Lynn Parramore


Recent Posts by Lynn Parramore

  • Conversation With Thomas Ferguson: How Political Money Drives Deadlock

    Apr 12, 2011Tom FergusonLynn Parramore

    man-on-money-150Lynn Parramore caught up with Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson at the annual INET conference in Bretton Woods.

    man-on-money-150Lynn Parramore caught up with Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson at the annual INET conference in Bretton Woods. Ferguson, father of the Investment Theory of Politics, explains why polarization has completely gripped Washington -- and why the New Deal is getting rolled back in the process.

    Lynn Parramore: What's polarization in politics and how did it start?

    Thomas Ferguson: Polarization is a sharp intensification of divisions between the major political parties. The tensions between them now run through the entire system, including the Supreme Court and state and local governments. Congressional polarization is the most visible form right now and surely a key link in the whole process. Both national parties have spent enormous amounts of time and money painting each other in the worst possible terms -- to the point that some Republicans have repeatedly cast aspersions on the patriotism of the Democrats.

    The split between the two major parties first widened out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It showed in a sharp increase in the number of votes in Congress along party lines -- that is, votes in which a majority of Democrats opposed a majority of Republicans and vice versa. But notice this, because it is extremely important: While the two parties name call and indeed often stalemate, the center of gravity of the whole political system moves steadily to the right. This is every bit as important as all the public discord and angry rhetoric. Just look, for example, at the current debates on entitlements. In 1954, President Eisenhower famously dismissed critics of Social Security and unemployment compensation as "stupid." Now leaders in both parties are talking about all kinds of big budget cuts, even though many Americans have been out of work for long periods and have watched their savings and the values of their homes sink, while they were forced to bail out the financial sector.

    LP: How does polarization affect what Congress does?

    TF: When you have divided government -- that is, a president of one party with the opposition controlling one or both houses of Congress -- the process of confirming nominations grinds to a halt. And even if you don't have divided government, members of Congress spend a great deal of time posturing. More congressional votes happen that are not meant to actually pass anything, but rather to send signals to outside groups and supporters. For example, Republicans may craft a bill on abortion that has no chance of being signed into law. But introducing it forces everyone to take a stand. This projects hot button divisions beyond the Congress itself to energize outside constituencies. But polarization's most obvious effect is to deadlock the legislative process. Look, for example, at the way the government has come right to the brink of shutting down over the budget or how climate change legislation has been shelved, as every form of compromise falls through. In the Senate, working control now means not a simple majority of 51, but a "super-majority" of 60, as the minority party routinely threatens to filibuster measures it dislikes.

    LP: What's the relationship between political polarization and the media?

    TF: The press powerfully amplifies partisanship. Statistical studies of media content suggest that the language newspapers use to describe politics varies systematically. Their news stories tend to employ the favorite buzzwords of one of the political parties rather more than the other. Some papers, for example, may describe inheritance taxes as "death duties" -- a term favored by Republicans. Others just talk about inheritance taxes.

    What's interesting is that word choice appears to reflect not the mix of voters in the area covered by the newspapers -- that is, their readers -- but the split in political contributions originating in individual media markets. In other words, the language of the papers reflects the terms each side's partisans prefer, with the balance in each market tilting in favor of the locally dominant bloc of political contributors. Campaign contributors are mostly very affluent; what we have here is a top-down process of language imposition. Congress speaks; America listens, whether it likes it or not, as the papers record the discussion in their locally biased way.

    This amplification of polarization in the media, in turn, encourages polarization in Congress. We get a feedback loop running between the media and political institutions.

    LP: Does polarization in Congress and the media increase division in the population?

    TF: The evidence is that people who hold an opinion on one of the handful of hot button issues that the parties debate in public tend to move toward the party that says it agrees with them. But here's the surprise: generally not that many people do this. When they do, they don't usually change their self-labeling. That is, they don't move from thinking of themselves as moderates to considering themselves conservatives, for example.

    LP: So you don't think that culture wars explain polarization?

    TF: No. Almost regardless of where you look, you'll find that changes in public opinion between the 1970s and today are relatively small. On many issues, such as gay rights, the shift among the public has gone towards the left, rather than the right. Even the famous ‘liberal label' problem is not nearly as large as people think. The number of people identifying as liberals has dropped by about 5% from the seventies to now. That hardly indicates a massive change in the way people view themselves politically.

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    LP: Some argue that we have ‘sorting' among the public that leads to polarization. If I'm surrounded by like-minded people, the thinking goes, I become more extreme in my views. Is this really happening?

