Yesterday's Wind? Paul Ryan's Speech Was Full of Hot Air.

Aug 30, 2012Jeff Madrick

Paul Ryan may have a reputation as a truth-teller, but his convention speech was far from the truth.

Paul Ryan may have a reputation as a truth-teller, but his convention speech was far from the truth.

Honest? Intellectual? Neither quality was on display last night when Paul Ryan gave his first major national speech to America and provided red meat to his fellow Republican conventioneers. Profoundly sarcastic about Barack Obama, taking one rhetorical swing after another about how the administration failed, he promised in soaring language that Mitt Romney and he would do far better, put America back to work, and save Medicare. How? Not a word. No mention of a plan, not even in broad strokes.

Perhaps Ryan was told to leave the plan to Romney during his acceptance speech. But of course, neither Romney nor Ryan has told us much about their plan at all. They will cut taxes, but will they close the deficit they so deplore and blame on Obama? The CBO says Ryan’s plan won’t do that for decades, and even that forecast relies on spending cuts and the closing of tax loopholes neither Ryan nor Romney will specify. This is honesty?

At the very least, Ryan could have told us why he believes in small government, not simply that he believes in it. He could have tried to present some evidence, theory, or even conjecture about how it limits growth. He could have sought a historical example or two of a better America. Of course, this would have been difficult. The facts don’t back him up.

Ryan said Obama was trying to sail on “yesterday’s wind.” The Republican chant about making the poor personally responsible for their own good is truly “yesterday’s wind.” Before Social Security, when workers were largely “responsible” for their own retirement, about half the elderly lived below the poverty rate. American policymakers paid too little attention to poverty until Michael Harrington wrote his book, The Other America, documenting how many poor there were. In the 1950s, before Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the poor had to get by on their own, as Republicans would have it today. The poverty rate then was 22 or 23 percent, but now America’s official poverty line is lower compared to median incomes than in most other rich countries.

If Ryan is what passes for intellectual in Republican circles, the party is in serious trouble. He is an ideologue. He espouses faith in a small government dogma, not theory or evidence. And we have heard this chorus for a century or two. Good thing the nation ignored it and built a set of social programs that were central to the development of a middle class -- civil rights for black people and women, free education, major transportation systems, and protection from workplace abuses, old age, and the scourge of being born into poverty.

As Ryan said about Obama, his facts are merely true because he states them. Last night, Ryan took two big cheap shots. He had the audacity to suggest Obama was to blame for an auto plant that GM closed before he took office, when in fact Romney was opposed to the Obama bailout of GM. And of course there was Obama's $700 billion “raid” on Medicare in order to provide coverage for others, mainly the poor and the young. Obama is cutting back reimbursements to providers and a subsidy for Medicare advantage. It won’t affect senior benefits. But the honest and intellectual Ryan did not explain this to us.

The Ryan charade is about to end. Ryan showed himself last night to be a politician willing to distort the facts and cynical enough about his audience’s intellectual capacity to provide no evidence, theory, or history to support his points even if he had them at his disposal. The Republicans’ rising star turned out to be a breath of stale air. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.


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Memo to RNC Delegates: You Didn't Build It, But Feel Free to Pay Up

Aug 28, 2012Jordan FraadeSarah Pfeifer VandekerckhoveJeff Madrick

“We built this” is the phrase ringing throughout the (largely publicly funded) Tampa Bay Times Forum this week at the Republican National Convention. Though it is meant as a rebuttal to President Obama’s remarks earlier this summer emphasizing that government is the dynamic foundation and support system upon which all Americans rely, its use as a theme of the RNC is actually a critical illustration of the president’s point.

“We built this” is the phrase ringing throughout the (largely publicly funded) Tampa Bay Times Forum this week at the Republican National Convention. Though it is meant as a rebuttal to President Obama’s remarks earlier this summer emphasizing that government is the dynamic foundation and support system upon which all Americans rely, its use as a theme of the RNC is actually a critical illustration of the president’s point. To be clear, Obama was saying that “there are some things (like fighting fires or building infrastructure) that we (the government and its people) do better together,” such as constructing a multi-million dollar professional sports facility in downtown Tampa or, say, rebuilding the infrastructure and restoring public services to an entire city in the wake of a (relatively small) hurricane to the tune of millions of dollars. But if the 50,000-plus people visiting Tampa for the RNC this week really want to take credit for these enormous feats of collectively funded and supported work, we have helped them figure out just how big a check they’ll need to write.

As Media Matters pointed out last week, the Tampa Bay Times Forum was built in 1996 by the Tampa Bay Sports Authority, a public entity. Of the $139 million construction cost, 62 percent, or $84 million, was paid with public money – bonds backed by the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County, paid back through sales taxes, tourist development taxes, and ticket surcharges. More recently,  the Republican National Committee, which received over $18 million from the federally supported Presidential Election Campaign Fund, shared costs of over $500,000 with the Tampa Bay Lightning just to upgrade the arena’s sound system.

Additional preparation for the RNC cost the City of Tampa upwards of $2.7 million in beautification projects and infrastructure upgrades, like improving highways, redesigning signage, planting palm trees, and bringing a locally loved fountain back into use. Commuting from up to 90 miles away, RNC delegates will surely find these upgrades to be pleasant as they are introduced to the hallowed Tampa tradition of long, grinding commutes. Some delegates may even be transported around by a fleet of 400 city-chartered buses. Those same delegates who, like Florida Governor Rick Scott, are adamant about blocking any further government expenditures on mass transit are more than welcome to walk to the Forum (although a 2007 survey of cities found that Tampa has no walkable destinations, and 50 percent of the urban core is set aside for parking).

Downtown Tampa offers delegates benefits that come as a result of public investment in the city’s urban core (unless, of course, they choose to avert their eyes out of principled opposition to wasteful government spending on things like public art and higher education). The Riverwalk, a two-mile green space along the Hillsborough River, has already enticed the Tampa Museum of Art to relocate and freed up space for public events. The city received $11 million from the Obama administration to put the finishing touches on the project, and is spending $3 million to turn downtown’s Zack Street into a pedestrian thoroughfare with benches, landscaping, and street art. Finally, along the downtown riverfront, the University of South Florida’s new Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation is the world’s largest medical facility that allows medical students to practice surgery without a patient. The center was built at a cost of $38 million and was partially paid for by Build America Bonds, an Obama administration program that provides capital for infrastructure projects and issued over $100 billion in bonds in its first year of operation. More wasteful government spending!

Of course, no event in Florida in August would be possible without hurricane season preparation. In anticipation of Tropical Storm Isaac’s imminent development into a hurricane, the RNC cancelled Monday’s convention activities. Though it’s not clear yet what cleanup the storm will require, similar strength storms generally cost FEMA millions in statewide recovery. When Tropical Storm Debby hit Florida earlier this summer, FEMA spent over $15 million on individual assistance.

For the 2,286 RNC delegates eager to claim they “built this” – whether it’s the Tampa Bay area infrastructure or social services, Tropical Storm recovery included, provided by the host town – we’ve done some math to help them determine just how much money they would have to personally shell out to validate such a claim. Diffusing a $15 million cleanup cost among 2,286 delegates would lead to a total of about $6,562 per delegate—a small price to pay to make sure the party can actually nominate a candidate for president. If we ask everyone visiting Tampa for the convention to pitch in—roughly 50,000 people, according to the RNC website (and yes, 15,000 members of the press, that includes you too)—each person would pay $300 to help clean up. Natural disasters aren’t cheap. Without coordinated government efforts to manage and clean them up, they would be even less so. To cover the roughly $100 million in Tampa Bay area beautification and service and infrastructure improvements, including the construction and upgrades of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, each delegate would need to pitch in an extra $43,745, or an extra $2,000 per visitor, and that doesn’t include myriad other costs going into this week’s events, including the nearly $50 million federal grant covering RNC security.

With this $15 million tucked away and set aside for hurricane cleanup and over $100 million secured for RNC-related infrastructure and beautification, Tampa and Florida taxpayers could go back to taking care of day-to-day expenses, like improving Medicare coverage in a city and state where the need for it is acute. Florida’s health care costs are well above the national average—it ranks 18th in per-capita health spending overall—but the state rockets to second place nationwide in Medicare spending with $11,893 spent per enrollee. The state also ranks second behind California in gross Medicare spending, with just over $39 million spent on the program. And while the Tampa and St. Petersburg hospital referral regions do not contain Florida’s highest per-enrollee Medicare expenditures, nor are the cities among Florida’s most elderly, the city’s age 50-64 population grew by 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. A city whose largest-growing age group is on the cusp of Medicare eligibility is hosting the convention of a party that has dedicated itself to ending the program as we know it.

There’s a larger-than-usual chance that your average Republican delegate will be a Medicare recipient, too. While the convention does not officially release information on the age of its delegates, several states do. North Carolina, Texas, and Connecticut, for example, are all sending delegations whose median age is 57 or 58. Any delegates who require medical care during the convention, hurricane or no, will have the option of visiting Tampa General Hospital, a downtown hospital affiliated with the public University of South Florida—but not, alas, with the for-profit hospital chain managed by Florida Governor Rick Scott in the 1990s and later found guilty of Medicare fraud. Tampa General is the city’s largest hospital, with an operating revenue of $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2011—a year before it was voted the best hospital in Florida by U.S. News and World Report. No doubt at least one Republican delegate, for some reason or another, will find a reason to visit the hospital and help contribute to this nonprofit, government-funded success story.

As for the delegates who stay healthy, we hope you’ll enjoy your stay and that your cheers of “we built this!” are worth the $50,307 you’ll have to refund the government for all the work it did to prepare the city on your behalf. And remember to set a little extra aside for tourist activities!

Jordan Fraade is a former member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Sarah Pfeifer is Manager of Programs for the Roosevelt Institute.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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Super PACs Aren't Just Swinging Elections -- They're Changing the Way We View Government

Aug 28, 2012Alan Smith

The wealthy donors behind right-wing ads want more than victory in November. They're trying to permanently reshape the political landscape.

The wealthy donors behind right-wing ads want more than victory in November. They're trying to permanently reshape the political landscape.

