Policy for the Many

As the socialist movement picks up steam, we'll need to translate our ideals into workable policies. Two democratic socialist legislators in Maryland are doing just that.

The Maryland State House in June 2015. Wikimedia Commons

The recent resurgence of socialist organization in the United States has swept socialist politicians into elected offices across the country. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most prominent, but there are dozens more, including Lee Carter in Virginia, Sara Innamorato in Pennsylvania, Julia Salazar in New York, and Vaughn Stewart and Gabriel Acevero in Maryland. What these electoral victories will mean for policy is still a bit unclear, but there are promising developments in Maryland that suggest public ownership could become a big part of the new socialist agenda.

Earlier this week, shortly after arriving in the Maryland House of Delegates, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Vaughn Stewart introduced a social housing bill based on a People’s Policy Project proposal written by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper last year. Social housing is the most promising socialist policy idea able to be implemented on the state and local level because it increases public ownership of the housing stock while also addressing the inadequate amount of housing available in many metropolitan areas.

Under Vaughn’s proposal, Maryland would create a Social Housing Trust Fund that is initially capitalized through a millionaire’s tax and the issuance of state bonds. Municipalities would then be able to tap the money in the Social Housing Trust Fund through grants or loans to build social housing in their area. Any housing construction funded in this way would have to remain permanently in public ownership. When it came to renting out the social housing units, high-income tenants would pay market rents or slightly below market rents; middle-income tenants would pay cost rents, meaning the rents would be equal to the cost of operating the building; and low-income tenants would pay cross-subsidized rents that would be below cost.

The result of this policy would be new self-funding, publicly owned housing units that could accommodate people at all income levels. This would benefit not just those living in the social housing, but also those living in other units, whose landlords would have to compete with an influx of new below-market-rent apartments.

Vaughn’s DSA colleague, Delegate Gabriel Acevero, has matched Vaughn’s social housing proposal with an equally ambitious plan to create a Maryland social wealth fund that would eventually pay out a dividend to every state resident. Acevero’s legislation is based on a People’s Policy Project paper I authored last year, which advocates for the federal government to create a dividend-paying social wealth fund on the national level.

Acevero’s social wealth fund proposal mostly mirrors the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has been operating since the mid 1970s and paying out a dividend to every Alaska resident for over forty years. The Alaska fund was initially capitalized by royalties on natural resource extraction, but because Maryland does not have a large extractive sector, Acevero had to look elsewhere for potential revenue streams. He is currently exploring the possibility of using existing state assets, a land value tax, environmental taxes on gas or carbon, and “excess profits” taxes to build the principal of a Maryland social wealth fund.

With Republican Larry Hogan holding down the Maryland governor’s mansion, Vaughn’s social housing proposal and Acevero’s social wealth fund proposal are not likely to be passed into law before the next election. But both proposals are extremely important for the future of left-wing and socialist policy development in the country. They provide models that could be copied elsewhere, and they help push the discussion on these policy items forward.

If the socialist movement is going to materialize into a coherent political formation, it is going to eventually have to articulate policies like these that help move capital assets — whether land, housing, or financial assets — under public or worker control. Social housing and social wealth funds are good, proven ways to do that. But they are obviously not the only ways to do it. We could also, for instance, promote the development of worker cooperatives or the creation and expansion of successful state-owned enterprises like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As current and future socialist politicians look for concrete ways to push the envelope, their eyes should turn towards Maryland, which is right now at the vanguard of translating socialist ideals into workable legislative proposals.