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“We Will Make Biden Do It”: Economist Darrick Hamilton on Pushing the Next Admin to the Left

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As Democrats coalesce around Joe Biden ahead of the November presidential election, we speak with economist Darrick Hamilton, a former Bernie Sanders supporter who took part in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, about where the Democratic Party is headed on economic policy. Hamilton says that while Biden’s policies are not as radical as the moment requires, he can be pushed by social movements. “We will make Biden do it,” Hamilton says, quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt on the need for activists to pressure lawmakers. “But first and foremost, Donald Trump needs to get removed.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Medicare for All and Green New Deal were key parts of the platform of Senator Bernie Sanders, who received nominating speeches from former President of the United Auto Workers Bob King and New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday. Even though Sanders rescinded his candidacy, he netted enough delegates during the primary to qualify for the convention. In a roll-call vote, Sanders received 1,151 delegates, while Biden secured the presidential nomination with 3,558 delegates.

For more, we’re joined by Darrick Hamilton, a former Bernie Sanders supporter who took part in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force. He’s the incoming founding director of the newly created Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School.

Professor Hamilton, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, this was very powerful, Ady Barkan speaking electronically, talking about his support for — although he didn’t use the words “Medicare for All,” he is well known as a Medicare for All activist. And Joe Biden has promised he would veto any Medicare for All bill that came to his desk, if he was president. Can you talk about that difference and whether you think, actually, there’s still possible chance for change on — if there was a President Biden?

DARRICK HAMILTON: Well, I mean, I guess the counterfactual was Donald Trump, and that helped to explain why Ady Barkan gave an unequivocal endorsement for Biden. I mean, Donald Trump really does represent an existential threat to the nation. Beyond his narcissism, he revels in trying to find loopholes to serve his purpose. So, given that context, I think the strategy is, elect Joe Biden, and on November 3rd come with the full force to ensure that Medicare for All becomes enacted into law during his administration, because healthcare should be a human right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Hamilton, could you talk somewhat about your participation in the efforts of the Bernie and Biden economic task force to reach agreement on economic proposals? What were some of your disappointments with that, and what were some of what you believe to be the successes?

DARRICK HAMILTON: We pushed him a lot with regards to at least expressing the values of a progressive movement. You know, I want to give a real big shoutout to Representative Karen Bass. I’m happy with the choice of Harris as the VP, but a big nod and hats off to Karen Bass, because I’m proud that she is going to be part of the future of the DNC party.

That said, you know, the document, if you look at it, there is a lot in there. There’s a recognition, for instance, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture defrauded Black farmers of billions of dollars. That’s pretty big. So that’s progress.

I’d say that the biggest constraint and albatross, not only on that document but the DNC party at large, is this notion of PAYGO or austerity, this notion that the government is constrained in its budget like a household. That’s a farce. That’s a myth. We have monetary power that enables us to invest in our most treasured resource, which is its people. You know, of course, I could say a lot more about that.

And one last thing I’ll say about this is, only one side of the political aisle actually pays attention to PAYGO as it relates to putting forth their agenda. Republicans could care less about PAYGO or austerity when they’re talking about tax cuts that go to the wealthiest of our nation. But somehow that becomes a conversation stopper when the Democratic Party is thinking about an economic rights platform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And talking about this issue of austerity versus the unlimited power of government when it comes to monetary policy, we’re looking at this reality that the Standard & Poor’s 500, the stock market index, has reached record highs in the midst of this enormous economic crisis of the country. And some — a lot of analysts are saying that’s basically because companies and banks are receiving essentially free money from the Federal Reserve Bank. Could you talk about how monetary policy can affect achievement of some of the economic goals of the progressive movement?

DARRICK HAMILTON: Two points. One is, I wouldn’t say we have unlimited power on monetary policy, but the constraints on monetary policy have not been realized in a very long time. And that would be inflation or the cost at which the federal government has to pay to borrow in relation to our ability to grow the economy.

But that said, why it’s such an emphasis on measures like the stock market, it relates to, I guess, the values of the country in terms of how we — how the government invests in our economic well-being. There is too much of an emphasis on corporate well-being, with the notion that they will create some dynamism that is supposed to trickle down to all of us, as opposed to investing in people, our most treasured resource, and that that will create a dynamism that creates an infrastructure that makes us more resilient to a pandemic, to a climate catastrophe or any other economic downturn.

You know, to make this more concrete, supply-side economics, after 45 or 50 years of failure, I love that movements are starting to bubble to push back on that. We’re realizing that that is only related to our productivity gains going to the elite and not being widely dispersed. In contrast, we have precedent with the New Deal era, where we invested in people. Not only did we grow the economy, we also grew real wages. Of course there were some problems with the New Deal. We didn’t do it in a racially inclusive way, in a lot of ways.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s a very interesting point. FDR wasn’t necessarily a very progressive president when he came in, but with enormous pressure from the people around him, of course, he is known for the New Deal. But can you talk about the gaps? Can you talk about, for example, the racial wealth gap? And do you think that Joe Biden, if he were president, could go through that kind of transformation? Bernie Sanders said, you know, we’re going to support him now, and then, on November 4th, we’re going to fight to ensure, you know, the platform that we originally put forward, that has to do with Green New Deal, that has to do with Medicare for All. Do you see that in Joe Biden, a kind of open door rather than a wall? And can you talk about the racial wealth gap and how it needs to be addressed?

