What Les Misérables Can Teach Us About Paul Ryan's Poverty Plan

Mar 7, 2014Nell Abernathy

Conservatives who say getting a job is the answer to poverty fail to acknowledge the realities of low-income work.

Conservatives who say getting a job is the answer to poverty fail to acknowledge the realities of low-income work.

Les Misérables returned to Broadway last week, just in time for Victor Hugo’s tale of poverty and redemption to provide some context for thinking about the poverty report Rep. Paul Ryan released Monday. With a history of more than 6,000 Broadway performances and a Hollywood spin-off starring Anne Hathaway, the lavish musical has probably engendered more popular sympathy for the down-and-out than any progressive politician sticking to her talking points ever could.

When the resident villain, Inspector Javert, castigates characters who can’t find jobs, can’t feed children, can’t escape a past mistake, with his motto, “honest work, just rewards,” the American viewing public – conservative and progressive alike – laugh bitterly at his naïveté. “They are trying,” we want to shout at the stage.

But what if you live in a society where honest work doesn’t always lead to just rewards? This question, at the center of upheaval for both the characters and the society Les Mis portrays, is also worth asking in 21st century America.

The central flaw of Ryan’s report is his assumption that a job will lift incomes for poor Americans. Progressives agree that work should provide a path out of poverty, but given the dysfunction of our current labor markets, we know that Ryan's assertions hit the same false notes as Javert’s.

It is impossible to talk about poverty in the U.S. without addressing the fact that today work does not guarantee economic security.

Of the 26 million working-age adults living in poverty in 2012, more than 10 million were working full- or part-time. (This is according to the Official Poverty Measure used by Ryan, though most anti-poverty advocates, including me, prefer the Supplemental Poverty Measure.) Two-thirds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one working adult. But with the minimum wage stagnating at nearly 25 percent below its historical value, and part-time work at historic highs, a job in America no longer means independence. More than half of fast-food workers rely on one of the public assistance programs mentioned in Ryan’s report, according to an analysis from the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Nearly a quarter of the total workforce relies on public programs.

There are 16 million poor adults who aren’t working. Ryan suggests they are stuck in a “poverty trap” of federal programs that create disincentives for work. Incentives aren’t the whole story (there are plenty of Jean Valjeans out there facing structural disconnection from the labor market), but I will concede that incentives are a part of the problem. Indeed, research shows that single mothers must often choose between a bad job with no benefits or a meager government check that at least allows them to care for their children.

The conservative solution has been to cut government support in order to force workers into poverty-level work. This was the philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reform law, which Ryan’s report trumpets as one of the great successes in the war on poverty. Welfare reform did raise incomes for some of the American poor, but as my colleagues Andrea Flynn and Ellen Chesler write in a forthcoming paper, “increases in employment and wages moved many women off welfare, but also failed to enable them to achieve long-term economic independence” because the work they took on did not allow them to complete their education or provide health care benefits.

Progressive solutions to poverty include a range of policies designed to make work a true pathway out of poverty. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, according to the conservative CBO report, or nearly 6 million, according to Arindrajit Dube’s review of 12 different minimum wage studies. Paid family leave can help single moms stay in the workforce and earn higher wages. Recent reviews of California’s 10-year-old paid leave policy show that women who have paid leave work 16 percent more weekly hours and make 5 percent more in hourly wages than women who don’t. A government-funded work program could reintegrate the 3.8 million adults who have been out of work and looking for more than 27 weeks, and has been supported by conservative economists who understand that sometimes the down-and-out need a hand finding “honest work.” None of these policies were mentioned by Congressman Ryan, nor did he even acknowledge the state of work in America.

I believe Mr. Ryan is sincere in his attempt to propose solutions to poverty. Javert himself is ultimately a sympathetic character, eager to do his duty. The problem with Javert, and some conservative leaders, is that they cannot tolerate a world of nuance and moral ambiguity where truisms like “honest work, just rewards” are insufficient answers to societal challenges.

With so many Americans living in poverty, including 22 percent of our children (the highest child poverty rate among rich countries), we should have an honest debate about which policy responses are effective and which are not. The reality of low-income work must be part of that debate.

Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

 

Image via Thinkstock

Share This

Obama and the GOP Present Two Very Different Paths to Opportunity for All

Feb 3, 2014Richard Kirsch

Both the 2014 State of the Union and the Republican response emphasized the need for an opportunity society, but only the president called for collective action.

Both the 2014 State of the Union and the Republican response emphasized the need for an opportunity society, but only the president called for collective action.

Midway through listening to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ Republican response to the State of the Union address last week, a colleague of mine e-mailed, “they got & used the economic narrative talking points to write this.” My friend was referring to the progressive economic narrative (PEN), developed to provide progressives with a powerful, clear story about the economy and the role of people, government, and business.

In fact, there are powerful similarities in the story of the American Dream that both Obama and Republicans express, particularly as Republicans increasingly see that they must speak to Americans who are being pushed out of the middle class and struggling to stay out of poverty. That convergence is not by itself bad. It is an opportunity to draw attention to the huge chasm that exists between the two narratives, a Republican story based solely on the individual and a Democratic one that sees the individual in relation to collective action.

Perhaps this is the line by McMorris Rodgers that triggered my colleague’s ire: “Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind.” After all, one line from PEN is “Too many Americans can’t find a job and too many jobs pay wages that don’t support a family.”

