Richard Kirsch

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by Richard Kirsch

  • The Next Real Fight for Obamacare Will Be in 2014

    Sep 23, 2013Richard Kirsch

    Progressives must get out in front of the battle to preserve the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades.

    It's been 100 years since ideological conservatives joined with doctors and insurance companies to kill the first movement in the United States for what was then called "compulsory health care." Now, on the eve of their epic loss, those who deeply hate the idea that we have a collective responsibility to care for each other are desperately trying to stop history's clock.

    Progressives must get out in front of the battle to preserve the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades.

    It's been 100 years since ideological conservatives joined with doctors and insurance companies to kill the first movement in the United States for what was then called "compulsory health care." Now, on the eve of their epic loss, those who deeply hate the idea that we have a collective responsibility to care for each other are desperately trying to stop history's clock.

    Beneath the tested rhetoric from opponents like the Heritage Foundation and Texas Senator Ted Cruz about a government takeover or Obamacare killing jobs and the economy, we can find expressions of the driving force behind the right's obsession. One telling quote is from Missouri State Senator Rob Shaaf, who declared, “We can’t afford everything we do now, let alone provide free medical care to able-bodied adults.” Another is the proud statement from Steve Lonegan, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, who told me in a debate on Obamacare at the FDR Library, “I only care about me and my family.”

    These celebrations of extreme individualism are bald expressions of the "47 percent of Americans are takers" ideology that has become the driving fixation of Republicans, with the latest example being the vote in the House to deny food stamps to 4 million people because they are unemployed.

    The right most fears the establishment of another new program based on our common humanity. With her gift for sarcasm, New York Times columnist Gail Collins captured the irony of the Republican’s desperation to stop Obamacare before it starts: “The new health care law is going to be terrible, wreaking havoc on American families, ruining their lives. And they are going to love it so much they will never have the self-control necessary to give it up.”

    If this is a defining moment for the right, it is also for the left. As Jonathan Chait wrote this week, in a great restrospective on Republican opposition to the ACA, “The transformative potential of Obamacare is not a conservative hallucination.”

    For all its faults, the Affordable Care Act is the biggest expansion in half a century of the progressive belief that we all do better when we all do better. Almost 50 years ago, Medicare was greeted by Ronald Reagan – then a mouthpiece for the American Medical Association –  as a foot in the door to a totalitarian takeover. The right has long understood how high the American view of the role of government would be lifted if people came to rely on government for something as essential to a person's well-being as health care.

    The battleground now shifts to how the public perceives the law's impact. I would like to believe that Ted Cruz was right about this, at least, when he told The Daily Caller, “President Obama wants to get as many Americans addicted to the subsidies because he knows that in modern times, no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound.”

    However, the lesson of the past three years is that the rhetoric has been more powerful than the reality. The most telling data is that the age group that has most definitively benefited from the Affordable Care Act, seniors, has the highest disapproval rating of the law. Thanks to the ACA, some six million seniors have received free preventive care under Medicare and 6.3 million people on Medicare saved over $6.1 billion on prescriptions. Still, the relentless attack messages aimed at seniors, starting with the death panel lies during the legislative debate on the law and accelerating in the 2010 election, have taken their toll.

    On its face, opposing Obamacare should not be a winning electoral issue in 2014, if only because it will actually affect so few people. Several million people will get health coverage and very little else will change. But we can be certain that the right will continue to blame every established long-term trend in health care and the workforce – rising premiums, higher deductibles, fewer people getting health coverage at work – on the ACA.

    The implementation of the ACA will also give its opponents new ammunition. Not just from the inevitable glitches in signing up people, made worse by Republican sabotage in many states, but from the law's biggest shortcoming: while millions will gain access to affordable coverage for the first time, others will be asked to pay more than they can afford or pay a fine.

    Still, the fact that Obamacare will finally be doing what it was designed to do puts its defenders on higher ground, if we embrace the hard lessons of the past three years. Cementing the Affordable Care Act as a pillar of social security will require that Obamacare's champions aggressively respond to attacks and tell the stories of people whose lives have been transformed by the law. 

    Until now, it has been almost impossible to explain to people how the Affordable Care Act will work. It has been a new, complicated concept rather than a real-life gate to getting health coverage. But the millions who will begin to benefit on January 1 will be able to tell a different story: the cancer survivor who can get coverage despite his preexisting condition; the budding entrepreneur who can leave her job to start a small business; the 60 year-old who lost her job but was still able to get health coverage.

    With Obamacare a reality, not just a threat, their stories can be added to stories of a senior who is saving hundreds of dollars on Medicare prescriptions and the family whose finances were not wiped out when their 24-year-old son, still on his parents' health plan, was in an accident. 

