• Democracy, Economic Crisis, and “Rethinking Communities”

    Sep 29, 2014Sabeel Rahman

    The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Rethinking Communities initiative is emblematic of the model for democratic and economic reform needed in this New Gilded Age.

    The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Rethinking Communities initiative is emblematic of the model for democratic and economic reform needed in this New Gilded Age.

    As the latest Census report highlights, economic inequality continues to worsen. With a sluggish economic recovery, continued economic insecurity for many Americans, and ongoing political gridlock, it is increasingly clear that we live in a New Gilded Age. To successfully challenge this status quo, we must look to the lessons of past democratic reform movements as well as the innovative work that is being done on the ground even now in our communities.

    Over a hundred years ago, the first Gilded Age witnessed a similar confluence of economic and political crises. It was the era of the rise of mega-corporations and trusts like Standard Oil. Not coincidentally, it was also an era of economic upheaval, recurring financial crises, and a growing anxiety about the ways in which economic inequality and concentrated private power would contaminate and corrupt politics, making it serve special and elite interests rather than the public good.

    These crises provoked what became some of the most transformative reform movements in American history: the labor movement, the anti-trust movement, the Populist movement, and the Progressive movement. The common thread throughout these reform efforts was the desire to reclaim some form of popular sovereignty, whether through the creation of local-level policymaking powers for municipalities, the direct election of senators, the creation of national regulatory bodies to check corporate power, or the spread of direct democratic referenda procedures.

    The ferment of these decades created the intellectual inheritance of the New Deal. When FDR came into office in the midst of the Great Depression, the members of his administration turned to policies initially pioneered by their Populist and Progressive precursors, especially when it came to banking, financial, and social safety net reforms.

    But where the New Deal had decades of Populist and Progressive experimentation to build on, our current context is quite different. The present moment is similar to the early twentieth century in that our fundamental problem is one of dysfunctional democracy. To address economic inequality, we must first reform our democracy to make it more accountable and responsive. But this is not so easily done now that decades of political attacks have dismantled both the public’s faith in and the actual efficacy of democratic governance and the social safety net. The challenge of our generation is three-fold: address our ongoing economic crisis, rebuild the viability of and faith in democratic governance, and do so in a way that develops innovative models of democratic economic policymaking that we can spread and build on.

    Cities represent a key frontline in this effort. There is a growing interest in the city as a unit of governance, and cities are unique economic engines whose population density and diversity make them critical drivers of innovation and economic growth. They are at the forefront of economic and policy innovation. They also represent one of the best hopes for reviving a genuine, grassroots democracy. Already participatory budgeting is starting to gain traction in U.S. cities as a way to create more robust grassroots participation while also improving the allocation of resources to underserved groups.

    The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative represents an exciting effort to drive this movement forward. By focusing on their own universities, Campus Network chapters can help reinvest in their local communities by pressing administrations to direct their investment or procurement policies to local businesses, or by broadening access to universities and community colleges by accepting public assistance, such as food stamps, on campus.

    There are two particularly innovative dimensions to the Rethinking Communities initiative:

    First, it represents a grassroots, democratic effort. The initiative itself was devised through a participatory strategy process within the Campus Network, through a series of bottom-up meetings and discussions in campus chapters and through a nation-wide convening at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. Campus Network chapters working with local stakeholders in their advocacy efforts further accentuate this democratic ethos.

    Second, the initiative also reflects a growing push in economic development circles to reorient local economic development in a more community-oriented direction.

    One conventional view of local economic development is that it is a competitive process in which the city is a product to be sold on the international marketplace. Residents and businesses alike, in this view, will choose to settle in the city that offers their preferred “bundle” of goods, services, opportunities, and tax policies. But this view tends to overstate both the degree of policy flexibility that cities have to tailor their “pitch” to outsiders, as well as the degree to which a city’s lifeblood depends purely on attracting an influx of outside dollars, talent, and investment. An opposing view is that local economic development is fundamentally parochial and redistributive, and its purpose is to meet the needs of the residents and businesses that are already part of the fabric of the city. This view has its own limits, underemphasizing the ways in which a locality’s prosperity and well-being are interrelated with regional and even global trends and flows.

    More recently, however, a third view of economic development has emerged, which combines aspects of these two accounts. As Richard Schragger argues, we should view cities not as products to be sold on a competitive marketplace, nor as purely closed systems in which to pursue redistributive policies, but rather as path-dependent processes. In other words, cities evolve dynamically, through an interplay between already-existing local conditions and inheritances, and regional or global forces. The task of economic development policy, then, is to find a way to tap into the rooted, existing features of a city, and leverage those local resources.

