Article on Mass Incarceration at Jacobin

Apr 25, 2012Mike Konczal

The Spring 2012 issue of Jacobin is now online.  It has a lot of great content in it; make sure to check out Megan Erickson's addition to the "unschooling" debate that goes back and forth in parts of the internet.

The Spring 2012 issue of Jacobin is now online.  It has a lot of great content in it; make sure to check out Megan Erickson's addition to the "unschooling" debate that goes back and forth in parts of the internet.

I have a piece - Against Law, For Order - on ideology, governmentality and "policy" in an era of mass incarceration.  It's about how criminal laws informs our markets and government policy.  Bits and pieces of it have appeared in this blog, but here it is in one place.  The piece ends up reviewing a lot of recent books on policing, with special attention to Bernard Harcourt's work on neoliberalism and policing, as well as Jonathan Simon's work on "governing through crime" - how policy is reworked to use the language and techniques of policing.  I hope you check it out!

I wrote it a while ago so I didn't get to reference two of the big events in policing and incarceration that happened recently, but I think they fit into the framework I try to build.  The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman appears to be, in large part, about Zimmerman believing Martin didn't belong in the neighborhood he lived in.  Maintaining order, seperating insiders from outsiders, and who gets to make those calls and what consequences they have is a central part of the neoconservative vision of policing I outline.

Meanwhile the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington held that "Jail strip searches do not require reasonable suspicion, at least so long as the arrestee is being admitted into the general jail population."  Reading Justice Kennedy's logic, it looks like that since people put into a prison population could be dangers to themselves, guards and other prisoners, the guards have the ability to institute whatever techniques they believe are necessary.  Kennedy looks uninterested or unwilling to second guess the prison system.  Which means that people within the criminal justice system exist in a sphere of total government control and competency, a way of thinking I link back to the neoliberal vision of governance.

Sadly I couldn't find a way to link in one of the more interesting pieces I've read recently, one I'm still grappling with, Kate Redburn's Hate on Me at New Inquiry.  It's about the GLBTQ groups - including The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, FIERCE, Queers for Economic Justice, the Peter Cicchino Youth Project, and the Audre Lorde Project - who oppose New York State's "Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act," which "would make violence against gender-nonconforming people a hate crime."

This is governing through crime - the best way to react to the social problems of violence and hate aimed at the GLBTQ community is to increase the policing and incarceration of those who do the violence.  Mandatory minimums, which translates into higher guilty pleas, which translates to more bodies in jail.  These groups oppose this because the police themselves are part of the problems they face, not part of the solution.  As Redburn argues, "Hate crimes legislation not only doesn’t change institutional bias; it further empowers this broken system by increasing law enforcement’s ability to arrest and imprison."  I find the challenges posed here important to understand as we all try to find a way to have a governance project built outside the logic of mass incareceration.

 

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The Path to a Stronger Democracy Lies in Strengthening Community

Apr 24, 2012Jeff Madrick

Two new books examine how putting capitalism before community has distorted the economy and put democracy at risk.

Two new books examine how putting capitalism before community has distorted the economy and put democracy at risk.

I participated in a panel discussion last week to help launch The Occupy Handbookin which I and about 60 others made contributions. It was mostly composed of economists and mainstream journalists, and the focus was income inequality. One wouldn’t expect anything much different from a discussion of Occupy Wall Street, which after all made “the 1 percent” a household tag line for what is unfair about the American economy.

But OWS is actually raising broader issues than that, and my sense in talking to a few early organizers is that they can’t seem to find answers to their questions. Granted, most of these questions are not entirely well formed as yet, but the economists’ view, it must be admitted, is a rather narrow one. Correcting inequality a bit and regulating Wall Street some are flimsy palliatives in the organizers' minds, I suspect. Even infrastructure investment sounds like a weak corrective to them. Do we never question the intense idealism of the Anglo-American economic model?

