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Economic Justice and Political Democracy – A Fred Harris View

July 4, 2010



It is not my intention in this series of diaries featuring Fred Harris’ speeches and writings I found in a discarded document entitled Fred Harris Campaign Handbook that I had assembled as Senator Harris’ issues director for California during his campaign for the Presidency of the US, to pen a biography of the man or to resuscitate the reputation of a minor political personality or even to recommend his thought and opinion as prescriptions for present-day social and economic ills of American society. Rather, I thought it would be informative and useful to explore Fred’s insights on the problems he addressed 34 years ago that are often the very same unresolved problems we face today.

In my first diary,(Here) I discussed Fred Harris’ thoughts on health care reform. In this diary, I take look at his approach to economic justice and fairness.

As I pointed out previously Fred Harris thought of himself as a populist.  As a populist, he saw a threat to the economic and social well being of the people of this country from run-a-way institutions, governmental and private alike. His solutions to eliminate those threats at times offended both the left and the right. But for the overt racism of the current Tea Party’s media manufactured protest movement and its corporate sponsorship, I could see Fred Harris fitting right in with many of those, paid or not, who show up to their rallies, addressing their fears and stealing their support from under the noses of Dick Armey and Rupert Murdoch.

In his Campaign Handbook sub-section titled “A Prerequisite to Political Democracy,” Fred states:

“Jefferson warned that without economic democracy there can be no political democracy”.

In that paraphrase of Jefferson, Fred Harris sums up the difference between the political left and right, between liberal and conservative and between Democrat and Republican. It also highlights what I think is the difference that Fred saw between the populist and the traditional liberal or progressive. That difference is the belief that the driving force for political change should be identifying and sweeping away the institutions and actions blocking economic justice.

In another section of the handbook subtitled “A Commitment To Fair Distribution”,
Fred continues:

“Since most United States economic growth is in corporate capital, and internally generated, it is wrong to assume that is the economic pie gets larger, everybody will be better off. Instead, the maldistribution of wealth and ownership will grow.

Money is power. That’s why the government itself should refrain from redistributing wealth and income in the wrong direction

Senator William Proxmire’s study of federal subsidies shows the federal government each year takes $94 billion out of my pocket and your pocket and hands it over to timber interests, oil and gas companies, the Lockheed’s and Penn Centrals”.

Today that number, as we all know, if we include the banks, automotive companies and tax breaks for the wealthy, has grown since the Reagan ascendancy to such an obscene extent that it now exceeds $1 trillion per year.

“If we did have an express goal for fair sharing in privileges and responsibilities, we would demand that the government stop redistribution wealth, income and power in the wrong direction.

As it is, there is no regular publication of distribution indicators, and neither the executive nor the legislative branch of the federal government makes any attempt to discover the effect of distribution of its programs or policies. We are hampered by the ‘Scrooge Syndrome'” which still characterizes too much of traditional liberalism: every now and then we are shocked into taking a turkey to the Cratchits at Christmas, when decent wages all year long would have worked better.

A fair distribution of wealth and income and power ought to be an  explicit goal of government. the debate ought to be about what’s fair and how to achieve it. But we haven’t had that kind or debate and ferment in this country for fifty years”.

Based on Fred’s view and I think most of us who read this blog, the Obama administration and the Democrat’s in Congress this session have taken some monumental steps in the direction that Fred urged almost 40 years ago and have begun to dismantle the citadel of wealth and privilege built by the Republican Party since 1980. If the Democrats are able to retain control of Congress in the 2010 elections, perhaps the most significant steps towards economic democracy and fair distribution in almost 80 years can be preserved.

And what are some of these steps?

* The reduction of taxes on the middle class.
* The breaking of the arbitrary and virtually absolute control by private insurance companies on the health care of ordinary Americans.
* The planned elimination of the tax cut for the wealthy.
* The emphasis on investment in jobs on the assembly line, small businesses and the ordinary worker and not in jobs on Wall Street or in corporate boardrooms.

These all represent a shift in the approach towards the distribution of income and wealth in the United States from that foisted on a gullible and unsuspecting America under the guise of regulatory reform and tax cuts justified by the pseudo-economic theories represented in the ever laughable Laffer curve.

If the Democrats lose control of Congress in 2010 these gains will be in jeopardy. No Democrat, even one as unpalatable as Ben Nelson is worth the loss of a Democratic majority in Congress in 2010. As I pointed out in my response to a comment to my previous diary, “In the matter of the preservation of liberty, despair is not an option.”

It is not enough to demand that the rich be taken off welfare, although they certainly have been on it since 1980, only that they should pay their fair share. The essential economic and social problem in our country is that the profits of all too many of the large corporations in the country come not from market forces and competition but from the pockets of the ordinary citizens provided through tax loopholes and subsidies. Fred Harris felt that this should not be the case and I expect that most Americans agree.

It is truly a sad comment on the ability of American finance and industry to compete in the global market when Goldman Sachs accused of criminal manipulation of the nations economic health responds by increasing its lobbying budget.

Appeals to American exceptionalism by the right to justify inaction fail because exceptionalism is the right of those willing to fight for it.

As Fred Harris said:

“It is no good saying poor people in America are better off than poor people in Belgium, or that working people in America are better off than working people in Spain, or that black people in America are better off than black people in Tanzania”.

We should note that 40 years of Republican domination of the distribution of income and wealth in this country has made the examples inapt. The poor and the working people in the United States may not be better off any more than those in Belgium or Spain and as far as Tanzania is concerned one needs to take a close look at some of our urban ghettos before venturing a conclusion.

“Poor people and working people in America are not Belgians, or Spaniards, or Tanzanians. They are Americans. It was the American social contract to which they agreed. And they have a right to judge their lives and their hopes by American standards”.


(Adapted from a diary by the author first printed in Daily Kos, April 30, 2010)

Note: As I republish this in 2018, as we know the Republican Party took over Congress in 2010 and the Presidency in 2016. Whatever advances in human dignity and economic justice that had been made since 1976 have been diminished or lost since the Republicans have taken over all three branches of the Federal Government.

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