The Hard Work of Taking Apart Post-Work Fantasy

Jun 29, 2015Mike Konczal

Derek Thompson has a 10,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, “A World Without Work,” about the possibilities of “post-work” in an economy where technology and capital has largely displaced labor. Though Thompson is clear to argue that this isn’t certain, as the “signs so far are murky and suggestive,” he takes the opportunity to describe how a post-work future might look.

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

Unlikely

Before we begin, I think it’s important to note how unlikely this scenario remains. We can imagine the Atlantic of the 1850s running a “The Post-Agriculture, Post-Work World” cover story, correctly predicting farming would go from 70 percent of the workforce to 20 percent over the next 100 years, yet incorrectly predicting this would end work. We don’t think of what happened afterward as “post-work.” The economy managed to continue on, finding new work and workers in the process.

There are other minor problems. Globalization and technological advancement are treated as the same thing, when they are not. There’s also a slippage common in the critical discussion of these articles (you can see it from this tweet from Thompson here) of substituting in the argument that technology has weakened wages and excluded some workers in recent decades for an argument about the long-run trajectory of technology itself. These are two different, distinct stories, with the first just as much about institutions as actual technology, and evidence for the first certainly doesn’t prove the second.

We’ll Still Be Working

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

How Did We Get There?

Another major problem of this popular genre is that it immediately places us at the end of the story, with no explanation of the transition. Work has already disappeared, it’s over, so the only question that remains is how we can envision our lives in the new world. This has two major consequences.

First, by compressing this timeline and making it seem like only capital will be around after a short period, it preemptively identifies the interest of workers with the interests of capital and owners. If post-work is right around the corner, people won’t have any labor (or human capital, if you must) to allow them to survive, so it’s essential to turn them into miniature capitalists immediately. That’s why it’s not abnormal to see descriptions of post-work immediately call for the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley or the privatization of Social Security.

Secondly, this story also doesn’t explain the transition of labor among workers as it disappears. As Seth Ackerman notes, decreases in the amount of work done can result either from some people leaving the labor force (extensive margin) or from decreasing the amount of work all people do (intensive margin). In other words, do we want some people to leave the workforce entirely, or for us all to work less overall? These are two different projects, with different assumptions and actions necessary to advance them. Resolving these questions would be the fundamental problem of an actual decline in labor force participation, but they tend to be abstracted away in these discussions.

Projecting the Past Forward

Going further, the idea that a post-work economy would involve simply choosing between a handful of quasi-utopias strikes me as completely naive. In Thompson’s piece, for instance, the problem seems to be whether post-work people would spend their time in intellectual pursuits or as independent artisans. But it’s just as likely people would spend their days as refugees trying not to starve.

You can get the sense that something is missing because virtually all of these articles consider radical forms of leisure instead of ownership. (Indeed, in assuming that prosperity leads to redistribution leads to leisure and public goods, it’s really a forward projection of the Keynesian-Fordism of the past.) I rarely see any of these mass media post-work scenarios tackle these issues head-on, much less talk about “post-ownership” instead of just “post-work.” (Friend of the blog Peter Frase is one of the few who does.)

It’s just as likely that the result will be a catastrophe for those who lose the value of their human capital. It seems unlikely that the political economy would become more conducive to redistribution, as these articles usually imply, because the value of capital assets would probably skyrocket. With that value high and ownership concentrated, it would potentially lead to a political economy more favorable to fascism than to robust egalitarianism. Who owns the robots, and what that even means in such a world, will be just as much a question as what we do to occupy ourselves; the first, really, will determine the second.

As a result, discussions of the idyllic robot future give working people a desire that is an obstacle to the actual flourishing of their lived conditions, and it remains an ideology completely divorced from the lived experiences of everyday people. I hereby nominate this as Pure Ideology. Who seconds the motion?

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Derek Thompson has a 10,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, “A World Without Work,” about the possibilities of “post-work” in an economy where technology and capital has largely displaced labor. Though Thompson is clear to argue that this isn’t certain, as the “signs so far are murky and suggestive,” he takes the opportunity to describe how a post-work future might look.

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

Unlikely

Before we begin, I think it’s important to note how unlikely this scenario remains. We can imagine the Atlantic of the 1850s running a “The Post-Agriculture, Post-Work World” cover story, correctly predicting farming would go from 70 percent of the workforce to 20 percent over the next 100 years, yet incorrectly predicting this would end work. We don’t think of what happened afterward as “post-work.” The economy managed to continue on, finding new work and workers in the process.

There are other minor problems. Globalization and technological advancement are treated as the same thing, when they are not. There’s also a slippage common in the critical discussion of these articles (you can see it from this tweet from Thompson here) of substituting in the argument that technology has weakened wages and excluded some workers in recent decades for an argument about the long-run trajectory of technology itself. These are two different, distinct stories, with the first just as much about institutions as actual technology, and evidence for the first certainly doesn’t prove the second.

We’ll Still Be Working

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

How Did We Get There?

Another major problem of this popular genre is that it immediately places us at the end of the story, with no explanation of the transition. Work has already disappeared, it’s over, so the only question that remains is how we can envision our lives in the new world. This has two major consequences.

First, by compressing this timeline and making it seem like only capital will be around after a short period, it preemptively identifies the interest of workers with the interests of capital and owners. If post-work is right around the corner, people won’t have any labor (or human capital, if you must) to allow them to survive, so it’s essential to turn them into miniature capitalists immediately. That’s why it’s not abnormal to see descriptions of post-work immediately call for the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley or the privatization of Social Security.

Secondly, this story also doesn’t explain the transition of labor among workers as it disappears. As Seth Ackerman notes, decreases in the amount of work done can result either from some people leaving the labor force (extensive margin) or from decreasing the amount of work all people do (intensive margin). In other words, do we want some people to leave the workforce entirely, or for us all to work less overall? These are two different projects, with different assumptions and actions necessary to advance them. Resolving these questions would be the fundamental problem of an actual decline in labor force participation, but they tend to be abstracted away in these discussions.

Projecting the Past Forward

Going further, the idea that a post-work economy would involve simply choosing between a handful of quasi-utopias strikes me as completely naive. In Thompson’s piece, for instance, the problem seems to be whether post-work people would spend their time in intellectual pursuits or as independent artisans. But it’s just as likely people would spend their days as refugees trying not to starve.

You can get the sense that something is missing because virtually all of these articles consider radical forms of leisure instead of ownership. (Indeed, in assuming that prosperity leads to redistribution leads to leisure and public goods, it’s really a forward projection of the Keynesian-Fordism of the past.) I rarely see any of these mass media post-work scenarios tackle these issues head-on, much less talk about “post-ownership” instead of just “post-work.” (Friend of the blog Peter Frase is one of the few who does.)

