Richard Kirsch

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by Richard Kirsch

  • Why Democrats Should Worry About Republicans' Newfound Economic Populism

    May 7, 2015Richard Kirsch

    It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to dismiss the newfound economic populism of Republican presidential candidates as obviously laughable given Republicans’ deep alliance with corporate America. Republicans are aiming to pull off a populist jiu jitsu, using anger at corporate influence over government to justify even more dismantling of government. It could work.

    It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to dismiss the newfound economic populism of Republican presidential candidates as obviously laughable given Republicans’ deep alliance with corporate America. Republicans are aiming to pull off a populist jiu jitsu, using anger at corporate influence over government to justify even more dismantling of government. It could work.

    The good news for progressives is that attention to the squeeze on the middle class and the capture of government by corporations is finally taking center stage in American politics. Pollsters for both political parties are advising candidates to recognize the struggle of families to meet the basics, and the cynicism about government being able to do anything about their problems because it's under the control of the rich and powerful corporations.

    This should be a huge opening for Democrats who are aggressive in assigning blame to corporations and pushing for what should be the obvious solution: stand up to those powerful forces with tough measures. If the banks are screwing homeowners, government should enact regulations that stop bank rip-offs and make housing affordable. If corporations and the rich are profiting from huge loopholes in the tax code, close those loopholes and raise their taxes.

    But Republicans on the campaign trail are offering a different solution: if government is captured, then shrink government. Marco Rubio laid it out most clearly in an interview on NPR:

    And so I hope the Republican Party can become the champion of the working class because I think our policy proposals of limited government and free enterprise are better for the people who are trying to make it than big government is. The fact is that big government helps the people who have made it. If you can afford to hire an army of lawyers, lobbyists and others to help you navigate and sometimes influence the law, you'll benefit. And so that's why you see big banks, big companies, keep winning. And everybody else is stuck and being left behind.

    Rand Paul, who champions free-market, anti-regulatory economics, began his announcement speech for president by declaring, "We have come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank, the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare."

    And Carly Fiorina bounced off the scourge of Wall Street abuses, Elizabeth Warren, to turn around Warren’s argument: “Crony capitalism is alive and well. Elizabeth Warren, of course, is wrong about what to do about it. She claims that the way to solve crony capitalism is more complexity, more regulations, more legislation, worse tax codes. And of course the more complicated government gets — and it's really complicated now — the less the small and the powerless can deal with it."

    It’s easy to laugh at their argument, which can be reduced to “if the fox is getting into the hen house, tear down the hen house.” But it would be foolish to do so. It starts where people are at, as one Republican message guru wrote after the election last fall: “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.”

    The argument takes advantage of the record-high public distrust of government, reached in no small part because of decades of Republicans stripping government’s effectiveness at tackling problems and championing shrinking government and cutting taxes as the solutions for everything.

    Having said that, the current political environment should still be winning turf for Democrats who are willing to tell their own version of the problem and solution. After all, building a hen house that keeps out the foxes is clearly a better way to be sure you get fresh eggs for breakfast. But winning the debate will take something Democrats are not always willing to do: naming villains and pushing solutions that will really address the problems facing American families.

    As I wrote in a column analyzing the messages that Democrats who won used last fall, naming specific villains is essential to demonstrating that the candidate understands who is responsible for the problem and is willing to stand up to those powerful forces. Because of our campaign finance system, this is more of a challenge for Democrats. If they actually take on the rich and powerful, it will result in less campaign cash. Republicans don’t have to worry about that, since their patrons understand the game.

    Having named the villains, Democrats then need to propose bold solutions that demonstrate that they understand the depth of the problems people face, solutions that people can imagine might actually help. Naming bold solutions is another way to demonstrate to people that you are willing to take on the status quo.

    In a debate—whether real or the virtual debates of ad campaigns—Democrats will win if they point out that what Republicans want to do is tear down the hen house, and then name the foxes and describe the fortified, fox-slaying house.

