Obama’s Middle Class Economics Has to be About Fairness and Prosperity

Jan 22, 2015Richard Kirsch

The more-fair "middle-class economics" described in the State of the Union are also the right policies to help the economy grow.

The more-fair "middle-class economics" described in the State of the Union are also the right policies to help the economy grow.

In coining the new term “middle-class economics” and linking it to raising wages and taxing the rich and Wall Street to put money in the pockets of working families, President Obama used his State of the Union address to ask the public that most potent of political questions: “Which side are you on?” And as Republicans say no to improving wages and making college more affordable in order to defend the super-rich, Americans will get a clear answer. That’s a sure win for Democrats.

But the President’s explanation of middle class economics downplayed an important part of the story: it’s not just about fairness, it’s about how we create prosperity.

With the term “middle class economics,” the President is creating a contrast between economic programs aimed at boosting the middle-class and the Republican agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes for corporations. But Obama’s use of the term missed an opportunity to drive home to the American public that middle class economics is not just about fairness, but also about moving the economy forward.

Obama defined middle class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” That is one of the President’s favorite phrases. But for all its appeal, it does not explain how middle-class economics drives economic progress and increases wealth. He fails to replace the Republican story that cutting government, taxes, and regulation are the keys to economic growth.

The President actually included such an explanation of what drives the economy in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he said: “It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class."

Democrats need to firmly claim both the grounds of fairness and prosperity. As I recently wrote, “The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.”

This is an easy case to make, as it’s true for most of the policies in the President’s middle class economic agenda.

To take just one example, raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy-boosting jobs instead of economy-busting jobs. When wages are raised, workers have more money to spend, essential when 70 percent of the economy is made up of consumer spending.

The President’s tax proposals are also about more than just the unfairness of a tax code riddled, as he said, “with giveaways the superrich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.” His proposed taxes on risky bank speculation move that money to invest in vital infrastructure. When he proposes raising taxes on the rich, who already have more money than they can spend, and using those funds to make community colleges more affordable, he’s putting that money into the economy and investing in people’s skills to contribute to economic progress.

Fairness is a very powerful American value. That’s why the most successful Democratic candidates in 2014 made it clear that they were on the side of working families against Wall Street.

But the reason that fairness is so powerful is because of the contrast between the few with vast wealth and what Americans most want, to be able to care for and support their families. We value prosperity and security. That is why it is essential that Democrats can tell a clear story about how we move the economy forward. Middle-class economics is about more than fairness – it’s about how working families and the middle class drive the economy. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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Daily Digest - January 22: Going Beyond the State of the Union

Jan 22, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Obama’s Proposal On Inequality: Is It Enough? (Here & Now)

Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz speaks to Jeremy Hobson about the State of the Union, emphasizing that the president's proposals don't go far enough.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Obama’s Proposal On Inequality: Is It Enough? (Here & Now)

Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz speaks to Jeremy Hobson about the State of the Union, emphasizing that the president's proposals don't go far enough.

Is Net Neutrality the Real Issue? (Marketplace)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford believes that monopoly control of Internet service providers, and the payments they extract from content providers, could be a larger concern.

Obama Says Family Leave Is an Economic Necessity, Not Just a Women’s Issue (NYT)

Claire Cain Miller praises the president for recognizing that child care and paid family leave should be treated as national economic priorities.

The Grand Old Party … for the Poor? (MSNBC)

Suzy Khimm points out how Republican responses to the State of the Union tried to tie the party to anti-poverty efforts, despite continued support for policies that cut the safety net.

First Thing We Do, Tax All the Banks: Why Obama's Middle-Class Economics Plan Makes Good Sense (The Guardian)

David Dayen says that the president's proposal to tax banks on their liabilities, or what they owe, is a potential first step toward additional financial reform needed post-Dodd-Frank.

New on Next New Deal

Obama’s Middle Class Economics Has to be About Fairness and Prosperity

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch says the president's speech left out an important story about middle-class economics: these policies are better for the economy than Republican austerity.

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Daily Digest - January 21: State of the Union Asks Congress to Actually Work on Policy

Jan 21, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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The Problem With Obama's Bold SOTU (MoJo)

David Corn thinks President Obama needs to advance a stronger narrative about the GOP's obstructionism preventing his policy agenda from becoming reality.

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The Problem With Obama's Bold SOTU (MoJo)

David Corn thinks President Obama needs to advance a stronger narrative about the GOP's obstructionism preventing his policy agenda from becoming reality.

In State of the Union Speech, Obama Defiantly Sets an Ambitious Agenda (NYT)

Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis call the president's tone "defiant" as he called on Republicans to join him in an extensive domestic agenda.

Rebounding Economy Gives President Breathing Room at State of the Union (AJAM)

Naureen Khan says President Obama was able to make his ambitious proposals because the economy is in the best shape it's been in his six years in office.

The Economy Has Improved. The GOP's Talking Points Have Not. (TNR)

The five Republican responses to the State of the Union show that the GOP is still claiming the president's major achievements will crush the economy – but they aren't, writes Danny Vinik.

Toward a New Solidarity (TAP)

Rich Yeselson says that if the "labor question" is to return to the forefront of political thinking, the labor movement's best shot is to fight for all workers, not just its own members.

Debunking the Chatter: The Truth About Wall Street’s Volcker Rule Assault (Medium)

Alexis Goldstein breaks down the Wall Street public relations apparatus's push against the Volcker Rule, pointing out inaccurate data and straight-up falsehoods in their fact sheets.

New on Next New Deal

The 2003 Dividend Tax Cut Did Nothing to Help the Real Economy

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks at the data available on the 2003 dividend tax cut, which shows that the corporations affected disgorged more cash to shareholders, but didn't raise wages or investment.

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The 2003 Dividend Tax Cut Did Nothing to Help the Real Economy

Jan 20, 2015Mike Konczal

President Obama is going big on capital taxation in the State of the Union tonight, including a proposal to raise dividend taxes on the rich to 28 percent. The President is probably not going to frame this as a move away from the George W. Bush economy, but Bush’s radical cuts to capital taxes are part of his legacy that we are still living with. And it’s a part that the latest evidence tells us did a lot to help the rich without helping the overall economy at all.