    Anchor institutions like universities are the quintessential lever for economic development in this process-oriented view. These institutions are fundamentally rooted in their communities; they cannot simply leave town the way other kinds of businesses can. They also have large ripple effects on their local communities based on who they hire, who they contract with, and how they employ their own resources. Anchor institutions thus represent valuable engines for local economic development—engines that, if redirected strategically, can help lift up the larger communities in which they are based.

    These two features of Rethinking Communities – its democratic and participatory origins, and its focus on leveraging anchor institutions to accelerate local economic development – make it one of many contemporary heirs to the kind of innovation that came out of the first Gilded Age. Now, as then, there is an effort to take a more purposeful and directed approach to economic policy to help create the conditions for collective well-being. Now, as then, there is a desire to approach this task in a self-consciously democratic and participatory manner. And now, as then, it is likely that the lessons learned from (and the activists inspired by) this effort can contribute to a longer-term and larger movement for democratic and economic reform – which is precisely what we need to navigate our way out of the challenges of this New Gilded Age.

    Sabeel Rahman is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • What Ken Burns's Documentary on the Roosevelts Can Teach Us About Our Past and Ourselves

    Sep 25, 2014David B. Woolner

    A historical adviser to the film looks back at how the Roosevelts saved the American free enterprise system.

    Ken Burns's superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

    A historical adviser to the film looks back at how the Roosevelts saved the American free enterprise system.

    Ken Burns's superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

    The film also has much to say about the transformative nature of government: the idea, which all three Roosevelts shared, that it was the responsibility of government to serve as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans – not just the privileged few at the top. It was this belief that formed the basis of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and this belief that helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by the United Nations just three years after its 1945 founding.

    What is often overlooked in this story is the role that all three of these remarkable leaders played in helping to preserve the American free enterprise system, of trying to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, not only out of a desire to protect the American people from exploitative labor practices or fraudulent financial dealings, but also out of a desire to protect our very way of life during an era when liberal capitalist democracy was under siege in much of the rest of the world. As the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once remarked, the twentieth century in many respects can be viewed as a struggle of ideologies, a time in which the anti-democratic forces of fascism and totalitarian communism were on the march, so that by January 1942 at the height of the Second World War, there were only a handful of democracies left on the planet.

    In the rhetorically charged atmosphere of the mid 1930s, FDR’s critics alleged that the reforms he instigated under the New Deal were designed to take the country down the path to socialism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and granting labor the right to organize were all inspired by the desire to provide the average American with a basic degree of economic security within the capitalist system. So too were the many financial reforms that brought us the likes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same argument could be made about Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to take on such conglomerates as the Beef Trust or the Northern Securities Rail Company was driven by the desire not to destroy big business but to limit monopoly and restore the cut and thrust of the free market. In short, both men were motivated by the idea that the federal government had a responsibility to make capitalism work for the average American.

    Eleanor Roosevelt concurred with these ideas, and in spite of her reputation as a left-leaning reformer, spent much of her considerable energy in the post-1945 world arguing in favor of the World War II monetary and trade reforms that helped launch the globalization of the world’s economy. In her May 21, 1945 "My Day" column, for example, ER spoke out in favor of the 1944 Bretton Woods accords which established the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank. Here, she argued in favor of the stabilization of currencies, because in the past there had been much speculative trading in this area, which resulted in “economic warfare” that in time brings us to “shooting warfare.” And she had this to say about the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

    Some foolish people will ask: Why do we have to concern ourselves with the development and reconstruction of the ruined countries? The answer is simple. We are the greatest producing country in the world. We need markets not only at home, but abroad, and we cannot have them unless people can start up their industries and national economy again and buy from us. If Europe or Asia falls apart because of starvation or lack of work for their people, chaos will result and World War III will be in the making. In that event, we know that we will have to be a part of it.

    Hence, ER insisted that we needed “both the bank and the fund for our own security, as well as for that of the rest of the world.” She then urged her readers to write to their Senators and Congressmen in support of the treaty, for as she so eloquently put it:

    Whether you are a farmer or a merchant, whether your business is big or little, you are personally affected by it. Even if you don't sell directly to a foreign country, you are indirectly affected – for the prosperity of the [foreign] country means your prosperity, and we cannot prosper without trade with our neighbors in the world of tomorrow.