    Of course, that’s the biggest question for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Will she name the villains and keep naming them, even though many of them will supply her campaign with funds? Will she advance bold solutions or try to duck tough issues? We know one thing: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the Draft Warren campaign will be making it tough for her to hide.

    It’s a question not just for Clinton, but for every Democrat. Will Democrats be bold enough to advance a politics that meets the despair and cynicism of Americans with directness, honesty, and hope for a better future?

    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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  • L.A. Port Truck Drivers Put Their Jobs on the Line for Decent Pay and Cleaner Air

    May 5, 2015Richard Kirsch

    Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

    Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

    Eco Flow Transportation’s founding came out of a long-running dispute between port drivers and Total Transportation Services, which had fired some 35 drivers who had filed claims for their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors and for illegal deductions from their paychecks.

    The new company, breaking with the widespread, illegal practice of treating drivers as independent contractors, already employs 80 drivers with a goal of expanding to 500 within a year. The firm promises to be neutral in efforts by its employees to join the Teamsters Union, which has been supporting the drivers’ protests and legal actions against misclassification as contractors.

    Eco Flow also aims to address diesel pollution from port trucks that are not maintained at standards, established in 2008, which aimed at drastically lowering the environmental health threats from the trucks. A court ruling in 2010 effectively placed the cost of maintaining clean trucks on drivers. The port drivers, who are forced by the trucking companies to be “independent contractors,” work an average of 59 hours a week, with take-home pay of under $29,000. The drivers’ low-pay makes it difficult for them to keep trucks at a level to meet clean air standards. But because Eco Flow owns the trucks, it assumes full responsibility for maintaining the fleet’s clean air standards.

    Eco Flow is also working to introduce a new model for the ports, called “free flow” cargo, which can help move cargo out of terminals more rapidly and increase the velocity of Port of Los Angeles terminals. The benefits will be less pollution from idling trucks and less port congestion. More efficient deliveries will also make it easier for the firm to pay the drivers a decent salary. This is a sharp contrast from most port-trucking companies who, by treating drivers as contractors, pay them by delivery and so pass on the cost of idling time to the drivers.  

    What does it take for workers to risk their jobs in actions that often result in retaliation by employers? I talked with Nick Weiner, an organizer at Change to Win, about the transformation that port drivers went through over several years, which led them to go from accepting their status to protesting.

    Q: What has been the barrier to port drivers taking actions?

    Weiner: The Teamsters have tried over the last 30 years but failed because we’ve allowed the illusion that drivers are independent contractors to drive strategies in the past. The drivers had used the language of the boss—calling themselves independent owner-operators. Part of the helping them come together was to use different language, so they could engage one another.

    In ’96 in L.A. there was a big strike. And there were smaller ones. All failed, because drivers didn’t have right language, and didn’t engage government officials to enforce law. We learned our history.

    Sometimes they said, ‘we want to be reclassified as employees.’ But they weren’t saying – ‘we are your employees now.’ That’s what’s needed to go from defensive. It’s not just we want to be employees and everything is fine. It’s by being employees, we can join a union and negotiate a contract. The end is not being an employee; there are a lot of employees not doing well.

    We have this term misclassification—a very wonky, inside-baseball but now it means something. ‘Yea, we know we’re misclassified. It means taking away our rights, employers stealing from us.’ New language has been liberating.

    Q. How do drivers get an understanding of how they could do better through organizing?

    Weiner: Drivers see that [unionized] longshoremen get treated well: they are paid well, get time off. While the drivers sit for hours on line [at the ports], without getting paid. They’ve come to see that the do critical work and are the largest set of workers in the port economy who are left out of the prosperity of the port economy.

    We’ve worked to tie those things together, being employees and the union. They thought they needed to deal with misclassification and then organize. Instead, needed to get them to understand you’re an employee now, you can organize now.

