Daily Digest - June 12: Economic Nostalgia

Jun 12, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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George Packer's U.S.A. (TAP)

In his review of The Unwinding, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt examines how the novel can help us understand the effects of the financial crisis. Nostalgia for better economic times rules the day, and the book struggles to look forward.

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George Packer's U.S.A. (TAP)

In his review of The Unwinding, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt examines how the novel can help us understand the effects of the financial crisis. Nostalgia for better economic times rules the day, and the book struggles to look forward.

Is a democratic surveillance state possible? (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal wonders if this concept is as oxymoronic as a cuddly hand grenade, but in a world where surveillance is so far reaching, democracy may be our only hope to check that power.

Fairness Doctrine (Democracy)

Timothy Noah thinks that we can't tie economics to morality in all cases, but when we do, we need to admit that moral policies won’t be fair for everyone. Part of our societal bargain must be that if you're doing well, you pay more to help those who aren't.

Revenue Blues: The Case for Higher Taxes (Dissent)

In four charts, Colin Gordon explains why we can and should increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on corporate income in order to sustain the society we want to see and reduce poverty.

Pushed Off The Job While Pregnant (NPR)

Jennifer Ludden reports for All Things Considered on the discrimination that routinely happens against low-wage pregnant workers, despite the fact that it is illegal. Could there be a worse time to lose a job than during a pregnancy?

Betting Against the Future: How Industry Loses When Interns Go Unpaid (ProPublica)

Intern Hanna Trudo writes on the intern economy, specifically how unpaid internships harm the talent pool available in certain fields. Her current role at ProPublica is the first time she's been paid a living wage since graduating in 2011.

Judge Rules That Movie Studio Should Have Been Paying Interns (NYT)

Steven Greenhouse reports that yesterday's ruling stated that the benefits unpaid interns got, "such as résumé listings [and] job references," were incidental to the value they gave their employer. The studio disagrees, because paying interns would throw off their multi-million dollar budgets.

Republicans to Wage 30-Year Budget War (NY Mag)

Jonathan Chait is astonished that Senate Republicans are suggesting that we must fight the deficit based on 30-year projections when we can't accurately predict five years out (the 2008 prediction for 2012 showed a surplus).

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Bored by the Jobs Numbers? We Need a Bold Solution.

Jun 7, 2013

This morning's new jobs numbers contained few surprises, and given the mediocre, low-wage recovery the U.S. has experienced for the last few years, that's a problem. On Tuesday, the Roosevelt Institute's Rediscovering Government initiative hosted "A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency," a daylong conference that discussed how this crisis of prolonged unemployment and underemployment came about and how we might fix it.

This morning's new jobs numbers contained few surprises, and given the mediocre, low-wage recovery the U.S. has experienced for the last few years, that's a problem. On Tuesday, the Roosevelt Institute's Rediscovering Government initiative hosted "A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency," a daylong conference that discussed how this crisis of prolonged unemployment and underemployment came about and how we might fix it. Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Rediscovering Government Director Jeff Madrick gave Next New Deal readers a preview of the discussion earlier this week, and Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch noted that the focus was not just on more jobs, but on quality jobs: “jobs that provide decent pay and benefits and the flexibility to be able to take care of one’s family.”

The conference was covered on the Campaign for America’s Future blog, where Derek Pugh provided a comprehensive summary of the day. MarketWatch also published dueling op-eds in response to the conference, with panelist Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute arguing that too much emphasis was placed on government and journalist Rex Nutting contending that the structural impediments to hiring that Furchtgott-Roth highlights have been around for ages -- and that in the end, we need government stimulus to create new jobs and increase demand.

Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin’s comments proved to be a highlight of the conference. Governor Raskin spoke on the lunch plenary, “Paving the Way for Good Jobs,” moderated by Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowitz. She discussed how she realized that most of the jobs being added to the economy are terrible after a visit to a local job fair. Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post all covered Raskin’s presence, and Reuters also noted that the stock market was jittery about what Raskin might say – perhaps more evidence of the “Jurassic Park problem” with Fed policy that Roosevelt Institute Mike Konczal recently pointed out.

Stay tuned for video from the event coming soon, and keep following the #jobsemergency conversation on Twitter!

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How Can We Solve the Jobs Emergency? A Q&A with Jeff Madrick

May 17, 2013Cathy Harding

On June 4th, the Roosevelt Institute will bring together leading thinkers, activists, and policymakers for A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency: Setting the Political Agenda for 2014 and 2016, a daylong conference in Washington, D.C. that will focus on America's desperate need for more and better jobs. Recently, Cathy Harding, Roosevelt's VP of Operations and Communications, sat down with Jeff Madrick, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Rediscovering Government initiative, to discuss his goals for the conference and his thoughts on what we can and must do to address the ongoing jobs crisis.

