Forcing Both Parties to Get Specific About What Government Should Do

Apr 9, 2012Mark Schmitt

As part of the How We Value Government series, demanding that both Republicans and Democrats be forced to outline a real vision of government instead of proposing vague cuts or making specific defenses.

As part of the How We Value Government series, demanding that both Republicans and Democrats be forced to outline a real vision of government instead of proposing vague cuts or making specific defenses.

There's an old rule of thumb about Americans' attitudes toward government that's no less true for being familiar: Americans are "operational liberals" but "philosophical conservatives," the political scientists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded in their 1967 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, based on their analysis of dozens of public opinion surveys. That is, we favor the specific services government provides, but we're distrustful on an abstract level and respond favorably to attacks on "big government."

This small insight was true even at the peak of the Great Society and the era of "liberal consensus," and it fits as an explanation for much of the back-and-forth of American conceptions of government ever since. Whether it accurately represents public opinion or not, it's a good guide to the behavior of actors in the political process. Conservatives attack "government" as an abstract concept that has little to do with our real lives and mostly creates wasteful excess benefiting either bureaucrats themselves or other people. Liberals respond by trying to show the harsh reality of cuts to particular programs, especially safe ones that reach large constituencies. In 1994 and 1995, for example, voters were first drawn to Newt Gingrich's promises to eliminate entire cabinet departments, but as soon as the idea of cutting government was converted to the reality of shuttering national parks and slashing Medicare, the political tides turned swiftly in the other direction. George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 talking vaguely about the need to change Social Security, yet given the opportunity to put such a plan in action, he saw the public lose faith so quickly that he never found a single congressional sponsor for the legislation. Even Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in what we still see as a critical moment in shifting attitudes toward government, largely backed off from that agenda after the 1981 budget cuts and his own ham-fisted attack on Social Security.

Mitt Romney's announcement recently that he would eliminate several large government programs, but wouldn't name them lest he face political criticism, represents the conservative tactical approach to Cantril-Free perfectly. (Except they usually remember not to read the stage directions.)

The struggle over government thus often takes the form of this push-pull between the abstract, where anti-government conservatism reigns, and the specific, where people seem to appreciate government. The result, until recently, has been a happy dance through which both sides achieve their short-term objectives: Conservatives win their share of elections, which they can use to push through tax cuts, without worrying much about the size of government, while liberals get their turns at power and avoid major cuts to programs. The Cantril-Free paradox has even generated new paradoxes of its own. Conservatives often expand government as political insurance, albeit carelessly, as in the creation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program in 2003. Liberals and Democrats are more likely to cut programs (such as the Medicare cuts of 1993 and 2010), both because they take government more seriously and in the hopes that showing a commitment to cutting waste and improving people's experience of government will ameliorate their abstract opposition.

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But what's missing from this well-rehearsed dance is any effort to force the question, to make a real choice about what we want government to do. That missing element has been devastating in the last few years, when it seemed impossible to convince the public or Congress that an emphatic government effort was the only way to prevent a long and debilitating recession.

For the most part, as Romney's comment suggests, the 2012 election cycle is evolving into yet another battle between the abstract call for cutting government and the specific defense of popular programs, particularly those threatened by Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan. But there are indications that the game might be changing. House Republicans have now tied themselves to the mast and voted twice for Ryan's radical plan. They've built up some defenses against the classic attacks about cutting Medicare and other vital programs: They've drawn a new line that defines Medicare and Social Security for current seniors and those over 55 as benefits that have been "earned," while for others they are unaffordable giveaways. They've redefined programs like unemployment insurance as if they were welfare. They've used deficit fever and misleading statistics to portray Social Security and Medicare as doomed, so that the only option is their cuts.

Meanwhile, embracing the need to reform entitlement programs, Democrats have (correctly and responsibly) blunted their own ability to play the old game. As Slate's Dave Weigel wrote after the Republican victory in a special election in New York City last year, Medicare is "not really a wedge issue -- it's the slow death of a wedge issue."

These two changes directly challenge the politics of "operational liberalism." Going forward, it might not be enough to pick a few appealing government programs that reach the middle class and use them as political ammunition. And that could be a good thing. Instead of focusing on narrow specifics, this change demands a full-throated defense of government as a whole -- programs that benefit "other people" as well as ourselves, programs that represent the shared benefits of our social contract. And it demands that we open up the "submerged state," which obscures government programs and encourages the illusion that government programs benefit only someone else.  It calls for a full-fledged commitment to making sure that government programs, especially Medicare, are in fact sustainable for the future.

