By Tom Syverson
Photo by Getty
November 13, 2019
In one of the most memorable moments of the first Democratic debate, Marianne Williamson said something about plans. Responding to a question about healthcare, Williamson said, “I’ll tell you one thing. It’s really nice if you have all these plans. But if you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you’ve got another thing coming…we’ve got to get deeper.”
In the second debate, she expressed the sentiment a bit more colorfully: “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
Both moments turned “she has a plan for that” on its head, drawing our attention to the fundamental blind spot of liberal expectations: the naïve idea that politics can be reduced to a straightforward policy debate, and that we can expect the people with the best ideas to prevail.
That stubborn misconception persists, even in the face of contradictory experience, structuring much of the discourse on the left-end of the Democratic primary and dashing our dreams, again and again. Indeed, the gap between the promises and products of democracy has been its crucial paradox for hundreds of years.
Marianne Williamson’s campaign can be understood as a progressive attempt to come to terms with this paradox, making a case for a new way of doing left politics, one less motivated by policy particulars and instead conditioned on collective emotion, moral leadership, and spiritual renewal.
But that doesn’t mean Williamson is without a plan altogether. In fact, her campaign website features a highly developed policy section, with detailed policy proposals across 25 different categories. Recently, I spoke with Marianne Williamson about some of these plans, and how economic conditions are inextricably bound up in the collective emotional register.
Tom Syverson: In your book, A Politics of Love, you argue for a moral reawakening in our political culture, one based on love. But you also have several chapters on policy, including one proposing what you call an “economics of love.” What would it mean to adopt an economics of love, and why is it important to us now?
Marianne Williamson: Well, ever since the 1980s, the amoral economic system of trickle-down economics has been corrupting our government and hijacking America’s moral value system. It is a system that is amoral in that it posits short-term financial fiduciary responsibility to stockholders as the bottom line, even over and above any kind of ethical or moral consideration to the workers, to the community, to the environment. And this has completely broken our economics from its moral compass. And because, due to the undue influence of money on the part of these forces, they’ve corrupted our government. That means that there is neither an economic system nor government that has the back of the American people anymore. Quite the opposite. It means that we have split, for all intents and purposes, from a functioning government to a functioning corporate aristocracy. We have experienced a massive transfer of wealth into the hands of a very few Americans.
We had no major wealth inequality problem in the 1970s. Now we have wealth inequality greater than any time since 1929. This has decimated America’s middle class and it has left us with 1 percent of Americans owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. This is unjust, but more than being unjust, it’s undemocratic. Louis Brandeis, who was a late Supreme Court justice, said, “You can have large amounts of money concentrated in the hands of a few, or you can have democracy, you cannot have both.” So, this amoral economic system has had profoundly immoral consequences. From 13 million children who are hungry in the United States, 100,000 children who are homeless in the United States, a national security agenda that is dominated by profits or defense contractors, a healthcare system that is dominated by the profits of health insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies.
On and on and on. It’s why we don’t have free college. It’s why we have this terrible college loan debt, why we don’t have universal healthcare. And until the people demand a fundamental interruption of the economic, social, and political patterns that dominate our culture, then this will simply continue. We might have a better version of it, but it is the new status quo. We have generations that don’t even remember when it was any different. And the status quo does not rise up to repair itself, the status quo by definition perpetuates itself. It’s time for the people to step in.
TS: That’s a very interesting context to put us in. That’s exactly the problem we face today. One aspect of that chapter of your book in particular that struck me as very interesting, and that I haven’t heard anywhere before was, you proposed this idea that human creativity is really the driver of a healthy economy, as opposed to profit or work as such. Could you say a bit more about that?
MW: The idea here is that money does not come, or it does not emanate from, a bunch of corporate aristocrats high up on their Mount Olympus, somewhere dropping crumbs from their table in the form of job creation. That’s basically the principle that guides us now. You give everything to them because they’re the job creators. That is not where money comes from. Money instead comes from the creativity and the productivity of the American people.