The Occupy Handbook is actually a fine, diverse, and sometimes contradictory set of contributions put together with remarkable speed by editor Janet Byrne. For example, it includes a couple of pieces by well informed anarchists and others by those to the right of center who believe America’s answer is better education (and that’s about it). Many concede OWS's contribution to the nation is awareness. There is no sound in American politics unless Washington is listening, I wrote. OWS got them to listen.

But there is another small book out just today that does propose rather serious alternative to the individualist/materialist American model of economics. It is called The Path to Hope, and it is written by two former French Resistance veterans who are now in their 90s. Stephane Hessel wrote Time for Outrage! a couple of years ago, a pamphlet of political anger—a cri de coeur—that called for public protest. It swept the world, selling millions, and was said to have a profound influence on the Spanish indignados and the Arab Spring. Now he has teamed up with the eminent sociologist, Edgar Morin, to put a little more meat on the bones of their rage.

I proudly wrote the prologue to the book -- proudly because, if highly rhetorical and abstract, their brief piece talks about much that is forgotten in the governance of nations and the true interactive meaning of democracy. I usually draw two circles in the air when I speak about these issues. One is the circle of free markets, defined by Milton Friedman, who basically argued in Capitalism and Freedom that left to themselves, markets can produce social goods more fairly and cheaply than government—from retirement security to highways to health care.

The other circle is community, which has long been the source of social goods in which people care for each other. Friedman’s circle is individualist. This circle is the circle of Hessel and Morin. It is the circle of compassion and community. Being American, I suppose, I tend to believe the circles should be of equal size. Since the 1970s, our potential tragedy is that the Friedman circle has gotten immense while the community circle has shrunk.

Hessel and Morin would argue that the community circle should be far larger than the Friedman circle. They are not pure anti-capitalists; they hold a significant place for business. But they say enough is enough. We have seen the power of finance capitalism to distort and undermine productive growth and equal opportunity. We are also witnessing the rise in Europe of ethnic bigotry again. This, they demand, must change.

In writing the prologue to The Path to Hope, I acknowledge that I don’t agree with all that Hessel and Morin write. They offer but an outline of high ideals of community and fellowship. But they are on the right track. They saw the rise of pure totalitarianism and they worry that if the fortunes of the rich are again threatened, they may side with those who would plunder democracy. I don’t think we are nearly there yet, but democracy in America is threatened and warped by financial power these days. We do care too little about each other, I fear. The Path to Hope is on sale now.

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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Virginia Foxx's Comment and the Intergenerational Problem of the Public University

Apr 20, 2012Mike Konczal

Scott Keyes at Think Progress notes the following comment from Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House subcommittee on higher education:

Scott Keyes at Think Progress notes the following comment from Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House subcommittee on higher education:

FOXX: I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money. He borrowed a little bit because we both were totally on our own when we went to college, totally. [...] I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have it dumped in your lap.

A major problem with our leaders is that they are approaching what is happening in the public university through a mental model of a world that no longer exists.

EdwardMurray at DailyKos notes "Virginia Foxx went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1968. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1968, the average yearly cost for tuition, room, and board for a public university was $1,245 which, in today’s words, is one thousand two hundred and forty-five dollars for a year’s worth of college. For today’s average college student, that dollar amount is roughly equivalent to the cost of a textbook and a garbage bag."  Quick and the Ed has notes "Representative Foxx would have paid $279 for the academic year—about $2,140 today. That’s about equivalent to what students pay right now at community colleges, not public four-year institutions—especially not public flagships."  Rebuild the Dream has a petition going on the matter.

Beyond the fact that it was much cheaper, how does University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's tutition look on a chart?  Digging into UNC-Chapel Hill's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website, which has online collections of several previously published yearly reports (data from here, here, here and here), we can construct the following graph.  Some years, especially earlier ones, are missing. Data is adjusted for inflation:

 

As you can see, tuition is roughly around $2,000 a year for most of the 20th century after the Great Depression.  Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s it skyrockets.  It shows no sign of slowing down, either.  This is a political choice, based on what we want the university to do and how we want to provide it as a country.  There was a political consesus that made sure Virginia Foxx had college available as a publicly-provided good - her "opportunity society" is a world of high quality "public options" available to those who can use them - and now there is a new set of active choices to have students at UNC-Chapel Hill graduate with debt.  Foxx should know better than to ascribe it as a simple morality play.  If she doesn't know this, which is possible, that's a major problem.

