank. Despite this, we still see a steady-as-she-goes approach to economic policy from the White House, and in the primary campaigns for the most part too.
When Franklin Roosevelt first conjured a “new deal” for American workers, he was still a candidate. It was June 1932; Roosevelt was accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party. The state of the union was dire. Just as these days we’re shifting to digital, gig-based, flexible work, Roosevelt was witnessing the collapse of the agricultural economy and its replacement by organized industrial work.
Roosevelt had a story to tell about the Depression. “Enormous corporate surpluses…the most stupendous in history” had failed to pay out to small actors in the American economy: not in higher wages, lower prices, or in dividends. Those profits didn’t go into innovation, either, but into speculation and idle investments. A massive financial bubble had built up—then burst.
The speech was long on specifics—massive public-works projects, the reduction of tariffs, debt relief—in service of “a more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.” (Some of Roosevelt’s fellow travelers in the Democratic Party went so far as to propose a second Bill of Rights around economic freedoms, including the right to honest work and to a fair wage. That never took hold.)