The Super Committee Post-Mortem: Get Ready for More Gridlock

Nov 30, 2011Bo Cutter

Both parties continue to trip over the low bar Americans have set for them, and we can look forward to more of the same for the next four years.

Both parties continue to trip over the low bar Americans have set for them, and we can look forward to more of the same for the next four years.

The super committee fell below even my own low expectations. I knew they would not come up with anything resembling an actual deal, but I thought they would at least agree on something, even if that something combined a minimum of anything real and the maximum of fakery. But no, they failed to agree on anything. However, the capacity of this sorry Congress to never fail to miss a chance to miss a chance should not be a surprise. So what are the consequences?

The consequences of sequestration itself -- the automatic cuts that were supposed to be the doomsday scenario forcing some deal -- will be mostly zilch. The actual cuts do not go into effect until 2013. The domestic cuts will make government a little bit worse, but not a lot, and the defense cuts will all be reversed. President Obama has said he will veto any effort to reverse the defense cuts, but they won't come to him as a single, separate package and that's an empty threat anyway. The defense sequestrations will be bundled in the defense appropriation for next year, and I'm willing to accept bets that the president will not veto a defense appropriations bill in the midst of a reelection campaign. In any case, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is on record opposing these cuts, and Leon is not someone with whom the White House wants to have a public debate.

The consequences of the inevitable blame game now going on will be a lower level of trust and confidence for everyone involved -- Democrats and Republicans, the Congress and the president. No one comes out a winner here, although my guess is that on the margin President Obama is hurt the worst. Why? People know who he is and they know this thing failed. People have no idea who the congressional members of the super committee were. The entire leadership of Congress stayed as far away from this as possible, and if you believe that was an accident then you were probably also visited by the tooth fairy last night.

There are record levels of political dark arts currently being performed as the Republicans try to blame President Obama for this failure. They argue that he should have intervened to save the super committee process, but both sides set it up to fail. Its only purpose was to rescue them all from the debt limit debacle, not to accomplish anything. I've been clear that I think President Obama missed an enormous strategic opportunity by not endorsing Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin a year ago, but as far as I can tell, the congressional leadership on both sides like where they are and have zero interest in doing anything.

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The consequences for the presidential campaign we are about to have inflicted upon us are both straightforward and bleak. This campaign, which will take up the next full year, has nowhere to go but negative. No ideas will be debated and no one will try to establish a mandate. Both sides are locked into positions that have become caricatures of real issues.

President Obama should be worried about this. My own current guess is that he will win reelection -- Americans may have declining confidence in him, but the Republican clown-a-week show is terrifying them. But other than a resume enhancer, what will reelection be for? What will he do with it? The Republicans will probably retain the House and win the Senate, and the presidential campaign will not establish any direction or mandate. The next four years could get ugly.

But sequestrations, blame games, and political campaigns are all ephemeral Washington stuff. The real principal consequence of the failure of the super committee is its opportunity cost. Absent another economic crisis, we will now wait at least a year before we even begin to grapple with the several genuine economic problems our nation faces. We will have no debt reduction, no tax reform, no infrastructure initiative, no serious effort to reduce unemployment either in the short or long run, no economic stimulus, no entitlement reform, no energy policy, and no climate policy. Instead, we're going to have a campaign about socialism versus selfish billionaires.

When I'm feeling apocalyptic, I think of historian Niall Ferguson's question: "What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries

but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?" But that's not really where we are. We can wait a year; things will just continue on their current mediocre deadlocked course. Trust in government will continue to decline along with the capacity of government to do anything, and trust in the current political parties will decline further and faster. The opening for the radical center is getting bigger and bigger.

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.

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The Enshrined Entitlements of America's Wealthy

Nov 29, 2011Suzanne Mettler

tax-chalkboard-150Thirty years ago, Republicans criticized tax expenditures for distorting the market. Now both parties view them as sacrosanct.

tax-chalkboard-150Thirty years ago, Republicans criticized tax expenditures for distorting the market. Now both parties view them as sacrosanct.

