Monday, March 15, 2004

Not Just Another Liberal

When my Faithful Correspondent dropped me a note to check out David Broder’s column on Barney Frank in yesterday’s WaPo, I thought, Oh, okay, another column on the gay marriage thing. After all, isn’t that what Rep. Frank is best known for – being openly gay and speaking out on gay rights? Well, yes, but like so many others, I tend to forget that there are at least some in Congress who are more than just one-issue voices.

Mr. Frank has some pretty deep thoughts about what’s wrong with our present economy, and he has some rather interesting ideas on how to fix it.

A fundamental shift has occurred, he says. “The ability of the private sector in this country to create wealth is now outstripping its ability to create jobs. The normal rule of thumb by which a certain increase in the gross domestic product would produce a concomitant increase in jobs does not appear to apply.”

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Why is this boom leaving so many worse off? Frank’s catalogue of causes is a familiar one: globalization and its handmaiden, the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries; the weakening of unions; the tilt of the tax system in favor of the wealthy investor. And Frank endorses the regular catalogue of remedies urged by Kerry and other mainstream Democrats. They include tougher trade rules, restoration of union organizing and bargaining rights and steps to make the tax system more progressive. Like everyone else, including Bush, he says education, innovation and skills training are the keys to a healthy long-term economic future.

But unlike others, Frank does not stop at that point. Just as he is bold in diagnosing the cause of the problem — a private economy geared to producing wealth, not jobs — he is equally daring in his remedies.

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His proposal is to tax some of the wealth the private sector is now producing so abundantly — “a fairly small percentage,” he said, without being specific — “and use it to employ people on socially useful purposes.”

Frank urges that we “take some of the wealth that is being created by this wonderful thing, this increased productivity, this new technology and the ways of using it, and all this innovation, and let us use it for our own undisputed public purposes. Let us give cities and states more money so they can have more people policing, fighting fires, cleaning up the environment, repairing facilities that need to be repaired, enhancing train transportation, building highways, helping construct affordable housing in places where that is a crisis, helping pay for higher education for students.”

Sounds pretty radical; the idea of “more government,” especially after twenty-five years of Reagan / Bush / Clinton / Bush 1.5 “smaller government” chanting. But look what it’s gotten us – crumbling infrastructures, overcrowded schools, and a Social Security / Medicare system that can’t pay for itself.

Of course the Grover Norquists of this world scream that more government means higher taxes and less freedom. Well, we already pay the lowest taxes in the industrialized world. As for less freedom, does the USA PATRIOT sound familiar? Smaller government isn’t freedom – it’s Bosnia.

Barney Frank’s ideas aren’t all that radical. It’s been tried before and for the most part it worked. It was called the New Deal, and you can thank it for Social Security, most of the federal buildings in most of the cities and towns across the country, and for such things as Route 66, the national forests, and thanks to the Federal Writer’s Project, the career of, among others, John Steinbeck.

I’m glad we have Barney Frank out there – and I’m glad Grover Norquist wasn’t around in 1933.