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Why Is Spending Through the Tax Code Popular on the Right?

Apr 20, 2012Mike Konczal

Why is spending through the tax code popular on the Right?  Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson have a Bloomberg editorial on tax expenditures that, beyond being a smart column on the topic, notes the distributional impact of these expenditures:

Why is spending through the tax code popular on the Right?  Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson have a Bloomberg editorial on tax expenditures that, beyond being a smart column on the topic, notes the distributional impact of these expenditures:

The rich get such big subsidies for three reasons. First, they spend more on the things the tax system favors, such as homes and health care. Second, they are subject to higher tax rates, so they get more benefit from each dollar of deductions. Finally, they’re rich enough to take full advantage of their deductions. The poor typically have too little income to itemize, while many families in the upper middle class find themselves siphoned off into a separate tax system known as the alternative minimum tax, which allows fewer deductions.

They note that Grover Norquist and other conservatives tend to support tax expenditures.  Why is this?  One reason they give are various psychological biases - "It’s a tribute to our psychological biases that getting a subsidy through the tax system is treated so differently from receiving a government check or copping a fine."

Will Wilkinson at Democracy in America adds some additional reasons.  He argues that many on the right might think the following: "Tax deductions and credits are best understood as selective restraint, as selective acknowledgement of what is ours, on the part of a generally kleptomaniacal government."  He also notes that a lot of how people view this issue is tied up with how they view "giving and not taking" as equivalent actions.

I'd like to throw in another point to compliment these.  It's important to understand tax expenditures as a political project. This goes back quite some time on the Right with health care spending through the tax code - but let's focus on the Reagan era.  Conservatives think that tax expenditures help with privatization and their larger political projects.  Let's look at Heritage's Stuart Butler's 1985 article, released by Cato, titled: Privatization: A Strategy to Cut the Budget.  (Butler was writing this in a lot of venues, but the Cato one is online; we discussed this article recently here.) Butler is worried that President Reagan can't destroy the Welfare State.  He's shocked and appalled by the way that middle-class people rush to the defense of Social Security.  The outright assault isn't working.  What can conservatives do next?

They can use the tax code to create a private-sector welfare state to compete and ultimately win out against the government, removing the government from people's daily lives. Butler is concerned about "public sector coalitions" which are difficult to dislodge; why not create private sector ones?  Butler (my bold):

Complaining about public-spending coalitions achieves little more than high blood pressure. But developing methods to entice the public to choose a private rather than a public way of promoting their self-interest may achieve a great deal….But a distinction is drawn between government as a provider (implying that government should levy taxes and deliver services itself), and government as a facilitator (implying that it should encourage or require those services to he provided by the private sector). Privatization, in other words, means seeking to transfer programs into the private sector using the carrot of incentives, not the stick of aggregate cutbacks…
 
These privatization coalitions are the mirror image, so to speak, of the public-sector coalitions. And they are at the heart of the strategy to create a “privatization ratchet” to counter the federal ratchet. By providing a targeted benefit (such as a tax incentive or some regulatory relief) to those who demand or provide a private alternative to government, considerable rewards can be guaranteed to individuals within the coalition.  Members of that coalition can be expected to press for deeper incentives and to oppose any move to eliminate existing incentives…

Privatization thus turns conventional political dynamics on its head. Lobbying pressure develops for less taxation (if a tax incentive is given), and for private, not public, programs. Moreover, each legislative victory won by the coalition, however small, serves to strengthen it, thereby adding to its capacity to achieve furthen legislative concessions and a corresponding growth in the private program…tax incentives concentrate benefits on a small number of people and they act as the nucleus for the growth of privatization coalitions….Because tax incentives are so essential to a privatization campaign, supporters of the approach should be cautious in their support of tax simplification.

