Kamala Harris, the California AG I’d gone into battle with shoulder to shoulder many times.
LONG BEFORE I ever came within a hundred miles of politics, I had been a teacher and a researcher. I had spent years tracking what was happening to America’s middle class, what was happening to working families and families that wanted to be working families.
But now, in a new century and a different time, that great middle class is on the ropes. All across the country, people are worried—worried and angry. They are angry because they bust their tails and their income barely budges. Angry because their budget is stretched to the breaking point by housing and health care. Angry because the cost of sending their kid to day care or college is out of sight. People are angry because trade deals seem to be building jobs and opportunities for workers in other parts of the world, while leaving abandoned factories here at home. Angry because young people are getting destroyed by student loans, working people are deep in debt, and seniors can’t make their Social Security checks cover their basic living expenses. Angry because we can’t even count on the fundamentals—roads, bridges, safe water, reliable power—from our government. Angry because we’re afraid that our children’s chances for a better life won’t be as good as our own. People are angry, and they are right to be angry. Because this hard-won, ruggedly built, infinitely precious democracy of ours has been hijacked. Today this country works great for those at the top. It works great for every corporation rich enough to hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers. It works great for every billionaire who pays taxes at lower rates than the hired help. It works great for everyone with the money to buy favors in Washington. Government works great for them, but for everyone else, this country is no longer working very well. This is the most dangerous kind of corruption. No, it’s not old-school bribery with envelopes full of cash. This much smoother, slicker, and better-dressed form of corruption is perverting our government and making sure that day after day, decision after decision, the rich and powerful are always taken care of. This corruption is turning government into a tool of those who have already gathered wealth and influence. This corruption is hollowing out America’s middle class and tearing down our democracy.
I’m pretty hard-core about this issue. The way I see it, no one in this country should work full-time and still live in poverty—period. But at $ 7.25 an hour, a mom working a forty-hour-a-week minimum-wage job cannot keep herself and her baby above the poverty line.
It had been a couple of years since the bill collectors had called or people had threatened to take away our home. Late at night, I no longer heard the muffled sounds of my mother crying. But it was still tough. There was no extra money, no breathing room. I waited tables and babysat. I picked up a few dollars sewing and ironing, although nothing regular. I was sixteen—sixteen and watching the world slip away. This was my last year of high school, and it looked like everyone at Northwest Classen had a future, everyone except me. All my friends were talking about college. They went on nonstop as they compared schools and sororities and possible majors. No one seemed to worry about what it would cost. Me? I didn’t have the money for a college application, much less tuition and books. Some days it seemed like college might as well have been on the moon.
I don’t know what would have happened if Mother hadn’t been able to break our fall with a minimum-wage job at Sears. But I do know that policy decisions about important issues like the minimum wage matter. Those decisions—made in far-off Washington, reached in elegant rooms by confident, well-fed men and women—really matter.
Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage today is lower than it was in 1965—about 24 percent lower. That job at Sears allowed my mother to eke out a living for a family of three; today, a mother working full-time and getting paid the minimum wage cannot afford the rent on the average two-bedroom apartment anywhere in America. In Oklahoma, where I grew up, that mother wouldn’t even come close to providing a poverty-level income for her family. Paying rent, keeping groceries on the table, having a little money left over for school shoes or lunch money—those are all out of reach. Today a mother who tries to break her family’s fall simply can’t grab the same branch that was there for my family.
When I sit in meetings or conferences and listen to people who have investment portfolios and second homes worry about the impact of raising the minimum wage on giant businesses like McDonald’s and Best Buy without a single thought about how the fry cooks or checkout clerks support themselves and their families from week to week, I grind my teeth until my head hurts. When I hear senators make oh-so-clever theoretical economic arguments while ignoring rock-solid data, I want to scream. When President Trump nominates a labor secretary who opposes a living wage and who made his own fortune by squeezing fast-food workers, I get the urge to bang my head on the table. And when I hear my colleagues in Congress express their deep concern for those who have already made it even as they cheerfully dismiss everyone who is busting their rear just to get by, the fury rises in me like a physical force.
The next time you drive into a Walmart parking lot, pause for a second to note that this Walmart—like the more than five thousand other Walmarts across the country—costs taxpayers about $ 1 million in direct subsidies to the employees who don’t earn enough money to pay for an apartment, buy food, or get even the most basic health care for their children. In total, Walmart benefits from more than $ 7 billion in subsidies each year from taxpayers like you. Those “low, low prices” are made possible by low, low wages—and by the taxes you pay to keep those workers alive on their low, low pay.
the big, fixed expenses—have shot through the roof and blown apart the family budget. Adjusted for inflation, families today spend more on transportation, more on housing, and more on health insurance. And for all those families with small children and no one at home during the day, the cost of childcare has doubled, doubled again, and doubled once more.
On average, full-time care for kids under four now costs more than in-state college tuition.
both schools bragged about their debate scholarships. I was a good debater—on my way to the state championship—and I figured that was my chance.
Kai hadn’t known it when she’d started out as a freshman, but the Art Institutes were in trouble. Complaints about fraudulent promises, fake records, and programs that didn’t deliver were piling up. The Justice Department opened an investigation, and by Kai’s third year, her program began falling apart. Faculty and staff members were laid off. The program’s reputation took a nosedive. People said the credential it conferred was useless.
One and a half million people over age twenty-five have college diplomas but no jobs.
forty million people are trying to figure out how to pay off a combined $ 1.4 trillion in student loan debt.