    TF: The ‘Big Sort' people mostly concede that opinion shifts in the population are not large. So they focus on explaining polarization by looking for some thing or things that shoehorn people into more homogeneous groups that then contend among themselves. The evidence just doesn't support these theories. All the talk about gerrymandering has actually been debunked. There are some stunning cases, but not nearly enough to explain Congressional polarization. And you can simply observe the U.S. Senate: The Senate is about as polarized as the House -- just look at the figures in my INET paper (*see link at the end of this article). Nobody has messed with the boundaries of U.S. states in the last generation. Nor does the obvious fact that Republicans replaced conservative Democrats in the South help very much. Polarization in other areas of the country is very intense; just pointing to all the right wing Republicans from the South and West does not answer the question, given the small changes in popular opinion. It just reframes the question about what really drives this process. It has to be something else.

    LP: And what is that ‘something else'?

    TF: In a word: money. Since the mid '70s, more and more political money has been moving right and center-right. To understand Congressional polarization, though, you have to focus sharply on the crucial moment, which was 1994. That was the second stage of the Reagan Revolution, when Republicans took over both houses of Congress. Notice the key political players then. You have Newt Gingrich, who was organizing the GOP push in the House; Phil Gramm, who headed Senate fund raising for the GOP; and Haley Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee. These people weren't 'bowling alone'. They were free market fundamentalists. They wanted to cut taxes, on high brackets especially. They wanted to push deregulation of the financial and telecommunications industries. They wanted to abolish things like the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and cut back the FDA, the FTC, and just about every other government regulatory agency. The one area where they liked Big Government was defense.

    These anti-government, pro-corporate Republicans broke every record for raising political money. Look at Gingrich and his history in particular. When he started attacking the older Republican leaders in the House as timid and too willing to compromise, money came pouring in. Yes, they supported and allied with evangelical religious groups. But those were always secondary to the main objective, which was to deregulate the economy and roll back the New Deal in all its manifestations.

    LP: How did the 1994 Republican victory affect Congress itself?

    TF: When Gingrich won control of the House, he installed what amounted to a pay-to-play system internally, which forced individual representatives to compete to hold their positions on key committees and leadership posts by raising funds for the party. The effect on the House was far-reaching, because the seniority system was already pretty much dead as a result of reforms in the seventies. The movement to limit the terms of committee chairs also worked in this direction, because it meant that more posts were coming open on a regular basis. What happened was that the entire Congress became money-driven.

    Positions on key committees, leadership posts -- they were all being sold. The money collected then was poured into election campaigns, especially for so-called "open seats," in which no incumbents were running and in doubtful races. The vast spending and noisy campaigns heated up the political atmosphere in and out of Washington, as the media transmitted the messages.

    The Democrats looked at the Republicans' pay-to-play system and basically decided to copy it. They did this instead of mobilizing their old mass constituencies. Today, as my paper documents, both parties are essentially posting prices for influential committee slots and leadership posts.

    The Democrats' decision to emulate the Republicans and follow the money shifts the system's center of gravity to the right, as both parties frantically cultivate investor blocs. The result is the weird political world we live in. Behind the scenes, investor blocs and businesses maneuver for advantages in both parties. The system's center of gravity moves to the right, checked only by the diminishing influence of unions and other mass political groups that retain some resources and influence on the Democrats. You end up with two "money-driven" parties. The parties are not identical, but they have this in common: They cannot possibly campaign only on appeals to investor blocs, so each party reaches out to select public constituencies to scrape together enough votes to win elections, in a sea of public cynicism.

    Polarized politics is money-driven politics and political parties are first of all bank accounts, whatever else they do. More precisely, the current polarization of the system is the direct result of the Republicans' attempt to roll back the New Deal and the way the Democrats responded. I regret to say I don't see much chance that it will abate any time soon. The Obama administration's failure to deliver "real change" has given the Republicans a new lease on life. Less than three years after the financial collapse, which handed the presidency and both houses of Congress to the Democrats on a platter, free market fundamentalism is back. Today Republicans look closer to rolling back the New Deal than they ever have. They are unlikely to see much reason to compromise; especially when the Obama administration, in the middle of trying to raise a billion dollars for the 2012 campaign, declines to press a strong defense of investments in people and regulation, not even financial regulation.

    LP: Will the tsunami of money released by the Citizens United decision make polarization even more intense?

    TF: Alas, the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms have been steadily watered down. The role big money plays in our electoral system was already grotesque before Citizens United, what with "527s," independent expenditures, and other devices for spending without limits. But the Supreme Court's decision sets corporations (and of course, any labor union that still has any resources) free to disgorge funds directly from corporate treasuries to campaigns, as long as the guaranteed money is spent independently of candidates' own campaigns. Much of this money is likely to be impossible to track in public. But it will find its way into campaigns, raise the stakes, and set off further rounds of campaign spending. It's just going to make the carousel rotate faster. Yes, polarization is likely to persist.

