Finance 101 Problems in National Affairs' Case For Fair-Value Accounting

Nov 4, 2014Mike Konczal

In the latest National Affairs, Jason Delisle and Jason Richwine make what they call ”The Case for Fair-Value Accounting.” This is the process of using the price of, say, student loans in the capital markets to budget and discount government student loans. (The issue also has articles walking back support for previously acceptable moderate-right ideas like Common Core and the EITC, showing the way conservative wonks are starting to line up for 2016.)

In the piece Delisle and Richwine make two basic mistakes in financial theory, mistakes that undermine their ultimate argument. Let’s dig into them, because it’s a wonderful opportunity to get some finance back into this blog (like it used to have back when it was cool).

Error 1: Their Definition of FVA Is Wrong

What is fair-value accounting (FVA)? According to the authors, FVA “factors in the cost of market risk,” meaning “the risk of a general downturn in the economy.” This market risk reflects the potential for defaults; it’s “the cost of the uncertainty surrounding future loan payments.”

These statements are false. There is a consensus that FVA incorporates significantly more than this definition of market risk.

Here’s the Financial Economists Roundtable, endorsing FVA: "Use of Treasury rates as discount factors, however, fails to account for the costs of the risks associated with government credit assistance -- namely, market risk, prepayment risk, and liquidity risk."

And the CBO specifically incorporates all these additional risks when it evaluates FVA: "Student loans also entail prepayment risk… investors… also assign a price to other types of risk, such as liquidity risk… CBO takes into account all of those risks in its fair-value estimates."

This is a much broader set of concerns than what Delisle and Richwine bring up. For instance, FVA requires taxpayers to be subject to the same liquidity and prepayment risks as the capital markets. Remember when the federal government stepped in to provide liquidity to the capital markets when they failed in late 2008, because the markets couldn’t? That gives us a clue that there might be some differences between public and private risks.

Crucially, it’s not clear to me that taxpayers have the same prepayment risk as the capital markets. Private holders of student loans are terrified that their loans might be paid back too quickly, because they are likely to get paid back when interest rates are low and it will be tough to reinvest at the same rate. This is a particularly big risk with the negative convexity of student loan payments, which can be prepaid without penalty. Private actors need to be compensated generously for this risk.

Do taxpayers face the same risk? If student loans owed to the government were paid down faster than anyone expected, would taxpayers be furious? I wouldn’t. I certainly wouldn’t say “how are we going to continue to make the profit we were making?” as a citizen, though it would be an essential question as a private bondholder. Either way, it’s as much a political question as an economic one. (I make the full argument for this in a blog post here.)

Error 2: Their Definition of Market Risk Is Wrong

The authors like FVA because it accounts for market risk. But what is market risk? According to Delisle and Richwine, market risk is “associated with expecting future loan repayments,” as “[s]tudents might pay back the expected principal and interest” but they also may not. It is also “the risk of a general downturn in the economy… market risk cannot be diversified away.”

So the first part is wrong: market risk is not credit risk, or the risk of default or missing payments. The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS7), for instance, requires reporting market risk separate from credit risk, because they are obviously two different things. I’ve generally only heard market risk used in the context of bond portfolios to mean interest rate risk, which they also don’t mention. So if market risk isn’t credit risk or interest rate risk, what is it?

I’m not sure. What I think is going on is they are confusing the concept with the market risk of a stock, specifically its beta. A stock’s beta is its sensitivity to overall equity prices. (Pull up a random stock page and you’ll see the beta somewhere.) It’s very common phrasing to say this risk can’t be diversified away and is a proxy for the risk of general downturns in the economy, which is the same language used in this piece.

Market risk for stocks is the question of how much your portfolio will go down if the market as a whole goes down. But this has nothing to do with student loans, because students (aside from an enterprising few) don’t sell equity; they take out loans. If students paid for school with equity, in theory an economic downturn would lead to less revenue, since students would make less money overall. But even then it’s a shaky concept.

This isn’t just academic. There’s a reason people don’t speak of a one-to-one relationship between a market downturn and the value of a bond portfolio, as the authors’ “market risk” definition does. If the economy tanks, credit risk increases, so bonds are worth less, but interest rates fall, meaning the same bonds are worth more. How this all balances is complicated, and strongly driven by the distribution of bond maturities. This is why financial risk management distinguishes between credit, liquidity, and interest rate risks, and doesn’t conflate those concepts as the authors do.

(Though they are writing as experts, I think they are just copying and pasting from the CBO’s confusing and erroneous definition of “market risk.” If they are sourcing any kind of common financial industry practices or definitions, I don’t see it. I guess Jason Richwine didn’t get a chance to study finance while publishing his dissertation.)

Here again I’d want to understand more how the value of student loans to taxpayers moves with interest rates. Repayments are mentioned above. And for private lenders, higher interest rates mean that they can sell bonds for less and that they’re worth less as collateral. They need to be compensated for this risk. Do taxpayers have this problem to the same extent? If interest rates rise, do we worry we can’t sell the student loan portfolio for the same amount to another government, or that we can’t use it as collateral to fund another war? If not, why would we use this market rate?

Is This Just About Credit Risk?

Besides all the theoretical problems mentioned above, there’s also the practical problem that the CBO uses the already existing private market for student loans (“relied mainly on data about the interest rates charged to borrowers in the private student loan market”), even though there’s obviously a massive adverse selection problem there. Though not an error, it's a third major problem for the argument. The authors don’t even touch this.

But for all the talk about FVA, the only real concern the authors bring up is credit risk. “What if taxpayers don’t get paid?” is the question raised over and over again in the piece. The authors don’t articulate any direct concerns about, say, a move in interest rates changing the value of a bond portfolio, aside from the possibility that it might mean more credit losses.

So dramatically scaling back consumer protections like bankruptcy and statute of limitations for student debtors wasn’t enough for the authors. Fair enough. But there’s an easy fix: the government could buy some credit protection for losses in excess of those expected on, say, $10 billion of its portfolio, and use that price as a supplemental discount. This would be quite low-cost and provide useful information. But it’s a far cry from FVA, even if FVA’s proponents don’t quite understand that.

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In the latest National Affairs, Jason Delisle and Jason Richwine make what they call ”The Case for Fair-Value Accounting.” This is the process of using the price of, say, student loans in the capital markets to budget and discount government student loans. (The issue also has articles walking back support for previously acceptable moderate-right ideas like Common Core and the EITC, showing the way conservative wonks are starting to line up for 2016.)

In the piece Delisle and Richwine make two basic mistakes in financial theory, mistakes that undermine their ultimate argument. Let’s dig into them, because it’s a wonderful opportunity to get some finance back into this blog (like it used to have back when it was cool).

Error 1: Their Definition of FVA Is Wrong

What is fair-value accounting (FVA)? According to the authors, FVA “factors in the cost of market risk,” meaning “the risk of a general downturn in the economy.” This market risk reflects the potential for defaults; it’s “the cost of the uncertainty surrounding future loan payments.”

These statements are false. There is a consensus that FVA incorporates significantly more than this definition of market risk.

Here’s the Financial Economists Roundtable, endorsing FVA: "Use of Treasury rates as discount factors, however, fails to account for the costs of the risks associated with government credit assistance -- namely, market risk, prepayment risk, and liquidity risk."

And the CBO specifically incorporates all these additional risks when it evaluates FVA: "Student loans also entail prepayment risk… investors… also assign a price to other types of risk, such as liquidity risk… CBO takes into account all of those risks in its fair-value estimates."

This is a much broader set of concerns than what Delisle and Richwine bring up. For instance, FVA requires taxpayers to be subject to the same liquidity and prepayment risks as the capital markets. Remember when the federal government stepped in to provide liquidity to the capital markets when they failed in late 2008, because the markets couldn’t? That gives us a clue that there might be some differences between public and private risks.

Crucially, it’s not clear to me that taxpayers have the same prepayment risk as the capital markets. Private holders of student loans are terrified that their loans might be paid back too quickly, because they are likely to get paid back when interest rates are low and it will be tough to reinvest at the same rate. This is a particularly big risk with the negative convexity of student loan payments, which can be prepaid without penalty. Private actors need to be compensated generously for this risk.

Do taxpayers face the same risk? If student loans owed to the government were paid down faster than anyone expected, would taxpayers be furious? I wouldn’t. I certainly wouldn’t say “how are we going to continue to make the profit we were making?” as a citizen, though it would be an essential question as a private bondholder. Either way, it’s as much a political question as an economic one. (I make the full argument for this in a blog post here.)

Error 2: Their Definition of Market Risk Is Wrong

The authors like FVA because it accounts for market risk. But what is market risk? According to Delisle and Richwine, market risk is “associated with expecting future loan repayments,” as “[s]tudents might pay back the expected principal and interest” but they also may not. It is also “the risk of a general downturn in the economy… market risk cannot be diversified away.”

So the first part is wrong: market risk is not credit risk, or the risk of default or missing payments. The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS7), for instance, requires reporting market risk separate from credit risk, because they are obviously two different things. I’ve generally only heard market risk used in the context of bond portfolios to mean interest rate risk, which they also don’t mention. So if market risk isn’t credit risk or interest rate risk, what is it?

I’m not sure. What I think is going on is they are confusing the concept with the market risk of a stock, specifically its beta. A stock’s beta is its sensitivity to overall equity prices. (Pull up a random stock page and you’ll see the beta somewhere.) It’s very common phrasing to say this risk can’t be diversified away and is a proxy for the risk of general downturns in the economy, which is the same language used in this piece.

Market risk for stocks is the question of how much your portfolio will go down if the market as a whole goes down. But this has nothing to do with student loans, because students (aside from an enterprising few) don’t sell equity; they take out loans. If students paid for school with equity, in theory an economic downturn would lead to less revenue, since students would make less money overall. But even then it’s a shaky concept.

This isn’t just academic. There’s a reason people don’t speak of a one-to-one relationship between a market downturn and the value of a bond portfolio, as the authors’ “market risk” definition does. If the economy tanks, credit risk increases, so bonds are worth less, but interest rates fall, meaning the same bonds are worth more. How this all balances is complicated, and strongly driven by the distribution of bond maturities. This is why financial risk management distinguishes between credit, liquidity, and interest rate risks, and doesn’t conflate those concepts as the authors do.

(Though they are writing as experts, I think they are just copying and pasting from the CBO’s confusing and erroneous definition of “market risk.” If they are sourcing any kind of common financial industry practices or definitions, I don’t see it. I guess Jason Richwine didn’t get a chance to study finance while publishing his dissertation.)

Here again I’d want to understand more how the value of student loans to taxpayers moves with interest rates. Repayments are mentioned above. And for private lenders, higher interest rates mean that they can sell bonds for less and that they’re worth less as collateral. They need to be compensated for this risk. Do taxpayers have this problem to the same extent? If interest rates rise, do we worry we can’t sell the student loan portfolio for the same amount to another government, or that we can’t use it as collateral to fund another war? If not, why would we use this market rate?

Is This Just About Credit Risk?

