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'Amazon economy' gives the left a mandate for bold economic reform

'Amazon economy' gives the left a mandate for bold economic reform
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This week expect to see political pundits once again coalesce, based on a superficial reading of the electorate, around the narrative that the election results are a mandate for center-rightism, a cautionary tale against progressive aspirations for a dramatic reshaping of our market-based political economy.

That is a misreading of the public’s real appetite for government interventions that would make the economy more fair, reparative and sustainable, especially in the wake of the economic damage caused by COVID-19, according to a poll conducted by The Democracy Collaborative and YouGov in October. As communications director for The Democracy Collaborative, I helped design this poll. 

The poll reveals a strong mandate for government policy actions designed to ensure that the economy that emerges from the pandemic empowers workers and communities, strengthens small businesses and curbs the power of big corporations and moves rapidly toward renewable energy. 

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One key theme of the poll results is resistance to the emergence of an “Amazon economy” monopolized by corporate behemoths and to top-down approaches to rebuilding the economy in which the benefits of tax and other breaks to large businesses are supposed to trickle down to smaller businesses and communities — but often don’t

Instead, 70 percent of poll respondents agreed that the government should be helping keep small business from shuttering instead of being acquired by big businesses. Also, 67 percent would support government's help in rebuilding community-based businesses. As the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be driving the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) for the foreseeable future, 72 percent would support a program to foster the creation or growth of small businesses to provide these essentials instead of buying them from overseas companies or large corporations.

One specific proposal now being considered by some local elected officials and by some members of Congress involves the creation of “local economy preservation funds” designed to prevent locally owned businesses from being killed off or swallowed up by corporate giants like Amazon. In our poll, over half of people would support such a fund administered at the local level and at the state level. A narrower majority supports this at the federal level, with the opposition overwhelmingly and predictably concentrated among those who call themselves “conservative” or “very conservative.”

These funds could be structured in various ways, but the essential idea is that these funds, which could be municipal, state or federal, would use public dollars to buy ownership stakes in small businesses and hold those stakes until the economy improves. It’s not a novel idea; the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which was created by the federal government during the Great Depression, was often an active rather than passive investor, representing broad public and worker interests in the companies in which it held stakes. That is in contrast to the way the federal government took ownership shares in failing financial institutions and General Motors during the 2008 financial crash, in which the government purchased equity to facilitate corporate bailouts but did not use its equity position to influence corporate behavior. 

In terms of how local business support should be targeted, 76 percent would support prioritizing businesses owned by their employees, 74 percent those owned by community members and 64 percent by people of color. However, only 23 percent would support top-down economic development approaches that would prioritize large corporations and private equity.

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Community “anchor” institutions — large entities such as hospitals and universities that are, unlike large companies, more securely anchored to the communities they serve — also have a role that a majority of our poll respondents want to see them fill. In the poll, 47 percent said anchor institutions should buy as much as possible from local businesses even if it cost a little more, so that money stays in the community and recirculates; 35 percent disagreed.

Our poll also reveals several ways the electorate would support an expansion of government at either the national or local level to address specific everyday concerns. For example, 65 percent agreed that federal funding should be allocated for a government agency — not private companies — to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and make it available to everyone at a low cost. Reacting to the digital divide exposed by the shift to working and schooling at home, 71 percent would support “a public option for high-speed broadband internet that would replace or compete with corporate-owned broadband or cable companies to help guarantee affordable internet access.” Also, 55 percent agreed that the government bares the responsibility of creating and providing affordable housing. 

Overall, 59 percent of poll respondents said since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic they were more willing “to support government provision of basic services like health care, housing, utilities, and internet” rather than leaving these services exclusively to the private sector.

Results like this should encourage progressive lawmakers to think boldly and creatively about how to go beyond simply patching the breaks in our current economy to actually remaking the economy in a way that meets the needs and aspirations of everyday people. Even if there are political roadblocks at the federal level — there was plenty of evidence of leeriness of federal power in our survey — many states and localities already have considerable license to create new models for economic growth that build broad-based community wealth rather than concentrated power and give people real power. 

When elected officials in the coming months hear the siren song of centrism, which calls for a cautious reconstruction of the economic status quo, they should feel free to ignore it. There is a new economy to be built, and there are millions upon millions of Americans waiting for leaders to help them build it. 

Isaiah J. Poole is communications director of The Democracy Collaborative. Follow the organization at @DemocracyCollab.