Racing to the Bottom

Earlier this week, I was at a Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Ferndale, where I said that worrying about a Green Party candidate “spoiling” the election for a Democratic Party candidate is exactly equivalent to justifying the economic race to the bottom that everyone in the room opposes. Perhaps I can explain that a little better here than I did at the meeting.

A race to the bottom is a situation characterized by a progressive deterioration of standards. It’s most often used to describe the effects of “free trade” policies which give advantages to businesses located in countries with the lowest wage, worker safety and environmental standards. That’s what has been happening to the USA since the 1980s, and arguably, even before Reagan became President.

Donald and Hillary

Products made in these countries are obviously cheaper to make than in the USA. One result is that pressure is put on workers and governments to lower their standards in these areas “so the businesses can compete and the workers can keep their jobs.”

If standards are not lowered enough to satisfy management, then the productions is often moved to these other countries. Whether American jobs are lost or American standards are lowered (or both), it’s still a race to the bottom.

It’s a political issue as well as an economic one. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that political ideologies and political policies have allowed and to some extent created the economic race to the bottom. There are numerous markers which illustrate the political race to the bottom.

At one time, within living memory for those of us who were around and paying attention, single-payer universal health care was part of the platform of the Democratic Party. More recently, just after Obama was elected and Democrats had control of both the House and the Senate, the negotiations for Obamacare started with Obama declaring single-payer “off the table.” Long before then, it had disappeared from their platform.

Bill Clinton’s major reform of the welfare system has resulted in today’s situation, where we have some 15-16 million children (roughly 21% of all school-age children) living in poverty and less than 3 million getting assistance from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. It’s saving money for the government in the same way that switching to the Flint River for a municipal water source was saving money for the government.

Richard Nixon’s administration founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In more recent decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have limited funding for it and crippled its ability to actually protect our environment.

It’s not just a matter of what the EPA can do. In 1992, when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were around 355 parts per million. The treaty was rejected by the US Senate. Today, carbon dioxide levels are over 400 parts per million. This is not entirely the fault of the US government, but it is clear that reducing emissions is still not a priority item in mainstream parties’ 2016 campaigns.

We could go on with a huge list of other markers – decades of declining real wages; economic recovery for the top (pick your favorite small percentage) with no recovery for the large majority; wave after wave of foreclosures and water shutoffs; multiple instances of police shooting down unarmed people with minimal prosecution and almost no convictions for the officers involved; and so on.

How did we get into such a sorry state? I don’t have all the answers, but I do understand at least one essential element of the process. Many of the people who oppose all of the above instances of deteriorating standards are convinced that the only practical possibility is supporting the least worst of the candidates running within the two-party system. This attitude of supporting the lesser evil of two mainstream candidates (instead of simply opposing both the lesser and the greater evil) allows and enables the political race to the bottom.

It’s a short-term strategy that only seems to make sense when you look at the immediate results of this year’s election, and no further. When you look at where decade after decade of this strategy has gotten us, you can see the long-term consequences are what they are – more wars, more corruption, less democracy, lots of “national security” and no right for ordinary people to be secure in their person, their job or their home.

The strategy of outright opposing the two-party system is not an easy one. However, it’s the only one that could possibly be successful in the long run. Support the least worst of the two main candidates has gotten us where we are, and it will keep us here – incrementally lower – as long as we keep doing it. It’s really not a difficult thing to understand.

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