My endorsement last week of Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party
presidential nomination set up a news cycle of incredulity over our
political alliance. In some cases, the disbelief was so extreme as to make
it appear that Buchanan and I are from different planets, rather than
different ideological backgrounds. We are not, however, from different
planets. We’re from the same one, and it’s facing a set of economic problems
and challenges so great that the left/right differential can seem like a
hill of beans in comparison.
“Aha!” you say. Just as I thought! She’s an economic determinist. A
classic socialist! In some respects I suppose I am. But Pat Buchanan?
Hardly. Yet, he pointed out at our joint press conference, “The great goal
of social justice is not being served in America today by this economy and
the way it is functioning. I don’t believe we ought to take away the money
or the wealth of those who have earned it legitimately. But I do believe the
disparities in income in this country are becoming too great. They’re
becoming outrageous, and that is not healthy. They are far greater in this
society than any other democracy or democratic republic on earth. That is
Those disparities are unhealthy. Ten percent of America’s households own
80 percent of the country’s private wealth, leaving 20 percent of the
nation’s wealth distributed among the bottom 90 percent of the population.
But worse than unhealthy, they are intrinsic to the current course of
globalization and financialization of the world economy as long as special
interests control U.S. economic and trade policy. Pat Buchanan and I are not
the only right/left partners to observe this.
The anti-NAFTA movement was propelled by a “strange bedfellows” coalition
of conservative, centrist, and progressive economic populists. So was the
anti-Fast Track movement which muscled Congress into rejecting the process
(authorizing the president to negotiate trade deals with only an up or down
vote by Congress) along with its predatory product (trade deals that boosted
the profiteering of multinational corporations at the expense of American
jobs and international labor and environmental standards).
But what exactly is the solution? Conservative economic nationalists like
Buchanan believe we need “tax and trade policies that put America before the
global economy.” On the other end of the political spectrum progressive
economists, who see the corrosive effects of globalism much in the way
conservatives do, argue for a different approach. William Greider wrote in
The Nation that globalization “has to be slowed down, not stopped, and
redirected on a new course of development that is more moderate and
progressive, that promises broader benefits to almost everyone.” Greider
comments on the wide disparity in wealth adding, “When rising incomes are
broadly distributed, it creates mass purchasing power — fueling a virtuous
cycle of growth, savings and new investment. When incomes are narrowly
distributed, as they are now, the economic system feeds upon itself, eroding
its own energies for expansion, burying consumers and business, even
governments, in impossible accumulations of debt.”
How to address what Greider calls this “pathological” state of the U.S.
economy and what Buchanan calls the “betrayal” of the American worker?
Progressives argue for shifting the tax burden from labor to capital,
restructuring trade terms to balance the flow of commerce, raising wages at
the low end of the pay scale, forgiving the bad debts of poorer nations,
reforming the mission of central banks to support growth rather than
“thwarting” it and refocusing national priorities on creating jobs and
improving wages — rather than on multi-national competitiveness as the key
to prosperity. Greider, in particular, appeals to the liberal notion that
government must act responsibly to cure the pathology.
Buchanan’s view of the issues are not altogether different, though he
does not concede the inevitability of globalization. He favors a fairer tax
code that relies on a national sales tax rather than income tax, a 15
percent tariff on foreign products that compete with U.S. goods and a “wage
equalization tariff on manufactures from low wage countries.” He supports an
increase in the minimum wage and his goals include “full employment, with
our working people as well compensated and rewarded as any on earth,” and “a
wider, deeper distribution of property and prosperity.”
Buchanan does not, however, appeal directly to a notion of the innate
responsibility of government. He projects that he wants to play hardball
with our trading partners to eliminate the burgeoning U.S. trade deficit. He
often uses China, or as Pat likes to emphasize, “Communist China,” as an
example. Beijing imposes on average a 22 percent tariff on U.S. imports
(just reduced to 17 percent by the new trade pact) while Washington imposes
none in return. But the problem isn’t what China is up to. They’re doing
what any nation — communist or capitalist — must do to gain advantage in
the highly competitive global marketplace. The problem for the American
people is that U.S. Big Business wants access to a billion Chinese consumers
whose spending power is being enhanced by China’s trade surplus. And
business is willing to have us endure the downsides of a trade deficit in
order to get it.
The American people currently have no way to bring the U.S.-based
transnationals to heel. Right now these special interests control the two
parties that control our government. Labor pipes up every now and then —
usually at election time — to demand things like restrictions on the import
of foreign steel. But the AFL-CIO hooked its wagon to capital over 50 years
ago, and consequently will not buck its two-party duopoly.
The rank and file, the unorganized (85 percent of the workforce) and the
unemployed are not automatically so inclined. This is Buchanan’s and my
constituency. It is multi-racial, male and female, urban and rural, and it
is significantly disempowered under the current political arrangement.
Buchanan hopes to sell them on the need to play hardball. I do, too. My
difference with Buchanan, however, is that I think they need to play
hardball — not with China, per se — but with the two parties and with
special interest politics. How? By insisting on participating more directly
in the policy-making and governmental process. How do we accomplish that? By
a surgical reform of America’s electoral and political process that brings
voter participation up, incumbency advantage down, and shifts decision
making to the grass roots through the use of democratic forms like initiative
and referendum and national town hall meetings.
The American people need more political capital. They should have the
power to more directly set the terms for trade, taxes, and national economic
Buchanan’s decision to leave the Republican Party and join up with the
Reform Party and me is one indicator that he is now willing to turn the
tables on the special interests.
Turning the decision-making over to the
American people is the next step. If we do something about the democracy
disparity between the elites and ordinary citizens, the country will be on
its way to effecting policies which close the gap between rich and poor as