And so, the principle that money comes from corporate aristocrats says, then what you need to do is give more money to the corporate aristocrats so that they will create jobs. Well, first of all they may and they may not. Number two, it’s a very paternalistic paradigm, because it says they’ll create jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean jobs that people most want. Look at how many people go to jobs they hate only because that’s where they have to go for their health benefits.
Look at how many people are in jobs that they hate, but it’s a career they have to go for because they don’t know any other way to pay back their college loans. Look at how many people have to work two and three jobs just to make ends meet. On the other hand, if you see that money comes from the creativity and the productivity of the American people, then you build your public policy, particularly your economic policy, around the principle of what would help people thrive beginning with childhood. We now know things about the brain of a child that we didn’t even know 50 years ago. We know so much about what happens in the brain of a child, for instance, before the age of eight. So I want a massive realignment of investment in the direction of children.
I want a department of children and youth in order to take on the massive set of vulnerabilities and challenges of the American child. If we want economic prosperity 20 years from now, what we should do is front-end our resources. If we want greater prosperity, 20 years from now, we will do much more for a 10-year-old today. So, we need to stop basing our educational funding on property taxes and we need to set a national goal. And that national goal is that every school in America will be a palace of learning and culture and the arts. It is a completely different economic paradigm from seeing corporate forces as the origin of money to seeing creativity and productivity of people. Now, in both cases work is the engine. That’s not the question, the point is, which engine?
TS: I want to begin to bring us more toward the electoral context that we’re in, and the economic situation that has informed some of the narratives both coming out of 2016 and going into this upcoming election. So, it’s a bit of a cliche by now, but one of the big narratives to come out of 2016 was the idea that it was the precarious economic situation of middle-class or working-class Americans that had as big a hand in deciding the election as something like sexism or racism. What do you make of this narrative a few years later? And, if you would tend to agree with it, what would you say is the biggest source of that anxiety today?
MW:I believed it then, and I believe it now. There was a tremendous economic despair. It was tremendous economic rage, and that economic rage was absolutely justified, totally legitimate for all the reasons that I said earlier. Millions and millions of people registered that they were getting screwed. That this system was rigged against them, and it was in all the ways that you and I have already discussed. So, there were two candidates that named it. One was an authoritarian populist named Donald Trump. And one was a progressive populist named Bernie Sanders. And I felt strongly that that economically faced rage was going to express itself in a cry of populist despair. The only question was whether it was going to be expressed on behalf of the authoritarian or the progressive populist. And we know what happened. I don’t think Hillary Clinton didn’t care, but Hillary Clinton didn’t name it.
People want to feel that they’re seen and they want to feel that their pain is seen and they want to feel that their issues are validated. So, that was then, and this is now. The economic system is obviously no better. We have an administration that instead of making things better makes things worse, but then says that it made them better and in the most astonishing of ways. The emotional tenor of this moment that I share however, is not rage but exhaustion.
So, for the Democrats to take on Donald Trump in 2020 ranging against Donald Trump, I believe is very, very unwise. I saw one of my fellow candidates on television the other day saying that he was going to prove that Trump is a fraud and a liar. And I laughed to myself thinking, “To who? Who doesn’t already know?” The question isn’t between those who think he is a fraud and a liar and those who don’t. It’s more between those who know he’s a fraud and a liar and find the whole idea outrageous, and those who know on some level that he’s a fraud and a liar but somehow feel that he’s a liar on their behalf. So, it’s okay.
I believe that if all we do is go on and on about Donald Trump, if anything, we’re making the mistake of Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton spent way too much time talking about how bad Donald Trump was and not enough time, in my opinion, talking about all the wonderful things that she would have done to make the country better. And so, I do not believe that raging against Donald Trump… I heard another candidate saying she was going to prosecute Donald Trump. Really? To me that’s not the way we’re going to win. To me, people are exhausted hearing about it. They know who he is. The American people do not need me to tell them who he is. What we need to do is not only describe for people, but actually turn into an agenda, a political agenda for people that would actually put an end to an aberrational chapter in American history and allow us to begin a new one.