Besides all the theoretical problems mentioned above, there’s also the practical problem that the CBO uses the already existing private market for student loans (“relied mainly on data about the interest rates charged to borrowers in the private student loan market”), even though there’s obviously a massive adverse selection problem there. Though not an error, it's a third major problem for the argument. The authors don’t even touch this.

But for all the talk about FVA, the only real concern the authors bring up is credit risk. “What if taxpayers don’t get paid?” is the question raised over and over again in the piece. The authors don’t articulate any direct concerns about, say, a move in interest rates changing the value of a bond portfolio, aside from the possibility that it might mean more credit losses.

So dramatically scaling back consumer protections like bankruptcy and statute of limitations for student debtors wasn’t enough for the authors. Fair enough. But there’s an easy fix: the government could buy some credit protection for losses in excess of those expected on, say, $10 billion of its portfolio, and use that price as a supplemental discount. This would be quite low-cost and provide useful information. But it’s a far cry from FVA, even if FVA’s proponents don’t quite understand that.

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The Ferguson Challenge to the Libertarians

Aug 22, 2014Mike Konczal

Many people are pointing to the police violence unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a “libertarian moment.” Dave Weigel of Slate writes “Liberals are up in arms about police militarization. Libertarians are saying: What took you so long?” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner notes that the events in Ferguson bolster the claim that we are experiencing a libertarian moment because “libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.”

It will be a great thing if the horror of what is going on builds a broader coalition for putting the excess of the carceral state in check. But I also think that Ferguson presents a problem for libertarian theory about this situation in particular and the state in general. Their argument is a public choice-like story in which the federal government is the main villain. But this will only tell a partial story, and probably not even the most important one. And, as the deeper story of the town is told, the disturbing economics of the city look similar to what the right thinks is the ideal state. Let’s take these in turn.

Bottom-Up Militarization

People on the right are telling a story where the problems of the police are primarily driven by the federal government. As Rand Paul said: “Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem.” Big government here is strictly a federal phenomenon though, one where “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts.” Paul Ryan’s comment on Ferguson is telling: "But in all of these things, local control, local government, local authorities who have the jurisdiction, who have the expertise, who are actually there are the people who should be in the lead." (h/t Digby) The culprits in these criticisms are usually programs, accelerated after the start of the War on Terror, that give military surplus to local police.

But rather than just a top-down phenomenon of centralized, federal bureaucrats, the police violence we see is just as much a bottom-up, locally-driven affair. “Militarized” police equipment didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.

As Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba note in the pages of Jacobin, the idea that there is suddenly a “militarized” police force here betrays that the militarization began in the 1960s in response to the urban crisis. And even though militarized dollars have flowed to all parts of the country, it is in black urban areas where the equipment has been deployed in an aggressive manner by local authorities. And militarization isn't just about equipment, but about the broader framework of mass incarceration and zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing.

You can see the consequences of this through simple polls. As Dorian Warren notes, “Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as ‘big government’ is actually the government we trust most…blacks are the least likely [racial and economic group] to trust their local governments.” Though these military equipment programs, which give away all kinds of odd things, are a serious problem and should be curtailed, they should be placed within the context of a criminal justice system that is punitive towards minorities and is among the most expansive in the world.

This has political consequences. Democrats have been weak on criminal justice issues. But for several years Blue Dog Democrats, lead by Jim Webb, have pushed for reform. But Webb's big bill to bring together non-binding suggestions for reform, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, wasn’t blocked by centrist Democrats. It was blocked by libertarians and conservatives. Most Republicans, including Tom Coburn and Rand Paul, voted against it on the basis of “states’ rights.” Commentators on the right found the arguments dubious and scandalous, but this will become more and more of an issue if the problem is just one of the federal government.

The Right-Wing Dream City

If you are a libertarian, you probably have two core principles when it comes to how the government carries out its duties. The first is that people should pay taxes in direct proportion to how much they benefit from government services. The government is like another business, and to the extent it can provide public-like goods the market will not, people should pay only as much as they benefit from them. Taxes should essentially be the individual's price of “purchasing” a government service.

You also probably want as much of what the government does to be privatized as possible. Government services provided by private firms use the profit motive to seek out efficiencies and innovation to provide the best service possible. But even if it doesn’t, the right’s public choice theory tells us that private agents will do a better job tending to services because of the essential impulse of the public state to corruption.

So what do we see in Ferguson? It’s becoming clear that there’s a deep connection between an out-of-control criminal justice system and debt peonage. As Vox reports, “court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone.”

These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities. And as Jelani Cobb notes in the New Yorker, this debtor status keeps many citizens of Ferguson off the streets, not protesting or acting as political agents.

How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”

As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.

Having people who “use” the criminal justice system pay for it strikes me as pretty close to the libertarian vision of how taxes should function. And having state power executed by private, profit-seeking entities is the logical outcome of how they think services should function. I’m sure that a libertarian would say that they are against this kind of outcome, though it’s not clear to me how taxation and services along these lines couldn’t do anything other than lead to punitive outcomes. (Perhaps people versed in public choice theory should apply it to what happens when you put public choice theories into practice.)

This is yet another way in which the growth of market society is wedded to the growth of a carceral state. But thinking through this issue can lead you to interesting places. If you think that this offender-funded system is unfair because the poor don’t have the ability to pay for it, you are basically 90% of the way to an argument for progressive taxation. And if you think private parties using coercive power invites abuse, abuses that should be checked by basic mechanisms of democratic accountability, you are also pretty close to an argument for the modern, professionalized, administrative state. Welcome to the team.

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Many people are pointing to the police violence unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as part of a “libertarian moment.” Dave Weigel of Slate writes “Liberals are up in arms about police militarization. Libertarians are saying: What took you so long?” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner notes that the events in Ferguson bolster the claim that we are experiencing a libertarian moment because “libertarianism’s warnings today ring truer than ever.”

