The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Secure Prosperity for All

Mar 25, 2014Richard Kirsch

Download the report (PDF) by Richard Kirsch

Download the report (PDF) by Richard Kirsch

The Future of Work is bringing together thought and action leaders from multiple fields to re-imagine a 21st century social contract that expands workers’ rights and increases the number of living wage jobs. The Future of Work is focusing on three areas: promoting new and innovative strategies for worker organizing and representation; raising the floor of labor market standards and strengthening enforcement of labor laws and standards; and assuring access to good jobs for women and workers of color.

Under the sponsorship of the Roosevelt Institute, the Future of Work is a collaboration between the Roosevelt Institute and the Columbia Program on Labor Law and Policy. The project is organizing a series of meetings, policy papers, and a conference, that aim at generating, debating, and communicating multiple approaches to empowering American workers to build an economy of broadly shared prosperity.

This report, Policies to Empower American Workers and Secure Prosperity for All, is an introduction to the first area: policies to invigorate worker organizing. The paper is in four parts:

  • A history of how organized workers fueled America’s broadly shared prosperity;
  • A history of how the weakening of American labor led to the shrinking of America’s middle class;
  • A primer on American labor law;
  • Policy ideas to reform and transform worker organizing.

Read "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Secure Prosperity for All," by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch.

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The New Deal Launched Unions as Key to Building Middle Class

Mar 25, 2014Richard Kirsch

This is the first in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.

This is the first in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class. Today's post describes how union organizing before and after World War II led to the broadest shared prosperity in modern American history.

Americans are split and confused about the role of unions in our economy and society. On the question of the role of unions in the economy, the most recent poll in 2011 found that 45% saw unions as generally helping the economy, while 49% thought unions hurt the economy. As more and more Americans see their hopes for the future dimmed, and as income inequality becomes a defining issue, it is essential that Americans understand how workers organizing unions to demand a fair share of the wealth we generate is essential to rebuilding the middle-class, the key driver of our economy.

For that understanding, we need a history lesson. Before and after World War II, organized workers built a powerful middle class by taking direct action and advocating for government policies to give workers a fair share of economic wealth. But over the past four decades, this pattern was reversed as corporate owners and managers have taken an increasing share of America’s wealth rather than sharing it with workers. As a result, the American economy has sputtered, and more and more Americans are struggling to meet their basic needs.

The Roosevelt Institute draws inspiration from the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt's achievements in responding to a harsh industrial economy and an immediate economic crisis by building the foundations of a very different economy. The Roosevelt era fundamentally transformed the nature and conditions of work in America, from one in which workers had virtually no voice, power, job security or personal safety to a robust social contract, cemented by law and social norms.

New Deal labor law provided legal protections that enabled workers to organize unions and to negotiate for higher wages and benefits and for safe working conditions. New Deal legislation put a floor under labor standards, establishing a minimum wage and overtime protections that lifted the incomes of workers across the wage spectrum. The New Deal’s social insurance programs, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, government guarantees for home mortgages, and financial support for poor families with children, worked hand in hand with labor organizing and wage standards to build a broad middle class.

Corporate benevolence did not hand working people good wages. It took a massive movement of striking workers, who faced decades of government suppression, to win the right to organize in 1935. After government spending on World War II finally ended the Depression by creating a full-employment economy, it took another massive wave of strikes to secure agreement from some of the nation’s largest corporations to share post-war industry profits with workers.

With the United States standing alone with a strong economy after World War II, and with pent up demand at home and huge needs to meet in a devastated world, many large corporations reached a truce with unions, enforced by the continued strikes, in which the profits from the surging economy were shared with shareholders and workers. From 1947 through the early 1970’s, worker income rose in lockstep with productivity. As the value of output produced by workers increased, so did their compensation. Hourly wages grew steadily until 1972. The share of employers who provided health coverage increased to more than 70%. Pensions became a standard practice in larger corporations.

Outside of the South, there was a public consensus in favor of unions. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice.” In this context, millions of teachers and local, state, and federal workers joined unions alongside workers who labored in private industries. In 1956, three-out-of four Americans had favorable views of unions.

The higher wages and better benefits won by unions boosted wages at non-unionized companies as well. The wages of workers at non-union firms got a 7.5% boost when at least one-fourth of the workers in that industry belonged to unions.

The New Deal reforms were far from perfect. They left out broad swaths of the American public, largely along lines of race and gender. Domestic workers and farm workers – jobs held widely by African Americans and women in the 1930s – were excluded from the new federal labor rights, from most minimum standards, and from Social Security. New Deal rights were even further restricted in the 1940s, when a major roll-back of labor law enabled states to put up legal walls against increased unionization. These walls were primarily adopted by Southern states, which had the highest proportions of African American workers.

