Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • How to Strengthen Financial Reform in the Next Four Years

    Nov 16, 2012Mike Konczal

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," an outline of what needs to be done to build upon and safeguard Dodd-Frank.

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," an outline of what needs to be done to build upon and safeguard Dodd-Frank.

    One of the Obama administration’s biggest vulnerabilities when it comes to its first term policy legacy was that the roots of the legislation it ushered through wouldn’t take hold until around 2014. Thus if a Republican president took office in 2013, there was a real chance that he could dismantle, or at least strongly interfere with, the new framework for health care and financial regulations. And it was clear by 2010 that movement conservatives would make the repeal or collapse of both bills a litmus test for all Republicans in office.

    But with President Obama’s victory last week, the core framework of Dodd-Frank, the financial reform bill he signed in 2010, will become the law of the land. The question now is how to best push it forward in the coming months and years.

    The most sensible, immediate reform would be to give regulators the adequate resources necessary to do their jobs. The CFTC had its funding cut by both parties last year in a move that will make their crucial work even harder to accomplish. The GOP is aiming to remove the independent funding stream for the CFPB. Without decent resources, it is unlikely that financial reform will be carried out effectively.

    The next goal will require new reforms to draw some lines on the issues that haven’t been implemented well after the initial passage of the law. The Volcker Rule continues to be a mess while rules are being written. There isn’t a clear vision for what important new offices like the Office for Financial Research will set out to accomplish. These are major pieces of the legislation and are essential to creating fair, accountable, and transparent markets.

    Fleshing out the post-Dodd-Frank agenda is also crucial. What should the proper regulations, if any, of high-frequency trading look like? Is breaking up the banks necessary for eliminating Too Big To Fail and the power of the financial firms over the markets, as a larger chorus of experts is starting to argue? How important is the government in preserving middle-class access to a 30-year fixed interest rate mortgage loan?

    Fighting off a bi-partisan effort to make Dodd-Frank more industry-friendly will continue to be a full-time battle. But even though we don’t have to worry about the party in power repealing what has already been put into place, there’s no excuse for neglecting to articulate a vision for a financial sector that serves the greater interests of the real economy.

    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • Keep Calm and Get Excited About the Rolling Jubilee

    Nov 15, 2012Mike Konczal

    Occupy has created a Strike Debt wing, which has a new project: a Rolling Jubilee. There will be a livestream of the Debt Jubilee fundraiser tonight, starting at 8pm ET, that you can access from their webpage. It features Janeane Garofalo, Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Lizz Winstead, and many more. You should check it out.

    Occupy has created a Strike Debt wing, which has a new project: a Rolling Jubilee. There will be a livestream of the Debt Jubilee fundraiser tonight, starting at 8pm ET, that you can access from their webpage. It features Janeane Garofalo, Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Lizz Winstead, and many more. You should check it out.

    To give you a sense why I find this new project fascinating, I'll quickly review three random projects I've been working on recently, all of which are related to this new project.

    The first is on what bankruptcy law professor Ronald Mann refers to as the "sweat box" model of consumer debt and bankruptcy. Mann argues that the 2005 bankruptcy amendments benefit creditors "by slowing the time of inevitable filings by the deeply distressed and allowing issuers to earn greater revenues from those individuals" and functions as a windfall for creditors because it "enable[s] issuers to profit from debt servicing revenues paid by distressed borrowers who are not yet in bankruptcy." More broadly, the distressed debt markets allow debt collectors the right to make huge profits by "sweating" debtors through assessing fees, raising rates, and inflating the debts owed while debtors struggle to pay the debts back over long periods of time. At the distressed end, debts aren't about recovering what is owed or making sure loans that aren't being paid turn into good debts that have reliable payments, but instead about the option to harrass small payments indefinitely. Debt collectors don't want these loans to work. (The same distorted incentives might be in play with those who have missed a mortgage payment.)

    Another is focused on student debt, particularly about how the collapse of public higher education has been a planned political project. Rather than student debt levels being the result of individual greed or cost inflation driven by productivity levels, they result from a specific project to shift costs for public education onto the individual that has been consciously planned. This is part of a larger project to dismantle the access and mobility inherent in the centuries-old public higher education system in this country.