In the response to Obama’s proposal, you are going to hear a lot about how lower dividend rates increase investment and help the real economy. Indeed, lowering capital tax rates has been a consistent goal of conservatives. As a result, one of the biggest capital taxation changes in history happened in 2003, when George W. Bush reduced the dividend tax rate from 38.6 percent to 15 percent as part of his rapid and expansive tax cut agenda.

There’s been a lot of research about the effect of this massive dividend tax cut on payouts to shareholders (kicked off by an important 2005 Chetty-Saez paper), but very little on its effect on the real economy. Did slashing the dividend tax rate boost corporate investments, perhaps because it made funding projects easier? We don’t know, and it’s not because economists aren’t interested; it’s because it’s very difficult to construct a control group with which to compare the results. Investments increased after 2003, but they likely would have to some degree independent of the dividend tax cut, as we were coming out of a recession. So did the tax cut make a difference?

This is where UC Berkeley economist Danny Yagan’s fantastic new paper, “Capital Tax Reform and the Real Economy: The Effects of the 2003 Dividend Tax Cut,” (pdf, slides) comes in. He uses a large amount of IRS data on corporate tax returns to compare S-corporations with C-corporations. Without getting deep into tax law, C-corporations are publicly-traded firms, while S-corporations are closely held ones without institutional investors. But they are largely comparable in the range Yagan looks at (between $1 million and $1 billion dollars in size), as they are competing in the same industries and locations.

Crucially, though, S-corporations don’t pay a dividend tax and thus didn’t benefit from the big 2003 dividend tax cut, while C-corporations do pay them and did benefit. So that allows Yagan to set up S-corporations as a control group and see what the effect of the massive dividend tax cut on C-corporations has been. Here’s what he finds:

The blue line is the C-corporations, which should diverge from the red-line if the dividend tax cut caused a real change. But there’s no statistical difference between the two paths at all. (Note how their paths are the same before the cut, so it’s a real trend in the business cycle.) There’s no difference in either investment or adjusted net investment. There’s also no difference when it comes to employee compensation. The firms that got a massive capital tax cut did not make any different choices about things that boost the real economy. This is true across a crazy-robust number of controls, measures, and coding of outliers.

The one thing that does increase for C-corporations, of course, is the disgorgement of cash to shareholders. Cutting dividend taxes leads to an increase in dividends and share buybacks. This shows that these corporations are in fact making decisions in response to the tax cut; they just happen to be decisions that benefit, well, probably not you. If right now you are worried that too much cash is leaving firms to benefit a handful of investors while the real economy stagnates, suddenly Clinton-era levels of dividend taxation don’t look so bad.

This is interesting for people interested more specifically in corporate finance theory. Because this is evidence against the theory that firms use the stock market to raise funding, and toward a “pecking order” theory that internal funds and riskless debt are far above equity in a hierarchy of corporate funding choices. In models like the latter, taxation of dividends does very little to impact the cost of capital for firms, because equity isn’t the binding constraint on marginal investment options.

President Obama will likely focus his pitch for the dividend tax increase on the future, when, in his argument, globalization and technology will cause compensation to stagnate while investor payouts skyrocket and the economy becomes more focused on the top 1 percent. But it’s worth noting that while capital taxes are a solution to that problem, the radical slashing conservatives have brought to them are also partly responsible for our current malaise.

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President Obama is going big on capital taxation in the State of the Union tonight, including a proposal to raise dividend taxes on the rich to 28 percent. The President is probably not going to frame this as a move away from the George W. Bush economy, but Bush’s radical cuts to capital taxes are part of his legacy that we are still living with. And it’s a part that the latest evidence tells us did a lot to help the rich without helping the overall economy at all.

In the response to Obama’s proposal, you are going to hear a lot about how lower dividend rates increase investment and help the real economy. Indeed, lowering capital tax rates has been a consistent goal of conservatives. As a result, one of the biggest capital taxation changes in history happened in 2003, when George W. Bush reduced the dividend tax rate from 38.6 percent to 15 percent as part of his rapid and expansive tax cut agenda.

There’s been a lot of research about the effect of this massive dividend tax cut on payouts to shareholders (kicked off by an important 2005 Chetty-Saez paper), but very little on its effect on the real economy. Did slashing the dividend tax rate boost corporate investments, perhaps because it made funding projects easier? We don’t know, and it’s not because economists aren’t interested; it’s because it’s very difficult to construct a control group with which to compare the results. Investments increased after 2003, but they likely would have to some degree independent of the dividend tax cut, as we were coming out of a recession. So did the tax cut make a difference?

This is where UC Berkeley economist Danny Yagan’s fantastic new paper, “Capital Tax Reform and the Real Economy: The Effects of the 2003 Dividend Tax Cut,” (pdf, slides) comes in. He uses a large amount of IRS data on corporate tax returns to compare S-corporations with C-corporations. Without getting deep into tax law, C-corporations are publicly-traded firms, while S-corporations are closely held ones without institutional investors. But they are largely comparable in the range Yagan looks at (between $1 million and $1 billion dollars in size), as they are competing in the same industries and locations.

Crucially, though, S-corporations don’t pay a dividend tax and thus didn’t benefit from the big 2003 dividend tax cut, while C-corporations do pay them and did benefit. So that allows Yagan to set up S-corporations as a control group and see what the effect of the massive dividend tax cut on C-corporations has been. Here’s what he finds:

The blue line is the C-corporations, which should diverge from the red-line if the dividend tax cut caused a real change. But there’s no statistical difference between the two paths at all. (Note how their paths are the same before the cut, so it’s a real trend in the business cycle.) There’s no difference in either investment or adjusted net investment. There’s also no difference when it comes to employee compensation. The firms that got a massive capital tax cut did not make any different choices about things that boost the real economy. This is true across a crazy-robust number of controls, measures, and coding of outliers.

The one thing that does increase for C-corporations, of course, is the disgorgement of cash to shareholders. Cutting dividend taxes leads to an increase in dividends and share buybacks. This shows that these corporations are in fact making decisions in response to the tax cut; they just happen to be decisions that benefit, well, probably not you. If right now you are worried that too much cash is leaving firms to benefit a handful of investors while the real economy stagnates, suddenly Clinton-era levels of dividend taxation don’t look so bad.

This is interesting for people interested more specifically in corporate finance theory. Because this is evidence against the theory that firms use the stock market to raise funding, and toward a “pecking order” theory that internal funds and riskless debt are far above equity in a hierarchy of corporate funding choices. In models like the latter, taxation of dividends does very little to impact the cost of capital for firms, because equity isn’t the binding constraint on marginal investment options.

