FDR Called Minimum Wage Critics "Hopelessly Reactionary." He Was Right.

Mar 19, 2013David B. Woolner

Like President Obama, FDR faced resistance to guaranteeing workers a decent wage, but he knew he had the American people on his side.

Our Nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers' wages or stretching workers' hours.

Like President Obama, FDR faced resistance to guaranteeing workers a decent wage, but he knew he had the American people on his side.

Our Nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers' wages or stretching workers' hours.

Enlightened business is learning that competition ought not to cause bad social consequences which inevitably react upon the profits of business itself. All but the hopelessly reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of man power, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor and the exploitation of unorganized labor. –FDR, May 1937

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and to link the future minimum wage rate to inflation. In doing so, the president took note of the fact that at today’s minimum wage, a family with two children that works full time sill lives below the poverty line. This, he insisted, is unacceptable, as “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” Higher wages, the president insisted, “could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.” And for businesses across the country, it would mean “customers with more money in their pockets,” which translates into the simple fact that “our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.”

Not surprisingly, the president’s call for an increase in the minimum wage has elicited a somewhat predicable response from conservative Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner has called the idea “a job killer,” while House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan called it “inflationary” and “counter-productive.” Some Republican leaders, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have even gone so far as to advocate doing away with minimum wage/maximum hours laws altogether.

Interestingly, the legislation that gave us the minimum wage, the Fair Labor Standards Act, was also promoted by Franklin Roosevelt in his January 1938 State of the Union address. Here, after taking note of the fact that “millions of industrial workers receive pay so low that they have little buying power,” and hence “suffer great human hardship,” FDR also pointed out that these same workers are “unable to buy adequate food and shelter, to maintain health or to buy their share of manufactured goods,” all of which he insisted was a drag on our national economy.

Moreover, even though a majority of Americans—much like today—supported the passage of legislation that would set minimum wages and maximum hours, the Fair Labor Standards Act aroused fierce opposition among FDR’s conservative critics. The National Association of Manufacturers insisted that the law was but the first step in taking the country down the road to “communism, bolshevism, fascism and Nazism.” The National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government insisted the act was unconstitutional and part of a larger conspiracy to turn the president into a dictator. To counter these absurd claims, FDR turned to one of his most effective tools, the Fireside Chat, where he calmly cautioned the American people:

not [to] let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000.00 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company's undistributed reserves, tell you—using his stockholders’ money to pay the postage for his personal opinions—tell you that a wage of $11.00 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry. Fortunately for business as a whole, and therefore for the Nation, that type of executive is a rarity with whom most business executives most heartily disagree.

Since its passage in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act has helped improve the lives of millions of American workers—especially those at the bottom rung of the income scale. Moreover, contrary to the fear mongers of 1938 and today, minimum wage and maximum hours legislation has not been disastrous for American business. In fact, study after study shows that, on balance, raising the minimum wage has been good for the economy and business overall because it increases the purchasing power of the American consumer.

Given the sluggish state of our economy, and given the fact that the minimum wage as it stands today, when adjusted for inflation, falls far below the hourly income levels achieved in the mid to late 1960s, isn’t it time to offer hard-working Americans a pay increase?

In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt argued that if we want to move “resolutely to extend the frontiers of social progress, we must…ever bear in mind that our objective is to improve and not to impair the standard of living of those who are now undernourished, poorly clad and ill-housed.”

If Congress is serious about improving and not impairing the lives of the millions of working poor in this country, then it needs to act to reverse the downward spiral in hourly income that has occurred in the past four decades and get behind President Obama’s call for an increase in the minimum wage. The president is right. It is outrageous that in the richest country on earth, a person who works full-time is still forced to live in poverty. Surely the simple idea that an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay is something that all Americans—even conservative Republicans—can agree should be part of the American dream.

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

 

Rich man underpaying worker image via Shutterstock.com.

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The Budget Wars: An Outbreak of Sanity or the Foundations for a New Offensive?

Mar 18, 2013Bo Cutter

The partisan divide over the budget may seem unbridgeable, but there's a deal to be had if both sides want it.

I'll open by acknowledging a considerable difference between my budget/fiscal policy hopes and my actual predictions. My hopes for the emergence of a doable centrist budget strategy from the Obama administration have never come close to reality. My predictions that nothing much will happen have mostly been correct. So where are we now?

The partisan divide over the budget may seem unbridgeable, but there's a deal to be had if both sides want it.