It will be a great thing if the horror of what is going on builds a broader coalition for putting the excess of the carceral state in check. But I also think that Ferguson presents a problem for libertarian theory about this situation in particular and the state in general. Their argument is a public choice-like story in which the federal government is the main villain. But this will only tell a partial story, and probably not even the most important one. And, as the deeper story of the town is told, the disturbing economics of the city look similar to what the right thinks is the ideal state. Let’s take these in turn.

Bottom-Up Militarization

People on the right are telling a story where the problems of the police are primarily driven by the federal government. As Rand Paul said: “Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem.” Big government here is strictly a federal phenomenon though, one where “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts.” Paul Ryan’s comment on Ferguson is telling: "But in all of these things, local control, local government, local authorities who have the jurisdiction, who have the expertise, who are actually there are the people who should be in the lead." (h/t Digby) The culprits in these criticisms are usually programs, accelerated after the start of the War on Terror, that give military surplus to local police.

But rather than just a top-down phenomenon of centralized, federal bureaucrats, the police violence we see is just as much a bottom-up, locally-driven affair. “Militarized” police equipment didn’t shoot Michael Brown, or kill Eric Garner in a chokehold. And aggressive police reactions to protests haven’t required extensive military equipment over the past 40 years.

As Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba note in the pages of Jacobin, the idea that there is suddenly a “militarized” police force here betrays that the militarization began in the 1960s in response to the urban crisis. And even though militarized dollars have flowed to all parts of the country, it is in black urban areas where the equipment has been deployed in an aggressive manner by local authorities. And militarization isn't just about equipment, but about the broader framework of mass incarceration and zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing.

You can see the consequences of this through simple polls. As Dorian Warren notes, “Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as ‘big government’ is actually the government we trust most…blacks are the least likely [racial and economic group] to trust their local governments.” Though these military equipment programs, which give away all kinds of odd things, are a serious problem and should be curtailed, they should be placed within the context of a criminal justice system that is punitive towards minorities and is among the most expansive in the world.

This has political consequences. Democrats have been weak on criminal justice issues. But for several years Blue Dog Democrats, lead by Jim Webb, have pushed for reform. But Webb's big bill to bring together non-binding suggestions for reform, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, wasn’t blocked by centrist Democrats. It was blocked by libertarians and conservatives. Most Republicans, including Tom Coburn and Rand Paul, voted against it on the basis of “states’ rights.” Commentators on the right found the arguments dubious and scandalous, but this will become more and more of an issue if the problem is just one of the federal government.

The Right-Wing Dream City

If you are a libertarian, you probably have two core principles when it comes to how the government carries out its duties. The first is that people should pay taxes in direct proportion to how much they benefit from government services. The government is like another business, and to the extent it can provide public-like goods the market will not, people should pay only as much as they benefit from them. Taxes should essentially be the individual's price of “purchasing” a government service.

You also probably want as much of what the government does to be privatized as possible. Government services provided by private firms use the profit motive to seek out efficiencies and innovation to provide the best service possible. But even if it doesn’t, the right’s public choice theory tells us that private agents will do a better job tending to services because of the essential impulse of the public state to corruption.

So what do we see in Ferguson? It’s becoming clear that there’s a deep connection between an out-of-control criminal justice system and debt peonage. As Vox reports, “court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone.”

These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities. And as Jelani Cobb notes in the New Yorker, this debtor status keeps many citizens of Ferguson off the streets, not protesting or acting as political agents.

How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”

As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.

Having people who “use” the criminal justice system pay for it strikes me as pretty close to the libertarian vision of how taxes should function. And having state power executed by private, profit-seeking entities is the logical outcome of how they think services should function. I’m sure that a libertarian would say that they are against this kind of outcome, though it’s not clear to me how taxation and services along these lines couldn’t do anything other than lead to punitive outcomes. (Perhaps people versed in public choice theory should apply it to what happens when you put public choice theories into practice.)

This is yet another way in which the growth of market society is wedded to the growth of a carceral state. But thinking through this issue can lead you to interesting places. If you think that this offender-funded system is unfair because the poor don’t have the ability to pay for it, you are basically 90% of the way to an argument for progressive taxation. And if you think private parties using coercive power invites abuse, abuses that should be checked by basic mechanisms of democratic accountability, you are also pretty close to an argument for the modern, professionalized, administrative state. Welcome to the team.

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The New Conservative Reformers Still Don't Have a Plan for Wall Street

May 23, 2014Mike Konczal

There’s a certain liberal fascination with the idea of conservative “reformers” showing up and recalibrating the Republican Party toward policies that would benefit working Americans and lead to potential bipartisan solutions. This fascination is on display in the reaction to the new Room to Grow report, available for free online, by the YG Network. Already being covered by liberals, this volume features various reform conservative writers addressing a range of innovative economic policy ideas, with the hope that Republicans lawmakers will pay attention.

But if this is the best the new wave of conservatives can do on financial reform, it’s probably not the biggest worry that elected Republicans aren’t listening. The chapter that focuses on Dodd-Frank and the regulation of the financial markets after the crisis is by American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis. It’s billed as “financial reforms to combat cronyism,” but it offers little in terms of reform. The reformers should, at the very least, explain what they would repeal or replace in Dodd-Frank (a tension that exists with Obamacare as well), and this is left unclear.