It’s just as likely that the result will be a catastrophe for those who lose the value of their human capital. It seems unlikely that the political economy would become more conducive to redistribution, as these articles usually imply, because the value of capital assets would probably skyrocket. With that value high and ownership concentrated, it would potentially lead to a political economy more favorable to fascism than to robust egalitarianism. Who owns the robots, and what that even means in such a world, will be just as much a question as what we do to occupy ourselves; the first, really, will determine the second.

As a result, discussions of the idyllic robot future give working people a desire that is an obstacle to the actual flourishing of their lived conditions, and it remains an ideology completely divorced from the lived experiences of everyday people. I hereby nominate this as Pure Ideology. Who seconds the motion?

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NYC Taxi Owners Are Denying Benefits to Drivers. The City Council Can Stop Them.

Jun 25, 2015Richard Kirsch

Earlier this month, the New York City Council enacted basic protections for workers at car washes, one group of exploited, largely immigrant workers. Next up on the City Council’s to-do list should be reversing a court decision that robbed taxi drivers, another group of mostly immigrant workers, of health and disability benefits.

Earlier this month, the New York City Council enacted basic protections for workers at car washes, one group of exploited, largely immigrant workers. Next up on the City Council’s to-do list should be reversing a court decision that robbed taxi drivers, another group of mostly immigrant workers, of health and disability benefits.

New York City’s taxi drivers are one more group of workers who decades ago were legally considered employees but now are classified as independent contractors, with low and unpredictable wages, long work hours, and no benefits. Over the last two decades, taxi driving has become a career for many new immigrants.

Starting in 1996, drivers began organizing together, through the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, to win an increased share of cab fares and other protections. Two years ago, the Taxi Workers Alliance organized successfully to get the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates the industry, to designate six cents from every cab ride to a fund to pay for disability and health benefits for drivers.

The Taxi Workers Alliance, through an RFP process, won a contract to set up a fund that would provide a modest disability payment of $350 for 26 weeks, plus other benefits, such as vision, dental, and hearing. Drivers would still be responsible for their own health insurance, with many relying on the Affordable Care Act.

Even though the fund does not cost the taxi owners a dime, they still sued to stop it, arguing that the commission overstepped its authority, and earlier this month a New York State appeals court agreed. As Bhairavi Desai, the Executive Director of the Taxi Worker Alliance, told me, the owners saw the health and disability fund “as a basis for the union…They were hell-bent on stopping the union and having the drivers have any benefits.”

An irony of the court’s ruling is that one reason that taxi drivers are considered to be independent contractors by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is that they work in a highly regulated industry, in which many of their pay and working conditions are regulated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. But when the commission acted to fund a much-needed benefit, the court, at the behest of the owners, blocked the way. The court said that it was up to a legislative body to decide on a new policy like using fares to finance a health and disability fund.

The other reason that the NLRB considers the drivers to be independent contractors is that they cruise for riders instead of being dispatched by the taxi companies. This in contrast with drivers of “black cars” in New York, who are dispatched by the limousine companies and therefore legally under their control. Some of the limousine drivers have joined the machinists union (IAMAW).

Looking into the future, competition from services like Uber may push New York’s cab companies to adopt an app for riders to call cabs. Earlier this month, the California Labor Commissioner’s office ruled that an Uber driver there was an employee, in part because of Uber’s reliance on apps.

For now, the court’s decision puts the issue squarely in front of the New York City Council. Since their election in 2013, both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the new progressive majority on the council have made bolstering the ability of low-wage workers to care for and support their families a hallmark of their policies. One of their first actions was to strengthen a new law requiring that workers receive paid sick time. The new regulations establishing worker and environmental protections at car washes are the latest such action.

Laws that improve wages and benefits for New York’s working families are not only fair, they are a fundamental strategy to move New York’s economy forward. The more New Yorkers have the ability to care and support their families, the more New York will build a middle class that is the basis for strong communities and an economy not wholly dependent on Wall Street.

With some $2 million already collected and a contract with the Taxi Worker Alliance signed, passing an ordinance to approve using the six cents per fare for the health and disability fund should be an easy fix. But the taxi industry in New York is profitable and powerful and finances election campaigns. Still, that’s why New York City has public financing of campaigns and a pro-worker and pro-community mayor and City Council. Hopefully, they’ll quickly step up to the plate so that New York City’s taxi drivers can have their own organization provide essential benefits for their and their families’ health. 

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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Why an Inequality Agenda Matters: A Response to John Judis

Jun 24, 2015Mike Konczal

John Judis believes that Democrats are on the wrong path and the Roosevelt Institute is partially to blame. In his recent piece, “Dear Democrats: Populism Will Not Save You,” he attacks the growing liberal consensus on economic issues, using our recent Rewriting the Rules report as an example, on both substantive and electoral grounds.

Judis’s core argument is that it is crucial “to develop a sophisticated politics” to turn economic appeals into electoral success. I couldn’t agree more, though I feel this issue is caught in the crossfire of Judis walking back his previous Democratic demographic triumphalism. His second point is that the economic platform we’ve outlined is a terrible basis for a Democratic majority because voters are “fearful of big government, worried about new taxes, skeptical about programs they think are intended to aid someone else,” and otherwise not motivated by inequality and turned off by economic “populism.”

As a coauthor on our report and as someone involved throughout its creation, I’d like to address these criticisms. I can only speak to our report, which argues that public policy and the rules of the economy are more responsible for our tough economic situation than technology, globalization, sociology, or any of the other factors normally cited. Judis, I think, misses how robust this approach can be, how much it diverges from caricatures of big government liberalism, and how a lot of forces brought us to this point.

A Broader Vision

Roosevelt’s Rewriting the Rules plan isn’t simply centered around fighting inequality, and it’s not just about fairness, which is an argument that Judis says tends to turn off voters. Instead, we view it as tackling central concerns over investment, growth, opportunity, shared prosperity, and economic security. The subtitle of the report is “An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity.” During the creation process, we kept two specific things in mind: First, nobody cares about inequality abstractly, they care about specific economic issues; and second, our vision can’t be simply returning to the past.

We do argue that you can’t address the economic concerns I mentioned without going big. You can’t tackle investment without looking at the financial sector, you can’t address opportunity without looking at structural discrimination, you can’t view economic security without looking at the labor market, and you don’t get growth without doing all of the above. But the liberal economic consensus isn’t about adjusting this or that statistical abstraction, or about building a time machine to return to an era that probably didn’t exist: It’s about solving real problems with long-term consequences for our future.

This is hard to balance, especially for an economic report that wants to highlight the latest research in inequality across fields. The team is full of economists, not political messengers. But since a forward, positive agenda is built into the DNA of these arguments, it is not hard for a talented political movement to use these economic arguments to talk about how Democrats can deliver the goods people care about when it comes to the future of the economy.

Deeper Dive into Markets

But isn’t it all just tax-and-spend and big government liberalism? As a second point, we think looking at the market structures that generate inequality in the first place is a way to both meaningfully address inequality and also move us in a different policy direction. The idea that the rules are rigged isn’t in the current dialogue, and it’s one worth testing out with the public as part of a comprehensive argument about the economy.

