Mark Paul joins Money on the Left to discuss his new book, The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights (University of Chicago Press, 2023). Paul is assistant professor in the Bloustein school of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. In his book, Paul scours U.S. political and economic history to recover, reclaim, and adapt the rhetoric of economic rights for our current political moment. For too long, Paul demonstrates, progressives and leftists have let conservative and sometimes charismatic economists define the boundaries of our economic thinking. This even as the left has underappreciated its own rich reserves of heterodox political thinking and radical rhetorical action. Hence Paul’s outspoken advocacy–within and beyond the book–for durable and democratic policy interventions like Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, and a Green New Deal.
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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: Mark Paul, welcome to Money On The Left.
Mark Paul: It’s great to be here today. Thank you so much.
Scott Ferguson: So we’ve invited you to talk to us today about your very important new book, The Ends of Freedom, Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights, which is out from University of Chicago Press this year, 2023. And we want to get into a discussion about the book. But before we do, maybe you can tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, your background, your training, you’ve certainly studied and worked with all kinds of interesting folks along the way. So maybe just give us a little bit of a flavor of where you’re coming from?
Mark Paul: You know, when I was born, I wanted to be a PhD economist, and here I am now. No no. When I was younger, I wanted to be a chef. I love food. I grew up on DiGiorno pizza, and Dino nuggets, and it was terrible. And I thought there had to be something else to life. And thanks to public programming, good old PBS, Julia Child taught me how to cook. And so I watched Julia Child and just fell in love with food and worked in kitchens throughout high school. I ended up going to culinary school and working in kitchens more. And it was my time working in kitchens and thinking about our food system that actually got me interested in economics. I spent just years working on the line and hot, semi miserable conditions, but in fairly high end restaurants. And I’m working on the line next to often immigrants who show up for work every single day, year in and year out. And they are making marginally above minimum wage, it’s 15-20 years ago, but still, they’re making under $10 an hour in most instances. And it dawned on me that they, nor I, could ever afford to eat in the restaurants we’re sitting here cooking in, and that is just messed up, what’s going on here? And further, my love for food got me interested in gardening and farming a little bit. And so I started down that path. Next thing I know, I’m reading about climate change and the climate crisis. And I’m sitting here in my early 20s thinking, how screwed up is this world we’ve built? From there, I guess made for some people a rather large leap, but to economics. 2008 struck. All of a sudden, the economy comes crashing down, I start reading about the economy. And I realized the food system is the way it is; people are paid shitty wages and good food is expensive where Captain Crunch is essentially free because of poor economic policy. And in fact, I realized we can choose different economic policies and that set me on my path to becoming a PhD economist. It’s not what I ever thought I would do. But here we are, and it was really my passion for food and my observations in the real world that set me on this rather strange path to pursuing a degree in economics. But I came to economics not because I love studying economics, I came to economics because I wanted a decent world where everybody could afford to eat good food and people who worked on the line of kitchens didn’t have crappy jobs, dangerous jobs and low paying jobs.
Scott Ferguson: Can I ask how did you find heterodox economics? I mean, one can have a desire for a more just, abundantly provisioned world and then think, well, this is probably a problem of economics. And then when you go to research, “well, how do I learn about economics?” The main pathways are the orthodoxy. So how did you find an alternative? I mean, what was that process like?
Billy Saas: How did you end up not self blaming for not having access to those restaurants and being able to pay for the swordfish plate?
Mark Paul: It’s such a good question, right? I mean, if only I had worked harder. If only I’d worked 80 hours a week instead of 60 hours a week I’d be able to afford a decent meal. No, but in all seriousness, it in part was luck, and it was in part just the books I happened to pick up. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose first economics book I ever read, and when I finished it I thought this guy is absolutely insane. This is not the world I think we want to build here. I mean, what’s funny is I and I think most people agree with Milton Friedman: we truly want to be free to choose, but the type of policies he talked about is not like getting us to a world where we actually have meaningful and real choices in front of us. And so reading Milton Friedman left me scratching my head thinking this is crazy, what else is there? Next thing I did was I picked up a book by Keynes and read that and was like, Oh, this is pretty interesting. But the real luck happened was that I’m from Massachusetts, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a premier heterodox alternative Economics program in the country. And when I applied to colleges, I had gone to culinary school, and I was taking some part time classes in community college. But I didn’t have money to pay for college, I was on my own financially. And I applied for a number of schools and UMass Amherst gave me free education. I said, you can’t beat free plus, hey, they have some interesting people in their economics department that are a little wonky. And so I went to UMass Amherst to finish my undergraduate degree. And from there, I just never looked back. I was really lucky to be mentored by a host of amazing progressive economist from Nancy Folbre to Sam Bowles and Jim Boyce and others who really opened my eyes to the fact that we can build an economy that works for the people rather than just working for the 1/10 or 100th of one percenters that get rich at all the rest’s expenses. It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to a place like that and study economics.
Scott Ferguson: You’ve also done some work with Sandy Darity. Is that something that you can talk about a bit with us?
