And as crucial as tight labor markets can be for motivating employers to give workers with perceived barriers or disabilities a chance and some training, they will never fully replace the need for public investments in skills or completely overcome the reluctance of employers to make major investments in workers when they cannot fully capture the benefits of those investments. But there is little question that with wise and just policy, we do have the power to say to all our people that if you do your part, you can care for family, pursue potential and purpose without ever feeling that you have been given up on, and participate in our economy with a degree of fairness and respect as opposed to domination and humiliation. While there is no escaping qualitative judgements in defining an economic dignity goal, if we’re in search of a more meaningful metric, it would be an evolving “Economic Dignity Index” that looked at the various end impacts on human well-being: health care, college opportunity, second chances, affordable housing, environmental quality, and worker participation. This end goal of economic dignity could possibly reduce some of the policy tribalism in the United States. Economic Dignity is Sperling's effort to do just that - to frame our thinking about the way forward in a time of wrenching economic change. Yet, just because there is justifiably less concern over deficits crowding out private investment, this does not mean progressives can ignore the risk that some unnecessarily costly initiatives could unnecessarily crowd out other public investments critical to economic dignity. It makes you see economic goals more in terms of what matters to people’s dignity and sense of themselves and their role as parents, workers, sons and daughters. Even the metric of job volume can lead policymakers to make the faulty assumption that the minimum wage should be capped precisely at the point it might result in even a very marginal reduction in jobs, without consideration of the economic dignity benefits of higher wages to tens of millions of families and the potential to compensate for small reductions through simultaneous increases in national service or infrastructure or green economy jobs. For me, I would find myself in the White House just wanting to step back and ask: “At someone’s deathbed, what would they look back on as most important to their life and sense of fulfillment?” Asking this doesn’t perhaps tell you what the precise corporate tax rate should be, or anything like that. The power of GDP and productivity growth ultimately lies only in the degree that they improve human happiness, fulfillment, and dignity for the many. Hopefully, when you go to the doctor, your doctor remembers that their end goal is not promoting a favorite medicine, but looking out for your health. To me this definition draws heavily on uniquely American ideals, even though we have brutally failed to live up to them throughout our history: especially in the case of the brutal treatment of Native Americans and enslaved Americans, but also the continuing second-class citizenship of black Americans and women for far too long. That was one of the moments making me feel it was worth stepping back and asking more people, more policymakers, to reflect more on what should be the ultimate goal of economic policy. As even a Republican President like George W. Bush has recognized, we idealize the United States as “the land of second chances.” In the early 1800s, the United States was unique in its commitment to end debtors’ prisons and define the need for early bankruptcy laws not just to prevent creditor-rushes, but also to give the debtor “a fresh start”—a chance to still contribute, pursue potential, and find purpose. This would involve filling holes in the EITC for those without dependent children, as my “EITC for All” proposal does, while raising the benefit and income levels of the EITC so it is not inadvertently phased out by a higher minimum wage and supports more families struggling in the middle class. Yet the extent of such provisions must be seen as evolving. That ideal (in never squelching human potential) must mean a true commitment to both first chances and second chances. The enforcement of economic rights through judicial channels forces us to question whether rights pertain to needs or democratic values. To read the complete article and check out others, please click here. Sure. A government-run single-payer scheme could do well on an economic dignity test—not because it is all-government-provided per se, but because if executed as intended, it would succeed in ensuring the goal of health care as a right. Perhaps a better way to think of “universal” is not whether it is the same for everyone, every year, but whether a set of critical programs and benefits are universally available to all when their economic dignity is at risk—with the understanding that the increased strains of economic insecurity means greater inclusion of vulnerable segments of the middle class. We’ve seen the corrosive effect of attacks on collective bargaining: a diminished minimum wage, growing economic concentration, practices like abusive non-compete clauses, and forms of wage theft that require fixing. Economic dignity, Sperling maintains, can … Market fundamentalists on the right too often see the use of market mechanisms as the end goal due to their belief that it is inherently more efficient and promotional of freedom. And we need to start seeing these jobs as what I call “double-dignity jobs” — jobs that promote dignity both for workers, and for those who benefit from this work. But