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Finance, the Real Economy, and the Progressive

By Ron Rivers,

Improving the economy is a concept that most people are familiar with but likely have different understandings of depending on the circumstances that they find themselves in.  There seems to be no shortage of political pundits, candidates, leaders, and non-specialists provide visions of what’s wrong and how we’re going to fix it.    Strangely one topic that rarely gets any attention is the relationship between finance, that is the management of capital and credit, and the real economy.  Creating the institutional reformation necessary to reorganize society requires Progressives to have a deep understanding of this relationship to better communicate alternative visions of the future within their communities.  I argue that a fundamental objective of the Progressive is to bind financial activity to the real economy.

What is the Real Economy?

The real economy is the productive engine that powers our methods of exchange here in the United States.  A person creates something independently or as part of an organization with the intention of giving the thing to someone else in exchange for compensation.  

Through the structure of our legal arrangements, the privatization of land, resources, and outputs are intended to give people the freedom to help manifest their destiny through exchange with others.  Elements of privatization are part of the constitution, although the definition of property was left vague. [1] The constitutional architects intended for states to act as experiments in ways of living, determining their definitions of what was and was not considered legally ownable.  The Constitution also paved the way for copyright and patent laws and gave Congress the authority to punish piracy. I imagine it would have been difficult to envision the results of their structure through the lens of the present with our ever-increasing wealth concentration [2] further calcifying hard socioeconomic class structures within the United States.

The law allows for profit maximization, obligating firms to maximize value for shareholders.  In many cases, privatization ends up acting as a shield for ill-intentioned actions under the guise of profitability.  For example, Exxon knew about climate change for over 35 years and actively spread misinformation to the public about it. [3]  The CEOs serving during this time have not faced repercussions for actions they were ultimately responsible for. The real economy serves as an engine supporting the innovation of life within United States.  The narrow goal of profit does not serve the larger purpose of social organization outside of the state and restricts our collective potential for innovation. This isn’t a call for the total abolition of privatization, rather a criticism of its limitations and the arrangements that support our singular form of it.

The Value of Finance

In his 2018 Progressive Alternatives lecture series, Roberto Mangabeira Unger discusses research that indicates that over 80% of productive economic activity acquires funding by productivity itself.  This means that instead of investing in new companies, new innovations, and new types of markets that could ultimately produce results that would demonstrate significant value to society the majority of money is risked through techniques whose only intention is to create more capital through financial schemes.  Venture capital is increasingly popular but contributes a statistically insignificant amount towards the total productive agenda. These data points call into question the value of high-finance operations such as stock exchanges, which fail to fund the productive agenda of society as the majority of monies generated is staying within the system.  

When the economy is booming, high finance is invisible to many Americans; in time of crises, it’s destructive.  The 2008 financial crash was caused by the speculative financing activity of for-profit banks which then socialized their losses through government bailouts and the repossession of the very homes that they capitalized on in the first place.   All of these actions were supported and protected by our legal arrangements.

Foreclosure Rate United States – Image Credit:  Statista


We can dismiss arguments that the stock exchange somehow sets a value benchmark for corporations looking to borrow capital from banks, as we know that is just not true.  The biggest firms are stockpiling cash [4] and do not seek loans from banks. We must ask ourselves, how do our laws permitting this storing of cash benefit real economic activity?  The simple answer is that they do not, bringing into question why they still exist.

Redefining the Relationship

We need to break the narrative that markets efficiently allocate capital to the most efficient use.  The statement is only true if you define efficiency as the best returns for the owner of said capital instead of adding tangible value to the real economy.  For those of us who do not share an ownership stake in high finance, the apparent truth is that high finance does not serve the collective public good under its present arrangements.  

Progressive leaders need to be proactive in their market innovations, abandoning historical precedence of reactionary regulations applied after the damage.  This narrative is old, tired, and does not work. Never do we hear visions of alternative arrangements that would prevent the very activity that we seek to regulate in, retrospectively.  A Progressive knows that there is no legal requirement to have markets organized in a specific way and that anything that has been created can and should be improved upon without respect to historical norms.  Change is a universal truth, and no institution is sacred when it comes to innovation for the shared public good. Our purpose is clear: we must focus on changing the relationship between finance and production.  

Pulling again from Professor Unger, we can begin to develop our framework of how to proceed.  First, we create legislation that prohibits financial activities that have no relation to expanding our collective productive efforts such as derivative trading.  We redefine financial speculation, allowing it so long as the purpose is to experiment, innovate, or handle risk. Our goal is not to eliminate instability as some instability can be good, but to ensure that these efforts are towards creating real economic value.  Speculating for the sole purpose of increasing numbers on a balance sheet is akin to gambling and is hindered to reduce dramatic boom/bust cycles.