President Obama will likely focus his pitch for the dividend tax increase on the future, when, in his argument, globalization and technology will cause compensation to stagnate while investor payouts skyrocket and the economy becomes more focused on the top 1 percent. But it’s worth noting that while capital taxes are a solution to that problem, the radical slashing conservatives have brought to them are also partly responsible for our current malaise.

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Daily Digest - January 20: Black and White Americans Are Still a World Apart

Jan 20, 2015Tim Price

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This Is the Key to Recovering Black Wealth in America (The Nation)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

This Is the Key to Recovering Black Wealth in America (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert note that housing segregation continues to limit Black economic mobility and contribute to a racist criminal justice system.

Obama's Tax Proposal Is Really About Shaping the Democratic Party After Obama (NYT)

The President's call to raise capital gains taxes while cutting taxes for workers won't get far in a Republican Congress, writes Neil Irwin, but it gives Democrats an organizing vision.

America Just Got Its First Glimpse at Hillarynomics -- Here's What It Looks Like (Vox)

A new report produced by key Clinton insiders emphasizes middle-class growth, writes Matt Yglesias, but sets aside thornier issues like Too Big To Fail or a public option for health care.

The New Compassionate Conservatism and Trickle-Down Economics (Robert Reich)

The 2016 Republican frontrunners may talk a big game about addressing inequality, says Robert Reich, but unless they renounce Reagonomics, their policies will only make it worse.

Democrats Urge Obama to 'Be Bold' on Overtime Pay Expansion (HuffPost)

Lawmakers want the Labor Department to make salaried workers earning less than $69,000 a year eligible for overtime pay, writes Dave Jamieson. The administration is considering a $42,000 threshold.

Community Benefits Agreements Under Attack (Al Jazeera)

An ALEC-backed bill in Michigan would ban government contracts that require businesses to meet community improvement goals in exchange for tax breaks and subsidies, reports Amy B. Dean.

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What Happened in 2013? Two Clarifications Among Current Debates

Jan 16, 2015Mike Konczal

Is it useful to clarify data and claims in the economics blogosphere? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot, as there’s two sets of arguments that could use more light rather than heat.

What Happened in 2013? Sumner and Wren-Lewis

Scott Sumner wrote this about Simon Wren-Lewis:

“Simon Wren-Lewis also gets the GDP growth data wrong, in a way that makes austerity look worse. He claims that RGDP growth was 2.3% in 2012 and 2.2% in 2013 (the year of austerity in the US.) But that’s annual y-o-y data, and since the austerity began on January 1st 2013, you need Q4 over Q4 data. In fact, RGDP growth in 2012, Q4 over Q4, was only 1.67%, whereas growth in the austerity year of 2013 nearly doubled to 3.13%.”

There’s no getting it wrong here: there’s simply two methods. Is it better to take the average annual rates and compare them (as Wren-Lewis does) or is it better to look at strict endpoints (as Sumner does)? An important thing about looking at Q4 vs Q4 data, as Sumner does, is to make sure that you haven’t accidentally set up your endpoints to amplify a trend that isn’t there. That technique is very sensitive to where you put the endpoints.

And sure enough, the quarters before and after that range featured negative or near zero growth. What if you redo this moving the quarters back and forth one period? Well, Q1 over Q1 2014 data drops to 1.9%, while Q3 over Q3 2012 rises to 2.7% (Q1 over Q1 2012 was 2.1%). It’s not encouraging if your argument falls apart because you move the data one step. We can graph out the Q over Q data for every quarter in fact; note Sumner is points to a single quarter that obviously sticks out. There’s a reason people might want to average the data in these situations, as Lewis does.

Simon-Wren Lewis, whose blog I really enjoy, already pointed out austerity didn’t start on January 1st, 2013, of course. And it didn’t; note the more consistent growth in the graphic in late 2010. But even better, the fourth quarter of 2012 featured a massive decline in military spending. According to Alan Krueger for the White House, “A likely explanation for the sharp decline in Federal defense spending is uncertainty concerning the automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to take effect in January.” That’s an additional problem for setting up this issue this way.

What Did People Say Would Happen? Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs argues that people worried about additional austerity in 2013 were saying that it would cause another recession. Sachs: “Indeed, deficit cuts [especially in 2013] would court a reprise of 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt prematurely reduced the New Deal stimulus and thereby threw the United States back into recession.”

I paid a lot of attention to these debates, and saw three estimates of the impact of 2013 austerity on the recovery: Mark Zandi at Moody’s Economy, EPI, and the CBO. All three were close to each other in their estimates. None predicted that we'd go back into recession or have no growth.

What were they predicting? Zandi put it clearly: “Altogether, lower federal government spending and higher taxes are expected to reduce 2013 real GDP growth...With such a heavy fiscal weight on the economy, it is hard to see how growth could accelerate, at least in the first half of 2013.”

That’s consistent with what we’ve seen. A drag, preventing accelerate growth and delaying a takeoff in 2013 and into 2014. I don’t see how Sachs can obviously claim that these numbers aren’t consistent with the idea that the government has been a net drag since 2011, or point to a pickup in late 2014 as obviously disproving anything. Maybe on closer, empirical grounds you could (though the empirical literature is finding multiplers), but not at this high level.

In my original question about the Federal Reserve versus austerity in 2013, which seems to animate a lot of these debates, the issue I put forward was whether the Federal Reserve could hit the inflation target it announced with the Evans Rule shifting expectations and open-ended purchases to back that up, while government spending was a drag. It did not.

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Is it useful to clarify data and claims in the economics blogosphere? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot, as there’s two sets of arguments that could use more light rather than heat.

What Happened in 2013? Sumner and Wren-Lewis

Scott Sumner wrote this about Simon Wren-Lewis:

“Simon Wren-Lewis also gets the GDP growth data wrong, in a way that makes austerity look worse. He claims that RGDP growth was 2.3% in 2012 and 2.2% in 2013 (the year of austerity in the US.) But that’s annual y-o-y data, and since the austerity began on January 1st 2013, you need Q4 over Q4 data. In fact, RGDP growth in 2012, Q4 over Q4, was only 1.67%, whereas growth in the austerity year of 2013 nearly doubled to 3.13%.”

