Tax Dollars Can Buy Happiness

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Corporatists castigated two lawmakers in recent weeks for daring to offer economic Xanax prescriptions to cure rampant American economic anxiety.

 “Stupid,” is what they branded new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she became the youngest woman ever to serve in the U.S. House.

“Unlikeable” is what they excoriated U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren with as she began exploring a run for the presidency.

Right-wingers and one percenters had to crush Ocasio-Cortez, Warren and others whose ideas promote dignified jobs with living wages, universal health insurance, affordable access to pre-K and college degrees and a national sense of social cohesiveness. 

That’s because in capitalist America, there are summer homes and pleasure boats for the wealthy, but no rest for the weary and worried. The rich and corporations get massive tax breaks, and the 99 percent, well, they get stagnant wages, growing bills and constant angst. How can families afford health care? How can they pay the rising cost of daycare? How can 20 somethings ever afford a home while paying off extortive college loans? Will the elderly avert the indignity of meals made of cat food as corporations eliminate pensions? Worry. Worry. Worry. So many are so miserable in the richest country in the world. 

By contrast, year after year, the denizens of Denmark are found to be among the happiest people in the world.

In Danish, the word hygge describes the feeling of wellbeing a person gets when surrounded by friends and family, supportive and caring neighbors and co-workers, all participating willingly in a tax-supported system that provides the safety and security of high-quality basic services such as healthcare and education for all. Hygge can’t be individually purchased and produced with scented candles or home security systems. It’s a common good.

Americans don’t have hygge. They have anxiety. For good reason.

Forty percent of American adults don’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense. Despite low unemployment, 45 percent of Americans rate the economy as poor or only fair. Their economy does not include corporate jet rides and $5 million vacation penthouses in London. For 4.8 million Americans, their economy is forced part-time work without benefits when 40 hours is essential to cover the bills. If there’s something stupid, it’s this economic pain suffered by so many in the richest country in the world, not Ocasio-Cortez’ plans to relieve that pain.

And let’s talk unlikeable. Despite that low unemployment rate, there’s a frighteningly high unemployment rate among men aged 25 to 54. That’s men in their prime. That’s men who want to work. That’s men who have lost family-supporting jobs as corporations like Carrier and GM moved factories to Mexico. That’s men in their 50s forced out of jobs then unable to get new work as corporations refuse to hire older workers. That’s men who commit suicide and suffer addiction – and overdose deaths – at rates so high that life expectancy in the richest country in the world is declining. That’s tragic. And deeply unlikeable – not Elizabeth Warren’s proposed remedies for that pain.

In Denmark, hygge is achieved in part with tax rates that are consistently among the highest in the world. These levies provide a sense of safety and security for Danes that is unimaginable for most Americans. That includes free university tuition, universal healthcare, generous unemployment benefits and 52 weeks of paid leave shared by new parents. Collective social spending buys happiness.

A study by Baylor University showed that’s true in America too. The researchers found Americans are happier in states where taxpayer money is spent on public goods like libraries, parks, highways and natural resources.

The likes of Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren contend that Americans deserve some hygge of their own. They differ on how to get there. Some would like to increase the income of the 99 percent, enabling them to buy what they need. Some want to tax corporations and the one percent at the high rates paid in the 1950s and 1960s to cover the costs of public services.  Either way or some of both, American hygge is possible.

Elizabeth Warren, born in 1949, grew up in the years when the rich paid 70 to 90 percent marginal tax rates. Much of that money went to pay down the debts of World War II. But it also paid for the benefits in the G.I. Bill, including college and trade school tuition, veterans hospitals and low-interest mortgages. Between 1945 and 1966, a fifth of all new single family homes were financed by the G.I. loan program.

When Warren was 12, her father, a salesman for the Montgomery Ward stores, suffered a heart attack. Medical bills piled up. The family car was repossessed. Warren’s mother, fearing foreclosure, went to work at Sears at the age of 50 for minimum wage. That $1.15-an-hour job saved the family’s home. That’s when minimum wage was worth more. At its peak in 1968, the rate was worth $8.68 in inflation-adjusted dollars. It has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, losing almost 10 percent of its value due to inflation.

Today’s minimum wage for full-time work will not keep a mother and her child out of poverty, won’t cover the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, won’t provide for a family’s basic survival. 

Warren wants a minimum wage sufficient for a family of three to live on. She says a government that works for the people should ensure the minimum wage is sufficient to give workers a shot at climbing into the middle class.

She wants other wages and benefits to rise as well, and one way she proposes to do that is to require that 40 percent of corporate board members be elected by workers. She introduced legislation requiring that for very large corporations. The idea is to make corporations more accountable to employees, customers and communities. If 40 percent of board members were worker representatives, corporations would be less likely to stiff the pension fund, move manufacturing to Mexico or pay the CEO 1,000 times the earnings of the average worker.

Ocasio-Cortez approaches the problem differently. She wants the government to provide services, as Denmark does. Taxes would be higher, particularly for the 1 percent, but other costs would be lower or disappear, such as health insurance premiums and college tuition.

Ocasio-Cortez worked low-wage jobs as a restaurant server and bartender to support herself. She knows the stress. And she knows it’s wrong. She says, “When you can’t provide for your kids working a full-time job, working two full-time jobs, when you can’t have health care, that is not – that is not dignified.”

The Green New Deal she is promoting is much more than a plan to decarbonize. It is a holistic program to establish a more fair and just economy. It would ensure that workers are trained and prepared to transition to a clean energy world and guarantee workers’ right to unionize. It would apply special focus to historically impoverished, marginalized and deindustrialized communities. To promote economic security, it would include basic income programs, universal health care and a living wage job guarantee to every person seeking employment.

That would cost a lot. Hygge is expensive. But Americans deserve it just as much as Danes.

Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation and the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the executive committee for IndustriALL Global Labor federation and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger

Posted In: From the USW International President

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work