The battle here is between "government as a provider" and "government as facilitator."  Wolfers and Stevenson argue that the two are economically "identical."  Butler sees, I think correctly, that the two provide people with a very different experience of governance.  Since these actions are subsidized, the market is able to provide goods on better terms than they normally would; since they were ‘private’, they removed the linkage between people and the government.
 
And here the political gridlock that results from trying to deal with tax expenditures is a feature not a bug; they use Public Choice theory to note that this privatized welfare state has such concentrated gains and diffused losses that it would be very difficult for the government to try and make these benefits truly public again.  As a tax cut, they are stickier since those whose gains are so concentrated have so much to lose and will lobby accordingly (check out the home builders and the mortgage interest deduction, for starters).  Take one concrete example of a tax expenditure Butler walks through, the subsidization of IRAs being tax-free as a way of fighting Social Security, to see this hidden welfare state ratchet in action (my bold):
Social Security is a classic example of the federal ratchet in operation…Yet a minor provision in the 1981 tax act may eventually break up that coalition…By allowing all working Americans to open tax-deductible IRAs, Congress planted the seeds of a private alternative to Social Security…
 
It was not long after the passage of the 1981 act that banks and other financial institutions…began a massive campaign to encourage Americans to open retirement accounts. Soon after that, nonworking married women began to complain that limiting their deduction to just $250 was unfair and discriminatory (near beneficiaries). And politicians were quick to propose accommodating the near beneficiaries and increasing the standard IRA deduction. A privatization coalition was born.
 
The “tax loss” (as the Treasury puts it) of IRAs has vastly exceeded the original Reagan Administration projections. Yet repealing on reducing the deduction is already politically unthinkable—the coalition is too powerful and the privatization ratchet is in place….In short, the incentive has begun to divert the pressure of demand for a secure retirement income away from the publicly provided system (Social Security) and to the private alternative (IRAs)….From the budget-cutter’s point of view, the growing power of this IRA coalition offers the only real hope for spending reductions in Social Security, since the more Americans prefer IRAs as their primary pension vehicle, the weaker will become support for retaining Social Security in its present form.

For these conservative intellectuals, in order to slay the monsters of the New Deal and the Great Society they had to unleash an even more vicious beast - the political mess of our tax expenditure system.

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Rediscover Representative Democracy

Apr 18, 2012Herbert J. Gans

Vote HereTo create a more civilized economy and political debate, we need a democracy that represents more than just the rich and powerful.

Vote HereTo create a more civilized economy and political debate, we need a democracy that represents more than just the rich and powerful.

By now, common sense should tell us that whether our form of government is called a plutocracy or a corporate democracy, its three branches and the constituencies that control it are unlikely to solve the country's critical economic, political, and social problems. But what if we could enlarge the citizen constituency, and thereby rediscover representative democracy?

Representative democracy entitles all citizens to be properly represented by their elected officials, and right now, American democracy is clearly unrepresentative. Since the Reagan era, the already economically powerful have obtained more political clout than ever. As a result, many other citizens are deprived of their fair share of political voice and political power, as well as the help government can provide.

The economic and political power-holders will never surrender any powers voluntarily, and the recently emerged Occupy, union, and other protest movements have not yet raised national power-sharing issues.

Suppose, however, that new players could enter the electorate and other parts of the political playing field. They would add new issues and demands to the political agenda, remove some old political warhorses, and upset a variety of political applecarts. If more people feel that voting and other ordinary forms of political participation can do some good, they are likely to make themselves heard, and their elected representatives might then push the economy and politics in a more egalitarian direction.

Representative democracy will not come easily or quickly, and in a huge country like the U.S., it can never be fully achieved. Changing a political system long stacked to favor profit-seekers over rank and file citizens is politically very hard work, and neither the big corporations, other fat cats, or their organized allies are going to let go without a humongous struggle. Persuading larger numbers of citizens to vote, and to do so thoughtfully, may be no easier.

Still, representative democracy as an issue sits on high moral ground and opponents cannot reject it out of hand. Consequently, it is very much worth thinking about and publicly discussing it now, so that the right moves can be undertaken if and when the political time becomes ripe.

