After a confusing few months of surveys suggesting that Americans are unhappy with the economy despite positive signs like low unemployment and rising real wages, the vibes are now improving. Preliminary results from the University of Michigan’s survey of consumer sentiments found that in January, Americans’ regard for the economy reached its highest level in two and a half years.
Even low-income Americans are seeing some of the best labor market conditions in decades, with the rollback of an estimated 40 percent of the wage inequality that built up over the last 40 years. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the main question raised by the mysterious “vibecession”: Why weren’t people happy about the economy?
The economy is good, and full of things to celebrate. But a good economy and tight labor markets still won’t give us freedom from poverty, homelessness, or insecurity. To achieve those goals, progressives have long advocated for strong direct government action. “There’s this missing economic history around the very idea of freedom,” said economist Mark Paul, author of The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights. “We’ve had this long struggle around fighting for economic security, or economic rights, here in the US.”
One way to understand what’s still wrong with the economy is to probe the history of one of its unrealized ambitions: an economic bill of rights.
The path to a fairer economy
Some of these goals could be implemented as a single policy. Medicare-for-all bills, which would effectively create a right to health care, are already plentiful thanks to being a spotlight issue in the 2020 Democratic primary. Basic income policies could also help establish the right to a guaranteed minimum income.
Other goals lack a single flagship policy. Paul explains that the right to a healthy environment, for example, depends on the trio of green investment, smart regulations, and carbon pricing. Or consider the task of guaranteeing housing for all, which Paul argues needs six separate policies. Of the six, he emphasizes a huge, green buildout of social housing — similar to what exists in Vienna, where social housing has created something of a “renters’ utopia” — and rent control.
“Progressives do not have the power — at least not yet — to win an economic bill of rights,” he concedes. “To see poverty eradicated, progressives will have to continue pressing their case — via mass movements and grassroots organizing, over the dinner table, and in the public sphere.”