The Real State of the Union Requires a Stronger Government

Feb 15, 2013David B. Woolner

Instead of downplaying the role of government, we should recommit to a "spirit of charity."

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable…

In this we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government . –Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

Instead of downplaying the role of government, we should recommit to a "spirit of charity."

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable…

In this we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government . –Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

In his State of the Union address, President Obama challenged the Congress and the American people to join him in a common effort to make the United States a better nation; to recognize that while we “may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms” we are all “citizens” imbued with the rights and responsibility “to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

Certainly, the president’s call for “investments” in setting up universal preschool, increasing access to higher education, promoting research and development, fixing our broken infrastructure, and establishing a higher minimum wage so that in “the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” is a welcome development. So too is the president’s acknowledgment that there are still communities in this country where, thanks to inescapable pockets of rural and urban poverty, young adults find it virtually impossible to find their first job. “America,” he insisted, shouldnot [be] a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny.”

And yet, if we examine the state of our union honestly, it not only becomes apparent that we are indeed a society where “chance of birth or circumstance” decides our destiny, but also a society that has fallen far behind the rest of the world in education, health care, infrastructure, and a host of other indicators that determine the overall quality of life.

In study after study, for example, Americans are found to be far less economically mobile than their counterparts in Canada and Europe. In education, the U.S. now ranks 17th in the developed world overall, while we are ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading, well behind our Asian and European counterparts. For decades the U.S, was ranked number 1 in college graduation, but we now stand at number 12, and even more shocking, we are now ranked 79th in primary school enrollment. This is no way to sustain or build a competitive edge in a global economy.

Other statistics tell a similar tale. How many Americans, for example, are aware that out of the 35 most economically advanced countries in the world, the U.S. now holds the dubious distinction of ranking 34th in terms of child poverty, second only to Romania? In infant mortality, the U.S. ranks 48th. As for overall health and life expectancy, a recent report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that among the 17 advanced nations it surveyed, the U.S.—which in the 1950s was ranked at the top for life expectancy and disease—has declined steadily since the 1980s. Today, “U.S. men rank last in life expectancy among the 17 countries in the study and US women rank second to last.” In infrastructure, the World Economic Forum recently ranked the U.S. 25th in the world, behind virtually all other advanced industrialized nations and even some in the developing world.

Still, there are some categories where the United States ranks number one: we have the highest incarceration rate in the world—far higher than countries like Russia, China, or Iran. We have the highest obesity rate in the world and we use more energy per capita than any other nation. And while the U.S. does not possess the highest homicide rate in the world—that distinction goes to Honduras—the rate of death from firearms in the U.S. is nearly 20 times higher than it is among our economic counterparts. And on a city-by-city basis, we would find that if New Orleans were a country, for example, its homicide rate would rank number 2 in the world.

Eighty years ago, when the United States found itself in an even more precarious state than it does today, Franklin Roosevelt used the occasion of his first inaugural address to say to the American people that “this is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” to avoid the temptation “to shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” The president then went on to implore the American people to reject the fear and apprehension that had paralyzed the nation by reminding them that “in every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people” which is essential to overcoming the challenges we face.

Four years later, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Roosevelt observed that “the deeper purpose of democratic government is to assist as many of its citizens as possible, especially those who need it most, to improve their conditions of life…” But, he went on, even with the “present recovery,” the United States was “far from the goal of that deeper purpose, for there were still “far-reaching problems… for which democracy must find solutions if it is to consider itself successful.”

President Obama certainly echoed these sentiments when he spoke about the meaning of citizenship and “the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.” But the president said little about the role of government in ensuring that these obligations are met, and he qualified his remarks by opening his speech with his oft-repeated maxim that the American people do not expect government “to solve every problem.”

FDR took a different tack. For him government was the instrument of the common people, and as such its primary responsibility was not to serve as an arbiter between the demands of the rich and the needs of the poor, but rather as the vehicle through which the hopes and aspirations of all Americans could be met. In this he argued that:

The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our government and of ourselves…It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.

We do not see faith, hope, and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization…

We seek not merely to make government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.

We are poor indeed if this nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.

To bring about a government guided by the “spirit of charity,” FDR initiated the most far-reaching social and economic reforms in our nation’s history; reforms designed to provide the average American with a measure of economic security; reforms that reduced the vast, unjust, and unsustainable economic inequality that had brought the country to ruin just a few short years before.

If we are going to “honestly” face “conditions in our country today,” then we need to recognize that the steady abandonment of the principles of governance put in place by Franklin Roosevelt in the past three decades have done enormous harm to the state of the union. In light of this, rather than repeat the conservative mantra that government cannot solve every problem, perhaps President Obama should follow the example of President Roosevelt by reminding the Congress and the American people that even though

Governments can err, [and] presidents do make mistakes… the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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The Progressive Economic Narrative in Obama's State of the Union

Feb 13, 2013Richard Kirsch

President Obama has begun telling the right story about the economy. Now we need to make sure that story spreads.

President Obama has begun telling the right story about the economy. Now we need to make sure that story spreads.

Two years ago, frustrated by a conservative resurgence in the 2010 election, a group of progressive activists, economists, communicators, and pollsters came together to write a compelling story about our view of the economy (as Mike Lux relates). Our goal was to write a story that people could easily understand, based on our beliefs about how to create an economy that delivered broadly shared prosperity -- a story that could stand up against the right’s familiar recipe of free markets, limited government, and rugged individualism. The core of the story we developed in our progressive economic narrative (PEN) was: “The middle class is the engine of our economy. We build a large, prosperous middle class by decisions we make together.”

