Why No One Should Dismiss Occupy Wall Street

Oct 4, 2011Dorian Warren

Despite critiques, they've already deployed strategic tactics and put important issues on the radar.

"What do they want?" "It won't last." "They're just a bunch of hippie kids."

Despite critiques, they've already deployed strategic tactics and put important issues on the radar.

"What do they want?" "It won't last." "They're just a bunch of hippie kids."

Everybody is now weighing in with their take and critique of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, which is threatening to develop into a national and global movement. But at week three, many of those criticisms are unfair. From my experiences actually being among the protesters and talking with them, what they're building is an important movement that's already putting issues on the political map.

The Occupy Wall Street grievances that are motivating people to take action are based on the facts of growing inequality in the United States over the last 30 years. And contrary to sociologist Nina Eliasoph's contention that there's an "emptiness of the message itself so far," all of the protesters' complaints point to an overarching set of demands that fall under the themes of greater democracy in our plutocratic and oligarchic political system and greater equality and opportunity in the economy for the "99 percent" of Americans.

The criticism that they have no demands is also pretty ridiculous at this early stage. Protestor Hero Vincent points out the double standard of the charge: "Our constitution took a year to make. We've been here for three weeks and we're supposed to have an agenda? That makes no sense." Even if the protestors never came up with specific demands, they've already won by garnering media attention and putting the issue of economic inequality on the national agenda. This, in fact, is what movements do best: put issues on the political agenda that the two parties and our political institutions would much rather ignore. And this charge, as Betsy Reed points out, is beside the point. There are plenty of specific demands and policy proposals offered up by progressive and liberal groups, only to be ignored. It takes a social movement to put them on the agenda and in the national political discourse.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, and event alerts.

This critique is also a bit hypocritical, especially when compared with the Tea Party. Remember that when the Tea Party first emerged, they had no clear demands. And what few demands they came up with weren't even based in fact: "President Obama is a socialist" or "Get your government hands off my Medicare."

The media isn't giving the protesters their fair due, either. It is striking that the coverage of Occupy Wall Street has underplayed how nonviolent and peaceful the protests are. Contrast that with the coverage of the Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010, where angry and older white Americans were showing up strapped with guns at town hall meetings. Can you imagine what would happen if any of the Occupy Wall Street protesters had any weapons on them? I can. (See, for an example, the vilification and outright repression by the police and FBI of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s.) When old, angry white guys show up to public places with guns, they are patriots taking back America. When a diverse group of young, angry, yet fun protestors show up to public places unarmed and nonviolent, they are "hippies" and dismissed for two weeks before police overreaction sparks more media coverage.

Their tactics may seem unconventional to the establishment, but they threaten to have a lasting effect. Ignore them at your own risk.

Dorian Warren is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Share This

Make Way (Again) for the "Job Creators"

Sep 28, 2011John Paul Rollert

the-situationWhat do Bill Gates and the Situation have in common? Republicans think they're equally vital to our economy.

the-situationWhat do Bill Gates and the Situation have in common? Republicans think they're equally vital to our economy.

With the announcement last Monday of President Obama's plan to pay for his jobs bill with, among other things, the so-called "Buffett Rule," we're going to be hearing a lot more about the "job creators." Over the last year, Congressional Republicans have consistently invoked them as a hex of sorts against any proposal to raise new tax revenue. "I am not for raising taxes in a recession," Eric Cantor declared last November, when the Bush tax cuts were a bargaining chip in the protracted budget debate, "especially when it comes to the job creators that we need so desperately to start creating jobs again."

Ten months, no new taxes, and one debt ceiling crisis later, Cantor said the same thing last week in response to the president's jobs bill: "I sure hope that the president is not suggesting that we pay for his proposals with a massive tax increase at the end of 2012 on job creators that we're actually counting on to reduce unemployment." Given that 44 percent of the nation's unemployed have been without work for at least six months and more Americans are living below the poverty line than at any time in the last 50 years, one marvels at Cantor's faith in the truant "job creators" as well as his forbearance in the face of human misery. To the jobless, he is counseling the patience of Job.

But who exactly are these "job creators?" The phrase is not new. Republicans have been using it for years to underscore a particular vision of capitalism in which those who have benefitted most by the system are also most essential to its continued success. As long ago as 1991, Newt Gingrich characterized Democratic opposition to a cut in the capital gains tax as evidence that liberals reject this vision. "They hate job creators," he told a gathering of Senate Republicans, "they're envious of job creators.  They want to punish job creators." With no apparent sense of irony, Gingrich added this was proof liberals "believe in class warfare."

