Felicia Wong

Roosevelt Institute President and CEO

Recent Posts by Felicia Wong

  • 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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  • The Stiglitz Code: How Taxing Capital Can Counter Inequality

    May 28, 2014Felicia Wong

    Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that tax reform is the key to addressing inequality in a new Roosevelt Institute paper released today. Click here to listen to Stiglitz describe the key arguments of the paper.

    Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that tax reform is the key to addressing inequality in a new Roosevelt Institute paper released today. Click here to listen to Stiglitz describe the key arguments of the paper. Click here to read his recent congressional testimony on why inequality matters and what can be done about it.

    The American economy is at a crossroads. One of the questions that will determine which path we take is whether and how the government can use taxes to meet social needs. In recent years there have been countless calls to overhaul the tax code, but few have offered a robust set of objectives framed around providing and supporting public goods. The vision of active and effective government in support of the economic common good that President Franklin D. Roosevelt advanced through the New Deal is fading from sight.

    That changes with today’s release of “Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity” by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz. In this transformative new white paper, the Nobel-winning economist who foresaw the economic crisis and the rise of the Occupy movement sets out to reshape the debate around the role of taxation in our society.

    The ideas proposed in the paper are premised on core economic principles – taxing bads, encouraging goods – on which the vast majority of economists agree.  The policy toolkit Stiglitz describes applies across the entire economic landscape. With growing wealth inequality and the political power of the top 1 percent in the spotlight thanks to the success of Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital in the 21st Century, Stiglitz calls for taxing capital as if it were regular income and boosting inheritance taxes. He overhauls corporate taxation for the age of globalization and international tax havens, bringing money back to where it was made. He also proposes taxes on negative externalities to ensure that those whose actions do harm, whether in the form of environmental pollution or a financial crisis, pay the price.

    The specifics are cogent and compelling. Stiglitz’s truly innovative idea is that we can raise tax revenue while also creating a better, more equal and just economy that works for all – the kind of economy that FDR believed in and fought for. Stiglitz makes the case that tax policy can and should counter some of the country’s biggest challenges: runaway inequality, the threat of climate change, and a business sector warped by bad incentives.

    This will not be easy. The transition to a smarter, better tax code would require careful implementation. Tax expenditures would need to be replaced with a better mechanism to ensure that homeowners build equity and that the tax code doesn’t just subsidize the rich. The financial sector, too, would be subject to new taxes that, according to Stiglitz, “would not only raise substantial revenues, but also encourage that sector to better serve the needs of society.” Lobbyists would be out in force to resist and undermine these policy changes, as they have done with the new regulations imposed by Dodd-Frank.

    But in an era when the debate over taxation is still dominated by austerity economics and a slash-and-burn approach, Stiglitz lays out a tax policy that would grow the economy. And instead of treating taxation as value-neutral or a necessary evil, he tells us that it can be a means to address important problems. This represents a fundamental and long-overdue shift in our public dialogue about the economy. The American people deserve a tax code that works for them. With this paper, we have the blueprint to create it.

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

    Banner photo via OurWorld2.0, Creative Commons.

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  • Good News for Progressive Economics: Big Thinkers Like Piketty Are Back in Vogue

    May 2, 2014Felicia Wong

    Thomas Piketty's success is no fluke; he and other progressive thinkers have redefined the public debate around inequality.

    Thomas Piketty's success is no fluke; he and other progressive thinkers have redefined the public debate around inequality.

    Inequality suddenly is the topic of the moment. Last weekend the French economist Thomas Piketty – whose recently published Capital in the 21st Century is now #1 on the Amazon best seller list, shocking for a 690-page macroeconomic tome – was not only the subject of dueling Paul Krugman/David Brooks op-ed columns in the New York Times. Piketty was also top of the fold in the Times’ Sunday Styles section (headline: “Hey, Big Thinker”), which made note of his “boyishly handsome” looks. Clearly, something is up.

    At Boston Review, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal provides an excellent overview of the response to Piketty from both left and right. (You can also listen to him discuss it with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.) Much of the commentary seems to have gone, in only two or three weeks, from economic and policy questions (about his core formula, r>g, or about whether his recommendation of a global tax on capital is actually realistic) to observations that he is a “sign of his times.” In my view, this observation is absolutely right. Piketty’s argument about increasing returns to capital, relatively weak returns to labor, sluggish growth, and the overall rise of both income inequality and wealth inequality, is in fact perfectly in tune with our political and economic concerns today. 

