As the country teeters on the brink of total economic collapse, the rumblings of panic and uncertainty grow more audible each day. There is palpable anxiety about what’s going to happen — what our country will look like when faced with another depression.
The specters of the Great Depression should haunt us right now as we ponder what’s to come. In the past eight years we’ve seen so many crises wielded to push through vast changes, from the war in Iraq to the Paulson bailout plan. As the plummeting Dow Jones index has become the chief metaphor through which we understand changes in our economy, we’re faced with the danger that concern with the market will become the crucial site of political action, limiting more progressive possibilities.
We need to stay sharply attuned to the problems facing working people right now, and what got us into this mess: years of stagnant wages, mounting health care costs, lack of access to health care and the many other rising costs of living from housing to energy. Bailing out institutions that took risks with other people’s assets won’t do anything to address those problems.
We need to pursue solutions through various channels to concretely effect change. Major federal policy changes are necessary to redress what’s been done to working people over the past thirty years by corporations and the weakening of the social safety net. We need new labor laws like the Employee Free Choice Act and swift passage of universal health care legislation.
But our politics at a moment of crisis must not be limited to the domain of the nation-state as we look for a way out of the new depression. The scope of the crisis can make it seem to us that the only entity big enough to tackle it is the federal government, but the history of the Great Depression signals that it was not only the federal government that brought us into better economic times. We need to support workers looking to win better wages and benefits from their employers, and not let “hard times” be an excuse for exploitation. Rebuilding the economic base of the working class took years during the Great Depression and it will take years again. Quick fixes are not in store.
We need creative local and regional solutions that can have far-reaching impacts on working people. In Connecticut, the state government has repeatedly given short shrift to cities like ours, with devastating economic impacts. We need to build political power for working families in the state legislature and, in 2010, elect a new governor as well.
We also need our city government to step up and address the effects of this crisis. There are signs that it is beginning to do so, which is heartening. Ultimately, however, our city is limited by its small tax base – a result of the huge amount of non-taxable property taken up by non-profit universities and hospitals in New Haven, particularly Yale and its teaching hospital, Yale-New Haven.
That brings us to the other area of political action Yale students in particular need to consider: our university. As the largest employer in New Haven and the primary economic engine of south central Connecticut, Yale has a huge impact on where we live. Moreover, it sits on the second-largest university endowment in the country.
So far the conversations about dealing with the financial crisis at Yale seem to have been limited to conversations within the Yale Corporation (which the News reported on last week) about curtailing some new construction. Surely we can ask Yale to take on more responsibilities amidst an economic collapse? Yale has benefited tremendously from public policies that have allowed it (like much of Wall Street) to profit off of risky investment practices. And it has remained tax-free for years despite tremendous wealth.
Moreover, Yale is far more financially secure now than it was during the Great Depression, when it built 10 residential colleges. There are numerous possibilities the University could pursue to make the coming depression hurt less for families in New Haven and throughout the region, including but by no means limited to substantially increasing its voluntary contribution in lieu of taxes to the city from its current $4 million. Yale can’t do everything, but it must do its part.
Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.