those laws make it obvious that without mandates, high subsidies, or required pooling, any market approach will leave devastating holes in health security. So what should, say, post-COVID economic restructuring prioritizing “double-dignity” occupations look like? First, some sense of a social compact is rooted deep in the American character, as is a sense that working to care for family provides many with a sense of purpose and a vehicle to pursue potential. It may have started as an effort to get a sectoral bargaining agreement with the fast-food industry, but it then developed into a national movement that has deftly operated city by city, improving economic life for tens of millions of people — all while weakening the national case against a higher minimum wage, and fueling collective bonding around progressive policy reforms. Dignity definition: If someone behaves or moves with dignity , they are calm , controlled, and admirable . Before him, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on that same sense of compact in Memphis when he linked the plight of sanitation workers to doctors, “for the person who picks up our garbage is in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. It’s not good enough to call these workers heroes, and applaud, and then just allow an economic framework to continue that denies them basic dignity. Rather than a full UBI, we should call for a Dignity Wage as part of a UBED package. While some of those expansions may require everyone to chip in, certainly a small wealth tax on the top 0.1 percent could be among the progressive measures used to expand an economic dignity net and help more working families build a modest nest egg through homeownership and stronger retirement savings. The 2009 Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance led by Joseph Stiglitz, Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi explicitly sought to start a global discussion of how best to measure quality of life and well-being, and not just GDP—a project Stiglitz and the OECD have continued. . Still I have to say that something about the nature of economic-policy debates can make you start to confuse the world of metrics, technocratic policies, and political strategies with your ultimate end goals. A Conservative Economics of Dignity The dean of Columbia Business School is a tax cutter and free trader, but he says economists must address ‘real economic concerns in the heartland.’ Economic dignity, Sperling maintains, can be seen as resting on three pillars. . His argument combines moral and intellectual seriousness with actual high-level policy experience. Particularly vulnerable workers who are not unionized, or who lack language skills and reasonable options to exit abusive work conditions, are most prone to a denial of economic dignity that can be invisible under current economic accounting. This definition of economic dignity is rooted in the best angels of the American character, helps substantially explain how we have navigated our relationship between market and government, and can serve as our economic North Star looking forward. ANDY FITCH: Could we start from your broadest call for policymakers always to think of any preferred metrics or agendas as, at best, means towards the end of widespread fulfillment in people’s lives? Having a clear view of what our end goal for human well-being is—and keeping it front and center—can help all of us be open to new evidence and committed to continually evaluating what works best to achieve economic dignity for all. For now, economic dignity is an idea that Sperling eloquently describes in his book. Economic dignity, Sperling maintains, can be seen as resting on three pillars. An economic dignity net needs to be able to adjust and expand to the changes in economic trends and social norms that go to the heart of ensuring a capacity to care for family and realize its greatest joys. An economic dignity goal would still weigh widespread consumer benefits in terms of the degree to which convenience and lower prices ease the goal of caring for family—it simply would not assume such consumer welfare calculations should be dominant regardless of other economic dignity considerations. At a time when Republican control of the House of Representatives left no chance for a serious minimum-wage increase at the federal level, so many people took to the streets across the nation to make it happen in their cities and states. We'll send periodic reminders of what's new and what's coming. Progressive economists are on strong ground in arguing for giving greater priority to major initiatives to address economic insecurity and inequality over traditional fiscal discipline concerns and budget rules—especially when those constraints are so constantly and blatantly ignored by Republicans as soon as they get a chance to pass supply-side tax cuts. In it, he argues that economic dignity should be our national north star -- and that it should include a commitment to a stronger social compact for economic security and pursuing purpose and meaning, while ensuring that workers should have more rights and power to be free from the "forces of domination and humiliation." It is this rationale that should be seen as a core component of the CFPB’s mission and of consumer regulations that seek to prevent predatory practices in areas like mortgage origination, payday lending, and for-profit education. Or that farmworkers were risking their lives to provide us food while half did not have health care. It means recognizing the value of developing trusted and widely utilized skill “credentials” that match