On June 4th, the Roosevelt Institute will bring together leading thinkers, activists, and policymakers for A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency: Setting the Political Agenda for 2014 and 2016, a daylong conference in Washington, D.C. that will focus on America's desperate need for more and better jobs. Recently, Cathy Harding, Roosevelt's VP of Operations and Communications, sat down with Jeff Madrick, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Rediscovering Government initiative, to discuss his goals for the conference and his thoughts on what we can and must do to address the ongoing jobs crisis.

Cathy Harding: At the upcoming Rediscovering Government conference titled “A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency,” you’re going to make the case that solving the jobs emergency requires a comprehensive approach. Is that a new perspective on job creation? In other words, what needs to be included as part of a meaningful response that has not be included before?

Jeff Madrick: I think it basically is a new approach. I think people have their one or two favorites. Mainstream economists almost solely talk about education; in fact, there is a quote from Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz of Harvard in a Mike Milken Institute publication that says, yes things like minimum wage and unionization may matter, but they really don’t matter very much. It’s almost all education, or Raghuram Rajan, who is a well-known Chicago economist, says the big problem is education. I think even left-wing economists will say the big problem is education. In my view it is one of many problems.

There are bills out there that are moderately comprehensive, like Tom Harkin’s bill, and he’s going talk about that.

Minimum wage contributes too, and de-unionization contributes to it. I think the lack of enforcement of the employment laws contributes to it, which has been serious.

We don’t pay any attention to job training programs in a serious way, aside from college education.

I think there are issues about health insurance that have to be talked about; there are issues about Wall Street, in particular, that are almost totally ignored by Washington, D.C. Wall Street’s impact on suppressing good jobs has been very serious, and it’s not part of any of these bills. So I think all of these matter.

And finally, government investment in infrastructure and new technologies are job creators.

CH: What happens if you don’t approach the jobs crisis across many planes?

JM: We are going to continue to generate fewer jobs than we should, and we won’t generate enough jobs that pay well. That’s a big deal. We are already in a very serious hole merely on the number of jobs, but the quality of jobs, in terms of wages they pay, and in terms of benefits like retirement and health insurance, is stunningly bad.

CH: So you are saying that without a multi-pronged approach to the jobs issue, it is just going to get worse?

JM: I think, yeah. I think if we listen to what most economists tell us to do, we would be a very sad country.

CH: So, Jeff, when we read reports that say unemployment is going down, and that jobs are being created, what questions should people be asking about those numbers?

JM: Long-term unemployment, that is, people who can’t get jobs for 6 months or more, is very high. It has been setting records for a long time now. So yes, there is a slight improvement in the unemployment rate, but it is not nearly enough. What are the reasons for that? Part of it is slow economic growth in itself. Why do we have slow economic growth? Probably the single most important reason, but not only reason, is high levels of debt that are held over from the mortgage boom. So slow growth contributes to that lack of rapid job creation, but so do these other factors, including Wall Street and pressure on wages by business. Some of it generated by Wall Street needs and stock market needs, some of it generated by globalization and the ability to go somewhere else.

CH: So you are not cheered when you see a report that says the unemployment rate is down to 7.5 percent?

JM: All of it has to be in context. I think it suggests, given that the government is taking money out of the economy through this now famous sequestration process, that the economy is stronger than we thought it might be. If only they would get out of the way, we would probably be creating a lot more jobs, but they are not getting out of the way. So that is another issue we have to deal with. So I am cheered that the job situation in the latest reporting month was better than most people thought, given that the government is stepping on the breaks and we are still moving.

CH: You talked about it not just being a matter of jobs, but the question of good jobs. The students involved in Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network through their Government By and For Millennial America report have identified that quality of jobs as being a very important issue for the country as a whole, and their generation. Can you specify what a bold approach might look like, specifically for the generation just coming onto the job market?

JM: Young people are getting the tail end of what is a pretty crummy job market for almost everybody. So to tailor a jobs program for the very young probably requires a variety of different types of policies. Still, going to college enables you to at least get a job, even if it is not a good job. A lot of people who go to college have to take jobs where you don’t really need a college education. So is there a simple answer – go get a college education? It is a negative answer. Don’t not get a college education.

We may have to tailor jobs programs run by the government to hire young people. It may come to that. We might need job-hiring programs by the government in the end. And we can’t neglect that idea, or keep it out of sight because we haven’t done for so long, or because “it is not the private market.” The big crisis is for the young people.

