The next US presidential race looks set to be as unedifying a spectacle as ever. What would a truly progressive election platform look like? In Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America, frequent Truthout contributor Salvatore Babones outlines 16 core principles for a more hopeful vision of the United States. Order the book now from Truthout by clicking here!
Professional sociologist, social statistician, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and long-time Truthout contributor Salvatore Babones talked with Truthout content relations editor Leslie Thatcher* about his just released book Sixteen for ’16; A Progressive Agenda for a Better America, the significance of social science in formulating social and economic policy and the urgent need for new and different policies in the United States for everything from employment to education to health care and more.
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Salvatore, you note in the preface that your previous books have titles like “Methods for Quantitative Macro-Comparative Research” and “Latent Variables and Factor Analysis.” What motivated you to completely change register?
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Salvatore Babones: There are many social policy questions that are very difficult to answer statistically. For example, what is the best way to eliminate the pay gap between women and men? That’s a tough one. I think it’s reasonable that society has a difficult time answering difficult questions like that. But I get frustrated when I see society giving the wrong answers to easy questions. For example, one of today’s answers to failing schools in minority neighborhoods is to sell them to private companies (Chapter 3). These “education management organizations” usually do nothing but teach to the (standardized) test, but they still get worse test scores than public schools. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to see that something is wrong with that answer.
You describe yourself as “one of the most conservative people on the planet” on a personal level. So how does that qualify you for creating a progressive agenda?
I am definitely a very conservative person, conservative with a little “c.” I like certainty and reliability. I don’t like to take chances in my personal life and I don’t believe in taking chances with social policy. When I endorse a policy like extending Medicare to everyone (Chapter 4), it’s because there is no scientific doubt that the policy would benefit just about every American who is not a Washington lobbyist or the CEO of an insurance company. Many other progressive ideas are very radical, for example the idea that the government should give every person a minimum guaranteed income. I have nothing against policies like this, but they’re not scientifically conservative: we don’t have enough data to know for sure that they will work. I’m more interested in progressive policies that are no-brainers, like requiring that all employers give their workers paid sick days (Chapter 10).
“Sound government based on established social science” is one objectives enunciated in the book: Could you describe how you make the social science underpinning the sixteen policies accessible for readers?
In Sixteen for ’16, I focus on sixteen progressive social policies that are so obvious that it doesn’t take a lot of advanced statistics to show that they’re right. These policies are politically difficult, but scientifically easy. For example, we need stronger regulation of Wall Street banks (Chapter 7). Even Alan Greenspan admits that we need stronger regulation of Wall Street banks. They only people who argue against stronger regulation of Wall Street banks are … Wall Street banks (and the lobbyists, think tanks, and business schools funded by Wall Street banks).
Does the book’s organization reflect what you consider the priority of the policies, their palatability to a wide audience or some other principle?
Sixteen for ’16 starts with the most pressing, immediate issues facing the country and ends with big problems that make us think deeply about who we are as a nation. The number one most important thing America needs right now is more jobs (Chapter 1) and one way to get more jobs is by investing in infrastructure (Chapter 2). Six years after the “end” of the last recession, too many people are still out of work and the next recession is likely to be right around the corner. In the long run, we have to learn to be a more caring society (Chapter 15) and to stop global warming (Chapter 16). Saving the Earth will require big changes to the way we live, but it has to be done.
Is there one policy you would consider a lynchpin, without which the others cannot be enacted?
No, but there is one policy that will make all the others easier to enact: job creation (Chapter 1). When people have good jobs, they have the security to push for better social policies and better lives. The women’s movement, the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement were most active in the 1960s when America was at full employment. The powerful use the threat of unemployment as a way to stop people from demanding progress. We have to move away from a being a society where people “thank” employers for “giving” them jobs to being a society where people believe that they deserve jobs and that both they and their employers have a responsibility to make life better for everyone. The only way to do that is for government to help create more jobs – a lot more jobs.
What question(s) have I failed to ask about the book or the policies it advocates that you feel our readers would want answered?
Perhaps the most important question left unasked is “Why now?” Obviously Sixteen for ’16 was chosen as a clever title to tie into the 2016 elections. But the timing means more than that. The United States has had so little progress for so long that we have started to slip backward. Consider access to abortion (Chapter 12). Who in the 1970s could have imagined that in the 2010’s many American women would be effectively denied access to abortion? After the passage of the Voting Rights Act who would have thought that US states would someday return to suppressing the minority vote (Chapter 13)? After the end of the Vietnam War who would have thought that the United States would once again spy on its own citizens (Chapter 14)?
In the 1970s, conservatives put an end to 200 years of continuous progress toward a better America. For a while things hung in the balance. Progressives won on some issues and lost on others. But for the last twenty years both major parties have pursued a conservative agenda. Progress was always hard work, but we are now losing many of the hard-won gains of the past. Another conservative President – of either party – will bury us so deep that there will be no digging out again. The 2016 election is a do-or-die challenge for the progressive movement. We need Presidential candidates who will take up the kinds of policies laid out in this book and relentlessly push them forward. I wrote Sixteen for ’16 now because now is the time for the progressive movement to win. We have to win.
*Editors’ note: Babones will donate all royalties received from Sixteen for 16 to Truthout. The book is also dedicated to our content relations editor, Leslie Thatcher.