    As is so often the case, when we look back we see that the challenges of the past are not that different from the challenges we face today. Once again we face a world where the free-market system is in desperate need of reform; a world where income inequality has reached levels not seen since the gilded age; a world where the specter of long-term unemployment and limited opportunity has dimmed the hopes of an entire generation; a world where poverty and a lack of opportunity have given rise to anti-democratic extremists that threaten the very lives and well-being of millions. Yet sadly, and unlike the heady days of the first six decades of the twentieth century, our leaders in Washington seem incapable or unwilling to shape a response to these many challenges befitting the legacy of such great political figures as Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

    A great deal of this can be attributed to the irresponsible behavior of many members of Congress, particularly among the members of the extreme right, whose obstructionist policies and rigid anti-government ideology have played a significant part in rendering the 113th Congress one of the least effective and least respected in American history.

    But we should also never forget – as Ken Burns and his outstanding script writer Geoffrey Ward have reminded us through this outstanding film – that we too must share part of the blame. For as much as we may admire the leadership of the Roosevelts, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of the American people. Leadership, after all, is a dynamic process that requires the cooperation of the both public figures and the public, and if we are living in an age that seems incapable of producing transformative government, we need to recognize that in a democracy it is the people who bear the final responsibility for their fate.  

    Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put it best when he urged the American people to recognize that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

    David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 

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  • Georgia Political Candidates: Where Are Carbon Emissions in Your Election Platform?

    Sep 25, 2014Torre LaVelle

    None of the candidates for major statewide office in Georgia are talking about carbon emissions or climate change, despite major new policy from the EPA that will make these issues central to their terms in office.

    None of the candidates for major statewide office in Georgia are talking about carbon emissions or climate change, despite major new policy from the EPA that will make these issues central to their terms in office.

    The Environmental Protection Agency’s groundbreaking new carbon emissions proposal hedges some pretty hefty bets: the new rules require the equivalent of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks in the U.S. off the road. The proposal will cost the economy more than $7 billion annually, but will lead to public health benefits accruing to more than $55 billion. The heated discussion it has prompted from environmentalists, industry, and lawmakers has centered on the multi-billion dollar question: what is the role of government regulation in addressing climate change?

    The EPA rule has assigned each state a separate pollution reduction target, and under the plan, Georgia would need to reduce its carbon dioxide output by 44 percent by the year 2040. Notably absent from the debate, however, are the individuals who will soon be directing the discussion through their policy decisions: the current gubernatorial and Senate candidates. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, endorsed by the Sierra Club in May, has only noted that he wants residents to get credit for progress they've already made in carbon reduction. His “On the Issues” online platform fails to include environmental policy as a broad topic, let alone talk of pollution.

    Although Governor Deal may want to distance himself politically from Carter, the candidates are remarkably similar in their lack of talking points on the EPA standards. A spokeswoman for Deal said it was too early for the governor to comment on the emissions proposal back in June, and apparently it's still too early three months later, even as the election approaches in November.

    Former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, who beat out Rep. Jack Kingston to win the Georgia GOP Senate nomination, has dismissed the emissions regulations as altogether too burdensome. In June, it was revealed that Perdue has sat on the board of the Wisconsin-based Alliant Energy Corp. since 2001.

    Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has served as the sole light in this matter; although she has offered a ‘wait-and-see’ on the emissions plan until what will go into the state calculations is made clear, she has at least affirmed her support for reducing carbon emissions.

    The candidates’ insubstantial weigh-in on how to tackle these rapidly approaching EPA deadlines provides voters with an incomplete policy platform, and one that is myopic in scope. For example, what is to be of Georgia’s Plant Scherer? It’s been identified as the dirtiest power plant in the United States, and under the EPA policy, there will be significant pressure to shut the coal plant down. What would the next steps be for evaluating Georgia’s energy portfolio, and how would the candidates handle claims that the limits will crush jobs and the economy?

    By failing to more concretely enter into discussions on how to tackle these EPA deadlines, candidates also lose the ability to capitalize off the new regulations. For example, a comprehensive report released last month ranked the Atlanta-based utilities provider Southern Company 31st among 32 utilities across the U.S. in percentage of sales tied to electricity from renewables. Individuals in the gubernatorial and Senate races should work to address mounting pressure to improve Georgia’s national ranking in energy efficiency and renewables by connecting it to the EPA guidelines, and proposing to tackle the emission standards through increasing emphasis on clean energy infrastructure.

    The most critical issue left unaddressed, however, stems from our Georgia candidates' inability to define issues such as carbon emissions within the larger sphere of climate change. Just as the esteemed evolutionary biologist Dobzhansky noted that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, nothing in environmental policy really makes sense except without accepting the involvement of climate change. Although both Deal and Carter have campaigned extensively for improved water conservation methods and the protection of Georgia’s coastline, these issues cannot be adequately examined without including factors symptomatic of climate change into the picture, such as sea level rise, the decreasing reliability of water supply networks, threatened coastal infrastructure, and increased risk of drought.