    It takes time for drivers to undo the brainwashing. To engage in collective struggle. 

    The collective struggle has taken two forms. The first has been a series of unfair labor practice pickets, aimed at specific companies, which block access to the ports of those companies trucks. The second is legal action under California law. Drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California’s wage and hour law. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

    The drivers are also filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union organizing.

    Slowly, the organizing is paying off. One firm, Green Fleet, avoided being picketed last week by reaching a comprehensive labor peace agreement with the Teamsters. After a U.S. Department of Labor ruling, another firm, Shippers Transport Express, reclassified its "independent contractors" as employees and in February signed a contract with the Teamsters, which resulted in higher pay and fully paid health care benefits for the drivers.

    The growing militancy of exploited workers, from Uber drivers to Wal-Mart “associates” to home care workers and many more is building a new movement of workers to challenge the 21st century economy, in the same way that workers built the labor movement 100 years ago. Their organizing and militancy helped drive the New Deal economic reforms which built the middle class in the 20th century. The fight of today’s workers is laying the foundation for the reforms we need to rebuild the middle class today in an economy based on good jobs and environmental sustainability. 

    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.

    Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the new trucking company would be employee-owned.

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  • Obamacare's Nine Lives

    Mar 5, 2015Richard Kirsch

    If Obamacare survives yesterday’s Supreme Court challenge, it will really be the cat with nine lives.

    The death of what became the Affordable Care Act has been predicted regularly ever since President Obama’s election in 2008. Right after Obama’s election, I got a wave of calls from reporters, each highly skeptical that the President-elect would really try to get health care passed. When you consider the relentless attacks and near-death experiences ever since, the reporters’ skepticism was understandable.

    If Obamacare survives yesterday’s Supreme Court challenge, it will really be the cat with nine lives.

    The death of what became the Affordable Care Act has been predicted regularly ever since President Obama’s election in 2008. Right after Obama’s election, I got a wave of calls from reporters, each highly skeptical that the President-elect would really try to get health care passed. When you consider the relentless attacks and near-death experiences ever since, the reporters’ skepticism was understandable.

    So when I found myself with a fresh wave of anxiety before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on the latest assault on the law, I decided to list all the times that the survival of what became the Affordable Care Act was up in the air. And when I then counted them, it turned out that they number eight. So if Obamacare survives this last, desperate challenge at the Supreme Court, it really will have nine lives. Here they are, in chronological order:

    1. The Great Recession: After Obama’s election a chorus of pundits predicted that the new President would have to give up his promise of health care reform because of the economic crisis. Instead, the President worked to get the economic stimulus passed, while paving the ground for health reform moving. Just a few weeks after the stimulus became law, the President went on a national tour to push for action on health care. 

    2. Tea Party August: The tea party movement came to national attention, with loud, vitriolic attacks on health care at congressional town meetings held by Democrats in August 2009. Republicans gleefully predicted they had killed the bill. But by the second half of August supporters of health reform had rallied at dozens of town hall meetings, usually turning out more activists than the tea partiers. The press didn’t give the same attention to meetings that were not marked by raucous demonstrations. But Democratic members of Congress were sent back to Congress knowing they had support in their home districts to move ahead.

    3. Scott Brown’s Election: The surprise election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in January 2010, on a platform opposing health care, looked like it might kill the bill. But having voted to pass the legislation in both houses, Democrats were not going to turn back. President Obama rallied the public by finally attacking the practices of health insurance companies and even without a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law.

    4. The Supreme Court Challenge: Immediately after the ACA’s passage, opponents launched a legal attack, which – shocking most legal scholars – was taken seriously by the courts. And by the time the Supreme Court heard the challenge, the odds were that the Court would gut the key provision of the law that enabled insurance to be affordable to individuals. But Chief Justice Roberts saved the day  – and much of the Court’s credibility.

    5. The 2012 Election: If the Senate had gone Republican in 2012 – as was widely predicted – and Mitt Romney been elected, Obamacare would have been repealed. Instead, the ACA emerged with a new electoral mandate.