    The final one is arguing that one explanation for why our recovery is so slow has to do with a debt overhang. Rather than forcing the losses of our housing bubble onto creditors, we've left them to stagnate, dragging down aggregate demand. Or we've solved it through foreclosures, which have huge costs for communities and municipalities. The financial sector itself understands that these loans aren't worth much and are fighting among itself over who will eat the losses, but this knowledge hasn't spread to homeowners or the country at large.

    Rolling Jubilee

    Explaining these issues and how they connect is difficult, but it is now easier with Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee project. What is the Rolling Jubilee? "Banks sell debt for pennies on the dollar on a shadowy speculative market of debt buyers who then turn around and try to collect the full amount from debtors. The Rolling Jubilee intervenes by buying debt, keeping it out of the hands of collectors, and then abolishing it."

    The project relentlessly emphasizes the social conditions for the creation of debt: "We believe people should not go into debt for basic necessities like education, healthcare and housing." Debt in our country evolves in a system of institutions where publicly provided goods are missing or being dismantled in real-time, with private systems designed to benefit the few replacing them, and that is something that can be resisted. And the Jubilee also emphasizes that these specific debts that they are buying no longer reflect something that's owed, as they were written to zero on a balance sheet a long time ago. These are debts whose real value consists of a harrassment option to try and collect more than the pennies on the dollar that they were bought for.

    Strike Debt can only purchase so much debt. What can it do going forward? There's the obvious ability to use this to highlight how bad debts actually play out in our country and expose the ins-and-outs of this system.

    I'd personally like people to make the connection between random groups of people doing this and the government doing this itself through eminent domain. Right now southern California, for instance, is a battlefield between municipalities looking to prevent destructive foreclosures and the financial industry, which is looking to do a capital strike. Other cities are turning to eminent domain to buy mortgage debt at its real value, write it down, and save their communities. It would be great for them to say, "Hey, if cultural studies icon Andrew Ross and some Occupy kids are capable of doing this, certainly we, with our legal powers of eminent domain and power to tax, could do the same!"

    And I'm already hearing about people proposing a form of "debt-holder activism" akin to the idea of shareholder activism: exposing wrong-doing, suing debt traders for selling debt without proper documentation, etc. It might be far-fetched, but it is worth exploring.

    Critiques

    There are reasonable criticisms of this project. But I'll start with some that I don't find convincing.

    Doug Henwood, for instance, believes that this is generated by activists' uncritical populism, or the anarchist anthrology of David Graeber's Debt, or the reification of Bowles-Simpson's debt talk. But this is putting the carriage before the horse. A little over a year ago, I wrote some code that went through the We are the 99% Tumblr and parsed it for clues about what was motivating the people submitting their stories. And even I was shocked at how much student debt, medical debt, and debt overall were factors in those people's misery. It is how they identify the challenges they face, and this was equally so at Occupy sites.

    It's fun to imagine people writing hostile comments on that 99% tumblr saying that all these people's misery is not useful to the cause because it focuses on the sphere of circulation instead of the sphere of production. But this is what is behind young people's suffering and it is an important project to address it as such. Linking it to a larger project of broad-based propserity is the work of others, and I believe the Strike Debt people are trying to do so.

    Henwood also argues that Strike Debt can't buy in sufficiently large amount to buy up all the debt. That's true, but hardly the goal. He also brings up the idea that bankruptcy is a universal solvent here and should be emphasized over other projects. I disagree. To go back to Ronald Mann's "sweat-box" theory of bankrutpcy, the fees, waiting period, and other charges involved in post-2005 bankruptcy means that the legal DNA of bankruptcy code, while very useful, amplifies these problems. You can see it in the academic research that finds a spike in bankruptcy filings after people get tax rebates, because they finally have the resources to declare bankruptcy. You also see it in this random We Are the 99% tumblr entry, which notes, "I have been trying for the last 4 years to save $2000 to file bankruptcy for $5000-$10000 medical debt. It still hasn’t happened."

    There are other worries that I find to be more important.