Mark Paul: Yeah. In 2015, I was finishing my PhD, and I started doing some writing with with Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, two absolutely luminaries in the field that have just done phenomenal work in advancing economics as a profession, and also bringing economics into the policy space to demonstrate how it is that we can build a more just an inclusive economy. I had the wonderful privilege to go spend two years at Duke University working with Sandy Darity as a Postdoc. And I do want to say here, I’m a K through PhD public school kid. I deeply believe in the public school system. My two years at Duke let me see how the, it’s tempting to say how the other half lives, but it’s really it’s how the 1/10 of one percenters live. It was really an amazing change in so many ways. But my time working with with Sandy just really helped further my intellectual development: my belief in stratification economics, my study of economic history, in particular, which I really bring into the book, where I look at the fact that the neoliberal order that we like to talk about so much isn’t the only way to organize the economy. More importantly, it was an incredibly radical vision that came about, and we can talk about this later, in the 40s and 50s. But my time with Sandy helped me really develop into the scholar I am today as I had the chance and freedom to just read far more wide ranging texts. Folks like Du Bois, who I had never read before, and others that helped me broaden my horizons as a political economist. I don’t just study economics, I study history, I study philosophy, I study political theory. And if we want to have a true holistic vision of the economy, we need to go beyond reading the American Economic Review, which has many important articles, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going to help us actually shape a proper vision for where we want to go and why.
Billy Saas: K through PhD. I like that a lot. K through PhD public school similar here.
Scott Ferguson: Me too. Yeah.
Billy Saas: You end up at UMass Amherst, which is just a wonderful accident, coincidence, providence heterodox school, and then you work with Sandy Darity. I guess one question is, what was your sort of interest in your dissertation? Because I imagine that anticipated your collaboration with Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, as you were going into your postdoc, they must have liked what they saw or knew of your work at that point. So talk to us a little bit about that experience at Amherst and the shaping of your intellectual foundation and platform from which you sprung into this wonderful collaboration.
Mark Paul: Yeah, it’s a great question. So The Ends of Freedom actually isn’t really that related to my dissertation. In fact, The Ends of Freedom is really new work. A lot of that work that came out of my time working with Sandy, as a matter of fact, where actually Sandy, Darrick and I co-wrote a piece for The American Prospect magazine calling for an economic bill of rights back in 2018. And that was kind of the predecessor to the book. So my relationship with Sandy really came out of actually my involvement in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign at the time my dissertation was essentially done. It’s three essays on sustainability where I was really focused on the climate crisis. I should say here that half of my work is really focused on causes, consequences, and potential solutions to inequality. And the other half of my work is really focused on addressing the climate crisis. Now of course, the two are inextricably linked, but they are two slightly separate buckets. And so the dissertation focused much more heavily on the climate crisis, and what to do about it. And really, through this work, I came to understand that first of all policy is climate policy. And second of all, when we address the climate crisis it’s going to be a substantial reorganization of economic activity. And we have a choice here. And that choice is that we can allow policy to continue along the current fault lines of inequality. In which case, we would most likely be deepening existing inequalities. Or we can be quite intentional about taking redistribution seriously, in which case, the climate crisis actually presents an opportunity for us to fundamentally change the structures that exist within the economy, and to address both our emissions and our inequality challenges simultaneously. So the work with Sandy and Derek, though, really came out of my involvement in the Sanders campaign where I had finished my dissertation, but I still had some time on my hands as a graduate student. And everybody’s coming out swinging against Sanders for putting out radical proposals like Medicare For All, which was going to clearly bankrupt the country and make sure everybody quit their jobs and $15 minimum wage, which would eradicate half of low income jobs in America overnight, they just disappear and all these terrible things. And people were starting to ask, are these policies truly crazy, or is there some economic rationale for them? And at the time, that bench of progressive economists was incredibly thin, of course, Stephanie Kelton was advising Senator Sanders. But there were very few economists that were out there defending, I think, these very modest proposals that Senator Sanders was putting out. And so I decided to do a little bit of work with the campaign, and to start writing both policy pieces and opinion pieces to show the economic rationale for why $15 minimum wage, or programs to invest in higher education through making college free for everybody, or programs to actually make healthcare a human right were actually economically smart. Now, it was this opportunity that really changed my work to focus on policy issues first and foremost, where I kind of became a policy economist. I still do academic work quite extensively, but what drives my academic work is the real world. It’s thinking about policy issues, and how is it that we can improve the economy and the functioning of it? Therefore, my academic work heavily ties into my policy work. It’s kind of a two way street, so to say. And it was through that work that I got to know Sandy and Darrick quite well, and Sandy was able to offer me a postdoc to come do some additional research with him for two years.
Billy Saas: Was the dissertation then sort of incidental or coincidental to or with the Sanders campaign? Or did it inform your advocacy directly in any kind of way?
Mark Paul: In economics dissertation, yeah, “Three Essays On Sustainability” was the title of the dissertation. Look, in economics, a dissertation is three essays that you slap together, you write a quick introduction and conclusion, you call it a day. I mean, a dissertation is really about learning how to research. And that’s what my dissertation taught me. I mean, it grounded me in economic theory, it taught me a great deal about economic and climate policy. I did a number of studies looking at kind of sustainable agricultural policy, in particular, as well as sustainable responsiveness to climate disasters. But the dissertation didn’t dig into the more pressing inequality policy issues that I ended up pivoting towards. The dissertation really taught me how to go about doing economic research? How do I develop my tools as an econometrician and as a policy researcher? I published it all in academic journals, but it didn’t necessarily go on to have a substantial policy influence the way that some of my later work luckily has, and the way that I hope that this book will moving forward.