TS: One thing I find interesting about your campaign is that it seems to be very focused on choosing the correct political strategies based on what the current emotional context is and not the other way around.
You mentioned things like rage and despair in particular, which makes me think about the current state of mental health in the United States. And some might say that there’s a mental health crisis happening, particularly among young people. Reports coming out saying that millennials are dying more deaths of despair, which include suicides and overdoses, than any other generation. New information from the CDC suggests that generation Z is on track to do even worse.
And so, what I was curious to know your thoughts about was, I noticed in the healthcare section of your website, your platform, you mentioned promoting “non-pharmacological ways to treat mental health issues.” What are these other ways, in your experience, and is there an economic dimension to it, the way that we’ve been discussing so far?
MW: This is just one more area out of many where the system discusses symptoms and not cause. And one of the reasons the political system wants to talk about symptoms not cause is because they are the cause. When you have 93 million Americans living near poverty, think about how much tension and anxiety that translates into on a daily basis. When you have a younger generation who’s, for all intents and purposes, can’t see what global capitalism has ever done for them. Think about how much tension and anxiety that translates into on a daily basis. When you look at how many millions of Americans, even those living in their 20s for goodness sakes, are dealing with tens of thousands and more of dollars in college loans that stretch out before them, like an endless sea of debt. How could there not be tension and anxiety? I’ll tell you what you do. I have a great idea for how to treat the mental health crisis, guys. Stop driving so many people crazy.
Anytime you have large groups of desperate people, there will inevitably arise levels of societal dysfunction, and that societal dysfunction arises from the fear, it arises from the despair. So, what we have to do is to address the despair.
When you have millions of Americans living every day, not knowing what will happen if they get sick, what will happen if their kids get sick, how they will pay for college, how they’ll help their kids pay for college, how they’ll ever get out from underneath their college loans. Seeing basically no real path of abundance, possibility, and opportunity in front of them. What do you think that’s going to translate into, except hopelessness? So, then we put words on it like “anxiety disorder,” we put words on it like “depression.” Well, yes, but where does all that come from? It comes from the chronic feeling of disconnection and isolation, which is endemic to this kind of an amoral economic system controlling our society the way it does.
This is why the undue influence of money on our political system is the cancer underlying all the other cancers, and it is what holds this unjust economic paradigm in place. And until we address that, then there’s going to be that level of despair. People are traumatized, poverty is traumatizing, hunger is traumatizing, lack of opportunity is traumatizing, lack of hope is traumatizing.
Young people go to school every single day hoping this is not the day they will be shot in school. And the same governmental system that refuses to pass reasonable gun safety laws, the same governmental system that shows such obsessive obeisance to the NRA. The same economic system that refuses to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Even though the assault weapons ban was the single most important deterrent to mass shootings during the time that was in existence. That economic system has the audacity to say that it realizes there is a mental health crisis and they’re going to do something to fix it. They are the mental health crisis and at this point part of the mental health crisis is that we would even think about electing some of those people back into office.
TS: Related to this idea about carrying the everyday anxieties of your average person who’s out there struggling, one solution I’ve heard proposed before is universal basic income. And I noticed on your website that you’re a supporter of this, you-
MW: Yes I am.
TS: Following Andrew Yang’s work on it. And so, my question is, what is it about UBI specifically as opposed to other solutions, such as say a federal job guarantee, that makes you feel like it’s the best policy to highlight right now?
MW: I think that Andrew is correct about the tsunami coming out of some the next few years in terms automation. All you have to do is take a stroll around any town or city and you see signs of this. You walk into a drug store and instead of five clerks like there used to be, you’ll see one clerk. Instead, you check out in a computer kiosk and it’s not like the people who lost their jobs as clerks at CVS took over to Rite Aid to get another job. Because at Ride Aid, they are also putting in the computer kiosks and cutting down on the clerks. We have nine states in the United States, where trucking is the primary industry. Well, we’ll have driverless trucks. For somebody for whom that was their career for the last few decades, where is that person supposed to go?