A more telling example for our current political impasse is the debate over the 1993 Clinton budget plan, which aimed to cut the deficit by, among other things, raising the top income tax rate. Congressional Republicans fought the bill tooth and nail, no one more so than former Texas Senator Phil Gramm. On the eve of its passage, he expressed the hope that the bill would "defy history" and prove that "raising taxes on job creators can promote investment and promote job creation." Gramm, of course, did not think this was very likely to happen. "Only in Cuba and in North Korea and in Washington, D.C., does anybody believe that today," he said, "but perhaps the whole world is wrong."

Hindsight suggests that the world wasn't wrong so much as Phil Gramm, along with every other Republican member of Congress. Not one of them voted for the bill, which cleared the House by only two votes and required Al Gore's tie-breaking vote in the Senate. While higher taxes on the "job creators" proved no obvious hurdle to economic growth -- the economy grew for 116 consecutive months, the most in U.S. history -- it did cut the deficit from $290 billion when Clinton took office to $22 billion by 1997 and helped put the country on a projected path to paying off the national debt by 2012.

So much for ancient history. If the term "job creators" is no new addition to the lexicon of American politics, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance since President Obama took office. A Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wire services turns up 1,082 individual mentions of "job creators" in the month before the debt ceiling deal was reached, or just 175 fewer mentions than for George W. Bush's entire second term.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

Jon Stewart, for one, did not fail to notice the uptick. "Republicans are no longer allowed to say that people are rich," he noted during the deficit ceiling debate, "You have to refer to them as 'job creators.'" Stewart's observation is funny only to the extent to which you believe that saying you're a member of the top tax bracket and saying that you create jobs is not an obvious redundancy. If you believe, however, that the cast of Jersey Shore has just as much claim to being called "job creators" as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, then Stewart's joke not only falls flat, but misses the point. The wealthy are the "job creators," whether or not they spend their time actually trying to create jobs.

The problem, of course, with upholding a definition of "job creators" that does not turn on the dedicated effort to create jobs is that it becomes hard to figure out what distinguishes the "job creators," as a group, from everyone else -- at least beyond their relative wealth. All Americans spend, save, and invest in varying degrees; most just do so with a lot less money.

In this light, the "jobs creators" rhetoric highlights a theory of capitalism in which those at the very top of the economic pyramid end up supporting the base. We might call this theory the Visible Hand of Capitalism in order to distinguish it from Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. In The Wealth of Nations, he famously located the enduring success of capitalism in an increasingly complex system of work and exchange that sees "the assistance and co-operation of many thousands." In such a society, no single group can be meaningfully called the "job creators." They are as much the managers of capital as the men on the factory line.

As an intellectual matter, the Visible Hand of Capitalism has enjoyed support from figures as disparate as Destutt de Tracy, the French philosopher and economist whom Thomas Jefferson championed, to the steel baron and indefatigable philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. As a rhetorical matter, however, the phrase "job creators" appears to come directly from the work of Ayn Rand. She favored the term "creators" to describe an elite caste in society and her highest human ideal.

John Boehner made reference to Atlas Shrugged, Rand's most famous novel, in a speech he gave recently to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. "Job creators in America are essentially on strike," he said, in an obvious nod to the decision by the "creators" in the novel to go on strike in defiance of an intrusive federal government. The nation immediately begins to falter, and the books concludes with its hero, John Galt, giving a marathon address in which he explains to the rest of the country why America is crumbling. The nation, in brief, has scared away the very people who keep the economy working, leaving behind those who are ill-equipped to fend for themselves. Describing the economic and social theory underpinning this vision, Galt says:

In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.

For all that it lacks in human decency, Rand's vision of who makes capitalism work at least has the advantage of isolating a group of people who actually create something. By contrast, the current "job creators" rhetoric seems to elevate a group of people whose shared tax bracket is their only outstanding trait.

As the debate over the president's jobs bill takes shape, the "job creators" rhetoric is certainly deserving of a little more scrutiny, especially by those who don't qualify for the distinction. Otherwise, they might as well accept the judgment of a far greater authority than even John Galt:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

John Paul Rollert is a doctoral student at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.  His essay, "Does the Top Really Support the Bottom? - Adam Smith and the Problem of the Commercial Pyramid," was recently published by The Business and Society Review.

Share This

Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism

Sep 27, 2011Corey Robin

reactionary-mindOn Thursday, October 6th, CUNY, the Roosevelt Institute, and The Nation will present "What is Conservatism?," a conversation between Professor Corey Robin and Christopher Hayes focused on Robin's new book, The Reactionary Mind.

reactionary-mindOn Thursday, October 6th, CUNY, the Roosevelt Institute, and The Nation will present "What is Conservatism?," a conversation between Professor Corey Robin and Christopher Hayes focused on Robin's new book, The Reactionary Mind. Click here for more details on the event.