    However, I would go much farther than to say that Piketty is merely a sign of his times. I would say that he and other economists have actually defined these times — or at least helped create today’s environment. Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez have been developing their top incomes database for the last 15 years, and publishing results along the way. Since 2003, Piketty’s data, based on an exhaustive review of tax records, has been setting the agenda and driving a tremendous amount of research. I first encountered the data in Winner-Take-All Politicsalso a best-seller, by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. 

    Moreover, a number of those involved credit Piketty’s data with sparking the fall 2011 rise of Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent framing, which remains a central part of our national conversation. (Credit, according to many others, also goes to Roosevelt Institute’s Chief Economist Joe Stiglitz and his widely read April 2011 Vanity Fair piece, “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%.” )

    My point is this: Big Thinkers, whether Thomas Piketty or Joe Stiglitz or others, are not just reflections of the times. They are creating today’s debate. Ideas really matter.

    In congressional testimony on inequality Stiglitz gave three weeks ago, he noticed a real change in attitude among senators, who are open to everything from a carbon tax to changes in corporate taxation, carried income, and the like. 

    We are at a unique moment, thanks to Piketty, Stiglitz, the Occupy Wall Street organizers, and many others. Think tanks like Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center have a window within which these ideas and arguments can make a very big difference – in the media, in Congress, and, I hope, in cities and towns nationwide. We are pushing hard here to create to a new normal in our understanding of the political economy. Our argument: you can increase economic growth and decrease inequality simultaneously. 

    But forces are also arraying against us. The conservatives have yet to fully organize their arguments against Piketty, but already the American Enterprise Institute is arguing that he is promoting the end of capitalism. (He isn’t.) Moreover, I am hearing from Washington sources that over the next year, and especially leading into the midterms, destroying any burgeoning inequality agenda is a central goal of the right wing.

    If we want a new normal in our understanding of inequality, we need to be ready to go on the offensive – strategically and systematically. We have solutions. Recent evidence shows they can work. Now: can we put muscle behind the ideas?

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

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  • In Seattle, Calls for a Higher Minimum Wage are Calls for Democracy

    Mar 28, 2014Felicia Wong

    Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong spoke yesterday at the Income Inequality Symposium in Seattle, where she gave the closing remarks, calling on our memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to urge Seattle into action on raising the minimum wage. Her prepared remarks are below.

    Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong spoke yesterday at the Income Inequality Symposium in Seattle, where she gave the closing remarks, calling on our memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to urge Seattle into action on raising the minimum wage. Her prepared remarks are below.

    Thank you so much, Mayor Murray, David Rolf from SEIU 775NW, Howard Wright, and all of you who have served on the Mayor’s Task Force or spent so much of your time fighting for economic growth and economic justice.

    Today – we feel like a nation at the crossroads, on the brink.  But let’s remember: we’ve been here before. The story is familiar. Poverty and income inequality are on the rise throughout the United States. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, you’re struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, a select few do very, very well for themselves. The President, facing a critical midterm election, addresses the nation. Raise standards for workers, he says, and he calls for laws to raise the national minimum wage, too.

    I’m talking about 1938, when the President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When FDR took office, there was no federal law guaranteeing a minimum wage for American workers – and in fact throughout the 1930s the President battled a recalcitrant and conservative Supreme Court, and conservative business establishment, on behalf of workers. In his 1938 address to Congress, FDR said such a law was long overdue. He said it was morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable for so many people in the United States to earn poverty wages. To quote Roosevelt: “Aside from the undoubted fact that the people thereby suffer great human hardship, they are unable to buy adequate food and shelter, to maintain health, or to buy their share of manufactured goods.”

    That’s the key. FDR understood that the minimum wage was an issue for our hearts and for our wallets. Again and again, he returned to the point that businesses could not thrive unless workers did. Without workers, an economy cannot grow.

    It was a tough fight, and FDR didn’t go it alone. He had what he called his Brains Trust -- lawmakers, academics, activists, and business leaders. Their job was to figure out economic policies under which everyone could prosper. FDR went to Congress with their proposals. The result: the Fair Labor Standards Act, a keystone of the New Deal, along with the Social Security Act. With the FLSA we got a federal minimum wage as well as the 40-hour workweek and standards for overtime pay. These underlie modern labor policy.  These are issues that are hotly debated even today.