    The debate will be sharpest, and have the most impact, leading to the 2014 congressional elections. Republicans will be pushed by the right to make Obamacare a big issue, regardless of whether their pollsters advise that the failure of the world to implode after its implementation has taken some of the sting out. We can be sure that the Koch brothers will fund attack ads in swing districts and states. In 2010, the failure by Democrats to vigorously defend the law, particularly among seniors who vote most heavily in non-presidential elections, was a big factor in Republican success.

    Progressives must engage in the fight now and prepare for 2014. It will not be enough to enroll people in Obamacare. We will need to organize new enrollees, their families, and their communities to be powerful spokespeople for the Affordable Care Act.

    The ACA has proven to be the cat with nine lives, surviving near-death experiences during the legislative battle, the Supreme Court ruling, congressional and presidential elections, and the barrage of repeal votes, which are reaching their height now. The new day that the right has feared for a century will start in just three months. But the battle will not end then. The next big test will be November 2014. The stakes for people’s lives and livelihoods, and for the progressive expression of the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could not be higher. 

    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.

     

    Health care costs image via Shutterstock.com

    Share This

  • Why Unions are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

    Aug 29, 2013Richard Kirsch

    New technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it's society's responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

    New technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it's society's responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

    With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

    In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

    The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

    At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

    On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

    As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

    When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle-class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training – although not necessarily a college education –will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was on chatting on-line just yesterday to get tech support), and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

    But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle-class for them.

    If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

    This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

    We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized, and the global economy.

    The lesson from the Autor-Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle-class. What will destroy the middle-class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

    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.

     

    Robotic arms in factory banner image via Shutterstock.com 

    Share This

  • The Amazon Economy Undercuts Obama's Message

    Aug 2, 2013Richard Kirsch

    The president is promoting a business model that puts everything we want just a click away -- except for good jobs with decent wages.

    On Tuesday, President Obama gave a great speech on why good jobs are the foundation for his middle-out economic strategy... from a huge Amazon warehouse where the workers do not have good jobs. I’m still stuck on the setting.

    The president is promoting a business model that puts everything we want just a click away -- except for good jobs with decent wages.

    On Tuesday, President Obama gave a great speech on why good jobs are the foundation for his middle-out economic strategy... from a huge Amazon warehouse where the workers do not have good jobs. I’m still stuck on the setting.

    There is so much in President Obama’s speech that I’ve been wanting him to say. While the press focused on his announcement of a proposal on corporate taxes, the speech was almost entirely about jobs. After Obama described “what it means to be middle-class in America” as “A good job. A good education. A home to call your own. Affordable health care… A secure retirement,” he pointed out, “It’s hard to get the other stuff if you don’t have a good job.”

    He told the Amazon warehouse workers, “we should be doing everything we can as a country to create more good jobs that pay good wages.”

    But as The New York Times reported, “the White House came under fire because many Amazon jobs pay only $11 an hour, and the pace of the work in these warehouses has been described as exhausting.”

    Mr. President, those are not good jobs. Not even for a single person. The BEST (Basic Economic Security Table) data calculates that to meet the basics of housing, food, transportation, health care, personal items, plus putting aside a little for emergencies and retirement, a single person would need to earn $14 an hour. That is if he or she gets health care at work. Add one child – and the cost of child care – and the calculation jumps to $23 an hour.

    That is not what we would really call a good job. There’s no provision to save for that child’s higher education, for instance. And a vacation, even a modest one? Not in the BEST budget.

    The way warehouse workers are treated represents all that is wrong with the new American economy. A new study from U.C. Berkeley found that the average wage of warehouse workers in California is $14,500 a year. But the industry also employs many temp workers, who earn on average under $10,000. You can learn more about the often abusive treatment of workers in the warehouse industry at warehouseworkersunited.org.

    Of course, the president made no acknowledgement of the working conditions in the Amazon warehouse. He did call on America’s CEOs to “help get these workers back on their feet,” saying that companies who make the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America list “know if a company has employees that are motivated and happy, that business is more likely to succeed.” Amazon is not on the list.

    There are so many other places the president could have chosen to speak, including one of the new manufacturing facilities he talked about. But he chose Amazon, according to the Times article, because the company recently announced that it would add 5,000 jobs at 17 warehouses around the country. The president also delighted in Amazon’s new consumer model, opening his speech by saying, “Last year, during the busiest day of the Christmas rush, customers around the world ordered more than 300 items from Amazon every second, and a lot of those traveled through this building. So this is kind of like the North Pole of the south right here. Got a bunch of good-looking elves here.” With elven paychecks, he might have added.

    Amazon is a great example of how the new economy has created a crisis in good jobs, in which most of the jobs being created are low-wage: a highly-profitable information technology firm that drives local stores out of business while paying low wages to its non-union workers.

