I’ve noticed when I have conversations with my kids and others about issues such as the $15 minimum wage, the wealth tax, a universal basic income, and other such measures aimed at re-distributing wealth to make sure all people have enough income to meet their most basic needs, I find myself saying to them, with reference to the wealthiest among us who might give a little more and have a little less, “I think they’ll be ok.”
The wealthiest will be ok.
Many Americans simply are not ok, meaning they cannot meet, or struggle to meet, their most basic human needs, even when working.
Seventy percent of the 21 million Americans who are beneficiaries of federal aid work full time.
Is this a sign of greatness?
When it comes to workers at McDonald’s and other such workplaces making minimum wage or a bit more, there’s much to talk about with my kids to get them thinking critically about the world.
These workers produce a lot of value, a lot of wealth, for these companies, which could not be produced without them. So how is it determined they merit less than what is considered a living wage in the U.S.?
Is their wage simply the determination of indifferent market forces?
Does the CEO who makes millions work exponentially harder than these employees flipping burgers and staffing the drive-thru and really generate more value, more wealth? Is that CEO so much more deserving of the millions more he makes, of the health care, housing, and dignified retirement, than the average minimum-wage worker who cannot afford rent for a basic apartment and struggles to meet basic everyday needs to stay alive?
These vast differences in remuneration cannot be explained away as the determinations of worth by an indifferent market mechanism.
We talk about our system as a “political economy” because political forces and considerations play a role in deciding and articulating our national values, in social and moral terms as well as in economic terms; that is, determinations of economic value are linked to the values of our dominant social morality.
We only need look at the Trump’s tax cuts. They benefited the wealthy and corporations, who lobbied for these tax cuts claiming they would re-invest the money in their company and their workers. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors took robust tax cuts and then still engaged in massive layoffs and plant closings.
Or, we can look at the CARES Act, the first coronavirus relief package passed by a Republican-led Senate under Trump’s presidency. It funneled billions of dollars to corporations and to folks already making millions of dollars.
In short, political policies were already deciding whose lives mattered more, had more value, and who deserved money.
And, of course, Congress also has the power to increase the minimum wage.
Whether or not people earn enough to live isn’t just a matter of market determinations.
This matter of life and death is a conscious political decision.
Trump and the Republicans showed little to no concern to make sure the most and many vulnerable Americans would be simply ok—before, especially during, and after the coronavirus pandemic—in the policies they passes.
Making America great, again, did not entail ensuring Americans could meet their basic human needs and enjoy basic human dignity.
However Trump defined greatness for America, the agenda did not include making sure Americans would be ok.
And remember all of the resistance to the wealth tax Elizabeth Warren proposed? This tax would have increased the tax bill for only .1 percent of American households, and the tax also only applied to income over $50 million. And even then, the tax on every dollar over $50 million was two cents.
In short, to repeat again my mantra, these people who make at least $50 million are, I’m confident, going to be ok.
I think we can stop worrying about them and making them the focus of our political attention when it comes to distributing financial aid. They are ok.
And that tax revenue, in Warren’s plan, would have been used to provide universal childcare, to provide free college education at public institutions, and to relieve the student-debt burden, which drags on the economy. In short, it would have gone to help people meet their basic needs so they can contribute more effectively and fully to our society and economy.
Joe Biden’s agenda, as evidenced through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act congressional Democrats passed without one Republican vote, indicates he has stopped worrying about wealthy Americans and corporations.
His plan not only provides checks immediately to help struggling Americans, but it promises as well to cut child poverty by 50% or more, to save pensions for many American workers, to provide rent relief to keep Americans in their houses, to help Americans pay their healthcare premiums, and more.
It is aimed at Americans in need. Americans who are not ok.
It may not sound that catchy to say, “Let’s make American Ok.” In reality, though, it’s an incredibly ambitious and humane goal, and it’s absolutely visionary in that it requires the political and social vision to actually see and recognize those who typically are most invisible to our political leaders, indeed to our culture.
So many in America, the wealthiest nation on the planet, are not ok.
Making sure they are is an ambitiously humanitarian political agenda for this national moment.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.