The policy section of the report is a call for further discussion (some of which will be elaborated on in future Roosevelt products), but what I think is important is that, in addition to higher top marginal tax rates and income support, there’s an entire suite of policies focused on the rules of the economy itself.

These are not trivial. We examine how changes to corporate governance encourage short-termism, how the ramp-up of the criminal justice system reduces wages and opportunities for people of color, and how the falling value of the minimum wage increases poverty. These “market conditioning” effects complement whatever emphasis political leaders put on tax-and-spend issues.

I think that’s worthwhile, because it gives Democrats an in to talk about economic problems with people who want to become rich or don’t think of themselves as class warriors, but do care about promoting broadly shared opportunity. It also short-circuits many of the libertarian arguments about the state, because people get that the economy needs rules—and that not having rules is still a form of rules.

(Ironically, by calling upon the work of Stephen Rose, who argues everything is fine with the macroeconomy because government transfers can just take care of any weaknesses, Judis is far more reliant on tax-and-spend liberalism that he accuses us of being. I’m fine with transfers, of course, as income support was crucial to fighting the Great Recession. But there are also electoral limits to this strategy.)

As for the electoral appeal, these ideas aren't part of the normal policy discussion, but to the extent that they are, they are quite popular. The minimum wage is winning in red states, and financial reform is broadly popular as a topic.

The Natural Next Step

Judis’s narrative is focused on the idea that the Democrats have been hijacked (with ACORN a culprit, no less) with this agenda. At times, he forces this story into a symmetry with what is happening on the right to get some easy “pox on both houses” points.

But this doesn’t reflect the actual path we’ve taken to get here. One thing we tried to demonstrate in Rewriting the Rules is that the research has been moving in this direction for the past decade. Many of these policy items build on or expand what President Obama has proposed (infrastructure, financial reform, minimum wage, etc.)—proposals that still remain good ideas in 2016. The political success of the Fight for 15 workers has also shown that there’s energy at the local level that people are looking to help scale.

The other reason this agenda has gained traction is that the other approaches have collapsed in the past year. Education doesn’t look like the silver bullet people had believed it to be in the past. The idea that the Great Recession would be a minor hiccup and we’d be back on track has proved false. Centrist claims about the need for immediate austerity and a Grand Bargain have also failed to pan out.

Oddly, I’m not sure I’ve heard a compelling counter-strategy about how to describe the economy, and Judis proposes no such thing. The 2016 nominee won’t be able to run on an “overcoming partisanship” strategy like President Obama in 2008 or a “let’s give Obamacare and the recovery a chance” strategy like in 2012.

One could just downplay the economy, of course, and if next year gives us a large increase in wages the story will change with it. But polls now show economic issues are coming to dominate the discussion, median family incomes are down 7 percent since 2000, and the argument that President Obama pulled us back from an economic collapse and rebuilt jobs, and now we need to turn to a more secure future with better wages, investment, and security, seems the most natural transition.

Economic issues will dominate on the right, and while they mimic our language, their proposals will likely be very regressive. Even the GOP’s leading reformer, Marco Rubio, is calling for eliminating all taxes on capital and inheritances. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to be controlled by a base that wants the Ryan Plan immediately. But rather than simply calling out what’s wrong with the right’s approach, it will be essential for liberals to have their own vision of opportunity, investment, growth, and security. We think our report is a crucial building block for this.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

John Judis believes that Democrats are on the wrong path and the Roosevelt Institute is partially to blame. In his recent piece, “Dear Democrats: Populism Will Not Save You,” he attacks the growing liberal consensus on economic issues, using our recent Rewriting the Rules report as an example, on both substantive and electoral grounds.

Judis’s core argument is that it is crucial “to develop a sophisticated politics” to turn economic appeals into electoral success. I couldn’t agree more, though I feel this issue is caught in the crossfire of Judis walking back his previous Democratic demographic triumphalism. His second point is that the economic platform we’ve outlined is a terrible basis for a Democratic majority because voters are “fearful of big government, worried about new taxes, skeptical about programs they think are intended to aid someone else,” and otherwise not motivated by inequality and turned off by economic “populism.”

As a coauthor on our report and as someone involved throughout its creation, I’d like to address these criticisms. I can only speak to our report, which argues that public policy and the rules of the economy are more responsible for our tough economic situation than technology, globalization, sociology, or any of the other factors normally cited. Judis, I think, misses how robust this approach can be, how much it diverges from caricatures of big government liberalism, and how a lot of forces brought us to this point.

A Broader Vision

Roosevelt’s Rewriting the Rules plan isn’t simply centered around fighting inequality, and it’s not just about fairness, which is an argument that Judis says tends to turn off voters. Instead, we view it as tackling central concerns over investment, growth, opportunity, shared prosperity, and economic security. The subtitle of the report is “An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity.” During the creation process, we kept two specific things in mind: First, nobody cares about inequality abstractly, they care about specific economic issues; and second, our vision can’t be simply returning to the past.

We do argue that you can’t address the economic concerns I mentioned without going big. You can’t tackle investment without looking at the financial sector, you can’t address opportunity without looking at structural discrimination, you can’t view economic security without looking at the labor market, and you don’t get growth without doing all of the above. But the liberal economic consensus isn’t about adjusting this or that statistical abstraction, or about building a time machine to return to an era that probably didn’t exist: It’s about solving real problems with long-term consequences for our future.

This is hard to balance, especially for an economic report that wants to highlight the latest research in inequality across fields. The team is full of economists, not political messengers. But since a forward, positive agenda is built into the DNA of these arguments, it is not hard for a talented political movement to use these economic arguments to talk about how Democrats can deliver the goods people care about when it comes to the future of the economy.

Deeper Dive into Markets

But isn’t it all just tax-and-spend and big government liberalism? As a second point, we think looking at the market structures that generate inequality in the first place is a way to both meaningfully address inequality and also move us in a different policy direction. The idea that the rules are rigged isn’t in the current dialogue, and it’s one worth testing out with the public as part of a comprehensive argument about the economy.

The policy section of the report is a call for further discussion (some of which will be elaborated on in future Roosevelt products), but what I think is important is that, in addition to higher top marginal tax rates and income support, there’s an entire suite of policies focused on the rules of the economy itself.

These are not trivial. We examine how changes to corporate governance encourage short-termism, how the ramp-up of the criminal justice system reduces wages and opportunities for people of color, and how the falling value of the minimum wage increases poverty. These “market conditioning” effects complement whatever emphasis political leaders put on tax-and-spend issues.

I think that’s worthwhile, because it gives Democrats an in to talk about economic problems with people who want to become rich or don’t think of themselves as class warriors, but do care about promoting broadly shared opportunity. It also short-circuits many of the libertarian arguments about the state, because people get that the economy needs rules—and that not having rules is still a form of rules.