For example, if large and varied protest activities develop, or if the religious and cultural conservatives find they must vote their economic interests, the country might elect a liberally inclined populist president and Congress. If and when that happens, several essential first legislative and executive steps can be taken. One is to begin to rapidly enlarge the electorate by making voting faster, easier, and more pleasant. 

Another step is to require, or bribe, the relevant media to run political advertising free of charge, and at the same time start pressing for the public financing of elections.

These changes will take time and perhaps some political miracles as well, but when they can be accomplished, further progress might be a little easier.

For example, a larger and economically more representative electorate could well demand that government and private enterprise jointly become employers of last resort. Many more voters would also support progressive tax reform, especially if they understand that putting some money in more pockets will grow the consumer economy and thereby the rest of the economy. Even corporate executives that profit from the consumer economy might turn a bit more liberal.           

Eventually, however, a truly representative government will require reforming the governmental structure. In a properly democratic Senate, senators from the four smallest states, which have less than 1 percent of the population, would no longer cast the same number of votes as their colleagues from the four largest, which have nearly 33 percent of the population. Or maybe the Senate should be turned into the equivalent of the British House of Lords.

Fairer congressional districting is also needed, and the same reforms are needed in state and local government. A federally mandated recall procedure should be instituted for all levels of government. 

The Supreme Court needs reforming as well, for right now it is not accountable to anyone. At some point the country must figure out how to amend or revise the Constitution in order to modernize the intentionally weak and divided government with which the Founders saddled us. 

Meanwhile, and as soon as possible, the federal Department of Education should institute courses in everyday politics and economics, beginning in the first year of high school. The citizenry needs, and has always needed, all the help it can get to understand what politics and the economy do for and to them.

Greater representative democracy may take decades to realize fully, and even then it is no panacea; it will not eliminate economic or political injustice. It should do away with political polarization, but it will not eradicate political disagreement or economic conflict. In fact, if more people are politically involved, their elected officials will have to cope with a larger number of viewpoints, values, and interests among the electorate. However, if more people know they have a voice and a government that is really listening, America could end up with a more civilized economy and politics.

Herbert J Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University and the author of Imagining America in 2033.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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Mark Schmitt: Why We May Want America to Decline

Apr 16, 2012

In the latest episde of our weekly Bloggingheads series, "Fireside Chats," Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt and Edward Luce o

In the latest episde of our weekly Bloggingheads series, "Fireside Chats," Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt and Edward Luce of the Financial Times ask whether the American decline we hear Republicans bemoaning on the campaign trail is really such a bad thing. In the clip below, Mark notes that as we fall, others rise. "One part of it is simply relative economic growth compared to China and India, and some of that is either that's just how life is going to be, or maybe you even want it to be that way."

Given that the economic dominance of the U.S. and Europe was never a natural state of affairs and that something truly awful would need to happen to keep countries like China and India from gaining power at this point in their development, Mark argues that "a certain amount of relative decline is not in itself the end of the world."

Mark and Edward also examine some of the growing disfunctions in America's political system, from rising inequality to political gridlock brought on by Republicans. Mark notes that "it's a poltiics in which paralyis benefits certain players, and they're going to use that." He explains that "we tend to think of paralysis in sort of game theory terms," as a "tragedy of the commons with two people each trying to do good things," but "that's not always true. Sometimes that's exactly what people want to create and benefit from." For more, including Mark and Edward's thoughts on the benefits of the German education system and the inside dirt on Larry Summers, check out the full video below:

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Dorian Warren: "Employers Are Mini-Dictators"

Apr 10, 2012

In a new episode of our weekly Bloggingheads series, "Fireside Chats," Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren sits down with labor journalist Josh Eidelson to discuss

In a new episode of our weekly Bloggingheads series, "Fireside Chats," Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren sits down with labor journalist Josh Eidelson to discuss workplace democracy -- or the lack thereof. As Dorian notes, even "people who proclaim to not want government involvement in their lives and who think that somehow it's a form of tyranny are perfectly willing to walk into work every day and have a private actor with total control over their lives." In the clip below, he argues that under current labor law, "with few exceptions, employers are mini-dictators. We have to do whatever our employer says, or otherwise they can fire us."