The problems start with Pethokoukis’s take on the story of what went wrong in the first place. But he also glosses over the key issues facing policymakers today. The general idea of attacking “cronyism” and promoting competition tells us nothing about what needs to be done, making it so this report is a poor guide to the actual ongoing debates happening in financial reform. And this silence on contentious matters is so deafening that it bodes poorly for any kind of genuine positive agenda for the right or bipartisan alignment with liberal reformers. Understanding where Pethokoukis goes wrong, however, can tell us why conservatives are going to have a hard time dealing with actual reform in the age of Dodd-Frank.

The Story of What Went Wrong

For Pethokoukis, a lack of competition in the financial markets led to the crisis of 2008. To whatever extent there were problems, those problems existed because of the government’s safety net and backstopping of deposits and commercial banks.

A quick glance at most accounts of the financial crisis argues otherwise. The whole point of deregulation in the financial markets was to increase competition. The book that made the case for repealing Glass-Steagall argued for “an enhanced role for competition.” Economists associated with the Clinton administration also believed deregulation would lead to more competition and fix the financial sector. There was an explicit assumption that private entities like the ratings agencies would act as better regulators because they faced competition, and they explain how those agencies became so pivotal to the entire system.

So what went wrong? All these new types of “shadow” banks turned out to have the same problems as any other banking sector. They had massive conflicts of interest, were capable of generating panics and runs with no lender-of-last-resort to fall back on, and there were no regulatory tools to wind them down. The goal of Dodd-Frank, in this version of the story, is to extend the core, tried-and-tested methods of financial reform to this shadow banking sector. Under these new regulations, the FDIC can take down shadow banks, derivatives have to be traded in an exchange, the CFPB provides transparency and accountability for consumers, and so on. Perhaps this narrative is wrong, or perhaps these are terrible policy goals that follow from it, but it goes entirely undiscussed in Pethokoukis’s account.

No Conservative Answer to Too Big To Fail

The problems become more obvious when you consider two of the most debated parts of Dodd-Frank: the FDIC’s ability to create a death panel for failing banks, known as resolution authority; and the Federal Reserve’s power to act as a “lender of last resort” in periods of crisis. Pethokoukis only obliquely addresses these issues, though they go to the core of Too Big To Fail.

He argues that Dodd-Frank “explicitly permits bailouts through its resolution authority provision.” What he is referencing is sadly not cited, because Dodd-Frank in fact requires "that unsecured creditors bear losses in accordance with the priority of claim.” (If Pethokoukis would argue that the power to differentiate payments is a de facto bailout, then all of bankruptcy is a permanent bailout, as those powers look just like critical vendor orders or other parts of the bankruptcy process in the proposed FDIC rules.)

Pethokoukis also argues against any type of lender-of-last-resort functionality for the non-commercial banking sector. Awkwardly, this in turn functions as a defense of the 2007 status quo. Take an investment bank, allow it to be subject to market panics, and have no resolution process in place other than tossing it into bankruptcy. This is the exact experiment we did with Lehman Brothers.

In supporting materials, Pethokoukis argues that conservative reformers “have ideas to end Too Big To Fail once and for all,” but it’s not clear what they actually are, or even what they could look like. He doesn’t engage in the debate over resolution authority, and he doesn’t mention various conservative replacements to Dodd-Frank that involve a special bankruptcy code. Maybe that’s because the leading proposals make it purposely difficult to lend in a crisis by penalizing lenders, an approach that violates the wisdom of economists going back to Bagehot.

Not a Roadmap for Our Current Debates

Now granted, the report is about messaging and priorities rather than the intricacies of specific reforms. But even here Pethokoukis’s general guiding star of pro-competition and anti-cronyism doesn’t tell us anything about what we need to know to assess the problems on the ground.

Derivative reforms are notably missing from this paper. I’d argue that forcing price transparency in the derivatives market is pro-competition because it leads to better information and an even playing field, and that pushing for aggressive international enforcement of those rules is anti-cronyism, because Wall Street shouldn’t get to flout the rules by cleverly housing its operations somewhere. Would conservative reformers agree? Based on this report, I have no idea.

Is the fact that Wall Street has such an extensive presence in commodities like aluminum a cause for concern? Do we want to push back on the market mediated complex credit chains that comprise shadow banking? Did Dodd-Frank not go far enough in restructuring the financial system, or did it already go too far with the Volcker Rule and concentration limits? The fact that the conservative reformers’ framework is incapable of guiding us in any plausible direction on these major unfolding issues is very problematic. It points to an absolute void in reform conservative policy on the practical regulatory challenges of the day.

The most promising thing in Pethokoukis’s piece is the call for higher capital requirements, perhaps on the order of 15 percent. Though a very good idea, this won’t end Too Big To Fail. And again this doesn’t engage with the current debates over capital, which involve how to balance multiple needs of capital. If you have a straight leverage requirement by itself, won’t that be gamed by firms taking on big risks? If you have a lot of capital but no liquidity, won’t you be subject to runs? Should banks hold long-term, unsecured debt, perhaps engineered to turn into equity during a failure? People often seek a silver bullet here, but one of the points of Basel is to try and balance all these needs against each other. Pethokoukis is correct that requirements should be higher, but unclear on this balancing act.

Mediating Institutions Require Regulations

Capital requirements aside, it’s surprising how unsurprised I am by the supposedly bold new thinking on financial reform contained in this report. The report is ideologically focused on using the government to build the spaces between the individual and state, the space of mediating institutions that include the market. But one of the best ways we can do that is by enforcing transparency and accountability among people participating in a market. Indeed, arguably the biggest blow to cronyism in 2014 has been the disclosure by the SEC of serious, widespread breaches in the private equity market – breaches that are reportable because of Dodd-Frank.