Beyond restricting, Progressives must begin with imagining how we can better utilize the potential of all of the underutilized capital floating within our economic system.  History and present time provide us examples of how this capital could be used, with the New Deal and the increasingly popular Green New Deal.   The New Deal was the most significant collective investment in the world at the time of its inception and the Green New Deal’s call for national mobilization to create a near-zero marginal cost energy infrastructure could easily surpass historical efforts.   This is a great example of redefining the relationship between finance and the real economy. Imagine if all of the latent capital trading for tradings sake or being held was applied to retrofitting every building in the United States with solar panels, networking those building together, and investing in new storage technologies to maximize the capacity and distribution of the energy created.  The collective benefits of a national infrastructure generating nearly free energy would be immense and widespread in every economic vertical.

The power of the state to should be used to create new directions for asset creation and innovation towards a shared vision of the good.  We can choose to have the state to manage these funds or if we want them independently led by actors under a non-profit structure. Either is acceptable, and the most efficient and effective method should be the primary definer.  Both choices require codifying radical transparency into the process and stricter penalties for potential misuse of resources. Reimagining the relationship between finance and the real economy need not be limited to state controlled programs, we can and should still take advantage of the latent experimental potential of the individual.

This single example of the proposed framework for Progressives proceeding draws from our shared understanding that no natural method exists to connect finance to real economic activity.  It is up to us to create the method. Our design must be consistently scrutinized for new opportunities for innovation in the service of the public. Progressives understand that our clearest pathway towards transformation is addressing systemic deficiencies at their root cause.  By forcing finance to act in the direction of productivity and denying capital holders the ability to speculate for the sole purpose of personal gain, we lay the foundation for a more expansive approach to experimentation and innovation with society.   



[1] The Constitution and Property Rights by Rob Natelson Independence Institute https://i2i.org/the-constitution-and-property-rights/

[2] Inequality gap widens as ‘world’s richest 1% get 82% of the wealth,’ Oxfam says by Sam Meredith CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/22/wef-18-oxfam-says-worlds-richest-1-percent-get-82-percent-of-the-wealth.html

[3] Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago by Shannon Hall Scientific America https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/

[4] CASH RICH: 10 COMPANIES WITH THE LARGEST CASH PILES Forbes https://www.forbes.com/pictures/mlf45kijd/google/#5abcd38729a8



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History Hinders the Future of Public Services

By Ron Rivers,

I’m a fan of public services, and it irks me when I hear people complain about their quality.  Not because they’re wrong, but because I imagine that their experiences have been frustrating and lackluster.  It’s a shame as the power of the state to organize and direct collective resources towards our shared vision of the good is tremendous, yet it always seems to fall short of expectations.    While the blame typically falls on public employees or the state itself, there is a deeper seed sprouting these challenges.  Many public services are still operating with a core philosophy stemming from historical time, well-intentioned but ill-equipped to deal with the needs of the present.

History’s Lens

Social services have been a part of the United States for over a century, with attempts to address poverty dating as far back as the 1880s.  The Social Security Act  was passed in 1935 and expanded into direct relief programs such as food stamps, cash benefits, and more.  Presently we offer more than 75 different programs to help assist people in need. In this regard, our democracy has demonstrated itself as a tool of empathy and social good.   Why then, do these programs struggle to provide a premium service? Unpacking this question begins with understanding the time sense of the social services movements.

When the foundational social service programs were developed the most advanced form of production was the mass production of standardized goods and services.   A classic example being Henry Ford’s assembly line. Using low to moderately skilled labor, organizational structures based on hierarchy, and rudimentary machines, our most advanced economic model defined our contextual understanding of the world. Social services were designed to serve as low quality but widely available services that are provided as alternatives to the higher quality options available for purchase through the private sector.   Given the context of the period this method made sense, it ensures that the programs serve as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This philosophy has its merits, it surpasses its limitations of information and communication of the period by casting a wide net. The melding of advanced economic methodologies with social outreach practices was an excellent solution at the time of inception but hinders present progress by constraining the narrative about what social services can and should be.

Social programs aren’t the only example of institutional arrangements that are constrained by the ideas of men long dead.  Adam Smith’s economic theory of supply and demand is strongly influenced by Newtonian physics, specifically his third law. “Law III: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.“  Any time a market fundamentalist talks about how prices will self-correct due to demand they are drawing from theories originated by Issac Newton. Time, however, spares no person or ideas from change. Today we operate under Albert Einstein’s vision of a dynamic space-time, replacing Newton’s static version as the dominant understanding.  Science is open to adapting new truths and rewriting historical arrangements upon their discovery, so why not do the same within society?   