The biggest risk to the promise of shared prosperity, assisted by government, is that liberals and Democratic political operatives are living in the past and believe that they can replay the old Clinton game against Gingrich over and over again.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Memo to Romney: America's Greatest Presidents All Used Government to Increase Prosperity

Apr 5, 2012David B. Woolner

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn't be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy -- and our entire society.

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn't be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy -- and our entire society.

In his Wisconsin primary victory speech, presidential aspirant Mitt Romney made some interesting observations about Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to indicate that he admires them, as they were what he termed "historically great" presidents. He then went on to chide the current president for having the audacity to think of himself in the same league as these three great former leaders. He described the coming presidential election at great length as a historic choice between what he termed a "government-centered society" and a "society led by free people and free enterprises."

In making these observations, Mr. Romney made no attempt to rectify the fundamental contradiction in his remarks. He either failed to see, or decided to conveniently ignore, the fact that the three "historically great" presidents (one Republican and two Democratic) he made reference to at the opening of his remarks all shared one thing in common: a fundamental belief in the positive use of government to help expand the economy and provide a greater degree of economic opportunity and social justice for all Americans -- not just those at the top of the income ladder.

It was President Lincoln, for example, who in 1862 signed such pieces of legislation as the Homestead Act, which issued 160 acres of Federal land west of the Mississippi River at little or no cost to any adult citizen who had not borne arms against the United States, provided they agreed to improve the land. He also signed the Morill Act, which donated 30,000 acres of federal land to a number of states and territories that could then be sold by the state to provide the revenue needed to fund public colleges and universities. The result was the establishment of over 60 "land-grant" colleges and universities across the country, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (the very state in which Mr. Romney made his remarks about the evils of a "government-centered" society). The Homestead Act greatly accelerated the settlement of U.S. territory in the West and was a boon to the overall economy. The establishment of "land-grant" colleges and universities brought the dream of higher education to tens of thousands of low-income farmers and workers who had previously been denied that opportunity, which had untold benefits in science, technology, and the liberal arts.

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

FDR brought us the most comprehensive banking and financial reform in U.S. history. He established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a number of other important laws that restored confidence in the country's financial and banking sector not only among the American people, but also among the business community. In using government in this way, the Roosevelt administration laid the basis for the overall growth of the financial sector for decades to come. FDR also greatly expanded the country's economic infrastructure through a massive effort to update the country's antiquated roads, bridges, airports, and other facilities, all of which helped propel the expansion of the economy in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and beyond. He also signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, which encouraged higher wages through the unionization of the workforce and, near the end of his life, pushed through the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of returning World War II veterans the chance to secure further job training or access to higher education. Both of those efforts helped make the post-1945 U.S. economy the envy of the world.

The Johnson administration gave us the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and '65, which began the long, slow process of ending racial discrimination in America. It gave us Medicare and Medicaid to provide the elderly and low-income individuals with access to health care. Head Start and the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped low-income families secure a better education for their children. The Truth-in-Lending Act helped protect consumers from abusive lending practices. These and a host of other initiatives were designed to build a "Great Society" that would provide everyday Americans with a greater measure of social security and economic opportunity.

In short, all of these "historically great" presidents used government as a tool to improve the lives of working Americans through a host of important initiatives that not only helped render the United States a more just and equitable society, but also helped expand our economy by increasing the level of economic opportunity.

Ignoring all of this, Mr. Romney insists that it is only "free enterprise" and the "free enterprise system" that can lift people out of poverty, educate our kids, and build a strong middle class. He claims that this is the one true path to economic prosperity and as such says he is running for president because he wants to "restore to America the economic values of freedom and limited government that has made us the powerhouse of the world."

But in making this claim, Mr. Romney misreads our history. There is no question that the United States and the American people have benefited tremendously over the years from the fruits of the free enterprise system. But the notion that our government has not played a major part in this success story ignores the facts. Ask yourself where we might be today without the innovations of such institutions as MIT or Cornell University, if our banking system was not backed by the FDIC, or what sort of social security system we might have if we had turned over the Social Security Trust Fund to the private equity markets prior to the recent financial crisis. Also ask yourself if you really think the financial sector would be better off without the SEC or if it really is fair that Warren Buffett's secretary pays a higher rate of tax than her employer.

History teaches us that the true story of America is one of enlightened leadership in the creative use of government to unleash the creative energies of the American people. History also reminds us that the free market, left unchecked, can bring the country to financial ruin. Mr. Romney refuses to acknowledge this. Instead, he claims that President Obama is wrong to focus so much of his attention on finding government-led solutions to our current problems. Meanwhile, he mocks him for even attempting to aspire to the greatness of a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Johnson -- the three of our presidents who, perhaps more than any others, understood that there are times when, as FDR put it, the American citizen, in seeking to rectify economic inequality and injustice, "could only appeal to the organized power of government."