We’ve all seen the numbers; we know Super PAC politics is a slow-motion disaster unfolding before our eyes, and that a handful of rich people have the ability to dramatically swing elections. But beyond influencing individual races and shifting the way national campaigns must be run, Super PACs and the messages they are promoting may have a dramatic long-term effect on how we as a society view our government. 

Super PAC spending has already hit $200 million this cycle, and with the big players reporting plenty in their reserves, the top of this mountain of cash is not yet in sight. We’re not talking about an even layer of money covering the political landscape, either. This money is going to support conservative causes at a disproportionately high rate. Not only does Open Secrets identify three-quarters of the Super PAC funds as being raised and spent by conservative groups, but ProPublica has tracked media buys and reported that “conservative social-welfare groups” have already spent some $70 million on television ads, compared to $1.6 million spent by liberal groups.

Because so much of this cash is hard to track, we don’t know exactly where dollars are going, but those estimates still paint a clear image of a democracy radically remaking itself. David Axelrod summed up the blight nicely (even accounting for the sour grapes that come from being on the wrong side of the ledger) in a recent New Yorker article:

If your party serves the powerful and well-funded interests, and there’s no limit to what you can spend, you have a permanent, structural advantage. We’re averaging fifty-dollar checks in our campaign, and trying to ward off these seven- or even eight-figure checks on the other side. That disparity is pretty striking, and so are the implications. In many ways, we’re back in the Gilded Age. We have robber barons buying the government.

It’s been clear from the beginning that many on the right have been tepid about Mitt Romney as a candidate. I would argue that this ambivalence shows up in donors’ spending habits as well: when it comes to the actual campaign apparatus, President Obama is running sizably ahead of Romney in fundraising. This raises an interesting question: legal limits aside, what other reasons do big-ticket donors have to avoid going straight to the party apparatus? Super PACS give these donors a way to swing elections, but more importantly, they provide a way to control their messaging directly in ways that donating to Romney’s camp would not. Lost in the election-focused discussion of ground game versus ad game is the potential long-term result of the one-sided messaging that is currently blaring from our television sets and computer screens.

Through funding these Super PACs, 30 or so billionaires are running a nation-wide advertising campaign. While the focus is on attacking Obama, this brain trust is playing a simultaneous long game. The reality of issue advertising is that there are subliminal long-term effects on the audience and their associations with political stances and phrases. That’s how advertising works with Lexus or Gatorade, and that’s how it is working here. Sure, it helps Mitt Romney in November if “Obama” is associated with “bureaucracy” and “taxes” and “waste,” but what about the fact that the ads are also connecting “government” with “bureaucracy,” “tax burden,” and “waste,” independent of the candidate?

Check out this ad, brought to you by Americans for Prosperity, one of many targeting a specific candidate in a swing state: 

The point of the ad is clear: Donnelly, and through him “sitting government,” are bureaucratic spenders, and they sure don’t have your best interest at heart. It's not a new message. But the scope of these targeted issue ads is new. Even if this is not a calculated right-wing attempt at moving the needle on how citizens view the role of government, that will surely be a side effect. 

Regardless of whether you favor Democrats or Republicans, the larger concern is with the way we conduct democracy in this country. The root problem here is that a small cabal of wealthy people can fundamentally affect our view of government and how it functions. This new front in the war of ideas will not end with a single battle in November; Super PACs are a giant new tool designed to drive a wedge between the people and their government even more effectively than the right’s “welfare queen” rhetoric of yesteryear. Their messaging makes the case that government is something foreign, alien, and other. On the other side, there are no ads making the case for Medicare, public education, or government as a vehicle for social change. 

One could make the argument that Super PAC supporters see attacking the roots of government as a lucky side benefit to helping the Romney campaign, but that seems naïve. And considering the past 30 years of intentional Frank Luntz-style messaging from the right, I find it impossible to believe that this barrage is merely a philosophical case for greater “freedom.” Rather, it is a calculated attempt to further erode Americans’ sense of government as a positive actor and, with that, the chance for a publicly held good in our society. While it is true that our relationship with government is a complex and evolving one, it must not be defined by such a black-and-white campaign against government in all forms. 

Alan Smith is National Policy & Program Director for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.


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Misleading Advertising is On the Rise: Four Ways the FTC Can Fight Back

Aug 22, 2012Asha M. Fereydouni

Consumers need regulators to step up yet again to protect them from risks in the marketplace.

Consumers need regulators to step up yet again to protect them from risks in the marketplace.

Last year, President Obama created the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a new agency to protect American consumers with the explicit purpose of preventing some of the risky practices that led to the crisis of 2008. It took one of the greatest financial disasters in history to initiate regulatory change. But there were a number of small failures leading up to the disaster that indicated things were going poorly. Had the CFPB existed at any one of these smaller junctures, much of the disaster could have been averted.

Today, the United States is at a similar juncture: consumers need additional protection, misleading advertising is on the rise, and the current agency responsible for regulation—the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—is not doing enough.