    As we’ve seen over the course of this day’s symposium, fixing our country’s inequality and wage problems will – once again – need the good ideas and expertise of a brain trust. We have been fortunate to hear from important partners such as Maud Daudon from the Chamber of Commerce, Saru Jayaraman from Restaurant Opportunities Center - United, and leaders from other cities such as Supervisor John Avalos from my hometown of San Francisco and Wilson Goode from Philadelphia.  Innovation is a team sport. FDR understood this, and so does Mayor Murray.

    I work at the Roosevelt Institute in New York City.  And I am here today because Seattle is at the center of the nation’s most important fight.  

    At Roosevelt, we think of ourselves as an ideas and leadership shop. I won’t claim that we ask ourselves “What Would FDR Do?” in every situation. But we certainly try to capture his spirit of innovation and collaboration in our work. We support public intellectuals like Dorian Warren, whom you’ve heard from today, and Mike Konczal, Joe Stiglitz, Annette Bernhardt, Richard Kirsch, and others. They plunge into all facets of the inequality problem – which President Obama has rightly called the defining problem of our time.  They envision solutions, including a new labor agenda for the 21st century.  This includes raising the minimum wage and providing paid sick leave, and also includes new standards for the right to organize, the enforcement of labor laws, and strategies to combat labor market segregation by race and gender.  At Roosevelt we also support some 10,000 undergraduates across the U.S. who dig in deep in their local communities – designing and fighting for policy solutions at the city level.

    We at the Roosevelt Institute believe – as does everyone here – that we all do better when we all do better. But: wages have been backsliding for decades now. The typical American family makes less today than it did 25 years ago. I know we have heard a lot of statistics today, and they can seem overwhelming, but consider this for just a moment: 16 million children live in homes where their families are not sure where the next meal is coming from. Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, there are still three times as many Americans looking for work as there are job openings. And, as we’ve discussed today, new jobs aren’t good jobs.  The most recent BLS statistics forecast a low-wage trajectory through at least 2020.  Only one of the 20 occupations expected to add new jobs requires a college degree, and most of the kinds of jobs we will be creating offer low or moderate pay.

    From FDR to President Obama to each and every one of us here today, whether right or left or center: we can all agree that no one should work a full-time job and worry about putting food on the table for their family.  

    But this is not just about morality, not just about the “we should” and the “we shouldn’t.”  This is about economic fundamentals. When people can’t even buy groceries at the end of the month, they can’t do all of the things – go to a baseball game, go to dinner at a restaurant – that drive economic growth and make our towns and cities strong.

    Now, consider the other half of the coin: times are not tough for everyone. In 2012 alone, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home more than 20 percent of all income – one of their biggest hauls since the Gilded Age. Corporate profits are at record levels, and corporations are sitting on huge cash reserves. Many will tell us that corporations and wealthy owners are the job creators, the engines of the economy.  Now, none of us begrudge real success. But the question is, if they’re doing so well, why isn’t the rest of the economy doing better?

    And the answer is clear: As FDR once argued, the people – middle class, working families – are the real job creators. These aren’t just strangers, or statistics. I’m talking about our friends and family and co-workers. I’m talking about us. As more and more Americans struggle to keep up - businesses can’t function.  Companies need customers, people to spend money on those products and services. That’s why holding down wages is more than just unfair. It’s also bad economics.

    Let me take a minute to tackle the arguments on the other side: that raising the minimum wage will cause unemployment, business flight, or higher prices.  But empirical research looking at decades of data – much of which we have heard today – shows that on balance raising wages has little or no negative employment effects, and in fact there is significant evidence to show that businesses – and cities and towns – flourish with higher wages, rather than lower.

    This also should make sense to any of us who manage other people. Making decisions to pay employees enough so they aren’t stressed in the rest of their lives makes good business sense, and good common sense.

    And, we are learning from very recent research.  I will cite just two important pieces.  The first is a massive study of 200 years of capital accumulation, incomes, and growth just published here in the United States.  The research suggests the problem is very big, and in fact lies in the structure of today’s entire global economy. Too much capital is concentrated in the hands of too few, and the global economy has gone awry.

