Come Home, America

Note from The Nation: This article is excerpted from William Greider's new book, Come Home, America. Copyright (c) 2009 by William Greider. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.

Note from The Nation: This article is excerpted from William Greider's new book, Come Home, America. Copyright (c) 2009 by William Greider. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.

As Franklin Roosevelt understood, Americans will postpone immediate
gratification and endure hard sacrifices--if they must--so long as they
are convinced the future can be better than the past. But we face a far
more difficult problem at our moment in history. What do you promise
people who have been told they can have anything they want, who are
repeatedly congratulated for living in the best of all possible
circumstances? How do you tell them "the good times," as we have known
them, are not coming back? Americans need a new vision that helps them
deal with reality, a promising story of the future that helps them let
go of the past.

Here is the grand vision I suggest Americans can pursue: the right of
all citizens to larger lives. Not to get richer than the next guy or
necessarily to accumulate more and more stuff but the right to live life
more fully and engage more expansively the elemental possibilities of
human existence. That is the essence of what so many now seem to yearn
for in their lives. People--even successful and affluent people--are
frustrated because the intangible dimensions of life have been held back
or displaced in large and small ways, pushed aside by the economic
system's relentless demands to maximize yields of profit and wealth. Our
common moral verities have been trashed in the name of greater returns.
The softer aspects of mortal experience are diminished because life
itself is not tabulated in the economic system's accounting.

The political order mistakenly accepts these life-limiting trade-offs as
normal, as necessary to achieve "good times." At earlier periods of our
history, the sacrifices demanded by the engine of American capitalism
were widely tolerated because the nation was young and underdeveloped.
The engine promised to generate higher levels of abundance, and it did.
But what is the justification now, when the nation is already quite rich
and the engine keeps demanding larger chunks of our lives?

What families, even those who are prosperous, typically lose in the
exchange are the small grace notes of everyday life, like the ritual of
having a daily dinner with everyone present. The more substantial thing
we sacrifice is time to experience the joys and mysteries of nurturing
the children, the small pleasures of idle curiosity, of learning to
craft things by one's own hand, and the satisfactions of friendships and
social cooperation.

These are made to seem trivial alongside wealth accumulation, but many
people know they have given up something more important and mourn the
loss. Some decide they will make up for it later in life, after they are
financially stable. Still others dream of dropping out of the system. If
we could somehow add up all the private pain and loss caused by the
pursuit of unbounded material prosperity, the result might look like a
major political grievance of our time.

More important than all the other losses is that people are also denied
another great intangible--the dignity of self-directed lives. At work,
at home and in the public sphere, most people lack the right to exercise
much of a voice in the decisions governing their daily lives. Most
people (not all) are subject to a system of command and control over
their destinies. They know the risks of ignoring the orders from above.
Not surprisingly, many citizens are resigned to this condition and
accept subservience as "the way things are," and their lives are smaller
as a result. Many find it hard to imagine that these confinements could
be lessened, even substantially removed, if economic organizations were
informed by democratic principles.

What's needed in American life is a redefinition of "life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness." Given the nation's great wealth, the ancient
threats of scarcity and deprivation have been eliminated. Yet people
remain yoked to economic demands despite wanting something more from
life--freedom to explore the mysteries and bring forth all that is
within them. Collectively, Americans need to take a deep breath and
reconsider what it means to be rich.

The challenge, as John Maynard Keynes wrote long ago, is how "to live
wisely and agreeably and well" once desperation and deprivation are no
longer the driving forces of our existence. As the British economist
predicted, the old economic problems of scarcity and survival have been
solved, at least for developed nations. People should put aside the old
fears, Keynes suggested, and learn how to enjoy life. Free of want and
worry, we face a new challenge: to discover what it means to be truly

That wondrous pursuit is what I recommend as the alternative to our old
definition of progress. In the years ahead, Americans will suffer
unavoidable losses of familiar pleasures and be compelled to alter some
deeply ingrained habits of material consumption. These painful
adjustments can be endured if the people are confident the country is
progressing toward a more fulfilling transformation. The essential
trade-off could be expressed on a bumper sticker: Smaller Cars for Larger Lives.

To accomplish this sweeping change, people need power--more power to say
what they think without getting fired and to make choices that are more
in line with their values and aspirations. They need more
security--which would give them the self-confidence to explore new
options without dooming their families to poverty. People need more
philosophical space--the room to decide what "success" is in their own
terms and to make their own "mistakes."

We should start thinking of living larger lives as a fundamental human
right and begin throwing off the confinements imposed on us by the old
order. Since scarcity has been vanquished, the collateral suffering
manufactured by the economic system should also be declared
unnecessary--even immoral--in a healthy and wealthy society. A minority
of Americans, people blessed with special talents, wealth or status, may
already enjoy this level of freedom. But as rich people can attest,
wealth does not exempt one from the human struggle, the search to find
one's groove in life, to draw forth one's unique purpose and strengths.
That treasure cannot be bought. It has to be earned.