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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Giving Citizens Control Over Government Will Revive It

Apr 4, 2012Sabeel Rahman

As part of the How We Value Government series, a call for going beyond electoral reforms to bring citizens directly into the governing process.

As part of the How We Value Government series, a call for going beyond electoral reforms to bring citizens directly into the governing process.

From the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, to the 2012 campaign trail and the Supreme Court's consideration of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the central clash in American politics today is over the role of government in the modern economy. If the Great Recession has taught us anything it is that, on the one hand, we need government more than ever as a force for the common good -- whether in combating the vicissitudes of the market or in holding private actors like too-big-to-fail firms accountable. But, on the other hand, our faith in government's ability to do so has been (rightly) shaken. Conservatives have used this distrust to deregulate and dismantle the welfare state. As Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick argues, one of the central challenges for progressive politics is to provide a constructive defense of the role and value of government.

One of the common responses to the declining faith in government is to appeal to individuals' civic virtue, which could revive government by pushing us to make good faith arguments as advocates, participate as voters, or promote the common good as policymakers. Yet Barack Obama's own appeal to bipartisanship and civic duty in 2008 now looks naïve in the context of the vitriolic political disputes over government policy in the Great Recession.

Yet Obama was on to something: citizenship does matter for restoring the effectiveness of and faith in government, but not in the way that it is commonly invoked. The deeper root cause of the questionable legitimacy of government today is not policymakers themselves; it is instead the sheer gap between we the people and those policymakers. The workings of government are too often seen as an outside force, driven by individuals who are not responsive or accountable to the people. Ultimately, reviving government requires expanding the opportunities for participation offered to citizens themselves. In other words, restoring government requires rethinking citizenship -- not by appealing to virtue but rather by thinking of it as an office, with its own powers and capacities to shape public policy.

When the ideal of citizenship is invoked, it is often as a corrective against narrow self-interested views of politics. Good citizenship, we are reminded, entails not only rights and benefits for the individual, but also shared obligations to one another. Good citizenship means giving reasons for one's political beliefs in public and arguing in good faith over what the common good requires. For elected and appointed officials, citizenship means governing with an eye toward the public, not the private or factional, interest -- while for voters citizenship means showing up on election day and choosing one's vote carefully.

But this "virtue-conception" of citizenship has remarkably little bite as a mode of political reform beyond exhortations to good behavior. Yes, a good citizen ought to take seriously his or her obligations to others and we ought to argue or govern in good faith. But this conception of citizenship by itself cannot generate the kind of shift in politics that we need. The exhortation to virtue is an aspiration, but not a reform strategy.

Indeed, many classical democratic theorists emphasized citizenship not as a virtue, but as an institutional configuration of political power. In this view, we need institutions to facilitate good government. But through participating in those institutions we as individuals can acquire civic virtues over time, learning through experience and being shaped by institutional powers and constraints to govern better. This "institutional view" sees citizenship as an office, a position in a democratic government. Like the other offices in a democracy such as the executive, the legislator, or the judge, this office has its own powers, responsibilities, and institutional forms -- structures that make possible the kinds of actions that we want from a "good citizen."

The problems of contemporary politics look very different from this view. The problem is not self-serving interest groups, callous politicians, or apathetic voters. Instead, the problem is that we have underinvested in the institutions that can make ordinary people effective officers in a democratic government.

Consider what one has to do to be a good citizen today. If we show up to vote, we have discharged our sole official duty. There are of course other avenues for more engaged citizens to participate in politics: people can learn about the issues through the media, and they can lobby policymakers through political associations and advocacy groups. But as an institutional matter, the powers of the citizen are minimal. Much of the task of governing is delegated: to executives, to representatives, to judges, to regulators. Our current institutions give so little space for citizens to govern themselves, it is little wonder that political officials seem unaccountable or citizens apathetic. What we need is to create spaces in which citizens can engage in meaningful political action. Direct experience with governing can help empower ordinary people, educate them on the issues, and ensure accountable and responsive government.

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

Creating greater institutional spaces for citizens to share the powers and responsibilities of governing will not just enhance the accountability and responsiveness of government. It can also help foster a new generation of citizens who gain knowledge and insight into the moral and policy challenges of the day.

The first area where we can expand the office of citizenship is through reforms to our electoral process. Campaign finance reform would restore the political power of citizens vis-à-vis their representatives, offsetting the dependencies of elected officials on fundraisers and elites. Similarly, electoral processes themselves fall far short of basic fairness. A number of states have been systematically increasing barriers to voter registration and participation, threatening to disenfranchise millions of voters. The redrawing of representatives' districts continues to yield gerrymandered districts that make it difficult for citizens to actually engage with their representatives and have adequately contested elections. Finally, Election Day should be a holiday that enables citizens to actually discharge their duties seriously and easily.

Yet, even with these changes, elections by themselves are still insufficient. While they create opportunities for mobilization and debate, they offer little role for citizens after the moment of the election itself. To remedy this defect, we must also expand citizen participation in local governments and regulatory agencies.

Local government has long been celebrated as a way to provide citizens with an opportunity to engage in the political process more easily on issues most directly relevant to their lives. But for cities to serve as spaces for empowered participation, they first need broader authority to actually address complex policy issues. Currently many cities have highly constrained powers to tax, spend, and develop policy thanks to the constraints of state and federal law and judicial doctrine. Second, city governments can do much more to involve local citizens in the policymaking process, as recent efforts at participatory budgeting in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere suggest.

Finally, regulatory agencies can be reformed not just to allow citizen input but to also give citizens a more direct role in policy formation and implementation. While agencies already allow citizens to submit public comments on proposed regulations, the actual impact of these comments are often minimal. By contrast, agencies could involve citizens through more institutionalized consultations and procedures, giving stakeholders a direct voice in regulatory policymaking decisions. Indeed, it is telling that successors to the Occupy Wall Street protests have attempted to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission to enact tougher financial regulations through detailed comments and protests -- laudable efforts, but unlikely to sway the SEC commissioners absent more institutionalized channels for citizen voice in regulatory policymaking.

These are only a few ideas on how citizens can be given greater power and voice in the actual project of governing. Until we reform the institutions of governance, citizenship will continue to have limited meaning in politics. But if we can create spaces in which citizens can be officers of the polity, shaping public policy and directly experiencing the challenges and rewards of government, then we can not only thicken the meaning of citizenship but also revive the efficacy and legitimacy of government itself.

It may be rightly argued that such civic participation may yield policies that we disagree with. Certainly it is true that participation does not necessarily mean that the best policies result. But the democratic faith is a faith in the people themselves, in their ability to develop their capacities of judgment through experience over time, and in their ability to learn from mistakes. For such learning and judgment to take place, citizens have to be given real power and real experience. This need not mean subordinating policies to public opinion. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of empirical studies into participation (see here, here, and here) is the degree to which ordinary citizens can exercise real political power in a nuanced way if provided with institutions that grant them the power, enable them to learn from experience over time, and place them in conversation with experts.

Democracy is the central animating value of American politics, on both the left and right. If we want to restore faith in government and overcome its political dysfunction, it is time to make democracy -- and citizenship -- more than a buzzword.

Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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The Economic Story Progressives Need to Tell

Apr 3, 2012Richard Kirsch

As part of the How We Value Government series, a simple narrative with clear heroes and villains that progressives too often fail to tell.

As part of the How We Value Government series, a simple narrative with clear heroes and villains that progressives too often fail to tell.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush vowed to protect Medicare two sentences after he trashed "nationalized health care." The fact that Medicare is our national health care system was apparently as lost on the president -- and most of the listening American public -- as it was on the senior citizens who went to town hall meetings to protest the government takeover of health care after seeing their doctor earlier in the day on government health insurance.

When was the last time you heard someone define Medicare as "our national health care system for seniors?" Imagine if that was a regular description that Democratic elected officials and Medicare advocates used. Maybe the concept might begin to take hold.

People filter the experiences of their own lives and the world at large through stories and narratives. The greatest hole in progressive communication about government is not the absence of myriad good examples of how government meaningfully improves people's lives and drives a more prosperous economy or a host of recent examples of how stripping government protections is disastrous. What is missing is the consistent telling of our story about the role of government in creating broader shared prosperity, opportunity, security, and freedom.

One mistake that progressive advocates of government make is to make government the subject. People don't wake up in the morning wondering about government; they wake up thinking about getting their kids to school and themselves to work. They don't worry about the size of government; they fret about keeping their jobs, how they are going to pay for their kids' college and have enough left over to retire. The story we tell has to be focused on the core anxieties of ordinary people and how government can address those concerns.

Like any yarn, our story has to include heroes and villains. And since this is a narrative about how the world works, we need to explain what the villains did wrong to get us into this mess and what the heroes will do to rescue us, or better yet, themselves.