There’s no getting it wrong here: there’s simply two methods. Is it better to take the average annual rates and compare them (as Wren-Lewis does) or is it better to look at strict endpoints (as Sumner does)? An important thing about looking at Q4 vs Q4 data, as Sumner does, is to make sure that you haven’t accidentally set up your endpoints to amplify a trend that isn’t there. That technique is very sensitive to where you put the endpoints.

And sure enough, the quarters before and after that range featured negative or near zero growth. What if you redo this moving the quarters back and forth one period? Well, Q1 over Q1 2014 data drops to 1.9%, while Q3 over Q3 2012 rises to 2.7% (Q1 over Q1 2012 was 2.1%). It’s not encouraging if your argument falls apart because you move the data one step. We can graph out the Q over Q data for every quarter in fact; note Sumner is points to a single quarter that obviously sticks out. There’s a reason people might want to average the data in these situations, as Lewis does.

Simon-Wren Lewis, whose blog I really enjoy, already pointed out austerity didn’t start on January 1st, 2013, of course. And it didn’t; note the more consistent growth in the graphic in late 2010. But even better, the fourth quarter of 2012 featured a massive decline in military spending. According to Alan Krueger for the White House, “A likely explanation for the sharp decline in Federal defense spending is uncertainty concerning the automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to take effect in January.” That’s an additional problem for setting up this issue this way.

What Did People Say Would Happen? Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs argues that people worried about additional austerity in 2013 were saying that it would cause another recession. Sachs: “Indeed, deficit cuts [especially in 2013] would court a reprise of 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt prematurely reduced the New Deal stimulus and thereby threw the United States back into recession.”

I paid a lot of attention to these debates, and saw three estimates of the impact of 2013 austerity on the recovery: Mark Zandi at Moody’s Economy, EPI, and the CBO. All three were close to each other in their estimates. None predicted that we'd go back into recession or have no growth.

What were they predicting? Zandi put it clearly: “Altogether, lower federal government spending and higher taxes are expected to reduce 2013 real GDP growth...With such a heavy fiscal weight on the economy, it is hard to see how growth could accelerate, at least in the first half of 2013.”

That’s consistent with what we’ve seen. A drag, preventing accelerate growth and delaying a takeoff in 2013 and into 2014. I don’t see how Sachs can obviously claim that these numbers aren’t consistent with the idea that the government has been a net drag since 2011, or point to a pickup in late 2014 as obviously disproving anything. Maybe on closer, empirical grounds you could (though the empirical literature is finding multiplers), but not at this high level.

In my original question about the Federal Reserve versus austerity in 2013, which seems to animate a lot of these debates, the issue I put forward was whether the Federal Reserve could hit the inflation target it announced with the Evans Rule shifting expectations and open-ended purchases to back that up, while government spending was a drag. It did not.

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For Now, Excitement of Free Community College Program Raises Lots of Questions

Jan 16, 2015David Bevevino

The initially available information about the president's free community college proposal leaves questions about implementation and additional costs unanswered. This piece expands on an earlier piece published at EAB.

The initially available information about the president's free community college proposal leaves questions about implementation and additional costs unanswered. This piece expands on an earlier piece published at EAB.

The President’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free for students “who are willing to work for it” has generated tremendous buzz in the higher education community over the past several days. For a sector of higher education that has experienced significant funding cuts as well as recent enrollment declines, this politically unlikely plan has led to excitement as well as some criticism.

Anyone interested in the particulars of the plan can review the White House Fact Sheet here. The quick take on the details reveals that students, institutions, states, and the federal government will all have skin in the game:

  • Students must attend community college at least half-time
  • Students must maintain a 2.5 GPA and demonstrate that they are making progress toward a credential
  • Institutions will be incentivized to offer programs that transfer to four-year institutions or job-training programs with proven career outcomes
  • Institutions must implement proven practices that increase student retention and completion, such as the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associates Program
  • The Federal government will cover 75 percent of the average community college tuition while requiring states to cover the remaining 25 percent
  • Early analysis indicates that students could use Pell Grants and other sources of aid to pay for non-tuition costs
  • The White House has estimated the program will cost $60 billion over 10 years.

Different Populations, Different Benefits

Proponents of the president’s plan and the Tennessee Promise initiative it is based on tout expanded access and opportunity for all students. However, critics focused on low-income student issues, such as the Institute for College Access and Success explain that the financial benefits of “free” community college primarily reach middle and upper income students. Low-income students pay little to no tuition already as the Pell Grant more than covers the average community college sticker price. This differential financial benefit is one of the primary criticisms of “last dollar” programs like the Tennessee Promise which only covers tuition expenses. The Obama administration’s proposal seems to have responded to these concerns by covering tuition first and allowing students to use additional funding for non-tuition expenses such as books and commuting costs.

Despite concerns about misaligned financial benefits, low-income students benefit in another way: a clear, simple path to higher education. In the first year of the Tennessee Promise, nearly ninety percent of the 2013 graduating high school population signed up for the program, a remarkable participation rate. Many of these students would have gone straight into the workforce if the Tennessee Promise had not made them believe they could afford college.

Navigating the College Labyrinth

A major challenge for community college leaders will be how to support these newcomers to higher education. Though many organizations have focused on the need for academic assistance, our research at EAB indicates that nonacademic factors such as financial distress and the lack of a college support network drive attrition, especially among first-generation, low-income, and working students. Our study, “Turning High School Partnerships into College Enrollments,” has explored how innovative community colleges have delivered student services in high schools and how they leverage community resources such as parents and mentors to build college navigation skills.

As the proposal requires a 2.5 GPA (higher than the 2.0 required in Tennessee), a minimum of half-time status, and steady progress to degree, questions remain about how colleges can ensure low-income, first-generation, and other at-risk students receive the greatest benefit from the program. Major questions include:

  • How can community colleges provide personalized guidance to their students in an era of fewer resources and staff?
  • What strategies encourage students to navigate the college environment on their own to increase limited staff capacity to assist students with more complex needs?
  • Which successful practices can be transferred across community college campuses?
  • How should community colleges reallocate resources and staff to the most impactful student services strategies?
  • How can colleges connect students with the most relevant services before student challenges become overwhelming?