So it was a milestone in our work to hear President Obama tell our story and use our language in his State of the Union address. The key line, delivered at the top of the speech and quoted in almost every news story, was “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Taking another lesson from PEN, the president prefaced that quote with an explanation of what the economic problem is, focusing on how working families and the middle class have been crushed. In PEN we say, “American families are working harder and getting paid less, falling behind our parents' generation. Too many Americans can’t find good jobs and too many jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. Big corporations have cut our wages and benefits and shipped our jobs overseas.” Here’s the president’s version:

But – we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of Americas economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

When it came to describing how we build this middle-class engine, the president again used the same ideas frame laid out in PEN: “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 to do business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans.” The president’s agenda was based on these same concepts:

  • Invest in people through education (starting at Pre-K), skills we need for today’s jobs, affordable health care, and a secure retirement.
  • Pave the way for businesses through research, infrastructure, and green energy.
  • Do business in ways that create prosperity, with a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.

The president’s story contrasted sharply with Marco Rubio’s. Rubio also paid homage to the middle class, but he told the conservative tale:

This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs. Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

So the fight is joined. For too long, progressives have not taken on the conservative story with our own narrative. As a result, even when people agree with us on specific issues, they still hold fast to the right’s definition of how to move the economy forward. We have, with the simple tale told by the president and in the progressive economic narrative, a very different story, an economy driven by working families and the middle class, which we create by decisions we make together, with our government as the catalyst.

Our next task is to tell this same story over and over again in all of our communications. Repetition is key. People need to hear the story whenever we communicate on an economic issue. We give examples of how do to that on job quality, job creation, the federal fiscal mess, and health care at progressivenarrative.org.

President Obama left out one part of the progressive economic narrative in his speech. As we say in PEN, “Our political system has been captured by the rich and powerful and corrupted by big money in politics. The issue is not the size of the government, it’s who the government works for – powerful corporations and the richest few, or all of us. We have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy will work for all of us. ”

That’s a story that politicians are reluctant to tell. As always, we need to lead and the leaders will follow. It is up to us to build an America and economy that works for all us. Clearly describing our vision of how to do that is a crucial element of building power that progressives overlooked for too long. We’re much closer when the president tells that story to the nation. It’s up to us to keep telling it every day.

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

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Christie and Cuomo's Minimum Wage Politics Highlight Different Economic Visions

Feb 5, 2013Richard Kirsch

Cuomo's minimum wage proposal is better for working families, but the debate needs to be broader.

Cuomo's minimum wage proposal is better for working families, but the debate needs to be broader.

Two potential candidates for president in 2016, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have taken opposing positions on raising the minimum wage in their states. The debate between the two governors draws a sharp distinction between competing economic visions: trickle-down vs. middle-out economics. At the same time, it also shows how limited the current debate is when it comes to dealing with what’s needed to meet the needs of working families and, in doing so, change the direction of economic policy.

In late January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a small increase in the minimum wage, from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour. Christie said that raising the minimum wage would “jeopardize New Jersey’s economic progress.” Christie based his opposition on concerns about small business, although two out of three low-wage workers are employed by corporations with over 100 employees.

Across the Hudson, New York Governor Cuomo argued just the opposite in his State of the State address. Cuomo made the economic case for how putting more money into people’s pockets by raising the minimum wage will move New York’s economy forward:

Increasing the minimum wage leads to greater economic growth. Low-income individuals spend a larger percentage of their income than higher-income earners and salary increases in low wage occupations lead to increased demand for goods and services. Empirical evidence suggests that an increase of $1 in the minimum wage generates approximately $3,000 in household spending per year. Increased household spending will increase demand for goods and help businesses grow, thereby creating more jobs for New Yorkers.

That’s a positive change from a year ago, when Cuomo raised the same concerns as Christie after New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver first put forth the minimum wage proposal. But by the end of the 2012 legislative session, Cuomo had warmed to the proposal, which in both states is supported by more than 80 percent of voters. This year, he has made it a top legislative objective, the first plank in what he calls a “progressive agenda.”

While Cuomo’s support is very welcome, the governor’s own words provide strong evidence that the small hike in the minimum wage he has proposed, to $8.75 an hour, will still far short of what a family needs for the basics in life. In his State of the State address, he explained:

The current minimum wage is unlivable. It's only $14,616. The annual cost of gasoline is $1,200. The annual cost of electricity is $1,300. The annual cost of auto insurance is $1,400. The annual cost of groceries is $6,500. The annual cost of childcare is $10,000. The annual cost of housing is $15,000 on a minimum wage of $14,000. My friends, it does not add up. Nineteen other states have raised the minimum wage; we propose raising the minimum wage to $8.75 an hour. It's the right thing to do. It's the fair thing to do. It is long overdue. We should have done it last year. Let's do it this year.

Despite his passionate plea, the governor’s facts underscore the distance between his proposal and what it would take for a family to meet its essential needs. That figure is available from Wider Opportunities for Women through their Basic Economic Security Table (BEST), which measures by state and county the income a working adult requires to meet his or her basic needs without public assistance.

The BEST number for New York, using the entirely unlikely assumption that a worker has health benefits on the job, is $19.89 for a single worker and about the same for a two-worker family with two children. A single working parent with two children would need to make $36.23 an hour to have a basic living standard. The importance of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act coverage provisions, which will start in 2014, is underscored by how much higher the hourly wage would need to be in the much more likely scenario that low-wage workers have no health benefits at work. For example, without benefits, a single person would need to earn $25.63 to meet basic needs and a single parent with two children would need $50.72.

A minimum wage that comes close to meeting to a family’s basic needs is both a question of morality and of economic policy. The underlying moral value is that all work has dignity and a full-time worker should earn at least enough to provide basic supports for themselves and their family: housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, personal and household items, and a bit to pus aside for emergencies and retirement (5 percent in the BEST budget). I’d add that a basic budget should include enough to save for higher education and a simple vacation, but those aren’t in the basic BEST calculation.