As context driven beings our imagination of structure and the possible is defined by the world at a point in time. We share this with the architects of the past.   Human imagination is potentially infinite while simultaneously constrained by what is right now. In accepting our limitations today, we recognize the inadequacies of the past.    Fortunately, the radical technological, social, and cultural transformation that brings us to this present moment equips us to experiment with alternative arrangements of our public services.

Image Credit: StudentLoanHero.com

Adapting and Expanding

We can begin by enhancing the quality of services readily available.  The work of organizations like Code For America is an excellent example of how focused funding can support innovative government services.   Integrating new technologies with a user-centric design into existing services such as food and health services gives families in need a more efficient and convenient way of receiving these benefits, reducing stress and increasing personal time.  We can observe examples of how small investments can dramatically improve the ease and convenience of access.

Depending on the level of investment we wanted to commit at a federal level we could imagine highly integrated benefit networks expanding across states designed to maximize process efficiencies while always erring on the side of human good.  Machine learning integrations could support continuous improvements through the analysis of existing and future data sets, logistics, deliveries of service, and more. By integrating the most advanced technologies and practices from our knowledge economy into our social programs we can shift direction towards a more effective form of public provision.  

Expanding beyond the horizon of existing programs we open up the discussion for what public services could be.   Given the changing nature of work, it’s necessary to begin to plan services for a different type of human experience.   As machines continue to automate traditional jobs, we will be forced to contend with a new world of precarious employment for much of the labor force.  If we are intent on existing within the historical frameworks of social services, then the future is likely going to be much worse for more people. Alternatively, if we recognize that human imagination and ingenuity are our most productive and powerful resource we give ourselves ground to restructure services to a different end.     No person should have to do the job a machine can do, but we exist in a world of machine doing.  Therefore we must develop new pathways for people to enhance their capabilities.

Public services viewed through the lens of the present and future should facilitate a suite of vital protections for every citizen that is not tied to employment.  What those rights are will be chosen democratically, but I suggest food/water, shelter, healthcare, education, transportation, information, and communication – all of which are an absolute necessity to thrive in the new Knowledge Economy.  Our rights extend beyond our occupation and no shift in technology or techniques should hinder our potential for transformation.

The connection of rights being tied to employment is an ideological relic of the past.  It made perfect sense for a world where many people would enter a manufacturing job with the intention of stable, long-term employment. Present day automation and a system of fragile employment presented under the guise of a “gig economy” illustrate a very different picture of the world today.   One that shows no signs of slowing and could be a massive benefit if directed correctly. Expansion of rights and freedoms through democratically chosen public services is a necessity given all economic and technological trends but remains hindered by the past’s grasp on our understanding of the moment.

We should choose to have the state act as both the bottom and the top for these projects.  At the base level, we provide the necessary services and access to allow everyone to experiment and innovate within life without fear of economic desolation if their efforts do not succeed.  At the top level, we utilize the power of the state to facilitate the most complex projects. One example of such a project could be taken from Jeremy Rifkin who lays out a plan to develop an integrated energy network by retrofitting every building with solar panels, using batteries to store the power, and distributing that energy where needed.  This would create a near-zero marginal cost society, where energy was so plentiful and cheap it would radically redefine our understanding of the world. These types of massive infrastructure projects designed for the collective social benefit best left to state organization, just as the U.S. interstate highway network was in the past.  

Projects that scale between the floor and the ceiling should be left to society to address.  Public service projects could be implemented to equip better and coordinate these ventures with access to the most advanced forms of technology, practice, and collaborative coordination while simultaneously encouraging competition to foster innovation and experimentation within social services.  Legally we could create new arrangements, for example requiring that an organization taking advantage of said services to develop public solutions would be needed to be structured as a non-profit. We could imagine this format, combined with a suite of protections for the floor, increasing competition for new and better ideas more frequently give that the inevitable disruption would not be as damaging to the human participants as it is in present time.  This model allows for more people to have more opportunity to change society for the better.

Structuring public services in the fashion argued above is a direct pathway to increase the organization of society outside of the state.  It recognizes the need for proactive adaptation to an uncertain future while empowering domain professionals to help us experiment with alternative visions of the future of services.  We reject the privatization of public services as the poorly performing substitutes they have always been, understanding that our objective is to democratize society rather than further marketize it.   In doing so, we encourage the organization of more projects in the realm of a shared vision of the good.