Uncertain Financial Impact on Colleges

The President’s proposal also raises questions about the financial impact on colleges and students. These include:

  • Will this new initiative be a boon to community college bottom lines? How will it affect the current trend of state disinvestment in community colleges?
  • How will the proposal affect the way states and local districts set tuition and fees, as well as estimate the per student cost of education?
  • How will institutions be measured on graduation rates, career outcomes, and institutional reform implementation under the proposals requirements?
  • If more low-income, first-generation, and part-time students enroll, will the program acknowledge the completion challenges these populations carry and not penalize colleges trying to support them?

If the proposal increases enrollments, colleges will most likely see revenue bumps. Many college leaders would welcome enrollment increases after several years of declines. However, significant upticks in student numbers may put pressure on student support capacity and physical plants at community colleges. States and local districts may be caught funding the new capital or staff investments needed to meet student demand. If they cannot meet the requirements for student support or career outcomes, community colleges may come under additional scrutiny.

Despite Political Challenges, an Exciting Day for Community Colleges

Most commentators agree that the President’s plan has little chance of passing Congress. However, the idea may spread among the states and encourage new investment in higher education after years of shrinking state and local appropriations. Though major questions about supporting students and meeting financial challenges remain, the ambitious proposal has brought much needed attention and hope to community colleges across the nation.

David Bevevino was the Vice President of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network in 2009. He now serves as a Research Consultant with the EAB Community College Executive Forum, a best practice research program serving community college presidents and their leadership teams.

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Daily Digest - January 16: Internet Access is the Next Tennessee Valley Authority

Jan 16, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

There will be no new Daily Digest on Monday, January 19 in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The Daily Digest will return on Tuesday, January 20.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Barack Obama: The FDR of Internet Access? (Moyers & Company)

There will be no new Daily Digest on Monday, January 19 in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The Daily Digest will return on Tuesday, January 20.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Barack Obama: The FDR of Internet Access? (Moyers & Company)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford compares the president's recent push for fiber-optic Internet access to FDR's work on electricity during the New Deal.

Obama Tells Agencies to Advance Sick Leave For Feds’ New Children (WaPo)

Joe Davidson reports that the sick leave would be paired with paid administrative leave, so that federal employees with a new child could have parental leave as well as sick time to follow.

Trying to Solve the Great Wage Slowdown (NYT)

David Leonhardt looks at a new report that considers what could get wages rising again. It focuses in particular on Canada and Australia, countries similar to the U.S. that have seen wage growth.

How Elizabeth Warren Is Yanking Hillary Clinton to the Left (TIME)

Rana Foroohar says that Senator Warren is already shifting the conversation on economics, citing a new report on wages and the middle class from relatively centrist Larry Summers as proof.

Home Care Workers Denied the Right to Make Minimum Wage and Overtime (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert reports on a ruling that has overturned a 2013 Department of Labor rule change on the "companionship exception," which allows home care workers to be paid sub-minimum wages.

New on Next New Deal

A Battle Map for the Republican War Against Dodd-Frank

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks at the three fronts in this surprisingly sophisticated GOP war: guerilla deregulation, administrative siege, and reactionary rhetoric.

The Van Hollen Plan Takes on Soaring CEO Pay: A Debate We Need to Have

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Holmberg points out that Rep. Van Hollen's plan has great political messaging around CEO pay, though it doesn't fully close the performance pay loophole.

For Now, Excitement of Free Community College Program Raises Lots of Questions

David Bevevino, a Campus Network alumnus who now researches community college best practices, poses questions about how schools will implement this program, and what extraneous costs it might have.

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The Van Hollen Plan Takes on Soaring CEO Pay: A Debate We Need to Have

Jan 15, 2015Susan Holmberg

Taxpayers are subsidizing ever-larger executive pay packages while their own wages stagnate. For the middle class to prosper, that needs to change.

Taxpayers are subsidizing ever-larger executive pay packages while their own wages stagnate. For the middle class to prosper, that needs to change.

The intrepid economic proposals in Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s action plan “to grow the paychecks of all, not just the wealth of a few” may not win over a Republican Congress, but they will reinforce the progressive economic messaging championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and conceivably embolden more Democrats to finally take command of our economic debate in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Though Van Hollen’s tax credits for working families and dilution of tax breaks for the rich have grabbed the most headlines, another controversial but important piece of his plan is the CEO-Employee Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to address one of the key contributing factors to soaring inequality and economic volatility in the U.S.

The CEO-Employee Paycheck Fairness Act stops corporations from claiming tax deductions for “performance pay” for executives – e.g. stock options and stock grants – “unless their workers are getting paycheck increases that reflect increases in worker productivity and the cost of living.”

The logic of this law is simple. Since 1979, productivity growth in the U.S. has risen eight times faster than the typical worker’s pay. At the same time, corporations have enjoyed a tax deduction for CEO pay levels (and compensation for other top executives) that are now 296 times median worker pay. Van Hollen’s proposal says that corporations can no longer continue to take these unlimited tax deductions for CEO and executive pay unless they are also giving their employees a raise that reflects worker productivity as well as cost of living increases. Specifically, to enjoy the tax benefit, corporations must raise the average pay of their workers earning below $115,000 by the U.S.’s average annual net productivity growth since 2000, which is about 2 percent, plus the annual inflation rate.

Most of us think of skyrocketing CEO pay as an ethical problem, not an economic one. But in fact, the problems that come with skyrocketing CEO pay – in 2013, the average CEO at S&P 500 Index companies was worth $11.7 million – are well beyond the issue of basic fairness. Exorbitant CEO pay comes with enormous economic costs to all of us.

Many of the problems stem from the tax deduction Van Hollen is referring to, the notorious “performance pay” loophole created by Section 162(m) of the U.S. tax code. Section 162(m) prohibits corporate tax deductions for executive pay over $1 million unless that pay is rewarded for meeting performance goals. This was supposed to curb skyrocketing executive pay, but after it became law in the 1990s, the predictable happened: companies started dispensing more compensation that qualified as performance pay, particularly stock options. Median executive compensation levels for S&P 500 Industrial companies almost tripled from less than $2 million in 1992 to more than $5 million six years later, mainly driven by a dramatic growth in stock options, which doubled in frequency. For more background on this issue, I recommend my primer, “Understanding the CEO Pay Debate.”