The economic policy is founded on the premise that by putting money in the pockets of people to meet at least the basics, you make working families the engine of the economy. People who can educate their children, support and care for their families, and shop in their communities move the economy forward. Nick Hannauer and Eric Liu call this “middle-out” economics, the conditions that allow both middle-class consumers and the businesses that depend on them to thrive in a virtuous cycle of increasing prosperity for all. It is at the core of why Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz believes that decreasing inequality is the key to economic progress. Cuomo makes the same argument, along with a much more modest proposal, which Republicans in the State Senate are resisting.

But as long as we are stuck in the politics of the immediately possible, our economy will remain stuck in low gear. To jump-start this conversation, Hanauer and Liu are proposing a federal minimum wage of $15. As Liu told me, “At a time of record corporate profits and record low wages (as shares of GDP), if poor and lower middle-class people are paid more they can buy more, and when they buy more, businesses sell more and can hire more. It infuses demand into the economy in a way that will circulate many times over. The best case for a big increase in the minimum wage is that it's great for business and prosperity.”

Meanwhile, in the realm of the immediate politics, reformers in New Jersey are planning to put a minimum wage referendum on the ballot next fall, when Christie is running for reelection as governor. Cuomo has included his minimum wage hike proposal in the New York State budget, improving the chances that it will become law. Both governors like to be seen as gutsy populists. But only Cuomo is standing for an economics based on the little guy and gal. 

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

 

Chris Christie image via Shutterstock.com.

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How is Inequality Holding Back the Recovery?

Feb 4, 2013Mike Konczal

Is inequality holding back our weak recovery? Joe Stiglitz argues it is, while Paul Krugman argues it is not. John Judis summarizes the debate at The New RepublicI want to rephrase the question and focus specifically on the two most relevant policy points.

Taxes: Stiglitz argues, "[T]he weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks." 
 
Right now our federal government's tax structure is progressive, while state and local taxes are regressive. Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow at cheap rates and run a large deficit without a problem, while state budgets are constrained and need to be balanced. As a result, large cuts and layoffs at the state and local level have counteracted much of the federal government's stimulus that comes from running a larger deficit. Indeed, Stiglitz's point that inequality makes it harder to fund education is a real life battle: we are currently seeing education funding by state and local governments collapsing in real-time.
 
Here's a chart on how regressive state and local taxes are from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy:

When it comes to state and local taxes, the top 1 percent pays 6.4 percent, the middle 20 percent pays 9.7, while the poorest 20 percent of families pay 10.9 percent. This isn't counting user fees, though a CEO with 300 times the income of a worker probably doesn't get 300 times as many drivers' licenses.
 
So, all things being equal, less inequality would mean less revenue for the federal government and more for state and local governments. Since a good plan for boosting demand would entail the federal government collecting less revenue (an extension of the payroll tax cut would have boosted demand) and state and local governments collecting more revenue and thus facing less austerity, less inequality would net provide more stimulus. I doubt it would matter that much, though it's an empirical matter on just how much it would provide.
 
Spending: The other debate has to do with the marginal propensity to consume. Evidence does find the rich are less likely to spend money on consumption than everyone else, and in a liquidity trap this matters. Steve Waldman at Interfluidity has a larger theory on why it has mattered over the past decades, but I want to focus on the complicating, narrow issue of wealth inequality.
 
A graph by Amir Sufi, using Federal Reserve data, shows a collapse in the median net worth of households, and his research and others finds that this is a driver of the collapse in demand:

Meanwhile, precautionary savings are still a problem.
 
So, all things being equal, what happens if we decrease inequality in a balance-sheet recession? I see two changes running in opposite directions. You could see an increase in spending by the median household, as they have a higher propensity to spend, plus more income could relieve their balance-sheet constraints. However, if more middle-class households have more of the country's income, they may save it even more aggressively; this would amplify the Paradox of Thrift and make the recession worse in the short term. It's not clear which of these effects would dominate over the other.
 
One way to deal with this is to boost net wealth while keeping incomes consistent, via debt forgiveness or reform our legal mechanisms like bankruptcy so they can handle allocating these losses, though that doesn't seem to be in the cards.
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

Is inequality holding back our weak recovery? Joe Stiglitz argues it is, while Paul Krugman argues it is not. John Judis summarizes the debate at The New RepublicI want to rephrase the question and focus specifically on the two most relevant policy points.

Taxes: Stiglitz argues, "[T]he weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks." 
 
Right now our federal government's tax structure is progressive, while state and local taxes are regressive. Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow at cheap rates and run a large deficit without a problem, while state budgets are constrained and need to be balanced. As a result, large cuts and layoffs at the state and local level have counteracted much of the federal government's stimulus that comes from running a larger deficit. Indeed, Stiglitz's point that inequality makes it harder to fund education is a real life battle: we are currently seeing education funding by state and local governments collapsing in real-time.
 
Here's a chart on how regressive state and local taxes are from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy:

When it comes to state and local taxes, the top 1 percent pays 6.4 percent, the middle 20 percent pays 9.7, while the poorest 20 percent of families pay 10.9 percent. This isn't counting user fees, though a CEO with 300 times the income of a worker probably doesn't get 300 times as many drivers' licenses.
 
So, all things being equal, less inequality would mean less revenue for the federal government and more for state and local governments. Since a good plan for boosting demand would entail the federal government collecting less revenue (an extension of the payroll tax cut would have boosted demand) and state and local governments collecting more revenue and thus facing less austerity, less inequality would net provide more stimulus. I doubt it would matter that much, though it's an empirical matter on just how much it would provide.
 
Spending: The other debate has to do with the marginal propensity to consume. Evidence does find the rich are less likely to spend money on consumption than everyone else, and in a liquidity trap this matters. Steve Waldman at Interfluidity has a larger theory on why it has mattered over the past decades, but I want to focus on the complicating, narrow issue of wealth inequality.
 
A graph by Amir Sufi, using Federal Reserve data, shows a collapse in the median net worth of households, and his research and others finds that this is a driver of the collapse in demand:

Meanwhile, precautionary savings are still a problem.
 
So, all things being equal, what happens if we decrease inequality in a balance-sheet recession? I see two changes running in opposite directions. You could see an increase in spending by the median household, as they have a higher propensity to spend, plus more income could relieve their balance-sheet constraints. However, if more middle-class households have more of the country's income, they may save it even more aggressively; this would amplify the Paradox of Thrift and make the recession worse in the short term. It's not clear which of these effects would dominate over the other.
 
One way to deal with this is to boost net wealth while keeping incomes consistent, via debt forgiveness or reform our legal mechanisms like bankruptcy so they can handle allocating these losses, though that doesn't seem to be in the cards.
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

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No Pay, No Problem: Why Congress Doesn't Need Our Money

Jan 25, 2013Tim Price

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

This week, as part of a compromise to ward off a debt ceiling showdown and potential default, the House approved the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks starting April 15 unless they pass a budget. If you haven’t been keeping up with GOP talking points, this is the latest attempt to pressure Senate Democrats into producing a budget resolution, which they haven’t done in the last four years for various inane parliamentary reasons. But whatever you think of its intent, it’s an empty gesture and one that highlights the troubling disconnect between average Americans and their elected officials.

Despite its gimmicky origins, No Budget, No Pay has a certain intuitive appeal. As centrist commentator John Avlon writes, “If you don't get the job done at work, you won't get paid.” Sure, you or I would probably just get fired, but we don’t have gerrymandering to save us. Still, why should we reward Harry Reid and his crew for shirking their responsibilities while House Republicans have been keeping their noses to the grindstone and dutifully passing Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fan fiction?

For one thing, it’s unconstitutional. Not “unconstitutional” in the wingnut sense that cutting the crusts off your sandwich is unconstitutional if there’s a photo of Barack Obama doing it, but unconstitutional in the sense that the 27th Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from mucking around with its own pay unless there’s an intervening election. To get around this little detail, the act is designed so that the members’ checks get deposited into an escrow account until a) they pass a budget or b) the term ends in 2014, at which point they get paid in full either way. In other words, it’s less of a threat to their livelihood and more of an experiment in delayed gratification.

But a more significant problem is that most legislators probably couldn’t care less if their pay was withheld indefinitely. As of 2011, the average estimated wealth of members of Congress was $6.5 million in the House and $13.9 million in the Senate. And unlike many of their constituents, they haven’t exactly been struggling through lean times recently. While average American households saw their median net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, lawmakers’ rose 5 percent during the same period. That’s not to say that every member of Congress is set for life; some are deep in debt like true red-blooded Americans. But threats to withhold pay are ineffective when most of our representatives have enough money in their rainy day funds to last them through monsoon season. And if worst comes to worst, they can always exit through the revolving door and join a few corporate boards to replenish their bank accounts.

This points to a larger problem with our political system, which is just how far removed our policymakers are from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. In a 2005 study, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that:

[S]enators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.

Read that again: if you’re a low-income voter, you and your policy preferences might as well not exist as far as your senators are concerned. While Bartels doesn’t provide a definitive explanation for these findings, he notes that “the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant.” Being rich frames the way our elected officials see the world, shapes their social circles, and determines their legislative priorities. In that sense, wealth is the incubator that hatches Washington’s deficit hawks.

Of course, wealth alone doesn’t determine a person’s politics. FDR was no pauper, but he fought for the common good and was labeled a class traitor for his efforts. But noblesse oblige isn’t what it used to be, and today’s well-heeled lawmakers seem more interested in scoring political points than addressing mass unemployment and soaring inequality. No Budget, No Pay won’t do anything to change that, and any consensus budget that it did produce would undoubtedly be laden with more unnecessary cuts to domestic spending and the social safety net. It’s a fair point that lawmakers shouldn’t get paid for a job they’re not doing, but they’re so insulated from reality that no amount of negative reinforcement short of voting them out of office is likely to have a significant impact. And until that happens, we don’t need more gimmicks to make them fall in line and pass an austerity budget. What we could use is a lot more traitors.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

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Two Inaugurals, Two Messages: From Mushiness to a Clear, Progressive Vision

Jan 22, 2013Richard Kirsch

President Obama's second inaugural moved past a vague message of compromise and charted a progressive course toward the future.

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

President Obama's second inaugural moved past a vague message of compromise and charted a progressive course toward the future.

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

I just looked back at Obama’s first inaugural address to see why I found it so disappointing. The speech starts by acknowledging the crisis of 2008, with the economy collapsing and war raging. As required, the president says that America is up to the challenge. The address includes a short list of progressive points on the economy, climate change, and the role of government. But these are interspersed with acknowledgments of the validity of conservative arguments. There is no unifying, values-based narrative or vision.

What a difference from yesterday's address, which starts with the promise of the Declaration of Independence – we are created equal in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness – and then unabashedly extends that to the struggle for civil rights, which Obama has often shied away from being seen as championing. He grounds our 200-year history “through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword," reminding us that "no union…could survive half-slave, and half-free.”

From there, the president charges directly to the historic role of government in building our physical and human capital. And unlike four years ago – when he first trumpeted the role of free markets and then noted the need for regulation – he says unambiguously, “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” and that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect people from life’s worst hazards and misfortunes.”

Even when the president recognizes values shared by progressives and conservatives – skepticism that about central authority and the importance of initiative and personal responsibility – he quickly affirms that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” To meet the future, the president says, will take the kind of things government does – educate children, invest in infrastructure – declaring, “Now more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”

From there he makes it clear that our economic success is undermined when “a few do very well and growing many barely make it.” Instead, "America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

Obama then begins to build a bridge linking the dignity of the individual with the collective, which he expands as his address progresses. The first span of the bridge is to connect the prospects of a “little girl born into the bleakest poverty” with freedom and equality “not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own.” He continues to build the bridge, insisting that in updating government programs, we should aim to “reward the effort and determination of every single American.” He then makes it clear that this includes keeping the “commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security,” which “strengthen us” and “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this nation great.”