(Ironically, by calling upon the work of Stephen Rose, who argues everything is fine with the macroeconomy because government transfers can just take care of any weaknesses, Judis is far more reliant on tax-and-spend liberalism that he accuses us of being. I’m fine with transfers, of course, as income support was crucial to fighting the Great Recession. But there are also electoral limits to this strategy.)

As for the electoral appeal, these ideas aren't part of the normal policy discussion, but to the extent that they are, they are quite popular. The minimum wage is winning in red states, and financial reform is broadly popular as a topic.

The Natural Next Step

Judis’s narrative is focused on the idea that the Democrats have been hijacked (with ACORN a culprit, no less) with this agenda. At times, he forces this story into a symmetry with what is happening on the right to get some easy “pox on both houses” points.

But this doesn’t reflect the actual path we’ve taken to get here. One thing we tried to demonstrate in Rewriting the Rules is that the research has been moving in this direction for the past decade. Many of these policy items build on or expand what President Obama has proposed (infrastructure, financial reform, minimum wage, etc.)—proposals that still remain good ideas in 2016. The political success of the Fight for 15 workers has also shown that there’s energy at the local level that people are looking to help scale.

The other reason this agenda has gained traction is that the other approaches have collapsed in the past year. Education doesn’t look like the silver bullet people had believed it to be in the past. The idea that the Great Recession would be a minor hiccup and we’d be back on track has proved false. Centrist claims about the need for immediate austerity and a Grand Bargain have also failed to pan out.

Oddly, I’m not sure I’ve heard a compelling counter-strategy about how to describe the economy, and Judis proposes no such thing. The 2016 nominee won’t be able to run on an “overcoming partisanship” strategy like President Obama in 2008 or a “let’s give Obamacare and the recovery a chance” strategy like in 2012.

One could just downplay the economy, of course, and if next year gives us a large increase in wages the story will change with it. But polls now show economic issues are coming to dominate the discussion, median family incomes are down 7 percent since 2000, and the argument that President Obama pulled us back from an economic collapse and rebuilt jobs, and now we need to turn to a more secure future with better wages, investment, and security, seems the most natural transition.

Economic issues will dominate on the right, and while they mimic our language, their proposals will likely be very regressive. Even the GOP’s leading reformer, Marco Rubio, is calling for eliminating all taxes on capital and inheritances. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to be controlled by a base that wants the Ryan Plan immediately. But rather than simply calling out what’s wrong with the right’s approach, it will be essential for liberals to have their own vision of opportunity, investment, growth, and security. We think our report is a crucial building block for this.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Hillary Clinton's Rooseveltian Challenge: Carrying Forward the Four Freedoms

Jun 19, 2015Anna Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s important that Hillary Clinton chose a place that honors my grandfather to officially launch her campaign and unveil her vision for our nation. In doing so, she sought to claim the Rooseveltian style of leadership and to position herself as the person who will carry forward the Roosevelt legacy of action, insight and advancement.

Now that the crowds have gone home, can she live up to the challenge she is setting for herself?

It’s important that Hillary Clinton chose a place that honors my grandfather to officially launch her campaign and unveil her vision for our nation. In doing so, she sought to claim the Rooseveltian style of leadership and to position herself as the person who will carry forward the Roosevelt legacy of action, insight and advancement.

Now that the crowds have gone home, can she live up to the challenge she is setting for herself?

My grandparents shaped our nation and the world in ways that were deeper and further reaching than almost any other figures of the 20th century. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took America from the brink of total economic collapse and laid the groundwork for the greatest stretch of prosperity we’ve ever experienced.

They fought for democracy and against horrific regimes the likes of which the world may never have recovered from and used that moment to form a strong global alliance that is still in place today. They did all of this through the New Deal—by rewriting the rules of our capitalist system so that it works for everybody, and by building the postwar international system linking our economic and security interests as one global family.

They put rules in place to make capitalism work for the many as opposed to a few at the top—including rules for our financial system to protect consumers and control risk. The New Deal invested in America’s future through roads, bridges, modern electric systems, schools, and other essentials of a modern society. The Roosevelt administration expanded protections and rights for workers and families and gave them a seat at the bargaining table and ensured their security after retirement. They created a path to the middle class for millions of Americans.

But the Roosevelt record and so many of the strides we made through the New Deal have been undermined over the past 35 years as so many of those rules, investments, and protections have been rolled back. As a result, the American middle class lifestyle is almost as far out of reach today for most Americans as it was when my grandfather took office, and the future looks dim.

My grandparents took office four years after the Great Depression hit; our next president will be sworn in less than a decade after the Great Recession hit. The gap between those at the top and the rest of us is at a point last seen before the New Deal. Workers and America’s families face an entrenched wealthy class seeking to control who benefits from our economy and our political process. And there is growing unrest in the world as radical militants seek to undermine and destroy the very concept of democracy by taking advantage of our dysfunction.

Just as they were 83 years ago, the American people are desperately hungry for action and leadership to fix the imbalances in our economy and society.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that the majority of Americans—rich and poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats—agree that income, opportunity, and influence are unfairly concentrated at the top and that these disparities are growing. Further, Americans support government action to address this inequality and rewrite the rules of our economy.

For all my grandparents accomplished, so much of their work is still left unfinished. The beautiful park from which Secretary Clinton spoke celebrates the fundamental Four Freedoms my grandfather laid out in his 1941 speech as essential to democracy and to all of humanity: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Yet for many in our own nation and across the world, those essential freedoms have yet to be fully realized. Another unfinished act proposed by my grandfather was a second bill of rights guaranteeing every American access to the central pillars of economic security—employment and a living wage, decent housing and medical care, public education, adequate food and clothing, and healthy leisure. The work of ensuring that the good ideas of the New Deal are equally available to women and to communities of color also remains incomplete.

Now is truly the time to hand the baton to the next great leader committed to completing this work.

If Hillary Clinton wants to follow in the footsteps of Franklin and Eleanor, then she must not just reflect on their legacy but carry forward their energetic leadership and relentless pursuit of bold solutions.

Clinton must summon the courage to once again fundamentally rewrite the rules of our economy, restore balance, challenge entrenched power, and seek a New Deal for the 21st century.

The American people will follow that kind of leadership.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt is Chair of the Roosevelt Institute's Board and President and CEO of Goodwill NNE.

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Statement to Congress: TPP Would Weaken U.S. Economy and Fail to Check China's Rise

Jun 17, 2015Adam Hersh

Roosevelt Institute Senior Economist Adam Hersh will appear today before the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific as part of a hearing on "China's Rise: The Strategic Impact of Its Economic and Military Growth." The following is his prepared testimony.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Economist Adam Hersh will appear today before the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific as part of a hearing on "China's Rise: The Strategic Impact of Its Economic and Military Growth." The following is his prepared testimony.

Chairman Salmon, Ranking Member Sherman, members, thank you for inviting me to testify on this pivotal topic: the geo-economic and geo-political significance of China’s rapid development and the U.S. strategic response, particularly as it pertains to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

I would like to begin on points of agreement between proponents: it matters a lot who gets to write the rules for how our economy and the international economy work. Last week’s historic vote by you and your colleagues on Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance showed how much the rules matter. What this said is that something is broken in the ways the United States makes trade rules: the dysfunction of the implicit agreement between Congress and the President—and his delegated ambassador as United States Trade Representative—in how Constitutional division of authorities to make international agreements will govern in practice.

When the rules matter this much, we should take the time to get them right, rather than bull-doze non-transparent new rules through Congress. What we know about the agreement—from Wikileaks, and from conversations with negotiators of more open TPP countries—is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has less to do with freeing trade, creating jobs, raising wages, or rebalancing geo-politics than it does with rewriting the rules of global trade and investment to favor big businesses at the expense of almost everyone else in society.[i]

These rules do not embody economic principles of open competition so much as the preferences of industry lobbyists that had the best seats at the U.S. Trade Representative’s table. The outcome is an agreement that fails to address America’s economic needs and geostrategic goals. Legitimate concerns have been raised on the left, right, and center of the American political debate, only to be dismissed by conventional wisdom as protectionist, old-fashioned, or naive to the ways of the world. But as Larry Summers wrote in the Washington Post, it’s time to take these concerns seriously.[ii]

Problems with current U.S. model for trade policy do not end with TPP. A multitude of agreements are underway under the same basic template--from a parallel mega-regional agreement with the European Union, to a multilateral agreement on trade in services (TISA), to a bilateral investment treaty with China itself and other countries that will all be critical to the U.S. economic future. They are critical to whether we grow with broadly shared prosperity or continue down the path of an economy producing high and rising inequality, and low economic opportunity.

Proponents of TPP are asking us to believe we can achieve the high road outcomes from a USTR so captured by special interests. But unless Congress acts to change the rules on how the United States government negotiates international economic agreements, we can expect the same confrontational and uncertain political outcomes, rather than a cooperative, inclusive approach to setting national economic priorities.

I will make two points today:

1. The most fundamental element of national security is a strong national economy, and TPP would weaken our economic base, leave us more unequal, and reinforce the global race to the bottom in social, environmental, and commercial standards and taxation.

2. TPP fails the geostrategic rationale for checking China’s rise.

On the first point, the most generous models predicting TPP’s economic impact claim it would raise U.S. GDP by $88 billion (in today’s prices) by 2025.[iii] This amount is less than the rounding error when the Department of Commerce calculates GDP. If you each picked an infrastructure project in your district, together you would create a bigger growth impact in the next year than TPP would have ten years from now.

The United States ranks among the highest of the advanced economy countries in inequality, and among the lowest in terms of upward economic mobility. TPP will lead to higher inequality--adjustment to new terms of trade will focus job and small business elimination in more labor-intensive industries—not just manufacturing, but in services of increasingly higher skill—faster than trade creates them in less labor-intensive export-expanding industries. Recent research by MIT economists Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, and co-authors shows that such import shocks decimate local economies, causing higher unemployment, slower wage growth, and straining social expenditures and tax revenues. Trade with China in particular, they estimate, cost the U.S. economy 2 to 2.4 million jobs over the course of the 2000s.[iv]

TPP goes far beyond mere tariffs and trade. All sides agree TPP’s most significant provisions address “behind the border” measures—not what happens between countries, but how the economic rules will work within countries.

To highlight two major issues, first is TPP’s investor–state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS). Here, progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren and a Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz are joined by the likes of Cato Institute and The Economist magazine in raising concerns that ISDS serves to empower global businesses against public regulation.[v] Understandably, global businesses would like assurance against expropriation and discriminatory treatment where rule of law is underdeveloped. But they can already buy private insurance against such risks. That USTR also insists on ISDS in an agreement with Europe, where no one questions legal standards, reveals the lie that this is about protecting investor rights, rather than expanding and subsidizing them.

The distortions created by this change in the rules provide a privilege for foreign investors not accessible to domestic investors in any TPP market, and works against developing country partners growing their own institutions and organically raising standards through more open, democratic policymaking. The combined result is to further incentive production to move offshore.

We also have to be clear about the dangers of TPP’s expansive intellectual property protections. Economic research is clear that patents do not increase innovation or growth. Rather, they serve to raise consumer prices and restrain competition. The agreement reportedly will allow “ever-greening” of drug patents and aim for more stringent exclusivity for biosimilar medicines than even President Obama’s budget proposed, meaning less access to medicines and slower development of new ones in TPP members and in third party countries. For the United States, this outcome would mean more national income will be spent on health care—through private spending and public programs. This is not a question of guns versus butter, but of guns, butter, or life-changing medicines.

On my second major point, that TPP fails the geostrategic rationale for checking China’s rise, proponents argue TPP is needed to buttress Asia-Pacific allies with an implicit economic ring-fence around China’s rising power and influence. This is a Cold War containment strategy, but in the 21st century the United States is no longer the epicenter of the world economy. And the strategy violates a seemingly forgotten long-standing tenet of the open world trading system, built painstakingly under U.S. leadership in the postwar years: the quest for peaceful foreign relations would be built on the principle of not excluding countries from the benefit of economic relations—the opposite of what TPP, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would do.

A strategic agreement countering China’s rising influence, to be effective, requires two things: First, it must truly set high standards for international trade and investment; second, it must largely exclude China from the benefits, diverting investment and trade to TPP countries, thereby enticing China to rise to TPP standards. TPP does neither. China’s economic transformation under authoritarian capitalism, it’s ongoing non-market economic structure, and its expanding geopolitical influence pose real foreign and economic challenges for the United States and for the future of open societies, but TPP doesn’t answer to any of them.

On the first question, the level of standards, TPP clearly does not make any economically meaningful advances over the status quo. Although the agreement reportedly would establish well-sounding obligations on labor rights, environmental protection, and accountability for state-owned enterprises, TPP provides no credible mechanism to enforce these standards.

The lose-lose scenarios created by non-credible enforcement mechanisms are best illustrated in the case of Guatemala. In April 2008, Guatemalan workers first filed complaint of systemic labor abuses with the U.S. Department of Labor, as established by the US-Central American Free Trade Agreement; it took the USTR until December 2014 to open a formal dispute settlement case, and a ruling is still far off. Other recent experiences with partner countries Honduras and Colombia show no better results of improved practices or even an end to the rampant murders of free trade union members. This is the worst of both worlds: U.S. workers and businesses still face race-to-the-bottom competition, while global businesses and developing country governments face little pressure to improve conditions. No one has yet to give a clear answer to how TPP will effect free labor standards in one-party state Vietnam, or deter human trafficking of labor in Malaysia or Mexico?

