11 Suggestions for a Populist Agenda

President Trump’s victory has been ascribed to a recognition on his part, and that of Steve Bannon, that identity politics was a game that any number can play. Alternatively, it has been ascribed to their recognition of three social deficits: 1) trade-induced unemployment, especially among the young; 2) unwise wars, and unfair distribution of the burdens of war; and 3) social dislocations in some cities and regions resulting from massive uncontrolled immigration.

Trump holds the high cards in addressing all three of these issues. It is within his executive power to denounce and renegotiate trade agreements, to bring anti-dumping cases, and to work with Congress to secure legislation fostering employment of the young. It is within his power to withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, and to avoid throwing rocks into the world’s hornets’ nests. It is within his power, through rhetoric and enforcement against employers of the E-Verify provisions of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, to produce outward flows of migrants, and he may negotiate with Congress terms on which many migrants may remain and programs to reduce migration at its source.

Thus far, the administration has denounced or threatened trade agreements and jaw-boned particular manufacturers without tangible or lasting results for young workers. It has continued drone warfare and bombing runs, exacerbating refugee problems. Its ham-handed actions relating to visa and green-card holders with vested rights threaten to waste its “trump card” on immigration. Its deregulatory and tax proposals have little appeal to its three new constituencies, and in its kindness thus far to fund managers it has forgotten Bernard De Jouvenel’s maxim that “the wealth of merchants is resented more than the pomp of rulers.”

There follow 11 proposals of a populist nature, none very expensive, by which the administration can keep faith with those who elected it:

1. Completely relieve workers under the age of 25 of payroll taxation, as in Germany and Holland. Over the long term, this would render them the most employed, rather than the most unemployed, age cohort. Because they make up at most 10 percent of the labor force, and typically enjoy barely half of average earnings, relieving them of 15.3 percent payroll taxes would require an increase in general payroll tax rates of less than 1 percent.

2. Revive the Civilian Conservation Corps, a cause promoted only by Sen. Bernie Sanders, with its focus on low-tech infrastructure projects and services, including such neglected fields of activity as soil conservation, reforestation, disaster relief, reclamation of abandoned mine sites, creation of new national parks in Appalachia, hydrology, desert agriculture, creation of footpaths and youth hostels, and training as practical nurses and nursing assistants.

3. Make the services of the United States Employment Service, a largely moribund adjunct of the unemployment system, available to all workers under the age of 25.

4. Provide tax credits, like those in Germany, Finland, and Japan, to encourage the installation of second kitchens in owner-occupied housing, thereby fostering the creation of low-cost housing in the form of accessory apartments, duplex houses, and mother-in-law flats. This is a far more economical method of generating new low-cost small units than subsidized housing, and restriction to owner-occupied homes eliminates the fears and controversies accompanying public-housing proposals.

5. Give limited incentives, in the form of handbooks and nominal tax credits, to foster the creation of cooperative old-age clubs on the Japanese pattern to assist the elderly in remaining in their own homes, removing pressures on Medicaid.

6. Promote model state and local legislation and tax incentives for the creation of land readjustment and land-assembly districts—on the postwar Japanese, Korean, and German pattern—to foster private redevelopment of blighted urban and inner-suburban areas

7. Support a revived TEAM Act providing for the organization of single-plant works councils, with the authority to negotiate local pay and productivity deals, work rules, and employee grievances. Legislation to this effect sponsored by the Dunlap Commission (appointed by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and including several former Democratic secretaries of labor) was vetoed by President Clinton at the behest of the United Auto Workers. Since private-sector union membership has declined by 60 percent since Clinton’s veto, even Democratic congressmen might now support it, and it would greatly benefit the low-income workforce in non-union chain establishments.

8. Support an orderly decriminalization of marijuana on the Canadian pattern, accompanied by an educational campaign stressing the drug’s demotivating characteristics and enlisting schools and colleges in its discouragement through selective drug testing, as in the military and adult workforce. This will eliminate nearly a million arrests a year and defund much of the underworld that is the youth employer of first resort in depressed areas.

9. Make an effort to revive depressed downtown areas in small towns and cities with incentives for the creation of Business Improvement Districts, together with enhanced enforcement of antitrust, predatory-pricing, and bribery laws against offending large retailers.

10. Provide relief for credit unions and community banks from the more oppressive Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank regulations without holding them hostage to secure unjustified deregulation for larger banks.

11. Grant work permits to undocumented workers without criminal records and with long records of American employment upon payment by them, their families, employers, or philanthropies of large ($5,000) application fees, the proceeds to be dedicated to a fund for law enforcement, housing, and nurse-practitioner programs addressing migration in its source countries. The question of enfranchisement should be left to the states, pursuant to Article I, Sections 2 and 4 of the Constitution.

It may be objected that measures to relieve the young are of limited political appeal, since the young do not vote in large numbers. But their mothers do. Many of the other measures provide citizens with a greater sense of control over their own lives.

While much of this agenda may not appeal to “Gradgrind” Republicans who appreciate the price of everything and the value of nothing, nor to those whose idea of an infrastructure program is aid to the contracting class and its representatives on K Street, some can be led to follow the leadership of Speaker Paul Ryan. It will be recalled that he uttered the only memorable words of the 2012 Republican Convention: “college graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at faded Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”

George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer and volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, is the author of various books on public policy and history, including Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness, and Equality (Praeger, 1999), reprinted as Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Books, 2003).

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