    **Read Ferguson's complete INET paper, delivered April 10 at Bretton Woods: "Legislators Never Bowl Alone: Big Money, Mass Media, and the Polarization of Congress ".

    **And for details on how money impacted the 2010 elections, see Parramore's November interview with Ferguson: "Money and the Midterms: Are the Parties Over?"

    Thomas Ferguson is Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the author of many books and articles, including Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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  • Nuns Don't Believe Goldman Sachs is Doing God's Work

    Apr 6, 2011Lynn Parramore

    In god we trustWhy is God's work so expensive?

    In god we trustWhy is God's work so expensive?

    Goldman Sachs abandoning kittens in lower Manhattan was a pretty sick trick. But it seemed to serve as a metaphor for how many Americans perceive the firm: they leave us to perish while they uncork the champagne. Case in point: it just came out  that Goldman Sachs didn't think it was paying execs quite enough while the rest of America is suffering. So it doubled the pay of CEO Lloyd Blankfein to a dizzying $19 million. On top of that little fortune, he received $27 million from investments in private equity and hedge funds managed by the firm. Party time!

    Blankfein says that he's just doing God's work. But nuns disagree. Like us, they are wondering why God's work is so expensive.

    The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia and the Benedictine Sisters of Mt Angel -- who all happen to hold investments at the bank - have signed a proposal to review how it doles out the cash to execs following revelations that the top five Goldman fatcats collectively raked in nearly $70 million last year. Never mind that the firm's earnings plunged 38 percent.

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    Goldman Sachs has become the emblem of the excesses of the financial sector. Charges of fraud and betting against its own clients have tarnished its reputation -- but they don't seem to dampen its greed.  But the question is, are we so deadened to those excesses that we shrug our shoulders and accept them as normal? If we do this, we are acknowledging our distrust in society's rules and our lack of faith in government to correct imbalances that harm us all. And that's not good for democracy. The famous revolving door between Goldman Sachs and the halls of government slowly breaks down our trust and gives credence to the Reagan-inspired anti-government stance that allowed the financial sector to turn from a servant of the people into a predator. As Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Rob Johnson wrote on this blog, "Goldman Sachs' uncontested success blurring the boundaries between market and state is symbolic of a tremendous malfunction in finance, politics and civil society."

    Those boundaries need to be reestablished, but when Goldman lobbyists write the rules of financial regulation, they all but disappear. The continued compensation bonanza shows that they don't give a hoot what the public thinks: they are counting on that money to buy them more than yachts. And it will take more than a prayer to stop them.

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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  • April Foolishness: Rick Santorum Has Idea on Abortions & Social Security

    Apr 1, 2011Lynn Parramore

    rick-santorumRick Santorum. Just when you thought you'd heard it all, he serves up a dollop of idiocy so rich as to stun the senses.

    rick-santorumRick Santorum. Just when you thought you'd heard it all, he serves up a dollop of idiocy so rich as to stun the senses.

    This time, he comes up with a 'fix' for Social Security. The program, of course, is not broken; the Trustees Report shows that the program is projected to pay out 100% of benefits until 2037 even under less-than-rosy-economic conditions. And even then, it would be able to pay most of what it owes with nary a tweak. The 'Social- Security-is-going-broke' canard is just that. A way to fool us so that bankers can get their greedy paws on all that yummy retirement money.

    But I digress.

    Santorum's idea --brace yourself -- is that if women stopped having abortions, there would be more people to pay for benefits for the elderly. A direct quote:

    "The reason Social Security is in big trouble is we don't have enough workers to support the retirees. Well, a third of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion, because one in three pregnancies end in abortion."

    Wrap your mind around that second thought, and take a moment to savor the sublime lunacy of the mind that could generate it. The answer to poverty among the elderly is to push millions of women into poverty by forcing them to give birth. Jonathan Swift could not have come up with better satire.

    Only that ain't satire. That's the voice of a former senator and potential presidential candidate. That, Reader, is conservative America.

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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  • Dear GOP, Get Your Hands Off My Body

    Mar 30, 2011Lynn Parramore

    Recognizing Women’s History Month, New Deal 2.0 tells the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights. Lynn Parramore writes a letter to the GOP asking why it has made her body a battleground.

    Dear GOP,

    You've expressed a lot of interest in my body lately. So I thought I should respond.

    Recognizing Women’s History Month, New Deal 2.0 tells the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights. Lynn Parramore writes a letter to the GOP asking why it has made her body a battleground.

    Dear GOP,

    You've expressed a lot of interest in my body lately. So I thought I should respond.