I'll open by acknowledging a considerable difference between my budget/fiscal policy hopes and my actual predictions. My hopes for the emergence of a doable centrist budget strategy from the Obama administration have never come close to reality. My predictions that nothing much will happen have mostly been correct. So where are we now?

We're in the middle of the clash of ideology, reality, what Edward Luttwag calls "the autism of great powers" applied to domestic politics, and an organizational-bureaucratic brain freeze. Both the left and right are deeply mired in the ideologies of another time and another universe. Reality has played out contrary to all expectations. The "great powers" keep saying the same things because that's what they said yesterday. And the various bureaucracies are all essentially impermeable to new strategies and have no idea what steps to take now.

There are some parallels here to Bill Clinton and the spring of 1995. (Just to be clear, I was an enthusiastic part of that administration.) In the 1994 congressional elections, the Clinton administration had been clobbered. For the first time in 40 years, the Republicans won both houses of Congress, gaining eight seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House. It was a grim time in the White House, made grimmer by the standoff over 1994-95 spending and the government shutdown that then ensued. Bill Clinton won the public relations battle around the shutdown but, in retrospect, clearly began to be uneasy over how dug-in over budget/deficit issues his own White House was. And it was Bill Clinton, acting on his own, who moved his administration toward a balanced budget as a goal, toward the political center, and toward a huge victory in 1996.

Is something similar happening now?

The circumstances are obviously not exactly the same today. President Obama has won his second term and is now trying to establish the basis for a successful second term and a legacy for the ages.

Just a few weeks ago, the second-term strategy, clearly signaled by the White House, was to run against the Republican House and focus almost completely on turning the House in the 2014 elections. Not that anyone asked, but I thought this was a terrible strategy. (And no, the Truman 1948 "Do-Nothing Congress" campaign is not even remotely an analogue.) Winning the House in 2014 is an uphill fight with the odds very much against the president. If you as the president try and then lose, you can be certain that you will get nothing in your last two years -- because you invested your first two in depicting your political opponents as the nation's enemies. If you try and actually win, you won't win much because your power ebbs so rapidly in those last two years. All those House seats you won will be filled by moderates who are looking to a future when you won't be there.

I saw this as the common problem of poker players who don't understand the central issue of money odds versus card odds. It's okay to draw to inside straights if the pot is giving you money odds that are more in your favor than the card odds are against you. Which is to say low-probability strategies are fine if you really know the odds and the payoff is big enough. The problem in this specific case is that the odds are worse and the payoff for success less than the enthusiasts believe.

But suddenly we're in the middle of a charm fest, filled with dinners and meetings and discussions, all about the budget, that were never anticipated. What happened? Reality happened.

I think there is at least a chance that President Obama noticed developments out there in the real world, saw that his own White House was dug in on a low probability/low return strategy and unlikely to change, and moved on his own.

What, possibly, did the president see?

The end-of-the-year tax increases on upper-income families did not lead to the uprising Republicans expected. But they also did not spark the public expressions of devotion that the White House wanted.

Then sequestration happened, which no one expected, and it was a political non-event. The public did not turn against Republicans because of the budget cuts. But it also became obvious to everyone that sequestration makes all of government a bit worse, and is more than anything else a sign of an utter absence of political leadership or comity.

Then the picture of the economy became a bit clearer. Here's my view: enjoy this nice employment bump we've had and the decent first quarter (which is basically over), because it's the last of the good news. The rest of the year will probably be pretty slow, and the sequester will probably cost us about 500,000 jobs, mostly in the private sector. If you're President Obama, you know one thing for certain: any chance you have of building a great second-term legacy will be sunk if the economy stays mediocre and you're spending your time entrenched in the budget wars.

Finally, the polls began to tell a story. In the most recent Washington Post - ABC News poll, President Obama's approval ratings have dropped 5 points to about 50 percent since his reelection. And the 18-point advantage the president had over the Congress regarding whom the public trusted more to handle the economy has fallen to 4 points. 50 percent of independents now have a negative view of the president's performance compared to 44 percent with a positive view. Since the end of World War II, only two second-term presidents, Obama and George W. Bush, have had approval ratings this low this early. (This is not good company.)

Meanwhile, of course, the ongoing public debate involves all of the normal agita. Representative Paul Ryan and the Republican House have put out a House budget that progressives hate. And Senator Patty Murray and the Senate Democrats have offered a counter-budget that conservatives hate. The two, of course, have nothing to do with each other, and cannot possibly be used as the basis for a true compromise or "deal." I think they are like the cans of sardines in the joke: they're there for trading, not eating. Judging by the mail I keep getting telling me breathlessly there is a desperate need for me to give money to save us from Paul Ryan (I'd bet the conservative side is raising money to save us from Patty Murray), I sometimes suspect that the left and right got together and agreed to put out two undoable budgets as organizing and fundraising mechanisms. Thankfully, we really do not have to spend a dime to defend ourselves against either Ryan or Murray. Both of their efforts are basically sideshows.

What I hope is happening -- and a few friends in various places think is happening -- is that both sides are looking at all this and concluding they can't be at all confident they have winning hands, and maybe it's better to see if there's a deal to be had. It will be hard to do anything else of real importance until this issue is settled; it will just sit there offering opportunities for completely unproductive fights several times every year. President Obama has a much lower chance of building a real legacy unless the issue is settled. And the hell of it is that if you decide to solve the problem over a decade, it actually isn't that hard.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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A New Pope Brings New Hope for Ending Austerity

Mar 18, 2013Tim Price

If Pope Francis raises his voice on behalf of the poor, he could deal the final blow to austerity economics.

If Pope Francis raises his voice on behalf of the poor, he could deal the final blow to austerity economics.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That’s a quote from the New Testament, but it’s easy to imagine many in Europe expressing the same sentiment today, and I don’t just mean the crowd that gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica last week to watch the newly elected Pope Francis make his first address. It applies just as much to austerity advocates throughout the European Union who continue to assure themselves that economic growth and recovery will come if they just keep cutting deeper. As Pope Francis leads the Church into a new era, he may also be able to help bring the age of austerity to a close.

The man formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a lot of hopes pinned on him, not the least of which is that he’ll serve as an advocate for the poor and an opponent of the economic policies that are afflicting them. The left has been let down on this front before; Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the “scandal of glaring inequalities" and condemned “unregulated financial capitalism,” but most progressives wouldn’t exactly consider him a staunch ally given his rejection of just about everything else they believe in. Already, critics have highlighted Pope Francis’s condemnation of gay rights and rumored collaboration with Argentine’s dictatorship, and as Mother Jones’s Eric Kain writes, “If the cardinals had elected a pro-choice pope, that would have been real news.”

But there are reasons to believe progressive optimism about Pope Francis isn’t totally misplaced. E.J. Dionne notes that he’s “the first pope to take the name of the saint known for his devotion to humility and to the poor.” He’s also the first pope from Latin America, which brings a new perspective to the Vatican and suggests that he’s “likely to weigh in often on behalf of the world’s poorest regions.” And to top it all off, he’s a Jesuit, which even among Catholics makes him the equivalent of that guy from college who made you feel bad by telling you he spent his summer volunteering with Habitat for Humanity while you were busy doing tequila shots. (There are also anecdotes about the modest life he chose to lead, but that feels uncomfortably close to saying Scott Brown would make a good senator because he drove a truck.)

Still, even if the new pope does emerge as a progressive voice on these issues, some might be tempted (no pun or theological implications intended) to dismiss his influence on economic policy. Regardless of whether you believe he’s really infallible, he’s still just one man (albeit one with a whole lot of employees), and the architects of austerity won’t be swayed by the power of prayer alone. But even they may be starting to question their beliefs – with their citizens protesting in the streets and voting them out of office, they don’t have much choice. The Associated Press reports that European leaders “aren't backing away aggressively from budget cuts and higher taxes, but they are increasingly trying to temper these policies, which have stifled growth and made it harder for many countries to bring their deficits under control.” A strong and sustained condemnation from the Holy See would make their position even more tenuous, even if the Church’s power in Europe is greatly diminished from what it once was. It might even give pause to austerity sympathizers on this side of the Atlantic, like former altar boy Paul Ryan. Okay, maybe we can’t expect miracles.

In Europe, the U.S., and throughout the world, people are losing faith in their leaders. Policies that attempt to prop up the status quo of a broken financial system while ignoring and even exacerbating real human suffering have made us feel cynical, isolated, and angry. Pope Francis has been called on to lead the Catholic Church, but he has an opportunity to provide some much needed guidance to people of all faiths or none. The message that will make that possible is not a sectarian one, but a universal one. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and caring for those in need, not supporting the rich and powerful, has to be the top priority of a healthy, sustainable society. In our holy texts and our constitutions, we’ve made that promise. Now it’s time to keep the faith.

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

 

Pope Francis image via Shutterstock.com.

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Making Sense of a Deficit-Obsessed, Gridlocked Congress

Mar 4, 2013

Budget cuts that were never supposed to happen because they were so unpalatable for both parties just went into effect. How did we get to a place where Washington is obsessed with budget-cutting in a time of mass unemployment and unable to save us from its own actions? Some new research from our friends at the Scholars Strategy Network can help make sense of the chaos.

Budget cuts that were never supposed to happen because they were so unpalatable for both parties just went into effect. How did we get to a place where Washington is obsessed with budget-cutting in a time of mass unemployment and unable to save us from its own actions? Some new research from our friends at the Scholars Strategy Network can help make sense of the chaos. Joseph White dives deep into the roots of a gridlocked and dysfunctional Congress and shows that it's not just extreme Republicans who are to blame, but also so-called "centrist" budget hawks. But even when those budget hawks claim to have the support of the American people behind them as they call for draconian cuts, Benjamin Page exposes the fact that they're just siding with the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, the fallout from artificially created fiscal crises isn't just short-term economic pain, but the creation of even riskier long-term conditions, as shown by Sarah Quinn's research. And Anne Mayhew makes the case that we'll never break the fever of deficit hysteria until the average American has a better grasp of how money actually works. Check it all out here.

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Mike Konczal: The BP Trial Could Be Environmental Regulation's Last Stand

Mar 4, 2013

This past weekend, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal joined a panel on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the significance of the BP trial and the true cost of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Because of weak laws and regulatory capture, Mike says, the civil court system "is ultimately the last form of regulation we have." But will the punishment, if any, fit the crime?

This past weekend, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal joined a panel on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the significance of the BP trial and the true cost of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Because of weak laws and regulatory capture, Mike says, the civil court system "is ultimately the last form of regulation we have." But will the punishment, if any, fit the crime? "It's one thing for them to say, 'There's all these damages and we're going to pay them out.' That's just basic fairness," Mike argues. But "without a serious payout that is punitive and that actually deters future behavior, we're going to see more things like this." Unfortunately, "People will tally up things that they can measure, but human suffering, third-order poverty that has skyrocketed as a result of all this industry collapse, that is very difficult to put a price tag on."

Watch the full video of Mike's appearance below:




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FDR Put Humanity First. The Sequester Puts It Last.

Mar 1, 2013David B. Woolner

FDR placed the needs of the American people above petty budgetary concerns, but today's leaders lack his courage and vision.

In 1933 we reversed the policy of the previous Administration. For the first time since the depression you had a Congress and an Administration in Washington which had the courage to provide the necessary resources which private interests no longer had or no longer dared to risk.

FDR placed the needs of the American people above petty budgetary concerns, but today's leaders lack his courage and vision.

In 1933 we reversed the policy of the previous Administration. For the first time since the depression you had a Congress and an Administration in Washington which had the courage to provide the necessary resources which private interests no longer had or no longer dared to risk.

This cost money. We knew, and you knew, in March, 1933, that it would cost money. We knew, and you knew, that it would cost money for several years to come. The people understood that in 1933. They understood it in 1934, when they gave the Administration a full endorsement of its policy. They knew in 1935, and they know in 1936, that the plan is working.—FDR, 1936

Eighty years ago this month, at the height of the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on his promise to launch a New Deal for the American people. Not wedded to any one program, idea, or ideology, the New Deal was founded on the very simple premise that when the free market failed to provide basic economic security for the average American, government had a responsibility to provide that security. In Roosevelt’s day, this meant imposing the first-ever meaningful regulation of the stock market, shoring up the nation’s financial system by guaranteeing private deposits and separating commercial from investment banking, and providing jobs to the millions of unemployed through government expenditures on infrastructure. The Roosevelt administration also launched the country’s first nation-wide program of unemployment insurance to help the unemployed bridge the gap between jobs as well as Social Security to ensure that the elderly, after years of work and toil, would not suddenly find themselves utterly destitute.

Conservative critics of FDR’s polices say that these programs did not work—that unemployment remained high throughout the 1930s and that it was only World War II that brought us out of the Great Depression. As such, these same critics continually argue that the deficit spending that fueled the New Deal was the root cause of its inability to bring the unemployment rate down to acceptable levels. In short, they argue that government spending and government programs do not work, and that only the free market can provide the economic stimulus necessary to get the economy back on its feet again. 

But as is the case today with the naysayers on climate change, the empirical evidence suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. During FDR’s first term, for example, the average annual growth rate for the U.S. economy was 11 percent. Compare that to the paltry 0.8 percent we have witnessed in the first term of the Obama administration. The nationwide unemployment rate also fell, from its all-time high of 25 percent in 1933 to 14 percent by 1935, which at the time represented the largest and fastest drop in unemployment in our nation’s history.

But far more damning to the conservative critique is the argument that tries to invalidate the New Deal by positing that it was World War II and not the relief programs of the 1930s that brought us out of the Great Depression. Conservatives love to trumpet this fact and often use it as part of their argument against deficit spending, never stopping for a moment to consider that government expenditures—and deficits—in World War II made the New Deal look like small potatoes. In fact, deficit spending in the New Deal never topped 6 percent of GNP, while in World War II it ran as high as 28 percent. In other words, World War II was the New Deal on steroids. Viewed from this perspective, it is FDR’s critics on the left—not the right—who possess the stronger argument. The problem with the New Deal was that it did not go far enough. In other words, the government should have spent more money, not less, if it was going to be successful in bringing the economic crisis to an end.

All this is not to say that free enterprise is incapable of producing economic growth—it most certainly is. But there are times when capitalism, left to its own devices, can fail. Franklin Roosevelt was willing to acknowledge this, and he spent the better part of his tenure in office trying to put in place programs that would make capitalism work for the average American, not just those at the top. Hence, his agenda was not to subvert or destroy the free market system, but rather to save it.

It took vision and courage to launch the New Deal—the vision to understand that when the free market systems falls short or fails, government has a responsibility to take direct measures to get the economy moving again, and the courage to engage in deficit spending at a time when orthodox economic theory argued that the only proper response to an economic recession or depression was to slash government spending and balance the budget.

Unfortunately, the leadership we possess in Washington today lacks the vision and the courage to follow FDR’s example and put in place the sort of common-sense programs that would stimulate the economy and put people back to work. Instead of providing jobs for millions by spending money on our failing infrastructure—now ranked 24th in the world—or investing in programs that would reverse the falling education rates of our children, or providing greater federal support for the basic scientific research that may unlock untold benefits for future generations, we instead speak of nothing but the deficit and the sequester, as if cutting spending in the midst of recession is the magic bullet that will lead us out of our economic malaise.

Franklin Roosevelt faced similar critics, who, much like today’s deficit hawks, insisted that he must cut spending and balance the budget no matter what the consequences for the average American. But FDR would have none of this. “To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935,” he said,

would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.

As it turns out, FDR’s decision to put “humanity first” was not only the right moral decision, it was also the right economic decision. For the deficit spending that he finally unleashed in World War II, coupled with the social and economic reforms put in place during the New Deal, led to one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in America’s history and the birth of the modern American middle class.

Sadly, all of the evidence to date suggests that our leaders in Washington are quite happy “to pass by on the other side” and let the sequester proceed without so much as a fight. With roughly 16 million people across the country still unemployed, this is surely “a crime against the American people.”

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

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In Sandy's Wake, Millennials Must Take the Lead on Preventing Future Disasters

Mar 1, 2013Melia Ungson

Though Superstorm Sandy is fading from the headlines, we must keep working to help its victims and build a safer future.

Though Superstorm Sandy is fading from the headlines, we must keep working to help its victims and build a safer future.

On October 29, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, leaving damage strewn across the Caribbean in its wake. With a diameter of 820 miles, Sandy was the largest Atlantic tropical storm to date and caused roughly $50 billion in damage, making it the second most costly disaster after Hurricane Katrina. Hospitals were evacuated, the stock exchange was closed for the first time since 1888, levees broke, the New York City subway flooded, power was cut to 8 million homes, and communities were left to cope with property damage and the loss of loved ones. While damage and hardship were widespread, the storm greatly affected the region’s most vulnerable: the poor, the ill, and the elderly.

The storm may be long over, but its effects are still tangible today. To ensure a strong recovery and resilient future, it is essential that people continue to engage, innovate, and take action on issues related to Sandy’s impact and larger implications. As the people who will be grappling with future storms, environmental issues, health impacts, and community vulnerability, Millennials can and must make a considerable contribution in determining how we move forward.

Communities have proven resilient, with businesses, politicians, utility workers, organizations, and residents uniting to help provide relief and begin rebuilding, but there are still many ongoing struggles and lingering questions. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, there were calls to address climate change and outdated infrastructure, but that sense of urgency has largely subsided. Hospitals are coping with the closure of facilities and an overflow of patients. More than 3,500 families in the region still have no home and others no heat, relying on continued support from FEMA. Those whose flooded homes did withstand the storm face the problem of mold, and homeowners along the coast are worried about the increasing cost of flood insurance. President Obama cited Sandy’s disruptions to economic activity as one reason why the economy shrunk in the last quarter of 2012. Clearly, though Sandy has faded from the headlines, many in the Northeast are still feeling its effects.           

Other communities across the country are similarly grappling with the lasting impact of extreme weather events. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just over seven years ago, and while there has been much progress, people are still coping with its effects. Under half of the pre-Katrina bus routes are running in New Orleans, a third of low-income mothers in the city are still suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms, and many homes remain abandoned or damaged. Even when Sandy hit the Northeast in October, New Jersey and other parts of the region were still recovering from Hurricane Irene, which made landfall in August 2011. Given this recognition that a storm’s impact lasts long after its landfall, it is particularly important that we continue to monitor recovery and develop innovative solutions in Sandy’s aftermath.

Government, in its capacity as a steward of the common good, has a critical role in leading relief efforts and promoting development strategies that will reduce vulnerability. Many elected officials have embraced this role. Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed purchasing homes that were damaged by Sandy, tearing them down, and maintaining the easily flooded areas as undeveloped land, which would serve as a natural buffer to protect coastal communities. While not yet approved, that program, which would pay residents the pre-storm value of their now damaged homes and offer incentives for others in vulnerable areas to sell and relocate, would cost roughly $400 million and involve approximately 10,000 homes in the 100-year flood plain. However, many elected officials have avoided some of the most difficult questions. This past August, North Carolina’s state legislature passed a law that banned the use of the latest data on sea level rise when planning coastal development, leaving residents along the coast without the long-term strategies that could reduce vulnerability to floods, storms, and rising oceans.

Students and other young people are determined to consider these difficult questions and build on innovative policy solutions. As we approach the six-month mark of Superstorm Sandy in April, Millennials around the Northeast are coming together to examine what has been done and is being done to help affected groups and to consider the best ways to protect our communities in the future. With the state of emergency now in the past, we have a measure of distance and perspective that makes it possible to envision strategies for a more resilient future in addition to ongoing recovery efforts. There are serious concerns that warming oceans may provide fuel for increasingly powerful storms, but climate change isn't the only issue that warrants attention. We must also consider how we prepare and build, how we support the most vulnerable members of our communities, and how we can fairly and effectively respond after a disaster. Many community organizations, decision makers, members of the defense community, and businesses have been eager to engage in this discussion and have proposed changes to emergency response and infrastructure. Millennials, many of whom felt Sandy’s impact, are eager to push this conversation and action forward. If we fail to act today, they are the ones who will be affected by and tasked with addressing these challenges in the years to come. 

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Northeast Regional Coordinator.

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Sequestration: A Totally Avoidable Disaster That Was Bound to Happen

Feb 28, 2013Tim Price

Republicans have issued so many absurd economic threats that one of them was eventually going to come true.

Republicans have issued so many absurd economic threats that one of them was eventually going to come true.

Fingers are pointing in every direction as politicians and pundits assign blame for the automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in tomorrow night. But in truth, it was a real team effort. And something this stupid didn’t just happen overnight; it took a few years of hard work and dedication. These high-stakes games of chicken have become a fixture of American politics during the Obama presidency. In the past, one side or the other has always blinked at the last minute. But the latest iteration looks like it will end in a head-on collision, and while the resulting wreck will be grisly, it might provide the shock to the system we need to steer our political debate back on course.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama declared, “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.” The key word there is “manufactured.” Facing mass unemployment, widening inequality, rising health care costs, the threat of climate change, and instability in the Middle East, just to name a few concerns, one would think our lawmakers had more than enough legitimate problems to worry about. But congressional Republicans have proven themselves to be entrepreneurial problem-makers since the night of Obama’s first inauguration, when they gathered to plot his downfall.

From the beginning, the Republican strategy has been one of total opposition, but that backfired once they regained control of the House of Representatives and were actually expected to govern. As a result, writes E.J. Dionne, “The country has been put through a series of destructive showdowns over budget issues we once resolved through the normal give-and-take of negotiations.” The situation reached a boiling point in summer 2011, when Republicans threatened to let the federal government hit the debt ceiling. (No, not that time. The time before that.) Although there’s been a lot of back and forth about whether the White House deserves some or all of the blame for creating the sequester in the first place, it’s worth remembering that the debt ceiling debacle basically forced Obama’s hand. The result was the Budget Control Act, which established a bipartisan and famously useless “Super Committee” to hammer out a long-term deficit reduction plan. The Sword of Damocles hanging over the committee’s heads was sequestration, a mixture of automatic budget cuts designed to be so unpalatable to both parties that they would be forced to find an alternative solution – until they didn’t. Whoops.

Aiding and abetting Republicans throughout this misadventure were the deficit hawks, who grew tired of hearing about the economic crisis almost as soon as it began. They wanted to get back to more serious topics of discussion, like why the Obama administration was suddenly spending so much money. (Could it be… the economic crisis?) Twelve million people unemployed? Meh. One in five children living below the poverty line? Boring. Debt-to-GDP ratio approaching 90 percent? Sweet Rogoff, it’s time to declare a state of emergency! This relentless elite-level concern trolling drove the political debate to the far right while supposedly giving voice to the moderate middle, enabling the GOP’s worst policy instincts.

Now that things are once again down to the wire, Congress is scrambling to find a last-minute fix, but this time it looks like they’ll come up short. A Republican proposal that would have given President Obama more discretion over how to implement the cuts failed after Obama rightly dismissed it as an attempt to keep all the cuts in place while shifting all the blame onto him. A Democratic proposal to replace the sequester with a more balanced package of cuts and revenue was dead on arrival. And no one seems willing or able to simply cancel the cuts and call the whole thing off. As Adam West once said, some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

The consequences of sequestration will almost certainly be dire. In a survey of top economists conducted by The New Republic, most predicted that it would slow our already anemic economic growth, while even the most positive assessment cast it as some sort of punishment that America has had coming for a long time due to our failure to don the hair shirt of austerity along with our European allies. The indiscriminate cuts will take a heavy toll on the poor, women and children in general, domestic violence victims in particular, people who eat food… you get the picture. And the fact that this pain is being inflicted by fiat only makes the sting worse.

On the other hand, while sequestration was entirely unnecessary and unwise, something like this was bound to happen once Republicans chose to throw caution and responsibility to the wind. You can win a game of Russian Roulette once, but you’re not likely to have a long reign as champion. Likewise, if you keep inventing fake crises to help you get your way, one of them is eventually going to become real. It’s tempting to hope that this is what it looks like when Congress hits bottom, although it seems to break through to previously unexplored depths each time. But if this is what it takes to wake more Americans up to how distorted our policy debate has become so that we can start rethinking our national priorities, the pain may just barely be worth it after all.

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

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The Fork in the Road Already Facing Obama's Second-Term Agenda

Feb 25, 2013Bo Cutter

President Obama has a limited amount of time to accomplish his second-term goals, so there's no time like the present to go big.

Admittedly it is absurdly early to be suggesting that President Obama's second term is at a crucial fork in the road. But I think that's where we are and here's why.

President Obama has a limited amount of time to accomplish his second-term goals, so there's no time like the present to go big.

Admittedly it is absurdly early to be suggesting that President Obama's second term is at a crucial fork in the road. But I think that's where we are and here's why.

Second presidential terms are two years, not four years. Second terms have rarely been resounding successes. Sometimes the reason is too specific to be generalized. More often, the reasons have included scar tissue, fatigue, and a dwindling bench. The American people get sick of the same faces, the old players are exhausted and have spent whatever intellectual capital they came with, and the new players aren't as good as the old players. But, always, the underlying direction is declining political capital. Senior American politicians, regardless of party, are as a class or caste the most self-referential, self-reverential, and self-regarding group our species has known in its roughly 100,000 years on the planet. They have an uncanny capacity to sniff out the exact nano-second that power begins to ebb, no matter how slightly, and then act to accelerate that ebbing. 

So President Obama has two years, not four, to get anything big accomplished, and that means he has to say what it is -- now.

There are three obvious mega strategies. Whether the president's political advisors know it or not, the choice between these three is the big decision they are making right now.

1. Beat up the Republican party with the hope of fracturing it completely or simply clobbering it in the 2014 Congressional elections. This seems to be the preferred direction right now.