The super committee on deficit reduction has now disbanded without even having managed to agree on scaling back tax expenditures. These social welfare policies that are hidden in the tax code bestow their greatest benefits on high-income taxpayers, as I have shown elsewhere. They amount to over 7 percent of GDP, more than what we spend on either defense, Social Security, or Medicare and Medicaid combined, not to mention domestic discretionary programs, which cost far less than any of these.

Its inaction means that regular spending priorities -- with the exception of those that policymakers explicitly agreed in advance to shelter -- will now be made subject to automatic, draconian cuts. But tax expenditures, which no one has even mentioned, will remain completely immune to such reductions. This is because these policies enjoy a protected status granted to no other entitlement programs. Unlike other forms of direct spending, they are not subject to the annual budget process; they grow undeterred and lawmakers do not take account of their costs.

While in recent weeks lawmakers did at least advance (unsuccessfully) some proposals to reduce tax expenditures, what remains remarkable is that the privileged status of these policies has not provoked greater scrutiny. Certainly this owes in part to the continuing efforts of vested interest groups to build bipartisan support for their pet tax breaks. Their generous campaign contributions, showered on members across the political spectrum, combined with their intensive lobbying, help to explain why even in today's fiercely divided partisan climate, neither Democrats nor Republicans have expressed much willingness to challenge tax expenditures. Making matters worse, Grover Norquist and other conservatives have promoted the idea that any reduction in such policies amounts to a tax increase rather than a spending decrease.

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When viewed with even a small dose of historical perspective, the unquestioned immunity of tax expenditures to reductions is incredible given what's at stake. Moreover, it demonstrates how dramatically our politics have changed in a space of less than two decades. From the Reagan era through Bowles-Simpson, bipartisan commissions charged with finding means of reducing spending have agreed that such policies should be scaled back as a means to increase federal revenues. Fiscal conservatives of yesteryear criticized tax expenditures for interfering with market forces. Far from epitomizing laissez faire economics, such policies actively involve government in altering market forces, subsidizing some industries to the exclusion of others. As a result, they promote the consumption of goods and services in some areas, such as health care and housing, generating artificial increases in prices.

Consider that the most recent political leader to sign into law large reductions in tax expenditures was Republican President George H.W. Bush. The 1991 deficit reduction package contained an amendment to limit the value of itemized deductions for wealthy households to the middle income rate of 28 percent, rather than 35 percent or higher. Such curbs remained in place throughout the 1990s but were terminated in 2001, when the second President Bush signed his first tax cuts into law. When President Obama proposed essentially reinstating such reductions, his proposal was portrayed by Republicans as if it were a tax increase on ordinary Americans and by some Democratic leaders as a threat to charitable giving (because it would limit the tax break that the most affluent would attain when they contribute to philanthropies and foundations).

Today's conservative defense of tax expenditures illuminates the transformation in their approach to governance over the past 30 years. Whatever they say, in practice they are no longer protectors of limited government power and spending. Rather, they are advocates of particular uses of government power and largesse -- specifically of measures that channel benefits to their wealthy supporters and favored industries.

The relative silence about tax expenditures among Democrats -- and their embrace of the approach to channel benefits to low- and middle-income people -- demonstrates how much they have succumbed to the Republicans' governing philosophy. Rather than fight the unfairness and fiscal irresponsibility inherent in tax expenditures, they have decided instead to try to direct them toward the priorities that matter to them. Under both Presidents Clinton and Obama, substantial tax breaks have been created and expanded for low- to moderate-income Americans. But in the long run, this way of governing threatens to undermine public support for government generally. As I show in my book, The Submerged State, the hidden design of these policies is such that even recipients themselves often fail to recognize that government has provided for them. When people can't see what government does in their own lives and at great expense to the nation, they gain little confidence in its effectiveness and have little reason to support it. As tax expenditures shrink both our federal revenues and our confidence in government, our ability to act collectively as a nation for the sake of the public good grows increasingly diminished.

Suzanne Mettler is the author of The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy.

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Six Rebuttals to the Argument that Congress or Fannie and Freddie Caused the Crisis

Nov 3, 2011Mike Konczal

Here are some counter arguments the next time someone claims the government caused the crash.

Sigh. Mayor Bloomberg:

Here are some counter arguments the next time someone claims the government caused the crash.

