A New Economic Bill Of Rights To Create National Happiness

If we’re going to remake our economy to increase well-being for all people, we would do well to include these 10 new tenets of economic freedom.

A New Economic Bill Of Rights To Create National Happiness

Addressing a nation at war and still recovering from the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt stated the economic goals of his administration and the New Deal on January 11, 1944:


“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people–whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth–is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights–among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

“As our nation has grown in size and stature, however–as our industrial economy expanded–these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness .

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

“In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all–regardless of station, race, or creed.

“Among these [rights] are:
• The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
• The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
• The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
• The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
• The right of every family to a decent home;
• The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to
achieve and enjoy good health;
• The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
• The right to a good education.


“All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being (emphases ours).”

Roosevelt spoke of a standard of living higher than ever before. Of course, 1944 was an earlier time, when greater access to material things was essential for many millions of Americans. Roosevelt did not include “The right to a clean, safe, and accessible natural environment.” We have every reason to believe he would if speaking today. And that he might have spoken of a “quality of life higher than ever before.” But in the end, he spoke, as Jefferson had, of “happiness” and well-being. He did not suggest that our goal was growth or a higher GDP. He said they were new goals of “human happiness and well-being.”

These are still the right goals, the goals we should be striving for today and tomorrow. To achieve them, we suggest a holistic pattern of policy changes. They are not exhaustive. But we think it’s necessary to propose some first steps in an effort to rethink our economy so it can give all of us what we need in this new era.

You might think of our ideas as an economy of life, liberty, and happiness. Some of what follows includes the very ideas our founding fathers and Roosevelt spoke of, unfinished business that–after massive increases in our national wealth–remains to be completed. But some of them are new and could not have been imagined earlier in our history. So here we go:

1: Give us time

  • Mandate three weeks of paid vacation time for every working American, prorate for part-timers.
  • Implement work-sharing systems, such as Kurzarbeit, to reduce unemployment without increasing working hours.
  • Require hourly pay parity and prorated benefits for part time workers, as in Europe.
  • Ensure the right of workers to reduce their hours without losing their jobs, hourly pay, promotion opportunities, or health care, as in the Netherlands. Other benefits would be prorated.
  • Ban compulsory overtime and provide double-time pay for overtime, as in Finland.
  • Make federal holidays mandatory for all workers, or give greater compensation to those who must work on those holidays.
  • Provide tax credits and other incentives to allow small businesses to make these changes without suffering financially.

2: Improve life possibilities from birth

  • Provide prenatal and other care to all parents-to-be.
  • Give six months of mandatory paid parental leave when a child is born, at a minimum of half the current salary levels, to be paid for by government, as in Canada, through small graduated payroll deductions rather than directly by the employer.

3: Build a healthy nation

  • Provide basic single-payer health care for all Americans, with private insurance providing additional coverage, as in Canada.
  • Offer tax incentives for healthy behavior, while raising taxes on unhealthy foods and activities.
  • Carefully shift subsidies to encourage local, organic, and sustainable food production and away from unhealthy food and unsustainable agriculture.
  • Ensure physical education classes for students.
  • Protect children by banning television advertising aimed at those under twelve, as in Sweden and Quebec.

4: Enlarge the middle class

  • Create a more progressive tax structure with fewer loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.
  • Establish a national living wage with variations for cost-of-living in different states and cities.
  • Restore limits on usury. Restrict interest charged on loans to a certain percentage above the rate of inflation.
  • Provide greater government support to reduce the cost of education and make college tuition easily affordable.
  • Give more generous benefits to those losing employment while retaining business flexibility, as in Denmark.
  • Strengthen the Social Security system by ending the income limit for taxation and tax breaks for private pension programs, while increasing benefit levels to the Europe an average.

5: Value natural capital

  • Change accounting rules and economic analysis to bring the value of natural capital into government and corporate investment decisions.
  • Adopt physical sustainability measures to inform decision making for air, water, land, and climate resources.
  • Set aside and restore sufficient natural lands for ecosystem services.
  • Use tools to identify, value, map, and model ecosystem services for land use planning and environmental impact statements, and create regional watershed investment districts to more efficiently invest in restoring natural systems and coordinate investment for potable water, flood protection, storm water, biodiversity, ports, navigation, and other water-related investments.
  • Reestablish the Civilian Conservation Corps to restore natural capital and our environmental commons and provide a portion of public works jobs.

6: Fix taxes and subsidies

  • Increase the marginal income tax rate to 45% for the highest tax bracket.
  • Make work pay by ensuring that money made from money (e.g., capital gains) is taxed at a rate at least as high as that made from employment.
  • Use the tax system to correct market distortions, with new taxes on “bads,” which inflict externalized costs on individuals, communities, or the environment, and by removing taxes on “goods” with positive social benefits.
  • Remove subsidies for consumers and producers of nonrenewable resources and move these subsidies to renewable and nonpolluting or non-climate- changing industries.

7: Strengthen the financial system

  • Reregulate the financial sector (and enforce those regulations).
  • Implement financial and currency transaction taxes to shift money from risky speculation into productive investment.
  • Restore the separation between savings and loans, commercial banks, and investment banks.
  • Break up the largest banks and investment firms to achieve greater competition and provide public savings institutions at the state or local level–a public banking option.

8: Build a new energy infrastructure

  • Ramp up $1 trillion in public and private investments shifting to local, low-carbon, renewable energy and off fossil fuels, funded by a carbon tax.
  • Aggressively promote energy efficiency in policy and low interest financing to improve existing and new infrastructure and products.
  • Utilize lower-grade energy (e.g., cooling steam from a data center to warm green houses or provide district heating).

9: Strengthen community and improve mobility

  • Tax sprawl (which requires the extension of public services) and excessive home sizes, while incentivizing green building, small homes, public transportation, and pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure.
  • Fund a modern railway system and increase the cost of driving autos to pay for it. Deprioritize road construction.
  • Electrify our transportation system with electric buses, trains, and other vehicles.

10: Improve governance

  • Ban corporate campaign contributions through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Limit television advertising in campaigns.
  • Require corporations to include codetermination policies, with at least one third of directors elected by the workers.

Excerpted from What’s The Economy For, Anyway? Copyright © 2012 by John de Graaf and David K. Batker. Published by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing