Clinton's Executive Pay Comments Show We're Still Too Focused on Fairness

Apr 17, 2015Susan Holmberg

Hillary Clinton surprised many progressives earlier this week with her remarks on a model populist issue. "There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker. There’s something wrong when American workers keep getting more productive…but that productivity is not matched in their paychecks.”

Hillary Clinton surprised many progressives earlier this week with her remarks on a model populist issue. "There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker. There’s something wrong when American workers keep getting more productive…but that productivity is not matched in their paychecks.”

Indeed. From 1978 to 2013, executive compensation at American firms rose 937 percent, compared with a sluggish 10.2 percent growth in worker compensation over the same period. In 2013, the average CEO pay package at S&P 500 Index companies was worth $11.7 million. Numbers for 2014 are just starting to be released, but Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is thus far topping the list at $84 million in mostly stock awards.

Too often the CEO pay debate, which tends to come into focus during our annual rite of corporate proxy season, hinges on a question of ethics. Is paying CEOs excessive amounts fair to workers? No, of course not, as so many fast food workers, whose CEOs make approximately 1,200 times more than they do, rightfully voiced yesterday.

One of the problems, however, with expressing CEO pay as a fairness issue is that it is too often countered with accusations of envy. And this doesn’t get us very far. (Note that Clinton’s language—“there’s something wrong”—plays into the fairness framing.) Our efforts to reform CEO pay would be much stronger if we also talked about how bad the status quo is for our economy and thus our society.

There are two main reasons CEO pay should be a concern to anyone who cares about economic prosperity in the United States, including Hillary Clinton. One reason stems from the total amount CEOs are paid. The other relates to the structure of CEO pay, in particular that the bulk of their compensation comes in the form of stock options and stock grants.

Total Amount of CEO Pay

A handful of high-profile economists—Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich, to name a few—have begun to make the case that a high degree of economic inequality precipitates financial instability because it leads to a decline in consumer demand, which has tremendous spillover effects in terms of investment, job creation, and tax revenue, not to mention social instability.

Research clearly demonstrates that the growth of executive pay is a core driver of America’s rising economic inequality. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “[e]xecutives, and workers in finance, accounted for 58 percent of the expansion of income for the top 1 percent and 67 percent of the increase in income for the top 0.1 percent from 1979 to 2005.” Another calculation by economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon finds that the large increase in share of the 99.99th percentile is mostly explained by the incomes of superstars and CEOs.

The Structure of CEO Pay

Several studies show that equity-heavy pay, because it makes executives very wealthy very quickly, distorts CEOs’ incentives, inducing them to take on too much risk. Instead of bearing this risk themselves, they shift it onto the rest of society, as we saw during the financial crisis. This model also encourages executives to behave fraudulently, as in the backdating scandals of a decade ago, and lessens their motivation to invest in their businesses. According to economist William Lazonick, in order to issue stock options to top executives while avoiding the dilution of their stock, corporations often divert funds to stock buybacks rather than spending on research and development, capital investment, increased wages, or new hiring. To top it all off, these pay packages cost taxpayers billions of dollars due to the performance pay tax loophole.

Hillary Clinton’s comments on CEO pay could be a signal that she is willing to adopt at least some of the progressive messaging championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren. We can enhance that message by making better economic arguments for why we need to reform skyrocketing CEO pay.

For more, see my primer on the executive pay debate.

Susan Holmberg is a Fellow and Director of Research at the Roosevelt Institute.

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What Would You Do Today to Ensure a Good Economy 25 Years From Now?

Mar 24, 2015Laurie Ignacio

In January, the Roosevelt Institute gathered 30 experts and practitioners in technology, education, finance, and economics to discuss the next American economy. We asked them what they would do today to ensure a good economy 25 years from now.

Over the next few weeks, Roosevelt will be highlighting some key suggestions. Check out the experts in attendance and then explore their revolutionary ideas:

In January, the Roosevelt Institute gathered 30 experts and practitioners in technology, education, finance, and economics to discuss the next American economy. We asked them what they would do today to ensure a good economy 25 years from now.

Over the next few weeks, Roosevelt will be highlighting some key suggestions. Check out the experts in attendance and then explore their revolutionary ideas:

First up we have Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org, a digital platform that provides workers with campaigning tools and other digital organizing support.

Michelle recommends reimagining how we classify employees. As more and more people freelance and rely on alternatives to full-time employment, like selling crafts on Etsy or driving for Uber, Michelle says that we should rethink the current employment classification system in order to expand protections, like health care deductibility, that are currently available only to more traditional employees.

To read more about American workers’ changing roles and new challenges, check out the links below.

"The future of work: There's an app for that," The Economist

"Lawsuits facing Uber, Lyft could alter sharing economy," CNBC

"What Happens To Uber Drivers And Other Sharing Economy Workers Injured On The Job?," Forbes

Michelle Miller is the co-founder of Coworker.org, a digital platform that matches campaigning tools with organizing, media and legal support to help people change their working conditions. Since its founding in 2013, Coworker.org has catalyzed the growth of global, independent employee networks at major companies like Starbucks, Wells Fargo, Olive Garden and US Airways. Miller’s early work developing Coworker.org was supported by a 2012 Practitioner Fellowship at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She is a 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow.

Before co-founding Coworker.org, Miller spent a decade at the Service Employees International Union where she pioneered creative projects that advanced union campaigns. She is also a nationally recognized media artist and cultural organizer. Most recently, she directed the participatory media creation process for Hollow, a 2014 Peabody award-winning interactive documentary about her home state of West Virginia.

Learn more about Michelle Miller’s work by visiting coworker.org and her profile at EchoingGreen.org.

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America's Tax Code Is Broken, But the Rubio-Lee Plan Won't Fix It

Mar 4, 2015Eric Harris Bernstein

"We believe that America’s best days are still ahead. But we also recognize that restoring the shared prosperity that comes from a strong economy requires reforming the most antiquated and dysfunctional government policies, beginning with the federal tax system."

-Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee 

Finally, something we can all agree on. 

"We believe that America’s best days are still ahead. But we also recognize that restoring the shared prosperity that comes from a strong economy requires reforming the most antiquated and dysfunctional government policies, beginning with the federal tax system."

-Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee 

Finally, something we can all agree on. 

In their joint op-ed in this morning's Wall Street Journal, the two Republican senators proposed a new tax plan and argued that our current federal tax structure is broken, its problems "rooted in the same fundamental unfairness and inequity of a government that picks winners and losers."

Again, we here at the Roosevelt Institute welcome this realization. For too long, our tax code has helped the few at the expense of the many. Unfortunately, an analysis of their proposed solutions shows that the senators have come out on the wrong side of this argument. 

First, they propose lowering the top corporate tax rate to 25 percent. This would be a step worth discussing if not for the fact that, with offshore tax havens and a wealth of other tax benefits, America's largest corporations currently pay an effective rate of just 12.6 percent. In the words of Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz, it would seem that the problem is not double taxation, but no taxation.

The senators then argue that, in order to incentivize investment, they would make all capital expenditures 100 percent tax-deductible, suggesting that taxes have squeezed corporations out of the investment business. But if this is the case, then how do we explain the $2 trillion currently being held abroad by America's largest corporations? And what about the enormous sums that companies like Apple and Home Depot are spending on buybacks to enrich investors? 

In fact, new research from Roosevelt Institute Fellow J.W. Mason shows us that the link between corporate cash flow and productive investment has been all but severed since the shareholder revolution of the 1980s. Shareholders now pocket an increasingly large portion of corporate earnings and borrowing that would have once gone to capital investments, job creation, or raising workers’ pay. Given these facts, as well as the current level of historically high profts, it is clear that corporate investment is not suffering from lack of funding, and that more spending on corporate welfare is the wrong way to go.

Lee and Rubio suggest that corporate taxes drive American industries abroad. This is absolutely true: Corporations want to benefit from American security, infrastructure, and human capital, but they don't want to pay their share to maintain those invaluable assets, so they shelter themselves in tax havens like Ireland. The problem, from our point of view, is not, as Rubio and Lee suggest, that the tax code taxes corporations (indeed, that is what a tax code exists to do); the problem is that it allows wealthy corporations to avoid those taxes. 

We need policies that will ensure corporations contribute like the rest of us, not ones that will commit more public money to private enterprise. 