the needs of existing and future job openings and, with additional incentives, help encourage more companies to choose skilled workers over automation. His argument combines moral and intellectual seriousness with actual high-level policy experience. Economic Dignity. Meanwhile, the high demand for labor gives more workers the “take this job and shove it” leverage to demand more dignified working conditions. Economic dignity, Sperling maintains, can be … All of this is good and right — but I think it’s important for us to note that even these better metrics shouldn’t be mistaken as an ultimate end goal. While many conservatives reflexively label all regulation as anti-market interference, regulations that outlaw exploitative and predatory practices toward workers and consumers can better be seen as simply structuring “high road” competition that does not allow competitive advantage to be achieved by race-to-the bottom practices. Debates over political trends, warring policy camps, economic metrics, and winning economic strategies are the lifeblood of our national political and economic dialogue. What makes paid family leave or rampant sexual harassment critical economic issues, “regardless of whether they show up in a prominent metric”? Five, we need a more serious look at greater worker representation in making the rules about working conditions, from European-style co-determination measures to worker councils. Four, we need measures to combat all forms of racism in the workplace, as well as the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault unearthed by the #MeToo movement. It is a recognition that there are spheres of dignity that should not be traded, trampled, or compromised by government or market players in pursuit of economic metrics or profits. . For your third pillar of economic dignity, concerns of abuse, domination, and humiliation stretch from the acutely personal forms of workplace harassment highlighted by recent #MeToo campaigns — all the way to economy-wide concerns of entrenched monopolistic firms treating employees, small-business suppliers, and consumers as little more than sources of profit margins. We shape our destiny.” A focus on efficiency and consumer prices should not short-circuit debates over the pros and cons of shaping policy to favor U.S. jobs and automation—or at least level the playing field between them. Even more inclusive economic metrics cannot replace an end goal like economic dignity. While a general investigation of the meaning of life is far beyond the grasp of this article, it will instead attempt a much more modest task, but one which it is believed will be valuable: to seek the legal meaning of the term ‘life’ in its use in international and regional human rights treaties, most typically in the protection of a ‘right to life’. The textbook case that gives credence to this political argument for universal programs is the relative political strength of Social Security and Medicare, as opposed to Medicaid or SNAP. We saw this with the Supreme Court, as it went from striking down minimum wage laws in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923 to upholding them in 1937 in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish. Whether you could be there for your children and parents when they needed you most. It is safe to say that even more moderate versions would run a heavy risk of both crowding out other bold new proposals and existing programs—especially if our nation did face a future period of public backlash against high deficits or government spending. What makes economists so often “confuse… technocratic policies, and political strategies with… ultimate end goals”? Sperling directed the National Economic Council under both President Clinton (1997–2001) and President Obama (2011–2014). Kant described dignity as essentially a commitment to never treat a person as purely a means to an end. Economic dignity, defined by these three pillars, represents a more full, complete, and stable definition that can stand strong no matter what variation or circumstance is considered… There is no shortage of usages of the word “dignity”—from showing grace under difficult circumstances (“He handled the rebuke with great dignity.”), to the basic respect all people are due by virtue of their common humanity recognized in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the respect for autonomy of the individual that Supreme Court justices from William Brennan, Jr. to Anthony Kennedy have found embedded in the core of the Constitution. All rights reserved. This end goal significantly expands the degree to which government guarantees the basic components of economic dignity—regardless of the accident of birth, economic events, technological trends, or just bad luck. Prioritizing economic dignity over economic statistics like GDP embodies the maxim that it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. We can see this in the dramatic need for more economic support and skilled workers in areas like homecare for those older loved ones with dementia and other serious health conditions, specialized care and assistance for children and young adults with autism or Down Syndrome, quality pre-school instruction, and on-going individualized help for children from lower income backgrounds who never get true first or second chances. Today, there’s greater focus on the lack of worker power and benefits for gig-workers. In poorly regulated markets, those seeking to take the high road on economic dignity can legitimately fear losing market share as well as credibility within their companies if they can be