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

The solution, Dorian says, is to make it clear that citizenship isn't something that can be flipped on and off like a switch. "If we accept certain political principles and freedoms in the broader society," he asks, "why would we then check those at the workplace door every single day?" By launching "a long-term term campaign to reframe how we think of ourselves as citizens in the society, in the polity, and in the workplace," the labor movement can not only improve working conditions but also strengthen unions by ensuring they "have a central and permanent role in making sure democracy is a core aspect of every breathing moment that we have."

For more, including a look at an unusual alliance between unions and Tea Partiers and an explanation of why Republicans continue to attack public sector unions, check out the full video below:



 

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Forcing Both Parties to Get Specific About What Government Should Do

Apr 9, 2012Mark Schmitt

As part of the How We Value Government series, demanding that both Republicans and Democrats be forced to outline a real vision of government instead of proposing vague cuts or making specific defenses.

As part of the How We Value Government series, demanding that both Republicans and Democrats be forced to outline a real vision of government instead of proposing vague cuts or making specific defenses.

There's an old rule of thumb about Americans' attitudes toward government that's no less true for being familiar: Americans are "operational liberals" but "philosophical conservatives," the political scientists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded in their 1967 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, based on their analysis of dozens of public opinion surveys. That is, we favor the specific services government provides, but we're distrustful on an abstract level and respond favorably to attacks on "big government."

This small insight was true even at the peak of the Great Society and the era of "liberal consensus," and it fits as an explanation for much of the back-and-forth of American conceptions of government ever since. Whether it accurately represents public opinion or not, it's a good guide to the behavior of actors in the political process. Conservatives attack "government" as an abstract concept that has little to do with our real lives and mostly creates wasteful excess benefiting either bureaucrats themselves or other people. Liberals respond by trying to show the harsh reality of cuts to particular programs, especially safe ones that reach large constituencies. In 1994 and 1995, for example, voters were first drawn to Newt Gingrich's promises to eliminate entire cabinet departments, but as soon as the idea of cutting government was converted to the reality of shuttering national parks and slashing Medicare, the political tides turned swiftly in the other direction. George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 talking vaguely about the need to change Social Security, yet given the opportunity to put such a plan in action, he saw the public lose faith so quickly that he never found a single congressional sponsor for the legislation. Even Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in what we still see as a critical moment in shifting attitudes toward government, largely backed off from that agenda after the 1981 budget cuts and his own ham-fisted attack on Social Security.

Mitt Romney's announcement recently that he would eliminate several large government programs, but wouldn't name them lest he face political criticism, represents the conservative tactical approach to Cantril-Free perfectly. (Except they usually remember not to read the stage directions.)

The struggle over government thus often takes the form of this push-pull between the abstract, where anti-government conservatism reigns, and the specific, where people seem to appreciate government. The result, until recently, has been a happy dance through which both sides achieve their short-term objectives: Conservatives win their share of elections, which they can use to push through tax cuts, without worrying much about the size of government, while liberals get their turns at power and avoid major cuts to programs. The Cantril-Free paradox has even generated new paradoxes of its own. Conservatives often expand government as political insurance, albeit carelessly, as in the creation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program in 2003. Liberals and Democrats are more likely to cut programs (such as the Medicare cuts of 1993 and 2010), both because they take government more seriously and in the hopes that showing a commitment to cutting waste and improving people's experience of government will ameliorate their abstract opposition.

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

But what's missing from this well-rehearsed dance is any effort to force the question, to make a real choice about what we want government to do. That missing element has been devastating in the last few years, when it seemed impossible to convince the public or Congress that an emphatic government effort was the only way to prevent a long and debilitating recession.

