How Bernie Sanders can hammer Hillary Clinton on the Democrats' top issue
Clinton's family policy is good. Sanders' can be much better.
Over the past year or so, the Democratic Party has begun settling on a big new policy goal: beefing up family support programs. Now that ObamaCare has started the work of making health care available for all, support for children and parents is the major remaining hole in the U.S. safety net.
Though she has not yet released a formal proposal, Hillary Clinton has made family policy a centerpiece of her campaign, consistently positioning herself as a pro-family candidate. She focused sharply on the subject during her recent policy address, touting the benefits of sick leave and maternity leave, and the economic benefits of women in the workforce.
Bernie Sanders, her strongest challenger in the Democratic primary, can do her one better, however. In keeping with his blunt, forthright campaign, he can challenge Clinton where her orthodoxy makes her policy weaker — in particular, her mindless valorization of work.
As I said, we don't know exactly what Clinton will advocate yet, but it's likely that her campaign will roughly follow the proposals coming out of the Center for American Progress (closely tied to both Clinton and the Democratic Party). In a recent paper, CAP analysts Heather Boushey and Alexandra Mitukiewicz outlined a maternity leave policy taken from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's FAMILY Act. It would create a new branch of the Social Security Administration and a small payroll tax increase to provide up to 60 days of paid family leave for parents.
A second plank of the policy is likely to be some kind of sick leave mandate in line with the proposed Healthy Families Act, which would require employers with more than 15 employees to provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum requirement of seven full days per year. (Employers can always go higher if they want, of course!)
A third plank is likely to be some sort of quasi-universal pre-K program in line with Sen. Bob Casey's recent proposal.
All this is a good start, particularly in the design of the family leave program. Paid family leave should definitely be a social insurance benefit rather than an employer mandate. As Matt Yglesias explains, opting for the latter design (which resembles what the U.S. did with health insurance before ObamaCare) inevitably leaves out a great many workers, and then becomes nearly impossible to overhaul. It's critical to get the initial policy right, so further expansions are built on a sound foundation.
Sanders can provide three valuable additions (on top of what he's already proposed). First, he can simply aim higher. Sixty days of family leave isn't bad compared to the current zero, but it's pitiful compared to Sweden's 480 days (split between both parents, mostly as they like). America can easily afford 120 days or more, and Sanders ought to be planting his flag in aggressive territory. Instead of seven days of sick leave, 14. Instead of the smallbore pre-K program, a robust and fully universal one.
Second, he can add a universal child allowance. This can be achieved by folding all the various bizarre child tax credits and so forth into a single monthly allowance, distributed on a per-child basis until age 16. By scrapping parts of the welfare state that only benefit rich people, such as the mortgage interest deduction, it can be strengthened further. A $300 per month allowance, for example, would cut child poverty in half at a stroke.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sanders can challenge Clinton's overall framework. Though she explicitly disavowed Jeb Bush's idea that Americans simply need to work more, she consistently valorized work throughout her recent address. She presented family programs as a way to keep women in the labor force, so as to produce more growth and economic output. She generally presented work, which appeared 57 times in the speech, as a major good in itself.
But while more jobs are surely a good goal in the short term, there are reasons to think that Americans actually work way too much. Matt Bruenig recently came up with a clever way to visualize this. As nations become richer, they generally choose to work less, since they can produce more with the same amount of work. In other words, most nations take some of the fruits of productivity growth in the form of leisure — but the U.S. has not.
Since 1970, America's GDP produced per hour has doubled, but we have cut average hours worked by only 6 percent. Compared to peer nations on the economic productivity ladder (like France, which cut its hours by 26 percent over that period), America does more unnecessary work than any other nation on Earth.
Just as Sanders challenged the primacy of economic growth, when all income gains are immediately sucked up by the 1 percent, he could challenge the idea of work as always and everywhere good.
This raises a deep question: What is the economy for? Not, one would hope, simply ratcheting up total GDP to make the number go higher. It turns out America is a very rich nation still flogging itself to work like a middle-income one. We can easily afford a great many more days off — all we need to do is make that choice.