With the health care fight finally resolved (you notice I didn't use the word "over"- the passage of this bill is only the first step in a long-term battle for a better health care system in America, so nothing is really over), everyone is turning their attention to the economy. As well they should.
In spite of certain establishment economists and pundits (and unfortunately a few administration officials who are politically tone deaf), saying that the recession is over and everything is back on track economically, the simple fact is that while we are no longer dangling over the precipice of another Great Depression, the economy is still broken in major ways. The official unemployment rate still hovers around 10%, and when you add in those who have given up looking for work, those who are underemployed and marginally employed but want fulltime work, the number of people needing full-time jobs is closer to 20%. Wages are still not going up, as even many of those who have jobs have had to take lower wage jobs to get by. Foreclosures are still happening at dangerously high rates, home values are not coming back anywhere near fast enough (or at all in some neighborhoods), and way too many homeowners are still dangerously close to being underwater. Business and personal bankruptcies are still way too high.
Now I know that the economy is officially "growing" again. The GDP is up, the Dow Jones is up, corporate profits are up. If you are an establishment economist, a trust fund baby, or a Wall Street financier, the economy feels like it's just humming along. For the vast majority of Americans, the noise they are hearing is less that of a hum and more of a car wreck. That's why voters react so poorly to Democratic politicians when they say things about how the economy is looking up.
The twin pillars to building a healthy economy are producing good jobs in big numbers, and fixing the badly broken financial system. These are not separate spheres, by the way- the two things are joined at the hip. Washington legislative policy wonks tend to divide everything into different bills they are working on, and DC coalitions follow that approach as well. But if we don't start creating decent-paying jobs, the foreclosure problems will keep getting bigger and housing prices won't recover. If we don't fix the financial sector, an economy where the finance sector is focused on gambling and bubbles rather than in actual investments that will create jobs will continue dragging us down, and endangering us in the future. With so much of America's wealth concentrated in six mega-banks, and those banks investing in little that's creating jobs, we are not going to create real private sector job growth.
Let me point you to three fascinating things worth reading that have come out over the last few days, because I think they all point to central economic issues as we go forward. The first is an important, news-breaking piece in Politico that Elizabeth Warren came out with yesterday morning. Citing a memo from the American Bankers Association from a 2006 fight against more oversight that makes the exact opposite arguments they are making now, Warren makes the absolutely central point that special interests like the American Bankers Association are hypocrites to the core. The special interests that are making out like bandits at the expense of the rest of us don't have any consistent philosophy except me first and only, and members of Congress and the administration should thus given their arguments the respect they deserve: which is to say virtually none.
The second is Sen. Ted Kaufman's brilliant speech on Chris Dodd's weak and disappointing financial reform bill. Sen. Kaufman's essential point is that Dodd is just moving the regulatory fixes around rather than doing what really needs to be done: break up the big banks. If these financial behemoths are not cut down in size, and walls are not built between the gambling financiers and the boring old bankers who loan money to invest in small businesses, the financial system will remain in danger and jobs will be far less likely to be created. Kaufman makes the argument that if you don't make real structural changes in the size, powers, and roles of the mega-banks, that you haven't changed anything important re how the banking system works. He is 100% on target. If having regulators was all that was needed to clean up the banking system, we never would have landed in the mess we did in the financial collapse. You have to change the power relationships as well- banks need to be smaller, and the trading side of the banking industry should not infect the more traditional loan and investment side of the banking industry.
Finally, I want to point you to a really thoughtful new commentary in Huffington Post by Leo Hindery. His frame on the political dynamic right now is intriguing: that Republicans are in fact the disloyal opposition, so violently opposed to Obama that they have gotten into bed with the fomenters of open and potentially violent revolution; in their place as the loyal opposition are those of us progressive populists who want Obama to take on the banks and far more aggressively create more jobs. Leo's point is that there is a growing group of people who are loyal to Obama in the sense that we very much want him to succeed, we want to help him, and certainly support him in opposition to a tea party/Glenn Beck-aligned Republican Party; but that we are in a sense in opposition as well, believing we need dramatically more progressive economic policies.
We live in a remarkable moment. We just passed a universal health care bill, something the progressive movement has been fighting for about a century or so. But we are still faced with a broken economy- a badly warped and dangerous financial sector, and a massive lack of good jobs- and we need for bolder thinking that we are getting on how to fix it. Whether or not you call us the loyal opposition, it is time for progressives to demand more- on creating jobs and fixing the banking system- in terms of fixing the economy.