Scott Ferguson: So I have a question that I think you’ve probably begun to answer, but I had this written down so I am going to ask it anyway which is: why a book? When you and I, Mark, have had encounters in the past we’ve hung out at conferences, you graciously invited me down to New College where you used to be to give a talk. I remember you pondering aloud in earshot, “should I write a book? Should I write a book?” And ultimately you decided to write a book. But as I understand it, that’s not actually typical of what an economist does, right? That it’s a kind of rarity. So I’m curious to hear, as we move to talk about this book, and what it’s really about, why did you decide not to write four journal articles? Why did you go for a book? And I guess, a related question, or an integrated question would be, who’s your audience? Who do you imagine would read this? And of course I’m sure there’s not just one answer to this, like, X type of person, but I’m curious who you’re thinking about your audience and why you’re deciding to take up the genre of the book?
Mark Paul: I’m going to take those in reverse order, because the audience question is what drove me to write the book. So look, I’ve been privileged, and I’ve written numerous journal articles, and each time I read a journal article, I think this is going to change the world in some important way. And then, you know, maybe 100 people read it, it goes out in some academic journal, where subscriptions are 1000s of dollars a year, and it kind of dies in the PDF white paper ethos of the interwebs. And you hope that these journal articles change some academic minds, and in turn, maybe 50 years down the road, when those people are advising PhD students, those students will read it, and it will change the future generation, but I’m a little bit of an impatient person. I see the economy as it operates today, and it is screwed up. And I’d like to do something about that. As Marx said, that philosophers have only henceforth interpreted the world, the point is to change it. And that is, indeed, what brought me to the discipline. I want to change the world. I want to make the economy a better place. And so my audience is policymakers as well as the American public. So the book is aimed for the New York Times to Wall Street Journal readership, ranging from hill staffers to just interested voters. And I’m trying to lay out an affirmative vision for a post neoliberal world. We’ve all read dozens of books about neoliberalism’s rise and fall, how it’s either dead or on death’s door. But what always drove me nuts about all those books was that they’d have 10 chapters about neoliberalism, and then one chapter at the end is: here’s what comes next. And they just really quickly sketch out a few ideas. But if we actually want to move past the neoliberal order, we need to start envisioning what that would look like. We need to start envisioning what is the North Star that we are working towards? And so I set out to write an affirmative book that discussed what the economy can and should look like post neoliberalism. What is it that we want? Why do we care about the economy? And what is it that we’re collectively working towards achieving? Now, why a book? With my audience in mind of changing the hearts and minds of the American public, and also in trying to change policymakers and Hill staffers, because I know we talk a lot about policymakers, but really, it’s the hill staffers that have a lot of sway, in hill offices. I decided to write a popular book in order to reach just a far broader range of people than I could with an academic article. I had already written at this point enough articles for tenure, so I was feeling rather secure. It’s a shame but in economics, they don’t really count books towards tenure. At most research universities a book might count as one article, but your chair would tell you absolutely don’t do it. Versus if you’re in kind of more open minded disciplines like sociology, political science books are completely welcome. What’s crazy about this is that when you go down the list of Nobel Prize winning economists, they all write books. Now why? Because they want to reach broader audiences with their ideas. They know that very few people are going to open up an esoteric economics journal and actually read their ideas. So household economists’ names from Paul Krugman to Joe Stiglitz, and the likes, they all primarily write books to reach broad audiences. And I thought, I want to reach broad audiences like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz are now Stephanie Kelton. So I’m going to write a book. And I have to say it was an absolutely wonderful experience. Challenging, but truly wonderful to dedicate a year and a half of my time to just sit down and focus on one project, and one project only, and really to have the space to deeply articulate my thoughts and ideas to what I hope to be a very wide readership was an absolute joy. While I was writing the book, my partner was pregnant, and I thankfully finished the book prior to having our child. But I really felt like I had two babies; I had the book, and then I had my human kiddo that arrived at fairly similar times. So it was a true joy in both respects.
Billy Saas: It’s fascinating to know, I didn’t realize that economists were disincentivized from writing books and publishing books. And that’s interesting to know, and makes it I think, even more remarkable that you’re going this direction. As you did so, did you have any models or figures in mind that you looked to as examples of effective public communicators of affirmative economic messages?
Mark Paul: That’s a great question. So I kind of had two different sets of people that influenced me in mind when I set out to write this book. And one was just leaning on some of my favorite writers, largely out of the civil rights movement, both favorite writers and orators, people like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin is just one of my all time favorite writers. So I really spend a lot of time with his texts thinking about how they are relaying ideas? Because look, we have to be storytellers to get ideas to stick. And ideas truly are one of the most powerful weapons that exist. But we need to think about how to effectively relay those ideas and embed them in people’s minds, or at least get people to contend with them, which is really what I’m aiming to do is just getting people to think about these ideas. In the economic space, I absolutely spent quite a bit of time with a host of economist books, and thinking about how it is that they laid out their arguments? And how is it that they relayed their messages to a diverse set of readers? And I have to say, folks like Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek were great writers. I truly do admire their ability to communicate complex and radical ideas to the voting public. And so I absolutely spend a lot of time reading their works and others and thinking about how to write an effective book. But here, I have to say, I’m also deeply in debt to one of my dear friends and editors, Jed Cohen, he is an editor for Duke University Press, was one of my best friends during my two years at Duke and remains one of my closest friends and he helped me through the writing process a good bit. Behind every good book is a good editor, and I think we need to acknowledge that quite openly because books are always a collaborative process, even when they just have one author, they have a whole host of people that helped them make it to press and into your lap, hopefully, on a nice, beautiful, sunny day while sitting outside and kicking the feet up. It was really through my collaborative work with him that I was able to find my voice as a writer. Because learning how to write journal articles, earlier we were talking about the dissertation is just very different from learning how to write a book for mass consumption.