It is not a surprise that Republicans have been embracing part of the progressive story – that the middle class is getting crushed – because that is how most Americans are feeling, and pollsters for both parties are emphasizing that politicians must speak to where people are now to have any credibility.

The similarities go beyond just relating to economic insecurity. Both Obama and McMorris Rodgers have the same vision of the American Dream, an opportunity society in which people are, as McMorris Rodgers said, “not defined by our limits, but by our potential.” Or, as the president put it, “our success should depend on… the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.”

The heroes in both stories are hardworking Americans. Obama: “the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility you get ahead.” McMorris Rodgers: “They taught me to work hard, help others, and always, always, dream for more.”

A job is how our hero achieves his or her dream. McMorris Rodgers says, “a job is so much more than a paycheck – it gives us purpose, dignity…” The president asks that “we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work…”

The underlying value in both stories is opportunity. McMorris Rodgers anticipates that Obama will focus his speech on inequality and tries to cut him off at the rhetorical pass: “The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality.”

But Obama was not, in fact, giving a speech about inequality. He too was focused on opportunity, as Benjamin Landy bemoaned. “Instead of inequality, the President talked about ‘opportunity,’ a poll-tested alternative Obama deployed 14 times during the 65 minute speech. ‘Inequality’ was mentioned three times.”

Saying that “opportunity for all” is “what unites the people of this nation,” Obama declared, “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”

It is on the question of how we achieve the quest for opportunity for all that the president and McMorris Rodgers profoundly differ, where opposite visions of how we achieve the American Dream are projected. And remember that McMorris Rodgers’s speech is entirely a representation of Republican messaging

According to McMorris Rodgers, you get there by yourself, with the help of your family. Her talk, as those of you who had the patience to listen through it will remember, was all about herself and her family: the work and savings ethics taught by her parents in a rural small town in Eastern Washington, her raising of her son born with Down syndrome.

And that, in her political narrative, is how we address the challenge facing the country, “one manufacturing job, nursing degree, and small business at a time.” Her talk barely bothers with policy directives, but those few that appear are based on the individual.

The most robust policy paragraph in her talk is, “We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school...so college is affordable...and skills training is modernized.” When it comes to health care, “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not government. [emphasis added]”

As far as how to get Americans those jobs, Republicans have “plans that focus on jobs first, without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.… We have solutions to help you take home more of your pay – through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs, and affordable health care.”

The villain is unmistakable in her story: “Government that decides for you.”

But while the president’s heroes are individual hard-working Americans, he makes it clear that we build the pathway to opportunity for all through collective action. The word “community” appears 13 times in Obama’s speech; not once in McMorris Rodgers. The president uses “us” referring to the nation, 17 times; McMorris Rodgers, four times.

The substance of Obama’s policy solutions are replete with concerted actions, and the entire premise that we do something together, through our government, is the exact opposite of the Republican story of getting the government out of the way.

The stories he tells unite the individual and the community. For example, a student who, “thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.”

Summing it all up – the heroes, the quest, the role of individual and the community, Obama says, “It’s the spirit of citizenship, the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.”

The narratives in President Obama and McMorris Rodgers’ responses are more than just a minor part of the evening’s political theater. They speak to the fundamental ideological divide in the nation and frame the political choices before the country now and over the coming decade. In the starkest terms, it is a contrast between “you are on your own” and “we are all in this together.” We want to tell our story in those terms, for when we do, progressives absolutely win that debate.  

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.

 

Images via Thinkstock

Share This

The Right Takes Aim at Public Sector Unions in a New Supreme Court Case

Jan 23, 2014Richard Kirsch

A dispute over whether home care workers in Illinois can be required to pay union dues is part of a much larger strategy to undermine the progressive power base.

A dispute over whether home care workers in Illinois can be required to pay union dues is part of a much larger strategy to undermine the progressive power base.

You have to hand it to the right wing: it understands the importance of institutional power more than much of the liberal establishment. It took down ACORN, the organization that registered the most low-income voters of color in the nation, and Democrats in Congress and many big liberal foundations went along with it. Its relentless, decades-long campaign against the labor law that protects private sector organizing has slashed the share of unionized private sector workers to less than 7 percent, while a succession of Democrats in the White House and Congress have stood by.

Since 2010, the right has been focusing its attacks on public sector workers, one-fourth of whom are represented by unions with collective-bargaining rights. It has aimed to weaken bargaining rights in Midwestern states with long histories of union representation and has had (too) much success. This week, it brought that fight to the Supreme Court, in a case that could destroy the financial base of the biggest remaining source of support for government and vital domestic services.

The case is Harris v. Quinn, in which a group of home care workers in Illinois is challenging the state's requirement that the workers pay union dues. The workers are employed by individual patients but are funded by Medicaid. Having unions, in this case SEIU, represent home care workers is part of an admirable strategy of extending collective bargaining to workers who are publicly funded even if they do not work directly for the government. Since federal law does not provide collective bargaining rights to either public employees or domestic home care workers, using state law to organize these workers, who typically get low pay with no benefits, is vitally important to their own well-being and to building a middle-class driven economy.

However, the debate among the Supreme Court justices yesterday did not focus on the narrow question of whether Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich had the power to categorize the home care workers as public employees. Instead, the justices debated whether, because issues of wages and benefits for public employees are inevitably and intrinsically matters of public policy, compelling workers to pay union dues would be an infringement on free speech and association.

The Illinois workers are represented by the National Right to Work Foundation, whose attorney, William Messenger, was eager to expand the case, which suggests it was developed as a political weapon, not a true complaint by a handful of workers about paying dues. Messenger argued, as Lyle Denniston explains at SCOTUSblog, that “anything a public employee union does is an attempt to shape matters of ‘public concern,’ and it should not be able to compel support — even for part of the monthly dues — from workers who oppose the union’s public policy ambitions.”

Just so nobody missed the ideological stakes at the heart of this legal argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that workers who favor shrinking the size of government would have their First Amendment rights trampled if the union argued to expand the workforce. The same logic would apply to the union defending the current size of the workforce or how much workers get paid.

Logically, it is impossible for a public sector union to represent its members’ interest in keeping their jobs or in how much they get paid without affecting public policy. This point was made by SEIU’s attorney Paul Smith, who said, “Any outcome of a negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement involving public employees will involve the expenditure of public money in a variety of ways.”

Of course, public employee unions' interest in defending their members is why those unions support increased taxes and funding of government programs. The union positions are not always progressive. Unions sometimes support regressive tax increases. Sometimes AFSCME, which represents corrections officers, lobbies for stricter sentencing or against closing of prisons. But on the whole, in advocating for their members, public employee unions support maintaining and expanding public services, oppose privatization, and are a major source of organizing, funding, and lobbying for those policies and an absolutely vital part of the progressive infrastructure. Hence they are a big target for the right.

When these issues have been debated in the past, the Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of required union dues for public employees while insisting that political contributions be voluntary. As Adam Liptak explains in the New York Times, “In 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court said that teachers who declined to join a union could nevertheless be required to help pay for the union’s collective bargaining efforts to prevent freeloading and ensure ‘labor peace.’ But workers may not be forced to help pay for a union’s purely political activities, the court said.”

That argument may explain why Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. agreed that advocating for increased Medicaid reimbursement would not be by itself a permissible union activity, but argued that the state’s interest in designating a union to maintain labor peace was the determining factor in supporting the mandatory dues. Verilli’s argument may be a good one before this Court, but it defies logic and avoids the real issue of the interwoven nature of public policy and public worker bargaining. The Court should recognize that the effective right of association in public employee unions depends on the unions engaging in public policy to improve their members’ working conditions.

The Supreme Court reporters whom I read all agreed that the Court is unlikely to overturn Abood and outlaw mandatory dues by public employees, with one pointing out that the Court affirmed that position in 2007 in an opinion written by Justice Scalia. There is some reason to think that Chief Justice Roberts could avoid the issue by narrowing the ruling to the question of whether Illinois can designate the home care workers as public employees.

However, a decision to overturn mandatory dues collection by public employees would be a body blow to Americans who believe in establishing collective responsibility for common goods by raising taxes and spending public dollars on government. 

Public employee unions, and unions that are working to develop new ways to represent workers in the private sector who are paid with public dollars, are a leading force for creating opportunity and security in an America that works for all of us. They will continue to be a target of the right. Progressives at every level must support them and work to expand, not restrict, their reach.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

 

Image via Thinkstock

Share This

Daily Digest - December 16: When the Right Attacks "Corporatism," It Means "Government"

Dec 16, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

"Corporatism" is the Latest Hysterical Right-Wing Accusation: The Secret History of a Smear (TNR)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

"Corporatism" is the Latest Hysterical Right-Wing Accusation: The Secret History of a Smear (TNR)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal writes that when right-wing critics call out the Obama administation for "corporatism," or colluding with the rich to make them richer, they invoke government as the source of all market problems and forget that markets don't exist in a vacuum.

Is There a Conservative Alternative to Financial Reform? (WaPo)

Mike Konczal examines one possible alternative to Dodd-Frank proposed by Nicole Gelinas at the Manhattan Institute. He finds that she attacks policies she supported in 2009 and champions policies with no support in today's conservative movement, making it difficult to move forward.

Why Inequality Matters (NYT)

Paul Krugman argues that inequality is "the most important single factor behind lagging middle-class incomes." He also links inequality to the political reaction to the economic crisis, noting that policies focused on deficit reduction are economically destructive, but supported by the wealthy.

Justin Timberlake’s Union Tour (The Nation)

Jessica Weisberg speaks with Dana Wilson, a dancer and union organizer who helped to secure the first-ever union contract for back-up dancers on a tour. Wilson says many young dancers think they are invincible, but that doesn't keep them from needing health benefits and a pension.

The American Way of Hiring Is Making Long-Term Unemployment Worse (Harvard Business Review)

Gretchen Gavett interviews MIT's Ofer Sharone, whose research suggests that the white-collar "chemistry game" of hiring, which is focused on networking and intangibles, causes many rejected American job-seekers to think there is something wrong with them rather than the system.

Poverty Nation: How America Created a Low-Wage Work Swamp (Salon)

Joan Walsh ties the current crisis of low-wage workers who must rely on public assistance to get by to policy choices in the 1990s, which determined that any job was better than no job. These policies allowed some corporations to make huge profits subsidized by government support.

