Majority Checked

Why the Inflation Reduction Act won't benefit workers or save the planet.

BY ROBERT OVETZ | November/December 2022

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

issue 363 cover

This article is from the
November/December 2022 issue.

Subscribe Now

at a 30% discount.

The much-celebrated Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, signed by President Joe Biden in August, is a shadow of the ambitious Build Back Better Act, which itself was a variation on the Green New Deal. After Build Back Better stalled in the Senate at the end of 2021, the Inflation Reduction Act is being described as the best possible compromise that will bring long-overdue progress on addressing the climate catastrophe.

If it ’s a compromise, then only one side won—the corporate elites who shaped much of the bill. The working class, on the other hand, will get nothing from this bill, and stands to be worse off if the promised reductions in climate- destroying emissions don ’t happen.

This outcome is not surprising or unexpected. Minority interests rule in our Constitutional system of government—by design. The Framers wrote the Constitution in 1787 to give power to the elite minority, arm them with what I call “minority checks,” the power to block any change they oppose, and undermine the working-class majority in order to protect property from economic democracy.

The Inflation Reduction Act and Minority Rule

Only during the Civil War, the Populist Era, and the upheavals of the 1930s and the 1960–1970s, when the changes demanded from below were too great to avoid, did we get some reforms. Those concessions were made begrudgingly and proved to be fleeting. Elites soon found ways to slowly kill these reforms by a death of a thousand cuts that tipped the balance of power back in their favor.

The lack of change benefitting the majority is not an aberration. The Framers ’ distrust of democracy led them to design the Constitution to make such change impossible by giving the elites a check at every stage in the process. The system they designed, which we call “checks and balances,” creates a “separation of powers” between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as the federal and state governments. But this system is also a “check” of the economic minority over the majority but without the “balance.”

The 55 Framers were explicit about the need to protect their fellow propertied elite minority by impeding political democracy and preventing economic democracy. In the 1780s, the elites faced simultaneous threats of state redistributive policies, debtor-friendly laws, paper money, farmer rebellions, slave revolts, and Native-American resistance to colonial genocide. They wanted a new, stronger constitutional system that could give them the power to contain widespread efforts to democratize both the economy and state governments.

We are still living with this virtually unchanged system today. To understand why the U.S. working class has repeatedly lost for the past 50 years during a time when its power has ebbed, it is necessary to look beyond party politics and directly at the minority checks of the Constitution. It is also why the labor movement and working class should not expect the system to ever work in our interest, except during rare crises and periods of political instability.

How the IRA Serves Propertied Elite Interests

The Inflation Reduction Act is not the urgently needed change that will serve working-class interests or save the planet from further catastrophe. Compare the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act to the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act. Michael Roberts, author of The Long Depression, told me in an email interview that “many of the original proposals in the IRA bill that could have reduced inflation somewhat and helped the poor and sick were dropped.”

Roberts is referring to how Build Back Better included universal preschool, expanded Medicare benefits and Medicaid coverage, extended child tax credits, 12 weeks of paid family leave, paid sick leave, affordable housing, free community college, expanded Pell Grants for college, a civilian climate corps, and a reduction in the price of insulin. These proposals would have disproportionately benefitted the working class and would have been paid for by restoring higher taxes on the rich, which were cut by President Donald Trump ’s tax policies.

In contrast, the Inflation Reduction Act includes a three-year extension of Obamacare tax credits for some people, allows Medicare to control costs of 10 prescription drugs starting in three years, and raises taxes on just 150 corporations from almost nothing to only 15%.

But instead of mandated reductions of climate-destroying emissions, which both bills lacked, the much-touted ambitious emission reductions from both Build Back Better and the Inflation Reduction Act will depend on voluntary adoption. This is primarily done by generous tax credits and other subsidies of corporate spending on dubious and problematic green tech, like carbon capture and storage, home-energy retrofitting, and the cost of purchasing an electric car by high-income consumers. The law also expands offshore drilling and new drilling leases on public lands, and fast-tracks new pipelines.

This is the inevitable outcome of the pressure to “compromise to get things done.” It requires supporting a bill that remotely resembles the original demands or worse. What we never do is ask why the majority needs to compromise with the outnumbered minority in the first place.

The answer lies in the design of the Constitution. As political scientists Ira Katznelson, Mark Kesselman, and Alan Draper explain in their book The Politics of Power, the many minority checks in the system require those who want change to win every time to overcome each roadblock, while their opponents only have to win once to defeat those who want change.