Sigh. Mayor Bloomberg:

It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress, who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp... But they were the ones who pushed Fannie and Freddie to make a bunch of loans that were imprudent, if you will. They were the ones that pushed the banks to loan to everybody.

It seems there are people who can't accept that some markets, particularly financial ones, are disastrous when completely unregulated -- and thus find any far-fetched excuse to blame the government instead. Since this line of argument continues to pop up, how should one respond to the idea that Congress and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac caused the housing crisis? Here are six facts to back you up:

1. Private markets caused the shady mortgage boom: The first thing to point out is that the both the subprime mortgage boom and the subsequent crash are very much concentrated in the private market, especially the private label securitization channel (PLS) market. The Government-Sponsored Entities (GSEs, or Fannie and Freddie) were not behind them. The fly-by-night lending boom, slicing and dicing mortgage bonds, derivatives and CDOs, and all the other shadiness of the mortgage market in the 2000s were Wall Street creations, and they drove all those risky mortgages.

Here's some data to back that up: "More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions... Private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year."

As Center For American Progress's David Min pointed out to me, the timing doesn't work at all: "But from 2002-2005, [GSEs] saw a fairly precipitous drop in market share, going from about 50% to just under 30% of all mortgage originations. Conversely, private label securitization [PLS] shot up from about 10% to about 40% over the same period. This is, to state the obvious, a very radical shift in mortgage originations that overlapped neatly with the origination of the most toxic home loans."

2. The government's affordability mission didn't cause the crisis: The next thing to mention is that the "affordability goals" of the GSEs, as well as the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), didn't cause the problems. Randy Krozner summarized one of the better studies on this so far, finding that "the very small share of all higher-priced loan originations that can reasonably be attributed to the CRA makes it hard to imagine how this law could have contributed in any meaningful way to the current subprime crisis." The CRA wasn't nearly big enough to cause these problems.

I'd recommend checking out "A Closer Look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: What We Know, What We Think We Know and What We Don't Know" by Jason Thomas and Robert Van Order for more on the GSEs' goals, which, in addition to explaining how their affordability mission is a distraction, argues that subprime loans were only 5 percent of the GSEs' losses. The GSEs also bought the highly rated tranches of mortgage bonds, for which there was already a ton of demand.

3. There is a lot of research to back this up and little against it: This is not exactly an obscure corner of the wonk world -- it is one of the most studied capital markets in the world. What has other research found on this matter? From Min:

Did Fannie and Freddie buy high-risk mortgage-backed securities? Yes. But they did not buy enough of them to be blamed for the mortgage crisis. Highly respected analysts who have looked at these data in much greater detail than Wallison, Pinto, or myself, including the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission majority, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and virtually all academics, including the University of North Carolina, Glaeser et al at Harvard, and the St. Louis Federal Reserve, have all rejected the Wallison/Pinto argument that federal affordable housing policies were responsible for the proliferation of actual high-risk mortgages over the past decade.

The other side has virtually no research conducted that explains their argument, with one exception that I'll cover below.

4. Conservatives sang a different tune before the crash: Conservative think tanks spent the 2000s saying the exact opposite of what they are saying now and the opposite of what Bloomberg said above. They argued that the CRA and the GSEs were getting in the way of getting risky subprime mortgages to risky subprime borrowers.

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My personal favorite is Cato's "Should CRA Stand for 'Community Redundancy Act?'" from 2000 (here's a write-up by James Kwak), which argues a position amplified in its 2003 Handbook for Congress financial deregulation chapter: "by increasing the costs to banks of doing business in distressed communities, the CRA makes banks likely to deny credit to marginal borrowers that would qualify for credit if costs were not so high." Replace "marginal" with Bloomberg's "on the cusp" and you get the same idea.

Bill Black went through what AEI said about the GSEs during the 2000s and it is the same thing -- that they were blocking subprime loans from being made. In the words of Peter Wallison in 2004: "In recent years, study after study has shown that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are failing to do even as much as banks and S&Ls in providing financing for affordable housing, including minority and low income housing."

5. Expanding the subprime loan category to say GSEs had more exposure makes no sense: Some argue that the GSEs had huge subprime exposure if you create a new category that supposedly represents the risks of subprime more accurately. This new "high-risk" category is associated with a consultant to AEI named Ed Pinto, and his analysis deliberately blurs the wording on "high-risk" and subprime in much of his writings. David Min broke down the numbers, and I wrote about it here. Here's a graphic from Min's follow-up work, addressing criticism:

min_updated

Even this "high risk" category isn't risky compared to subprime and it looks like the national average. When you divide it by private label, the numbers are even worse. Private label loans "have defaulted at over 6x the rate of GSE loans, as well as the fact that private label securitization is responsible for 42% of all delinquencies despite accounting for only 13% of all outstanding loans (as compared to the GSEs being responsible for 22% of all delinquencies despite accounting for 57% of all outstanding loans)." The issue isn't this fake "high risk" category, it is subprime and private label origination.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) panel looked carefully at this argument and also ended up shredding it. So even those who blame the GSEs can't get the numbers to work when they make up categories.

6. Even some Republicans don't agree with this argument: The three Republicans on the FCIC panel rejected the "blame the GSEs/Congress" approach to explaining the crisis in their minority report. Indeed, they, and most conservatives who know this is a dead end, tend to take a "it's a whole lot of things, hoocoodanode?" approach.

Peter Wallison blamed the GSEs when he served as the fourth Republican on the FCIC panel. What did the other three Republicans make of his argument? Check out these released FCIC emails from the GOP members. They are really fun, because you can see the other Republicans doing damage control and debating whether Wallison and Pinto were on the take for making this argument -- because the argument makes no sense when looking at the data.

There are lots of great quotes: "Re: peter, it seems that if you get pinto on your side, peter can't complain. But is peter thinking idependently [sic] or is he just a parrot for pinto?", "I can't tell re: who is the leader and who is the follower," "Maybe this email is reaching you too late but I think wmt [William M. Thomas] is going to push to find out if pinto is being paid by anyone." And then there's the infamous event where Wallison emailed his fellow GOP member: "It's very important, I think, that what we say in our separate statements not undermine the ability of the new House GOP to modify or repeal Dodd-Frank."

The GSEs had a serious corruption problem and were flawed in design -- Jeff Madrick and Frank Partnoy had a good column about the GSEs in the NYRB recently that you should check out about all this -- but they were not the culprits of the bubble.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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A Woman with a Plan: The Real Story of Margaret Sanger

Nov 2, 2011Ellen Chesler

Her opponents have smeared her as a racist and classist, but she devoted her life to fighting for equal access to reproductive choice.

Her opponents have smeared her as a racist and classist, but she devoted her life to fighting for equal access to reproductive choice.

Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger is back in the news this week thanks to GOP presidential candidate and abortion rights opponent Herman Cain, who claimed on national television that Planned Parenthood, the visionary global movement she founded nearly a century ago, is really about one thing only: "preventing black babies from being born." Cain's outrageous and false accusation is actually an all too familiar canard -- a willful repetition of scurrilous claims that have circulated for years despite detailed refutation by scholars who have examined the evidence and unveiled the distortions and misrepresentations on which they are based (for a recent example, see this rebuttal from The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler).

It's an old tactic. Even in her own day, Sanger endured deliberate character assassination by opponents who believed they would gain more traction by impugning her character and her motives than by debating the merits of her ideas. But when a presidential candidate from a major U.S. political party is saying such things, a thoughtful response is necessary.

So what is Sanger's story?

Born Margaret Louisa Higgins in 1879, the middle child of a large Irish Catholic family, Sanger grew into a follower of labor organizers, free thinkers, and bohemians. Married to William Sanger, an itinerant architect and painter, she helped support three young children by working as a visiting nurse on New York's Lower East Side. Following the death of a patient from a then all-too-common illegal abortion, she vowed to abandon palliative work and instead overturn obscenity laws that prevented legal access to safe contraception.

Sanger's fundamental heresy was in claiming every woman's right to experience her sexuality freely and bear only the number of children she desires. Following a first generation of educated women who had proudly forgone marriage in order to seek fulfillment outside the home, she offered birth control as a necessary condition to the resolution of a broad range of personal and professional frustrations.