So, this thousand dollars a month will stave off the level of catastrophic hardships that could blow up in our faces on levels that we are not currently imagining. Now, I want an entire World War II level mass mobilization to reverse climate change and that is going to create a lot of jobs. And then in addition to this, I want to have a referendum. It is to be a nonbinding referendum where all Americans between the age of 18 and 26 will vote on the idea of a mandatory one-year national service.
Why all this? Because we need to initiate a season of repair that is nothing short of World War II level enrollment in turning a ship around, which is so much larger than any we can possibly even imagine.
Anything that will help people thrive, I’m interested in. That to me is the purpose of public policy. Anything that will help people thrive. So, yes, I want the universal basic income. I don’t have a problem with a federal jobs guarantee, although it can’t be just some cold bureaucratic assignment, where you can have this job, you might not like it, but we will guarantee you that. So, you can’t say the government didn’t give you a job. Even that’s just dealing on the level of symptom. I want to go deeper to the level of cause. Where we’re actually doing the things that are necessary. Whether it has to do with fixing a bridge, whether it has to do with building a school, whether it has to do with keeping a rural hospital from closing or building a new one, whether it has to do with aid in a rural school somewhere or an inner-city school somewhere. There is so much to do, we need to get about the work of doing it.
TS: On universal basic income, even among some of its supporters, one of the criticisms that often comes up is that providing a universal additional $1,000 per month might cause inflation. For example, if my landlord turns around and raises my rent anyway, then I’ll be back where I started. Do you see this as a realistic concern or do you think it’s economic fear-mongering?
MW: It’s economic fear mongering. We can give $2 trillion in a tax cut where 83 cents of every dollar goes to the very richest individuals and corporations. If we could do that, then we could give some money to people so that they can survive. Martin Luther King said, “If they give it to the rich, they call it a subsidy. If they give it to the poor, they call it a handout.”
Anytime we’re talking about using the levers of government to help people, there will be somebody shouting about it, putting it down, criticizing it because of the basic ideological opposition to helping people. That’s really what we’re talking about here. I believe you build up people. I say, “You build up people in order to build up your economy.” And those who say “You build up your economy in order to build up people,” they inevitably say, “In order to build up your economy, you build up your economy by building up the wealth of just a few people.” We’ve got to end that now. It has been a trickle-down catastrophe and we need to completely shift from an economic to a humanitarian bottom line. You build up people, that is the way to uplift your economy, as well as the span of your humanity.
TS: One more of your particular policy proposals that I wanted to ask about was, of course, your reparations plan. I think this is another area where you’re taking up a really unique and specifically economic policy to heal a collective pain in the country. So, if you could just explain a little bit about how that would work and how it might do something to help us move forward as a country.
MW: My plan is for $500 billion to be disbursed over a period of 20 years, and it would be dispersed to a reparations council. The reparations council would consist of somewhere between probably 40 and 75 people who represent a broad array of cultural, spiritual, political, economic, academic leadership among a population that are all descendants of American slaves.
The stipulation on the part of the U.S. government is that the money is to be used for purposes of economic and educational renewal. Beyond the specific question of who gets the money—whether it’s historically black colleges, whether it’s venture capital for black businesses, whether it has to do with real estate issues related to gentrification or, whatever—that would not be a decision to be made by white America and that’s part of the power of reparations. If I owe you money, I don’t get to tell you how to spend it. The idea of reparations is different from race-based policies for that reason.
Race-based policies alone answer an economic need for restitution and that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t carry any moral force beyond that. Reparations contain an inherent mea culpa. They contain an inherent acknowledgement of a wrong that was done and the debt that is owed and the willingness on the part of a people to pay the debt.