The president then puts forth a values-based linkage of government's role in tackling climate change, refuting climate deniers and linking addressing climate change to our “economic vitality” and natural “national treasure.”

Reaching to a preacher’s eloquence, the president affirms that he is not leaving anyone behind in our national journey. The cadences of “our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts," “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” “no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” “immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” and “children from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown” resound with the voice and spirit of Dr. King. The president has built a bridge that links individual initiative and responsibility to oneself and each other with a values-driven role of government that unites our diversity on the American journey.

Progressives need to pay close attention to another bridge Barack Obama has built here. He has integrated often separate strains: identity politics and the politics of government playing a key role in building an economy based on equal opportunity. The more we link those, the more we will create a story about America that commands a lasting majority.

No progressive story of America would be complete without putting movement at its core, which the president does forcefully in his alliterative embracing of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” Notably, these reminders come at the end of his discussion of our role in the world, as he links American movements to Dr. King’s proclamation that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

He doesn’t leave the call for action in the past. His concluding paragraphs clarify that “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.”

The president will need lots of help setting that course over the next four years; surely he’ll be tested to keep to it himself. Our job is to do everything we can to assist him.

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

 

Sign post image via Shutterstock.com.

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Leading from Behind is No Way to Lead: What a Second-Term Obama Can Learn from FDR

Jan 17, 2013David B. Woolner

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

My fellow countrymen. When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision—to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.

Our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization… To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

Just over three-quarters of a century ago, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt, reflecting on the accomplishments of the New Deal in mitigating the worst effects of the Great Depression, noted that “the greatest change we have witnessed [over the past four years] has been the change in the moral climate in America.” Among “men of goodwill,” he went on, “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

FDR based this assumption on the idea that what had transpired over the course of his first term—a first term which brought us, among other things, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining, the separation of commercial and investment banking, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the largest single drop in the unemployment rate in the nation’s history to date, and an average annual economic growth rate of 14 percent—was directly tied to a new understanding of the role of government. This new understanding, he noted, was based on the “fulfillment of a [collective] vision…to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.”

Equally important, however, was FDR’s assertion that in arriving at this new vision of government the people understood that it was critical to find “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” to recognize the “need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”

In essence, what FDR offered the American people was a new vision for the future. This new vision was based the fundamental idea that it was only the power of democratic government that could provide the means to counter “the blind economic forces” and “blindly selfish men” who had profaned democracy and brought the country to ruin in the dark days of the early 1930s.

There is much in this speech that still holds relevance for Americans today. In the massive loss of manufacturing jobs and the globalization of the world’s economy in the last few decades, we can see at work “the blind economic forces” of which FDR spoke. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the power of the “blindly selfish men” on Wall Street is all too familiar. So too—thanks to the onset of the Great Recession—is the anxiety, fear, and bewilderment that he noted plagued the American people on the eve of his first inaugural. What is missing, sadly, is the contravening narrative, the covenant that FDR made with the American people, the understanding that the reforms achieved in his first term had made the exercise of all power more democratic by bringing:

…private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.

President Obama has for the most part shied away from the idea that the real challenge to our democracy stems not from the dysfunctional nature of Congress, but rather from the forces of wealth and privilege who see themselves as “above and beyond the process of democracy.” Rather than take on these forces directly, he speaks instead of asking the wealthy to “pay their fair share in taxes,” of building a consensus, of taking a “balanced approach,” of striking a “grand bargain” that would make sure that middle-class folks aren’t bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges.” In taking this approach, the president argues that he is following the will of the American people, who made it clear through his re-election that they want compromise and action. These may be noble sentiments, but they fall far short of expressing what the American people truly want from their president, which above all else is leadership.

The sad fact is that we now live in a society where the income disparity between the rich and the rest of us now stands at its worst level since the late 1920s—just before the onset of the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, recently reported that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households doubled their share of pretax income while the bottom 80 percent of American households actually saw their share of income decline. In a similar study, a recent Census Bureau report notes that the average white male worker earns roughly the same hourly wage that he would have made in 1978, adjusted for inflation, while the average CEO’s pay has increased by roughly 600 percent.

As was the case in the 1920s, such a drastic mal-distribution of wealth is clearly not sustainable, as it makes it very hard for the average worker to sustain the level of purchases necessary to maintain our largely consumer-based economy. Hence, if we truly want to find a way to grow our economy—as the president insists he does—then we must find a way to address this critical structural imbalance in our economy. And this means real reform, the type of reforms we saw in the New Deal, reforms that brought about the birth of the post-1945 modern American middle class that now seems to be so rapidly disappearing.

So rather than beat about the bushes, President Obama might do well to recognize—as FDR did—that the forces of wealth and privilege weighted against him are not really interested in a compromise or a “grand bargain.” What they want is to maintain the economic and political status quo in what FDR once rightly called the “false belief” that happiness can only be achieved “in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

To overcome these entrenched forces, President Obama will need to provide the country with much more than his somewhat vague efforts to meet the other side halfway. He must learn to recognize that above all else it is his responsibility to give voice to the common aspiration of the people and provide them with a vision for the future -- a vision that recognizes government’s fundamental responsibility to fashion a more just and equitable society, a vision based on the truism, as FDR said in his second inaugural, that:

We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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Lifestyles of the Rich and Frustrated: How Much is Enough to Make a Banker Happy?

Jan 4, 2013John Paul Rollert

Greg Smith's tale of exile from Wall Street shows that even the rich can feel inadequate compared to the super-rich.

Greg Smith's tale of exile from Wall Street shows that even the rich can feel inadequate compared to the super-rich.