I’m a fan of public services, and it irks me when I hear people complain about their quality.  Not because they’re wrong, but because I imagine that their experiences have been frustrating and lackluster.  It’s a shame as the power of the state to organize and direct collective resources towards our shared vision of the good is tremendous, yet it always seems to fall short of expectations.    While the blame typically falls on public employees or the state itself, there is a deeper seed sprouting these challenges.  Many public services are still operating with a core philosophy stemming from historical time, well-intentioned but ill-equipped to deal with the needs of the present.

History’s Lens

Social services have been a part of the United States for over a century, with attempts to address poverty dating as far back as the 1880s.  The Social Security Act  was passed in 1935 and expanded into direct relief programs such as food stamps, cash benefits, and more.  Presently we offer more than 75 different programs to help assist people in need. In this regard, our democracy has demonstrated itself as a tool of empathy and social good.   Why then, do these programs struggle to provide a premium service? Unpacking this question begins with understanding the time sense of the social services movements.

When the foundational social services programs were developed the most advanced form of production was the mass production of standardized goods and services.   A classic example being Henry Ford’s assembly line. Using low to moderately skilled labor, organizational structures based on hierarchy, and rudimentary machines, our most advanced economic model defined our contextual understanding of the world. Social services were designed to serve as low quality but widely available services that are provided as alternatives to the higher quality options available for purchase through the private sector.   Given the context of the period this method made sense, it ensures that the programs serve as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This philosophy has its merits, it surpasses its limitations of information and communication of the period by casting a wide net. The melding of two innovative practices was an excellent solution at the time of inception but hinders present progress by constraining the narrative about what social services can and should be.

Social programs aren’t the only example of institutional arrangements that are constrained by the ideas of men long dead.  Adam Smith’s economic theory of supply and demand is strongly influenced by Newtonian physics, specifically his third law. “Law III: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.“  Any time a person speaks about how prices will self-correct due to demand they are drawing from theories originated by Issac Newton. Time, however, spares no person or ideas from change. Today we operate under Albert Einstein’s vision of a dynamic space-time, replacing Newton’s static version as the dominant understanding.  Science is open to adopting new truths and rewriting historical arrangements upon their discovery, so why not do the same within society?   

As context driven beings our imagination of structure and the possible is defined by the moment the collective progress of the world at a point in time. We share this with the architects of the past.   Human imagination is potentially infinite while simultaneously constrained by what is right now. In accepting our limitations today, we recognize the inadequacies of the past.    Fortunately, the radical technological, social, and cultural transformation that brings us to this present moment equips us to experiment with alternative arrangements of our public services.

Adapting and Expanding

We can begin by enhancing the quality of services readily available.  The work of organizations like Code For America is an excellent example of how focused funding can support innovation government services.   Integrating new technologies with a user-centric design into existing services such as food and health services gives families in need we can observe real examples of how small investments can dramatically improve the ease and convenience of access.  

Depending on the level of investment we wanted to commit at a federal level we could imagine highly integrated benefits networks expanding across states designed to maximize process efficiencies while always erring on the side of human good.  Machine learning integrations could support continuous improvements through the analysis of existing and future data sets, logistics, deliveries of service, and more. By integrating the most advanced technologies and practices from our knowledge economy into our social programs we can shift direction towards a more effective form of public provision.  

Expanding beyond the horizon of existing programs we open up the discussion for what public services could be.   Given the changing nature of work, it’s necessary to begin to plan services for a different type of human experience.   As machines continue to automate traditional jobs, we will be forced to contend with a new world of precarious employment for much of the labor force.  If we are intent on existing within the historical frameworks of social services, then the future is likely going to be much worse for more people. Alternatively, if we recognize that human imagination and ingenuity are our most productive and powerful resource we give ourselves ground to restructure services to a different end.     No person should have to do the job a machine can do, but we exist in a world of machine doing.  Therefore we must develop new pathways for people to enhance their capabilities.

Public services viewed through the lens of the present and future should facilitate a suite of vital protections for every citizen that is not tied to employment.  What those rights are will be chosen democratically, but I suggest food/water, shelter, healthcare, education, transportation, information, and communication – all of which are an absolute necessity to thrive in the new Knowledge Economy.  Our rights extend beyond our occupation and no shift in technology or techniques should hinder our potential for transformation.