2. Accomplish a series of individual policy wins -- pick among immigration reform, preschool education, a small infrastructure plan, or even a carbon tax.

3. Change the political/policy game in America and give the country a new story.

That first goal is an emotionally satisfying choice and no group deserves clobbering more than this era's Republicans right wing. But it may not be possible and it may not help achieve real policy goals as much as one might think. The Democratic left is nowhere near as unpleasant as the Republican right, but it is just as mired in a 60-year-old, outdated ideology. And this strategy doesn't constitute much of a legacy for President Obama.

The second goal is highly worthwhile and may be all anyone can accomplish in today's dysfunctional Washington. If President Obama achieved significant legislation in each of the four areas I named above, he would have achieved more than any of the last three, maybe four, second-term presidents going back at least 50 years.

The third goal -- a new vision or story of America -- sounds so over-reaching as to be preposterous. But I believe we are at a moment when this is possible: a time of immense global change, an improving economy with better prospects than any other developed economy in the world, a gridlocked political environment locked into interminable debate over the wrong issues, a high level of American citizen dissatisfaction with our politics, and a popular second term president with room to maneuver. We are unlikely to see this confluence of circumstances again for another 50 years. 

Two points about these mega strategies: They are in part mutually exclusive and path dependent. And only a president can outline them and carry them out. Certainly strategy 1, on the one side, and strategies 2 or 3 are mutually exclusive. In terms of how politics and human beings work, the president cannot decide to beat the Republicans up for a time and then change gears and directions. But strategies 2 and 3 are not mutually exclusive. President Obama could present a new American story and then move to a set of specific policies. In fact, this might be the best course for accomplishing anything. 

I believe that right now, the president could do two big things that, if successful, would make his second term successful, have high odds of being successful, and would have low costs if they aren't successful. First, he could offer a real deal to stop sequestration and, second, he could define the next era.

Lets start with sequestration. This is a manufactured crisis -- a set of automatic budget cuts that will make our defense, international, and domestic programs worse (in fact, the set was designed to make everything worse) but on the other hand will do next to nothing about our long-run debt and deficit problem. It was a last-ditch, desperate effort 18 months ago to look as though something was being accomplished. Its big flaw -- other than being completely irresponsible -- was that if it were going to force a real resolution, it always depended on the president defining a deal. Congress is not capable of doing that. All Congress can ever really do is the short-term, kick it down the road for three months efforts being thrown out today. These are worthless.

Now is the moment for the president to put forward a real deal, with real entitlement reform. This means reductions in the long-term rate of growth in entitlement spending, some further defense cuts (I don't think we should cut normal regular domestic spending, but it should certainly be rearranged), income tax reform where possible (but not much is possible), and a new source of revenues -- a new tax. We cannot solve our debt/deficit problem and pay for the government we all know we are going to have without new revenues. I've always been a proponent of a highly defined, progressive value added tax (a VAT), and still am. But I think that a carbon tax would be the better choice right now. Why not raise $1 trillion over the next decade and simultaneously begin to solve our most pressing environmental problems?

But the president should define such a deal not as the be-all-and-end-all of his administration, but rather as a necessary step toward an era of safer, higher, more sustainable, more equitable growth. He could explain how achieving this growth is possible and why it requires both fiscal reform and investments in the future. He could demonstrate easily how the specific policies he stressed in his State of the Union fit into this long-run direction. He could show a deeper understanding of the real private sector. And he could emphasize that we have time to adjust to change if we start now. As an example, a real and credible 10-year debt/deficit plan is what we need, not an economy-breaking one or two year slash and burn plan.

I believe that a deal is there, waiting to be made. The adults in the Republican party know they are in a trap. Americans would support a deal (all the polls show that the American people are far less polarized on these issues than Washington is). Most Democrats would rather be talking about solutions and growth than waging these interminable budget wars. The president could get 1) a deal, 2) an agreement to stop the incessant budget warfare (by permanently canceling the sequestration and ending the constant debt ceiling threats), 3) the chance to create the coalitions necessary to accomplish his policies without constantly fighting the budget battles, and (4) an actual shot at defining the contours of America's next era. 

But the president has to decide and act. What strategy is he pursuing? What does the country need? What are second terms for? 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

 

Obama image via mistydawnphoto / Shutterstock.com.

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The Real State of the Union Requires a Stronger Government

Feb 15, 2013David B. Woolner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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