Even with these flaws, unions played a major role in increasing the economic security of women, people of color and the poor. Many unions – although not all –were major backers of the New Deal’s social insurance programs and the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s, including Medicare and Medicaid. As African American workers began to join unions in larger numbers, many were finally able to join the middle class. Even today, union membership boosts the wages of African-Americans by 12%. Other groups who have traditionally suffered from lower wages also benefit from union membership with boosted wages: women by 11%, and Latinos by 18%.

These higher wages and better benefits helped to build a huge middle class in the United States and to level income inequality. When union membership reached its peak between 1943 and 1958, income inequality dropped, as you can see in the chart below. The share of income that went to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans dropped to near 30%. But as the proportion of union members fell, the share of income taken by the wealthiest began to rise again. By 2010, the wealthiest were taking home almost 50% of the nation’s income.

The story of how we got from unions representing one-third of American workers to barely one-in-ten, is told in the next post.

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Daily Digest - March 21: When Long-Term Unemployment Becomes Permanent

Mar 21, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again (NYT)

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Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again (NYT)

Binyamin Appelbaum reports on a new study from three Princeton economists, which looks at the relationship between inflation and unemployment. They conclude that prospects for the unemployed diminish rapidly.

Income Inequality isn’t About the Rich — it’s about the rest of us (WaPo)

Catherine Rampell writes that Americans are less concerned about inequality when they also experience upward mobility. So if the 1 percent are tired of being vilified, she notes some policies they could support.

An 87 Percent Vote for a $15-an-Hour Wage (The Nation)

In an advisory referendum, Chicago voters showed overwhelming support for a high minimum wage for large employers, reports John Nichols. Now it's a question for the Chicago City Council and the Illinois gubernatorial candidates.

Pixel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in the Gig Economy (Fast Company)

Sarah Kessler writes about her attempts to let work come to her through smartphone apps offering paid-by-the-gig opportunities. This form of "entrepreneurship," as the companies like to call it, turns out to be less than viable.

How public sector layoffs add to the racial income gap (MSNBC)

Recent layoffs in the public sector disproportionately affected black communities, writes Ned Resnikoff, with a "probability of displacement," or likelihood of getting fired, 2.8 percent higher for blacks than whites.

Learn to Love This Loophole (U.S. News & World Report)

Programs that qualify people for heating assistance and food stamps at once have new requirements, but some governors are just raising heat aid to match, reports Pat Garofalo. Boehner calls that cheating instead of feeding the hungry.

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Daily Digest - March 20: The Safety Net - Government = ?

Mar 20, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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The Voluntarism Fantasy (The Majority Report)

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The Voluntarism Fantasy (The Majority Report)

Sam Seder speaks with Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal about Mike's new piece in Democracy Journal. Mike says the social safety net has always depended on the government.

The Tyranny of the On-Call Schedule: Hourly Injustice in Retail Labor (The Nation)

Michelle Chen explains the ways that retail scheduling has harmed workers' ability to plan their lives. On-call schedules mean not knowing how much you'll make or when you'll work, ever.

Journalists’ and Activists’ Strange Approach to Low-Wage Workers (WaPo)

Sarah Jaffe calls out the habit of representing low-wage workers as poor, unfortunate Others in need of our help. Any one of us could share the concerns and needs of low-wage workers.

Why Not Peg EITC Benefits to the Local Cost of Living? (PolicyShop)

David Callahan suggests President Obama could do better than simply increasing the earned income tax credit. For low-income workers living in high-cost areas, it would make a big difference.

Janet Yellen's Rookie Mistake: Speaking Too Clearly (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Janet Yellen, the new Federal Reserve Chair, needs to speak with less specificity, writes Peter Coy. Attaching a six-month timeframe to a vague written statement set off a market selloff.

The Key Question for Yellen: Is This Economy As Good As It Gets? (FiveThirtyEight)

Andrew Flowers considers the ways to measure economic potential, and what the Federal Reserve ought to do if we agree that the U.S. is still falling short.

Do We Need to Force People to Live in the Homes They Own? (Pacific Standard)

Real estate that isn't actually lived in may be a good investment, but it isn't good for a city, writes Kyle Chayka. He suggests that residency requirements could control rising rents.

New on Next New Deal

There's More to Fixing the Minimum Wage Than Just Raising It

Azi Hussain, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Economic Development, says that instead of tying the minimum wage to annual inflation, we should peg it to inflation over the business cycle to ensure flexibility.

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There's More to Fixing the Minimum Wage Than Just Raising It

Mar 19, 2014Azi Hussain

Increasing the minimum wage on a sporadic basis isn't the right way to help low-income workers or the economy.

Increasing the minimum wage on a sporadic basis isn't the right way to help low-income workers or the economy.