Because it makes executives very wealthy, very quickly, performance pay is not only a major driver of the U.S. inequality problem, which in itself wreaks havoc on our economy, but also encourages shortsighted, excessively high-risk, and occasionally fraudulent decisions in order to boost stock prices. What kind of effect does this behavior have on the economy at large? Many economists argue that executive compensation policies in the financial industry led to the global economic crisis. Performance pay also diminishes long-term business investments. According to economist William Lazonick, in order to issue stock options to top executives while avoiding the dilution of their stock, corporations often divert funds to stock buybacks rather than spending on research and development, capital investment, increased wages, and new hiring. And the rest of us are footing the bill: the Economic Policy Institute calculated that taxpayers have subsidized $30 billion to corporations through the performance pay loophole between 2007 and 2010. Let me rephrase that: in a three-year period, taxpayers have subsidized $30 billion for executive pay, all while seeing their own wages stagnate.

Van Hollen’s proposal to make performance pay contingent on workers’ pay is good political messaging that draws attention to the ways in which executive pay practices impact middle class wages. And if we think about it in light of Lazonick’s story about stock buybacks, it’s clear how Van Hollen’s plan could have a positive impact: either corporations would not pay their workers more, which would preclude them from using a loophole that has shaped their executive compensation strategy for the last two decades and been a core driver of the rise in CEO pay, or they would have to spend money to raise wages that would have otherwise been spent on stock buybacks, which could reduce the amount of performance pay issued. In other words, the condition on which corporations could use the performance pay loophole might force them to use it less.

But there is also a potential drawback to Van Hollen’s CEO pay proposal. Because it doesn’t fully close the problematic loophole, but instead adds another condition, it may create further complexity in a corporate tax scenario that is already hyper-complicated and thus open to manipulation by corporate accountants. A more straightforward approach can be found in the Reed-Blumenthal and Doggett bills that would close the performance pay loophole entirely and cap the tax deductibility of executive pay at $1 million.

Another idea that would match the boldness of the financial transactions tax in Van Hollen’s action plan is to peg corporate tax rates to the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay. Last year, California state Senators Mark DeSaulnier and Loni Hancock introduced SB 1372, which raised the tax rate on companies that pay their CEO 100 times more than the median worker. According to the senators, “A CEO would have to make 300 to 400 times more than the median worker for a company to see a 3% increase in the corporate tax rate.” Companies with ratios less than 100 would see their tax rates decrease. DeSaulnier and Hancock’s bill got a majority of votes in the state senate, but did not move to the other chamber because, in California, a tax bill requires a two-thirds vote to advance. Nevertheless, the idea of holding corporations accountable for the relative amounts they pay their executives and their workers has been circulating in the U.S. Dodd-Frank already includes a requirement that companies disclose this pay ratio, though the SEC has been slow to put it into effect.

Van Hollen’s action plan is an exciting set of ideas for moving the country toward a more prosperous future. Ultimately, we need policy that erases the performance pay loophole entirely, but the CEO-Employee Paycheck Fairness is important in terms of drawing attention to executive pay practices and the way they affect working families and middle class wage earners, the engines of our economy. It’s time to have the debate about how we can effectively curb soaring CEO pay while building a broad middle class.

Susan Holmberg is a Fellow and Director of Research at the Roosevelt Institute.

Image via Shutterstock

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A Battle Map for the Republican War Against Dodd-Frank

Jan 15, 2015Mike Konczal

The Republicans have declared war against Dodd-Frank. But what kind of war is it, and on what fronts are they waging this war? I think there are at least three campaigns, each with its own strategic goals and tactics. Distinguishing these campaigns from each other will help us understand what Republicans are trying to do and how to keep them in check.

First, to understand the Republican campaigns, it’s useful go over what Dodd-Frank does. Dodd-Frank can be analogized to the way we regulate driving. First, there are simple rules of the road, like speed limits and stop signs, designed as outright prevention against accidents. Then there are efforts to help with stabilization if the driver gets in trouble, such as anti-lock brakes or road design. And then there are regulations for the resolution of accidents that do occur, like seat belts and airbags, designed to avoids worst-case scenarios.

These three goals map onto Dodd-Frank pretty well. Dodd-Frank also puts rules upfront to prevent certain actions, requires additional regulations to create stability within large financial firms, and lays out plans to allow for a successful resolution of a firm once it fails. Let’s graph that out:

Prevention: Dodd-Frank created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), reforming consumer protection from being an “orphan mission” spread across 11 agencies by establishing one dedicated agency for it. The act also requires that derivatives trade with clearinghouses and through exchanges or else face additional capital requirements, which brought price transparency and additional capital to the market that brought down AIG. Another piece is the Volcker Rule, which separates the proprietary trading that can cause rapid losses from our commercial banking and payment systems.

Stabilization: Dodd-Frank also provides for the expansion of capital requirements across the financial sector, including higher requirements for the biggest firms relative to smaller ones, as well as higher requirements for those who use short-term funding in the “shadow” banking sector relative to traditional banks. These firms are designed by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC).

Resolution:  The firms FSOC designates as systemically risky have to prepare themselves for a rapid resolution for when they do fail. They have to prove that they can survive bankruptcy without bringing down the entire system (an effort currently being fought). The FDIC has prepared a second line of defense, a special “resolution authority” (OLA) to use if bankruptcy isn’t a viable option in a crisis.

These elements of the law all flow naturally from the financial crisis of 2008. It would have been very helpful in the crisis for there to be more clarity in the derivatives market, more capital in shadow banks, and a process to resolve Lehman Brothers. Maybe these are great ways to approach the problem or maybe they aren’t, but to suggest they have no basis in the crisis, as the American Enterprise Institute comically does, is pure ideology.

But ignore the more ridiculous arguments. The actual war against Dodd-Frank is much more sophisticated, and it’s being waged on numerous fronts. Let’s make a map of the battlefield:

There are three distinct campaigns being waged:

Guerrilla Deregulation. The goal here is to undermine as much of the efforts of derivatives regulation, the Volcker Rule, and the CFPB as possible through quick, surprise attacks. This, in turn, has a chilling effect across regulators and throws the regulatory process into chaos.

The main tactic, as in any good guerrilla campaign, is to do hit-and-run ambushes of key, important targets vulnerable to raids. David Dayen had a helpful list of some key bills that must pass in 2015, bills likely to be perfect targets for a good guerrilla raid. The guerrilla campaign had a major victory in weakening the Section 716 “push-out” rule in the Cromnibus bill. And that will probably be a model going forward for these tactics, replicated in the recent attacks we’ve seen, down to counting the small handful of Democrats signing on as some sort of concession of bipartisanship.