    Of course, Amazon has been great for consumers, with convenience, selection, great service, and lower prices. Throughout our history, those kinds of innovations have driven the economy forward, and we are not going to stop them. But low-wages and poor working conditions do not have to be part of the story. We have also, in our history, transformed a low-wage economy to an economy that paid decent wages and created a huge middle class.

    One of Amazon’s initial investors, Nick Hanauer, is the coiner with his colleague Eric Liu of the “middle-out” economics phrase, which the president has adopted. But Hanauer has a very different view of what workers should be paid than the CEO of Amazon or President Obama do. While the president has proposed a $9-an-hour minimum wage, Hanauer is proposing a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

    As Hanauer wrote for Bloomberg News in a post titled "The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage," “The fundamental law of capitalism is that if workers have no money, businesses have no customers.” Hanauer backs up his argument with a simple example:

    My investment portfolio includes Pacific Coast Feather Co., one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of bed pillows. Like many other manufacturers, pillow-makers are struggling because of weak demand. The problem comes down to this: My annual earnings equal about 1,000 times the U.S. median wage, but I don’t consume 1,000 times more pillows than the average American. Even the richest among us only need one or two to rest their heads at night.

    He concludes, “Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would inject about $450 billion into the economy each year. That would give more purchasing power to millions of poor and lower-middle-class Americans, and would stimulate buying, production and hiring.”

    Given the huge obstacles to passing any part of his middle-out economics program through Congress, it will be very tough for the president’s campaign to produce legislative results. He can educate the country about the challenges of the new economy and why we need the kind of middle-out economics he and Hanauer both describe, but he will only breed more cynicism and resignation if Americans see an Amazon warehouse job as his vision for their 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.

    Share This

  • Where's the Beef?: The First Thing Obama Can Do By Himself to Create Good Jobs

    Jul 25, 2013Richard Kirsch

    The president's big economic address had some good lines, but he should back them up with real action through executive orders.

    The president's big economic address had some good lines, but he should back them up with real action through executive orders.

    I am of course glad to see President Obama focus the country on what he correctly identifies as the most pressing national problem, the crushing of the middle class. The solution he laid out in his address at Knox College, a middle-out economics which sees the middle class as the engine of the economy, is both good economics and a powerful political message. It is what progressives and Democrats need to keep emphasizing over and over again, both rhetorically and in their legislative agendas.

    When it came to the broad foundations of policy, the president's outline of the pillars of a strong middle class was on point: good jobs, quality education and job training, affordable health care, good housing, retirement security, and strong neighborhoods.

    Still, I found the speech disappointing. The president only nibbled at the biggest change in our economy, the relentless decline in good jobs. 

    Not that the president didn't correctly identify the issue. Early in his address he explained, "The link between higher productivity and people’s wages and salaries was severed – the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, while the typical family’s barely budged." He went on to acknowledge that even as the economy recovers, the earnings of the average worker are down.

    But when it came to further analysis or solutions, the speech was thin. He did repeat his call for an increase in the minimum wage and remind the public that the Affordable Care Act will provide coverage for people who don't get health insurance at work. However, his solutions made assumptions that ignore the profound changes in the economy that have undermined job quality.

    A good lens for this is his discussion – really lack of discussion – about the role of unions, which he only mentioned by commenting, "It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class." A great example of using the passive voice to avoid explaining that unions were not decimated by an act of nature, but by a concerted attack by corporations and the right, backed by government policy.

    The president pointed out that "The days when the wages for a worker with a high school degree could keep pace with the earnings of someone who got some higher education are over." But why did workers with just high school educations used to get paid well? Because they organized unions through which they fought together for better wages. 

    Today, most of the new jobs being created are low-wage jobs with no benefits, which also don't require more than a high school education. If these workers were enabled – with the help of modernized labor laws and aggressive enforcement of the labor laws now on the books – to organize, they too could win decent wages and benefits. The president talked about global competition as an explanation for job loss, but that’s not an issue for the service industries that employ most low-wage workers.

    It is also no longer true that another of the president's pillars, education, will mean more good jobs. The fact that a higher proportion of Americans have a college education than ever before has not stopped the deterioration of job quality. In the new economy, college grads have maintained low unemployment by taking jobs that they are overqualified for, upping joblessness among Americans who aren't college grads.

    Even the president's assumption that creating more manufacturing and infrastructure jobs will mean more good jobs is not as solid as it has been in the past. While most of these jobs are decent, they pay less than before. For example, newly hired auto workers make a fraction of what the industry historically paid; it would take two new auto worker jobs to support a family at the same middle-class level as the workers paid at traditional rates. More broadly, the drop in unionization in manufacturing and construction, one cause among many of the overall downward pressure on wages, means job quality in traditional good job sectors is declining.