This toothless model of enforcement for things other than investment and commercial disputes—and the fact that the agreement will not discipline currency manipulation in the Asia-Pacific region show that TPP does not set standards at a level that would pose meaningful constraints on China’s economic behavior.

On the second question, TPP cannot feasibly exclude China from the benefits of the TPP bloc. In fact, Chinese officials and technocrats are as enthusiastic about TPP as any business lobbyist in Washington. That’s because the 1 percent in both countries stand to gain substantially from a deal allowing both to expand supply chains into lower-cost developing Asia. TPP will not lock-in a U.S. export advantage in the region so much as a platform for U.S. and Chinese companies that want to offshore production to TPP member countries. This loophole is found in TPP’s “Rules of Origin,” or the percentage of a product’s value must be created in the TPP member country in order to qualify for preferential access to U.S. markets.

China is already more integrated with TPP countries than the United States. China’s total trade (exports plus imports) with non-Nafta TPP partners is nearly double ours--$780 billion in 2014 for China to our $423 billion.[vi] Beijing is now incentivizing Chinese enterprises in a strategy of “going out”—expanding China’s global footprint and brand recognition through massive foreign direct investment.

Deep and growing integration with TPP countries will mean that Chinese producers can enjoy the agreement’s benefits—either by investing in or trading Chinese-produced content through TPP countries, without reciprocating to TPP’s preferential terms. How big an economy is and its geographical proximity to others—the “gravitational factors”—matter much more for international trade patterns than do agreements like TPP. China’s economy will be bigger, grow faster, and be geographically and culturally closer to Asia-Pacific countries no matter what we do.

What’s more, TPP offers negligible counterbalance to the soft power China is earning in the region with its efforts to develop new models of multilateral infrastructure development financing. Here, America’s own unforced errors in foreign economic relations—from Congress’s failure to enact internationally negotiated IMF reforms, to this administration’s diplomatic debacle in their miscalculated strategy of strong-arming allies into a global boycott of China’s efforts to advance multilateral development finance institutions with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other projects. This U.S. strategic choice actually lost us an opportunity to write the economic rules with China, instead the strategy left us isolated from the international community and left China to write the rules of these multilateral institutions without us.

When this is how we treat our friends, it’s no wonder the United States has a reputation problem in the region. To illustrate the challenge, consider that Chinese officials and scholars routinely raise the Opium War and 1842 Treaty of Nanjing in conversations on trade and investment relations; they named their regional trade development initiative the “New Silk Road Initiative”—this is an area of the world where reputation holds long historical memory. Between the new BRICs bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and China’s Silk Road investment initiatives, China is committing $300 billion of capital investment, and buying untold foreign influence. TPP simply does not match the same return on investment on the political capital we have spent pressing our partners to ignore the same concerns that make trade such a contentious political issue in the United States.

There is a further lesson here: America’s economic future is tied more to the choices we make in the rules of our own economy rather than joining agreements. This Congress has been reluctant to invest in our own infrastructure. China’s leaders not only recognize the growth value from investing in their own economy, but in helping other countries develop in ways that create mutually-reinforcing trade and growth benefits for China. This is what it means to treat countries like true partners rather than geopolitical pawns.

Conclusion

Strengthening international relationships is essential for ongoing U.S. leadership in the world—be it economic, political, or cultural. No American should relish a failure to build deeper, more open relations with foreign partners, nor should we retreat from trying. But getting to a deal that serves more than the narrow interests of powerful corporations, their CEOs and shareholders will require Americans be willing to walk away from the agreement we have now, and for Congress to change how it exercises input and oversight over USTR’s negotiating priorities.

Adam Hersh is the Roosevelt Institute's Senior Economist and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University's Initiative for Policy Dialogue.

 


[i] Full disclosure: I have been briefed privately, off the record on a number of occasions by USTR officials, but am similarly prevented from revealing the substance of those discussions.

[ii] Larry Summers, “Rescuing the free-trade deals,” Washington Post, June 14, 2015, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/rescuing-the-free-trade-deals/2015/06/14/f10d82c2-1119-11e5-9726-49d6fa26a8c6_story.html.

[iv] Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, David Dorn, Gordon H. Hanson, Brendan Price , 2014, “Import Competition and the Great U.S. Employment Sag of the 2000s,” NBER Working Paper No. 20395, available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w20395.

[v] See Economist, “The Arbitration Game,” October 11, 2104, available at http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21623756-governments-are-souring-treaties-protect-foreign-investors-arbitration; Simon Lester, “Does Investor State Dispute Settlement Need Reform?” Cato Unbound: A Journal of Debate, May 11, 2015, available at http://www.cato-unbound.org/2015/05/11/simon-lester/does-investor-state-dispute-settlement-need-reform; Joseph Stiglitz, “Where progressives and conservatives agree on trade: Current investor-state dispute settlement model is bad for the United States,” Letter sent to Congressional leaders, May 18, 2015, available at http://www.rooseveltinstitute.org/joseph-stiglitz-and-trans-pacific-partnership-tpp.

[vi] Analysis of United Nations Comtrade Database data, available at http://comtrade.un.org/data/

 

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The Economic Narrative in Hillary Clinton’s Launch Speech

Jun 16, 2015Richard Kirsch

In her campaign launch speech on Roosevelt Island, Hillary Clinton talked about her fight for an “economy that works for everyday Americans, not just those at the top.” That rallying cry is becoming the core economic message of more and more Democrats.

In her campaign launch speech on Roosevelt Island, Hillary Clinton talked about her fight for an “economy that works for everyday Americans, not just those at the top.” That rallying cry is becoming the core economic message of more and more Democrats. In their announcement speeches, Bernie Sanders called for “an economy that works for all and not just the one percent,” and Martin O’Malley for “an American economy that works again for all of us.”

That may seem just rhetoric, but it’s an important advance. The story of an economy, government, and democracy that work for all of us, not just the wealthy, has proven to have tremendous narrative power. Seeing the Democratic candidates embrace it is a major advance, particularly since a huge communications weakness of Democrats—unlike Republicans—is that they each think they need to say different things.

But stories need more than a quest; they need to be able to explain who the villains are and what they did wrong, who the heroes are and how they realize the quest. What is the rest of the story in Clinton’s address, and how much of it does she get right?

Near the top of her speech, Clinton contrasts an economy that works for all with trickle-down theory: “Instead of an economy built by every Americans, for every Americans, we were told that if we let those at the top pay lower taxes and bend the rules, their success would trickle down to everyone else.”

Who were the ones telling us that—the villains of the story, who were pushing trickle-down? Unfortunately, for a speech that mostly is progressive, Clinton begins by bolstering austerity economics. Her first villains are Republicans, whom she blames for squandering “surpluses that could have eventually paid off our national debt,” noting that “Republicans twice cut taxes for the wealthiest, borrowed from other countries to pay for two wars, and family incomes dropped.”