The connection of rights being tied to employment is an ideological relic of the past.  It made perfect sense for a world where many people would enter a manufacturing job with the intention of stable, long-term employment. Present day automation and a system of fragile employment presented under the guise of a “gig economy” illustrate a very different picture of the world today.   One that shows no signs of slowing and could be a massive benefit if directed correctly. Expansion of rights and freedoms through democratically chosen public services is a necessity given all economic and technological trends but remains hindered by the past’s grasp on our understanding of the moment.

We should choose to have the state act as both the bottom and the top for these projects.  At the base level, we provide the necessary services and access to allow everyone to experiment and innovate within life without fear of economic desolation if their efforts do not succeed.  At the top level, we utilize the power of the state to facilitate the most complex projects. One example of such a project could be taken from Jeremy Rifkin who lays out a plan to develop an integrated energy network by retrofitting every building with solar panels, using batteries to store the power, and distributing that energy where needed.  This would create a near-zero marginal cost society, where energy was so plentiful and cheap it would radically redefine our understanding of the world. These types of massive infrastructure projects designed for the collective social benefit best left to state organization, just as the U.S. interstate highway network was in the past.  

Projects that scale between the floor and the ceiling should be left to society to address.  Public service projects could be implemented to equip better and coordinate these ventures with access to the most advanced forms of technology, practice, and collaborative coordination while simultaneously encouraging competition to foster innovation and experimentation within social services.  Legally we could create new arrangements, for example requiring that an organization taking advantage of said services to develop public solutions would be needed to be structured as a non-profit. We could imagine this format, combined with a suite of protections for the floor, increasing competition for new and better ideas more frequently give that the inevitable disruption would not be as damaging to the human participants as it is in present time.  This model allows for more people to have more opportunity to change society for the better.

Structuring public services in the fashion argued above is a direct pathway to increase the organization of society outside of the state.  It recognizes the need for proactive adaptation to an uncertain future while empowering domain professionals to help us experiment with alternative visions of the future of services.  We reject the privatization of public services as the poorly performing substitutes they have always been, understanding that our objective is to democratize society rather than further marketize it.   In doing so, we encourage the organization of more projects in the realm of a shared vision of the good.

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Proactive Taxation for Progressives

By Ron Rivers,

Wealth concentration is the central issue to many of the social, political, and economic problems facing the United States in the present day. It negatively impacts our health, happiness, [1] and our shared ability to transform the world. Popular ideas such as a wealth tax [2], a more progressive taxation system[3], and a Universal Basic Income are growing more popular but may fall short of making the genuine systemic change needed to redefine the human experience. To successfully address poverty, we need to approach wealth distribution proactively from a structural perspective.

A central challenge facing the most commonly supported equality agendas is that they attempt to address inequality through reactive redistribution, continuously trying to fix problems perpetually generated by the system itself. The single market structure capitalism the U.S. subscribes to is a method of exchange originated with scarcity in mind and rewards those who own the highest concentrations of capital the most. Reactively approaching inequality via taxation resigns us to dealing with the inequity after-the-fact and limits our ability to create change in real time.

Some argue for radical redistribution, a sudden and dramatic allocation of existing wealth. This idea is not a viable option as it would severely disrupt the entire economic order and is unlikely to ever to be politically feasible given our present circumstances. That isn’t to say that redistribution isn’t a part of the solution, it is. But the methods we choose must be implemented in a long term strategic approach that is applied in a step-by-step manner to maximize both effectiveness and agility of the programs.

Why Should We Pay More?

Successfully transforming society into a more pluralistic set of arrangements requires us to increase our total tax take. Simply put, more resources are needed to fund social investments. The United States has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world, meaning that rates increase as people earn more, yet still suffers from the highest wealth inequality. [4] We need to be careful not to rely too much on progressive taxation as it can also be framed as a class issue. If expressed in the language of propaganda, pitting one class against another, the potential exists to create opposition from sources that would benefit from a more progressive tax organization.

Increasing taxes doesn’t make us Socialists. The United States citizens pay less in taxes than most western democracies. [4] European countries also implement a Value-Added Tax (VAT) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_added_tax) Much of that money is spent on redistributive efforts. You can think of a VAT as a fair form of taxation that essentially pulls a little bit from every time something is created. Implementing a VAT here in the United States would allow us to maximize our revenues while minimizing the impact on our economy.

Using taxes to invest in programs to support pluralistic arrangements and services will be an incredible net benefit to all of society. The greatest resource humanity has ever had and will ever have is our imagination. The Progressive project is about giving every person the ability to channel that imagination into experimentation and innovation. If maximizing our individual and shared potential is the goal then it is a primary objective to increase revenue flows to fund projects and pay down debts.