TS: It’s like, we can’t just say we’re sorry, but we need to put our money where our mouth is.
MW: Well, I think that’s exactly the point. If you took $1,000 from me and then you had told me that you were really sorry about that, I would appreciate the apology. But I’d want my money back. So, when you’re in let’s say Alcoholics Anonymous and you have to take a serious moral inventory, you have to admit the exact nature of your character defects.
That’s what we’re talking about here. Racism was an original character defect, and it’s not enough for us just to atone. We must make amends as well. We dismantled segregation, we passed the voting rights act, even though that is being chipped at now as well. But what we have not addressed in any fundamental way is the economic gap that existed at the end of the civil war, which has never been closed.
TS: Thank you for that explanation. I do have just one last question for you and this one is about language in particular, what I’d call our vocabulary of political economy, these days. In the democratic primary it seems like there’s been a little bit of a language game going on, on the left end of the spectrum. Bernie proudly identifies as a socialist, Elizabeth Warren eschews the label and has been pretty clear about her belief in markets.
I believe the other day you added maybe a third iteration when you said you are “not anti-capitalist.” My question for you is, what are these words? Capitalism, anti-capitalism, socialism. Are they meaningful to you? Are they just language games or do they speak-
MW: No, actually they are meaningful to me and I’ve said from the beginning I’m for capitalism with a conscience. Some people believe that the kind of moral certitude that is necessary is impossible within a capitalist context. I don’t believe that.
I don’t believe that public immorality is necessarily inherent in capitalism. I believe that a virulent strain of capitalism, a virulent strain of it, namely trickle-down economics, has come to the forefront over the last 40 years. It’s interesting to note, however, that the main articulator of trickle-down economics, Milton Friedman, himself argued for UBI, himself said that none of that would be safe without a universal basic income. That idea goes back a very long time.
So, I believe, as I said, that that was a virulent strain of capitalism, not capitalism itself. I think that there are places where obviously the government, in my mind, obviously, the government should guarantee the wellbeing of people and should provide for the common good, as the constitution says. Obviously, we believe that in relation to the police, we believe that in relation to the fire department, and I believe that we should feel that in relation to healthcare.
But even there, I believe there should be some entrepreneurial opportunities, not for health insurance companies, but for doctors. So, when I reveal my healthcare plan within the next week or two, it will be a hybrid that is not quite out there on anyone else’s part yet. I don’t believe the problem in America is that some people can get rich. I think that’s a good thing that people can get rich in America. The problem we have today is that not enough people can get rich and I don’t think that the average person who creates wealth in this country wants to feel that they are doing so at the expense of other people having a chance. So, I believe that when ethics guides us and conscience guides us, not only in terms of our individual personal behavior but also in terms of business behavior and in terms of public policy, then we can have the best of both worlds.
Capitalism can survive but it will reclaim its moral compass. I’m reminded of when FDR said, “I’m not here to destroy capitalism. I’m here to save capitalism.” And I believe that those of us who want to hold capitalism accountable are the best news that capitalism could get. Because if capitalism does not reclaim its moral center, it won’t be Bernie or Elizabeth or Marianne who makes the change. They will have millions and millions and millions of people who are just growing up now who will storm the Bastille. Because you already have millions of young kids who are saying, “What the hell has global capitalism ever done from me?” Millions of American young people who are already saying, “What am I supposed to be afraid of in socialism, the free healthcare or the free college?”
So, you had the various powerful voices like Ray Dalio, Jeremy Grantham, even the Business Roundtable who have a knowledge that this has gone too far. When you’ve got the quintessential capitalist voices like the Business Roundtable saying that short-term profits should no longer be the bottom line of the American corporation, then you know. You’re in a very pregnant moment. This is a real sea change. We’re going to change, this country in the years ahead is going to go through big change. The only question is whether this will be change driven by wisdom or a change driven by chaos. And that’s why I believe that I’m the person for the job.