These minority checks stack the deck against change—unless the elites want it. Attempting to change the system by using the rules of the system, which are designed to prevent such change, is a dead end. Propertied elites today still benefit from the system designed by their 18th-century elite predecessors. The transformation of Build Back Better into the Inflation Reduction Act shows how minority checks continue to protect propertied elites.

Minority rule is hardly new. The problem is not just that big money, the Senate filibuster, or the Supreme Court block change. The problem is blamed on everything but the Constitution, which was designed to protect property against all threats to propertied interests.

Regulatory Checks

There are only two ways to make change. When capitalism is in a systemic crisis, elites take ideas from the left to keep it alive. Reforms are also offered when demands from below can no longer be ignored without great cost from disruptive insurrection.

Union organizing is impeded by labor laws governing collective bargaining, which serve as another kind of regulatory minority check. After 87 years of the Wagner Act, which legalized collective bargaining and strikes, it ’s clear that the bureaucratic rules that the labor movement is required to follow cause endless delays that impede organizing, disempower workers, and give the advantage to the employer. The recent firing of dozens of Starbucks organizers and the challenges to union elections at Amazon warehouses in Bessemer, Ala., Albany, N.Y., and New York City are vivid examples.

Even under the supposedly labor-friendly Biden administration, the National Labor Relations Board is still seriously understaffed and underfunded, causing delays in new representation elections, including those at Starbucks and Amazon. The regulatory process itself is a minority check that constrains and impedes change by slowing it down. This is the case not just when it comes to unions but any interests of the economic majority.

Bypassing the Rules

During Labor Notes magazine ’s conference last June, about 4,000 workers were taught to organize for power on the shop floor and force their bosses to concede to demands now, rather than wait years to hold an election, win appeals in administrative law court, and then bargain futilely for a new contract as turnover depletes their membership.

Independent, self-organized gig workers ’ unions including Los Deliveristas Unidos, Rideshare Drivers United, and Amazonians United are organizing effectively in New York, Southern California, Minnesota, Sacramento, Calif., and Chicago, often timed with fellow workers in Europe, without bothering to lobby or petition for recognition. These examples are powerful indicators of what is possible when workers bypass the numerous minority checks embedded in the rules of the system designed to impede and prevent political and economic democracy.

We need to stop thinking about the Constitution as a system that helps make change possible and see it as a set of rules designed by propertied elites to prevent change. If we want to make change happen, we have to stop playing by their rules.

is a senior lecturer in political science at San José State University, labor scholar, and organizer. He is the author of the forthcoming We the Elite: How the U.S. Constitution Serves the Few (Pluto, 2022) and two other books on worker organizing.

Robert Ovetz, We the Elites: Why the U.S. Constitution Serves the Few (Pluto Books, 2022); email interview with Michael Roberts, August 17, 2022; Rocky Mengle, “Inflation Reduction Act Boosts Obamacare Tax Credit,” Kiplinger ’s, August 17, 2022 (; Charles Harvey and Kurt House, “Every Dollar Spent on This Climate Technology Is a Waste,” New York Times, Aug. 16, 2022 (; Ira Katznelson, Mark Kesselman, and Alan Draper, The Politics of Power: A Critical Introduction to American Government, 7th ed. (Norton, 2013); Robert Ovetz, When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921, (Haymarket, 2019); Michael Roberts, “The IRA and the Four Horsemen of the Climate Apocalypse,” Michael Roberts Blog, August 7, 2022, (; John Miller, “Two ‘Bad ’ Tax Ideas Are Better Than One” Dollars & Sense, September/October 2022 (; Hiroko Tabuchi, “Manchin ’s Donors Include Pipeline Giants That Win in His Climate Deal,” New York Times, August 7, 2022; Michael Sainato, “Revealed: Starbucks Fired over 20 US Union Leaders in Recent Months,” The Guardian, May 19, 2022 (; E. Tammy Kim, “The Upstart Union Challenging Starbucks,” The New Yorker, August 2, 2022 (; Don Jacobson, “Amazon Challenges Results of Historic Union Victory in New York,” UPI, April 9, 2022 (; Noam Scheiber, “Union Trails in Amazon Vote in Alabama, With Challenges Pending,” New York Times, March 31, 2022; Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter, Secrets of a Successful Organizer (Labor Notes, 2016); Luis Feliz Leon, “NYC's Delivery Drivers Want Employee Status, and Nothing Less,” In These Times, May 27, 2021 (; Rideshare Drivers United (; Joe DeManuelle-Hall, “Dispersed but Undaunted, Chicago Amazon Workers Help Win Megacycle Pay Nationwide,” Labor Notes, June 15, 2021 (

Did you find this article useful? Please consider supporting our work by donating or subscribing.

end of article