March 24, 2006

NEEDED: A PAINTBALL ECONOMY

When El Cabrero's kids were younger, we went paintballing. For the uninitiated, if there are any, paintballing is where you run around and shoot at other players with pellets of dye. Needless to say, both the daughter and son found this to be The Coolest Thing Ever.

It was kind of like an up to date version of the Viking paradise where you do battle to your heart's content without having to go through inconvenience of injury, death, and decomposition. If you lost, it might sting some and you got splattered, but you could start right over.

The image of paintballing came to mind again while trying to get a handle on the global economy. While we clearly need to block and/or substantially modify so-called "free trade" agreements to protect labor and environmental standards, this will not be enough to protect stable democracies or economies. We need a paintball economy.

Here's a partial list of some ingredients:

*First, we need universal, affordable and comprehensive health care. The old link between work and insurance isn't working as well as it used to--and it never worked for many people. For many Americans today, loss of a job means loss of health care, which in turn makes it harder to find another job. This is what the authors of the recent book Uninsured in America (see Goat Rope archives for more) called the "death spiral." Unfortunately, those words sometimes literally apply.

This is urgent purely from a business standpoint. The high costs of the current health care unsystem (I think I made a new word) make it difficult for US businesses to compete with those operating in countries (the majority in the developed world) that provide universal health care. The recent problems in the auto industry are only one recent example.

And this will require public policy. The market god won't get us there, no matter how much its worshippers wish it to be so.

*Second, we need to guarantee lifelong access to education and training. I mean as much education as you can stand. This could be done by beefing up financial aid and by expanding tax credits such as the Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits and other deductions for education related expenses.

*Third, we need wage insurance. Wage insurance would replace some of the earnings of workers who lose their jobs and find other employment that pays less. This should not replace unemployment compensation, but provide another option for workers shaken up by layoffs, outsourcing, plant closures, etc.

*Fourth, we need sane federal budget priorities where investments in infrastructure, the social safety net, and education are more important than unnecessary wars and tax cuts for millionaires. For lots of reasons, these investments--and particularly a strong social safety net--are more important than ever under globalization.

*Fifth, we need to restore the right of workers to organize. Every year, thousands of workers are fired for attempting to organize unions and many more are intimidated. Passing the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (more to come on this) would be a start. This proposed legislation would certify unions as bargaining representatives once the National Labor Relations Board rules that a majority of workers signed cards in favor of membership. It would also increase penalties for employer intimidation and violation of workers' rights.

This isn't exactly a Bolshevik--or even a Menshevik--program. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat and poet laureate of outsourcing--calls for most of these measures in his bestselling book. With these measures in place, we may get splattered by the global economy but can start over again with minimal damage. Paint stains are easier to deal with than blood stains.

Moving in that direction, however will require steering our national ship of state in a different direction.

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