Here’s an example of a policy I’d love to see the right embrace: fiduciary requirements updated for a landscape of 401(k)s, IRAs, and all the other personal, private, tax-exempt savings accounts that people have to deal with. The Department of Labor is trying to do this right now, in fact, and the House Tea Party is trying to stop them.

One might expect that conservatives thinking in terms of civil society would support fiduciary requirements. They’ve existed since antiquity, going back to the Code of Hammurabi, Judeo-Christian traditions, Chinese law, and, a bonus for the right, centuries of common law. Using the state to set a guidepost for ethical norms that have existed across time and place, and thereby boosting people’s ability to take responsibility for their investments, is remarkably consistent with a richer civil society. But it’s not there in this report.

I hope these reformers succeed in checking the furthest right-wing elements of their party, although the rehabilitation of Bush-era “compassionate conservatism” (a term whose absence is conspicuous) is a far heavier lift given the libertarian focus of today’s conservatism. But if this vision is going to be centered on mediating institutions rather than direct state action, it will be essential for reformers to understand how the state creates the market, and how it sets the terms for enforcing consumers interests, for private agents to get access to information, and for trading, prices, and risk to move throughout the economy. The core balance of transparency, accountability, stability, and innovation is not something that can simply be waved away by appeals to a “free” market as is done here.

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There’s a certain liberal fascination with the idea of conservative “reformers” showing up and recalibrating the Republican Party toward policies that would benefit working Americans and lead to potential bipartisan solutions. This fascination is on display in the reaction to the new Room to Grow report, available for free online, by the YG Network. Already being covered by liberals, this volume features various reform conservative writers addressing a range of innovative economic policy ideas, with the hope that Republicans lawmakers will pay attention.

But if this is the best the new wave of conservatives can do on financial reform, it’s probably not the biggest worry that elected Republicans aren’t listening. The chapter that focuses on Dodd-Frank and the regulation of the financial markets after the crisis is by American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis. It’s billed as “financial reforms to combat cronyism,” but it offers little in terms of reform. The reformers should, at the very least, explain what they would repeal or replace in Dodd-Frank (a tension that exists with Obamacare as well), and this is left unclear.

The problems start with Pethokoukis’s take on the story of what went wrong in the first place. But he also glosses over the key issues facing policymakers today. The general idea of attacking “cronyism” and promoting competition tells us nothing about what needs to be done, making it so this report is a poor guide to the actual ongoing debates happening in financial reform. And this silence on contentious matters is so deafening that it bodes poorly for any kind of genuine positive agenda for the right or bipartisan alignment with liberal reformers. Understanding where Pethokoukis goes wrong, however, can tell us why conservatives are going to have a hard time dealing with actual reform in the age of Dodd-Frank.

The Story of What Went Wrong

For Pethokoukis, a lack of competition in the financial markets led to the crisis of 2008. To whatever extent there were problems, those problems existed because of the government’s safety net and backstopping of deposits and commercial banks.

A quick glance at most accounts of the financial crisis argues otherwise. The whole point of deregulation in the financial markets was to increase competition. The book that made the case for repealing Glass-Steagall argued for “an enhanced role for competition.” Economists associated with the Clinton administration also believed deregulation would lead to more competition and fix the financial sector. There was an explicit assumption that private entities like the ratings agencies would act as better regulators because they faced competition, and they explain how those agencies became so pivotal to the entire system.

So what went wrong? All these new types of “shadow” banks turned out to have the same problems as any other banking sector. They had massive conflicts of interest, were capable of generating panics and runs with no lender-of-last-resort to fall back on, and there were no regulatory tools to wind them down. The goal of Dodd-Frank, in this version of the story, is to extend the core, tried-and-tested methods of financial reform to this shadow banking sector. Under these new regulations, the FDIC can take down shadow banks, derivatives have to be traded in an exchange, the CFPB provides transparency and accountability for consumers, and so on. Perhaps this narrative is wrong, or perhaps these are terrible policy goals that follow from it, but it goes entirely undiscussed in Pethokoukis’s account.

No Conservative Answer to Too Big To Fail

The problems become more obvious when you consider two of the most debated parts of Dodd-Frank: the FDIC’s ability to create a death panel for failing banks, known as resolution authority; and the Federal Reserve’s power to act as a “lender of last resort” in periods of crisis. Pethokoukis only obliquely addresses these issues, though they go to the core of Too Big To Fail.

He argues that Dodd-Frank “explicitly permits bailouts through its resolution authority provision.” What he is referencing is sadly not cited, because Dodd-Frank in fact requires "that unsecured creditors bear losses in accordance with the priority of claim.” (If Pethokoukis would argue that the power to differentiate payments is a de facto bailout, then all of bankruptcy is a permanent bailout, as those powers look just like critical vendor orders or other parts of the bankruptcy process in the proposed FDIC rules.)

Pethokoukis also argues against any type of lender-of-last-resort functionality for the non-commercial banking sector. Awkwardly, this in turn functions as a defense of the 2007 status quo. Take an investment bank, allow it to be subject to market panics, and have no resolution process in place other than tossing it into bankruptcy. This is the exact experiment we did with Lehman Brothers.

In supporting materials, Pethokoukis argues that conservative reformers “have ideas to end Too Big To Fail once and for all,” but it’s not clear what they actually are, or even what they could look like. He doesn’t engage in the debate over resolution authority, and he doesn’t mention various conservative replacements to Dodd-Frank that involve a special bankruptcy code. Maybe that’s because the leading proposals make it purposely difficult to lend in a crisis by penalizing lenders, an approach that violates the wisdom of economists going back to Bagehot.

Not a Roadmap for Our Current Debates

Now granted, the report is about messaging and priorities rather than the intricacies of specific reforms. But even here Pethokoukis’s general guiding star of pro-competition and anti-cronyism doesn’t tell us anything about what we need to know to assess the problems on the ground.

