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Dems’ ‘inflation’ legislation is short on real change that benefits workers

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The Democrats are riding the much celebrated Inflation Reduction Act all the way to the midterms. But scratch below the surface and the law doesn’t live up to the hype.

We hear that the IRA is the best possible compromise that will bring long overdue progress on addressing the climate catastrophe. But if it’s a compromise then only one side won — the corporate elites who rewrote much of the bill after their two Democratic allies stalled it in the Senate.

Workers, on the other hand, will get nothing from this bill and will be worse off if the promised reductions in climate-destroying emissions don’t happen.

We heard about all the good things in the law. The subsidies in the form of corporate, home-energy retrofitting and EV car tax credits are projected to substantially reduce emissions over the next decade or so. But instead of mandating that climate destroying emissions be reduced, it depends on voluntary adoption. Some of the subsidies will pay for dubious and problematic green tech like carbon capture and storage which is used to drill for hard-to-get-at oil and gas. It’s also unclear how the requirement that green tech companies pay prevailing wages will be enforced.

The law also expands offshore drilling, new drilling leases on public lands and fast-tracks new pipelines. If you are wondering how this will save the climate, you are not alone.

There are some good things in the law, including a three-year extension of Obamacare tax credits for some, Medicare control of costs of a few drugs and a stipulation that 150 corporations that pay almost nothing in taxes now will hand over at least 15 percent.

Certainly these are steps in the right direction but they are not nearly enough. What’s worse is that the IRA mostly benefits the corporate elite.

Compare the earlier ambitious Build Back Better Act to the IRA. The $3.5 trillion BBB had universal pre-school, expanded Medicare benefits and Medicaid coverage, funding for affordable housing, extended child tax credits, 12 weeks paid family leave, paid sick leave, free community college, expanded Pell Grants for college, a civilian climate corp, and reduced the price of insulin. These would have disproportionately benefited the working class, and the rich would have paid for it through the restoration of the estate tax and the reinstitution of corporate and capital gains taxes cut by Trump.

The $750 billion IRA has none of this.

The fact is our planet cannot wait for these corporations to decide to spend this money or enough people to buy solar panels and Teslas to get the tax credit. Everyone knows climate catastrophe is getting worse by the day.

The IRA is a classic outcome of the way our political system forces the majority who want change to compromise with the minority that likes things just as they are. We are pressured to “compromise to get things done” by supporting what hardly resembles our original demands. But why does the majority need to compromise with the out-numbered minority in the first place?

The reason is the Framers designed the Constitution this way in 1787 to give power to their fellow elite minority. As I show in my new book, “We the Elite: Why the U.S. Serves the Few,” the Framers’ distrust of democracy led them to design the Constitution to make such change impossible unless it serves elite interests. They installed numerous “checks and balances,” what I call minority checks, that empower the economic minority elites to veto the majority working class. This protects the minority propertied elite from economic democracy that serves the majority.  

These minority checks stack the deck against change unless the elites want it. The problem is not just that big money, the Senate or the Supreme Court block change. The problem is blamed on everything but the Constitution, which was designed to protect property against all efforts to democratize the economy.

We are still living with this virtually unchanged system today. This is why, except in rare instances such as the Civil War and disruptive mass movements, change that serves the working class majority is entirely absent. U.S. history shows that attempting to change the system by using the rules of the system designed to prevent such change is a dead end.

Another strategy is needed. It’s time to build a workers movement that uses its potential disruptive power to make demands on the shopfloor that cannot be avoided. Getting tied up in the bureaucratic union elections and collective bargaining has delivered us defeat after defeat for half a century.

Continuing to use the normal politics of the constitutional system won’t deliver the urgent change we need. Only the organized disruptive working class has ever extracted concessions at the risk of changing the system altogether.

To get there, we need to change how we think about the Constitution. Rather than a system that makes change possible it’s time to see it as a set of rules designed by propertied elites to prevent change that serves the working class.

Once we do that we can stop playing by their rules and finally change things for the better.

Robert Ovetz, who will be a regular contributor to The Chief, is the author of the forthcoming “We the Elite: How the U.S. Serves the Few” (Pluto, 2022), a working-class view of the U.S. Constitution. This is his first column. 

Ovetz is an untenured senior lecturer in the Political Science Department at San Jose State University, where he teaches courses on U.S. and global politics, labor, nonprofits and organizing. His first two books were about the U.S. and global labor movements. 

He is a lifetime organizer who attempted to start two unions as a college student in Texas. Until recently he chaired his union’s local chapter organizing committee and trained stewards (called reps) during the local’s last contract campaign. He also does worker organizing trainings, most recently during June’s Labor Notes conference in Chicago.

His column will focus on worker organizing, understanding why we keep losing, and what we can and are doing to turn it around. He welcomes feedback, thoughts and column ideas at rfovetz@riseup.net.

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