Share This

Progressivism in America: Are We Opening a New Chapter in Our Book of Self-Government?

Nov 7, 2013David B. Woolner

As Americans reject the extreme right wing at the polls, FDR's vision of self-government may be on the rise again. Note: On Nov. 8-9, David Woolner and other leading thinkers will explore the past, present, and future of progressivism at a conference hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. Click here for details and livestream.

As Americans reject the extreme right wing at the polls, FDR's vision of self-government may be on the rise again. Note: On Nov. 8-9, David Woolner and other leading thinkers will explore the past, present, and future of progressivism at a conference hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. Click here for details and livestream.

The results of this week’s elections have led to a good deal of speculation in the press about the repudiation of the hard right among the American electorate. Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s victory over Tea Party-backed Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia gubernatorial race and Republican Governor Chris Christie’s impressive reelection win in heavily Democratic New Jersey have both been interpreted as evidence of the broader appeal of moderates in both parties. If true, this would be a welcome development, particularly on the Republican side of the ledger, where the obstructionist winner-take-all attitude of the extreme right has rendered the United States virtually ungovernable and nearly brought the country to ruin on two occasions within the past two years.

President Obama and other political leaders on both sides have frequently cited the economic damage that this “crisis governing” has wrought to our economy. But equally significant—particularly for those of us who favor more activist social and economic policies—is the damage done to government itself, and by extension, to our democracy.

Indeed, the American people’s faith in government, especially Congress, is at an all-time low. Of all the issues confronting liberals or progressives today it is this issue, faith in government, that is perhaps the most important. For without the support of the broad electorate it will be impossible for Congress and the executive to move forward on a whole range of issues.

Eighty years ago, in the midst of an even worse economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt won the support of the American people by asking them “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.” Moreover, he insisted that the failed non-governmental attempts to meet the crisis brought on by the financial collapse of 1929-1932 left the American people “baffled and bewildered,” without the means to fashion “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.”

But in the wake of the many programs that Congress and the president put in place to meet the crisis from 1933 on, the people began to sense the truth “that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit”, he continued, “that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease.”

In making this argument, FDR insisted that the American people were not discovering a wholly new truth, but were simply “writing a new chapter in our book of self-government.”

Our history, then, tells us that it is possible for us to meet the challenges before us—but only if we are willing, as FDR advised, “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose."

On November 8-9, the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin will hold a major international conference entitled Progressivism in America: Past, Present and Future. Featuring such noted figures as Nobel Laureate and Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz, journalists like E.J. Dionne and Jonathan Alter, and historians such as Alan Brinkley and Ellen Chesler, the conference seeks to address today’s policy challenges with solutions grounded in and inspired by the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt—including the all-important realization, as FDR remarked years ago—that “government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people.” This event will be livestreamed. Click here for more details.

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 

 

Share This

What Did the Government Shutdown Battle Really Accomplish?

Oct 21, 2013Bo Cutter

Republicans have thoroughly discredited themselves and cleared the way for President Obama to put forward a new agenda.

Well, that was fun. We just escaped another Perils of Pauline moment by deciding not to test the proposition that default doesn't matter, and the Republican Party's (apparently diminishing) instincts for self-preservation finally overcame its fear of its far-right base. So where are we?

Republicans have thoroughly discredited themselves and cleared the way for President Obama to put forward a new agenda.

Well, that was fun. We just escaped another Perils of Pauline moment by deciding not to test the proposition that default doesn't matter, and the Republican Party's (apparently diminishing) instincts for self-preservation finally overcame its fear of its far-right base. So where are we?

First, a brief victory lap. As I predicted a week ago, this debacle was devastating politically for the Republican Party. Reflect on this quote from the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, taken after about 12 days of the shutdown: "the poll gave the Republican Party its lowest marks in the history of Journal polling. More than twice as many (participants) hold a negative view of the GOP as a positive one. By contrast the number of Americans viewing the Democratic Party positively or negatively was nearly equal at 40%." I won't bore you with more numbers; they all tell the same story.

This result was inevitable. The Republican House members (1) chose a goal they could never accomplish; (2) chose means (shutting down the government and threatening default to defund ObamaCare) that never had a whiff of political legitimacy; (3) never had a strategy; (4) never communicated a comprehensible story; (5) spent every waking hour making themselves look like mean, inept aliens; and (6) voluntarily selected a negotiating tactic that was beyond stupid. You never, never, never enter into a negotiation with both a goal that is really hard to achieve and a self-defined binary outcome, with no middle ground. All of this against a president who was and is a lot more popular than they are. (Maybe none of them had ever heard the story of the bear and the hikers.)

As I said before, in the history of the world, no one has ever been luckier than President Obama in terms of who his opposition is. All he had to do was wait for the game to come to him. As Napoleon said, never interfere when the enemy is in the midst of destroying itself.

And what did all of this accomplish, except a vast waste of time and money, further erosion of trust in politics and democracy, and a substantial hit to America's international reputation? I'm tempted to answer "nothing," but that's not true.

First, it was diverting and fun, in a way. I particularly liked the repeated instances when people who loudly shut down the government discovered that they didn't like shutting down the government. But you can only stand so much of that fun.

Second, it pretty much guaranteed we wouldn't be put through this by the Republican House again for a while. Of course, some of them continue threatening, and there will continue to be budget and tax battles, but I cannot imagine anyone actually daring to try for shutdown and default again during President Obama's term. He should have fought this fight two years ago in March 2011, as I wrote then, but learning lessons late is the human condition.

Third, it accomplished the impossible by switching attention away from the enormous and predictable startup problems of ObamaCare and toward the inanities of the people who foisted this debacle on us. Who knew there were so many Republican politicians more eager to explain at length why default was a destiny to be embraced than to ask why the new heath care exchanges weren't working?

Fourth, it probably ended any chance Republicans had of winning the Senate, maybe put the House in play (I see 435 campaigns on the general theme of "he (or she) shut the government down; let's shut him (or her) down"), and gave the Democrats a huge boost for 2016. Did Senator Cruz just simultaneously win the Republican 2016 presidential nomination and elect Hillary Clinton?

Fifth, it made inevitable a necessary civil war within the Republican Party. A party cannot go through a debacle like this without hard questioning about how it reached this point and what it is trying to accomplish. The country actually needs the Republicans to go through this fight.

And sixth, it provided President Obama with a totally unexpected opportunity to reinvigorate his second term. He's the only political player in Washingyon left standing with any credibility or gravity, and if he now defined a sensible, pragmatic, doable agenda, he could get it done.

I'll conclude on the agenda. The Republican Party doesn't have one, and I see little evidence that the Democratic Party is capable of or willing to rethink one. But there is a new agenda out there that all polling evidence suggests the vast middle of the American electorate (across party lines) is hungry for. All the political experts say there is no chance for a third party, a third agenda, or a temporary alliance of independents. But the world keeps changing, the next American economy poses huge challenges, and we've all just had another extended lesson in the dysfunctional nature of our current politics. Why can't this debacle we just survived be the moment that catalyzes the widespread sense there has to be a better way?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

Share This

Party Competition and Industrial Structure in the 2012 Elections

Oct 21, 2013

Download the paper (PDF) by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen

This working paper by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen analyzes patterns of industrial structure and party competition in the 2012 presidential election. The analysis rests on a new and more comprehensive campaign finance database that catches far more of the myriad ways businesses and major investors make political contributions than previous studies. By drawing on this unified database, the paper is able to show that both major parties depend on very large donors to a greater extent than past studies have estimated.

Download the paper (PDF) by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen

This working paper by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen analyzes patterns of industrial structure and party competition in the 2012 presidential election. The analysis rests on a new and more comprehensive campaign finance database that catches far more of the myriad ways businesses and major investors make political contributions than previous studies. By drawing on this unified database, the paper is able to show that both major parties depend on very large donors to a greater extent than past studies have estimated.

The paper outlines the firm and sectoral bases of support for the major party nominees, as well as for Republican candidates who competed for the GOP presidential nomination. The paper shows that President Obama’s support within big business was broader than hitherto recognized. A central conclusion is that many major companies in the sectors most involved in the recent controversies over surveillance were among the president’s strongest supporters. The paper also analyzes patterns of business support for the Tea Party in Congress, showing that certain parts of business are more supportive of Tea Party candidates than others. The role of climate change, financial regulation, and other issues in the election is discussed at length.

Key Findings:

  • Existing data sources used for studies of campaign finance have a variety of serious flaws.
  • As a result, the degree to which major parties’ presidential candidates depend on very large donors has been underestimated and the role small donors play exaggerated.
  • The relation between the money split between the parties and the proportion of votes received by their candidates in House and Senate races appears to be quite straightforward.
  • Firms and executives in industries strongly affected by proposed regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions heavily backed Mitt Romney. So did much, but not all, of finance.
  • President Obama’s support within big business was broader than hitherto recognized. His level of support from firms in telecommunications and software was very strong indeed, sometimes equaling or exceeding Romney’s. Many firms and sectors most involved in the recent controversies over surveillance were among the President’s strongest supporters.
  • Republican candidates showed sharply different levels of contributions from small donors; President Obama’s campaign, while heavily dependent on large donors, attracted more support from small donors than did his Republican opponent.
  • Big business support for Tea Party candidates for Congress was substantial, but well below levels for more mainstream Republicans. Many of the same sectors that strongly supported Romney also backed Tea Party candidates. Backing for Tea Party candidates by Too Big To Fail banks ran above the average of business as a whole by every measure.

Read "Party Competition and Industrial Structure in the 2012 Elections: Who's Really Driving the Taxi to the Dark Side?" by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen.

Share This

The Truth About the GOP's Phony Shutdown Offer

Oct 14, 2013Jeff Madrick

President Obama can't negotiate with Republicans if they won't drop their threats against the government and the economy.

President Obama can't negotiate with Republicans if they won't drop their threats against the government and the economy.

It’s very important that President Obama and his aides make clear to the American public that the Republican Party’s right wing, supported by moderates, offered no serious deal to him by proposing a postponement of their threat to let the U.S. default. They pointed a gun at his head and then said they may not pull the trigger for another six weeks. That is still extortion of the worst kind. Obama is simply saying, “Put the gun down and I will negotiate.”   

I notice a bias in the media. For example, The Wall Street Journal’s front page today said point blank that Obama turned down the Republicans’ offer to negotiate without mentioning that they did not withdraw their threat to do this all over again, which is the obstacle in the first place.

Meanwhile, I was asked by Sky News yesterday why I am only picking on Republicans. I answered that any make-believe that there is even partial blame to go around is nonsense. Sky wasn’t taking sides so much as doing that “even-handed’ thing that mainstream media thinks passes for objectivity.    

The public can be easily seduced by the Republicans’ non-offer, so Obama constantly has to make clear they made no real offer.

The substance of all this is often lost, too. First of all, why is this small group of Republicans so profoundly disturbed by Obamacare? Here’s where a bit of history hurts. We remember that universal health care failed to get passed under FDR, who wanted such a system. It made perfectly good sense to him. The American Medical Association, the doctors’ organization, pushed hard against it, and the phrase “socialized medicine” in a time of rising anti-communism struck a chord among the people. FDR lost the battle.

We assume those same sentiments are still at work. Now, of course, big pharma and insurance companies are often the opposition to single-payer. And no doubt there is still a lot of nonsense about not letting Uncle Sam into our medical offices or creating requirements to buy insurance.

But in the case of Obamacare, we may be fooling ourselves. The source of opposition to it could be as simple as intense racial prejudice and anti-abortion attitudes. Obamacare would radically expand Medicaid, a service for the poor. In the South, that mostly means black people. And many southern governors, even though it would cost them almost nothing because the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the cost, are not implementing the plan.   

The Republicans also want a “conscience” clause to allow individual corporations to refuse abortion financing. The Washington Post reported that in a closed-door session, Paul Ryan said Republicans can’t accept an extension of the deadline because they need it as “leverage” for demanding the conscience clause. Undermining Obamacare is still high on the agenda.   

The Republican counter, of course, made it seem that Obamacare wasn’t their current concern anymore, and that a broad negotiation to reduce the deficit was now the issue. On this, Larry Summers has an important piece in the Financial Times today showing that the 10-year deficit is now a non-issue. More important, he is claiming the long-term deficit is also a non-issue. By his calculation, we only have to grow by 0.2 percent more a year to keep it manageable, even as Medicare and Medicaid costs rise rapidly.  

Coming from the man who seemed to support a budget deficit-cutting commission early in Obama’s term, when he should have known better, this seems to be a helpful shift back to reality.

Growth is what matters, to which the Republican respond that they want more government cuts. The Senate Democrats won’t agree to retain the sequester and thereby do a deal with the Senate Republicans, but Mitch McConnell boasts how much it has cut government spending. He left out the part about how it is seriously impeding America’s economic growth at the same time. 

Without the sequester, the U.S. would very likely be growing at a healthy pace now, reducing unemployment and probably the deficit compared to GDP as well.

It would be nice to get serious talk about the economy back on track. The media could help. Wishful thinking.

Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

Share This

What are Conservative Experts Saying About Breaking Through the Debt Ceiling?

Oct 7, 2013Mike Konczal

There was a fantastic piece in The Atlantic back in 2000 about psychiatrists dealing with people who wanted to have their limbs cut off because it would make them feel more like themselves to be amputees. The doctors’ big dilemma was whether or not to treat “apotemnophilia” as a diagnosable mental illness. If they engaged with it as a mental illness that existed and was recognized by the medical community, they ran the risk of encouraging more patients to identify with it.

I have the same feelings about engaging in a debate over whether or not breaching the debt ceiling matters. I don’t want it to become a debate that people have, because it will get coded as yet another partisan thing pundits fight about, and thus reduce the seriousness with which we should regard the situation. That, in turn, could make a default even more likely. This is a problem we face because of the he-said/she-said coverage of political topics in most U.S. media.

Right now, many House Tea Party members believe that a default is impossible because we can prioritize interest payments to go first. There have been really great pieces written lately about going through the debt ceiling and what it would mean for the economy; Kevin Roose, Greg Ip, and Matthew O’Brien have pieces that are particularly worth your time.

At a baseline, what they tell us is that even if that kind of prioritizing is possible, the legality is in doubt, we could still miss a payment, the economy would go into a recession from the sudden collapse of spending, and even flirting with this possibility has a bad effect on the economy. We also simply don’t know if prioritizing would work.

But I wanted to get a sense of what the right wing is hearing on this topic. In order to do that, I contacted three major conservative think tanks to ask for a comment from their experts “about the economic consequences of the government defaulting on its debt if it goes through the debt ceiling.” Here’s what I got.

Heritage

The Heritage Foundation immediately responded with a quote from this post, stating, “Congress still has some time and options. Even if the debt limit is not raised by mid-October, Boccia writes, ‘the Treasury would not necessarily default on debt obligations,’ as it can ‘reasonably be expected to prioritize principal and interest payments on the national debt, protecting the full faith and credit of the United States above all other spending.’”

They added, “In other words, risk of a default is practically nil—unless the President and Treasury choose to default, an unprecedented and almost inconceivable course of action.”

In short, Heritage’s position is that if there’s a default, it will be because the president chooses to default.

Cato Institute

The Cato Institute put me in touch with their senior fellow Dan Mitchell, who said, “I think the likelihood of an actual default is zero, or as close to zero as you can possibly get, for the simple reason that the Treasury Department has plenty of competent people who would somehow figure out how to prioritize payments.”

But wait, does the Obama administration have the legal authority to do something like that? “From what I understand. I’m an economist, not a lawyer. It’s a gray area.”

But isn’t it complicated to prioritize debt payments? “Interest on the debt is paid out of a different account than other government spending. So the argument that there’d be a lot of difficulty and challenges to prioritizing most payments is true, because it’s automatic.” However, “interest payments on the debt are apparently out of a different account, which presumably means that that it would be relatively simple to make sure that happens.”

But certainly it would cause some financial panic, right? “Will there be some economic repercussions? Financial markets I’m sure would be worried as we’d be in uncharted territory… Yes, I’m sure there’d be some anxiety. Especially if Bernanke or Lew or somebody like that is saying something that triggers concern, and spooks the markets.”

American Enterprise Institute

Bucking the trend, the American Enterprise Institute put me in touch with Michael Strain. What happens if we go through the debt ceiling? “First thing I’d say is that nobody really knows, and that’s the scary thing,” he told me. He referenced and drew on an LA Times editorial he had just written.

“I think you’d see a spike in interest rates. Though others think interest rates might fall because people would be spooked. Either way, we should consider it a catastrophe. If there’s a default it could cause a credit crunch. If the repo markets don’t consider Treasuries good collateral anymore there could be a panic. There really could be something similar to 2008.”

Could we prioritize payments? “What I would caution is that it is not clear we could do that. So, for example, back in the 1970s Congress waited until the 11th hour to raise the debt ceiling, and we were put into default by errors in execution. I’d caution that if we try and do something cute things can go wrong. And we don’t want to invite error. We saw what happened in 2011 - even with a deal and no default, even doing that really hurts the economy in a measurable way.”

So why is there so much fascination on the right with going through the debt ceiling? “When I do interviews with right-wing media there does seem to be a story that goes like this: they said the sequester would be horrible and the sky didn’t fall, they said that the government shutdown would be horrible, and the sky didn’t fall, and now they are saying going through the debt ceiling date would be horrible and why would we believe them this time? I’ve been trying to push back against this.”

Add to that last part the idea that conservatives are “winning” the shutdown, so why not push their luck and go through the debt ceiling, too? Especially when the majority of people doing the intellectual, “expert” work on the right are describing it as either consequence-free or an opportunity to blame President Obama for something.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

There was a fantastic piece in The Atlantic back in 2000 about psychiatrists dealing with people who wanted to have their limbs cut off because it would make them feel more like themselves to be amputees. The doctors’ big dilemma was whether or not to treat “apotemnophilia” as a diagnosable mental illness. If they engaged with it as a mental illness that existed and was recognized by the medical community, they ran the risk of encouraging more patients to identify with it.

I have the same feelings about engaging in a debate over whether or not breaching the debt ceiling matters. I don’t want it to become a debate that people have, because it will get coded as yet another partisan thing pundits fight about, and thus reduce the seriousness with which we should regard the situation. That, in turn, could make a default even more likely. This is a problem we face because of the he-said/she-said coverage of political topics in most U.S. media.

Right now, many House Tea Party members believe that a default is impossible because we can prioritize interest payments to go first. There have been really great pieces written lately about going through the debt ceiling and what it would mean for the economy; Kevin Roose, Greg Ip, and Matthew O’Brien have pieces that are particularly worth your time.

At a baseline, what they tell us is that even if that kind of prioritizing is possible, the legality is in doubt, we could still miss a payment, the economy would go into a recession from the sudden collapse of spending, and even flirting with this possibility has a bad effect on the economy. We also simply don’t know if prioritizing would work.

But I wanted to get a sense of what the right wing is hearing on this topic. In order to do that, I contacted three major conservative think tanks to ask for a comment from their experts “about the economic consequences of the government defaulting on its debt if it goes through the debt ceiling.” Here’s what I got.

Heritage

The Heritage Foundation immediately responded with a quote from this post, stating, “Congress still has some time and options. Even if the debt limit is not raised by mid-October, Boccia writes, ‘the Treasury would not necessarily default on debt obligations,’ as it can ‘reasonably be expected to prioritize principal and interest payments on the national debt, protecting the full faith and credit of the United States above all other spending.’”

They added, “In other words, risk of a default is practically nil—unless the President and Treasury choose to default, an unprecedented and almost inconceivable course of action.”

In short, Heritage’s position is that if there’s a default, it will be because the president chooses to default.

Cato Institute

The Cato Institute put me in touch with their senior fellow Dan Mitchell, who said, “I think the likelihood of an actual default is zero, or as close to zero as you can possibly get, for the simple reason that the Treasury Department has plenty of competent people who would somehow figure out how to prioritize payments.”

But wait, does the Obama administration have the legal authority to do something like that? “From what I understand. I’m an economist, not a lawyer. It’s a gray area.”

But isn’t it complicated to prioritize debt payments? “Interest on the debt is paid out of a different account than other government spending. So the argument that there’d be a lot of difficulty and challenges to prioritizing most payments is true, because it’s automatic.” However, “interest payments on the debt are apparently out of a different account, which presumably means that that it would be relatively simple to make sure that happens.”

But certainly it would cause some financial panic, right? “Will there be some economic repercussions? Financial markets I’m sure would be worried as we’d be in uncharted territory… Yes, I’m sure there’d be some anxiety. Especially if Bernanke or Lew or somebody like that is saying something that triggers concern, and spooks the markets.”