Last winter, Bloomberg published a much-discussed account of belt-tightening in the brave new economy. Notable for featuring Wall Streeters, not Walmart greeters, the suffering depicted was sepia-toned. One poor soul described driving all the way to outer Brooklyn to buy discounted salmon, another the indignity of doing his own dishes, and a third dismissed his Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet as “the Volkswagen of supercars.”

Among the lingering calamities of the financial crisis, the sorrows of young bankers don’t exactly cry out for remedy. This is not Les Miserables but the hardships of the haute bourgeoisie. Yet the afflictions of affluence are afflictions nonetheless, and this particular one can teach us an awkward but essential truth in the ongoing debate over income inequality—if we can only bear to listen.

Consider the inadvertent testimony of Greg Smith. Doubtless you have heard of Smith, who vaulted to fame last March with an op-ed in The New York Times published the day he parted ways with his long-time employer, Goldman Sachs. The piece reads like the précis for some revelatory work. During his 12 years at Goldman, Smith says he had seen the interests of the customer “sidelined” in favor of an approach that sees the bank “ripping their clients off.” Their trust is taken advantage of, their naïveté exploited, their ignorance scorned. Goldman is no longer the client-centered institution Smith joined after college, and blame is placed at the feet of the bank’s leadership, whom he accuses of having “lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch.”

Given the anger directed at Goldman in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Smith knew that his op-ed would be greeted with some interest. Here was an insider who affirmed the bank’s bad behavior and promised to illustrate it, at length, if given the opportunity.

He was, of course—in the form of $1.5 million book deal. Published at the end of October, the attempted tell-all was widely panned for falling short of its promise. The criticism is not unfair, though the publisher shares blame for rushing to print a work that would have benefited from sharper focus and the self-criticism of sustained introspection. Why I Left Goldman Sachs is Greg Smith’s first book, and its 250+ pages were written in less than seven months. If it feels like a first draft, that’s almost certainly because it is, and all parties (except Goldman, perhaps) would have benefited from the careful editing that made the original op-ed an astonishing success.

But that does not mean the book doesn’t have an intriguing story to tell, if one that is also unintended. The chronicle form lends itself to the task of writing an inevitably personal book on extremely short notice, and while Smith might have done without the convenience, preferring instead to dwell on the conflicts of interests he spends too little time on in the book, he ends up presenting a timely self-portrait of a rich man in a much richer man’s world.

When he left Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith had been making in the ballpark of $500,000 for at least six years, and the book provides ample evidence of the consolations afforded the young bachelor by his considerable income. There are the fine restaurants Smith frequents (“we went to the Frisky Oyster in Greenport”), the premier sporting events he attends (“I was lucky to be courtside in Paris to see Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer for his sixth French Open title”), and the fashionable neighborhood he moves into when he transfers to London (it “had become trendy because Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (of Coldplay) had moved there”). There is even the 30th birthday dinner he throws for himself and his then-girlfriend (“at Freeman’s, a place with a vintage speakeasy vibe”) for which Smith graciously picks up the tab (“[t]he bill came to over $3,000, but I was happy to do it—I like treating people”).

Smith never reveals how much he has salted away for hard times, but it is not enough to stave off a minor panic when the financial crisis hits. Faced with the possibility of post-Goldman penury, he describes not one but two instances of taking public transportation, noting as an aside that “[m]any Wall Streeters can spend north of $10,000 a year on taxis alone.” The accounts are rueful—“I saved sixty bucks”—but juxtaposed with his birthday largesse, which is subsequent to these accounts and conspicuously so, a central preoccupation of the book comes into relief. The problem is not having money, but not having nearly enough.

If you take a step back, this seems absurd. From the vantage point of most Americans, not to mention the broader world, Greg Smith is rich. Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income between 2006-2011 was in the range of $50,000, or roughly one tenth of what Smith was making during that time. But Smith is not most people, and he doesn’t have the luxury of stepping back without also stepping beyond his social world. That world includes people who are not only making double or triple what Smith made, but also individuals like Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman, who made just over $53 million in 2006, or more than 100 Greg Smiths.

As a financial matter, being rich in a much richer man’s world has a tendency to bury you in what Cornell economist Robert Frank calls an expenditure cascade. In a paper he co-authored with Adam Seth Levine, Frank starts from the curious fact that “aggregate savings rates have fallen even though income gains have been largely concentrated in the hands of consumers with the highest incomes.” He explains this by showing that that wealthy scale their consumption not by the expenditures of the broader public—a benchmark that would leave their bank accounts flush—but by the people at the very top of their social group. This is the time-honored tradition of keeping up with the Joneses, but when the Joneses can afford 100 times what you can, the race can lead you right of a cliff. 

Still, while Smith’s need to make more money occasionally announces itself by way of some pressing financial concern—on same day the stock market bottoms out, Smith splits with his long-time girlfriend who had been “adamant that she didn’t want to work when she had kids”—he is well aware that his frustration has less to do with how much he actually makes than what that number says about him. Reflecting on the significance of “bonus day,” the day in December on which bankers meet with their bosses to discover the full amount they will make for the year, Smith admits that there is “an absurd amount of emphasis placed on these meetings. For many people, the session determined a person’s entire self-worth.” And yet, he continues, “however arbitrary the number handed down by the partner might be, there was also a real poignancy to the bonus meeting. Many people had spent the year working eighty-five-hour weeks, killing themselves for the firm. They expected something in return.”

By late 2011, Smith had come to expect more from Goldman than Goldman was willing to give him. At his last bonus meeting, he requested a promotion to Managing Director and a million dollar payout. Both requests were denied.

Smith does not disclose these details in his book—they were leaked by Goldman to discredit him in advance of its release—but they come as no surprise to anyone who reads it. They merely underscore the salient psychological fact of Greg Smith’s experience and the essential lesson of income inequality among the economic elite. Namely, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but wealth is a matter of whom you behold.