The senators state that their plan is guided by the principles of fairness, freedom, and growth. This raises the question: In whose mind is it fair to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on wealthy corporations, while Americans drive on pothole-pocked roads and send their children to overcrowded schools to learn from underpaid teachers?

For the individual income tax, Rubio and Lee propose reducing the number of brackets to two -- one at 15 percent and one at 35 percent. Even though they have been greatly reduced since the 1980s, lowering rates for middle-income earners is worth discussing. The far more significant part of this proposal, however, is the 11 percent tax break for top income earners, which would further reduce the amount of public funds available for things like roads and schools, and which would further tip our economic balance toward the wealthy.

The senators would likely argue that this tax break will stimulate productive spending, but trickle-down economics did not work under Reagan and will not work now.

Toward the end of their op-ed, the authors posit a series of pro-family tax reforms, like tax credits for children and tax breaks for couples filing jointly. These policies are rooted in a belief that families with married parents are more economically stable and productive than single-parent families. Again, this may be a point worth debating, but these miniscule incentives are scarcely more than lip service to the American middle class, which this plan largely forsakes in favor of more tax cuts for large corporations and the wealthy. 

More generally, Rubio and Lee frame their entire plan as a benefit to average Americans, but do this while glossing over policies that will only continue our current trend of supporting the wealthy at the expense of the country as a whole. The Stiglitz tax reform plan, on the other hand, offers a blueprint for a tax code that would bolster the middle class while driving growth and opportunity. 

Now that we’ve all agreed on the problem, we should look to solutions that economists tell us actually work.

Eric Harris Bernstein is a Program Associate at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Daily Digest - February 27: We're Missing the Mark on Monetary Policy, and a Goodbye

Feb 27, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to updates from the Roosevelt Institute.

Click here to subscribe to updates from the Roosevelt Institute.

The Roosevelt Institute has produced the Daily Digest five days a week since 2009, but its time has now come to an end. Today will be the final Daily Digest; however, we hope you'll subscribe to our weekly e-mail updates to stay in the loop with all the exciting work we're doing here at the Roosevelt Institute. You can also stay in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for reading!

Corporate Borrowing Now Flows To Shareholders, Not Productive Investment: Study (IB Times)

Owen Davis reports on J.W. Mason's new white paper, "Disgorge the Cash," explaining how the paper fits into a growing body of research that suggests flaws in our basic understanding of economics.

Students Question Own Role in Participatory Budgeting (Columbia Spectator)

Sasha Zeints reports on a Campus Network event discussing students' role in participatory budgeting. Chapter president Brit Byrd says students are well-suited to participate as volunteers.

The Federal Reserve Speaks in Mumbo Jumbo. Here's How to Fix That. (The Week)

Referencing Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal, Jeff Sprots argues that the opacity of Federal Reserve statements could be solved by mandating a numerical target for the Fed.

The Real Meaning of $9 an Hour (Time)

Rana Foroohar says that Walmart's wage hike might not make a dramatic impact on the real economy, but it shows that workers can still get the largest companies in the world to change.

What Is ‘Middle-Class Economics’? (NYT)

Josh Barro points out that government policies that help the middle class are only able to produce small shifts. He says the best option might be to step back and hope positive trends continue.

The FCC Approves Strong Net Neutrality Rules (WaPo)

Cecilia Kang and Brian Fung report on the Federal Communications Commission's vote yesterday, which classified the Internet as a public utility to protect access for all.

New on Next New Deal

Make the Stop Overdose Stat Act a Priority for 2015

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Health Care Emily Cerciello explains why this bill targeting opioid overdose prevention should be on both parties' agendas this year.

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Daily Digest - February 26: Where Is All the Corporate Cash Going?

Feb 26, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Why Companies are Rewarding Shareholders Instead of Investing in the Real Economy (WaPo)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Why Companies are Rewarding Shareholders Instead of Investing in the Real Economy (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis looks at Roosevelt Institute Fellow J.W. Mason's new white paper on how the shift towards increased shareholder payouts since the 1980s has decreased corporate investment.

  • Roosevelt Take: Read J.W. Mason's paper, "Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment," here.

Hewlett-Packard Shows How to Fatten Shareholders While Firing Workers (LA Times)

Referencing J.W. Mason's paper for context on the impact of shareholder payouts on the larger economy, Michael Hiltzik explains how H-P has managed to fire workers and increase payouts at once.