The hardest challenge in introducing Sanger to modern audiences, who take this idea for granted, is to explain how absolutely destabilizing it seemed in her own time. As a result of largely private arrangements and a healthy trade in condoms, douches, and various contraptions sold under the subterfuge of feminine hygiene, birth rates had already begun to decline. But contraception remained a clandestine and delicate subject, legally banned under obscenity statutes, and women were still largely denied identities or rights independent of their relationships with men, including the right to vote.

By inventing the term "birth control," Sanger brought the practice -- and by implication, women's entitlement to sexual pleasure -- out into the open and gave them essential currency. She went to jail in 1917 for opening a clinic to distribute primitive diaphragms to immigrant women in Brooklyn, New York, and appeal of her conviction led to a medical exception that licensed doctors to prescribe contraception for reasons of health. Under these constraints she built a network of independent local women's health centers that eventually came together under the banner of Planned Parenthood. She also lobbied for the repeal of federal obscenity statutes that prevented the legal transport of contraception by physicians across state lines, which were struck down in federal court in 1936.

Sanger sought and won scientific validation for various contraceptive methods, including the birth control pill, whose development she supported and found the money to fund. In so doing, she helped lift the religious shroud that had long encased reproduction and secured the endorsement of contraception by physicians and social scientists. From this singular accomplishment, which some still consider heretical, a continuing controversy has ensued.

Sanger always remained a wildly polarizing figure, which clarifies the logic of her decision after World War I to jettison "birth control" and adopt the more socially resonant term "family planning." This move was particularly inventive but in no way cynical, especially when the Great Depression brought attention to collective needs and the New Deal created a blueprint for bold public endeavors.

Some have falsely charged that Sanger defined family planning as a right of the privileged but a duty or obligation of the poor. To the contrary, she showed considerable foresight in lobbying to include universal voluntary family planning programs among public investments in social security. Had the New Deal incorporated basic public health and access to contraception, as most European countries were then doing, protracted conflicts over welfare and health care policy in the U.S. might well have been avoided.

Having long enjoyed the friendship and support of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sanger also had ample reason to believe the New Dealers would fully legalize and endorse contraception as a necessary first step to her long-term goal of transferring responsibility and accountability for voluntary clinics to the public health sector. What she failed to anticipate was the force of opposition family planning continued to generate from a coalition of religious conservatives, including urban Catholics and rural fundamentalist Protestants, that held Roosevelt Democrats captive much as today's evangelicals have captured the GOP.

The U.S. government would not overcome cultural and religious objections to public support of family planning through its domestic anti-poverty and international development programs until the late 1960s, after the Supreme Court protected contraceptive use under the privacy doctrine created in Griswold v. Connecticut. At this time, Planned Parenthood clinics became major government contractors, since there were few alternative primary health care centers serving the poor. Today, one in four American women funds her contraception through government programs, many of them still run by Planned Parenthood -- a number likely to rise under the Affordable Care Act.

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Sanger's eagerness to mainstream her movement explains her engagement with eugenics, a then widely popular intellectual movement that addressed the manner in which human intelligence and opportunity is determined by biological as well as environmental factors. Hard as it is to believe, eugenics was considered far more respectable than birth control. Like many well-intentioned reformers of this era, Sanger took away from Charles Darwin the essentially optimistic lesson that humanity's evolution within the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement if only we apply the right tools. University presidents, physicians, scientists, and public officials all embraced eugenics, in part because it held the promise that merit would replace fate -- or birthright and social status -- as the standard for mobility in a democratic society.

But eugenics also has some damning and today unfathomable legacies, such as a series of state laws upheld in 1927 by an eight-to-one progressive majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. Their landmark decision in Buck v. Bell authorized the compulsory sterilization of a poor young white woman with an illegitimate child on grounds of feeble mindedness that were never clearly established. This decision, incidentally, was endorsed by civil libertarians such as Roger Baldwin of the ACLU and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, both of whom Sanger counted among her supporters and friends.

For Sanger, eugenics was meant to begin with the voluntary use of birth control, which many still opposed on the grounds that the middle class should be encouraged to have more babies. She countered by disdaining what she called a "cradle competition" of class, race, or ethnicity. She publicly opposed immigration restrictions and framed poverty as a matter of differential access to resources like birth control, not as the immutable consequence of low inherent ability or character.