In May 2012, POM Wonderful lost a lawsuit to the FTC for misleading advertising. Two days later, the company released an ad campaign selectively quoting from the judge’s ruling. The advertisements read, "Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health." But in the very next line of the ruling (which POM did not advertise) the judge states that while it might want to think that its product has the advertised health benefits, "the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by [POM Wonderful] is not adequate to substantiate claims that the POM products treat, prevent or reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

The FTC tried its best, but it was unable to do a thing—the ads are still running, and POM has not paid a cent in fines.

But it’s not just POM. From Sketchers to CVS, each has been subject to misleading advertisement suits in just the last six months. If things aren’t changed, and companies are able to follow POM’s example in getting away with repeated instances of false ads, consumers will pay the price. We face the risk of purchasing a product, thinking that it has certain benefits, then realizing that our money has gone to waste. We may not be able to trust what is right in front of our very eyes. 

So what can the FTC do to strengthen its efforts in combating misleading advertising? Here are four places it can start:

1. The FTC can impose monetary punishments on companies the second a judge rules them in violation. Currently, companies that are sued for misleading advertising only face a monetary penalty if three conditions are met. First, the company must continue false ads after the judge’s ruling; second, the FTC must get those ads admitted to the record; and finally, the judge must find it guilty of committing a “double violation.”

The punishment for a double violation is steep. The FTC fines companies $16,000 PER advertisement, PER day—that’s no joke, even for a multimillion dollar company. The penalty works great as a deterrent for double violations, but there needs to also be a deterrent for a single violation. Fines ought to apply for any advertisement that, after being tried in court and ruled by a judge, is found to be misleading the American people.

2. The FTC can institute more stringent requirements as to what kinds of clinical studies are required before health claims are made. With the POM case, the FTC tried to set a new precedent of requiring double-blind studies and FDA pre-approval before POM (and, potentially, other companies) could make claims about the health benefits of its products. While the FTC’s efforts must be commended, it was ultimately unsuccessful in adding the new requirements. Further, the FDA by no means has the capacity to pre-approve and substantiate the medical claims for every company that presents health-related advertisements.

A plausible compromise would be for the FTC to implement requirements for certain standards in clinical studies. Among other things, the FTC could require companies to present studies that have a control group (a non-trial, comparable group to ensure that the products are actually having an impact) and the repeated achievement of stated results in at least three instances. In doing so, the FTC can begin to rein in how companies substantiate the medical claims behind their products.

3. The FTC can request more transparency in how companies advertise the medical benefits of their products. Currently, there exist loose standards as to what companies must disclose to consumers. The FTC ought to require that companies disclose on some part of the advertisement the funding source and basic information about the clinical trial that occurred to substantiate the product’s health claims.

4. The FTC can be internally consistent when it comes to measures to improve existing regulations. In July of 2011, the FTC announced that it would review each and every existing regulation. The goal of this comprehensive review was to “promote greater efficiency, transparency, and public participation.” In conjunction with this internal review, the FTC also asked for public comment and publicized its criteria for evaluating the existing regulations. It asked for comments on the rule's economic impact, its necessity, whether it conflicts with local laws, and if it's outdated.

Notice that there is no question of efficacy. On initial glance, it would seem as if the FTC doesn’t care whether the regulations actually work. However, after taking a closer look at the briefs released for each specific regulation, it would seem that the FTC did in fact care about how the regulations were working. It also asked, “What modifications, if any, should the Commission make to the Rule to increase its benefits or reduce its costs to consumers?”

While the detailed brief shows that the FTC does in fact care about the efficacy of its regulations, this desire ought to have been a component of its initial press release. A comment made by the Heritage Foundation is most illustrative of this lack of clarity. Heritage lists the FTC’s four criteria that were released in the initial press release and structures its analysis based on those criteria. It had no idea that there were expanded requirements. By not clearly asking what it wanted to know, the FTC was unable to get complete answers and left itself short-changed.

The FTC can take these steps now to combat misleading advertising. In doing so, it can take a proactive position, stand up to large companies, and protect American consumers. 

Asha M. Fereydouni is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network who is a senior at the University of California, Davis and is currently doing research on the FTC in Washington, DC.

Billboard image via Shutterstock

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A Brief History of the U.S. Government and the Economy

Aug 15, 2012

Check out this Prezi highlighting 16 of the most significant contributions government has made to the U.S. economy over the last 200 years:

Check out this Prezi highlighting 16 of the most significant contributions government has made to the U.S. economy over the last 200 years:

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Environmentalism Can't Succeed Without Good Citizens and Good Consumers

Aug 7, 2012Nick Santos

Individual action alone won't solve our environmental problems, but neither will giving up on responsible consumer habits.

Individual action alone won't solve our environmental problems, but neither will giving up on responsible consumer habits.

"Story of Stuff" creator Annie Leonard has posted a new video, titled "The Story of Change," in which she argues that it's not responsible consumers but good citizens – those who vote, participate, take action, and generally show up – who create environmental change. The video is quite good, but I disagree that one is better than the other. In fact, for us to get the changes we need, we’d do best to vote with both our dollars and our ballots. Leonard says as much, but the video and her recent piece in the New York Times’"Room for Debate" series send a mixed message that discourages individual-level action. The argument environmentalists should be making loud and clear is that we must have good individual consumption habits and civic participation if we hope to succeed.