American Enterprise Institute

Bucking the trend, the American Enterprise Institute put me in touch with Michael Strain. What happens if we go through the debt ceiling? “First thing I’d say is that nobody really knows, and that’s the scary thing,” he told me. He referenced and drew on an LA Times editorial he had just written.

“I think you’d see a spike in interest rates. Though others think interest rates might fall because people would be spooked. Either way, we should consider it a catastrophe. If there’s a default it could cause a credit crunch. If the repo markets don’t consider Treasuries good collateral anymore there could be a panic. There really could be something similar to 2008.”

Could we prioritize payments? “What I would caution is that it is not clear we could do that. So, for example, back in the 1970s Congress waited until the 11th hour to raise the debt ceiling, and we were put into default by errors in execution. I’d caution that if we try and do something cute things can go wrong. And we don’t want to invite error. We saw what happened in 2011 - even with a deal and no default, even doing that really hurts the economy in a measurable way.”

So why is there so much fascination on the right with going through the debt ceiling? “When I do interviews with right-wing media there does seem to be a story that goes like this: they said the sequester would be horrible and the sky didn’t fall, they said that the government shutdown would be horrible, and the sky didn’t fall, and now they are saying going through the debt ceiling date would be horrible and why would we believe them this time? I’ve been trying to push back against this.”

Add to that last part the idea that conservatives are “winning” the shutdown, so why not push their luck and go through the debt ceiling, too? Especially when the majority of people doing the intellectual, “expert” work on the right are describing it as either consequence-free or an opportunity to blame President Obama for something.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  
 
Debt ceiling banner image via Shutterstock.com

 

Share This

The Government Shutdown Could Be the Last Gasp of the Reagan-Friedman Agenda

Oct 2, 2013Jeff Madrick

This latest outrage is just another symptom of an extreme anti-government ideology with roots dating back to the 1970s.

The shutdown of the U.S. government is an outrageous act of ignorance, foolishness, and vindictiveness. History suggests that choosing destruction is usually tragic, but it’s hard to believe the Republican hardliners have any sense of history.

This latest outrage is just another symptom of an extreme anti-government ideology with roots dating back to the 1970s.

The shutdown of the U.S. government is an outrageous act of ignorance, foolishness, and vindictiveness. History suggests that choosing destruction is usually tragic, but it’s hard to believe the Republican hardliners have any sense of history.

The anti-government agenda in the U.S. has had many contributors. The end of the progressive uses of government more or less began in the 1970s, and was given impetus by Ronald Reagan’s scapegoating of government. It was also given impetus by Chicago-style economics, led by Milton Friedman. His book Capitalism and Freedom is basically a political pamphlet calling for governance to be reduced to a function of the Invisible Hand. Many Democratic economists came under his sway. 

Shutting down the government now is just a variation on Reagan and Friedman's "starve the beast" strategy of undermining government by denying it funding.

Friedman and Reagan have now reached the height of their influence, but many joined this march of foolishness. President Obama has consistently paid deference to the party line that reducing the federal deficit is the main economic priority. The Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission captured the self-destructive America temperament of the time by insisting federal revenues not rise above 21 percent of GDP. When Reinhart-Rogoff’s 90 percent bright line of debt-to-GDP was shown to be an artifact of poor research and arithmetic, Erskine Bowles said it was still just common sense.

Lots of moderate Republicans have made budget-cutting their main domestic priority, as have many Democrats. Sequestration is undermining what could have been a strong recovery by now.

The media, in their embrace of the safe middle-way, have done their share to promote general antagonism against government as well. It’s an American journalistic tragedy.

And so here we are. Just enough people feel government is meaningless to allow this crazy betrayal of a democratic nation to occur. How else can you so despise Obamacare that you would go to such destructive lengths? It is a useful program designed to help some 32 million Americans who suffer—yes, suffer—without health insurance.

If the old pre-Obamacare system was better, it would have worked. It didn’t. Health care delivery in America is appalling by any modern standard, and without reform, our society will become not just less prosperous but far less decent. Have these people no shame?

Democrats had also better rethink government. It’s not just a matter of plugging holes due to market failures, a misleading over-simplification of mainstream economic theory.

Government’s duty is to be a vibrant protector of rights and contributor to full lives. The myths about government are endless. Ask the proverbial man or woman on the street who does the most technological, economically vital R&D in the U.S. and they, under the influence of the misled media and economic orthodoxy, will almost always say the private sector and the venture capitalists. But it just ain’t so. Yes, venture capital is important, but government R&D is even more so. Government is the main contributor, even to Silicon Valley, but under sequestration, non-defense R&D is being cut back sharply. This is but one example of the effects of anti-government thinking.

The hope is that this is the last gasp of the Reaganite-Friedmanite brigade. The hope is that the U.S. will awaken to the uses of government and the beauty of a functioning democracy. We started the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative for this reason. We are going to keep at it, telling everyone we can what government can do well, what its purposes are, and how it can be reformed. Ideology, someone said, is a short cut for thinking. When it comes to Reaganite-Friedmanite extremism, that’s an understatement.

Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative, and author of Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present.

 

Shutdown banner image via Shutterstock.com

Share This

Pages