This is bad economics in a very confused narrative. Tax cuts on the rich and government borrowing are not the causes of stagnant wages. And by putting balanced budgets on a pedestal, Clinton undercuts the centrality of government spending to pulling the economy out of a recession, creating jobs, and investing in the policies she calls for later in her speech. Instead, her story supports austerity policies. Yes, it’s true that tax cuts on the rich rob the government of money to invest in job creation and exacerbate income inequality. But that view is buried under the “balance the budget” frame.

Later in her speech, Clinton blames Republicans who “trip over themselves promising lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer rules for the biggest corporations“ and “pledge to wipe out tough rules on Wall Street, rather than rein in the banks that are still too risky, courting future failures.”

Clinton is looking to tap into popular resentment against the forces behind those Republican actions without assigning those forces responsibility. Another example: “You see corporations making record profits, with CEOs making record pay, but your paychecks have barely budged.” The passive language in that last clause hides what’s really going on: corporations reward CEOs while pushing down wages.

On the other hand, the one time Clinton actually puts the blame squarely on the economic villains is at a key moment in her story. Here, repeating a key theme of the Roosevelt Institute’s “Rewriting the Rules” report, she says that rather than solely blaming “advances in technology and the rise of global trade” on “displaced jobs and undercut wages,” she points her finger at Wall Street. “The financial industry and many multi-national corporations have created huge wealth for a few by focusing too much on short-term profit and too little on long-term value…too much on complex trading schemes and stock buybacks, too little on investments in new businesses, jobs, and fair compensation.”

So if “top-down economics” doesn’t work, what does? Clinton declares, “I’m running to make our economy work for you and for every American.” But while she provides a long list of policies to do that, all of which would be positive, she doesn’t explain an organizing idea that contrasts with trickle-down. Democrats need that, because without it, they don’t have an understandable narrative to compete with the Republican story about businesses being the job creators and government regulations—even those that people like—hurting business and the economy.

Fortunately, we have that organizing idea, which O’Malley supplies in one simple phrase: “A stronger middle class is not the consequence of economic growth—a stronger middle class is the cause of economic growth.”

This is the same powerful, organizing idea that we communicate in the progressive economic narrative when we say, “working families and the middle class are the engines of the economy,” and that billionaire businessman Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu explain by saying, “we build the economy from the middle-out, instead of trickle-down.”

Clinton declares correctly that, “Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other,” but she doesn’t explain why. It’s an easy but crucial step to make the point that policies that are fair, like raising the minimum wage, are key to boosting the economy by putting more money into people’s pockets to spend in their communities.

This missing explanation would give more umph to the superheroes in Clinton’s story: hard-working Americans. “You worked extra shifts, took second jobs, postponed home repairs… you figured out how to make it work…You brought our country back.” It would be an easy and transformative lift for her to explain to Americans that they are not just heroes for working through the pain. They are heroes because when they have good jobs and can care for and support their families, they drive the economy forward.

Clinton concludes her speech with her version of the progressive meta-narrative, “we all do better when we all do better.” She says, “we’re a better, stronger, more prosperous country when we harness the talent, hard work, and ingenuity of every single American.” That’s not just a statement of values, but a story about how we build that better, stronger, more prosperous country.

This early in the presidential race, Clinton is a few key steps from telling a powerful story about how we can build an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy and powerful—the kind of story that, like the one told by FDR, can move the country to meet our biggest challenges. Those steps include not repeating conservative economic ideas because they are popular and not flinching from naming today’s “economic royalists,” in FDR’s language. The key is helping everyday Americans understand the economics behind why they are truly the heroes of our story.   

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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New Polling on Inequality: What We've Learned (or, What We Knew All Along)

Jun 4, 2015Eric Harris Bernstein

New polling confirms what many of us long believed: The majority of Americans—rich and poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats—agree that income, opportunity, and influence are unfairly concentrated at the top and that these disparities are growing. Further, Americans support government action to address this structural inequality and rewrite the rules of our economy.

New polling confirms what many of us long believed: The majority of Americans—rich and poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats—agree that income, opportunity, and influence are unfairly concentrated at the top and that these disparities are growing. Further, Americans support government action to address this structural inequality and rewrite the rules of our economy.

Contrary to the popular narrative that concern over inequality divides along partisan lines, the latest CBS/New York Times poll finds bipartisan agreement about numerous dimensions of the problem. 61 percent of respondents feel money and wealth should be more evenly distributed, while 66 percent believe that only the wealthy can get ahead in today's economy. In addition, 57 percent believe the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. Perhaps most surprisingly, 74 percent of Americans—the third-largest cohort of the entire poll—agree that corporations have too much influence on American life and politics. That number includes 62 percent of Republicans.

Given the economic reality, these results are unsurprising. Years after the financial crisis, American families are still scraping by. Americans now understand that the fundamentals of our economy are not working to produce shared prosperity. There is popular and bipartisan support, it seems, for policies that will help rebalance our economy so everyone can participate and benefit.

Though the economic reality is grave, the broad consensus is encouraging. It implies the collective will to act and shows that the left–right gap in political ideology is not as large as some in Washington and in the media have suggested.

It also reaffirms what we at Roosevelt have long been sensing: across gender, political ideology, and all income distributions, not a single group feels that most Americans have a fair chance to get ahead and not a single group feels that the situation is improving. A mere 5 percent of those surveyed agree that the gap between rich and poor is shrinking, while a 10-point majority of Republicans agree that opportunity is skewed unequally toward a small minority at the top. 

Some groups are wary of the vague prospect of the government “doing more,” but when it comes to specific initiatives, the numbers shift back in favor of policies that will boost equality. On raising the minimum wage and taxes on earners making over $1 million per year, 71 and 68 percent are in favor, including 50 and 53 percent of Republicans, respectively. 

Issues like these, in addition to fair labor practices like paid sick and family leave, are no-brainers for Washington. At Roosevelt, we believe that reforms need to go deeper and wider, to strike a new balance between shared opportunity and the power that currently dominates our political economy.

At its core, this poll illustrates public desire for comprehensive reform, along the lines of the Rewriting the Rules agenda released by Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz last month. This includes reforms to monetary policy, trade policy, labor law, and checks on the dominance and dysfunction of the financial sector. Admittedly, some of our proposed reforms, like stronger union rights and a financial transactions tax, underperformed in this poll, but it is our honest assessment that with open dialogue and more public education, these issues would find widespread support. Structural reforms like these will not only shift the balance of power away from the top and toward all Americans, but will spur growth as well.

This is just the latest of indicators that inequality of wealth and opportunity are the defining issues of our time. Candidates from both sides of the aisle must respond to popular demand by delivering policies that will rewrite the rules of the economy for the benefit of all.

Eric Harris Bernstein is a Program Associate at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Remember When Everyone Was Terrified About the Carry Trade? New Score.

