Towards a Moral Economy: Is NOW the Time?

Stephen Herzenberg |


The Moral March: Photo from ThinkProgress.orgThe Philadelphia Daily News’ Will Bunch had an uplifting column this past Sunday on Saturday’s “Moral March” in Raleigh, N.C. It was the South’s largest protest march since Dr. Martin Luther King and the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.

The protesters (including my colleague Michael Wood of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center) want to reverse a regressive policy agenda in North Carolina — that has been echoed elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania. Bunch writes:

They want to undo voter ID laws that will undo some of the gains from that 1965 Voting Rights Act, equal rights for gays, lesbians and the transgendered, unfettered reproductive rights for women, the expansion of Medicaid to cover hundreds of thousands without health care, the return of long-term unemployment benefits, a higher minimum wage, and the reversal of tax code changes that harmed the poor and benefited the wealthy.

The Moral March in North Carolina brought to our minds the concept of a “moral economy” that we have offered as a unifying umbrella for policies that would restore opportunity and rebuild America’s middle class while making the economy stronger.

The idea of a “moral economy” is informed by our understanding of how the New Deal and its central policy pillars were enacted in the 1930s. The “big four” New Deal policies included the first federal minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and the 1935 “Wagner Act,” which made it easier for unions to organize workers at giant manufacturing companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel. How on earth could such a far-reaching set of ideas become federal policy in such a short time?

In our view, New Deal policies galvanized the broad public support needed to become law because they were understood as a way to make the economy BOTH more moral and stronger. It is this mix of morality and practicality that is political dynamite—in a good way.

From a moral point of view, New Deal policies enabled retired Americans to put food on the table, unemployed workers to replace half their wage income and support their families, low-wage workers to earn closer to a living wage, and industrial workers and their families to share in the benefits of unprecedented productivity.

From an economic point of view, giving retired people, unemployed people, low-wage earners, and industrial workers more money to spend was just the tonic needed to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression.

The conviction that New Deal policies would made the economy more moral AND stronger meant people could take to the streets—or sit down in their factories—buoyed by moral conviction and by the knowledge that employers and lawmakers could meet their demands and THE POLICIES WOULD WORK. The lives of protestors and their families would improve in immediate, practical ways.

Armed with this view of history, we have argued for policies that could recreate the political magic of the New Deal by making today’s economy both more moral and dynamic. For example, we outlined these types of policies in a “draft” presidential candidate speech during the 2008 election.

Then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain did not pick up our arguments. Since then, however, the continued overreaching of the extreme right, the sluggish economic recovery, and the stunning return to unequal growth (with the top 1% taking home 95% of the rise in income during the recovery to date) may have created a context more conducive to combining moral arguments with evidence about the positive economic benefits of progressive policies.

The current push for a minimum-wage increase has been striking in how much it has gone on the offense in arguing for a raise in order to boost purchasing power and increase productivity growth. The nationwide push for a higher minimum wage is gaining confidence—and speed—because advocacy emphasizes not just equity but also the economic benefits.

We hope Will Bunch is right and the Moral March is coming to you. We also urge progressives to expand their economic wish list beyond the minimum wage.

For example, let’s also give workers the choice to form area-wide unions that can lift up regional wages and benefits—in fast food, in health care, in restaurants, in retail, and so on.

Let’s strengthen training and career structures to give workers the skills and supports to achieve economic security in today’s economy.

Let’s turn unemployment insurance into “re-employment insurance” that combines income support with long-term training leading to jobs that pay decently.

And let’s strengthen Social Security directly and build on President Obama’s myRA proposal to repair our tattered private-sector retirement security. (Read an op-ed that discusses several of these proposals.)

Emulating the 1930s, a “New Deal for a New Economy” with the components above would make our economy more moral—more consistent with our values—and more economically successful.

If morality is also practical, who could oppose it?

Time to hit the streets.