DARRICK HAMILTON: You know, in a lot of ways, irrespective of the president, I love the line that FDR had when he was responding to progressives, as you allude to: “Make me do it.” And that’s what social movements are for. So, November 4th, I love that Bernie Sanders said, “We will be right back out there. We will make Biden do it.” But, you know, first and foremost, Donald Trump needs to get removed to the office. That has to be a priority. And then, after that, I agree, we should make them do it.

And as it relates to the racial wealth gap — you know, I’m glad you brought that up — the New Deal and the postwar policies are largely responsible for the racial wealth gap that exists today. Ira Katznelson, in his aptly titled book When Affirmative Action Was White, describes how policy, by design and implementation, was racist, even though it was universal. So, for example, if you have Social Security and the Wagner Act excluding domestic and agricultural workers, whom at the time 70% of Black women working were in those fields — I’m sorry, 90%, not 70% — and for Black men, it was over half, that was, by design, racist. And then, when you have a Jim Crow infrastructure implementing the policies without federal oversight, that is, by implementation, racist.

So, today, what AOC was talking about in her eloquent, beautiful, inspiring one minute, although she took a little longer than one minute, was an economic rights frame, but not just an economic rights frame, an economic rights frame grounded in justice, that is actively antiracist, actively anti-sexist — that’s the evolution — and an economic rights platform that’s not passive, but, by design and implementation, ensuring that all groups, regardless of identity, are included.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of economic rights, you have favored the enactment of a federal jobs guarantee, which many critics say that’s pie in the sky. But you point that there’s been historical precedent to that in the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. If you could talk about that and also about your support of baby bonds, and what exactly that would mean?

DARRICK HAMILTON: Yeah. So, the federal job guarantee, I think the best precedent is the New Deal itself — the WPA, the CCC. A lot of our infrastructure in our country today, whether it’s art, whether it’s big monuments of art, highways, bridges, etc., universities — you know, I’m from Brooklyn. Go to Brooklyn College and look at all the buildings that were erected as part of the WPA that are still relevant today. There’s a project called the Living New Deal that goes beyond our physical infrastructure and gives personal narratives about the ways in which people’s lives were transformed as a result of the New Deal.

And in speaking with Senator Sanders, you know, I was pitching the federal job guarantee, and in our conversation, he had a great response. He’s like, “Yeah, that’s all great about what the New Deal did in the past for America, but I like the framing of reimagining the future that we want and deserve.”

And that’s the point. To me, you know, we put bounds on our imagination of what we can do, but we can invest in the infrastructure that’s not only physical, but a care infrastructure, and, as you cited earlier — I don’t know if it was you, Juan, or Amy — but a Green New Deal, where we could ensure that our economy is resilient to the climate catastrophes and calamities that are coming up in the future. In essence, we could offer a guaranteed job to anyone who desires to work towards building our physical, human infrastructure, and eliminate the threat of unemployment for existing workers.

We know that if you are — you know, I give this example: If you are a waitress putting up with sexual harassment on a daily basis, you have less agency if the employer can threaten you with taking that job away, and then you’re not able to feed your children. That should be eliminated. We should have better bargaining powers so that workers aren’t completely at the whim of their employer, so that they have a viable alternative with a living wage, with good working conditions.

And we can do this. We can do this, and there’s a need, because we can just look at this pandemic and see that our public health infrastructure wasn’t ready. There’s lots of work that can be created, and people on local levels will know better what their community needs. So, that’s the case for a federal job guarantee.

What baby bonds is — let me start and say that the source of inequality in America, especially in the domain of wealth, is that some people have access to a capital foundation that affords them the ability to invest in an asset that will passively appreciate over their lifetime. Big shoutout to Cory Booker and Ayanna Pressley for twin companion bills promoting a baby bond legislation.

What it is saying is, as a birthright, everyone in America gets capital, and that capital is seeded based on the financial position they’re born in, irrespective of their gender or their race. We know that — and, you know, I don’t want to talk too much on the show, and make sure there’s adequate time for conversation, so please interrupt me if I’m droning on. But let me say that we know that families, even within household, make decisions on who they leave endowments to based on the sex of their child.

So, this is a counterintuitive policy that says we will endow you at birth with an account that will be managed by the federal government, just like Social Security. It’s like building economic security over the life course, so that when you become a young adult, we won’t just have subsistence policy for you, but we’ll have some nest egg so that you can have the ability to purchase a home, invest in a business or finance a debt-free education. The difference between a renter and a homeowner in America is one had a down payment, the other one didn’t. So this provides every American with at least an opportunity for asset accumulation over their life course.

AMY GOODMAN: Darrick Hamilton, we want to thank you so much for being with us, incoming founding director of the newly created Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School. He’ll also be the Henry Cohen professor of economics and urban policy there. Professor Hamilton was a surrogate and economic adviser on Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, also one of the Sanders appointees member to the Biden-Sanders Joint Task Force.

After break, we speak with another person part of that task force, Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. Stay with us.

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