    A middle-out economy must be anchored by good jobs. There are clearly huge legislative challenges to winning a good jobs agenda, which would include robust labor law strengthening, updated labor standards that guarantee paid sick leave and family leave, and enforcement of the labor laws already on the books. But the president doesn't have to wait for Congress to provide better jobs for millions of workers and set a new example for the country.

    In his speech, Obama promised, "Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it." That’s great. He can start with an executive order to boost job quality for at least 2 million workers whose pay is financed by the federal government. 

    The federal government has a history, by legislation and executive order, of protecting wages for workers paid for with federal funds. However, the prevailing wage protections put in place over the three decades from the 1930s to the 1960s now cover only 20 percent of federally funded private-sector work. Even for those workers still covered, wage rates can be little higher than the federal minimum. According to a recent study by Demos, the federal government now funds over 2 million jobs paying under $12 per hour – more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined – in such industries as food, apparel, trucking, and auxiliary health care.

    In another report on the federal contract workforce, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) interviewed over 500 contract workers and found that 74 percent are paid less than $10 per hour and 58 percent receive no benefits from their employer. The NELP report includes one gripping story after another of workers like Lucila Ramirez, who, after 21 years as a janitor at the federally owned Union Station, earns $8.75 an hour.

    A presidential executive order could directly help Lucila and the millions like her who manufacture uniforms for our military, care for our elders under Medicare, work as security guards at federally leased buildings, or are laborers on federally funded construction projects. The order would require that jobs financed by federal funds require living wages (not just minimum wage or prevailing wage in a low-wage sector), paid sick days, and prohibitions against employers fighting unionization.

    I am looking forward to the president spending "every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in [his] term to make this country work for working Americans again." He can start by backing up great lines like that with an executive order for the millions of hardworking Americans whose pay comes from the government he leads. 

    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.

     

    Barack Obama banner image via Shutterstock.com

    Share This

  • HHS Ruling Helps Workers But Spells Trouble for Employer Mandate

    Jul 9, 2013Richard Kirsch

    Workers won't be denied coverage because of the reporting delay, but they may not want to give up the insurance they get through the exchanges come 2015.

    Workers won't be denied coverage because of the reporting delay, but they may not want to give up the insurance they get through the exchanges come 2015.

    In my post last week, after the announcement that the employer mandate would not be enforced for a year, I wrote that it was vital that the Obama administration show as much concern for the workers who might be denied health insurance as it did for employers. Specifically, I asked the administration to make clear that a worker would be able to get subsidized health coverage through the new exchanges based on filling out an application, without having to get proof from an employer. On Friday, HHS issued that ruling.

    The decision not to enforce the employer mandate for a year is certain to cost some people health coverage as some employers decide to postpone complying with the law. Their workers, possibly also confused by the delay, may not apply for subsidized coverage. But if they do apply, the new ruling will be a big help to them.

    As noted, the HHS ruling made it clear that the exchanges should rely on the information workers provide rather than proof from their employers. Workers can ask their employer to help provide the information, but that is not a requirement. And the exchanges can try to verify the information if possible, but that will be difficult and again is not a requirement. Under the new ruling, a worker who reports that he or she is not offered affordable health coverage at work will qualify for subsidized coverage. (Affordability is measured by the employee share of premiums being no more than 9.5 percent of their income.)

    The HHS announcement is an important measure to help get coverage to uninsured workers. Of course, it has received little attention compared to the news about the employer mandate. That news is almost always reported incorrectly, with most articles saying that the mandate itself has been postponed for a year. What has been postponed is the enforcement of the mandate through penalties for employers that do not comply. It’s still the law that large employers are required to offer affordable coverage. But if they don’t, there will be no penalty.

    There’s one more potentially interesting twist to this story, one that could provide real benefit to some workers in 2014 and then highlight a big problem with the employer mandate in 2015. Workers who get health insurance through the exchanges will get coverage that is much more affordable – lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs than health insurance offered by employers. This will be particularly true for the low-wage employers most likely to not offer coverage. As a result, workers who get coverage in 2014 in the exchange may find in 2015 that they are forced to get coverage that is much more expensive to buy and use, and covers fewer health services, from their employers. The workers will want to stick with the exchanges, putting pressure on employers to pay a fine and let the employees stay in the exchanges, or to improve the coverage they offer.

    We are likely to see a lot more debate about how to reform the employer mandate in Congress this year and next as the ACA is implemented. In a future post, I’ll describe ways to change the employer mandate to make good health coverage more affordable for workers. 

    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.

     

    Health care cost image via Shutterstock.com.

    Share This

Pages