    The second piece is a recent IMF study of inequality and growth in hundreds of countries showing that many equality-enhancing redistributive policies – higher taxes, more public investment – can increase growth. Win-wins are possible.  

    So these findings should give us courage. And should push us to act – because recalibrating the minimum wage is one very big step towards fixing the broken economic system and promoting growth in ways that will work for everyone.

    Let me be clear: raising the minimum wage isn’t anti-democratic, isn’t anti-capitalist, isn’t anti-free market.  FDR saved capitalism from itself.  That is what you are trying to do here today.

    It’s no surprise that we’re having this conversation in Seattle. Your city is a great hub of American business and social innovation. This city has brought to life trends and technologies, from Starbucks coffee to Excel spreadsheets, which revolutionize the way we live. And you in Seattle know that people are at the center of that innovation. Companies like Costco have built their business models on paying decent wages and benefits, retaining valued employees, and fostering strong communities.

    It’s not a top-down, trickle-down proposition. Economies grow, as our friend Nick Hanauer said this morning, from the middle out.  You have seen it work in Seattle, and that’s why Seattle is the right incubator for the sound labor policies that will shape the American economy of the future.

    By voting for a 15 dollar an hour wage floor, Seattle can move the entire region’s economy forward.  You can also set the trend for the whole country – in addition to possible federal legislation, at least eight states are considering minimum wage increases this year. You can show all of us how to build the kind of economy that grows, that is stable, and that spreads prosperity broadly.  It is a virtuous cycle.  

    If adopted nationwide, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the raise in the minimum wage proposed by President Obama could affect more than 28 million people and lift many of them out of poverty. 28 million people. At a time when the American Dream of opportunity for all is rapidly fading, those are 28 million reasons to support this proposal.

    Beyond the potential economic impact, this policy would show what government can achieve when it responds to the needs of working families. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Individual companies, as great as they are, can’t do this alone.  Our fates are linked, and we have to act together.  By raising the minimum wage to fifteen-dollars-an-hour, Seattle can choose democracy and start to reverse the trends that have been crushing the middle class.

    Let me close by urging the members of Seattle’s City Council to approve the 15 dollar an hour minimum wage. And as FDR told his own supporters, it is up to all of us to make them do it. A lot has changed about our country since the days of the New Deal, but one thing remains the same: Progress is possible when we commit to it and fight for it. Now is the time for us to decide what kind of economy, what kind of government, and what kind of future we want for ourselves. Now is the time for Seattle to lead the way. Thank you.

    Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

     

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  • Voters Demand a Progressive Second Term Agenda

    Nov 13, 2012Felicia Wong

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call for progressives to seize the moment after Election Day.

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call for progressives to seize the moment after Election Day.

    Last week’s election results weren’t just a win for the president. Across the board, voters went to the polls and registered their support for progressive values, supporting needed tax increases, passing marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans, and giving a candidate who ran on a platform of proactive government and a strong safety net a second term. The message was clear: despite an economy that continues to recover too slowly, the direction that progressives are taking the country in is the right one.

    The polling we have done with Democracy Corps makes it plain – voters don’t want austerity or cuts in Medicare and Social Security. They want to fix the economy with long-term investments in infrastructure and a focus on jobs. And they want solutions – like raising taxes on the well-off and reforming the financial industry – that can raise the revenue to pay for it. As Hurricane Sandy made apparent, we need to update the country’s infrastructure, and we can put people back to work doing it.

    So our job has just begun. Now is when we really have to roll up our sleeves and work to achieve an ambitious agenda. The politics won’t necessarily be much easier than they were over the last four years. But with a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and an electorate strongly behind us, progressives have an opportunity to seize over the next four years.

    Over the next few weeks, Roosevelt Institute Fellows and staff will weigh in with their thoughts on what our national agenda should look like. While we might differ on some of the specifics, we all agree on basic values and goals: reducing inequality, creating jobs, kick-starting economic growth, building a community among the American people, and regaining trust in both the private sector through functioning markets and in the government and our political system.

    On the eve of a second Obama term, and with some fundamental economic and political choices before us, we are proud to be in this historic moment together, Our goals are ambitious. We believe that our ideas can have real impact. As President Franklin Roosevelt put it 80 years ago, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” Nothing could be truer of our times. Progressives must lead the way.

    Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

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