Auto workers in Lordstown, Ohio, are just one example of Americans who feel left behind as the companies to which they have given their lives walk away. Bringing back the good old days of manufacturing won’t work. Figuring out a new economic contract should be the focus of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s promise/campaign catchphrase “Contract With America” won his Republican Party 54 House and nine Senate seats in the 1994 mid-term elections. He and other conservative populists talked constantly of reviving the economic expectations of the 1950s and ’60s.
Those included manufacturing jobs that paid a middle-class wage and lasted from high school graduation through retirement. That American dream made each generation better off than the one before. It was also underwritten by union contracts and government safety nets that Gingrich never mentioned.
Tax breaks, regulation cuts and fewer requirements for worker safety all make it easier for companies to make profits. Arguing that government is the problem, and that government, in the words of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, should be drowned in the bathtub, served corporate interests.
If full-time work cannot feed a family, if acquiring new skills to produce profits means unsustainable student debt and if tax revenues are too low to ensure a health and retirement safety net, only corporate interests are served. When dirty air, dirty water or toxic wastes are part of production, the public pays the price for stockholder gains.
If the middle class finds it impossible to save money while the investor class can buy its own private Idaho, capitalism no longer works as an economic model.
America’s new contracts cannot be based on the old manufacturing paradigm. General Motors CEO Mary Barra described her company as a software company as much as a manufacturing company. That argument partly covers GM’s policy of offshoring labor for more profits, but it is also true.
America must find ideas that meld corporate returns on investment for stockholders with every worker’s right to a decent return on labor. How to achieve that balance and what role the government should play should be central in upcoming campaign discussions.
Voters should reject campaigns that reduce economic discussions to slogans and name calling. They should listen for candidates’ plans to make capitalism work better. They should accept the government’s role as legitimate. Then, 2020 could produce a new, sustainable economic contract that will offer opportunities for investors and workers alike.