For the most part, as Romney's comment suggests, the 2012 election cycle is evolving into yet another battle between the abstract call for cutting government and the specific defense of popular programs, particularly those threatened by Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan. But there are indications that the game might be changing. House Republicans have now tied themselves to the mast and voted twice for Ryan's radical plan. They've built up some defenses against the classic attacks about cutting Medicare and other vital programs: They've drawn a new line that defines Medicare and Social Security for current seniors and those over 55 as benefits that have been "earned," while for others they are unaffordable giveaways. They've redefined programs like unemployment insurance as if they were welfare. They've used deficit fever and misleading statistics to portray Social Security and Medicare as doomed, so that the only option is their cuts.

Meanwhile, embracing the need to reform entitlement programs, Democrats have (correctly and responsibly) blunted their own ability to play the old game. As Slate's Dave Weigel wrote after the Republican victory in a special election in New York City last year, Medicare is "not really a wedge issue -- it's the slow death of a wedge issue."

These two changes directly challenge the politics of "operational liberalism." Going forward, it might not be enough to pick a few appealing government programs that reach the middle class and use them as political ammunition. And that could be a good thing. Instead of focusing on narrow specifics, this change demands a full-throated defense of government as a whole -- programs that benefit "other people" as well as ourselves, programs that represent the shared benefits of our social contract. And it demands that we open up the "submerged state," which obscures government programs and encourages the illusion that government programs benefit only someone else.  It calls for a full-fledged commitment to making sure that government programs, especially Medicare, are in fact sustainable for the future.

The biggest risk to the promise of shared prosperity, assisted by government, is that liberals and Democratic political operatives are living in the past and believe that they can replay the old Clinton game against Gingrich over and over again.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Eric Schneiderman Urges Progressives to "Dig Deeper" to Transform the System

Apr 6, 2012

Last Thursday, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick kicked off the Roosevelt Institute’s new flagship initiative, Rediscoverin

Last Thursday, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick kicked off the Roosevelt Institute’s new flagship initiative, Rediscovering Government, at an event with a keynote address from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Why are Americans so distrusting in government? Schneiderman's answer is that we've been led to believe in the "magical market" that supposedly guides us to equality and prosperity. "Its like the conservatives are pretending they've found some missing pages of Genesis that the rest of us are missing," he said. But in reality humans are to blame for profound changes -- like skyrocketing income inequality -- not supernatural forces. "The distribution of wealth is not determined by nature," he said, "it is determined by public policy."

 

Progressives' efforts at making significant changes to the system after the financial crisis have mostly borne little fruit, he noted. We therefore "need to dig deeper" see how deeply the unfettered propaganda that less regulation leads to growth and higher taxes always create jobs has affected the American mindset and economy. We also have to aim for long-term, "transformational" change instead of the everyday "transactional" change we usually get bogged down in. We have to move past the election cycles and everyday battles to politics that involve working today to improve circumstances in the future and challenging the way that people think about issues in the first place.

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

But the importance of progressives' efforts can't be overstated. "Great strides in social justice don't come out because of politicians, they come out because of movements." The movement has to put pressure in all the right places -- most importantly by reviving the fact that government plays a vital and positive role in every American's life. "By demonstrating that the government can and will enforce one set of rules for everyone, and protect the interests of all Americans, not just the most fortunate, we begin the process of transforming people's awareness of themselves and our collective life," he said. "And if we do this work, we can put to rest the deep fallacies that have allowed injustice and inequality to grow unchecked for so long, and we can begin to rediscover the potential of government to get us back in touch to start building, as our counterparts in the 1930s did, a more equitable, educated, healthy, and compassionate nation."

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Memo to Romney: America's Greatest Presidents All Used Government to Increase Prosperity

Apr 5, 2012David B. Woolner

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn't be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy -- and our entire society.

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn't be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy -- and our entire society.

In his Wisconsin primary victory speech, presidential aspirant Mitt Romney made some interesting observations about Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to indicate that he admires them, as they were what he termed "historically great" presidents. He then went on to chide the current president for having the audacity to think of himself in the same league as these three great former leaders. He described the coming presidential election at great length as a historic choice between what he termed a "government-centered society" and a "society led by free people and free enterprises."