Government can do many things, but it cannot transform the society. Only
the people can accomplish that. They change the fabric of society
gradually and in unannounced ways with their behavior and creativity,
guided roughly by their enduring moral values. If government set out to
impose transformed values on the rest of us, the results would be
oppressive and wrong. During the last generation, the coarsening
pressures of the market system did a lot of damage to our society, but
they did not succeed in stripping Americans of what they believe. Most
people still know the difference between right and wrong, and despite
the obstacles, they struggle to live accordingly.

What government can do is construct the rules, legal premises and
supportive platform that enable people to pursue social transformation
more aggressively. Our inventive popular culture--the marvel of the
world--does this in freewheeling ways. With a little help and less
interference from Washington, Americans can similarly reinvent the
society. An era of innovation and random experimentation would draw upon
this same spirit, the life force of Americans, the people who are
practical and idealistic.

One important condition government can provide is the platform of
"essential needs" that will give everyone more security and therefore
more confidence to explore new and different choices. We could dust off
Roosevelt's "second Bill of Rights" and address its unmet goals. FDR
recognized in early 1944 that Americans were weary of the sacrifices
imposed by World War II and so he announced a broadly conceived promise.
After the war is won, he said, the country must construct a new set of
meaningful "rights" for all, everything from health and education to
work with remunerative wages. His vision of the future became the
postwar political agenda of the Democrats, and in large measure the
promises were kept. I think Barack Obama may eventually face a similar
necessity to spell out the vision of what a transformed America can
become on the other side of the ditch we are in. Some goals are already
well understood. The thick backlog of legislative proposals that have
been repeatedly blocked by powerful interests during the last generation
should be revisited in order to establish concrete rights and
protections for families and children, workers and employees. The
extensive family-centered social systems in Europe suggest opportunities
for US reforms. Reversing national economic policy on work and wages is,
likewise, a necessary step toward healing the society. If government
constructs a rising floor under wage incomes, starting from the bottom
up, people at every level will be liberated to pursue creative social
invention. In the face of deep recession and rising unemployment, there
is not much anyone can do at present to boost wages. But government can
make this promise for the future. When the economy recovers and
unemployment declines, the minimum-wage floor will rise in step, and
other work-improvement rules will kick in. Congress can enact the laws
in advance and time their effective date to economic conditions.

Beyond these essential steps, there are taller mountains to climb. We
can envision loftier goals that require social imagination and then
practical testing before gaining broad agreement and implementation.
This is where we get to dream a little. Can we imagine, for instance, a
country that is virtually without poor children? A nation in which every
child grows up entitled to explore life's possibilities, free to go
anywhere in this diverse country and feel at home? Can we imagine an
economic system that is not organized on the principle of command and
control, on the few giving orders to the many? Can we envision an
economy designed to serve the society, rather than the other way around?
Some will say this is an idle daydream. I say it is our birthright, our
inherited privilege. We are Americans. We get to think larger thoughts
about our country and ourselves. Daydreams are a seedbed for the
possible. We can argue later about how to achieve them.

To encourage people to free up their imaginations, I add a radical
proposition: instead of asking what will be good for the economy,
government should start by asking what will be good for our people and
society. Instead of thinking first about how to help businesses
flourish, ask what people need in order to flourish in American life.
Essentially, I am suggesting a reversal of the usual process employed by
the system. In its efforts to take care of business, the social question
is often never asked. Here are three big ideas--favorite daydreams of
mine--to illustrate what it means to put the people first.

First, every American who is willing and able ought to have the right to
a job that pays a livable wage. If the private sector will not provide
these jobs, then the public sector should be the employer of last
resort. Franklin Roosevelt described the goal--the practical equivalent
of full employment--in his "second Bill of Rights," and the public has
overwhelmingly endorsed the principle ever since. In recent decades, the
economy has drifted even further from the promise, creating in its place
a broad labor market of the underclass--temporary jobs paying unlivable
wages and often filled by undocumented immigrants. Guaranteed public
jobs paying more than the minimum wage would permanently and
automatically stabilize the economy, swelling the ranks of public
workers in recessions and shrinking them when private jobs become more
abundant. Instead of punishing the working poor most severely in
downturns, as the system does now, the government would redistribute the
costs of recession so that all taxpayers would share the burden as a
public obligation.

The social consequences of a change like this could be profound: it
would be a direct assault on the poverty and hopelessness of inner-city
precincts and decaying rural towns where the same pathologies ravage
families and young people without regard to race or ethnicity. Real jobs
would mean that reliable incomes would flow into those communities,
providing a concrete basis for economic development and neighborhood
restoration as well as the redemption of damaged lives, especially the
prospects for young people.