Don't Wait Until 2016 to Make Political Change (HuffPo)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble argues for the need for young people to participate in governance, not just elections.

The Push for Net Neutrality Arose From Lack of Choice (NYT)

Steve Lohr speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford, who agrees that the current approach to net neutrality makes sense while cable is most people's only option for high-speed Internet.

The Lawyer Who Went from Fighting for Guantánamo Bay Inmates to Going After Shady Banks (Vice)

David Dayen profiles Josh Denbeaux, a lawyer who is fighting back against foreclosure abuse in the courts and trying to develop class-action suits for homeowners facing illegal foreclosures.

New on Next New Deal

Launching Our Financialization Project with "Disgorge the Cash"

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal introduces our Financialization Project, which aims to define and explain the topic, as well as J.W. Mason's paper. Learn more about the project here.

Millennials Want More Than Obama’s Keystone Veto

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment Torre Lavelle says the veto isn't good enough, because Millennials are seeking a real commitment to transforming energy usage.

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Daily Digest - February 10: What Happened to Reinvesting Corporate Profits?

Feb 10, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy (The Atlantic)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy (The Atlantic)

Nick Hanauer blames the high percentage of corporate profits going to stock buybacks for our slowed economy; that money could otherwise go to higher wages or new corporate investments.

Obama and Congress Offer Bogus Rhetoric on Tax Reform (AJAM)

David Cay Johnston says that both the Democrats and the Republicans are only discussing tax reform that benefits the political donor class, instead of reform that help average Americans.

  • Roosevelt Take: In a white paper released last year, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz proposed a tax plan that would promote equity and growth for all.

Right-to-Work Laws are Every Republican Union-Hater's Weapon of Choice (The Guardian)

There are no philosophical or economic arguments in favor of right-to-work laws, writes Michael Paarlberg, only a political preference for supporting employers over workers.

Illinois Governor Acts to Curb Power of Public Sector Unions (NYT)

Monica Davey and Mitch Smith report on Governor Rauner's executive order, which will strip public sector unions of the fair share dues that non-members pay for the benefits they get anyway.

Red States' New Tax on the Poor: Mandatory Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients (TNR)

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out that only certain public funds require invasive tests to ensure recipients are worthy of assistance. Other forms of welfare, like public schools, are simply accepted.

In at Least 22 States, Your Student Debt Could Cost You Your Job (Jobs With Justice)

Chris Hicks points out the disconnect inherent in laws that revoke professional licenses from people who aren't able to pay their student debt. How will they make enough to pay it off without that license?

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The Van Hollen Plan Takes on Soaring CEO Pay: A Debate We Need to Have

Jan 15, 2015Susan Holmberg

Taxpayers are subsidizing ever-larger executive pay packages while their own wages stagnate. For the middle class to prosper, that needs to change.

Taxpayers are subsidizing ever-larger executive pay packages while their own wages stagnate. For the middle class to prosper, that needs to change.

The intrepid economic proposals in Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s action plan “to grow the paychecks of all, not just the wealth of a few” may not win over a Republican Congress, but they will reinforce the progressive economic messaging championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and conceivably embolden more Democrats to finally take command of our economic debate in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Though Van Hollen’s tax credits for working families and dilution of tax breaks for the rich have grabbed the most headlines, another controversial but important piece of his plan is the CEO-Employee Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to address one of the key contributing factors to soaring inequality and economic volatility in the U.S.

The CEO-Employee Paycheck Fairness Act stops corporations from claiming tax deductions for “performance pay” for executives – e.g. stock options and stock grants – “unless their workers are getting paycheck increases that reflect increases in worker productivity and the cost of living.”

The logic of this law is simple. Since 1979, productivity growth in the U.S. has risen eight times faster than the typical worker’s pay. At the same time, corporations have enjoyed a tax deduction for CEO pay levels (and compensation for other top executives) that are now 296 times median worker pay. Van Hollen’s proposal says that corporations can no longer continue to take these unlimited tax deductions for CEO and executive pay unless they are also giving their employees a raise that reflects worker productivity as well as cost of living increases. Specifically, to enjoy the tax benefit, corporations must raise the average pay of their workers earning below $115,000 by the U.S.’s average annual net productivity growth since 2000, which is about 2 percent, plus the annual inflation rate.