As a nurse, Sanger also understood the adverse impacts of poor nutrition, drugs, and alcohol on fetal development and encouraged government support of maternal and infant health. She argued for broad social safety nets and proudly marshaled clinical data to demonstrate that most women, even among the poorest and least educated populations, eagerly embraced and used birth control successfully when it is was provided.

At the same time, Sanger did on many occasions engage in shrill rhetoric about the growing burden of large families of low intelligence and defective heredity -- language with no intended racial or ethnic content. She always argued that all women are better off with fewer children, but unfortunate language about "creating a race of thoroughbreds" and other such phrases have in recent years been lifted out of context and used to sully her reputation. Moreover, in endorsing Buck v. Bell and on several occasions the payment of pensions or bonuses to poor women who agreed to limit their childbearing (many of whom enjoyed no other health care coverage), Sanger quite clearly failed to consider fundamental human rights questions raised by such practices. Living in an era indifferent to the obligation to respect and protect individuals whose behaviors do not always conform to prevailing mores, she did not always fulfill it.

The challenge as Sanger's biographer has been to reconcile apparent contradictions in her beliefs. She actually held unusually advanced views on race relations for her day and on many occasions condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites. Though most birth control facilities conformed to the segregation mores of the day, she opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s. Later, she facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the south, when local white health officials there denied them access to any New Deal-funded services.

Sanger worked on this last project with the behind-the-scenes support of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and then a Roosevelt administration official. Their progressive views on race were well known, if controversial, but their support for birth control was silenced by Franklin's political handlers -- at least until he was safely ensconced in the White House for a third term, when the government rushed to provide condoms to World War II soldiers.

Sanger's so-called Negro Project has been a source of controversy first raised by black nationalists and some feminist scholars in the 1970s and later by anti-abortion foes. Respecting the importance of self-determination among users of contraception, she recruited prominent black leaders to endorse the goal, especially ministers who held sway over the faithful. In that context, she wrote an unfortunate sentence in a private letter about needing to clarify the ideals and goals of the birth control movement because "we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population."  The sentence may have been thoughtlessly composed, but it is perfectly clear that she was not endorsing genocide.

America's intensely complicated politics of race and gender has long ensnarled Sanger and all others who have sought to discipline reproduction. As many scholars of the subject in recent years have observed, much of the controversy proceeds from the plain fact that reproduction is by its very nature experienced individually and socially at the same time. In claiming women's fundamental right to control their own bodies, Sanger remained mindful of the dense fabric of cultural, political, and economic relationships in which those rights are exercised.

In most instances the policies Sanger advocated were intended to observe the necessary obligation of social policy to balance individual rights of self-expression with the sometimes contrary desire to promulgate and enforce common mores and laws. She may have failed to get the balance quite right, but there is nothing in the record to poison her reputation or discredit her noble cause. Quite the contrary.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best in 1966, when he accepted Planned Parenthood's prestigious Margaret Sanger Award and spoke eloquently of the "kinship" between the civil rights and family planning movements. Here is what he said, since it bears repeating:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist -- a nonviolent resister... She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning.

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

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We are the 99%: A Progressive Narrative in One Powerful Phrase

Oct 14, 2011Richard Kirsch

Occupy Wall Street's message goes a long way toward crafting a solid progressive story about the economy.

One of the most common criticisms of progressives is that, unlike the right, we don't have simple messages that tell our story. Our young leaders at Occupy Wall Street have come up with a powerful answer: We are the 99%.

Occupy Wall Street's message goes a long way toward crafting a solid progressive story about the economy.

One of the most common criticisms of progressives is that, unlike the right, we don't have simple messages that tell our story. Our young leaders at Occupy Wall Street have come up with a powerful answer: We are the 99%.

For the past several months, I've been working with a group of progressive leaders and communicators on the development of a "progressive economic narrative," a way of telling our story about the roles of the individual, business, and government in creating shared prosperity. The right has a well-developed view, to the point where after several decades it can now be summarized in three brief phrases: free markets, limited government, and individual liberty.

If we as progressives do our job well, we will also get to the point where we have three such phrases that are widely recognized. But that actually takes a long time. (Here are three candidates, but the fact that you may not nod your head readily when you read them is because you can't shorten the process: shared prosperity, government that works for all of us, and liberty and justice for all.)

