clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

We can still make a good economy much better

The end of the “vibecession” doesn’t mean we should stop questioning the economy.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts his annual message to Congress, Jan. 11, 1944, in Washington.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts his annual message to Congress in 1944, where he called for an economic bill of rights.
AP Photo/George R. Skadding
Oshan Jarow is a staff writer with Vox's Future Perfect, where he focuses on the frontiers of political economy and consciousness studies. He covers topics ranging from guaranteed income and shorter workweeks to meditation and psychedelics.

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?

Here are some other facts that even a very good economy cannot seem to wipe away: More than 6 million Americans are unemployed; 25.3 million Americans lacked health insurance in the first quarter of 2023 (which is actually a record low); and more than 650,000 Americans experienced homelessness in 2023. And more than 40 million Americans, or 12.4 percent of the population, lived in poverty in 2022, and that’s according to a poverty line that just about everyone agrees is ridiculously outdated and low. Not captured in those statistics are tens of millions of Americans who are living too close to economic deprivation for comfort.

I repeat: 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.

President Roosevelt proposed an economic bill of rights in 1944

“The one supreme objective for the future … can be summed up in one word: security,” announced President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 state of the union address. “And that means not only physical security … It means also economic security.”

Roosevelt went on to propose a second bill of rights — this one economic — that would enshrine every American’s entitlement to the basics, such as housing, health care, education, and welfare. He’d already made big strides in that direction, however piecemeal, including the 1935 Social Security Act that created Social Security as well as unemployment and welfare benefits. But Roosevelt died in office just over a year after his 1944 speech, leaving his vision for an economic bill of rights unfulfilled.

Even before his death, however, Roosevelt had already withdrawn his support for reducing the work week, instead focusing on full-time employment for all with rising wages. That shift helped cement the framework we still use today to evaluate what makes a “good economy,” which boils down to improvements in the unemployment rate, wages, GDP, and inflation.

Decades after Roosevelt, the civil rights movement picked up the idea of economic rights. In a 1967 address, Martin Luther King Jr. described the bond between civil and economic rights. “No matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty,” he said. The solution embraced by the movement was a 1966 proposal drafted by the activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin: A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans.

The Freedom Budget was a revival of Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights, outlining seven core objectives that covered most of the same terrain, with additional emphasis on reducing pollution, to be achieved within 10 years. By the end of his life, such a program had become a core priority for King — his last written work before his assassination in 1968 was the posthumously published “We Need an Economic Bill of Rights.”

But the economy was already heading in a much different direction. The idea for an economic bill of rights faded as economic policy entered its neoliberal period in the 1970s. Rather than enshrining access to basic needs and economic rights for all, free markets and full-time employment were touted as the road to achieving economic security.

Now, half a century later, the economic consensus is shifting yet again.

Economic rights, today

From Oxford’s Institute for New Economic Thinking to the conservative think tank American Compass, a bipartisan slate of organizations have been announcing the end of neoliberalism for years now. But no one is really sure what comes next.

The president’s “Bidenomics” plans do suggest a new direction, embracing the pillars of public investment, empowering workers, and promoting competition. But a recent report from the progressive Roosevelt Institute argued that “these pillars will be insufficient to move us toward a truly progressive, post-neoliberal economy.” Securing that transition, it asserts, would benefit from “direct public provision” of goods and services, like health care, rather than relying on stimulating market mechanisms with tax credits. In addition, the authors call for more progressive taxation, and more democratic governance structures that can tilt the economy’s direction toward the public good.

Roosevelt’s vision of economic security for all could help bridge the gap between Bidenomics and progressive proposals. The idea has already been seeing a revival: When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced their Green New Deal in 2019, they included economic rights, stating that achieving the legislation’s goals would require providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care, a job guarantee, housing, economic security, clean water and air, and healthy and affordable food.

A few months later, Bernie Sanders invoked Roosevelt’s speech directly in one of his own, calling for a 21st-century economic bill of rights. “We must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman, and child in our country basic economic rights,” he said.

But the clearest articulation yet is in Mark Paul’s book, which, after naming what might be included in an economic bill of rights — including the rights to work, housing, education, health care, basic income and banking, and a healthy environment — devotes a chapter to each on the question of “How?”

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.”

But the history of the pursuit of economic rights suggests that what may look like bold progressive demands today are, in fact, quite old. And what’s more, they’re deeply rooted in what historian Eric Foner has called the “master narrative” of American history: freedom. “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt said in his 1944 address. “Necessitous men are not free men.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.