For the past year I have been working with a group of progressive leaders and communicators on the development of a "progressive economic narrative," a way of telling our story about the role of the individual, business, and government in creating shared prosperity. The goal of the group is "to develop and promote a common economic narrative that is used across the progressive movement, a powerful story that we are telling consistently through words and actions, in our communications and organizing."

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

The progressive economic narrative we've drafted has five conceptual pillars, which describe what went wrong with the economy, define a powerful economy and how we get there, outline the political challenge, and conclude with a call to action. It has villains -- Wall Street speculators, CEO campaign contributors, and the super-rich -- who did bad things: cut our wages and benefits, shipped our jobs overseas, got rich quickly at the expense of American workers and families. These evildoers bribed politicians to rig the rules in their favor, and in doing so, crashed the economy, crushed and closed the middle class, and wrecked our democracy.

The hero in our tale is the great American middle class, the engine of our economy. At the heart of our story is the notion that, as Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, "We all do better when we all do better." This is a statement of economic truth and of our values. We believe that the true measure of our economic success is the well-being of our families and the productivity of our nation, not the stock market and corporate profits. And that economic progress is driven by innovating and investing in the future so that all Americans have good jobs and can educate their kids, support their families, and retire with security. We all do better when we all do better.

To get there, our hero -- the middle class, working families, the 99% -- has to fight to free the government from the grip of the rich and powerful and put our democracy back in the hands of ordinary Americans. That matters because the great American middle class does not happen by accident; it is built by decisions we make together. Decisions made when the government works for all of us -- decisions to invest in our people, to expand opportunity and security to pave the way for business to innovate and meet the future, and to write rules that boost businesses that do the right thing, like creating good jobs in America or safeguarding the environment.

You will recognize that this is a very different story from that told by the right, in which economic success depends on rugged individuals in a market free from government. Our story is that people, business, and government drive the economy by working together to create broadly shared prosperity, opportunity, and security.

If this seems simplistic, that's a strength. It is also misleading, because so much of communication on our side fails to talk about our view of what makes the economy a success and how the main actors -- people, business, and government -- each play a role. Simplicity is a powerful asset if we begin to tell the story consistently in all our communications, which means our words and our actions. The "we" here needs to be broad, including progressive organizers, activists, pundits, journalists, and academics.

If we are to help Americans rediscover government, we need to keep telling a powerful story about how a government that works for all of us will allow each of us to prosper and believe again in an America in which our children will prosper.

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 Truth Will Set Us Free from Anti-Government Rhetoric

Apr 2, 2012Jeff Madrick

The way to talk about the purpose and value of government and be persuasive is simply to tell the truth. This has been in short supply over the last generation. To the contrary, government has been demonized in much discourse. It has at least, to coin a new verb, been "skepticized."

The way to talk about the purpose and value of government and be persuasive is simply to tell the truth. This has been in short supply over the last generation. To the contrary, government has been demonized in much discourse. It has at least, to coin a new verb, been "skepticized."

Trust in government now is very low. But trust in government has been falling on balance since the late 1960s and took an especially large hit in the 1970s. The nation hasn't truly regained its confidence in it ever since. In fact, the nation has been vulnerable to mythology and misinformation that has seriously damaged America's future.

There are many such myths, but the primary one is that any social program or any increase in government spending dampens economic growth. Liberal economists have contributed to this as well. Even MIT's Paul Samuelson, the leading Keynesian of his day, argued that there was a trade-off between social programs and economic efficiency 60 years ago.

It is simply not true. For the genuine evidence, not the propaganda, see a book by Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija called Taxing Ourselves, which shows the true impact of higher taxes on growth. More to the point, see Peter Lindert's book, Growing Public, which argues that social programs often contribute to growth. There is certainly no evidence, doing cross-country comparisons, that they retard it.

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

Both Bakija and Lindert were at the Rediscovering Government launch conference program on March 28 in New York City, and this week we will have video of their contributions on our web site, Lane Kenworthy, among many others who participated in the conference, also made an important point about how much people of low income in the U.S. and other rich nations depend on social programs.

This is a key issue in my mind, but there are many others regarding government. How jeopardized has true democracy been by the cost of elections and the power of lobbying? Is the deficit as dangerous as it is made to sound? Why do people like Medicare so much and in turn often hate government intrusion?

The true history of government should be better known. It regulated land sales in the early 1800s. It built the canals, the free and mandatory schools, the sanitation and water systems, the roads and bridges. It financed the railroads and subsidized the colleges. It did the most critical technical research in American history. It established maximum hour and child labor laws. It pays you for a while if you lose a job through no fault of your own.

In a series of essays this week, we will discuss how to make the true value of government better known to America. Let's start with the truth.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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