Obviously, permanent public employment--jobs for all who need
them--would be enormously expensive, but the fulfillment of large goals
can begin with smaller steps. The government might set some guidelines,
then sponsor 100 or 200 projects sited around the country and invite
impoverished communities to compete for those in their area. What work
needs to be done? What skills and equipment are required? People can
answer those local questions for themselves. Some initial efforts will
fail, but the country will learn from the mistakes and from the

The second idea is that everyone who works, whether in the front office
or on the assembly line, deserves to "own their work"--that is, the
right to exercise personal responsibility for what they do and enjoy
mutual respect and the capacity to contribute and collaborate in
important decision-making within the firm. These elements of individual
voice and status are critical to satisfaction in one's work, but
democratic qualities are largely missing from American workplaces. When
most people go to work, they submit to a master-servant relationship in
which a few people determine everyone else's behavior and most employees
are denied a voice in the matter and have no right to object or
criticize. These confinements are especially strict for lower-wage
workers but often extend far up the occupational ladder to include
middle managers and professionals.

Breaking free of this rigid top-down system and liberating workers to
enjoy the freedom (and responsibility) of being human would represent a
profound change for our society, a great leap forward in our social
development as a people. As it happens, the shift to more cooperative
and respectful workplaces can also yield economic gain for the nation.
As numerous academic studies have shown and outstanding companies
already understand, collaborative relationships between top management
and the workforce are more productive and profitable. Instead of being
ruled by fierce conflicts, the different elements within these companies
share information constantly and steadily improve by learning from their
mistakes. The profits are shared because the workers are also the

This reorganization of employment and ownership cannot be commanded from
afar, because it requires everyone--workers and bosses--to change, to
put aside old hostilities and begin trusting in more open communication.
That change is very difficult for people to achieve in any setting.
Government can encourage the pursuit, however, by setting out some
incentives and loose guidelines for reforming work. One of the most
promising routes to change is the employee stock ownership plan that
invests everyone as co-owners with the same economic incentive--sharing
the returns from self-improvement. Some 11,000 companies--mostly smaller
businesses--are organized this way, and workers accumulate capital
savings in addition to their pensions. Employee-owned companies,
however, must also make internal reforms to establish mutual
accountability and honest communication if they want to gain the full
benefits of having worker-owners. The concept may seem alien to many,
but its core assumptions are very American: a practical belief that
equality and liberty can be present in our daily lives.

The third idea is that to lead the way for social values, the economy
needs a new, reform-minded business organization--call it a social
corporation--that competes with old-line corporations adhering to their
narrower values that enforce the supremacy of profit over society. The
social corporations could be chartered by government and given certain
benefits. To pursue a different set of values, they may need some
protections in their infancy and perhaps modest start-up subsidies, and
exemptions from the usual rules, but most of them would be independent
and privately owned. They would produce needed goods or services that
the private sector won't provide and sell them at a price most people
could afford. They might, for instance, fulfill the market for very
cheap computers and other high-tech devices that are stripped of the
bells and whistles that run up the prices. The social corporation would
be a working model for how the social imperatives--environmental values
and equitable relations with workers and communities--can be integrated
into firms and efficient production processes. Business lore and
economic dogma say this is impossible. Social corporations would set out
to prove them wrong. The purpose of this competition is not to replace
orthodox companies but to put real market pressures on them to change.
Creating social enterprises, including nonprofit cooperatives, can
liberate us from the political vetoes business interests exert over
promising new ideas.

Another crucial objective is to limit the size of business
organizations, including social corporations, in line with E.F.
Schumacher's famous dictum "Small is beautiful." The bloated scale of
America's leading corporations has become a major impediment to
innovation and experimental reforms, not to mention a corrupting
influence in politics. Americans are learning anew from the financial
crisis why it is a mistake to let private firms concentrate more and
more power under one management. The failure of megabanks that the
government helped create threatens our general well-being, and then
government bails them out with taxpayer money because they are "too big
to fail." Revived antitrust laws could simply prohibit the concentration
of economic power as a threat to social values as well as to healthy

Economic power must be dispersed in this broad nation, especially in
banking and finance. We need many more financial intermediaries to
allocate capital and credit and demonstrate more respect for society's
needs. That includes regional banks, which are naturally closer to the
customers. It means supporting and protecting the small and adventurous
financial firms founded on commitments to social responsibility. They
put capital into companies that have embraced environmental concerns,
have equitable dealings with workers and communities and practice
high-road behavior. On many fronts one can see the gradual advance of
"social responsibility" in US capitalism. The pace is too slow to
attract much political respect, but the current crumbling of the old
order will clear the way for more dramatic progress.

These ideas may seem distant from the usual chatter of policy thinkers,
but they offer alternatives to an economic system that has abused rather
than served American life. I know a lot of smart people across the
country who are pursuing these ideas in different ways--they constitute
the beginnings of formations of citizens that can disrupt inert politics
and overcome the timidity of incumbent politicians. These agitators are
engaging in action for the long run, and the fainthearted need not

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