undercut by competitors legally deploying exploitative practices. And could you sketch a few striking manifestations of how this particular inequality plays out in everyday strains placed on American families — say with 70 percent of low-wage workers now required to keep their schedule “open and available” to suit their employers’ needs? I also think that concentration has moved us in the wrong direction when it comes to basic spheres of economic dignity that should be guaranteed — and not subject to being trampled on due to unequal market power. “Double dignity jobs” are so promising because so many of the areas where our nation faces the greatest dignity gaps are ones that offer careers with ongoing innovation and the sense of purpose in serving others. I don’t think anyone intends for that to happen. One motivation for writing this book was having some members of Congress call me in 2009 and ask if I could help convince President Obama to focus on the economy as opposed to health care. Economic dignity, defined by these three pillars, represents a more full, complete, and stable definition that can stand strong no matter what variation or circumstance is considered. Skilling up such care jobs—As SEIU President Mary Kay Henry has long called for—can lead to higher wages, more satisfying careers, and can reduce national health-care costs. Low unemployment or rising median income are much better indicators of national well-being than the stock market for sure. In other words, the process by which countries with low living standards become nations with high living standards. Today, even some commentators on the right have questioned the virtue of loyalty to market fundamentalism that seems blind to morality or fairness. Then for your second economic dignity pillar, how might a robust pursuit of potential and purpose emerge through reinvigorated policy commitment to providing each American with both first chances (tangible support to cultivate our distinct capacities) and second chances (a leave-nobody-behind approach to economic growth)? Portrait of Gene Sperling above courtesy of Praise Santos. No one should be considered a Luddite merely for considering issues of economic dignity as we confront the ongoing threat of job polarization due to the acceleration of AI, robots, and automation. In 2010, the fact that tens of millions of working parents were a pink slip away from not being able to care for their most loved ones in times of heartbreaking illness should have topped any list of priorities needed to fulfill an economic dignity compact. Economic dignity would mean being able “to care for your family and enjoy the most meaningful moments of family life, without economic deprivation taking … Indeed, in the absence of that more clear focus on an economic fixed star, it becomes too easy to start to see the economic targets, political strategies, and specific policy postures as if they were the end goals in themselves—as opposed to means to arrive at a higher end goal for lifting up human fulfillment. Unfortunately, many people in the economic world still seem to treat GDP as the end goal of economics. How much do individual political rights mean if, in my economic life and for the majority of my day, I am subject to complete domination, humiliation, and exploitation?” One can see the degree to which these basic matters of what I call “negative” economic dignity start driving the need for government to ensure a realm of economic rights — a realm of basic dignity that cannot be trampled on due to either market power or pursuit of profit. Yet I do believe there is power in seeing these different policies under a unified national commitment to ensure that each of us has the economic dignity of receiving true first and second chances to contribute and pursue potential, and that no one feels their country has given up on or abandoned them. All labor has dignity.”. Gene Sperling Again, this doesn’t mean we’ve ever faced some either-or choice. There are still few things that affirmatively impact lifetime income as much as a college degree. Some progressive economists feared that, in the 1990s, too strong a focus on human capital led to a minimization of the importance of structural issues concerning markets, economic power, and full-employment policies to ensure tight labor markets. Progressives, on the other hand, have shown an increased boldness in proposing new policies aimed at addressing economic dignity gaps. We need to cultivate both worker skills and worker power — as a dynamic duo, not an either-or. As our nation started the process of passing laws that outlawed child labor, created a minimum wage, prevented sweat-shop conditions and excessive hours, this marked the beginning of collectively saying that it was unacceptable to treat a worker as a pure means for profit, without regard for their basic humanity and dignity. © Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Inc. All right reserved. 18 June 2015 The ICRC defines economic security as the ability of individuals, households or communities to cover their essential needs sustainably and with dignity. While advocates could argue for single payer as the most efficient or effective means to ensuring affordable health care as a right, this approach would not automatically shut down consideration of whether a government guarantee of health security involving a mix of government and private market mechanisms—like a major public option or universal Medicare or Medicaid buy-in—could do as well, or even better, in achieving the economic dignity test.
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