Scott Ferguson: Here, here. So the title of the book to say it again, is The Ends of Freedom, Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights. So to get us into this argument, maybe you can unpack the title, and talk a little bit about how you’ve structured the book in three parts.
Mark Paul: Yeah. So let’s talk about freedom a little bit. I think freedom is our most powerful and salient word in our political discourse here in the United States. Everybody declares for freedom. But in declaring for freedom, unfortunately, we often all mean different things. And that’s what allows President Biden to launch his election campaign in the name of freedom. And it’s what allows Ron DeSantis to launch his also declaring he’s seeking to make America more free, although he has to do some serious twists and turns to come up with any real definition of freedom given his set of policy priorities. So The Ends of Freedom really comes from the idea that the right has very effectively weaponized the idea of freedom to simply mean negative freedom, which is freedom from government, famously articulated in the Bill of Rights, coupled with access to markets. If only we have limited government plus access to markets, which to be clear, requires government in the first place, then people will be free. But this really differs with more holistic understandings of freedom, which also incorporate what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin deemed positive freedoms. Now, by positive freedoms, I mean freedom to certain things, importantly, the freedom to the good life, Jefferson’s promised life, liberty and pursuit of happiness which is enshrined in the very ideals of this nation. And in order to actually be meaningfully free, people don’t only need negative rights, they don’t only need civil and political rights and reproductive rights, which are increasingly coming under attack, especially across conservative states. But they also need economic rights, these positive rights like things to you know, the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to a home and the like. And what I try to do in the book is lay out an argument in the first third about first how it is that we got here, but I do that quite briefly, really kind of flipping the traditional book about neoliberalism on its head, as we talked about earlier. So I can briefly talk about how we got here and where here is with 40 million Americans still in dire poverty, the same number of Americans that were in poverty when Johnson launched the war on poverty or when President Roosevelt, at the height of the Great Depression, declared 1/3 of Americans are ill clad, ill housed, and ill fed. But it’s also about the 100 million Americans that are just one emergency room visit, one layoff, one missed bill away from really severe economic hardship. And in that first third of the book, I lay up these two contending visions for freedom. On the one hand, we have the classic neoliberal vision of freedom, which is, as I mentioned earlier, limited government plus access to markets, which was championed by people like Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman, and then brought into the political sphere by folks like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But also adopted essentially hook line and sinker by the New Democrats, starting really effectively with Jimmy Carter, who I would argue as the first neoliberal president before Reagan, but culminating in Bill Clinton’s presidency and certainly heavily influencing Barack Obama’s. Then, I talked about what I call “America’s other freedom”, which is the fact that we’ve had this long march towards a more meaningful, robust notion of freedom, starting with the founders, folks like Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, who advocated for a robust state that legislated in the public’s interest and ensured that all people had a share of the economic pie not as a matter of charity, not as a matter of welfare, but as a matter of their citizenship right. And what’s really fascinating and this is fairly well connected to Jefferson’s ideas of a landholding citizen, right now of course we need to acknowledge that in the case of Jefferson and many others of the founders, they really envisioned a white male kind of ownership class. To be a citizen was largely to be white and male and educated. But, as we increasingly expand the notion of citizenry to be far more all encompassing, we start to see that these economic rights championed by the founders and then later by people like President Abraham Lincoln, who tried to enshrine this into law with the Homestead Act, where he’s redistributing land to people as a matter of right, really becomes a centerpiece of the vision for freedom in America. Yet, it’s language we’ve just lost here today. And I think that this language really came to its most powerful height during the Civil Rights era, where you have leaders like Martin Luther King, and others fighting not only for civil rights, but also for economic rights. When we learn about King today, we forget the radical side of King. That King not only championed the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, but after the passage of those two bills, he turned his attention full time to enshrining an economic bill of rights into law. In fact, his final piece of writing, which was published after his untimely assassination, was entitled, “We Need An Economic Bill of Rights” and was centered in the Poor People’s Campaign, around the demands that I essentially outlined here in the book: the right to a job, the right to housing, the right to education, and more. So in the book of the book is when I actually dive into these various economic rights, and in each chapter, for instance, the first chapter on the right to work, I tried to do three things. First, briefly talk about the history and struggle for this, right. A lot of the time we think about the right to a job or the right to healthcare, and we say, you know, oh, this Scandinavian country does it fairly well, and that’s true and we can learn a lot from them. But I think that there’s also a lot lost in kind of pushing American history to the side. So I tried to rediscover and retell the economic history in the US where these rights, in many instances, had been fought for for well over a century. The second thing I tried to do is debunk the common economic or neoliberal wisdom around why, say, providing people universal education is a terrible idea. Because I think if we want to convince people of this idea we need to talk about the criticism and explain point by point on why it’s just deeply misguided. And then third, I make the positive case for the economic right in each given chapter. The final section of the book, which we can maybe talk about a little bit later, takes on what I like to call the trillion dollar question. And we might say a right to a job and the right to housing is wonderful. And in fact, most Americans want it. We did popular polling with Data For Progress, and we found that two thirds of Americans want an economic bill of rights, including a majority of independents and Republicans. But when the rubber hits the road, when it’s time to pay for these things, that’s when we might hit some serious speed bumps. And so I lay out a comprehensive argument of how it is that we finance an economic Bill of Rights?
Billy Saas: Yeah, so okay, this is probably going to happen, if it hasn’t happened already for you, you are going to find yourself in a situation where you’re in a conference hotel, and there are some hill staffers over there. And this table is full of like Republican Hill staffers, and this table is full of like Democrat Hill staffers, I wonder how your pitch goes? Is it the same for each of those tables? Do you even bother with one or the other? What do you say this story is? And I wonder if this came up in your conversation and your collaboration with your editor? What is this book offering us? What is its main contribution? And I think, how would you pitch that to those two different audiences, which I think are probably both very interested for different reasons and in different directions in what this book is doing, what’s about what it’s about?