Robin's provocative thesis -- that conservatism is, and always has been, "a meditation on -- and theoretical rendition of -- the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back" -- should make for an interesting and exciting conversation. In order to give readers a sense of his argument, we asked Corey to use Ronald Suskind's famous passage about conservatism during the Bush years as an entry point into the larger debate. -- Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal

Long before Ron Suskind tangled with the media and the White House for telling truths or tales about the Obama administration, he was the hero of liberals. For it was Suskind who, in the course of exploring the Bush presidency for the New York Times Magazine, stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary conservative mind.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

"Reality-based community" soon became one of the most cited quotes of the Bush era -- a Google search yields 456,000 results; it even has its own Wikipedia page. It is an affirmation of everything the left ever thought about the right: that it lives in a fact-free universe where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions; that it's revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate; that it's activist rather than accommodating; that it's, well... not really conservative.

Because conservatives are supposed to be, at least by reputation, calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar. They don't go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They're not interested in history's adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren't so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse. Insofar as they are concerned with politics, it is, as William F. Buckley once said, the "politics of reality."

That, at any rate, is how many literate conservatives understand themselves and their tradition. It's also how many liberals who may have read Burke in college, or who are perhaps friends with these literate conservatives, understand the conservative tradition.

To wit: this recent column by Paul Krugman.

Modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we've had for the past three generations -- that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the "common hazards of life" through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

When Krugman talks about "modern conservatism," he means anything from the last 10 years of the GOP to the postwar American conservative movement as a whole. Either way, the notion is that there once was a conservatism that was different, a conservatism that looks something like what I sketched out above.

It's a pretty common notion, on the left, right, and center, that modern conservatism -- however it's defined -- is different from the conservatism that came before it. Here's Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a forthcoming biography of Buckley, in his widely read The Death of Conservatism:

What we call conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke... Burke's conservatism was based not a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies...

The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.

As soon as the afterglow of 9/11 began to fade, Andrew Sullivan also took up this argument in a series of articles and posts that culminated in his 2006 book The Conservative Soul. Since then, he's pursued it time and again, pillorying the modern conservative movement, in all its variations and iterations since the 1980s, for its rejection of Burke's supple traditionalism, Hayek's critique of utopianism, and more.

I wrote The Reactionary Mind for many reasons, but one of them was to show -- contra Sullivan, Tanenhaus, Krugman, and many more -- that today's conservative is in fact conservative. She hasn't betrayed the traditions of Burke, Disraeli, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Reagan; she has fulfilled them.

Because Burke so often figures in these discussions as the touchstone of comparison, I'd like to make a novel suggestion: perhaps we should read him. And not just a few isolated passages in his Reflections on the Revolution in France -- the pages everyone who took Intro to Political Theory in college refers to -- but his entire counterrevolutionary oeuvre, particularly his Letters on a Regicide Peace. For modern conservatism, which dates to Burke, arose in reaction to modern radicalism. But a funny thing happened on the way to the counterrevolution.

As early as the Reflections, published in 1790, Burke had voiced concern that the revolutionaries in France had tapped into the deepest currents of modern civilization, that they somehow had put themselves into the driver's seat of history and were threatening to leave the defenders of the old order behind.

Burke framed the contest between the revolutionaries and the old order as a struggle between "ability" -- the village lawyers and urban financiers of the bourgeoisie, who made the revolution in alliance with the mob -- and "property," the aristocrats and their clients of the old regime. In such a contest, he was fairly certain who would win and why: "As ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the" state. Without the protection of the feudal state, in other words, property would lose.

By the time he began writing his Letters on Regicide Peace, two years before he died in 1797, Burke's concern about the relative strength of the old order had reached a fever pitch. "In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views," he wrote of the revolutionaries, "the Jacobins are our superiors." But where initially he had located the source of the revolutionaries' superiority in their class position, their material base in finance and commerce, Burke now saw it in their absolute indifference to their material circumstances.  The strength of the Jacobins lay in their faith, their willingness to destroy and suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. "While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith," Burke wrote to the British officials who wished to negotiate and compromise with the French, "they have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have they engaged their honour... They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely."

It was Burke's great fear that the British elite -- as well as the other monarchies of old Europe -- could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate. Where the Jacobins had "conquered the finest parts of Europe" with an "annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce," the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn't just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates.

At no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment.  We have a vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it. But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments...

They who are in possession of all they wish are languid and improvident...

In the ordinary course of human affairs, any check to population among men in ease and opulence, is less to be apprehended from what they may suffer, than from what they enjoy. Peace is more likely to be injurious to them in that respect than war.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the Revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal. They were careful and calculating, they were cautious and prudent. They were, in short, Burkeans. Condemning Pitt and his allies, Burke wrote:

They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.

These "creatures of the desk" and "creatures of favour" charged with defending the old orders of Europe, Burke complained, "had no relish for the principles of the manifestoes." They lacked the "generous wildness of Quixotism."

The other negative consequence of an inheritance that's assured, wrote Burke, was that its possessor -- whether a country with an ancient constitution or an individual with a familial estate -- quickly became encumbered by the weight of history and tradition. This is a seldom noted theme in Burke, for it runs counter to our stereotype of him as the tribune of long-standing wisdom and embedded prudence. But there is a deep and untapped vein in Burke's writings of worry about, even hostility toward, individuals and institutions that are awash in history.

"Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut," Burke declared at the outset of his Regicide Peace. The laws of the state, ancient and "full of reason, and of equity and justice," were a "dead letter." They "ought to be severe and awful." Instead, they yielded "no more than stubble." It was their very ancientness, he concluded, that made them so weak.

Our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects.

Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.

It wasn't just the laws and constitution that were suffering from age; individuals too steeped in their history, Burke warned, would be blind to the very newness of the threats they faced. Prudence, in other words, the proverbial wisdom of the past made present, was not a way forward but a liability of the first degree.

There was no more emblematic figure in this regard than Louis XVI, the hapless monarch who lost his head, in both senses of the word. He was by no means incompetent or malicious. He was well tutored and lettered, particularly in history. And that in the end was the problem. "Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him."

Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation -- all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table -- would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast.  In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.

Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.

To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.

The madness of the wise...is better than the sobriety of fools.

Every little measure is a great errour.

These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism that was plaguing all of Europe. (This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: they see him as the man of the "little platoon," of the local and the national as against the international. Not so. In face of the "general evil" that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe.  England should realize that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: "Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her." "No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it." Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.)

This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but "an armed doctrine." That doctrine had to be exterminated, for "if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail." Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: "It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe."

And because of the magnitude of the evil that they faced, all the traditional rules of war had to be thrown out the window; preemption and prevention were now the order of the day. From now on, any country could mount a total war against "any capital innovation" in a neighboring country --even if that innovation was entirely within its own borders -- because such an innovation "may amount to the erection of a dangerous nuisance."

I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism -- and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it's not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favor of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.

In the 20th century, one finds a similar move in Hayek, arguing against not the totalitarianism of Stalin but the democratic socialism of Britain and France and the liberal welfare state of the New Deal. Again, this is not a widely noted theme in discussions of Hayek, but if you want a full-throated defense of ideology and utopianism against the prudential improvisations of the proverbial conservative, you could do worse than to start with Volume 1 of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty. There, Hayek says, among other things, that the "successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concession to expediency" and that

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today... But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he's often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he's not often read all that much.  Likewise, Hayek and much of the rest of the conservative canon. Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them -- little platoons and so on -- that stale blast of familiarity you hear when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.  That, it seems to me, applies no less to the right than it does to the left. Everyone thinks they know Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek, but have they read them? In the last decade?

If nothing else, I hope my book spurs readers to go back to these texts. Not just because they're great, which they are. But also because we're having a conversation about modern conservatism in the dark, based on a misapprehension of the what the enterprise is and is not about. If we can get clear on these ancient texts, maybe we can get a little clearer on the contemporary practice.

So here's my final suggestion for Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today's GOP: Read 'em. Then let's talk.

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. His second book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, has just been released from Oxford University Press.

Share This

Fading Faith, Rising Fury: The Fallout from the Debt Ceiling Debacle

Sep 16, 2011Bo Cutter

Americans have never had less faith in their government, and they've never been more justified.

About six weeks ago, I wrote:

Americans have never had less faith in their government, and they've never been more justified.

About six weeks ago, I wrote:

This debt ceiling debacle is not acceptable. Americans have a right to be furious at both parties for all of this, and these events will accelerate the movement away from our current duopoly. What right do politicians have to threaten the economic security of all Americans because they are having an ideological quarrel? Most Americans mostly want to be left alone, not made the victims of a political system that has seemingly lost touch with what governance is.

The fallout from this debacle is increasingly clear. The latest New York Times/CBS poll says that only 12 percent of Americans now approve of how Congress is doing its job. Eighty percent of both Republicans and Democrats say it is time to elect all new members of Congress.

But another recent poll by Bill MacInturff of Public Opinion Strategies makes a much more targeted point. To quote Bill, "The debt ceiling negotiation... is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government... It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both."

Here are a few more of Bill's comments:

• "The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence."

• "This type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes."

• "This is the rare 'wow' data. It represents a profound change in a matter of months."

• "There is no precedent for an incumbent president being re-elected when the Michigan consumer sentiment index is at 75 or below." (It is now at 55.7.)

• "Lord, they hate Washington right now" (a comment by one of the pollsters).

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

Keep in mind the following percentages: 78 percent, 73 percent, and 81 percent. Those are the percentages of those polled who, respectively, (1) were dissatisfied with how our political system is working, (2) lacked confidence in government to solve economic problems, and (3) lacked confidence in either President Obama or Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions.