Image Source: TaxLinked.com

Examining Alternatives

All taxation intends to accomplish the same goal in different directions. We use our redistributive programs to enhance our shared standard of living. A Progressive approach to taxation learns from history without dogmatically committing to a specific method. Fortunately for us, history is full of imaginative scholars who created tax structures that could address some of our most systemic problems today.

In 1879 Henry George published Progress & Poverty. It was incredibly popular in its time and is still taught by numerous non-profit organizations. The central theme of Georgism is that land speculation is central to the boom/bust cycle that is a fixture of capitalist economies. Because available land is of fixed supply and needed for all production land values will always rise faster than economic growth, separating much of the people from accessing ownership.

His solution is the Land Value Tax. It’s a tax that considers the value of the land, ignoring improvements. It would remove the incentive from creating a livelihood whose primary income is rent seeking from multiple properties. It’s been implemented in numerous locations across the world including Pennsylvania [5] where it helped communities adapt to the changing economic situations they found themselves in after the 2008 recession. George believes that all people own the land and in many respects he is correct. A Land Value Tax strategy could be a pillar of a more access based society and help to stabilize more people in a permanent residence.

Nicholas Kaldor argued for the tax of individual consumption. “It is only by spending, not by earning or saving, that an individual imposes a burden on the rest of the community in attaining his own ends” [6] His method would tax the difference between a person’s total income (including capital gains) and investment savings, or what a person spends on themselves.

What I appreciate about Kaldor’s method is that we could structure it in such a way to significantly benefit our most disenfranchised while also using it to better redistribute from the top wealth hoarders. We could imagine that those at the bottom of the economic order would pay nothing and likely even be supplemented by a Universal Basic Income. In the middle we could have a progressive tax structure as we do presently, increasing along with income rates. At the top very we can set the number to whatever we want it to be. As an example, a consumption tax on people earning over $10,000,000 a year could be a ratio to $5.00 tax for every $1.00 spent. Because there are few feasible ways for people with such excess capital to spend more than they earn this tax is unlikely to have any impact on their consumption.

In his third lecture in the 2018 Progressive Alternatives series, Roberto Mangabeira Unger supports Kaldor and suggests that the law states that all income that cannot be shown as saved or invested counts as spending — nullifying evasion within the law itself. Unger supports Kaldor’s taxation and suggests that it is the tax most qualified to create wealth distribution for the greater good.

What I like most about these alternative tax structures is that they are a proactive approach towards the necessary redistributive efforts to fund social transformation. Both Land Value Tax and a consumption tax eliminate the burden of taxation from the poor, ensure that the highest earners pay more, and address numerous other issues facing our present tax arrangements.

Thinking about the long term trajectory of society we understand that change is both needed and inevitable. Progressives must answer the question of how we will fuel the growth of a culture that maximizes access and agency for all individuals. Our present arrangements won’t get us there, but a more proactive approach to taxation is a significant step in the right direction.


[1] Inequality and Health Inequality.org https://inequality.org/facts/inequality-and-health/
[2] Elizabeth Warren’s Tax Proposal Aims at Assets of Wealthiest Americans By Sahil Kapurand Laura Davison Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-25/senator-warren-proposes-ultra-millionaire-tax-of-as-much-as-3
[3] For a Real-World Example of Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax Proposal, Look to Sweden By Jonas O Bergmanand Kati Pohjanpalo Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-09/hysteria-around-a-70-tax-rate-gets-a-reality-check-in-sweden
[4] America’s taxes are the most progressive in the world. Its government is among the least. By Dylan Matthews Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/04/05/americas-taxes-are-the-most-progressive-in-the-world-its-government-is-among-the-least/?utm_term=.ca45f238d9d8

[5] Land Value in Pennsylvania: A Practical Application By Patrick Coate, PhD American Institute for Economic Research https://www.aier.org/article/land-value-pennsylvania-practical-application

[6] An Expenditure Tax by Nicholas Kaldor (p. 53) https://www.amazon.com/Expenditure-Tax-Nicholas-Kaldor/dp/0415314003


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A Progressive Rejection of Universal Basic Income

By Ron Rivers,

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is gaining popularity in America as the next logical economic step in a post-automation world. Touted as a way to save America’s Capitalism, it ensures that people have enough money to keep consuming while raising the quality of life for our most impoverished. UBI boasts some attractive benefits for the majority of Americans, but is it worth the cost? I argue that given the present ideologies driving UBI implementing the policy will do more harm than good.

Scratching the surface

Universal Basic Income is a form of social protection that provides an amount of money to every citizen within a population.  Money transfers occur periodically and without condition. The premise is that this method of wealth redistribution will alleviate many of the economic burdens facing so many American families.