    The question that remains is why our Georgia political candidates aren’t talking about the EPA standards in the context of climate change. Perhaps I already know the answer: it is not in the interest of the candidate to do so. Climate change is a loaded, divisive phrase, and an intensive analysis into the Georgia public’s views on the matter has, to date, been overlooked. However, Florida’s open emphasis on climate policy as a major bipartisan issue during the election, as well as the overwhelming amount of public witnesses at the EPA Atlanta hearing prove that the topic is ripe for public discourse and political opportunity. Georgia candidates would do well to remember that these issues are not simply environmental issues, but fundamentally economic and public health issues. For the sake of Georgia voters, candidates should view these issues as mandatory to offering a more complete and expansive view for the future of the great state of Georgia.

    Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia. 

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  • Ken Burns’s New Documentary Reveals the Human Side of the Roosevelts – And Our Deep Connection To Their Legacy

    Sep 19, 2014Felicia Wong

    The success of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History highlights the people behind the policies that reshaped America.

    The success of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History highlights the people behind the policies that reshaped America.

    As the CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, I am reminded almost daily about the very personal connection people feel to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The extraordinary critical acclaim for the new Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History makes it clear just how widespread that feeling is.

    But it also prompts me to consider why, in an age when politicians are vilified and Congress’s approval rating hovers around 14 percent, political figures from almost a century ago are being rediscovered and embraced as heroes.

    Part of the answer, of course, is the film’s unique portrayal of the Roosevelts. Burns and his writing partner, Geoffrey Ward (also a proud Trustee of the FDR Presidential Library, which we support here at the Roosevelt Institute), have crafted a narrative that combines grand actors on the world stage with a very grounded depiction of the Roosevelts as people with hopes, fears, and demons to overcome. Although the film has received some criticism for focusing too much on personality and glossing over policy, the knowledge that such momentous change was not won effortlessly by remote historical figures but achieved by individuals who faced complex external and internal struggles should serve as a powerful inspiration to everyone working in politics today.

    Another part of the answer is that the Roosevelts were, in fact, uniquely bold figures in American history. Franklin and Eleanor combined two things that are notoriously tough to bring together: big ideas and action. They had the ability to get things done, to experiment and tinker and move things around until they worked. Franklin set a north star, grounded in progressive values, for massive reforms to America’s corporations and banks; labor law and protections; and the social safety net. Eleanor’s boldness extended to the world stage, where she was a leader in the creation of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to the most difficult intersections of race and class in mid-century America.

    Along the way, they made mistakes – sometimes profound ones. (It is deeply meaningful to me, personally, that Eleanor pressured Franklin strongly to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans.) But when they succeeded, as they often did, they did so in ways that permanently reshaped the country and the world for the better.

    In today’s politics, broken promises are accepted with weary resignation, and weak compromises are often viewed as the best we can hope for. Just imagine the popularity of a president today who could lead a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps: enacted only 32 days after FDR’s inauguration, the program ultimately employed 2.5 million young men in more than 4,500 rural camps nationwide, planting 3 billion trees that remain integral to our landscape today. And imagine how much more confidence we would have if we saw in our elected officials FDR’s kind of political leadership, which, over the course of his presidency, drove the design and implementation of hundreds of solutions to deep systemic problems, from Social Security and Glass-Steagall to the Federal Music Project. These big ideas not only worked (mostly), but also persuaded the country to believe that talk would lead to action and action would lead to results.

    And finally, I think a big part of the answer, also captured in Burns’s film, lies in what Roosevelt Institute Board Chair Anna Eleanor Roosevelt has called her grandfather’s “journey from patrician to American,” which is often forgotten in lionizing portrayals of FDR. The Roosevelts were born into a very wealthy family, but for his own post-presidency, FDR had envisioned a move to his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, the small rural town where, in the 1920s, he first found some improvement from the polio that afflicted him as a young man. The home he designed for himself in Warm Springs was modest, just six rooms – mostly a big porch. The most powerful man in the world dreamed of a life as a farmer that would allow him to spend time with his neighbors – a refreshing thought at a time when the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street has never spun faster.

    Some have called Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt “traitors to their class.” As arresting a phrase as that is, it is more even more compelling to think about them another way: as examples that even the most privileged can learn and grow through their flaws and truly devote themselves to the common good. At the Roosevelt Institute, where we dedicate our time to the kinds of big, transformative economic and social policies that will further FDR and ER’s legacy today, we also need to pause to remind ourselves that it was the Roosevelts as human beings that made their big ideas come to life.

    Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaWongRI.

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