Mark Paul: Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, at its core, the book is trying to offer us an agenda to attain freedom. It’s trying to lay out a vision and a policy prescription that details, how is it that we restructure the economy to ensure that people have choices to be and do what they have reason to value rather than to be stuck in this current economy that we’ve built that really hamstrings human flourishing left and right, and really places people at the service of the economy rather than placing the economy at the service of us. When we think about what the point of the economy is, the point of the economy is to ensure that we all get to lead meaningful and dignified lives, that we all have homes and food and can go to school and get health care. Yet we’ve structured an economy that’s essentially based on the bastardized version of the game of Monopoly, which was, of course, originally a parody on capitalism, yet really, it’s all about who can grab the most property, and who can fill up their bank accounts the most. I mean, that’s kind of the game that we’ve set up for ourselves. But instead, I want to change the conversation. Instead of playing the game of Monopoly, I want us to play the game of Life; think about how we structure that economy that dictates so much of our lives, right? I mean, Americans work 47 hours a week, often 50 ish weeks a year, thanks to our limited to no vacation. And, we’re often working to 65, or well past that in order to make ends meet. How is it that we structure that economy to actually prioritize a decent life? It’s funny, we always talk about living in a democracy and how important democratic values are, but why is it that democratic values stop when it comes to the door to the economy opening? It’s like, there’s this massive gate we put up. And what I’m interested in doing is tearing down that gate between the democratic realm of politics and the private realm of the economy, where money is the only currency that matters rather than votes. And so when I talk with Hill staffers, first of all, unfortunately, I haven’t had any excited or interested calls yet from Republican staffers, although I eagerly await them. What I make the conversation about is about freedom and about realizing the American promise; the promise to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and the promise to be a truly free nation, where people have meaningful choices as Milton Friedman put it, people are actually free to choose. If you graduate from college with $200,000 in debt, you’re not free to choose much. You’re free to choose the highest paying job to make sure you are able to meet your bills. If you have a kid and you have to send them to daycare to keep working, you’re not free to choose much. You have to stick to your current job because that daycare bill is going to come due every month, no matter what. If you’re living in an apartment and you want to downsize because your apartment is eating up half of your take home pay, unfortunately, you’re not free to choose a better paying job or a cheaper apartment, because let me tell you, they just don’t exist in most cities across the United States. So I think this notion that we’re free to choose is a farce. And the question is, how do we build an economy that actually provides people some meaningful sense of freedom? And here, you know, when I talk about freedom, it’s frustrating because I think the word that always comes into my mind is enduring freedom. I don’t know if that brings up any bells for listeners here. But that’s actually the codename for the war in Afghanistan.
Scott Ferguson: Oh, no.
Mark Paul: Oh, no, is right. The right is just far better at marketing, be it “freedom”, “right to work”, you name it, they have co-opted every powerful word in our political dialogue and turned it into something evil. So part of my mission here is also to not give up on freedom but to reclaim it.
Billy Saas: I think that project of reclaiming, it’s a common rhetorical move for heterodox economists arguing along the lines that you are for embracing, reclaiming, reanimating, rediscovering the kind of progressive roots of these ideas and the progressive elements of them. And I wonder along those lines, and one of the things I like about your book and talking with you now, you do; you lean into and sort of try to pull back the idea of free to choose, we want to be free to choose. Yes, let’s do that. And by that you’re maybe offering a hand to those Republican staffers or opening up space for conversation. And then in the book, you highlight how Hayek, Friedrich Hayek, was not opposed to social welfare programs, like health care programs, and how that sort of gets left out. On that note, I wonder if you’ve thought about entitlement as maybe a rhetorical obstacle here. So I imagine that those Republican staffers might hear you say, the right to, or the freedom for and say, okay, you’re talking about entitlements, which has become a sort of a demon term over the last 40 years over the neoliberal period. Do you have any clever way to get us into recovering entitlement as a kind of affirmative positive progressive trope or direction?
Mark Paul: Look, I’m gonna be honest, I think that most of the Republican members of Congress and staff on the Hill are largely a lost cause. I do not think that we’re going to change many hearts and minds there. Now, that is very different from Republican voters. I do think that there is a tremendous opening to convince Independent and Republican voters, as well as Democratic voters for that matter, this is the type of vision that we need to be working towards. And those are the folks that I’m trying to capture more of. I don’t focus much on entitlements. I agree that it is a challenging word. But what I like to talk about instead is what I call the “well being state”. How do we move away from this notion of entitlements, this notion of welfare, to embrace a well being state? And this is precisely why the policy prescriptions that I outlined in the book are what I call targeted Universalist policies. So they’re universal policies, things like college for all that benefits everybody. Hillary Clinton famously quipped that she wasn’t for sending Donald Trump’s kids to free college in the presidential primary back in 2016. And I explain why that’s exactly wrong. Yeah, I’m fine with paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college as I am with paying for low income students to go to college across the board. We have a great way to capture the income and wealth of high income earners, I’m not so sure Donald Trump is one, through something called the progressive income tax and we need to couple that, of course, with a progressive wealth tax. But rather than having these means tested gates through every program that are essentially just meant to make programs more complicated and, in return, create political divides over them. What we need to do is have simple straightforward universal programs, things like Medicare For All, things like universal free college, and then you know, tax the rich via income and wealth taxation and let the programs do their jobs. “Programs for the poor make poor programs” was this great quip by Wilbur Cohen, one of the key architects of the New Deal and Great Society, and I think he was absolutely right. If we want broad based buy into these types of programs, we need to ensure that they serve a broad swath of America, economically, racially and geographically. And that’s precisely what I aim to do in building this wellbeing state, where the state is there to ensure that we are all lifted up, that we all have a floor under our feet at all times. The vision is essentially to constrain the market, both using floors and ceilings, to ensure that everybody is taken care of at a fairly high quality of life, but also that nobody is allowed to have undue economic power. And this is one of the things I talk about a lot. When we think about taxing the rich, it’s not only to create the economic space to ensure that we can fully afford everything we need to lead to a high quality of life for all people. But it’s also because we need to effectively put an end to the oligarchy that we find ourselves in today. By actually placing ceilings in the economy, saying that, whether it be a maximum income or maximum wealth level, we’re actually able to reclaim our economy in better entrenched democratic processes into the economic realm, rather than just allowing the billionaires of the world to essentially be mini dictators.