    6. Government Shutdown and Congressional Repeals: I hesitated to put the 50 or so Republican votes to repeal the law, culminating in the government shutdown in the fall of 2013, on the list, only because of President Obama’s veto pen. But even if the ACA always had the presidential veto as armor, the barrage of repeal missiles has got to be counted. Texas Senator Ted Cruz led the government shut down before health insurance enrollment opened up because, as he said, “no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound.”

    7. Healthcare.gov: And then, with the disastrous launch of the website to enroll people in health care, Ted Cruz appeared to have gotten his wish fulfilled. The ACA might not be legally dead, but much of it was functionally comatose. Then the administration resuscitated the website, and millions were enrolled and started benefitting from the coverage. It looked like, As Cruz feared, the ACA was here to stay.

    8. Supreme Court Redux: That is until the Supreme Court agreed to hear a desperate, last minute challenge to ACA’s for millions of newly enrolled people in the King v. Burwell case. Could this be like one of those movies where the soldier survives the war, only to be killed by a bullet on his way home, fired by an enemy that hadn’t heard the war was over?

    The news reports of the oral arguments yesterday were encouraging, particularly Justice Kennedy’s raising of a constitutional issue with the plaintiff’s case. And there are a host of other legal reasons to believe that the lawsuit is groundless. But then it did get this far. The opponents have been relentless. They haven’t gotten the message that the war is lost.

    In June, we’ll find out if the ACA is the cat with nine lives. Easy to laugh at, if not for the fact that the actual lives of millions of people who rely on the law for life-saving health care are at stake. 

    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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  • The Politics of Responsibility – Not Envy

    Feb 11, 2015Richard Kirsch

    Americans are looking for politicians who ask the wealthy to take responsibility for their fair share of our society.

    According to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers – who is emerging as a key economic advisor to Hillary Clinton – the big political challenge in addressing economic inequality is not to embrace “a politics of envy.”

    No, Mr. Summers – it’s not the politics of envy. It’s the politics of responsibility.

    Americans are looking for politicians who ask the wealthy to take responsibility for their fair share of our society.

    According to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers – who is emerging as a key economic advisor to Hillary Clinton – the big political challenge in addressing economic inequality is not to embrace “a politics of envy.”

    No, Mr. Summers – it’s not the politics of envy. It’s the politics of responsibility.

    Summers was quoted in The New York Times about “what has emerged as a central question of her [Hillary Clinton’s] early presidential campaign strategy: how to address the anger about income inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy.”

    The rich may imagine that blaming them for the struggles of the rest of us is driven by envy, but that’s their own conceit to make them feel good. Americans don’t resent the rich. While we might fantasize about winning the lottery, we are not consumed by jealousy. What most Americans understand is that they are struggling financially because the wealthy have rigged the economic and political system to benefit them at the expense of the rest of us. That’s not envy: it’s reality.

    Summer’s formulation is meant to give intellectual cover to the real problem that Democrats like Clinton face: taking on those who finance their political campaigns. As the Times puts it: “And she [Clinton] must convince a middle class that feels frustrated and left behind that she understands its struggles, even as she relies heavily on the financial industry and corporate interests to fund her candidacy.”

    There is a way to connect with people without “overly vilifying the wealthy.” The politics I would recommend to Clinton and other Democrats is that of responsibility.

    There are two senses in which we can have a conversation about responsibility. The first is in explaining who is responsible for the financial squeeze on American working and middle class families. The second sense is to describe the kind of responsible behaviors that we can insist those who are responsible undertake to rebuild opportunity and security. The two are related, as one needs to be clear on who is responsible in order to identify how to fix the problem.

