Our Challenges Ahead For the New Congress
As a new session of Congress gets underway, you will be hearing from me on a variety of issues that impact Oregonians and the country. Much of it is part of the debate that is occurring in our community, mirroring broader issues across the nation: how can we make the economic recovery work for everyone?
In many ways, in the last six years, we as a nation moved from a mantra of “yes we can” to increasingly “no we can’t.” To be sure, part of the challenge we face here in Oregon and nationally is the lingering trauma from the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. The effects were all the more jarring because we had settled into a fairly comfortable belief that we understood how to deal with inflation and economic growth. After all, we were surrounded by examples of a booming economy and careful pronouncements by the wise men (and they were almost uniformly men) that we knew what to do. Markets would discipline excesses and fuel growth and innovation. Technology would add value to the lives of all Americans. We received reminders of this on a daily basis with a barrage of emails in our inboxes, of the power of the internet, the interconnectivity we’d achieved and the potential of a global economy.
The reality is that the United States has managed its economic recovery better than any other large economy. We’ve created more jobs since 2009 than throughout the entirety of the previous 8 years. The Obama Administration did this despite inheriting an economy in free fall, shedding one to two hundred thousand jobs a week and despite Congress making a foolish decision to ramp back spending in the government sector which virtually all independent experts agree would have speeded the recovery. We enacted healthcare reform and extending healthcare to millions while we’ve seen an unprecedented reduction in the inflation of healthcare costs. Unemployment is down, housing stats are up, and the economy is back on track.
Unfortunately, there’s also a disturbing reality; many of these changes which were adding value to the stock market and the GDP were not shared broadly. After three decades where real family incomes more than doubled after World War II, the next three decades found dramatic upset and turbulence. Corporate profits doubled but middle-income family wages stagnated.
Today, the typical family is no better off and indeed 80% are worse off than they were fifteen years ago in terms of their real economic condition. The job market became more challenging and unpredictable. The conventional wisdom that making the American work force more productive and companies more profitable would fuel prosperity has been discredited and disproved. The American worker continues to be more and more productive but the share of national income going to workers has dropped dramatically.
It’s not just that wages are stuck. There was a dramatic monetary shift to the wealthiest that in the main, did not create real products. They were financial engineers and developed technology which while often useful, really didn’t add to the quality of life for things that mattered most to Americans. Sure, we have unprecedented access to information on the internet, forty or four hundred channels on TV, more media platforms, but in terms of a family’s health, quality of their neighborhoods, prospects for their children, many of these developments matter little for most people.
It’s easy to do “Monday morning quarterbacking” about actions taken to avoid economic collapse during the recession. Things were coming at us fast and furiously. Some items that I still think were questionable appear to have worked out better than I had feared. Yet we still failed to use the crisis and the leverage to make broader changes, strengthening America and the middle class.
We can’t move forward until we address this issue.
A simple step in the right direction would be to raise the minimum wage, giving a boost for people who are working a second job to make ends meet, for college students who have a part time job to help pay tuition or retired seniors who find themselves back in the workforce to stretch their meager savings.
There are also systematic reforms that are long overdue.
- Why do we continue to treat families and their homes different than we treat businesses in bankruptcy?
- Why do we allow unscrupulous, for-profit colleges and universities to loot the Treasury while they shortchange some of our most vulnerable students?
- Why do we avoid reforming government regulation so that it is performance-based, which intellectually should be embraced by citizens, businesses, conservatives and liberals alike?
To be sure, there are many areas desperately in need of action, from reforming our agricultural policies to reshaping our military, putting it on a more sustainable path by cutting spending on grotesquely unnecessary weapons systems. We must address the looming shortfall in the Social Security trust fund and the immediate shortfall of a bankrupt Highway Trust Fund to stop America from falling apart and falling behind.
These are serious problems but they all have solutions that are within our capacity to implement.
The United States is a country of contradictions. We are low tax by international standards but we put burdens on families and communities greater than those suffered in other countries. Some of the people who are most critical of government intervention, who preach for limited government and trumpet-free enterprise, are the most adamant about protecting their special government privileges, tax advantages, government markets and subsidies.
This is our challenge. It’s about understanding that we are in the middle of an ongoing debate about our future.
We as a nation continue to have great riches. Our federal government has tremendous capacity to do more simply by planning better, redirecting existing revenue streams in more productive fashion and ending entitlements which no longer make sense.
It does not mean placing the burden, once again, on the majority of American families. There is no need to short change their future, their children, their community and their environment. There is wealth, not just to be protected but to be generated. There is an unparalleled opportunity to not just avoid disastrous consequences, but to move things in a positive direction so that everyone can share in the economic recovery.
It is not necessary for us to scale down our aspirations or our vision. It is not necessary to wait for some all-encompassing grand scheme or solution. We can start today on issues large and small, making a difference.
As I have done for years, I’ll be putting my ideas and solutions on my website, engaging people in public forums and social media, hosting discussions on how we reset the conversation back to what we can achieve versus only dwelling on what we can’t.
I hope you will join me. It will be fun, it will be effective and it will recapture that special spirit which has made America great and will do so in the future.
We can do this.