    First, it's a big problem that it isn't clear yet whether those whose debt will be forgiven are stuck with a tax bill. Blogs are going back and forth on this issue, though the IRS should have given a comment already. That there aren't, say, tax attorneys Occupy can direct people to is a problem. It's funny that, given Marcel Mauss' influence on David Graeber and many in Occupy, the tax issue might hinge on being able to legally define what a "gift" is.

    Another worry is whether or not this will build a community of people committed to the cause going forward. According to a Strike Debt spokesperson, when they forgive debts they send certified mail containing the Debt Resistor's Operation Manual and a notice explaining what the Debt Jubilee is. Contrast it with foreclosure activism,  where there is a lot of work that goes into building up the person in their community and making sure the person has the strength and the resources to both fight and contribute back. I've debated whether or not this is an actual problem, but it is certainly not sufficient to keep me from being excited. The people contributing are more energized than I had expected to see, which means you many see a community of people vested on the donation end as well.

    The last issue is debt itself. As Jacob Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil argued in the Boston Review forum on debt, "[B]y focusing so much on debt...the challenge of reform appears both smaller and larger than it really is. Smaller because providing write-downs for households with underwater mortgages, while valuable, would not be enough...[yet a debt focus sets] sights higher than necessary... [W]e do not have to change people’s conception of debt or personal responsibility... [A] broad coalition will be based more on effective organizing than on consciousness-raising or cultural change around debt."

    I think in the long-run Hacker is right, which is why I'm happy that the Strike Debt coalition has worked to link its concerns back to larger ones of public health care, free education, and a more robust safety net. Weaving these concerns with broader ones is precisely the work that needs to be done.

    Last year, Suresh Naidu sent me the following chart, which is an evolution of different tactics during the civil rights movement, 1955-1962, charted by frequency of occurrences:

    This chart is taken from Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency by the sociologist Doug McAdam. Tactists will come and go. What is necessary to keep in mind are the goals and the spirit of experimentation. I hope you check out the telethon tonight and follow the Strike Debt news to see if this is a wave of experiments worth following in the months ahead.

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  • Dagan and Teles on the Conservative Movement Against Mass Incarceration

    Nov 13, 2012Mike Konczal

    David Dagan and Steven M. Teles have a great, 5K+ word story about changing movement conservative attitudes against prisons in the recent issue of the Washington Monthly. I've worried that the changing narrative about conservatives and prisons have mostly been about minor cosmetic changes.

    David Dagan and Steven M. Teles have a great, 5K+ word story about changing movement conservative attitudes against prisons in the recent issue of the Washington Monthly. I've worried that the changing narrative about conservatives and prisons have mostly been about minor cosmetic changes. Having completed their project of incapacitation through mass incarceration, conservatives can tinker at the edge, especially to bring in favored groups like charity workers or government privatizers. This article gives some hope, implying that the changes are real, very serious about both the conditions of prisons and after prison, but also the policies that lead to too many people being locked up for too long. And these reforms are likely to build upon themselves going forward.

    Before you start the Dagan/Teles paper, here's a quick reading guide summarizing some worries one might have about the conservative anti-prison project.

    - The obvious one is that this is primarily about getting the large amount of money that flows through criminal justice into private hands. This isn't just private ownership of prisons expanding (though If you look at the 10 states in the U.S. that rely the most on private prisons, they incarcerate a percentage of their population in privately owned facilities roughly equivalent to what Europe does in all its facilities). It's things like ALEC's project of privatizing parole.

    - Another worry is that this is less focused on reducing mass incarceration than finding more policy for the proper management of incarcerated people. Laissez-faire classical liberals have always been fascinated by the efficient management of people behind bars. People often encounter the idea of laissez-faire Jeremy Bentham's panopticon prison through Michel Foucault's use of it as a metaphor for modernity, but Bentham was being a policy wonk when he was writing about it. He wrote the equivalent of 19th century white papers proposing an all-seeing prison with titles like "Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts." His arguments for it were all focused on good public policy, like "morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burthens lightened, economy seated as it were upon a rock, the gordian knot of the poor-laws not cut but untied -- all by a simple idea in architecture?" If he was writing about the panopticon today, you could imagine Bentham arguing that an all-seeing prison would bend the incarceration cost curve during an interview with Dylan Matthews on Wonkblog.