Most of us think of skyrocketing CEO pay as an ethical problem, not an economic one. But in fact, the problems that come with skyrocketing CEO pay – in 2013, the average CEO at S&P 500 Index companies was worth $11.7 million – are well beyond the issue of basic fairness. Exorbitant CEO pay comes with enormous economic costs to all of us.

Many of the problems stem from the tax deduction Van Hollen is referring to, the notorious “performance pay” loophole created by Section 162(m) of the U.S. tax code. Section 162(m) prohibits corporate tax deductions for executive pay over $1 million unless that pay is rewarded for meeting performance goals. This was supposed to curb skyrocketing executive pay, but after it became law in the 1990s, the predictable happened: companies started dispensing more compensation that qualified as performance pay, particularly stock options. Median executive compensation levels for S&P 500 Industrial companies almost tripled from less than $2 million in 1992 to more than $5 million six years later, mainly driven by a dramatic growth in stock options, which doubled in frequency. For more background on this issue, I recommend my primer, “Understanding the CEO Pay Debate.”

Because it makes executives very wealthy, very quickly, performance pay is not only a major driver of the U.S. inequality problem, which in itself wreaks havoc on our economy, but also encourages shortsighted, excessively high-risk, and occasionally fraudulent decisions in order to boost stock prices. What kind of effect does this behavior have on the economy at large? Many economists argue that executive compensation policies in the financial industry led to the global economic crisis. Performance pay also diminishes long-term business investments. According to economist William Lazonick, in order to issue stock options to top executives while avoiding the dilution of their stock, corporations often divert funds to stock buybacks rather than spending on research and development, capital investment, increased wages, and new hiring. And the rest of us are footing the bill: the Economic Policy Institute calculated that taxpayers have subsidized $30 billion to corporations through the performance pay loophole between 2007 and 2010. Let me rephrase that: in a three-year period, taxpayers have subsidized $30 billion for executive pay, all while seeing their own wages stagnate.

Van Hollen’s proposal to make performance pay contingent on workers’ pay is good political messaging that draws attention to the ways in which executive pay practices impact middle class wages. And if we think about it in light of Lazonick’s story about stock buybacks, it’s clear how Van Hollen’s plan could have a positive impact: either corporations would not pay their workers more, which would preclude them from using a loophole that has shaped their executive compensation strategy for the last two decades and been a core driver of the rise in CEO pay, or they would have to spend money to raise wages that would have otherwise been spent on stock buybacks, which could reduce the amount of performance pay issued. In other words, the condition on which corporations could use the performance pay loophole might force them to use it less.

But there is also a potential drawback to Van Hollen’s CEO pay proposal. Because it doesn’t fully close the problematic loophole, but instead adds another condition, it may create further complexity in a corporate tax scenario that is already hyper-complicated and thus open to manipulation by corporate accountants. A more straightforward approach can be found in the Reed-Blumenthal and Doggett bills that would close the performance pay loophole entirely and cap the tax deductibility of executive pay at $1 million.

Another idea that would match the boldness of the financial transactions tax in Van Hollen’s action plan is to peg corporate tax rates to the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay. Last year, California state Senators Mark DeSaulnier and Loni Hancock introduced SB 1372, which raised the tax rate on companies that pay their CEO 100 times more than the median worker. According to the senators, “A CEO would have to make 300 to 400 times more than the median worker for a company to see a 3% increase in the corporate tax rate.” Companies with ratios less than 100 would see their tax rates decrease. DeSaulnier and Hancock’s bill got a majority of votes in the state senate, but did not move to the other chamber because, in California, a tax bill requires a two-thirds vote to advance. Nevertheless, the idea of holding corporations accountable for the relative amounts they pay their executives and their workers has been circulating in the U.S. Dodd-Frank already includes a requirement that companies disclose this pay ratio, though the SEC has been slow to put it into effect.

Van Hollen’s action plan is an exciting set of ideas for moving the country toward a more prosperous future. Ultimately, we need policy that erases the performance pay loophole entirely, but the CEO-Employee Paycheck Fairness is important in terms of drawing attention to executive pay practices and the way they affect working families and middle class wage earners, the engines of our economy. It’s time to have the debate about how we can effectively curb soaring CEO pay while building a broad middle class.