Derivative reforms are notably missing from this paper. I’d argue that forcing price transparency in the derivatives market is pro-competition because it leads to better information and an even playing field, and that pushing for aggressive international enforcement of those rules is anti-cronyism, because Wall Street shouldn’t get to flout the rules by cleverly housing its operations somewhere. Would conservative reformers agree? Based on this report, I have no idea.

Is the fact that Wall Street has such an extensive presence in commodities like aluminum a cause for concern? Do we want to push back on the market mediated complex credit chains that comprise shadow banking? Did Dodd-Frank not go far enough in restructuring the financial system, or did it already go too far with the Volcker Rule and concentration limits? The fact that the conservative reformers’ framework is incapable of guiding us in any plausible direction on these major unfolding issues is very problematic. It points to an absolute void in reform conservative policy on the practical regulatory challenges of the day.

The most promising thing in Pethokoukis’s piece is the call for higher capital requirements, perhaps on the order of 15 percent. Though a very good idea, this won’t end Too Big To Fail. And again this doesn’t engage with the current debates over capital, which involve how to balance multiple needs of capital. If you have a straight leverage requirement by itself, won’t that be gamed by firms taking on big risks? If you have a lot of capital but no liquidity, won’t you be subject to runs? Should banks hold long-term, unsecured debt, perhaps engineered to turn into equity during a failure? People often seek a silver bullet here, but one of the points of Basel is to try and balance all these needs against each other. Pethokoukis is correct that requirements should be higher, but unclear on this balancing act.

Mediating Institutions Require Regulations

Capital requirements aside, it’s surprising how unsurprised I am by the supposedly bold new thinking on financial reform contained in this report. The report is ideologically focused on using the government to build the spaces between the individual and state, the space of mediating institutions that include the market. But one of the best ways we can do that is by enforcing transparency and accountability among people participating in a market. Indeed, arguably the biggest blow to cronyism in 2014 has been the disclosure by the SEC of serious, widespread breaches in the private equity market – breaches that are reportable because of Dodd-Frank.

Here’s an example of a policy I’d love to see the right embrace: fiduciary requirements updated for a landscape of 401(k)s, IRAs, and all the other personal, private, tax-exempt savings accounts that people have to deal with. The Department of Labor is trying to do this right now, in fact, and the House Tea Party is trying to stop them.

One might expect that conservatives thinking in terms of civil society would support fiduciary requirements. They’ve existed since antiquity, going back to the Code of Hammurabi, Judeo-Christian traditions, Chinese law, and, a bonus for the right, centuries of common law. Using the state to set a guidepost for ethical norms that have existed across time and place, and thereby boosting people’s ability to take responsibility for their investments, is remarkably consistent with a richer civil society. But it’s not there in this report.

I hope these reformers succeed in checking the furthest right-wing elements of their party, although the rehabilitation of Bush-era “compassionate conservatism” (a term whose absence is conspicuous) is a far heavier lift given the libertarian focus of today’s conservatism. But if this vision is going to be centered on mediating institutions rather than direct state action, it will be essential for reformers to understand how the state creates the market, and how it sets the terms for enforcing consumers interests, for private agents to get access to information, and for trading, prices, and risk to move throughout the economy. The core balance of transparency, accountability, stability, and innovation is not something that can simply be waved away by appeals to a “free” market as is done here.

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For U.S. Mothers, Conservative Policies Can Be Deadly

May 12, 2014Andrea Flynn

This post is the first in the Roosevelt Institute's National Women's Health Week series, which will address pressing issues affecting the health and economic security of women and families in the United States. Today, a look at why conservative policies at the state level are leading to increased maternal mortality rates.

This post is the first in the Roosevelt Institute's National Women's Health Week series, which will address pressing issues affecting the health and economic security of women and families in the United States. Today, a look at why conservative policies at the state level are leading to increased maternal mortality rates.

For much of the last decade, maternal mortality rates (MMRs) have declined globally. But in the United States, they have consistently increased and are now at one of the highest points in the last 25 years. If conservatives have their way with social and economic policy, it’s unlikely the U.S. will make significant strides to improve the health of mothers in the near future.

According to a report released last week in the The Lancet, the U.S. now ranks 60th out of 180 countries for maternal deaths. China is number 57. Only seven other countries experienced an increase in MMR over the past 10 years. They include Greece, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. The report estimates that for every 100,000 births, 18.5 mothers die in the U.S. By comparison, 13.5 women die in Iran, 6.1 in the United Kingdom, and only 2.4 in Iceland.

It is no coincidence that the U.S. MMR has increased as poverty rates have steadily climbed. In 2010, Amnesty International released a report that showed women living in the lowest-income areas were twice as likely to suffer a maternal death. States with high rates of poverty were found to have MMRs 77 percent higher than states with fewer residents living below the federal poverty level. Women of color have poverty rates more than double those of white women, and black women are 3-4 times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes.

The numerous factors that contribute to the high U.S. MMR are complex, as are the solutions required to effectively address the problem. However, one solution is already in place and is working. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will significantly improve maternal health by mandating coverage of pre-natal, maternity, and post-partum care in all insurance plans. But some of the women in greatest need will remain uninsured and at increased risk because of the refusal of 21 states to expand Medicaid. Many of those states have among the nation’s highest rates of poverty and maternal mortality.

Expanding Medicaid would save women’s lives. A 2010 study conducted in New York City showed that the MMR for women with no insurance was approximately four times higher than for insured women, and that the rate for women insured by Medicaid was comparable to that of women with private insurance.

