The Washington Socialist <> March 2017
By Evan Ottenfeld
On a Thursday night in February, over fifty people crammed into the back of a Capitol Hill Chinese restaurant to listen to a talk on full employment and universal basic income.
Read that again and tell me it’s not a sign of the times.
With DSA in general and metro DC folks in particular riding a wave of publicity and press interest in our growing movement, this makes a lot of sense. People are looking for new ideas— radical to some, common sense to others -- and they’re finding them in democratic socialism.
In this context, Metro DC DSA was proud to host a salon featuring a local economics professor and a widely-known writer on poverty (especially among DSA’s younger, Twitter-savvy members) who offered up concrete examples of what socialist ideas could actually mean for working folks.
Starting things off was Professor Haydar Kurban, of the Howard University Department of Economics, with a discussion on a job program proposal paper authored by the so-called “Chicago Political Economy Group” of economists, in which he is included. Their work is a direct response to the problems of deindustrialization, the weakening of unions and deregulation in the United States that have resulted in privatization and the erosion of middle-class jobs.
He argued that, compared to many others countries, our citizens’ needs, especially with regards to healthcare, elderly care, and child care, are not being met. Why? Because the government is not specifically directing the economy. Instead, the private sector is able to pit the working class against itself through the segmentation of labor.
Therefore, the government should have a jobs program, funded by a financial transaction tax, active in the long term, that results in good jobs. This is a crucial step in addressing people’s needs instead of merely protecting profit for the few.
Next came poverty and welfare writer Matt Bruenig, who made explicit that, though money affects us all, it does not affect us all equally. Capitalists essentially get free money for no work: One out of every three dollars of income goes to the owners of capital as interest, rents and dividends, and is heavily skewed to the top of society.
This state of affairs is obscene, but the obvious question is: What do we do about it?
Instead of paying to capitalists, we must pay to everyone, through a program known as universal basic income (UBI). If money for nothing works for the capitalists, why not the rest of us?
The idea is that the government creates a set of wealth funds, buying up stocks, bonds, real estate and other kinds of income-generating assets to fill up funds with capital. It would be paid for by imposing wealth taxes, including the financial transactions tax that Professor Kurban also mentioned. This would gradually move some, but not all, capital out of private hands. There would be no need for a sudden seizure of assets.
This looks a lot like already-existing practice. The difference is that the funds are publicly owned and publicly paid out to all, versus a very narrow band of wealthy owners. This is not speculative— Alaska is just one real-world example of such a program.
After their opening presentations, the floor was opened to all in attendance, and a great discussion ensued about the merits and challenges posed by both UBI and full employment.
(In the course of things, a very telling story came out, prompted by a kibitzing Emily Bruenig via Facebook, that Chris Hayes actually recorded a piece on UBI that MSNBC refused to let see the light of day.)
DC DSA’s online promotion in advance of the event helped to generate a lot of buzz around the country, with lots of requests to film it. Luckily, we were able to have high-quality Facebook Live stream of the event, thanks to member Brad Herring’s donating his equipment and expertise. (This was especially crucial considering that there was a large spillover crowd of DC DSAers in the next room that could not get a seat to the talk!)
This event represents the exciting future of the Democratic Socialists of America, and especially the Metro DC chapter. People are engaged and looking for answers, and these events offer a great starting off point for people to imagine a different future.
One illustrative exchange took place on Twitter before the event started: A person responded to a DSA tweet about the event saying “UBI isn’t socialist.”
Matt Bruenig chimed in: “Mine is.”
You can watch the whole recording of the salon here.
About The Washington Socialist
.The Washington Socialist is Metro DC DSA's monthly e-newsletter. Focusing on our local's events, socialist analyses of current events and book reviews, among other topics, The Washington Socialist is a great way to stay on top of the progressive goings-on in DC, Maryland and northern Virginia. We also encourage our readers to submit their own articles! Contact Editor Woody Woodruff for more info at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Past issues of The Washington Socialist from 2012-June 2016 are available for viewing on our archive page.