Scott Ferguson: So I’d like to invite you to speak to some of your particular proposals. You can speak to any of them, but I guess maybe to get us going, I’d like to hear about the chapter titled the route that excuses me. I’d like to hear about the chapter titled “The Right to Housing” and what you’re proposing policy wise for this, to secure this right to housing.
Mark Paul: So it’s a great question, slogans matter. And in fact, slogans often are best at changing hearts and minds. It was a particular slogan that actually set the initial seed for this book in my mind, and it was when I was spending time at Occupy Wall Street as a first year PhD student where the rallying cry was an economy for the 99%. And it’s a fine slogan, but they didn’t have a 10 point plan. People love criticizing them for that. And, I don’t think that’s a fair criticism, I think it’s fine for a social movement to have a vision, but not necessarily articulate policies. I kept thinking about an economy for the 99% what does that look like? And that’s largely what I tried to articulate here in the book. A right to housing, I think, is a good example of this, because it’s a nice slogan, but what does it really mean? And I had the wonderful privilege of working with a group called the Homes Guarantee Campaign and actually fleshing this out. So it’s a group associated with the grassroots organization, People’s Action, where they brought together a whole host of housing advocates, people that were section eight voucher recipients, people who are either currently or previously unhoused, elderly people struggling to make their bills. They wanted to re envision what a right to housing looked like, and the grass tops leaders were selling them on extending section eight vouchers or this or that. And they said, no, no, no, we want a radical vision that would actually put an end to the homelessness and housing insecurity crisis here in America. And so they brought me in as the economist on that team and a number of other academic policy experts that helped through a bottom-up policy development approach to flesh out what an actual right to housing looks like. And that’s what this chapter is largely based on. What I focus on in the chapter is two key elements to this policy prescription. The first is rent control. Look, we have rent control for the vast majority of Americans already. It’s called a 30 year mortgage, where we essentially freeze rent payments for 30 years thanks to government policy which created the 30 year mortgage out of whole cloth. Almost no other country has it. The United States did not have it before the New Deal which essentially legislated it into existence. And that has led to the creation of the wealth that exists today for the middle class. It’s a beautiful, brilliant policy, but in creating that we left out rent controls for the other half of Americans who rent. And in turn, what we’ve done is we’ve created a housing market that leaves renters at the whim of landlords. And I think this was on full display during the COVID 19 crisis, where in many cities, landlords were jacking up rent prices by 15-18%, in some cases, 23-24% a year thanks to the market power that they have. And it’s not because they were investing in those apartments and making them better, it was because they simply could. What rent control does is take the fact that both landlords and tenants both have rights to the housing, and it redistributes the bundle of rights that landlords disproportionately currently enjoy, and it says that tenants have a right to stay in their house. And it limits how much landlords can increase the rent on an annual basis. And I argue for an increase in the order of magnitude of three to five percent per year as the absolute cap. Now, that will help many existing tenants stay in their homes today, but what it won’t do is help ensure that we have additional housing options given our lack of affordable housing that exists on the market in the first place. To do that, we need much more comprehensive reform. And I think one of the most crucial areas that we should be investing in today is by building millions of units of social housing. Vienna, Austria is, I think, the key example here where the majority of residents live in publicly owned social housing that serves a diverse set of stakeholders. It’s mixed income housing, high quality housing. Many of these housing units have daycares on the bottom floor, have public swimming pools on their rooftops, and have gorgeous community gardens. I mean, this is not the public housing that we think of here in America. This is truly high quality, beautiful luxuries. Beautiful temples of public luxury. And we can have that here too, if only we will it to be the case. And through building such public housing, what we would do is actually set a real floor in the marketplace for rentals, because if a private landlord wasn’t offering decent housing options, people could simply go to the public housing option and get a nice apartment at affordable rent. And so it would fundamentally rebalance the housing market away from a nexus of profit towards a nexus of home and community.
Billy Saas: Are there any other of the proposals that you feel like are especially, I mean they’re all important, but do any standout to you as maybe… Is there a sequence that you have in mind here for these sorts of rights being afforded? These freedoms being embraced and distributed? Is there an order of operations? Or do we have a sense that we’ll take what we can get when we can get it and figure it out accordingly?