    I mean, every time I turn on the TV, you're at it again. You're talking about ways to block my access to PAP smears, breast exams, and other things that I need to stay healthy. And you focus an awful lot on what I should do if I get pregnant unexpectedly, kind of like you were my spiritual adviser. I was busy trying to figure out how to deal with a rotten economy (you should see my bank account), but you keep obsessing over my body. What's up with that? Even some of your own people can't figure out why you want to take health care away from me and millions of other women by de-funding Planned Parenthood.

    Call me crazy, but I don't really think you have any business putting your mitts on my body. You are all the time saying that we should have more limited government. Don't you see any contradiction in telling me what to do with my body, which is the only thing I can truly call my own? You toss the word 'freedom' around like it was your favorite idea -- something sacred to Americans. But how can I be free if I can't make choices about my life and my family without your political operatives turning my body into a battleground?

    If I want somebody's opinion about what I should do with my body, maybe you think I should ask a ‘family values' Republican like Senator David Vitter. Frankly, he seems kind of confused about women's bodies. He likes to touch the bodies of prostitutes, but if one of them got pregnant in the course of doing her job, he would deny her the right to have an abortion. Or would he? I kinda think that if Senator Vitter's life were going to be affected in a major way, he'd change his tune. But he wants to get his hands on my body, because if I have a child he doesn't have to pay anything for it. That's how it goes, right?

    I think you know very well that when you restrict access to abortion, you demean me and force me to get procedures done later in the pregnancy if I have no money. You know that you aren't really stopping abortion, but making it more dangerous and expensive. That's a pretty cynical way to score political points.

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    Let me tell you something. Women like me are on the edge. Even in a rosy economy, we have a hell of a time juggling family and work. How about doing something that actually helps us? In case you hadn't noticed, 15.7 percent of Americans are living in poverty, and placing obstacles in the way of women trying to plan the number of children they have will push millions more over the cliff. Is that really what you want? Maybe what you really want is to pit men and women against each other. Well, that's not going to work, because we know that we're in this together.

    You say that you want to cut things like Planned Parenthood funding because of the economy. Really? Did you ever read about Herbert Hoover? If you did, you might see that your misguided austerity stifles recovery. Could it be that you actually want the economy to be weaker for some of us? Maybe if you think I'm poor enough, you can use me to clean up after you and pay me a pittance. I don't even want to think about that one.

    But I have a hunch about what you're most eager to use my body for. You want to score points with Evangelical Christians in places like Iowa, so that you can win primary elections. You want to turn religious beliefs into political weapons aimed at my uterus. That's kind of sick, no?

    I take no pleasure in telling you this, but your vision for American women looks like something out of Apocalypse Now. Seriously -- restricting access to abortion and family planning, trying to redefine rape and cutting funds for low-income women and children sounds like a plan to push us into a new Dark Age.

    Maybe you should spend less time placing restrictions on my body, and more time policing Wall Street criminals?

    I'm just sayin'.


    Lynn Parramore

    American Woman

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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  • What a Woman! Farewell to Geraldine Ferraro

    Mar 28, 2011Lynn Parramore

    ferraro1-sizedGeraldine Ferraro altered America for the better.

    ferraro1-sizedGeraldine Ferraro altered America for the better.

    Long before there was Sarah Palin, there was Geraldine Ferraro, a woman who changed electoral politics forever and inspired a generation to believe that America could finally achieve democracy's most elusive goal: the full participation of female leaders.

    I was just fourteen when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate, and I recall thinking: 'Wow! Who is this feisty woman on TV talking about the White House?!?' A woman running for vice president was something new and exciting. Everybody knew she had to be tough as nails and whip smart to navigate the minefields of such an unprecedented candidacy. What was more amazing than her poise was her plausibility. To hear her speak was to take her seriously. In fact, there were times when she seemed more plausible as a leader than the other candidate on her ticket. This was a woman who had been a mother, a lawyer, a successful Congresswoman. She was a tough-talking New Yorker, but the fact that she had stayed home until her kids were school age made it harder for conservatives to paint her as something unnatural and unwomanly -- though many tried anyway, like Barbara Bush, who famously declared that Ferraro made her think of a word that 'rhymed with rich'.

    Toughness and smarts she had in spades. And a deep sense of fairness, too. As a congresswoman representing New York's 9th district, she spent six years pushing for causes that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would have applauded: fair pay for women, dignified retirement, and decent health care. It was a feeling of connection to the Roosevelt legacy that prompted her to join the board of the Roosevelt Institute, where she did her part to make sure that the New Deal would live on and benefit future generations.

    Women like Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Sarah Palin, have stood on the shoulders of this path-breaking figure. Her zest for life, her tireless activism, and her unyielding belief in a better future will be deeply missed. "America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us," she told the crowd at the Democratic Convention in 1984. We honor her life and work today by holding these words close to our hearts.

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, co-Founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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