There have been numerous studies on the impacts of cash-transfer programs that have shown positive results.  A 2007 program by New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity [1] demonstrated that small cash stipends reduced poverty and material hardship for recipients but saw those impacts decrease once the money was rescinded.   The World Bank reports [2] that it’s a myth that our poorest squander wealth transfers on wasteful activities such as increased alcohol and cigarette consumption. These studies and more [3] are pushing UBI from a fantastical idea to a legitimate policy discussion.

Visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Elon Musk all have vocalized support for  UBI given the trending automation that will redefine labor as we know it. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang is making UBI a significant focus of his campaign, saying “UBI is necessary for the continuation of capitalism through the automation wave and displacement of workers.”  

How do we even begin to structure an argument against a program that demonstrates positive, data-driven results and is supported by some of the greatest minds of past and present?   It all starts with why.

Understanding Intention

The purpose of all proposals of Universal Basic Income is to increase the access and agency of every individual operating within a capitalist system.  The core argument is that as the nature of work continues to change so will the necessity for higher levels of economic distribution, typically funded by new taxation models such as a Value-Added Tax.  UBI is in many respects a recognition of a new human right. A fundamental requirement for every individual to function within our world today.

Here we identify the first problem with UBI as it exists presently.  Is Universal Basic Income a human right or is it an attempt to attenuate the inequalities created by capitalism?  

If we believe UBI is a human right, then we should be approaching the implementation in the form of Constitutional Arrangements, not economic policy.  We would want to ensure that a standard of living is codified into our most sacred laws, preventing present and future politicians from meddling with the ideal.  Funding could occur from a variety of sources, but each solution would ensure that decisions regarding the implementation and collection of those funds would be in the hands of society.   Universal Basic Income as a human right would lend itself to the restructuring of present arrangements. This is not what is being suggested by most proponents today.

If Universal Basic Income is a means to address inequity created by current structure than it does nothing to create agency for its recipients, a UBI funded by tax and transfer would calcify poverty and class structure within the U.S. even more than the present arrangements.  Accepting that the solution to the hyper-concentration of wealth is a small stipend for the masses is a choice to perpetuate class structure and division. Remember that Universal Basic Income is being proposed as a solution to the future impact automation will have on labor.  It does nothing to address the ownership of said automation, only focusing on ensuring that the vast majority receive a minor kick-back.

A Universal Basic Income focused on economics is a system that appeases the individual by providing just enough to survive while denying them the opportunity to transform their situation in a meaningful way.

Image by Mike Ramsey

Belittlement or Bigness?

When we think about the transformation of individual agency through a suite of social protections, we must ask ourselves if our actions are complimenting structural change or merely substituting one inferior arrangement for another.   Exploring implementing an entitlement like Universal Basic Income must begin with the question of what direction is this leading us?

We understand that most popular and dominant ideas in society today do more to reinforce existing arrangements than they do to support institutional reformation.  When we frame UBI as the savior to our present form of single-market Capitalism we unwittingly submit to the past’s dominance of the present. If UBI is not accompanied by structural alternatives to codify the raising of the human condition, then we must see it for what it is, more of the same under a different name.

As someone who supports a suite of vital protections for every person, it seems counter-intuitive to argue against a wealth redistribution model that would generate immediate benefits for so many.  But, if our shared objective is the raising of the human condition, then we cannot settle for economic policies that would appease the burden of a structure that places 99% of the wealth and power in the hands of 1% of the population.
Together we must reject belittlement under the guise of support, focusing instead on the rearranging of institutions that generate the very inequities we seek to address.


[1] Conditional Cash Transfers in New York City by  James A. Riccio, Nadine Dechausay, Cynthia Miller, Stephen Nuñez, Nandita Verma, Edith Yang MDRC.org https://www.mdrc.org/publication/conditional-cash-transfers-new-york-city

[2] Do the Poor Waste Transfers on Booze and Cigarettes? No  by David Evans & Anna Popova http://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/do-poor-waste-transfers-booze-and-cigarettes-no

[3] Basic Income Earth Network https://basicincome.org/research/


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Progressives Need to Start Playing Offense

By Ron Rivers,

Progressive projects and social movements today are active in working towards building a more pluralistic future.  It’s never been a better time to be an activist because there are just so many things that we can improve in the world, some more critical than others.  Collective efforts of activists across the U.S. are making great strides in many directions, and yet at the same time, their work is regulated to trying to humanize the perpetual inequities that our present arrangements create.  Maybe it’s time we stopped playing defense with our policy. Together we could build a Progressive offensive offering creative and imaginative policy solutions that address core systemic issues of distribution of access and agency within our society.  A shared vision of a greater good is the first brick in the foundation of a unified population that can democratically choose a future beyond serfdom.