Many states have higher Medicaid eligibility limits that enable pregnant women with incomes above the standard Medicaid threshold to receive coverage. However, that coverage does not begin until women are already pregnant, and it is often terminated soon after their babies are born. This short coverage period leaves women uninsured for much of their lives and places them at higher risk for health problems that can lead to complications during and after pregnancy. Following implementation of the ACA, some states reduced eligibility limits for pregnant women, and loopholes in other states will leave many women without coverage during this critical time. Expanding Medicaid would provide continuous coverage for women whose incomes exclude them from the program and who do not qualify for subsidized insurance through the exchanges.

Despite the maternal health crisis unfolding in many states, conservative state lawmakers stand firm in their refusal to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost for the first three years and a minimum of 90 percent thereafter. Some states, like Georgia, are so intent on undermining the ACA that they have passed laws to prevent state employees from advocating for expansion and have made it more difficult for people who already qualify for Medicaid to enroll.

Conservatives do not have plans to solve this crisis. In fact, their plans will only make it worse. Family planning cuts and abortion restrictions in places like Texas have shuttered women’s health clinics and obliterated the health infrastructure on which poor women relied for their basic needs. And while many women and their families are still reeling from the recession, cuts to safety net programs like food stamps have led to greater insecurity in health, income, and food than ever before.

Last week’s Lancet report is a stark reminder that women suffer heavy casualties in the partisan battles raging in states across the country. But what we are witnessing today is more than a nasty game of politics: it is a violation of women’s human rights. We should be ashamed and outraged.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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Cliven Bundy's Window into the War on the Poor

May 2, 2014Andrea Flynn

Republicans were quick to distance themselves from the Nevada rancher after his remarks about slavery, but he points to a deeper issue with conservative policy.

It’s tempting dismiss Cliven Bundy – the Nevada rancher who last week suggested that blacks were better off under slavery – as a fringe conservative unworthy of any more airtime. But his remarks provide a window into the underbelly of today’s conservative movement and are worth a closer look.

Republicans were quick to distance themselves from the Nevada rancher after his remarks about slavery, but he points to a deeper issue with conservative policy.

It’s tempting dismiss Cliven Bundy – the Nevada rancher who last week suggested that blacks were better off under slavery – as a fringe conservative unworthy of any more airtime. But his remarks provide a window into the underbelly of today’s conservative movement and are worth a closer look.

Bundy was a little known entity until earlier this month when his two-decade long refusal to pay cattle grazing fees escalated into a face off between his own armed militia and agents from the Bureau of Land Management. The episode launched him into the national spotlight and endeared him to conservatives like Senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, among others.  

Bundy capitalized on his moment in the spotlight to expound on the grazing rights of his cattle, abortion, and slavery.  He suggested that government subsidies have caused “negroes” to abort their “young children” and “put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” He went on: “And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."

Conservatives scrambled to distance themselves from Bundy by denouncing his comments as offensive and racist. But they were rather quiet on Bundy’s characterization of the safety net as a modern form of slavery. Their silence reflects a common ideology uniting conservative politicians to the likes of Bundy, one that lays the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of poor people – particularly poor people of color – and the government programs meant to support them.

And it’s hard to argue that the GOP’s recent social policy proposals aren’t fueled by the same fire that propelled Bundy’s diatribe. Rand Paul has equated universal health care and government programs such as food stamps to slavery. Congressional candidates from North Carolina to Arizona have argued that entitlement programs are simply a way for government to assert power over the people. Paul Ryan, whose latest budget slashes spending for Medicaid and food stamps, has warned that the safety net is on the brink of becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Mike Huckabee suggested that by supporting mandated contraceptive coverage, Democrats were suggesting women needed “Uncle Sugar” to control their “libidos or reproductive system.”

These notions have motivated conservatives' strategic dismantling of the social safety net. Cuts to food stamps, with more to come should Paul Ryan have his way. Refusal to participate in Medicaid expansion, leaving more than 3 million low-income people uninsured. Rejection of the minimum wage increase. Opposition to extending federal unemployment benefits. Repudiation of equal pay measures. The imposition of funding cuts and regulations that have shuttered women’s health clinics across the country. And a government shutdown spurred by opposition to the ACA, specifically the law’s contraceptive mandate.

Who bears the greatest burden of these actions? Poor women, particularly women of color, who have long been blamed for perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Bundy and conservative politicians alike rely on historic notions of poor women being lulled to complacency by government subsidies. Those notions – in addition to being racist and classist – are simply incorrect. The majority of subsidy recipients work, but don’t make enough to support themselves or their families. As of 2011, 70 percent of low-income families and half of all poor families were working, but research suggests that nearly one-third of all working families do not make enough money to meet basic needs.

Republican cuts to government subsidies will only further erode the economic security of American families. Instead of laying blame – indeed, punishment – on poor women, we should bolster the foundation on which they stand. The Roosevelt Institute recently released a report that made the case for economic policies that would support working families: raising the minimum wage; expanding the earned income tax credit; instituting paid sick and family leave; and strengthening the right to organize; among others.

As my colleague Ellen Chesler and I recently argued, all of these recommendations are necessary but will be meaningless if women are not able to make free and fully informed decisions about their reproductive health, including planning the timing and size of their families. As such we must expand the nation’s family planning program, push for all states to expand Medicaid, and tear down the other policy barriers that prevent low-income women from accessing care.

Conservative leaders are desperate to convince the poor that social safety net programs are the chains binding them to poverty, thereby legitimizing the destruction of the very system built to lift up America’s poor families. Perhaps we should thank Bundy for using such ugly terms to shed light on the conservative substitute for the war on poverty: a war against the poor.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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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. 

 

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