Mark Paul: That’s a great question. I think, later this summer, we will hopefully be having a resolution calling for an Economic Bill of Rights introduced in the US Congress highlighting the fact that you can’t take any one of these things in isolation, that if you actually want to deliver on economic rights, just like if you actually want to deliver on political rights, you can’t just give one piece of the puzzle to voters and say good luck. We really, ideally, want to adopt a package together. That said, sometimes in politics, you do need to prioritize. For me the two rights that really come to the fore are the right to a job, and the right to a clean and healthy environment. And let me briefly explain why. The right to a job would fundamentally restructure the labor market, which is where the vast majority of us earn our paychecks that pay our rent and put food on our table on it on a week to week basis. And by implementing a right to a job, which I argue has three pillars: running the economy hot, permanently expanding the public workforce, and finally the almighty job guarantee to actually eradicate unemployment and poverty level wages once and for all. By implementing such a program, you would fundamentally restructure the power relations of the economy because workers would have a viable exit option. They would actually be able to tell their bosses F-U if they have a shitty boss, an abusive boss, an exploitative boss as, unfortunately, so many people do. And it would provide them with a reasonable fallback position where they can get a well paying job working for the government and contributing to improving society, to making us all better off. That fundamental restructuring of the power relationship between employees and employers will have massive ripple effects throughout the economy. It will just fundamentally shift the dynamics of capitalism in crucial ways that I think are frequently under-appreciated when we’re talking about the Job Guarantee program. The second area is addressing the climate crisis. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with this crisis in the here and now. It simply cannot wait. Look, nobody has economic security on a burning planet. And if we don’t start investing in ensuring a clean and healthy environment for current and future generations, then most of the conversation we’re having here is rather moot. So given the absolute necessity of the moment, I think that we need to do everything we can to pivot our economic activities away from extraction and fossil fuel consumption and towards a truly sustainable future that all of the evidence shows is both eminently reasonable, affordable, and is completely achievable. It’s simply political hurdles that stand in the way, it’s really how we can neutralize the power of fossil capital in order to reorganize economic activity away from the current, dirty polluted state that we live in, and towards one of green abundance.
Scott Ferguson: Education is often thought of as being a kind of magical lever for class mobility, and we sort of reify it and extract it from the rest of our policy horizon and our policy imagination, but importantly, for you, you’re putting a right to education, right in the heart of your economic bill of positive rights. And I’d like to hear you talk about the way you conceive of education within this, let’s say, menu of policies?
Mark Paul: Yeah, that’s a great question. The reason I prioritize the right to an education is kind of multifaceted. So in the economic realm, we often talk about how education provides people with more opportunities, and also how education has a high return on investment, and both pays off for the individual through higher future earnings. But it also pays off collectively: a more educated population means that we have a higher GDP across the board and higher living standards for the entire country. So in econ speak, there’s positive externalities from a person obtaining a higher education degree, so to say. And we frequently thought of education as a silver bullet, and really sold education to people as the key way for them to advance themselves. Well, there is one thing that education will guarantee you in America, and that is debt. That’s not because it needs to be the case, it’s because we’ve made it the case. But before I get into the debt question, let me just say, there’s a second argument for education. And sometimes I’m slightly uncomfortable with the first, though I do make it myself. And it’s because the point of an education isn’t just for economic advancement. It’s not just for money. The point of an education is also to be a fuller human, to lead a more enlightened, informed, and interested life. I mean, often that pursuit of knowledge does not come from the pursuit of money, but it comes from the pursuit of passion and interest. We are a deeply inquisitive species. And I think recognizing that there are huge benefits to us, as individuals and society from promoting education from a social standpoint is really sometimes undervalued and thought of second to the economic benefits. And I think that’s a mistake. I really do, and particularly when it comes to democracy. Why is our democracy under threat? In part, it’s because we do have a bit of an education problem, and a kind of political literacy problem. Will education solve all of these issues? Of course not. But do I think that reinvesting in our education system can help improve the very functioning of our democracy? Absolutely. And I think that that’s something that we need to think much more deeply about. So, given these multiple benefits to education, I prioritize the right to an education in the book and talk about how we can and must expand it. And right now it’s the right in the books that actually people are most familiar with. We have a right to K to 12 education enshrined in most state constitutions. But what’s fascinating here is that we didn’t always have the right say to high school. Indeed, in the early 20th century, the high school movement, a grassroots movement that pushed to expand the Right to Education passed primary school, was able to successfully get the right to high school for the American people that we so enjoy here today. And what’s funny about it is that the arguments made against free college were essentially the exact same arguments made hook line and sinker against free high school, 100-110 years ago: it’s too expensive, it’ll disproportionately benefit the rich, because the rich are the ones who are getting high school degrees in the first place. Why were the rich getting high school degrees then? And why are the rich getting college degrees now? It’s because they have access to them. Once you open it up to the masses, you see that low income people go for these degrees just as frequently as high income people do. It’s the fact that education is serving as a barrier in the first place. And by making it a right, we tear down that barrier. And so I think if we want people to be truly free, if we want them to have the opportunities truly available to them, I think that we need to provide them with a high quality education for them to think about what does it mean to be free in the first place? And for them to think about what is the life that they want to lead? What do they want to do with their life, with their time? I mean, time: we talked about valuable resources, we’re often talking about money, but really time is the most valuable resource we have. And I think an education allows people to think about how to spend their time and to what ends. Now one thing I do want to add here, is I don’t necessarily think college is the right path for everybody. I think it should be available to everybody. But by no means do I think that a college degree, a four year degree should be a prerequisite for a high quality life. And one other thing that I don’t discuss enough in the book is the role of things like trade schools and other avenues that we also need to invest much more in today. And it’s not only about investing in those avenues, things like trade schools, but it’s also changing the ethos around them. Today, we have, I think, a stigma to a degree around the trades and really prioritizing four year bachelor’s degrees. And I think that’s a little bit of a mistake. I think that, yes, college can and should be open to all, but I also think that we should recognize that not everybody needs to go to college, and that college should not be a prerequisite for leading a high quality life.