Defense Doesn’t Win Games

Much of the policy activism people are working towards today is about decreasing the inequalities generated in a market economy.  These programs take the form of some distribution of wealth financed via tax and transfer. The underlying idea makes sense because we understand that the growing wealth inequality is the primary driver for a significant number of problems facing America.   

Protecting social entitlements is a necessary action presently, but because of the corporate interests in our legislature, we’re always fighting back an encroaching tide of wealth transfer that hurts the majority of Americans.  Everytime we score a victory we find ourselves defending another offense. We keep moving forward, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

If we’re going to have any hope of creating genuine change, then we’ve got to start thinking differently about our focus.  We need to confront the truth that all of our activism assumes that the present order is static. That there are set rules of engagement and establish frameworks for ideas of the possible dictated by what has been instead of what will be.  Even the most “radical” among us advocate for a substitution of structure pulled from history; Capitalism for Socialism, or something of that sort. We focus on creating access to equality and security but lack a real vision of increasing agency within our lives.  

We suffer from a failure of imagination, an ailment that is preventing us from creating a proactive approach to fixing problems of the present.   The Progressive vision of the future will never gain majority support without a break from the past.


Understanding our Offensive Strategy

Protecting access to entitlement programs will not matter if we do not codify the right to change the structure of our established institutions.  The most glaring flaw in our arrangements is that they are resistant to change in a time when change is occurring exponentially. Driven by the growth of information technology[1] change across emerging economic sectors is happening more rapidly than ever before[2].  Embracing and accelerating our ability to adapt to change is a necessary and unavoidable reality we must confront. So how do we incorporate change into our institutions with our activism efforts? The imagination of alternatives and their translation into policy is a great place to start.

Each of us can begin with an of an area of improvement that strikes our passion.  I’ll propose the deepening of democracy here in the United States as it is foundational to all progressive movements. Right now democratic participation in the United States ranks poorly compared to other western democracies[3], highlighting an opportunity for improvement.  At the same time, we observe changes[4] being implemented in states such as New York and New Jersey to move towards a more accessible democracy which provides us momentum that we will build upon.

Image Credit: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Justice Agenda

Voting rights is an ideal example for our argument as these initiatives illustrate the concept of playing defense instead of offense.  These practices exist in numerous other western democracies, and the implementation here in the U.S. is essentially bringing our institutions up to speed with the rest the democratic world.  They are a step in the right direction but do nothing too innovative within our arrangements. We increase access to the ability to vote but do nothing to address the lack of agency embedded in the process.  It’s a missed opportunity to create real change that pushes the boundaries of how we operate within society.

A Progressive offense focused on voting rights would seek to push the boundaries of how and why people participate in elections.  It would require by law that candidate information for all contests, School Board to President, be accessible online easily and conveniently.  Thinking pluralistically, we would want to make sure that information the candidates provide is available in a variety of mediums so that every person has an opportunity to learn in a format that best resonates with them. Mandated civics education seminars for high school seniors and university students would be implemented to introduce our youth to the process and show them where and how to gather and evaluate information about candidates.  If we created a publically funded and owned centralized candidate information platform we could ensure that the experience of obtaining this information was as easy and convenient as possible, creating a customized user experience to for all individuals. All of these concepts do more than open up access to voting. They open up access to a personal agency within the process. By ensuring the information and communication about candidate options is directly available to the public at all levels, we build the framework for an informed electorate who understands the power within each person.

These examples demonstrate the concept of a Progressive offense, going above and beyond existing methodologies and infusing imagination and creativity into the process. Progressives should work towards becoming the movement that gives every person more stake in the shaping of the world and ourselves.  It is a task that allows for transcendence over the limitations the past projects on the present.    It’s an offensive strategy that opens us up to supporters who will realize that there can be a better way then belittlement through the present arrangements.  A Progressive offense is an embracing of our potential for change in the present unbeholden to the institutions of the past.


[1] https://ourworldindata.org/technological-progress

[2] Human evolution is still happening – possibly faster than ever by Laurence D. Hurst Phys.org https://phys.org/news/2018-11-human-evolution-possibly-faster.html

[3] [5] U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout by Drew DeSilver Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/

[4]  The Law That Just Passed In New York Is A Huge Win For Voting Rights by Ari Burman Mother Jones https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/01/new-york-passes-huge-voting-rights-expansion/


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