Another guerrilla element will be the focus on victory through attrition. It’s not like the House Republicans have their own theory of how to regulate the derivatives market, or that they are making the full case against the Volcker Rule or the CFPB, or even proposing their own anything. They are winning simply through weakening both the rules and the resolve of reformers.

Administrative Siege: Aside from the guerrilla war of deregulation, the GOP is also waging war on another front, through a long-term siege of the regulatory agencies. This includes blockading them from resources like funding and personnel, consistent harassment, discrediting them in the eyes of the broader public, and weakening their power to act. This is a long-term battle, going back to the beginning of Dodd-Frank, and their terms are unconditional surrender.

The seriousness of this campaign became clear when the GOP first refused to appoint any director of the CFPB unless there was a complete overhaul to weaken it. This campaign has continued against the CFTC, and now extends to the FSOC trying to designate firms as systemically risky. The recent House bill to extend cost-benefit analysis to financial regulations, where it has little history, unclear analytical benefit, and could easily lead to worse rules, is also part of this siege.

One key argument the GOP is pushing is that the regulators are historically too powerful and out of control. As House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling said to the Wall Street Journal, the CFPB is “the single most unaccountable agency in the history of America.” This is just silly agitprop. The structure -- independent budgets and a single director -- looks exactly like their counterparts in the OCC. It’s not only subject to the same rule-making process as other regulators, but other regulators can in fact veto the CFPB, making it significantly more accountable compared to any other agency.

The same is being said about FSOC. Note that there’s always room for improvement; Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) have some ways to improve the transparency of FSOC here. But as AFR’s Marcus Stanley notes, the House’s recent FSOC bill “appears better calculated to hinder FSOC operations than to improve its transparency.” Indeed, as Better Markets notes, this FSOC battle is in large part over the regulation of money market funds, a crucial reform in fixing shadow banking. But making government work better isn’t the goal of the siege; this campaign’s goal is to break these agencies and their ability to regulate the financial system.

Reactionary Rhetoric: The goal of this ideological programming campaign is to push the argument that Dodd-Frank simply reinforces the worst part of the bailouts and does nothing productive toward reform. Instead of a series of methods to check and reduce Too Big To Fail, this campaign argues that Dodd-Frank does worse than fail. Following the rhetoric of reaction, reform simply makes the problem far worse. The point here is to remove the FDIC’s ability to put systemically risky firms into a receivership while also preparing the ground for a full repeal.

Advancing the argument that Dodd-Frank has made the bailouts of 2008-2009 permanent and serves only to benefit the biggest financial firms has become a marching order for the movement right. It was basically the entire GOP argument against Dodd-Frank in 2012 (Mitt Romney calling the act "the biggest kiss" to Wall Street), and it still dominates their talking points. If this were the case, the largest banks would receive a large Too Big To Fail subsidy, and we’d subsequently see a reduction in their borrowing costs.

Major studies tells us that the opposite is the case; since 2010 Too Big To Fail subsidies have fallen instead of stabilized or increased. This doesn’t mean the work is done - we could still see a major failure cause systemic risk, and just “avoiding catastrophic collapses” isn’t really a headline goal for a functioning financial system. There’s also little evidence that Dodd-Frank enriches the biggest banks; firms go out of their way to avoid a SIFI designation, which they wouldn’t if there were a benefit to them, and Wall Street analysts take it for granted that capital requirements and other regulations are more binding for the largest firms.

There could be a productive discussion here about finding a way to reform the bankruptcy code to help combat Too Big To Fail while keeping resolution authority as a backup option. That backup option is key though. Unlike OLA, bankruptcy is slow and deliberate, isn't designed to preserve ongoing firm business, doesn't have guaranteed funding available, can’t prevent runs from short-term creditors, and has trouble internationally. But again, the point for Republicans isn’t to try to come up with the best regime; it’s to discredit the effort at reform entirely so the other campaigns, and the overall campaign for repeal, can be that much easier.

Why do Republicans want all this? The answer you will normally hear is that they are in the pocket of Wall Street or in the thrall of free-market fundamentalism. And there’s truth to that. But they’ve also created a whole institutionally enforced counter-narrative where there was no real crisis and Wall Street committed no bad behavior except for when ACORN made them. This narrative is, bluntly, dumb. But it is the narrative their movement has chosen, and movements have a way of forcing well-meaning people who’d otherwise want to find good solutions to fall in line.

2015 will require reformers to wage their own campaigns to push additional reform (here’s a start), push for stronger action from regulators, and make the public understand the progress that has been made. But first we need to understand that while conservatives may look like they are running a smash-and-grab operation when it comes to Dodd-Frank, it’s actually a quite sophisticated series of campaigns, and they are already winning battles.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

The Republicans have declared war against Dodd-Frank. But what kind of war is it, and on what fronts are they waging this war? I think there are at least three campaigns, each with its own strategic goals and tactics. Distinguishing these campaigns from each other will help us understand what Republicans are trying to do and how to keep them in check.

First, to understand the Republican campaigns, it’s useful go over what Dodd-Frank does. Dodd-Frank can be analogized to the way we regulate driving. First, there are simple rules of the road, like speed limits and stop signs, designed as outright prevention against accidents. Then there are efforts to help with stabilization if the driver gets in trouble, such as anti-lock brakes or road design. And then there are regulations for the resolution of accidents that do occur, like seat belts and airbags, designed to avoids worst-case scenarios.

These three goals map onto Dodd-Frank pretty well. Dodd-Frank also puts rules upfront to prevent certain actions, requires additional regulations to create stability within large financial firms, and lays out plans to allow for a successful resolution of a firm once it fails. Let’s graph that out:

Prevention: Dodd-Frank created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), reforming consumer protection from being an “orphan mission” spread across 11 agencies by establishing one dedicated agency for it. The act also requires that derivatives trade with clearinghouses and through exchanges or else face additional capital requirements, which brought price transparency and additional capital to the market that brought down AIG. Another piece is the Volcker Rule, which separates the proprietary trading that can cause rapid losses from our commercial banking and payment systems.

Stabilization: Dodd-Frank also provides for the expansion of capital requirements across the financial sector, including higher requirements for the biggest firms relative to smaller ones, as well as higher requirements for those who use short-term funding in the “shadow” banking sector relative to traditional banks. These firms are designed by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC).