    For example, wages are stagnant because corporations engaged in concerted strategies to limit the proportion of profits shared with workers, including: busting unions, rather than negotiating with them; shipping jobs overseas rather than paying higher wages to American workers; and aggressively using campaign contributions and lobbyists to undermine labor standards (minimum wage; overtime protection; etc) and labor laws. Corporations spent their huge profits on stock buybacks and CEO pay, rather than better compensation for workers.

    Then there’s Wall Street’s culpability for using its political clout to shred financial regulations and oversight while engaging in the orgy of financial speculation and predatory lending that triggered the Great Recession.

    Or tax policy, where corporations pushed to reduce their proportion of taxes paid to the federal government and by the wealthy so that they now pay a lower share of taxes than the middle-class. The result:  working and middle class families pay higher taxes and more for public services. A glaring example is the enormous rise in the cost of public higher education, as funding for public colleges and universities has been slashed.

    The economic story about who is responsible requires acknowledging the democratic story. One thing that Americans on the left and right agree on is that the wealthy and corporate lobbyists have hijacked our democracy. That’s not cynical – it’s true. And it is a major reason why so many have given up on government working for them, or solving the problems they face.

    None of this is “over-vilifying the wealthy.” It is describing the reality that Americans understand. As we saw in the election this past fall, Democrats who fail to identify those responsible will lose, as base Democrats stay home and white working-class voters turn to Republicans who assign blame to the government and the poor.

    Identifying those who are responsible, as I’ve done above, drives the power of solutions to address those problems. For example, corporate suppression of wages is fixed by: revitalizing labor law and enforcement; raising labor standards like minimum wage and earned sick days; creating new workplace protections, like paid family leave; changing the rules on stock buy-backs; and limiting CEO compensation.

    Addressing the adverse impact of Wall Street’s drive for speculative profits calls for taxing speculative trading, breaking up the big banks, stopping predatory lending, and providing new, publicly backed mechanisms for financing the residential and community lending that banks have abdicated.

    Revenue raised from reversing tax breaks for corporations and the very wealthy can be used to invest in services families need like affordable child care and free community college, proposals in President Obama’s new budget.

    Instead of vilifying the wealthy, the politics of responsibility can lift up corporate leaders and wealthy Americans who are examples of responsible behavior. President Obama has done this occasionally, for example, lauding Costco for its high pay and good benefits for big box stores. Last week, Aetna announced it was going to raise wages and benefits for its lowest-wage workers. Warren Buffett has a “rule” bearing his name, for proposing that the wealthy shouldn’t pay lower shares of taxes than their secretaries. Buffett’s example is particularly important because he’s calling for government action, not just setting an example through his own behavior.

    The handful of corporate leaders who are acting responsibly are also acting in their own long-term self-interest. They understand that their businesses do better with workers who get paid decently. They realize they need an educated workforce. They may even comprehend that if workers get paid more, they’ll have more to spend, driving the economy forward.

    The real emotional challenge in addressing inequality is not envy by the 99 percent for the 1 percent. It’s the very thin skins of the super-rich. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, born one of the 1 percent, understood this. FDR framed the question of wealth and responsibility brilliantly when he said:

    Government can deal and should deal with blindly selfish men. But that is a comparatively small part – the easier part of our problem. The larger, more important and more difficult part of our problem is to deal with men who are not selfish and who are good citizens, but who cannot see the social and economic consequences of their actions in a modern economically interdependent community. They fail to grasp the significance of some of our most vital social and economic problems because they see them only in the light of their own personal experience and not in perspective with the experience of other men and other industries. They, therefore, fail to see these problems for the nation as a whole.

    There were some prominent capitalists who supported New Deal programs, including banking reforms. But of the rest, FDR famously said, “I welcome their hatred.”

    At the end of the day if Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat is going to champion the policies essential to rebuilding the middle-class and creating a new era of broad, sustainable prosperity, she will have to join FDR in applauding those businesses who worked for the benefit of all and welcoming the hatred of those who resist the fundamental changes needed to build an America that works for all of us.

    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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  • 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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