    Which is a long way of saying that conservatives often like reforms that try to deal with the chaos and waste of mass incarceration instead of dealing with why our prison system is the largest in the world. They want prison charities to provide aid to those who have become despondent from being locked up, or prison markets designed to teach job skills to those who have been removed from the labor markets. Note that you could just lock up fewer people rather than finding clever ways to try and use more government to solve problems that the government is creating. We are locking up too many people, for too long, for the wrong reasons. Finding better ways to manage the people locked up, while often a praiseworthy goal, might be a distraction.

    - Another worry is anti-federalism. The recent attempt by Jim Webb to create a comission dedicated to widespread criminal justice reform failed in the Senate. Republicans killed it because "allowing a federal commission to examine state and local criminal justice systems would encroach on states' rights." The 2012 GOP platform, which many people found encouraging on the issue of incarceration, had a strong focus on the "over-federalization of offenses" and called on Congress to "reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the State or local level." Though this is important, a lot of changes need to happen at the state and local level too.

    - The last worry is the straightjacketing of judges. This is the wave of policy that has created the conditions where, as William Stuntz wrote, "criminal law does not function as law. Rather, the law defines a menu of options for police officers and prosecutors to use as they see fit." Do conservative reformers get worried about the militarization of the police? The courtroom becoming a factory of plea bargains determined by prosecutors?

    As I said earlier, the Dagan/Teles piece gives me hope that these won't be major stumbling blocks. But I'd love to read your thoughts in comments.

    One thing I would like to see addressed in the future is an answer to this: "By and large, however, it is conservative institutions who now pay the most attention to criminal justice." Why aren't liberal institutions? The failure of liberal groups to prioritize this issue was one of the provocative parts of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, and the question still needs an answer.

     

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  • Live at Boston Review with a Forum on Debt Relief

    Nov 13, 2012Mike Konczal

    I'm live with a forum on debt relief at Boston Review. Here's my lead essay, along with responses from Jacob S. Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil, Dean Baker, Tamara Draut, Robert Hockett, Barbara Fried, Mark Calabria and more. My piece summarizes much of the work done at this blog over the past several years, especially focused on balance-sheet recessions, bankruptcy, implications of "you didn't build that," and the battle between debtors and creditors. The respones afterwards were very informative. (Plus, Fried is the author of one of my favorite books, so I was really psyched to see her participate.) I hope you check it out!

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    I'm live with a forum on debt relief at Boston Review. Here's my lead essay, along with responses from Jacob S. Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil, Dean Baker, Tamara Draut, Robert Hockett, Barbara Fried, Mark Calabria and more. My piece summarizes much of the work done at this blog over the past several years, especially focused on balance-sheet recessions, bankruptcy, implications of "you didn't build that," and the battle between debtors and creditors. The respones afterwards were very informative. (Plus, Fried is the author of one of my favorite books, so I was really psyched to see her participate.) I hope you check it out!

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  • Three Election Thoughts: The Failed All-In Repeal Strategy, Warren, and Three-Strikes

    Nov 7, 2012Mike Konczal

    The Consequences of the Conservative All-In Repeal Strategy: The attacks on Nate Silver have been fun to watch, but David Frum took the most heat for calling how this would all play out back in 2010. I really hope his Waterloo post, which made the case, will be on the radar of academics studying this era decades from now. Frum:

    The Consequences of the Conservative All-In Repeal Strategy: The attacks on Nate Silver have been fun to watch, but David Frum took the most heat for calling how this would all play out back in 2010. I really hope his Waterloo post, which made the case, will be on the radar of academics studying this era decades from now. Frum:

    Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s. It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster...Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now...No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

    What's interesting to me is how the conservative movement followed an "all-in repeal" strategy since summer 2010. The think tanks didn't prioritize the parts of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank that they wanted to see removed and replaced with something else, and political agents didn't try to force changes in exchange for concessions on other priorities.