Resolution:  The firms FSOC designates as systemically risky have to prepare themselves for a rapid resolution for when they do fail. They have to prove that they can survive bankruptcy without bringing down the entire system (an effort currently being fought). The FDIC has prepared a second line of defense, a special “resolution authority” (OLA) to use if bankruptcy isn’t a viable option in a crisis.

These elements of the law all flow naturally from the financial crisis of 2008. It would have been very helpful in the crisis for there to be more clarity in the derivatives market, more capital in shadow banks, and a process to resolve Lehman Brothers. Maybe these are great ways to approach the problem or maybe they aren’t, but to suggest they have no basis in the crisis, as the American Enterprise Institute comically does, is pure ideology.

But ignore the more ridiculous arguments. The actual war against Dodd-Frank is much more sophisticated, and it’s being waged on numerous fronts. Let’s make a map of the battlefield:

There are three distinct campaigns being waged:

Guerrilla Deregulation. The goal here is to undermine as much of the efforts of derivatives regulation, the Volcker Rule, and the CFPB as possible through quick, surprise attacks. This, in turn, has a chilling effect across regulators and throws the regulatory process into chaos.

The main tactic, as in any good guerrilla campaign, is to do hit-and-run ambushes of key, important targets vulnerable to raids. David Dayen had a helpful list of some key bills that must pass in 2015, bills likely to be perfect targets for a good guerrilla raid. The guerrilla campaign had a major victory in weakening the Section 716 “push-out” rule in the Cromnibus bill. And that will probably be a model going forward for these tactics, replicated in the recent attacks we’ve seen, down to counting the small handful of Democrats signing on as some sort of concession of bipartisanship.

Another guerrilla element will be the focus on victory through attrition. It’s not like the House Republicans have their own theory of how to regulate the derivatives market, or that they are making the full case against the Volcker Rule or the CFPB, or even proposing their own anything. They are winning simply through weakening both the rules and the resolve of reformers.

Administrative Siege: Aside from the guerrilla war of deregulation, the GOP is also waging war on another front, through a long-term siege of the regulatory agencies. This includes blockading them from resources like funding and personnel, consistent harassment, discrediting them in the eyes of the broader public, and weakening their power to act. This is a long-term battle, going back to the beginning of Dodd-Frank, and their terms are unconditional surrender.

The seriousness of this campaign became clear when the GOP first refused to appoint any director of the CFPB unless there was a complete overhaul to weaken it. This campaign has continued against the CFTC, and now extends to the FSOC trying to designate firms as systemically risky. The recent House bill to extend cost-benefit analysis to financial regulations, where it has little history, unclear analytical benefit, and could easily lead to worse rules, is also part of this siege.

One key argument the GOP is pushing is that the regulators are historically too powerful and out of control. As House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling said to the Wall Street Journal, the CFPB is “the single most unaccountable agency in the history of America.” This is just silly agitprop. The structure -- independent budgets and a single director -- looks exactly like their counterparts in the OCC. It’s not only subject to the same rule-making process as other regulators, but other regulators can in fact veto the CFPB, making it significantly more accountable compared to any other agency.

The same is being said about FSOC. Note that there’s always room for improvement; Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) have some ways to improve the transparency of FSOC here. But as AFR’s Marcus Stanley notes, the House’s recent FSOC bill “appears better calculated to hinder FSOC operations than to improve its transparency.” Indeed, as Better Markets notes, this FSOC battle is in large part over the regulation of money market funds, a crucial reform in fixing shadow banking. But making government work better isn’t the goal of the siege; this campaign’s goal is to break these agencies and their ability to regulate the financial system.

Reactionary Rhetoric: The goal of this ideological programming campaign is to push the argument that Dodd-Frank simply reinforces the worst part of the bailouts and does nothing productive toward reform. Instead of a series of methods to check and reduce Too Big To Fail, this campaign argues that Dodd-Frank does worse than fail. Following the rhetoric of reaction, reform simply makes the problem far worse. The point here is to remove the FDIC’s ability to put systemically risky firms into a receivership while also preparing the ground for a full repeal.

Advancing the argument that Dodd-Frank has made the bailouts of 2008-2009 permanent and serves only to benefit the biggest financial firms has become a marching order for the movement right. It was basically the entire GOP argument against Dodd-Frank in 2012 (Mitt Romney calling the act "the biggest kiss" to Wall Street), and it still dominates their talking points. If this were the case, the largest banks would receive a large Too Big To Fail subsidy, and we’d subsequently see a reduction in their borrowing costs.

Major studies tells us that the opposite is the case; since 2010 Too Big To Fail subsidies have fallen instead of stabilized or increased. This doesn’t mean the work is done - we could still see a major failure cause systemic risk, and just “avoiding catastrophic collapses” isn’t really a headline goal for a functioning financial system. There’s also little evidence that Dodd-Frank enriches the biggest banks; firms go out of their way to avoid a SIFI designation, which they wouldn’t if there were a benefit to them, and Wall Street analysts take it for granted that capital requirements and other regulations are more binding for the largest firms.

There could be a productive discussion here about finding a way to reform the bankruptcy code to help combat Too Big To Fail while keeping resolution authority as a backup option. That backup option is key though. Unlike OLA, bankruptcy is slow and deliberate, isn't designed to preserve ongoing firm business, doesn't have guaranteed funding available, can’t prevent runs from short-term creditors, and has trouble internationally. But again, the point for Republicans isn’t to try to come up with the best regime; it’s to discredit the effort at reform entirely so the other campaigns, and the overall campaign for repeal, can be that much easier.

Why do Republicans want all this? The answer you will normally hear is that they are in the pocket of Wall Street or in the thrall of free-market fundamentalism. And there’s truth to that. But they’ve also created a whole institutionally enforced counter-narrative where there was no real crisis and Wall Street committed no bad behavior except for when ACORN made them. This narrative is, bluntly, dumb. But it is the narrative their movement has chosen, and movements have a way of forcing well-meaning people who’d otherwise want to find good solutions to fall in line.

2015 will require reformers to wage their own campaigns to push additional reform (here’s a start), push for stronger action from regulators, and make the public understand the progress that has been made. But first we need to understand that while conservatives may look like they are running a smash-and-grab operation when it comes to Dodd-Frank, it’s actually a quite sophisticated series of campaigns, and they are already winning battles.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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