The central argument reflected in the video and by all the Times debaters is that individual actions are a tiny piece of the puzzle and that consumers who take individual action are more likely to feel an “illusion of progress” and think they have done their part without having any significant impact on the larger environmental problems we face. These are important considerations, but sending the message to consumers that their contributions “don’t add up” is dangerous both for our environmental impacts and for the viability of our civil participation. Consumers who take individual action are invested in the movement – an advantage that should not be overlooked. In addition, the environmental problems we face are ultimately linked to consumption, and we must address consumption in order to adequately fix them.

The first problem, as any climate change organizer can tell you, is that getting people to make the leap from individual economic and social impacts to grassroots organizing is no simple task. Leonard is right that making a connection to a larger movement is incredibly important, but the crux of organizing remains the individual – individuals who are so convinced of the problem that they take time out to show up and participate. To get to that stage, individual action is critical – it keeps us focused on the problem and raises awareness of the solution. Still, we can and should still tie these personal efforts to effective campaigns and political action. For an example of this done right, look no further than, whose organizational voice and message, as seen in the staging site and resources it provides for local organizers, strengthen the movement's foundation and inspire people to engage their community on the ground.

The second issue is cultural.  We have a serious consumption problem that legislation cannot eradicate, even while it can significantly reduce the damage of each bit of consumption. In reality, we have to buy less, not just buy smarter, if we want to do our part. So while taking action and demanding better government regulation tackles many of the problems associated with producing and disposing of products, environmentalists and consumers in general need to go much further in addressing the consumption problem itself.

This is where individual consumer purchasing adds up. In addition to reducing impacts, making real shifts in corporate behavior, and setting examples for other conscious consumers, individuals who make responsible purchasing decisions literally and figuratively invest in the sustainability movement. And we need that if we expect people to show up, vote, talk to their neighbors, or otherwise take civic action. Enough of us already profess to support issues like climate change, but when we don’t feel like it’s a part of our lives, it can drop off the radar. Participating in individual purchasing keeps these issues front and center in the public consciousness.

Some of these consumers are at risk of considering their purchasing to be their entire contribution to the movement, as the debaters contend. But if they do, then that’s our failing as environmentalists in not making the appropriate connection between civic and economic action. Leonard is trying to correct these problems, and I applaud her for it, but it won’t work if consumers get the impression that they should stop their personal investment in sustainability, as Leonard’s message often suggests. We need to help these two types of critical action work together if we want either of them to have a chance of success.

Nick Santos is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow working on climate change education. He runs Environmental Consumer, a nonprofit, and works with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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The Return of the "Hear-Nothing, See-Nothing, Do-Nothing" Congress

Aug 2, 2012David B. Woolner

As the 112th Congress prepares to go on recess, its record pales in comparison to what the 74th Congress achieved in the 1930s.

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away... Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

As the 112th Congress prepares to go on recess, its record pales in comparison to what the 74th Congress achieved in the 1930s.

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away... Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

A number of recent articles have pointed out that by most measures, the 112th Congress is not merely the most unpopular Congress in history; it is also the least productive. As both the New York Times and the Washington Post have pointed out of late, this Congress would much rather engage in political posturing and ideological brinkmanship than in passing laws that address the current economic crisis.

What a contrast the 112th Congress represents when its record is placed against the 74th, the Congress that was in session at the close of FDR’s first term. It was the 74th Congress that was largely responsible for what historians call the Second New Deal. This included the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provided the funding needed to establish the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that would provide millions of Americans with skilled jobs building the nation’s economic infrastructure; the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which encouraged farmers to preserve one of our nation’s most precious resources, our topsoil, in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history; the Rural Electrification Act, which provided jobs to thousands and “wired” the country by bringing the benefits of electric power to millions of rural Americans; the Public Utility Act, which was designed to reduce the cost of electric power by regulating the utility industry and forcing the break-up of large-scale power monopolies; the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrined the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining and established the National Labor Relations Board, which helps us settle labor disputes to this day; and finally, the Social Security Act, which gave us not only Social Security but also unemployment insurance.

What many Americans may not be aware of is the long-term impact that these congressional acts have had on future generations. As I pointed out last week, the drought we are experiencing today would no doubt be much worse, and may have even resulted in the rise of a new Dust Bowl, had Congress and the government not moved so aggressively in the 1930s to reduce soil erosion and plant millions of trees. The jobs provided by the WPA helped preserve the critical skills of our workforce and vastly expanded the infrastructure needed to grow the U.S. economy. When the Rural Electrification Act was passed, roughly 90 percent of all the farms in the United States were without power; by the end of the New Deal that number was cut to 10 percent. The passage of the National Labor Relations Act had a profound impact on the level of union membership and wages in the years to come and helped establish the post-war middle class. And it boggles the mind to think of where we might be today, in the midst of the current economic crisis, had we not had Social Security or unemployment insurance. It is also important to remember that many of these acts were initiated by members of Congress in response to the crisis the country faced in the 1930s and that each of these laws received significant support from members of both political parties.

As we approach the 77th anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act on August 14, perhaps instead of going on recess, the members of Congress should call themselves back into session. With the economy sputtering and millions of Americans still suffering the agony of unemployment, why not take a chance and pass President Obama’s jobs bill, or at the very least establish the long-term funding needed to rebuild and expand our nation’s crumbling economic infrastructure?

After all, more than three-quarters of a century ago while running for office in the midst of a similar crisis, Franklin Roosevelt was bold enough to recognize that in the face of such an economic calamity the country was ready to try “bold, persistent experimentation.” That it was perfectly acceptable to “take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something” for the “millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are in easy reach.”

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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Trust in Government as an Ad Pitch: Lessons From a 1969 Corporate Logo

Jul 25, 2012Mark Schmitt

It takes language that plugs into the national consciousness to change our attitudes toward the government.

It takes language that plugs into the national consciousness to change our attitudes toward the government.

A fascinating short film from 1969 popped up yesterday on a number of quirky non-political websites. It was made by the designer and filmmaker Saul Bass to persuade the Bell System to adopt a new logo, as well as new designs for its trucks, uniforms, and phone booths. If you're a Mad Men fan or are into design, or both, it's worth the 27 minutes to watch it.

But what I found most interesting in it was a clue to the question we often ask, especially in the Roosevelt Institute's Rediscovering Government initiative: When and why did Americans lose the faith in government that characterized the era that began with the New Deal and continued through the postwar decades?

In trying to convince the Bell System (the phone company before it was broken up into regional companies, such as what became Verizon, in 1984) to embrace a modern, high-tech (by 1969 standards) look, the voice-over puts it in the context of a narrative of the United States in the middle part of the twentieth century. Starting at about 2:10, over images of Vietnam, racial discord and harmony, the world from space, crowded highways, smokestacks, and symbols of late-'60s consumerism, the voice-over tells us:

We’re fighting a war. Making a peace. Integrating. Segregating. Getting richer. Getting poorer. It’s quite a time to be alive....

Then, after a little section about how it's tough for business because consumers of 1969 have such high expectations, the images switch to those of the Great Depression, with the voice of Franklin Roosevelt – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – in the background.

Many of us here today remember when it was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal — just to have a job, but to have a job with security: That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten blue sky and was now talking blue chip. Down-to-earth, safe — that was the place to be.

“Just to have a telephone was a marvel” at that time, the voice says. Back then, it was enough to offer products that were “safe, durable,” but now “times have changed, looks have changed... When young people are looking for challenge, we seem to offer only security.”

And throughout, government is used as a symbol for the safe, staid post-Depression world. Over an image of the Bell System's motley fleet of old trucks, the film asks, “Is this the world's most advanced communications organization? Or the motor pool of the Quartermaster Corps?” At another point, making the case for snazzy new uniforms, the film declares that the old outfits looked “government-issue.”

One of the great challenges of history is understanding how people in the past thought about their own past and what their history taught them. Nothing before Mad Men had made me fully appreciate that for people in the prosperous, fast-moving 1960s, the Great Depression was a real, living memory. The worst year of the Depression, 1937, was by 1969 only 32 years in the past – that's the same distance as between our time and the election of Ronald Reagan. But a typical 40-year-old in 1969 would be living in a very different world than that of her childhood – vastly more so than someone born in 1972 living today.

And that difference had a direct bearing on thinking about the role of government. The security that government provided in the era of “fear itself” was by 1969 seen as antiquated, a reminder of a time that people wanted to forget.

When we talk about declining trust in government, we often tend to focus primarily on political arguments and claims, the language of the California tax revolt, of Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and more recently the rhetorical argument between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama/Elizabeth Warren, the latter who both dared to point out the essential role of government and collective action in building the foundations for individual economic success. But the political language of a Reagan can only take hold when it connects to people's cultural assumptions and predispositions, when it connects to our sense of national narrative. Because it has nothing to do with politics – it's a corporate pitch, much like Don Draper's for the Kodak Carousel. Bass's Bell System film is a fascinating reminder of how deep that sense of national narrative that government was staid and outdated went.

Today our narrative is very different. “Just to have a job with security” is again a sufficient goal for millions of us. The economic promise of 1969 gave way within a decade to a long period of stagnation, radical inequality, and economic insecurity. At the same time, we're still the children of that promise, resistant to things that are “government issue,” safe and durable, eager for “challenge” as well as security. Rediscovering government requires more than just a political argument – it calls on us to rethink how government defines itself and presents itself and connects to our deepest sense of where we've been and where we're going, much as Saul Bass asked the Bell System to do in 1969. 

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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How Turning the Public School System into a Market Undermines Democracy

Jul 25, 2012Elizabeth Stokes

Citizens shouldn't be seen as merely consumers choosing from an array of options, but active participants in collective decision-making.

Citizens shouldn't be seen as merely consumers choosing from an array of options, but active participants in collective decision-making.

Backing Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner Chris Cerf’s unrelenting push for more “high-quality school options” in New Jersey, the Department of Education recently approved nine charter schools to open in September, bringing the total number of charter schools in New Jersey to 86. This move is part of a broader trend toward the marketization of education policy – the incorporation of market principles into the management and structure of public schools, as well as voucher programs to subsidize alternatives to public schools. These market principles include deregulation, competition, and the unqualified celebration of “choice,” all of which are embodied in the charter school movement. Despite claims of greater efficiency, innovativeness, and responsiveness, however, the growing rhetoric around choice needs to be more closely scrutinized before we wholeheartedly jump on the charter school bandwagon.

Market-based school reform is focused on the idea that by structuring schools like business enterprises, we can inject them with stereotypical private sector virtues like innovation and efficiency. According to this view, this is sorely needed because “traditional” public schools are supposedly ineffective. By removing barriers to entry for different types of educational organizations, market-based reformers believe we can incorporate some healthy competition into the state-run system and overcome drawbacks allegedly caused by the state’s monopoly control. This approach positions parents and students as consumers of education, free to choose which types of schools best meet their individual needs and preferences. The rhetoric of “choice” implies that marketization will enhance liberty as well as efficiency.

This approach reconfigures our understanding of what is “public.” While traditional conceptions of public education define “public” according to who funds, owns, and governs the system, under the marketized model public education is considered “public” to the extent that a public made up of individual consumers is provided for. Indeed, this is considered to be one of the great advantages of the marketized model. Whereas public schools are forced to be all things to all people, which requires using what Milton Friedman once called "cumbrous political channels" to try to reach agreement, marketized models will supposedly eliminate messy conflicts and streamline the process into a neat consumer-provider relationship that better responds to individual needs.

There are several problems with this model from the perspective of both efficacy and, more importantly, democracy. First, despite the grand intentions behind marketized programs, they do not get better results on average than traditional public schools. A study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 46 percent showed no difference from public schools, and 37 percent were significantly worse. Additionally, introducing supposedly tough-minded material incentives to improve teacher performance, such as giving higher "merit" pay to more successful teachers and threatening to fire less successful ones, has yielded no measurable benefits for children and, instead, tends to divide and demoralize teachers.

Other studies have found that the competitive incentives designed to drive innovation in the classroom are not operating as intended. Instead of improving teaching and learning practices, market incentives have driven an increase in schools’ marketing and promotional activities – that is, advertisements that better sell their products. And as marketing is most effective when aimed at specified groups, schools usually beef up their academic achievement statistics by targeting families of higher-achieving students, thereby contributing to increased student selectivity, sorting, and segregation.

Efficiency considerations aside, the real problem with championing marketized models in education and other areas is the damage it does to democracy. We should not be upholding a model based on turning citizens into consumers. Democratic citizenship does not simply involve an individual’s choice from a platter of options. Rather, it requires active participation in collective decisionmaking.

The problem with marketized models is that in the process of providing individuals with private “choice,” citizens are necessarily deprived of public choice – that is, the opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and act in concert with others. While advocates of marketization claim that it eliminates many of the protracted disputes that currently impede the effectiveness of schools, disputes aren’t always such a bad thing from the standpoint of democracy – especially when they deal with matters of genuine common concern like the education of future generations. Even if conflicts do arise, the opportunity to debate and engage in a democratic give-and-take with neighbors is a vital aspect of political education and empowerment. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, it is only through participation in the exercise of power over collective outcomes, and the practice of thinking about and acting on public issues in public arenas, that people can develop the skills and commitments necessary to be citizens. Removing public education as a site for political education simultaneously removes yet another stake citizens have in our democracy.

Of course, this is not to say that there is no place for anything that is not a “traditional” public school. On the contrary, a variety of independent alternatives can certainly complement a healthy public school system and contribute to diversity and innovation. That’s particularly true when they represent initiatives led by local community members rather than corporate franchises. But that is very different than using public money to undermine and dismantle public education itself as a genuinely public enterprise.

The trend toward increasing privatization and marketization means the increasing disempowerment of citizens. The reconfigured version of “public” advanced by marketized models of education is severely truncated and distorts our understanding of why public education is important. Public education is not simply service delivery. It is also an expression of community and shared responsibility that helps shape the character of a society. We should value public schools not only for educating our children, but also for their role as local institutions where citizens can congregate and practice democracy.

Elizabeth Stokes is a Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Summer Academy Fellow, co-leading its newest project, "Government By and For Millennial America.


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The Missing Piece - Foreign Language

Jul 13, 2012Frederica Hill

Renewed focus on teaching foreign languages could go a long way towards improving America’s educational system.

Should we be learning from China or learning Chinese?

Debate surrounds the model of education exemplified by China and Singapore:  heavy emphasis on math, science and technology, reliance on memorization and constant testing. Some maintain this approach discourages creativity and critical thinking; others praise its rigor and perceived pragmatism.

Renewed focus on teaching foreign languages could go a long way towards improving America’s educational system.

Should we be learning from China or learning Chinese?

Debate surrounds the model of education exemplified by China and Singapore:  heavy emphasis on math, science and technology, reliance on memorization and constant testing. Some maintain this approach discourages creativity and critical thinking; others praise its rigor and perceived pragmatism.

There’s no doubt that by many measures it succeeds. The last Program for International Student Assessment report shows the US lagging far behind China and Singapore. The efficiency and tangible results of this pedagogy appeal to those who see the American educational system as flabby and lenient.

In a speech given in 2009 to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “Remarks on a Complete and Competitive American Education,” Obama explicitly referenced Singapore, calling for a focus on tested accountability and practical skill acquisition. It’s an extension of the trend begun by No Child Left Behind, which promoted an empirical understanding of success.

While Obama’s Race to the Top shifts responsibility from the federal to the state level, the emphasis on testing remains. It’s an unsound tendency. Sensational stories emerge from China of students who buy 5,000 dollar cameras to fit on their pencils or receive an IV drip so that eating won’t interrupt their studying. While the American examples are less extreme, when test scores determine the future of a school, it’s no wonder that administration and teachers resort to dishonest or unbalanced means to achieve high scores.

Obama wants to restore America as a “world leader in science and technology.” Because of this, nearly every plan  issued by states applying for Race to the Top grants stress the development of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM reports themselves have the tagline “For America’s Future.” We’ve identified the instruments of progress. The latest educational policies are meant to release our nation’s inner tiger mom, data based and test-focused, aggressively invested in the “practical” fields of science and technology.

The pace of technological change demands improvement in these areas.  But a solution to our communal failings will come from holistic analysis rather than a short-sighted realignment of the curriculum based on an imperfect model. After all "more science!" has been a kneejerk call to arms since the early fifties. Less at the forefront of discussion is our lack of foreign language education.

We have the dubious distinction of being the developed country with the least percentage of students studying a language other than their own. From 1997 to 2008, the percent of elementary schools offering any world language instruction fell from 31 percent to 25 percent, while the percent of middle schools offering languages fell from 75% to 58%. In a Center for Applied Linguistics survey including teachers, principals and administration, about one-third of respondents stated that No Child Left Behind had negatively affected language instruction. NCLB cut back on areas outside of the basics – mathematics and reading comprehension. The prevailing atmosphere of austerity inevitably means stripping away programs that aren’t seen as directly productive. When proficiency in languages won’t get funding, it makes sense to drastically de-prioritize it.

Foreign language instruction may also be tainted by connotations of the two traditionally offered options, neither of which are “critical” languages. French’s one-time role as the dominant international language reminds us that English’s privilege is equally insecure. Spanish, more damningly, evokes fears of an America overtaken by immigrants. In 2008, Obama acknowledged the importance of immigrants learning English but also stressed that we should work towards raising children who spoke a language other than English. Obama’s comments prompted some jingoist zealots to call him a “sick” and “scary” man.

This vitriolic response suggests monolingualism has become an expression of patriotism, of devotion to the American worldview. Of course, there is truth in the idea that learning another language casts doubt upon the validity of an absolute perspective. An increase in language education probably won’t result in a communistic revolution in the heartland, but studies have shown that language education increases openness to other cultures, especially in the immersion programs which are most viable in the early school years.

Furthermore, language is measurably needed, in intelligence, diplomacy, and business.. Politicians occasionally recognize this necessity. A revitalization of language learning in the form of Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 did emerge from the foreign-relations anxiety of the Cold War, but most funding was for higher education: targeting and benefitting only those who had already succeeded in early education rather than applying the benefits of language instruction universally.

A National Security Language Initiative established in 2006 allocated funds from the Defense budget towards language instruction in critical languages. But the program did not specifically propose any curricular changes in elementary education, with most of the money going towards grants for high school and undergraduate students. Six years later, in a report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations, lack of critical languages is still one of the country's  largest security risks.

Despite the obvious benefits to the government, overly politicizing language instruction puts its funding at the mercy of the tide of political fears and priorities. The idea of “critical languages” is flawed, reliant on an arrogant certainty in our accuracy in predicting future political relations. We ought to take the obsolescence of French as a warning. Earlier critical language programs focused intensely on Japanese and Russian, while newly critical languages include Korean and Punjabi.

It’s not just about international relations. Studying language is vital to all.  To learn another language, “critical” or not, prepares the mind to better absorb knowledge. A recent editorial in the New York Times discussed the benefits of language education. Perceiving an environment simultaneously through two systems encourages flexible thought and quicker adaptation to new information. Despite arguments that learning two languages at once is confusing, children in immersion programs actually perform better on those omnipresent standardized tests.

“Foreign” aside, studying language involves deciphering and reconciling different, complex systems for organizing the world. While linguistic study is arduous and technical later in life, learning language is natural for young children - starting young is key.

The skills acquired are particularly important in navigating the world of the Internet. Children who speak two languages are more adept at filtering out unnecessary information. The Internet immerses us in a disorganized, paratactic stream of facts and news. The ability to find meaningful signals and patterns in the radio noise is essential.  

Programming itself is language-learning: translating scraps of seemingly meaningless numbers into programs that let us compare hotel prices, construct 3D images of famous statues and send cat videos to our European cousins. Languages are codes, codes are language. With recent fear-mongering about cyber-attacks, we ought to have as many capable code-breakers as we can.

Foreign language instruction, rather than distracting from STEM programs, will reinforce and enhance them. We must equip our students to be global citizens and active learners. If nothing else, reprioritizing language education would be a symbolic rebuttal of American exceptionalism, a chance to crack open the provincial patriotism that is frighteningly widespread and move towards an atmosphere of genuine cross-cultural exchange.


Frederica Hill is a rising senior at Kenyon College. 

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