For now, I'm celebrating the fact that we now have one phrase that tells much of our story: "We are the 99%."

This phrase's power is in the emotions it elicits. It is triumphant, not defeatist. It says, "We have the power and the moral authority, not you!" It conveys action -- we're standing up for ourselves and occupying your turf. It declares our common humanity. It is hopeful.

The progressive economic narrative I've been helping to draft has five conceptual pillars, and understanding them helps illustrate why "we are the 99%" also works intellectually. The first pillar of the narrative defines the progressive view of our economic problem: the crushing of the middle class by the rich and by corporate America. "The 99%" is a great unifying expression of inequality, as it avoids the separations that come from labels like "the middle class," "working class," and "poor." It says we're all screwed together by rising inequality and highlights those who are responsible: the super-rich and big corporations.

The second pillar defines what makes a successful economy: the well-being of our families in a big middle class and the productivity of our nation, not the stock market and corporate profits. "The 99%" is a simple declaration that our economy is driven by the vast majority of people, not a few super-rich.

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The fourth pillar (I'll come back to the third) defines the political problem: our government has been captured by the super-rich and corporate America, corrupted by big money and politics. "We are the 99%" affirms that we have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy works for all of us, not just the richest few. This has been a consistent message from the Occupy Wall Streeters, who seamlessly link inequality, corporate power, and corruption.

The fifth pillar is a call to action. And here's where the triumphant power of "We are the 99%" works so well. It's no accident that the phrase took root in an action that people could easily do -- posting a picture of themselves with their story -- and was adopted instantly by a movement.

The third pillar explains the role of government in building a successful economy and the relationship of public action to individuals and business. It can be summarized thus: We build a large and prosperous middle class through the decisions we make together, investing in our people, expanding opportunity and security, paving the way for business to innovate, and doing business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans.

This third pillar is essential to explaining how we should solve our problems and refuting the conservative view that the economy is driven by natural forces, best left on its own without government interference. "We are the 99%" opens the door for us to tell that story, but we need to fill in the blanks. When people say that Occupy Wall Street doesn't have demands, we should look at that not as a criticism, but as an invitation to complete the story. Everything about the phrase establishes the point that we build an economy that works for all of us when we make decisions that benefit the 99%.

Helping the American public understand a progressive worldview about the economy starts with our being clear on what we believe and telling that story consistently and widely. The best evidence that we're on the right track is when a simple message captures the hearts and minds of us, the 99%.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Adviser to USAction, whose book on the campaign to win reform will be published in 2012. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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What Would Our Founding Radicals Have Thought About Occupy Wall Street?

Oct 5, 2011William Hogeland

american_colonial_flagOccupy Wall Street isn't just a threat to financial elites -- it's a challenge to lazy historians.

american_colonial_flagOccupy Wall Street isn't just a threat to financial elites -- it's a challenge to lazy historians.

Among other intriguing and possibly problematic features, Occupy Wall Street, now in its third week and spreading, seems to represent an inchoate attempt at reviving an American radicalism that has deep roots in our founding period. The Tea Party has of course made its own highly explicit and politically successful claim on that period. Because OWS, like the Tea Party, focuses on national economic and financial issues, the new movement offers a disquieting, potentially illuminating alternative to the Tea Party's right-wing interpretation of America's founding economic values.

I began writing New Deal 2.0's "Founding Finance" series last winter in hopes of shining light both on the financial elitism of the famous American founders, who we often wrongly cast as pioneers (or at least half-conscious seed-sowers) of equality, and on what I see as historical tendentiousness on the part of the Tea Party, whose claims on the founding period are meant to support a low-tax, small-government, anti-debt agenda. I've tried to show that this agenda, which may or may not have its merits as policy, in no way accords with the avowed purposes of the founders across their own political spectrum from Hamilton to Madison.

In the series, I've also tried to bring to the fore some routinely marginalized yet highly resonant 18th century economic thought, as well as the actions of those who sought to obstruct wealth concentration and make cash and credit more readily available to ordinary Americans. It's an unsettling fact that our founding democratic, economic activism was not against England but against the homegrown American investing and creditor class that was leading the resistance to England.