Susan Holmberg is a Fellow and Director of Research at the Roosevelt Institute.

Image via Shutterstock

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Daily Digest - December 19: It's a Whole New Economic Policy-Making World

Dec 18, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Uncharted Interest Rate Territory (U.S. News & World Report)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Uncharted Interest Rate Territory (U.S. News & World Report)

Jason Gold points out that since interest rates have been declining for 33 years, none of today's lawmakers know quite what they're in for when the Fed begins to raise rates in 2015.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal says that raising interest rates is not the way to fight "financial instability."

The Greatest Tax Story Ever Told (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Zachary R. Mider shares the story of the very first corporate tax inversion, in which a company incorporates abroad to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The idea was invented by a liberal tax lawyer in 1982.

A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Coexist. Just Ask Scandinavia. (NYT)

The strong safety net programs in Scandinavian countries, which include far more direct aid, might be more effective at getting people to work than the U.S. tax subsidy model, writes Neil Irwin.

How ALEC Helped Undermine Public Unions (WaPo)

Alex Hertel-Fernandez explains that ALEC's attacks on public sector unions aren't new: ALEC-backed anti-union laws were enacted in some states a decade before the Great Recession.

Pro-Warren Protesters Take Their Fight to Wall Street (MSNBC)

Zachary Roth reports on yesterday's protest at Citigroup's New York City headquarters, where protesters denounced the Citigroup-crafted measure weakening Dodd-Frank in the spending bill.

From the E.R. to the Courtroom: How Nonprofit Hospitals Are Seizing Patients’ Wages (ProPublica)

Paul Kiel and Chris Arnold profile the Missouri hospital that sues the most patients in the state. Nonprofit hospitals are required to offer low-cost charity care, but that isn't particularly regulated.

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Daily Digest - December 17: Who Takes the Biggest Share of the Sharing Economy?

Dec 17, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Bloomberg Advantage: Konczal on Uber (Bloomberg)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Bloomberg Advantage: Konczal on Uber (Bloomberg)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal says that since most of the capital in Uber is in the cars, it's hard to justify the software developers getting such a large chunk of profits.

Senate Democrats Tell the SEC to Get Moving on CEO Pay Rule (HuffPo)

The public comment period for the CEO pay ratio rule expired a year ago, and some Senate Democrats are tired of waiting for it to be implemented, reports Zach Carter.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Holmberg explains the CEO pay debate in this recent primer.

Unions Sue to Stop Chicago Pension Overhaul (Chicago Sun-Times)

Fran Spielman explains why a dozen retirees and their four unions are suing the city: they say the changes are against the state constitution, which guarantees government pensions.

Some Investors Still Heart Big Banks, No Matter What Elizabeth Warren Says (The Guardian)

Suzanne McGee considers why some investors are putting their money with the big banks, despite the continued question of whether regulators will try to break them up.

Are the Democrats Allowing Social Security to Twist in the Wind? (LA Times)

Failing to vote on a Social Security commissioner is just another examples of Democrats' failure to provide this essential program with strong enough support, writes Michael Hiltzik.

The Great Budget Sellout of 2014: Do We Even Have a Second Party? (TAP)

Robert Kuttner characterizes the new spending bill as proof that our two major parties are fundamentally the same: willing to gut Dodd-Frank, defund the EPA, and cut Pell grants.

The U.S. Middle Class Has Faced a Huge “Inequality Tax” in Recent Decades (EPI)

Josh Bivens shows how U.S. middle-class income could have grown if it had matched the average growth rate over that time, as occurred following World War II.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

Dec 10, 2014Ariel SmilowitzMonika Johnson

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.

This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.  

However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation -- whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council -- have fallen short.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.

Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential -- the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights

If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.

One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.

Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.

Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.

Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.

Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.

Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights -- one aggregated by the UN Global Compact -- and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.

A New Legacy for Our Generation

Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?

We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions -- how much you pay your employees or which charities you support -- are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.  

The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.

And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the "end of human rights," what will our own generation's legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.

Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Alumni Advisory Committee.

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