In making these observations, Mr. Romney made no attempt to rectify the fundamental contradiction in his remarks. He either failed to see, or decided to conveniently ignore, the fact that the three "historically great" presidents (one Republican and two Democratic) he made reference to at the opening of his remarks all shared one thing in common: a fundamental belief in the positive use of government to help expand the economy and provide a greater degree of economic opportunity and social justice for all Americans -- not just those at the top of the income ladder.

It was President Lincoln, for example, who in 1862 signed such pieces of legislation as the Homestead Act, which issued 160 acres of Federal land west of the Mississippi River at little or no cost to any adult citizen who had not borne arms against the United States, provided they agreed to improve the land. He also signed the Morill Act, which donated 30,000 acres of federal land to a number of states and territories that could then be sold by the state to provide the revenue needed to fund public colleges and universities. The result was the establishment of over 60 "land-grant" colleges and universities across the country, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (the very state in which Mr. Romney made his remarks about the evils of a "government-centered" society). The Homestead Act greatly accelerated the settlement of U.S. territory in the West and was a boon to the overall economy. The establishment of "land-grant" colleges and universities brought the dream of higher education to tens of thousands of low-income farmers and workers who had previously been denied that opportunity, which had untold benefits in science, technology, and the liberal arts.

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FDR brought us the most comprehensive banking and financial reform in U.S. history. He established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a number of other important laws that restored confidence in the country's financial and banking sector not only among the American people, but also among the business community. In using government in this way, the Roosevelt administration laid the basis for the overall growth of the financial sector for decades to come. FDR also greatly expanded the country's economic infrastructure through a massive effort to update the country's antiquated roads, bridges, airports, and other facilities, all of which helped propel the expansion of the economy in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and beyond. He also signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, which encouraged higher wages through the unionization of the workforce and, near the end of his life, pushed through the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of returning World War II veterans the chance to secure further job training or access to higher education. Both of those efforts helped make the post-1945 U.S. economy the envy of the world.

The Johnson administration gave us the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and '65, which began the long, slow process of ending racial discrimination in America. It gave us Medicare and Medicaid to provide the elderly and low-income individuals with access to health care. Head Start and the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped low-income families secure a better education for their children. The Truth-in-Lending Act helped protect consumers from abusive lending practices. These and a host of other initiatives were designed to build a "Great Society" that would provide everyday Americans with a greater measure of social security and economic opportunity.

In short, all of these "historically great" presidents used government as a tool to improve the lives of working Americans through a host of important initiatives that not only helped render the United States a more just and equitable society, but also helped expand our economy by increasing the level of economic opportunity.

Ignoring all of this, Mr. Romney insists that it is only "free enterprise" and the "free enterprise system" that can lift people out of poverty, educate our kids, and build a strong middle class. He claims that this is the one true path to economic prosperity and as such says he is running for president because he wants to "restore to America the economic values of freedom and limited government that has made us the powerhouse of the world."

But in making this claim, Mr. Romney misreads our history. There is no question that the United States and the American people have benefited tremendously over the years from the fruits of the free enterprise system. But the notion that our government has not played a major part in this success story ignores the facts. Ask yourself where we might be today without the innovations of such institutions as MIT or Cornell University, if our banking system was not backed by the FDIC, or what sort of social security system we might have if we had turned over the Social Security Trust Fund to the private equity markets prior to the recent financial crisis. Also ask yourself if you really think the financial sector would be better off without the SEC or if it really is fair that Warren Buffett's secretary pays a higher rate of tax than her employer.

History teaches us that the true story of America is one of enlightened leadership in the creative use of government to unleash the creative energies of the American people. History also reminds us that the free market, left unchecked, can bring the country to financial ruin. Mr. Romney refuses to acknowledge this. Instead, he claims that President Obama is wrong to focus so much of his attention on finding government-led solutions to our current problems. Meanwhile, he mocks him for even attempting to aspire to the greatness of a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Johnson -- the three of our presidents who, perhaps more than any others, understood that there are times when, as FDR put it, the American citizen, in seeking to rectify economic inequality and injustice, "could only appeal to the organized power of government."

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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