The American people are completely right in their accelerating level of horror at how our political system is functioning and how our leaders are behaving. It is unimaginable that we actually had a debate in August over whether it was a good idea to default on debt the American government had issued with its full faith and credit. But, of course, we did.

I want briefly to take up the issue of "false even-handedness" and weak centrists blaming both sides. As an increasingly strong advocate of the radical center, I do blame both sides, but for different things. There is no question in my mind that the Republicans in Congress and specifically the Tea Party members were incomprehensibly irresponsible -- I called them "clueless, hypocritical nihilists" and meant it. But where were any responsible alternatives? Where was the outrage from President Obama? The president should have called these crazies out for completely unacceptable behavior. That would have been the right thing to do, it would have been good for the country, and it would have been good for him.

This level of justified voter unhappiness, combined with our immediate and serious economic problems and the very real threat of a lost decade, means we cannot just waltz through the next few years thinking that this will all blow over and business as usual is enough. Getting out of the corner we have put ourselves in will require someone to bet the presidency on the proposition that the American people, at long last, are ready to listen to an adult message. President Obama should junk his current message, recognize where we stand today, and put forward a policy that is radical enough for the times.

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

The GOP Debate: Reality Keeps Intruding on the Tea Party's Alternate Universe

Sep 14, 2011Bo Cutter

There are real crises coming down the line -- such as an almost inevitable default in Europe -- but the Republicans refuse to deal with reality.

I'll start by acknowledging that I do not even remotely understand Republican party dynamics and can't read what happens in a Republican debate the way I think I can read Democratic party events.

There are real crises coming down the line -- such as an almost inevitable default in Europe -- but the Republicans refuse to deal with reality.

I'll start by acknowledging that I do not even remotely understand Republican party dynamics and can't read what happens in a Republican debate the way I think I can read Democratic party events.

Nevertheless, in approximately 45 years of reasonably close involvement in American politics, I have never seen more divergence from reality in what purports to be a serious discussion by men and women who actually think they might wind up being president of the United States. The Republican debate on Monday consisted of eight adults standing up for two hours and discussing an alternate universe.

This really is a "the emperor has no clothes" kind of moment. Unfortunately,  what is claimed and asserted in our current politics is always imperfectly related to reality. You can generally assume that any quote -- particularly from an opponent's book -- and any statistic (I've always thought that I have never, ever heard a complicated statistic used correctly by a major politician) is simply wrong. And therefore you have to "grok" what anyone would actually try to do when faced with the real world. So we become accustomed to the dissonance.

But isn't there a point when the divergence is just too great not to acknowledge? Michele Bachmann says President Obama "stole" $500 million from Medicare. She says President Obama embedded $105 billion in post-dated checks. Newt Gingrich says he "helped balance the budget for four straight years." The debate's moment of high drama and its aftermath involved vaccine inoculations, a moment that was prolonged the next day when Bachmann claimed that these inoculations caused retardation -- a problem no one else in the medical profession has ever heard of. The very real possibility of a lost American decade, the reality of 9 percent unemployment, or the potential for a complete European economic collapse never intruded on the fantasy world these people have spun for themselves.

So I think the answer to my question is "no." CNN cosponsored the debate (which makes it a profit center); serious adults such as David Gergen were commentators. Everyone was obsessed with the tactics. No one pointed out that this is one of the moments that shows we are beginning to go off the rails.

But we really are going off the rails, and it is time to change a basic assumption that I, and I would guess almost everyone, has always had about America and its leadership: that we have grownups in charge who have a reasonably firm grasp of reality and a sense of prudence about the risks they are willing to take. George W. Bush challenged this assumption, but this debate declared it null and void. That strange light in Michele Bachmann's eyes when she went into raptures over her willingness to risk an American default, or whenever she is about to try to foist a total mistruth on unsuspecting Americans, is a dead giveaway. I would guess that the odds are slightly better than even that one of these eight will be elected in 2012. This is like the shortstop who can't hit, but on the other hand can't field. Based on this debate, where there was almost no connection between what was said and the real world, the public doesn't have a clue what any of them would actually do as president, but on the other hand we can be sure that when they do it, it will scare the bejesus out of us.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

How could anyone see this debate and not see with blinding clarity the need for a movement from the radical center?

The harrowing thing is that there are real crises coming down the line that will require real leadership. As I was watching the debate, I was finishing Peter Boone and Simon Johnson's article "Europe on the Brink" published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. It begins, "Attempts to solve the problems in Europe are failing and the crisis is spreading... The euro crisis is not under control." Then it gets pessimistic. I finished the article, looked up some credit default swap numbers, talked to some friends, and concluded that there is a 60 percent chance of a Greek default -- an unplanned, messy default -- within six weeks.

This event will (1) lead directly to the bankruptcy of a number of European banks, and (2) put unsustainable pressure on Italy, Spain, and Portugal -- maybe even France.  There is no institution or process in Europe that can stop this; the IMF can't stop it and we damn sure aren't going to do anything. Nor is there a will to do anything. A European friend who would know said to me, "The French say Greece is the cradle of democracy, give them anything they want. The Germans say the Greeks are lazy liars, let them starve. And there is no voice in between."

As this process moves on, Italy, Spain, and Portugal will not be able to finance themselves at all from private markets and there are not enough other resources in Europe to step in. There will be more defaults, more bankruptcies, and a hair-raising recession in Europe.

What are we going to do?  In a normal country, say America 20 years ago, we would begin to anticipate these events, discuss them quietly in Washington between the leaders of both parties, and have a rough plan. But not now. If you judge by the Republican debate, we will do our damnedest to avoid thinking about any actual crises. Besides, this one involves foreigners, and what do they know anyway?

When asked what factors determined the success of a prime minister, Harold McMillan of Great Britain famously answered, "Events, dear boy, events." Inconveniences like complete economic and financial meltdowns in Europe constantly intrude on the otherwise well encapsulated lives of ideologues, and you actually do have to have a point of view about them.

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

Jeff Madrick "Pleasantly Surprised" by Obama's Jobs Act Strategy

Sep 13, 2011

Appearing last night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick said he was pleasantly surprised by President Obama's announcement that he would pay for the American Jobs Act by increasing taxes on the rich. Jeff notes that the plan still has flaws and may not be as effective as some economists are projecting, but "at least he's coming out fighting. At least he's sounding like he's for the working man and not the wealthy guy."

Appearing last night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick said he was pleasantly surprised by President Obama's announcement that he would pay for the American Jobs Act by increasing taxes on the rich. Jeff notes that the plan still has flaws and may not be as effective as Obama hopes, but "at least he's coming out fighting. At least he's sounding like he's for the working man and not for the wealthy guy."

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

When it comes to getting the bill passed, Jeff expects Republicans to fight back. He thinks Obama will get the payroll tax cuts and small business tax credits he's asking for, since the GOP likes those ideas anyway, but he'll encounter resistance on the spending side, which gives the most bang for the buck. "We've still got a dilemma," he says, "but at least the boxing gloves were on. At least we're out of the corner and swinging a little bit."

**ND2.0 Alert: If you want to meet the man himself, Jeff Madrick will be making appearances in Washington, D.C. and New York City this week. First, he'll be joining Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro tomorrow night for an informal conversation on the state of the economy and financial reform. The event will be held at 7:30 p.m. at 816 East Capitol Street, NE in D.C. To RSVP, contact delaurodinners [at] gmail [dot] com.

And on Friday, September 16, Jeff will be appearing at a breakfast forum on financial regulation, co-hosted by the Century Foundation and the World Policy Institute. The forum runs from 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and will be held at the Century Foundation headquarters in New York City, located at 41 East 70th Street. To RSVP, e-mail events [at] tcf [dot] org.

Share This

The Jobs Speech: Obama Starts Telling the Right Story

Sep 12, 2011Bo Cutter

On display Thursday was a president willing to engage and demand action.

In the context of normal politics -- miserable as they are today -- Obama's speech last Thursday was a very good start toward a reset of this presidency. In the context of reality based politics -- which don't exist -- a great deal more was required. But that's a topic for another day.

On display Thursday was a president willing to engage and demand action.

In the context of normal politics -- miserable as they are today -- Obama's speech last Thursday was a very good start toward a reset of this presidency. In the context of reality based politics -- which don't exist -- a great deal more was required. But that's a topic for another day.

How did he do contrasted against what I thought he had to do? Here's how I would grade his performance:

  • He was fairly honest -- give him a 7 out of 10.
  • He went long, as judged by what is possible today -- a 9.
  • He didn't break much china -- a 6.
  • He didn't really roll any dice, but he changed tone and demanded action. Give him a 7.

When you consider the circumstances -- an embattled president facing an opposition hostile to the point of derangement -- the substance of this speech was very good. In terms of immediately actionable stuff, he proposed the right kind of stimulus (even though the administration can't call it that) within the middle of the range I suggested: $450 billion, or around 3% of GDP. The stimulus is "efficient." It lowers the costs of employment, it is targeted in part toward the long-term unemployed, and it sends the right kind of money, to employ teachers, to the states. I think he will actually get a fair amount of this passed, and while it won't reverse our ugly unemployment picture, it may keep this meager recovery going.