People retiring today at sixty-five need enough money to sustain them for an average of twenty more years.
“Did you hear about the three guys sitting in a bar, having a few beers, when Bill Gates walks in?” I’m always the straight man in these exchanges. “No. So what happened?” “One guy yelled, ‘Woo-hoo! On average, everyone in the bar is now a billionaire!’”
But there were times when President Obama and I parted company, and one of them was in the summer of 2016. He gave a commencement speech in which he talked about the influence of the rich and powerful over government. “Big money in politics is a huge problem,” he admitted. And then he put a happy face on it: “But the system isn’t as rigged as you think.” No, President Obama, the system is as rigged as we think. In fact, it’s worse than most Americans realize. Here’s the truth: we can’t keep gazing happily at the face of cheery economic reports; we’ve got to dive into the reality of what’s happening underneath the surface. Tens of millions of people across the United States understand that this country no longer works for them, and they are angry about it. And unless our government provides real solutions to their problems, their anger will only increase. Donald Trump understood their anger. He connected with people when he channeled that anger during his campaign, but his plans will make the problems faced by working families worse. I am absolutely certain that even his most die-hard supporters will be deeply unhappy with a lot of what President Trump actually does. He likes to talk about forgotten working people, but he opposes raising the minimum wage, plans to propose the largest tax cut in history for the rich, and promises to get rid of the rules that hold Wall Street accountable. That is not populism. That is trickle-down economics on steroids. After vowing to “drain the swamp” and fight for the little guy, Trump turned the keys to our government over to a group of Wall Street insiders, billionaires, and CEOs who have a long history of looking out only for themselves and others just like them. This isn’t the way to strengthen opportunity in America—it’s the way to help the rich to get richer and shove everyone else out of the way.
By the 2000s, the number of major U.S. airlines dropped from nine to four. The four left standing—American, Delta, United, and Southwest—now have over 80 percent of all domestic airline seats in the country. • Two beer companies sell more than 70 percent of all the beer in the United States. • Five giant health insurance companies now own more than 83 percent of the country’s health insurance market. • Three drugstore chains—CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid—now manage 99 percent of all pharmacies in America. • Monsanto holds the patents for about 93 percent of all the soybeans and 80 percent of all the corn planted in the United States each year. • Four large companies now run nearly 85 percent of the U.S. beef market. • Three big companies now produce almost half of all chickens. The list goes on and on and on.
For starters, we should put in place a modern version of Glass-Steagall and separate plain-vanilla banking like checking accounts and savings accounts from crazy risk-taking on Wall Street. This doesn’t have to be partisan. My first cosponsor for a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall bill was the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nominee, Senator John McCain.
the SEC should hire a leader who doesn’t work for Wall Street—and it should get a much bigger budget so that the agency can actually go out and enforce the law.
Let’s also put some steel in the spines of our prosecutors and start enforcing antitrust laws again. Small drugstores and start-up airlines and even innovative new approaches to health insurance should get a chance to try out their ideas. I believe in a government that works for the people—not for the giants in the industry—and that government should promote competition every chance it gets. Concentration is bad for consumers and bad for innovators; worst of all, it puts everyone at risk when things really go south.
When teaching the law, my approach was to use the Socratic method, which means that everyone reads the assigned materials, and the professor, instead of lecturing, asks questions. If it works right, the questions prompt the students to examine the materials more closely and develop tools to understand more difficult materials.
I first tried to put this into words in 2011 when I was thinking about running for the Senate: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody.” My point was that everyone who succeeds gets some help from the investments we’ve all made. And we keep on making those investments so the next kid will get a chance, too. Education, infrastructure, research—investing in all three during the twentieth century built a bright future for our country. And we forged that future together.
as more people joined unions, all workers did better. How much better? According to detailed studies by labor economists, unions raise the wages and benefits of non-union workers by about 28 percent.
The failure to invest in education is trickle-down economics at its ugliest. Cut taxes for those at the top and then pay for part of the resulting gap in federal revenues by forcing kids who need student loans for college to borrow more and more?
the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that overall, the federal government was on track to make about $ 174 billion in profits on its student loan portfolio.
Alzheimer’s disease offers the perfect example of how foolish it is to shortchange investments in research. In 2016 alone, Americans spent $ 236 billion caring for people with Alzheimer’s. That’s $ 236 billion just for care: all that money didn’t delay the advance of the illness by a single day. And we will keep on spending these astronomical sums year after year; in fact, the amount will continue to grow, so much so that by 2050, Alzheimer’s could bankrupt Medicare.
Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, one of my favorite partners in the Senate, was also on the committee. He kept needling me. Every time I would name a number, he’d say, “Hey, this is a big deal. Couldn’t we ask for more?” Al is my kind of guy!
Eight months after he was sworn into office, Ronald Reagan delivered big-time for corporate America. The air traffic controllers called a strike. Because they were public employees, the strike was illegal, but brief, illegal strikes had occurred with some frequency for decades. Besides, as a candidate, Reagan had sought (and won) the endorsement of the air traffic controllers’ union, with the promise that he would improve their terrible working conditions. Now that he was president, Reagan changed his loyalties: he threw a lightning-quick punch at the union. No negotiations or discussions of the problems they faced. Instead, he told the workers they had forty-eight hours to return to their jobs, and when most of them did not, he fired them on the spot and banned them from government service for life. The blow was devastating. The union went bankrupt, and many of the air traffic controllers were personally broken as well.