John Paul Rollert teaches business ethics and leadership at the Harvard Extension School.

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To Reduce the Deficit, End Redistribution to the Rich

Jan 2, 2013Joe Landry

Instead of cutting aid to the poor, the president and Congress should focus on reforming costly tax expenditures.

Instead of cutting aid to the poor, the president and Congress should focus on reforming costly tax expenditures.

While we often hear critics decrying the redistributive effects of American social spending, government aid does not always benefit households of limited means. Often, aid looks more like a million-dollar vacation home or a luxury health insurance plan than housing vouchers and food stamps. American social spending is more complex than a simple redistribution from high- to low-income households. Over time, the country’s tax and transfer system has adopted provisions that reward specific high-income households. These programs contribute to deficit growth and detract from spending targeted at alleviating poverty among working families.

The most generous social welfare programs are currently administered through the tax code. A list of itemized deductions on households’ income tax returns serves as the only indication of these benefits. Income tax deductions, exclusions, deferrals, and credits, known collectively as “tax expenditures,” amount to more than $1 trillion of federal spending (according to estimates by the Tax Policy Center), not including lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends to encourage investment.

Tax expenditures are the functional equivalent of direct spending. Consider two households with identical incomes of $200,000. Household A purchases a home with a mortgage. Household B rents an apartment. Household A likely receives $5,000-10,000 (depending on mortgage size and APR) through the mortgage interest deduction when filing taxes. Household B receives $0. This, in effect, is a subsidy for homeownership. If the IRS collected taxes without any exclusions or deductions and then distributed payments to those who purchased mortgages, we would most likely categorize this disbursement as a form of direct spending.

Beyond simply diminishing revenues, tax expenditures disproportionately favor high-earning households, thereby reducing progressivity of federal income taxes. One reason for this imbalance is that high-income households have relatively high marginal income tax rates. Consider the exclusion of $10,000 of earned income for two individuals. Taxpayer A is taxed at a rate of 20 percent. Taxpayer B is taxed at a rate of 35 percent. Excluding $10,000 means removing this sum from taxable income. Decreasing taxable income by $10,000 for both of these individuals will yield $2,000 for Taxpayer A and  $3,500 for Taxpayer B. Thus, two taxpayers who engage in identical behavior receive disparate rewards because of income differences.

High-earning households are also more likely to engage in behaviors incentivized through the tax code. This means that, in addition to gaining more from each dollar deducted from tax obligations, high-earning households also deduct more than their middle- and low-income peers. Having more resources, the top 20 percent of households are more likely to purchase homes and contribute to retirement savings plans than households in the bottom 20 percent. They are more likely to hold jobs that offer employer-provided health insurance. Further magnifying the divide, high-income households on average possess more expensive employer-provided health insurance. In subsidizing purchases of homes, retirement plans, and health insurance for all households, tax expenditures disproportionately assist those originally more likely to engage in these behaviors. Consequently, high-income households are in better positions to take advantage of tax deductions.

So if tax expenditures waste essential potential revenues on affluent households, why are they so difficult to reform? General support for simplifying the tax code is not difficult to find. What is difficult, however, is reducing or eliminating particular benefits that households already possess. Tax expenditure reform would be tantamount to a tax hike on households that itemize deductions. For this reason, politicians enthusiastic about tax code simplification become reticent when faced with the task of eliminating specific loopholes.

The first step to simplifying the tax code successfully is treating tax expenditures as spending. This distinction demands that Congress scrutinize expenditures to the same degree that it scrutinizes antipoverty spending. Congress should consider whether particular deductions or exclusions successfully incentivize a desired behavior. Further, it should assess whether social rewards from altered behavior exceed revenue lost. For example, it would be difficult to argue that any social gain from deducting mortgage interest on second homes for families earning more than $250,000 exceeds revenues lost. By simultaneously reducing revenues for means-tested entitlements and subsidizing home purchases of wealthy taxpayers, such a provision merely exacerbates income and wealth inequality. This provision is not worth revenue losses that it engenders.

While tax expenditures for high-income families would not survive this level of scrutiny, some expenditures for low-income families achieve desirable ends. This social value justifies revenues lost. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) supports low-wage workers with supplemental income, reducing the poverty rate for these workers and their families. EITC successfully incentivizes work, achieving a valuable social aim and warranting a degree of spending. Other existing expenditures might also be continued for lower- and middle-income households. For example, Congress might continue the mortgage interest deduction for low- and middle-income households on the margin of being able to afford homeownership. But Congress should only adopt such extensions if a clear argument can be made that social gains exceed revenues lost.

As President Obama and congressional leaders continue to negotiate long-term deficit reduction, the first programs that they trim should be those subsidizing high-income households. More than any other social spending category, tax expenditures for high-income households constitute frivolous spending. Both presidential candidates in 2012 supported reducing tax expenditures for high-income families. Governor Romney suggested setting a maximum deduction, while President Obama proposed setting deductions at lower tax rates. Each of these plans would limit tax expenditures for high-income households to some extent. In order to further decrease tax expenditures’ regressive effects, these proposals could be combined with reforms that target payments toward lower- and middle-income households. This would include restricting the mortgage interest deduction to primary residences and limiting exclusions for luxury health insurance beyond provisions already included in the Affordable Care Act.

Now it is time for the president and Congress to fulfill their promise to simplify the tax code, beginning with those at the top of the income scale. While tax expenditure reform for high-income households will not solve our fiscal problems single handedly, it represents an essential path forward for reducing the deficit without exacerbating the economic hardship of low-income Americans.

Joe Landry is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, majoring in American History and minoring in Poverty and Human Capability Studies. This summer, he worked with Dr. Harlan Beckley, Director of the Shepherd Poverty Program at W&L, researching the historical and comparative context of current American social spending. Their research can be found here.

Money lighting cigar image via Shutterstock.com.