He will get none of his infrastructure proposals passed, but I felt as though they were almost proposed as a loss leader. And he deferred the budget reckoning.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

The best part of the speech was its tone and style. In watching President Obama over the last two years, I sometimes felt as though I were looking through the wrong end of binoculars. But Thursday night's president was not that disengaged president, all too ready to outsource to the Congress or strike the wrong deal at the wrong time. This was a fully engaged president, presenting an adult message, quite ready to define his opposition as it truly is, and willing to demand action. I can't overstate how much I wish that president had been around more over the last two years.

I also think that in this speech, as President Obama returns to one of its themes in particular, he will discover the truth of the Wizard of Oz. Just as Dorothy discovered that the Wicked Witch of the West was a fake, so the president and the nation will learn that the Tea Party and House Republicans aren't the tsunami they have so feared. The administration will also discover that to some degree it can choose to whom it gives power. If you give power to the Tea Party, it will take it. If you describe the Tea Party accurately -- as clueless, hypocritical nihilists -- it will wither. If the president had moved decisively in March, closed the government, and forced the Tea Party to fight on ground of his choosing, we would never have had the deficit/default debacle in August.

I hope and believe that the president really will follow through on this speech. He can construct a convincing counter narrative if he builds on it. Even better, he can go beyond this speech and build a more complete story. Time and time again, what this administration has whiffed on is establishing a narrative, telling it, and convincing the public of its own sense of economic direction. They have another chance. And I hope Bill Daley is putting together a team to plan, as a coherent whole, the president's follow up. Don't leave this to normal White House operations.

At its core, this is where this speech was a success. The president gave himself a chance: to reset his administration's direction, to build a narrative, and to contrast himself against an opposition that the American people distrust even more than they distrust him. He can't outrun the bear, but he damn sure can outrun the Republican far right.

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

The President's Speech: "Getting It" is Not Enough

Sep 8, 2011Mark Schmitt

Voters want to know their president cares about people like them, but they also want to know he's going to get something meaningful done.

Voters want to know their president cares about people like them, but they also want to know he's going to get something meaningful done.

The smartest Democratic political operative I've ever known once told me that the only thing that matters in a poll is how a politician scores on the question "cares about people like me." By that standard, Barack Obama has been doing just fine: In the recent Pew poll, 60 percent said he "cares about people like me," a rating higher than George W. Bush achieved at the peak of his popularity.

In tonight's speech, we're told, Obama has to show that he cares about the crisis of joblessness, that he gets it. "Getting it," or empathy for the plight of economically struggling Americans, has been at the core of American politics for the last several decades. Empathy was the central drama of the 1990s, and the main genius of Bill Clinton. From George H.W. Bush accidentally reading his subtextual notes -- "Message: I care" -- in the 1992 primaries to the debate later that year when he looked at his watch while Clinton walked down into the audience to listen directly to a questioner who was having trouble articulating her distress, "getting it" was all that mattered. "I feel your pain" -- Clinton's answer to a heckling AIDS activist -- became the shorthand summary of his political method.

Clintonian governance wasn't just words -- it was also a policy agenda of empathetic gestures. Welfare reform to show the middle class that he understood their anger about poor people, modest demonstration projects on ideas like school uniforms to show that he understood parents' anxiety about school discipline, tax credits for college tuition to show that he (or Democrats) understood families' worries about rising college costs. None of them were big enough to solve the problems, but that wasn't the point. The point was to identify the party with those concerns.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

The problem with a politics of empathetic gestures is that it spreads all over the place. There's a gesture for everything, a small tax credit for every good behavior. All Democratic politicians of the modern era play the politics of the empathetic gesture, even those who claim to reject it, and Obama was a master of it, offering a half dozen tax credits during the 2008 campaign for things like "responsible fatherhood." In recent months, he's gestured toward deficit reduction while also gesturing in the direction of investment and protecting vital social programs. But the result is a governing agenda that does a little bit of everything and not enough of anything, and one whose priorities are invisible to most citizens.

Many critics of the president are also locked into the politics of empathy. They favor more populist language, such as an attack on Wall Street bonuses, or a more pugnacious posture toward congressional Republicans, as if seeing those things would convince Americans that the president is on their side.

But Americans already know the president's on their side. It doesn't matter. When a president has a 44 percent approval rating, and a 41 percent reelect rating (in the recent Pew poll), but a 60 percent rating on "cares about people like me," it's a sign that the conventional Democratic approach to politics is exhausted. Empathy isn't enough. Now all that matters is action. I hope the president tonight, rather than gesturing in all directions, will pick one big direction -- not necessarily one program, but one big vision, and stick with it. If Republicans block it, they block it, but at least it's clear what they're blocking. Bring it back, and bring it back again. Take incremental successes and come back for more. Drop all the rest for now -- deficit reduction in particular (though there will be a time for that) -- and construct everything around a single, clear vision of a recovering economy, one whose benefits are broadly shared and that creates opportunity for everyone. Anything that doesn't tie into that vision goes to the back burner.