Billy Saas: And there are a lot of problems with colleges that would surely be solved or could be solved as we’re dealing with this question of education and a freer, more democratic democracy here in the United States. You talked about education as a path to greater political literacy, which we definitely need. And I think one of the interesting things about being in the heterodox wing of political economy is the kind of stark realization that financial literacy is actually at the same time as important, I believe, right. And this relates to chapter 10. “How do we pay for it?” I’m not talking about financial literacy in terms of balancing your checkbook. I’m talking about financial literacy in terms of what is money, how does it work? Where does it come from, and that sort of thing? So let’s go back to that dimly lit DC bar where we’re at a table with five, Democrat Hill staffers have ordered, like a fifth round. They’re really into what you’re saying. And they say this all sounds really great, Dr. Paul, but how are we going to pay for it? First of all, do you expect that that will be the question? There’s been a lot of gains, I think, in kind of making that question itself questionable. Certainly, still prevails, I think, in policy circles, or in policy discussions, at least on the macro level. But in this scene, in this ideal scenario, where you’re talking to your ideal audience, A.) do you anticipate bumping into that question and B.) to kind of close out our conversation of your book, as you do close out the book. What’s the answer?
Mark Paul: So, yes, I do anticipate the question. I think that we have made huge advances, often thanks to the work of Modern Monetary Theorists in really advancing the conversation around debt and deficits and the like. But I think as the recent debt ceiling fight that played out in Washington demonstrates, people still care a tremendous amount about debt, they still misunderstand debt to a huge degree. They still are going to bring this up at every single turn. And so we need to talk about the trillion dollar question. But when we do it, we need to break it up into two questions. When we ask how are you going to pay for it? You’re really asking two questions. The first question is where will the money come from, the dollars and cents. And the second question, and I contend the more complicated question that deserves far more attention, is where will the real resources come from? In the case of Medicare For All, where are the MRI machines, and the anesthesiologist and then nurses and the hospital staff going to actually come from? And that is the question that I think we need to be paying far more attention to today. The dollars and cents is the easy part. Let me briefly explain why. First of all, there is a tremendous amount of space for us to increase our national debt. As John Maynard Keynes famously said, anything we can actually do we can afford. Now, the first half of that question, anything we can actually do gets to my second question, that where will the real resources come from. If we can do it, we can indeed afford it. So, part one, let’s increase the national debt, and let’s do so substantially. There’s plenty of economic headroom to do so. Particularly when we’re investing in the American people themselves. Things like education, housing, health care, these all are investments that pay enduring benefits. That’s very different from, say, straight, upward redistribution that, for example, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) undertook, which is a very different type of growing the national debt that doesn’t necessarily pay enduring benefits for years to come. In fact, I would argue that it makes us all worse off. The second thing is, I do think that we’re going to need broad based taxation, and I use the example of Medicare For All as one example. So I have a good job, I am a tenure track professor at a major public university. Yet here, I pay $830 a month for my health insurance. And it doesn’t even count my co-pays or deductibles. Now, under a Medicare For All type program, if I were to have to pay $500 a month more in taxes, and then have access to Medicare for All, I would normally have better insurance and one insurance for the rest of my life, I’ll add. I actually counted it up the other day, I’ve changed insurances 13 times since I’ve been an adult. But I would actually be saving money, I wouldn’t have to pay $830 a month to my insurance company any longer. Yes, my tax bill would go up a little bit. But in fact, I’d have more money in my pocket at the end of the day, and superior health insurance. So I think we need to move away from thinking of taxes exclusively as toxic and to embrace a different language that really demonstrates to the American people that there are two sides of the equation. There’s public taxation, and then there’s also public benefits that exist. And I think that’s really undervalued. The third area that we could ensure that this is fully financed is particularly high taxes on the wealthy. Now, I want to talk about this in two different ways. First of all, taxes on the rich would create additional economic space if we needed it, if the economy was running at full capacity and needed more space. But also I think that taxes on the rich have the additional very important benefit of being what economists call, and I’m going to get a little wonky here, Pigovian taxes. Pigovian taxes are taxes on social harms; often that’s thought of as taxes on pollution, taxes on cigarettes or alcohol. Well, guess what? The rich are a social harm, too. And so when we talk about taxing the rich, it’s not only to create more economic space, but it’s also about controlling the undue economic and political power that they have thanks to the wealth that they’ve accumulated through the rigged rules of the game. And so I think that is a fundamental aspect. Now, the real resources, that truly is the challenge. In many instances, this is going to take a lot more government planning than exists here today. I think that this is one of the primary challenges that we face that we have, essentially neutered the government for decades, we’ve been defunding the government we’ve been, you know, outsourcing government work to places like McKinsey. And government capacity today doesn’t exist to stand up an incredibly robust state on a dime. And so we need to reinvest in government capacity in order to ensure that, you know, our transition towards a sustainable economy that’s relying on 100% clean and renewable energy or a College For All type program runs smoothly. And I do think that that’s going to take some serious time and attention to accomplish.
Scott Ferguson: Well, Mark Paul, thanks so much for joining us. Everybody should run out and buy your new book, The Ends of Freedom, Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights. And thanks so much for joining us.
Mark Paul: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)