Five years ago today, on October 3rd, 2008, the federal response to the financial crisis began with the signing into law by then President Bush of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). After a half-decade of emergency measures—including not only the bailout, but the temporary nationalization of major auto manufacturers and round after round of “quantitative easing”—have we managed to put the economy back on a secure footing?
Unfortunately, the clear answer is that we have not.
To the consternation of both the public and the economists, this “recovery”—and the two which preceded it—have been “jobless recoveries.” While the government measure of the unemployment rate has declined to a modest extent, the absolute percentage of the population employed has remained more or less constant since 2009, as people resign themselves to joblessness and leave the labor force. Furthermore, even this anemic and halting climb back towards increased employment has been vastly uneven: a massive gap exists between the unemployment rate of lower income families (21%) and the rate for higher income families (3.2%). 15% of Americans—nearly 1 in 6—are seemingly consigned to live in poverty. Meanwhile, the banks that were “too big to fail” in 2009 are, despite scandal after scandal, bigger than ever. And while wages stagnate, corporate profits and the income of the 1% is soaring.
The title of my recent book, taken from Tolstoy, is straightforward: What then must we do? For some, the answer is simply that we need to remove or neutralize the conservative forces holding back a sensible Keynesian economic policy; a little more stimulus, a little more public spending, a few reforms around minimum wages and everything will be back on track. Yes, this would be better than nothing. But when we look soberly at the long-term trends, it is clear that we face a systemic crisis: a deep failure of the institutional basis of the traditional strategy for holding corporate capitalism in check. Poverty rates, income inequality trends, global warming, incarceration rates—these and many other three and four decade trends began long before the recent House Republican difficulties—and they are all but certain to continue on their current course long beyond the political problems of the moment.
In short, what we need is not just simply more pressure for reform around the edges of the system, but a movement to build a new economy, a movement that will build steadily over time as the civil rights, feminist, environmentalist and, indeed, conservative movements built up long term strength, step by step, until major political power was achieved.
Thankfully, a “New Economy” movement is beginning to emerge all around us, and part of helping it grow is making it more visible. A recent debate on new banking institutions appeared yesterday in the New York Times. Annie Leonard’s just released new video The Story of Solutions is a powerful followup to her Story of Stuff that highlights transformative work in the new economy. Worker-owned co-ops are developing in many areas. Even the august Academy of Management—an organization of leading business school professionals—opened a serious debate on the future of capitalism at their annual meeting this past summer.
And importantly the New Economy Coalition is organizing a week of events this month to highlight the activity bubbling up at the grassroots across the country. A pilot for what they hope to become an annual event, “New Economy Week” will bring together communities across the country in local celebrations, screenings, and lectures. (I will be speaking in Amherst and Great Barrington, Massachusetts on October 10th and 11th, and answering questions online for a national audience via the website Reddit on October 15th.)
Building effective movements for change rarely, if ever, happens overnight: The New Economy Week is a small but necessary step towards the one we need right now.