I'm not naïve; it's not likely that even a clear and convincing policy initiative can pass Congress. But if it doesn't, at least we'll all understand what the choices were, and who's actually responsible for the ongoing debacle of the American economy.

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

Share This

The CFPB Stands Up to Banks' Overblown Financial Firepower

Sep 7, 2011Bryce Covert

Republicans claim that allowing Richard Cordray to head the CFPB imbues him with too much power, ignoring the immense influence on the other side of the equation.

This week's credit check: The 10 Republicans blocking Richard Cordray's nomination have received over $31 million in campaign cash from the financial sector. The median American family saw yearly earnings fall $5,261 over the past decade.

Republicans claim that allowing Richard Cordray to head the CFPB imbues him with too much power, ignoring the immense influence on the other side of the equation.

This week's credit check: The 10 Republicans blocking Richard Cordray's nomination have received over $31 million in campaign cash from the financial sector. The median American family saw yearly earnings fall $5,261 over the past decade.

The least remarkable part of yesterday's Senate Banking Committee hearing on Richard Cordray, President Obama's nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), was Cordray's testimony itself. In fact, Republicans made it clear that his credentials are not what's up for debate. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) called a recent meeting with him "pleasant" and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said he has a "good background." Rather, they want to debate whether his post should exist at all. Their reasoning? That having one person in charge of this new watchdog will imbue Cordray with far too much power. As Shelby put it, "No one person should have so much unfettered power over the American people."

But what of the power of the opposition, the banks themselves, who stand to have new oversight and regulation from someone on the side of the average consumer? If we're going to talk about power imbalances, we might want to look at what the financial sector can marshal against the American people. Elizabeth Warren herself, the originator of the idea for the CFPB, estimates that it will police a $3 trillion consumer financial services industry. And Wall Street, along with its other corporate counterparts, is doing pretty well compared to the rest of us. Corporate profits have taken in 88 percent of the raise in national income since the recovery began, while household incomes only took in 1 percent.

It's not just profits banks wield in this fight, however. That money can easily turn into lobbying and campaign contributions. As Ari Berman reported in June, "According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 156 groups -- the vast majority representing corporate interests -- lobbied the government about the CFPB in the second half of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011. The list ranged from JPMorgan Chase to McDonald's." The Chamber of Commerce even has an entire division devoted to fighting Dodd-Frank, and it spent $17 million on federal lobbying in the first quarter of this year with a dozen lobbyists focused on just the CFPB.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

Individual Republican Senators are also getting lavish gifts from the financial sector while opposing its newest regulator. The 10 Republican members of the Senate Banking Committee, who signed a letter to Obama in May demanding debilitating changes to the CFPB before any candidate can be confirmed, have received over $31 million in campaign cash from the financial sector during their time in Congress. Meanwhile, Sen. Shelby himself has taken $6.2 million from the financial sector, including about $1 million from commercial banks. His top career donors include JP Morgan ($140,771), Citigroup ($109,199), and Goldman Sachs ($67.600).

Compare all that financial firepower to what's going on for everyday Americans. A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that nearly one in three Americans who grew up middle-class has fallen out of that group. It's not hard to see why so many people are moving down the ladder when wages have been heading in the same direction. While the financial sector is bringing in $3 trillion, the median American family saw yearly earnings fall $5,261 over the past decade, from $52,388 in 2000 to $47,127 in 2010.

Things are even worse for low-income families. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of children living in poverty has soared, increasing by 18 percent, or 2.4 million more, from 2000-2009. These children and their families are set to fall on even harder times, as states slash vital services to balance their budgets. They face the loss of unemployment benefits, income tax credits, and cash assistance, among other safety net supports.

Those who find themselves in such financial hardship have one place to turn when they can't make ends meet: debt. Credit card companies already employ a variety of tactics to entice middle-class families into debt and keep them there. But those tactics will be under strict scrutiny if the CFPB has its full powers. Low-income families often find themselves prey to unregulated non-banks like payday lenders and check cashers, but those will also come under the supervision of the Bureau.

The CFPB isn't taking on dictatorial powers. It's standing up to the formidable forces preying upon struggling American consumers.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

Share This

Mike Konczal Parses Perry's Fed Remarks on MSNBC's 'The Last Word'

Aug 17, 2011

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal joined Chris Hayes last night on MSNBC's "The Last Word" to analyze Rick Perry's take on quantitative easing, aka 'printing money.' Why is Perry set against QE3? Is this the only tool left in the kit to fight economic disaster?

And what do the Bee Gees have to do with all this? Find out:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal joined Chris Hayes last night on MSNBC's "The Last Word" to analyze Rick Perry's take on quantitative easing, aka 'printing money.' Why is Perry set against QE3? Is this the only tool left in the kit to fight economic disaster?

And what do the Bee Gees have to do with all this? Find out:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Share This

Pages