The Progressive Agenda and the Stockman Syndrome

Basil Wilson's picture

President Obama graced the Bronx with his presence last week with his visit to Lehman College.  Mayor Bill de Blasio is travelling in the opposite direction as he will visit Washington this week.  President Obama spoke at Lehman College to dramatize his non-governmental initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, designed to bring the private sector and non-governmental organizations to expand opportunities for particularly people of color trapped in poverty in the inner cities.

President Obama has been criticized by some black intellectuals for not aggressively tackling problems of inner city poverty.  The President has not created and pushed an urban agenda.  In the last two years of his presidency, he has chosen an initiative that some students of urban poverty presume will not effectively deal with the macro-structural issue that is the primary cause of American poverty.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken a different approach from President Obama even though there is some overlap.  De Blasio will unveil his 13 point Contract with America that he defines as a progressive agenda.  De Blasio has stated that the compelling issue confronting American society at this juncture is that of income inequality.

Bill de Blasio’s Contract with America is expected to include a $15 per hour minimum wage, mandatory sick leave for workers, more resources for affordable housing, universal pre-school education and comprehensive immigration reform.  The President would feel comfortable supporting these progressive initiatives but he has chosen to mobilize the private sector and non-governmental organizations to open doors for young people in the inner city.

The objective of mayors like Bill de Blasio is to move to build a progressive coalition that the Democratic Party can run on in 2016. The Republican Party is moving in the opposite direction.  Their pre-occupation as conveyed by the Paul Ryan Budget of 2015 is to balance the Federal Budget in ten years, cut back on social programs and reduce the benefits of social security, medicare and medicaid.  The Republicans argue that the Federal government is bloated and it is necessary to pay down the accumulated debt of $18 trillion. For Republicans, there is no crisis of grinding poverty.

The Progressive Movement, if it is to become politically potent in the 2016 election and beyond, must grapple with the Stockman Syndrome.  When David Stockman served as President Ronald Reagan’s Budget Director in the 1980s, he recognized that to emaciate social programs it was necessary to drastically reduce revenues so there would be no federal surplus and austerity would become a fiscal necessity.
The Republican adherence to the Grover Norquist stand that there should be no new taxes going into eternity meant the inability to effectively deal with the demographic shifts taking place in the American population.  The deficit is not exacerbated by domestic programs but by the long term and rising cost of social security and medicare.

Social Security is in no immediate danger and changing the rules to force income earners over $100,000 to pay social security taxes for 12 months would further extend the life of social security.  Medicare costs are the lowest in decades as since the Affordable Care Act the inflationary rate of medicare and medicaid have been substantially reduced.

An essential part of the Progressive Agenda is income inequality and that manifests itself not only in the stagnation of wages since the 1970s but in revenues collected by the federal government.  In Washington, D.C. there is much talk about tax reform but Republicans are not interested in using tax reform to correct the federal deficit or to correct income inequality but are wedded to changes that would reduce the corporate tax and would be revenue neutral.

The Supreme Court ruling Citizens United in 2010 which specified that corporations were people and thus entitled to free speech has unleashed the political influence of billionaires who seek to ensure that their class interests determine the legislative agenda.  The Progressive Movement is up against the juggernaut of greed where the rules are written in a manner that Presidential candidates and Congressional Representatives are up for sale.

Hillary Clinton is expected to be the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 2016 Presidential election.  In her embryonic campaign, she has embraced comprehensive immigration reform and denounced mass incarceration.  She has been critical of the growing income inequality but has not articulated any public policy remedies for a reversal.  The strategy of Mayor de Blasio is to push Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party leaders to embrace the Progressive Agenda.

President Obama has made it explicit that his commitment to increasing opportunity for inner city youth will be his life work after he demits office.  There is a role for the private sector and non-governmental organizations to enhance the lives of poor people but the macro-structural issues cannot be reversed solely by private sector initiatives.  As we have seen in the case of Baltimore, a federal program for the inner city unemployed similar to the New Deal WPA program is warranted.  The United States has undergone major changes in its economy since the 1970s.  William Julius Wilson’s work illustrated that the de-industrialization of America exacerbated social relationships in the black community.  Much of this de-industrialization was triggered by globalization and that is why there is so much consternation about expanding free trade zones in Asia and in Europe.

Free trade or globalization is not necessarily damaging to workers or inner city dwellers but it does reveal the displacement of capitalist economic changes. This is why correcting these macro-structural issues must be dealt with by public policy from the Federal government. These progressive policies will not be possible until the country moves beyond the Stockman syndrome. Additional federal revenues must be concomitant with the enactment of the Progressive Agenda.  Tax loopholes must be closed and the income tax for the one percenters must become even more progressive.

*Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: