Richard Kirsch

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by Richard Kirsch

  • 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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  • Van Hollen Tax Proposal An Economic and Political Home Run

    Jan 12, 2015Richard Kirsch

    By forcing Republicans to admit their support for Wall Street over working families, Van Hollen's proposal opens the economic debate the Democrats need.

    By forcing Republicans to admit their support for Wall Street over working families, Van Hollen's proposal opens the economic debate the Democrats need.

    Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) proposal to tax Wall Street speculators and CEO millionaires to put money in the pockets of working families and the middle class, the engines of our economy, is a political and economic home run. It allows Democrats to focus on economic growth and fairness at the same time, sharply defining the debate on the key question voters ask: “Which side are you on?”

    Leading politicians from both parties are all expressing sympathy for the stagnant prospects of the middle class. If you need evidence, here is Jeb Bush sounding like Elizabeth Warren: “Millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel as if the American Dream is now out of their reach … that the playing field is no longer fair or level.”

    Where the two parties split – and where the core debate that will define the next two years and the 2016 election lies – is on who is to blame and what to do about it.

    Americans believe we need economic growth, but they are more likely to place the blame for stagnant wages on the super-rich and powerful who game the system at their expense. That is why they told pollsters they prefer “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points.

    Van Hollen claims both grounds – growth and fairness. As he says, “What our country needs is a growing economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”

    The heart of the plan is providing a $1,000 tax credit for workers, phased out as income rises, along with an additional $250 tax credit when workers save. He would pay for that by taxing Wall Street speculation (with a tiny financial transactions tax) and closing loopholes that allow millionaires to pay lower taxes than average people.

    It’s clear that this is great politics: taxing Wall Street gambling and the super-rich to put more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.

    Republicans tell another story, placing the blame for middle-class woes on government and focusing on lowering taxes and cutting government regulation to grow the economy. In opposing the Van Hollen proposal, they are forced to defend the wealthy and deny tax breaks to the middle-class, as we saw from Speaker John Boehner’s spokesperson's comment opposing the Van Hollen plan.

    This is the economic argument Democrats want to have. Republicans say we grow the economy by taking the side of the Wall Street banks that wrecked the economy and the corporate CEOs who cut our wages and shipped our jobs overseas. Democrats say we move the economy forward by putting more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.

    Van Hollen adds another proposal, which is also brilliant politics and sharp economics. He would not allow corporations to get tax breaks for million-dollar executive pay unless they shared the rewards of soaring corporate profits with their workers. Van Hollen accomplishes this by proposing to end corporate tax deductions for executive compensation of over $1 million, unless the corporation’s wages are raised enough to keep up with worker productivity and the cost of living. Another way that corporations could deduct higher executive pay is by providing employees with ownership and profit-sharing opportunities.

    With this proposal, Van Hollen puts the focus squarely on the corporate behavior that has driven down wages and crushed middle-class aspirations. His proposal would boost worker income, which drives the economy forward. When Republicans oppose this, the choice will again be clear to Americans: CEO millionaires or working families.

    As Van Hollen recognizes, his proposal is not the complete solution to creating an economy of broadly shared, sustainable prosperity. He recognizes the need to raise wages and job standards, which directly turn today’s low-wage, economy busting jobs into economy boosting jobs. He reinforces the necessity of investment in infrastructure, research and education.

    It will be important to do all these things. We need to raise wage standards and strengthen the ability of workers to organize, to make sure that every job pays enough to care and support a family in dignity. It is essential that we make huge investments in transportation, clean energy, communications, and research to build a powerful economic foundation for the future. That investment will take revenues, which can be raised from closing corporate loopholes, raising tax rates on the wealthy, or other progressive tax measures. We can also discuss whether some of the revenues Van Hollen raises would be better spent on infrastructure rather than tax breaks for upper-middle income people.

    Simplicity is key to political communication. In its simplest terms, Van Hollen is saying that we drive the economy forward by putting money in the pockets of working families and the middle-class, not Wall Street and the super wealthy. And then his proposal invites Americans to ask their elected officials: “which side are you on?”

    If Democrats around the country are willing to stand up to their big campaign contributors and ask that question with such a powerful proposal in 2016, they will triumph. And in triumphing, they will move the country toward an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy. 

    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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  • Chuck Schumer and the Democrats' Identity Crisis: Economic Policy vs. Rhetoric

    Dec 22, 2014Richard Kirsch

    A populist message won't be enough to save the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to serve Wall Street.

    A populist message won't be enough to save the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to serve Wall Street.

    Two weeks before New York Senator Charles Schumer once again delivered for Wall Street with the omnibus budget deal, he gave a major speech in which he sounded like a progressive champion. Schumer offered a stirring defense of government as the only force that can stand up to the private sector’s attack on the middle class, and argued that for Democrats to “roll to victory in 2016... First, we must convince Americans that government can be on their side and is not just a tool of special interests.”

    Schumer is not just any Democrat. He led the successful election efforts for Democratic senators in 2006 and 2008, is number three in the Democratic Senate leadership, where he is responsible for policy and communications, and he sits on several of the most powerful Senate committees. His speech at the National Press Club on November 25 was billed as a major analysis of why Democrats did so badly in the midterms and how they should chart a path to victory in 2016.

    Unfortunately, Schumer embodies the contradictions that will tear the Democratic Party apart over the next two years. He understands the need to embrace a populist, progressive narrative and program, but his ties to Wall Street and big money lead him to blunt any real moves by Democrats to take a bold stand for working people against corporate power.

    The budget proposal to allow more government bailouts of banks that gamble with their depositors’ money was a huge lost opportunity for Democrats to paint Republicans as being on the side of the big banks that wrecked the economy. That opportunity was negated by President Obama’s pushing for the budget and Senator Schumer’s stealth maneuvers (widely known in Congress) to keep the Wall Street deal intact. As a result, the leaders of both parties demonstrated, as they’ve done before, that government is in fact on the side of the rich and powerful.

    Schumer knows that this is a problem if Democrats hope to win at the polls. While his speech at the National Press Club got a lot of attention for his negative comments about the President’s strategy on the Affordable Care Act, those remarks were only a small part of a long analysis that has a lot in common with progressive views of the economy and the role of government. Some highlights:

    The most salient factor in our political economy is that for the first time in American history, middle-class incomes have been in decline for over a decade… The powerful have much more access and influence over government and specific and strong actions must be taken to curb that influence so government can really represent the average person… We must illustrate that government can provide solutions by delineating specific concrete programs that if enacted would actually improve lives and incomes… We must convince the middle class that the only way out of their morass is by a stronger and effective government, not by demeaning or running from it…

    When large forces harness power and push you around, you need a large after force to stand up to -- to stand up for you. The only force that can give you the tools to stand up to the large tectonic forces that can mitigate the effects that technology creates on your income is an active and committed government that is on your side.

    Schumer highlights the same key economic fact that progressives emphasize: wages have not kept up with productivity. But it is in his explanation of what is behind stagnant wages that he departs from progressives. For Schumer, “it can be described in one word -- technology. Technology allows capital to garner [a] far greater share of increases.” He goes on to note globalization as another factor.

    Schumer leaves out the powerful political forces that drove down wages. The biggest omission is his total failure to discuss the role of Wall Street in wrecking the economy and, more broadly, in driving down wages at the expense of corporate profits. Schumer, who as much as anyone in government is responsible for unleashing Wall Street is incapable of making that case. Schumer, a leading champion of banking deregulation, has collected more than $20 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector, more than any other senator who hasn’t run for president.

    And it’s not just Wall Street that Schumer leaves out of the story. It is also the corporate attack on labor unions and on labor standards.  He makes no mention of the slashing of taxes on unearned income, so that the rich pay lower taxes than the rest of us, or of the gutting of corporate tax collection. Where are the corporate villains – abetted by both political parties – who have enriched themselves at the expense of American families while driving down taxes and government investment in the public structures that are foundations of a powerful economy?

    Schumer emphasizes that Democrats need a policy program to go along with their message of being on the side of the middle class, but he punts on what ideas they should propose, saying, “In the coming weeks and months we will have this debate within the Democratic Party.” Still, he declares that the Democratic program must be “attainable and effective, which means they must work politically.” That’s a recipe for more small-bore ideas, which will neither meet the big challenges facing the country nor inspire people.

    In his conclusion, Schumer again asserts that what can unite Democrats “from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin” is working to “convince middle-class Americans that we are the party that will put government back on their side… and passing legislation that is effective and acutely focused on reversing the middle class decline.”

    Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell famously said, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” But in today’s world of minute-to-minute coverage and social media, that isn’t so easy to pull off. CREDO Action, one of the big progressive netroots groups, immediately called out Schumer, along with President Obama and other Democrats who enabled the Wall Street budget deal.

    Schumer is a brilliant politician and legislative tactician, but the reality of the corporate attack on American workers will overwhelm any messaging gloss that Democrats can put on it. He’s right; Democrats will have to take sides between working families and the middle class or the super-rich and CEO campaign contributors. 

    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.

    Image via Shutterstock

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