Support for a minimum wage increase is running high. What’s more is that there is strong support to tie the minimum wage to inflation, which is good news. Inflation has slowly chipped away at the value of the minimum wage since the late 1960s, so tying the minimum wage to inflation will ensure that its real value is kept constant.

Tying the minimum wage to inflation has another advantage. Currently, the minimum wage is increased sporadically and rarely, resulting in larger increases that are more harmful to employment. By tying the minimum wage to inflation, increases are smaller, regular, and predictable, and therefore less harmful.

However, tying the minimum wage directly to inflation is a bit crude. It means the minimum wage will increase every year by at least 1-2% (approximately the same rate as inflation). There are at least two situations where this could be problematic. The first is that during a recession, businesses would have to deal not only with decreasing demand and poor economic conditions, but also a rising wage. A minimum wage increase along with a recession would hurt employment above and beyond that of just a recession. On the other hand, during good times the minimum wage would still only increase by 1-2%, whereas the economy may very well be able to absorb a larger increase.

How can we design the minimum wage so that inflation doesn’t chip away at its value over time, while still giving it enough flexibility in increases to accommodate current economic conditions? The best way would be to tie the minimum wage to inflation over the business cycle instead of on an annual basis. The idea is that the minimum wage would increase during booms and would stay constant or may even decrease during busts. Over the course of a business cycle, the increases would offset the decreases enough so that the minimum wage would keep up with total inflation during that cycle. A good example of a similarly designed policy is Sweden’s balanced budget rule, which requires the government to run a budget surplus over the course of a business cycle. This allows the Swedish government to spend more than tax revenue during busts, but forces it to spend less than tax revenue during booms, so that the net result is a budget surplus.

Yet having flexibility in choosing an annual minimum wage means someone will need to decide how much it should increase or decrease. That “someone” should not include politicians. Rather, an independent board should be set up to make the annual decision. A great example of this in practice is the UK’s Low Pay Commission, an independent body that conducts research and makes the recommendation for the annual minimum wage change. This board could be set up with a mandate to tie the minimum wage to inflation over the business cycle.

Too often, great ideas are rendered less effective or even harmful as they are designed as policy. The upcoming minimum wage legislation, an important tool in the fight against rising inequality, could end becoming one of these policies. But designing it right could mean long-term success, for the betterment of low-income workers and our economy.

Azi Hussain is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Economic DevelopmentHe is a junior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University majoring in International Political Economy.

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Daily Digest - March 19: What Colleges Can Give Back

Mar 19, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Op-Ed: GW Can Fight D.C.’s Income Divide with Endowment (The GW Hatchet)

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Op-Ed: GW Can Fight D.C.’s Income Divide with Endowment (The GW Hatchet)

David Meni and Zach Komes, leaders of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's George Washington University chapter, suggest their school should invest in financial institutions focused on community development.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives Alan Smith explains Rethinking Communities, a Campus Network project examining how colleges and universities can have do more to help local economies.

Economic Reform Is a Human Right (The Nation)

Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz argue that a human rights framework can lead to better social and economic policy; for example, bailing out the banks but not homeowners could be considered a human rights violation.

Conservatives Defend Inequality out of Self-Interest — Nothing More (The Week)

Class interest keeps the wealthy from admitting that inequality harms economic growth, writes Sean McElwee, but they don't necessarily have bad intentions. He instead calls on them to do some self-examination.

The House GOP's Obamacare Alternative Won't Curb Health Care Costs—But It Will Enrich the Insurance Industry (MoJo)

The Republican plan includes restrictions on medical-malpractice lawsuits. Stephanie Mencimer cites a recent Florida Supreme Court decision, which declared that such restrictions only serve to increase profit for the insurers.

Costly Loans Are Drawing Attention From States (NYT)

Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Rachel Abrams report on the ways that short-term loan providers are working to get around existing regulations, and how states are starting to crack down.

The Polar Vortex Kept Shoppers at Home—Will the Economy Pick Up Now? (The Atlantic)

Matthew O'Brien looks at a study on car sales in January, which shows weaker growth in the states with the worst winters. But sales are everything: he says we'll know the economy is really picking up when people take on more debt.

Fast-Food Workers Get New Ally in New York City Fight for Fair Pay (The Guardian)

New York City's public advocate, Tish James, is stepping up to help in the wake of wage theft lawsuits against McDonald's, reports Jon Swaine. She's proposing legislation to create a whistleblower hotline to fight these practices.

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Daily Digest - March 18: Society Doesn't Work on a Volunteer Basis

Mar 18, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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The Voluntarism Fantasy (Democracy Journal)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks to the history of public and private social insurance in the U.S. to explain why the conservative belief that private charity could take the place of government is deeply misguided.

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The Voluntarism Fantasy (Democracy Journal)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks to the history of public and private social insurance in the U.S. to explain why the conservative belief that private charity could take the place of government is deeply misguided.