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Caught in a Credit Catch-22: Obstacles and Opacity in an Industry We All Rely On

Jan 2, 2013Bryce Covert

One person's story shows how the credit system is still rigged and boobytrapped.

One person's story shows how the credit system is still rigged and boobytrapped.

My (early) New Year’s resolution was to get a credit card. You may remember that I have never had a credit card. And thus if I were on the dating market, my OKCupid inquiries would be flatly rejected. It’s not that I have a bad score. I just don’t have one. I had a good score when I was dutifully paying off my student loan after I graduated, but then through paying dirt-cheap rent in Harlem and never paying for cable I was able to pay off the loan. Since then I haven’t owned any credit products. I’ve paid my rent on time every month and paid every bill before the due date. But those things don’t make their way over to FICO. I’ve thus landed myself in quite the Catch-22 that speaks volumes about the lending industry and our reliance on it.

When I moved into a new apartment three years ago, I still had a score, so when the broker ran a credit check on me, she handed me the keys without a complaint. In the intervening years, however, the student loan must have fallen off my history, leaving a gaping void in its place. This is so unusual that when I was applying for a new apartment this summer, the broker told me there must be something wrong with my account. It turned out nothing was wrong – I just literally don’t have a score.

Because I was dealing with humans in both the broker and the landlord, I was able to explain to them that I don’t have a score because I don’t like being in debt. At all. On top of that, I can show steady income because I have the good fortune of being employed at a well-paying job. They agreed that made sense and gave me the keys. But the ordeal made me realize that if I were to deal with an institution instead of a human – a bank from which I want a mortgage, say, or even a real estate management company instead of a landlord – I would probably be screwed. So I decided to suck it up, sell out, and finally get my first credit card.

It turns out I was screwed earlier than I thought. Back when I had a fantastic credit score, I would get credit card offers in the mail by the dozens. So I decided to do the responsible thing and do some research on a good rewards card (might as well get something out of my sell-outery) that doesn’t have an annual fee and has a decent APR. Having found one, I filled out the online application and waited to hear that my soul had been sold. Not so fast: I was rejected on the spot. It turns out that not having a credit score is just as bad as having a damaged one in the short-term. The bank has no reason to trust that I can handle credit, so it won’t give me any. Which means I will continue to be denied credit and continue to have zero credit history.

There was a big part of me that wanted to continue my protest of the financial system that demands you borrow money and go into debt (even if only a month at a time) to participate. But this problem will only get worse. What if the next time I move the landlord isn’t understanding? Worse, what if the next job I apply to runs a credit check on me and decides having no history is too suspicious? (Six out of ten employers vet employees via a credit report.) Despite the fact that I have steady income and pay all my bills on time, I could still be left homeless and unemployed because of my refusal to get a credit card.

The point of this story is not my particular case. I am incredibly privileged to have a job, a steady paycheck I can comfortably live off of, and a landlord who was willing to let me move in and pay her ridiculous New York rent. One point is that if things are this difficult for middle class me, they are 10 times worse for low-income people. Nearly 10 million households in the U.S., or one in 12, are unbanked, meaning they have no relationship with a formal banking institution. Half of them don’t have a bank account because they don’t think they have enough to make the minimum balance. This isn’t surprising, given that over 70 percent of this population makes less than $30,000.

I have the benefit of a bank account with enough money to keep the required minimum balance. Given that, I will likely be able to coerce a credit card out of my banking institution (even if I have to pay an annual fee to do so and put down a security deposit). The unbanked community, however, must usually turn to “alternative” products such as pre-paid debit cards, payday lenders, and check cashers. These are all relatively predatory products that come loaded with fees and high interest. Interest rates on payday loans, for example, can reach 450 percent when annualized. When you’re already pulling in just enough – or not enough – to get by, losing even more money simply to access your own income is a huge problem. Beyond that, if someone who is unbanked tries to return to the traditional banking industry, he or she will probably encounter far more obstacles than I’ve run into. It could become impossible, shutting these people out of the entire traditional lending industry and all that comes with it.

The other point is the infuriating opacity of the whole credit industry. I had no idea that I don’t have a score until a hard inquiry was run on me – something that in and of itself can harm your score or at the very least ward off potential lenders. Perhaps more frustrating, the hard inquiry that’s generated by applying for a credit card looks pretty fishy when you don’t get accepted for a card – because then I have to apply for another, which is another inquiry, and if I get rejected I have to do another, and on, making it look (rightfully, I suppose) like I’m going door to door and being turned away by everyone. That makes a lending institution wary of taking me on. But I have no way to know ahead of time whether I’ll qualify for a particular card. Even my bank, which I’ve been with for over 10 years, couldn’t tell me whether my loyalty or good explanation for my blank credit history would help me out. I was flatly told that the only way to know if I’ll be accepted for a particular card is to apply and find out. Bank employees are barred, I was told, from telling me the criteria used so that they won’t “discriminate” against me by pushing me toward the credit product I’m more likely to qualify for.

Yet this lack of transparency on the bank’s part is nothing compared to the credit reporting companies themselves. The methodologies these private companies use to calculate scores are a closely guarded secret. Even though an estimated 20 percent of scores contain errors, attempts to resolve them often end in frustration and inaction. The score you buy from the agencies often isn’t the one a lender would see. And until the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau came along, they were barely regulated – although the bureau is already overseeing the largest ones and is currently fielding consumer complaints.

I’m glad that the CFPB now exists and should bring more regulation and transparency to the whole ordeal by cracking down on non-bank lenders, overseeing credit reporting agencies, and demanding better practices from credit card lenders. But one thing it won’t do is sever the ironclad link between taking on debt and participation in the finance industry. Even if these products improve, I’ll still have to convince someone to give me a credit card – a product I have never wanted – so that I can be sure of housing and employment. 

Bryce Covert is Editor of Next New Deal.

Credit card swipe image via Shutterstock.com.

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