I've explored that founding economic radicalism in the debtor riots and "regulations" of the late colonial period; in the overthrow of Pennsylvania during the run-up to the Declaration; in the period after victory over England, when foreclosed Massachusetts debtors, the so-called Shays Rebels, marched on the armory at Springfield; and in the early Federal period, when the so-called Whiskey Rebels of trans-Appalachia, criticizing the new U.S. Constitution on bases very different from those of antifederalist elites, went so far as to fly their own flag, hoping to launch a new, more economically egalitarian country in what was then the American West.

Throughout those struggles, the activists' goal was to pressure and in some cases to use government to restrain the power of wealth and promote economic equality through legislation. They wanted to outlaw monopolies, build debt relief into currency, institute easy-term, small-scale government lending, and take banking charters away from crony insiders. Some wanted progressive taxation on income; some wanted what we call Social Security. Much later phenomena like the Square Deal, the New Deal, and the Great Society, which can seem hypermodern (and even, to the Tea Party, unconstitutionally anomalous), actually have deep American roots. However, those roots are not in the thinking of the famous founders -- New Dealers' claims on Jefferson possibly to the contrary -- but in grassroots, 18th century movements that, while little-known today, were of immense importance during our founding.

So important in their day were those now-buried radical movements, in fact, that much of the famous founders' behavior can't be understood without the context of elite dedication at times to collaborating uneasily with the economic radicals, at other times to squelching them and pushing back their political advances. Many historians of the period ignore that context. Hamilton's biographers, for example, do not deem the people's movement important. Hamilton did; he spent his career trying to kill it. We therefore learn almost nothing important about Hamilton's purposes by reading his biographies. Much founder biography, and much mainstream history, operates on just such comfortably foregone, ultimately useless conclusions.

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In place of founding radicalism, historians tend to emphasize the emergence, from the Revolutionary period through the Jackson era, of a rowdy, fluid, non-deferential, competitive America. They place developing ideas of American democracy almost solely in that 19th century context. But Thomas Paine, the best-known of the radical 18th century egalitarians, would surely have been crushed if he'd glimpsed the kind of society that passed for a democratic one in Jacksonian America.

Paine's intensity gives both liberals and radicals a problem. It was a widely held view in the Washington administration -- and it's been widely held in more or less liberal American history ever since -- that Paine's awful experiences in the French Revolution give us cause to celebrate the failure of Paine-ite radicalism in America. Fair enough: Today, as every day, it would be wise to recall not only crimes against humanity committed by bankers but also those committed on behalf of a supposedly collective, supposedly revolutionary "People," from the French Terror to the Stalinist mass murders and well beyond.

Still, the French Terror, which almost killed Paine, has served as a convenient pretext for exercising historical complacency about the suppression of his and others' fervently democratic visions for America in 1776. Without those visions, anathema as they were to the famous founding elitists -- anathema as they were, for that matter, to Jacksonian capitalism and are today to high-finance "neo-liberalism" -- we might never have declared independence at all.

So from a certain historical point of view, I think Occupy Wall Street rebukes, even more sharply than it rebukes rightist Tea Party claims on the founding, a familiar and complacent history of American democracy -- especially that history's failure to confront our long struggle over the relationship between high finance and government. Occupy Wall Street may be going about things all wrong, as some on what remains of the American left have asserted. I find those assertions hard to dispute. I've been critical of what I suspect may turn out to be a cultural premium, part and parcel of objections to elitism, on intellectual sloppiness and incoherence. That mode was never adopted by the activist 18th century working class, whose objections and demands (pace the lazy snobbism of Hamilton's biographers) took the form not only of action but also of crystal-clear, deeply informed, published resolutions. The 18th century activists remind us that resolutions don't have to be handed down from above; they can filter up and be adopted by majority or by consensus.

The very concept of "up" may be anathema to the new movement. We'll see.

But the most honest answer to any and all objections to Occupy Wall Street may be "So what?" Criticism often comes down to no-cost fantasizing about more appealing actions that nobody has actually bothered to take. When American high finance takes over America, "occupy" is what some American people do, and have always done.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History. He has spoken on unexpected connections between history and politics at the National Archives, the Kansas City Public Library, and various corporate and organization events. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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