Thursday, June 20, 2024

Mark Paul, author of “The Ends of Freedom.” (Photo: Rutgers)

Rutgers economist Mark Paul always thinks before he speaks, and when he shares his ideas, they are worth listening to. Listeners includes staff at several Congressional offices, according to his bio, and his publicist names names: U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker and U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman. Paul’s first book, “The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights,” describes his vision of an economic bill of rights, including rights to work, housing, education, health care, a basic income and a healthy environment. The idea is increasingly popular and has a historical basis. We spoke with him May 13, the day of his stop at Medford City Hall and not long before he took part in a Boston Review symposium at Harvard University; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What inspired you to write?

“The Ends of Freedom” really digs into the failures of our current economic system and how and why it’s missing the mark in terms of providing meaningful freedom to Americans – it doesn’t live up to Thomas Jefferson’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While many of us have read countless books about the failures of neoliberalism, what I tried to do is provide a very abbreviated take on that failure and instead spend most of my time providing an affirmative vision of an economy that ensures that everybody has jobs, ensures that people have food on the table and a roof over their head and can access education without being $100,000 in debt.

Do you believe political candidates who propose your policies are electable?

These ideas are thought of as liberal today and tend to be associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party, but we did polling and found robust support for an economic bill of rights. Among Republicans under the age of 45, we found 68 percent support. The primary divide that we see is between elected officials and actual voters; I do believe that most Americans support economic rights, but unfortunately, we have people in Congress who are not properly representing their constituencies. We’re going to need real political change if we’re ever going to win.

If politicians gathered to write an economic bill of rights, how would they avoid gridlock?

We need to start showing what a more active government can do. People are seeing this today with the Defense Production Act, where President Joe Biden passed a fairly sweeping climate bill that will bring real, meaningful benefits to most American people in the here and now. That’s the type of policy that starts to build momentum. We’ve had President Barack Obama pass the Affordable Care Act as his signature bill. Like Medicare, which is essentially universal health care for the elderly, the intent behind the program was full universal coverage for all Americans. One easy way to move toward that goal is by extending it to children, ensuring that all children have access to high-quality care in the United States. Who can be against giving health care to kids, given that raising children in the United States is already incredibly challenging and expensive? It would be a great place to start to build political support for these types of programs.

Are Americans aware enough of different economic and political systems?

I don’t, and that’s one of the reasons I set out to write this book. There’s a lot of current assumptions around what’s feasible and what is possible. A lot of people, for instance, support Medicare for all but incorrectly think it’s unaffordable or not feasible. One thing that I really set out to do in “The Ends of Freedom” is to highlight the fact that not only are these economic programs economically feasible, but to talk about the historic precedent for each. Medicare for All, for example, was the original intent of Medicare passed under President Lyndon Johnson. Covering higher education was the original intent of the Morrill Act, which created land grant institutions that continue to serve the nation – I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Massachusetts land grant school – and were to provide education for free to the American people. These aren’t radical visions that we need to look to other countries for; in many instances, the vision I’m trying to put forth in the book is just an extension of the long fight for freedom here in America.

Are there successful examples of health care, education or jobs being provided in other countries?

A lot of other countries already have policies similar to the ones that I’ve put forth in the book. In Finland, homelessness essentially does not exist, while in the United States around 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness each year. That is a travesty in the richest country in the world. Finland shows us that the government can indeed simply provide housing to homeless people and insecure individuals, and that simply ending homelessness is a policy choice.

How will employment have to change to ensure the right to work?

I propose a three-pronged approach: running the economy harder and hotter; expanding public employment to provide better services and ensure we have teachers and school aides providing things like universal pre-K across the nation; and a federal job guarantee program. People want to contribute meaningfully to our society, and we should ensure they have a path to do so, and that they’re paid a decent wage. For the millions of Americans in workplaces with bosses who are abusive or just downright mean, they would actually have an exit option: They can leave the workplace and go take a job with the government. This would fundamentally change the balance of power in the workplace today and really help give workers a leg to stand on.

How would you ensure each job was relevant and necessary?

I’ve written a number of papers on the idea of a job guarantee. It’s a complex program, but it’s one we’ve done on multiple occasions throughout U.S. history. Most people have heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration – both direct-employment programs that were part of the original New Deal and wildly successful. If you go to our national parks today, you’re still going to benefit from the historic improvements those programs put forth. Not to mention the thousands of schools they built. To ensure these programs create meaningful things, a large degree of the work would be voted on by the communities they serve: what improvements they want to see in their towns, whether that’s new parks, an improved existing infrastructure or something else.

What authors inspired “The Ends of Freedom”?

“This Life,” which came out a couple of years ago, by Martin Hägglund, a philosopher at Yale University, is a beautiful portrayal of our free time as the most meaningful measure of freedom. Free time allows us to do whatever we are inspired by, or have reason to value. The other that was really meaningful for me was the work of T.H. Green, a philosopher. He wrote extensively on the idea of freedom and in particular, the notion that to be free, people need their basic economic needs met. Only then can they actually partake in the democratic process. Only then can they actually engage in community life.

What do you hope readers come away?

A renewed interest in expanding public services and generating an economy of the people, for the people, by the people. I think people are really looking for what comes after neoliberalism. And I don’t think there’s a firm idea that people have coalesced around. I’m excited for people to dig in and contend with the arguments and policies that I put forth. I hope they realize that we have it in our means to make an economy that really serves the people rather than having an economy that people are, for lack of a better term, enslaved to. I’m really excited for this book to be out in the world.