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Home » America’s economy was in trouble in 1996. It is broken in 2021. But here’s the good news.

America’s economy was in trouble in 1996. It is broken in 2021. But here’s the good news.

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Consider this important lede from the Washington Post: “Americans are suffering from a long-term erosion in wages, deteriorating job quality and greater insecurity despite undisputed improvement in the overall economy, according to a report released yesterday.”

From earlier this week? Nope. From 2020 or 2019? Not a chance.

This particular Post lede is from 25 years ago; from September 1996 to be precise, two months after the launch of MSNBC.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même.

In the wake of the pandemic, workers’ pay is finally increasing here in the United States but only after decades of an “erosion in wages.”

Today, in the wake of the pandemic, workers’ pay is finally increasing here in the United States but only after decades of an “erosion in wages.” As for “deteriorating job quality and greater insecurity,” examples abound, from our “at will” labor laws in every U.S. state except Montana, which allow bosses to say “you’re fired” for no good reason and exacerbated America’s employment crisis during the pandemic, to the shoddy treatment of workers at Amazon, now one of the country’s biggest employers with more than 800,000 staff (compared to a mere 151 in 1996).

Today, low-paid workers, in particular, “are suffering.” Despite the “undisputed improvement in the overall economy” in 2021, Republican and (some) Democratic lawmakers refused to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour in March; it has been stuck at $7.25 for 12 of the last 25 years.

Stagnant wages. Unions in decline. Bigger and bigger tax cuts for the rich. And the result? Ballooning inequality in the United States, even before Covid-19 provided booster rockets.

If the American economy was in trouble in 1996, it is well and truly broken in 2021. Today, the system is rigged even more in favor of Wall Street, big corporations, and billionaires than perhaps ever before. Thanks to ProPublica, we now know that the Bezozes, Buffets, and Musks often don’t even have to bother paying a single cent in federal income tax.

And it is too easy to blame only Republicans for all this. Democratic presidents have been in office for 13 of the past 25 years. True, they offered reforms, made some improvements, tinkered around the edges. But they also failed to break with a neoliberal view of the world.

Remember Bill Clinton, who told us the “era of big government is over” and then signed his welfare reform act into law in August 1996?

Remember Barack Obama, who once boasted how his economic policies were “so mainstream” he’d be considered a moderate Republican in the 1980s? Obama, at least, has since conceded that “there was a residual willingness to accept the political constraints that we’d inherited from the post-Reagan era.”

That is good news, in a way. The past quarter-century of Democratic Party incrementalism and accommodationism has led fewer and fewer Democratic politicians to willingly “accept the political constraints” of the “post-Reagan era.”

“Top Democrats are talking about economic inequality with a forcefulness not seen since the 1930s,” noted the co-directors of The Project to Raise America’s Pay, in a lengthy recent essay for “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.” “Some, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have proposed bold, multi-trillion dollar plans to address many of the urgent problems of low- and middle-income Americans.”

Sanders and Warren may have failed to secure their party’s presidential nomination last year, but the so-called “moderate” who defeated them, Joe Biden, ended up signing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) into law in March. It is perhaps the single most progressive piece of legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, if not Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The ARP has huge public support. And so do a range of progressive policies — from Medicare for All, to a wealth tax, to a federal jobs guarantee, to — yes — a $15 minimum wage.

The ARP has huge public support. And so do a range of progressive policies — from Medicare for All, to a wealth tax, to a federal jobs guarantee, to — yes — a $15 minimum wage. There is no good reason why Biden or his successor can’t be persuaded and/or pressured into implementing some or even all of this stuff in the coming months or years.

This is not 1996. Today, in the United States, influential progressive groups such as the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, and Indivisible, are brimming with ideas and energy. Economists who understand the scale of the challenge also happen to have senior jobs in the Biden administration.

Now, I’m not pretending Joe Biden himself has morphed into a European-style social democrat, or that big donors aren’t still pushing the Democratic Party in a cautious and conservative direction. Nor am I pretending that our democracy isn’t in peril as a result of Republican misinformation campaigns and voter suppression laws.

Nevertheless, the stars do seem to have aligned in favor of a more egalitarian economic agenda: popular policies, progressive personnel, and pressure from below.

Dare we dream that the next 25 years in America start to look more like the Roosevelt era and less like the Reagan one?