May 27, 2015Mike Konczal

I have a piece in The Nation discussing the Death of Centrism. A lot of people are discussing why the economic discussion has shifted to the left in liberal circles, and one of the big reasons is that the specific predictions centrists (as a movement, not a temperament) made about the economy didn't pan out.

It's very difficult to convey how different the conversation was back then. Here's a 2010 op-ed by Peter Orszag arguing that "much more deficit reduction, enacted now, to take effect in two to three years" as well as "an improvement in the relationship between business and government" are both necessary to boost the short-term economy. (He also argues against QE2 because monetary expansion might help prevent a Grand Bargain on the budget.) When researching this piece, Josh Bivens reminded me the administration was freaking out in 2009 about how the "carry trade" could cause interest rates to spike at a moment's notice, an argument that seems ridiculous with rates so low six years later.

All the centrists got was a counterproductive spending cut, one the GOP immediately reneged, and none of their actual goals. And now their arguments are completely absent from the debate right now. I hope you check it out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

I have a piece in The Nation discussing the Death of Centrism. A lot of people are discussing why the economic discussion has shifted to the left in liberal circles, and one of the big reasons is that the specific predictions centrists (as a movement, not a temperament) made about the economy didn't pan out.

It's very difficult to convey how different the conversation was back then. Here's a 2010 op-ed by Peter Orszag arguing that "much more deficit reduction, enacted now, to take effect in two to three years" as well as "an improvement in the relationship between business and government" are both necessary to boost the short-term economy. (He also argues against QE2 because monetary expansion might help prevent a Grand Bargain on the budget.) When researching this piece, Josh Bivens reminded me the administration was freaking out in 2009 about how the "carry trade" could cause interest rates to spike at a moment's notice, an argument that seems ridiculous with rates so low six years later.

All the centrists got was a counterproductive spending cut, one the GOP immediately reneged, and none of their actual goals. And now their arguments are completely absent from the debate right now. I hope you check it out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Natalie Foster: Reimagine the Safety Net for the New Economy

May 21, 2015Laurie Ignacio

In the final installment of our "Good Economy of 2040" video series, we hear from Natalie Foster, co-founder of Peers.org and Rebuild the Dream.

In the final installment of our "Good Economy of 2040" video series, we hear from Natalie Foster, co-founder of Peers.org and Rebuild the Dream.

In order to ensure a good economy in 25 years, Foster would reimagine the safety net for the 21st century. “It’s important that we stop thinking about jobs and start talking about livelihoods as people will derive their income from a variety of different sources,” says Foster. She adds that we need a safety net that is designed not for the “old industrial economy where everyone had 9-to-5 jobs," but "for people who live much more fluid and free lives but who also have a greater level of economic instability."

To learn more about the future of the safety net, check out the links below

“Two Leaders in Labor Rethink The Safety Net For A Freelance Economy” (NationSwell)

“Safety Nets for Freelancers” (NY Times)

“George Takei and Michael Buckley on the Sharing Economy” (YouTube/AARP)

Natalie Foster has spent the last 15 years at the crossroads of social movements and technology. She’s transformed and run some of the largest digital teams in the country, including President Obama’s successful effort to pass health reform, and built two organizations from scratch. Most recently, Foster co-founded Peers.org, the world’s largest independent sharing economy community. Prior to Peers, she was the CEO and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a platform for people–driven economic change, with Van Jones. 

 

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Better Community Investment Will Pay Dividends for Colleges

May 19, 2015Emma Copeland

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

In recent weeks, the debate about holding colleges accountable has focused on schools’ responsibilities toward failing students, continuously rising tuition, and increasing student debt. What’s been overlooked is the role of colleges as a potential force for good within their more immediate communities. Indeed, one of the most profound ways a university can improve the holistic experience of its students is to invest more in the surrounding community.

Presently, many four-year institutions entrust the bulk of their money to low-risk funds or national banks like Bank of America. The money that flows into a school never directly returns to the community, and it is often the case that low-income residents near a college must battle gentrification, stagnation, or both. For example, New York University’s $3.5 billion endowment is currently invested in national banks such as Bank of America, Chase, and Citibank, none of which are directly involved in developing the community around NYU.

Outside of investment, universities and colleges spend a huge amount of money that has the potential to directly affect the communities around them. Big schools like Michigan State University, which purchases nearly $87 million worth of goods and services annually, could spend mere fractions of this number on local small businesses, causing them to flourish like never before.

As a student at a four-year public university in Northern Virginia, I know a few things about debt and personal economic stagnation. To say “the United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education” might be the understatement of the decade. So how can we shake up the status quo?

We need to start holding colleges accountable not just to the government but to their communities. As anchor institutions, they have the power to provide economic growth and stability and serve as cornerstones of their communities due to their role as large permanent employers with significant investment capabilities. They are also permanent physical landmarks that serve as points of pride for their members as well as nearby residents.

Colleges and universities tend to be huge anchor institutions due to their extensive reach in a variety of commercial activities, immense diversity of employment throughout their numerous departments, and the vital exchange of wealth between students, alumni, trustees, fans, and neighbors to the school. It is time for these institutions to begin making a concerted effort to develop and invest locally for the long term.

The first way we can hold colleges accountable as anchor institutions is by encouraging and facilitating responsible purchasing from locally owned and operated businesses for anything from food to office supplies. This would allow small businesses to leap into the big leagues, and colleges have a responsibility to support the entrepreneurial efforts of graduates who choose to settle nearby as well as the local business owners who employ their students and alumni. Even 10 percent of the funds earmarked for paper products for a large public institution such as the University of Michigan would be the number one account for a local business struggling to compete with national suppliers. Working with these businesses to help increase their production capacity and streamline various processes would ultimately result in a symbiotic exchange of tailored quality for vital business development. Colleges have too long relied on one-size-fits-all corporations to supply their food, office supplies, cleaning services, and more. In the long-run, establishing relationships with local providers enables both the institution and the businesses to thrive as each respects and relies on the other.

Second, universities should be responsible for investing locally. Universities often have access to far more capital than the cities and towns that surround them, but they invest in distant fossil fuel companies, huge national banks, or even Israeli military efforts.  As anchor institutions, colleges should invest in their communities through community development financial institutions (CDFIs). By promising to invest a majority of its cash-on-hand in the surrounding community, a CDFI is able to safely give loans to small businesses, prospective college students and families, and new homeowners. These kinds of investments improve the lives and livelihoods of community members not directly affiliated with the anchor institutions. This is particularly vital because non-anchor institutions like large-scale banks are often unwilling to invest in these low-income communities because of the economic risk.

Colleges are institutions that can help a struggling or non-competitive community find its feet. If we hold them accountable in the right way, as institutions of economic growth for the long-term, colleges can begin to boast many more achievements and far fewer failures.

Emma Copeland is a junior at George Mason University, a 10 Ideas author, and a member of the Campus Network's Braintrust.

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