In City's Job Growth, Faces of the Working Poor (WNYC)

New York City now has 237,000 more jobs than it did before the recession, reports Mirela Iverac, but too many of those jobs aren't paying enough to live on.

Hunger Crisis: Charities are Strained as Nearly 1 in 5 New Yorkers Depend on Aid for Food (NY Daily News)

Over five years, the number of people relying on food aid has increased by 200,000, and Barry Paddock and Ginger Adams Otis report that charities have seen even more need since November's food stamp cuts.

Low-Wage Workers Are Finding Poverty Harder to Escape (NYT)

Steven Greenhouse reports on the lives of the working poor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where workers with many years of experience can still make only $9 per hour.

Inside Low-Wage Workers’ Plan to Sue McDonald’s — and Win (MSNBC)

Timothy Noah explains that these workers are targeting the franchise system, arguing that McDonald's as a corporation created the conditions that led to wage theft, not just the franchise owners.

New on Next New Deal

Florida Election Shows Danger and Promise in Obamacare Debate

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch says polling from the recent special election for Florida's 13th congressional district shows that standing up to "keep and fix" Obamacare is a path for Democratic success.

The Progressive Budget Reminds Us That Government Can Create Jobs

The Congressional Progressive Caucus's budget is a reminder that an aggressive approach is still needed to push job growth, writes Nell Abernathy, Program Manager for the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

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Daily Digest - March 13: What Sets Liberals Apart?

Mar 13, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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An Incoherent Harper's Essay Suggests There's No Difference Between Obama and Republicans (TNR)

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An Incoherent Harper's Essay Suggests There's No Difference Between Obama and Republicans (TNR)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal responds to Adolph Reed's piece on the exhaustion of liberals, arguing that the issues that drive liberals and the outcomes they seek easily distinguish them from conservatives.

The Inequality Puzzle (TAP)

Robert Kuttner asks how it's possible that intergenerational economic mobility has remained flat over the past 30 years rather than declining, and whether that fact is really worth celebrating.

What Talent Shortage? The Great American Brain Waste of Our Captive Labor Market (Pacific Standard)

Jim Russell sees an easy solution to any lack of skilled labor: policies, at work and in politics, that are more supportive of the groups whose talents are being wasted, namely women and immigrants.

My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor (The Atlantic)

Joseph Williams writes about his experiences working at a sporting goods store after losing his job in journalism. He got first-hand experience in retail's wage theft and surveillance practices.

New on Next New Deal

The Progressive Caucus Budget Makes the Right Decisions

The budget shows that the country can afford to properly invest in job creation and achieve faster growth, says Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick, Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

Quits Won't Tell Us Anything About the True Unemployment Rate (Vacancy Chains 1/2)

Mike Konczal argues that the interesting data from the quits rate is already represented in wage growth and the number of job openings relative to unemployment. We should be watching that data anyway.

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

Mar 7, 2014Nell Abernathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - March 6: Washington State Points the Way on Wages

Mar 6, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Highest Minimum-Wage State Washington Beats U.S. Job Growth (Bloomberg)

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Highest Minimum-Wage State Washington Beats U.S. Job Growth (Bloomberg)

Victoria Stilwell, Peter Robison, and William Selway report that Washington hasn't just shown higher job growth – it also has lower poverty rates, and the supposedly vulnerable service industry is growing.

Minimum Wage Raise Would Reduce Food Stamp Spending By $46 Billion Over Decade: Report (HuffPo)

A new report from the Center for American Progress analyzes how higher wages would reduce need, writes Dave Jamieson. Raising the minimum wage would decrease the "culture of dependency" that Republicans decry.

The U.S. Economy's Big Baby Problem (The Atlantic)

The American birthrate has hit a new record low. That wouldn't be a big deal, writes Derek Thompson, if our economy didn't rely so heavily on families' consumer spending.

Over 2 Million People Now Without Unemployment Benefits (MSNBC)

The number of long-term unemployed workers in the U.S. keeps growing, and Ned Resnikoff says it's looking less and less likely that Congress will reauthorize their extended unemployment insurance.

When Regulation Threatens, Bankers Predict Doom For Main Street (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger explains how banks are trying to chip away at financial reform by negotiating behind the scenes on little-known issues. Going after collateralized loan obligation rules doesn't get much public scrutiny.

Does America Need a Robin Hood Tax? (Pacific Standard)

Kyle Chayka says a financial transactions tax could raise enough money to fight many social problems. Focusing such a tax on high-frequency trading would also curtail the banks' worst excesses.

It’s Still Paul Ryan’s Party (WaPo)

Greg Sargent calls out Ryan's hypocrisy in claiming the president's budget contains no attempt at compromise. Ryan's budget seeks even less common ground, with absolutely no funds for Democratic priorities.

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