    It was almost as if they didn't accept that the laws were the actual laws of the land. The major conservative think tanks all focused on either the unconstitutionality of the bills, hoping the Supreme Court would save them (this goes for Dodd-Frank as well), or wrote only in terms of repeal. During the primaries, every Republican presidential candidate promised to repeal Dodd-Frank and repeal Obamacare, and almost nobody said anything about what would go in their places. Romney famously was vague about how he'd replace Dodd-Frank and Obamacare. As such, there's been no signaling or mobilization on priorities for how conservatives should try to change these laws.

    Part of this is a function of how the movement has been mobilizing itself. If Obamacare is an Ayn Rand horror story of socialists nationalizing the health-care industry, well, 10 percent less socialist horror is still a nightmare. If Eric Cantor went and, say, offered Obama a debt ceiling raise or a second stimulus in exchange for putting the CFPB's budget under Congress's control or pulling back parts of Obamacare, he'd likely have his head ripped off by the base. This also might be because the conservative movement is out of ideas, something that has become painfully obvious in its responses to the Great Recession.

    But either way, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank will be here for a generation now.

    More Reasons to Celebrate Elizabeth Warren: Besides all the other reasons to be happy about Elizabeth Warren winning her Senate seat, there are two additional policy reasons to consider. Conservatives and lobbyists are focused on removing the CFPB's funding, single directorship, and sole focus on consumer financial protection. Republicans have explicitly stated that they'll block any director until these changes are made. Warren, who came up with the idea for the agency and fought for its creation, will understand how important the mission and the legal structure for how the agency is funded and organized are, and fight for that as well.

    Another important financial reform issue is that people are still nervous about how resolution authority, or the FDIC forcing a major financial firm to fail, will work in practice. Warren is one of the major experts on bankruptcy law -- she's the third most cited scholar on bankruptcy law in the country -- and also would like to see Too Big To Fail ended, so I believe she can work productively with FDIC to implement a resolution regime best capable of handling the problem.

    California Overwhlemingly Votes to Ease Three-Strikes Law, Other States Legalize Marijuana18 years after it was first passed, California looks to ease its three-strike law by a 20-point margin. When people study how the United States differs from the rest of the world in terms of incarceration policy and how we manage to have a significantly higher prison population than other countries, mandatory penalties for those who have a prior (recidivists) is a major driver.

    As the University of San Francisco School of Law’s Center for Law and Global Justice wrote in their report, “Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context,” all of the major policy differences between the United States and other countries -- "life without the possibility of parole, 'three strikes' laws, consecutive sentences, mandatory minimums, juvenile justice laws, dual sovereignty, and non-retroactive application of ameliorative law" -- are all anti-rehabilitation policies.

    Let's go to the section of that report on three-strikes laws:

    The most infamous example of a stringent habitual offender law is California’s three strikes law, which provides a sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony who has committed two prior serious or violent offenses. While the public pushes for “the worst of the worst” to be taken off the streets, the reality is that most third strike convictions are for non-violent felonies: fifty-four percent of third strike commitments under California’s three strikes law were for drug, property, and other non-violent crimes...

    Virtually all of the countries surveyed for this report provided some type of increased penalty for recidivists. What distinguishes the United States from the rest of the world, however, is the lack of judicial discretion in sentencing schemes aimed at recidivists and the length of sentences that result...This leaves only 21% of countries, including the United States, that require a mandatory increased punishment for an offender with prior convictions.

    For fun, what are those other countries that also have three-strike like laws?

    Not the best company. Remember, these laws were designed to limit the power of judges and increase the power of prosecutors, a core part of the conservative assault on liberalism in the space of incarceration policy. This is a major change, likely to impact many other states for the better.

    Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington voted to legalized and regulate marijuana use. As of right now, Attorney General Eric Holder has not publicly stated if the Feds will try to interfere with these new laws, like they threatened to do to California's proposal (which failed to pass). President Obama and Holder have a real opportunity to let states experiment with ending the failed War on Drugs as we know it, or an opportunity to keep a moral crime going indefinitely by federal preemption. Nicole Flatow has an excellent overview of the legal issues at Think Progress.

     

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