If you get a bad- or lower-paying job at 25, it probably affects your earning power for the rest of your life. So it is a pretty serious issue.

CH: You have written a lot about what you call “the age of greed.” Is there is a cultural aspect to this current jobs crisis?

JM: I haven’t thought about that sufficiently. I think there is now too easy an acceptance that people won’t get good jobs and that the future may not be very good. That’s rather a new thing in America. One of my favorite stories is from Fernand Braudel, the historian, who says, way back who knows when, a Frenchman wrote a letter from Wyoming or somewhere like that. He said, “You can’t believe what they are doing in this town. They are building City Hall a mile from where we all live, and where the town center now is. Why? Because they’re so optimistic the town is going to grow so much that will be the new center.” I don’t think we have much of that kind of optimism. Ironically, the great so-called optimistic president, Ronald Reagan, in my view, was the guy who made us all pessimists -- that we can’t rely on government to make things better and that all we have to do is have good thoughts and things will get better on their own. So now that I think about it and you brought it up, I think there is a pessimism that’s taking root in our society that is very dangerous. I don’t think if you talk to people who are 35 now and have children that they are extremely optimistic about prospects for their children. 

CH: The closing panel at the jobs conference will address momentum building. What can people expect to take away from that?

JM: I think that most of us don’t think that a jobs conference or a well-written jobs proposal is immediately going to result in action. I think we have to win people over with argument, and persuasion, and facts, and a sense of what is really at stake here. And I think that’s what building momentum is about. One can say, “Win over one person at a time, and then eventually you get a movement.” It is something like that. And I think that is what Rediscovering Government is going have to be dedicated to. We are not going go down there and change the world on June 4th, but we want to lay the groundwork for fighting the ongoing battle. And indeed, laying the groundwork and setting the political agenda for the elections of 2014, and especially 2016. We want to influence elections. We want a job-creating President and a job-creating Congress.

The full agenda for the June 4th conference is now available online. Click here to learn more about the speakers and RSVP today.

 

Job search image via Shutterstock.com

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How to Pensa 2040: Italy's Millennials Share Their Blueprint for Change

May 13, 2013Alan Smith

An Italian offshoot of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network shows that Millennial policy priorities reach across national borders.

An Italian offshoot of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network shows that Millennial policy priorities reach across national borders.

In 2010, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network created the Blueprint for Millennial America, a generational vision for the country we hoped to see by the year 2040. In the conversations that established the backbone of the blueprint, we identified a core set of values shared by Millennials. The top three -- a deeply held concern for equity, a respect for the individual and society, and a belief in community empowerment and self-determination – represent a commonality that we think underlines what is unique about this generation of Americans. We are a group that seeks self-empowerment and strives to improve our society, but not always through the traditional power structures.

Over the last year, a similar project has been taking root on university campuses and among active Millennials – except this time it’s in Italy, where students have stepped up to take charge of their country’s uncertain future. “Pensa 2040” has taken the values-based collective ethos of the Roosevelt Blueprint and the Budget for Millennial America but introduced an Italian perspective. More than a thousand Italians have participated in conversations similar to those that built the Blueprint, and a Millennial vision for Italy is coming into focus.

If we’ve learned anything at the Campus Network, it’s that ownership of the process is equally as important as ownership of the outcomes. From what we’ve seen so far, the leaders of the Pensa 2040 process have carried on the successes of the Thinks 2040 framework by being willing and able to customize their discussions for the people in the room and the issues that are near and dear to their hearts. Holding discussions that engage people through the fundamental framework of values, and in so doing asks participants to examine which issues they truly believe are the most important, can yield a deeper and more lasting engagement on the issues that the community decides on together. 

So, what happened in Pensa 2040? The top-ranked value listed by the Italian Millennials reveals a clear difference between our two cultures: a deeply held respect for the idea of “legality.” This concept, rooted in Italy’s ongoing problems with the mafia and organized crime, extends to ending tax evasion and corruption within government. The very fact that the idea of legality would be a core value reveals a desire for order that is not at the forefront of many Americans’ minds. Still, some of the outcomes that students hope for in this category include a fair tax system and a more effective and fair legal system – important underpinnings of the Government By and For Millennial America discussion. 

It is in the second and third values expressed by the Italian students that we find a direct match with their American counterparts: equality and respect for the rights of the person. These essentially match word for word the underpinnings of the American Blueprint, and we find kinship with a generation focused on an absolute right to citizenship, same-sex marriages, and “civil service for all” (outcomes under “Uguaglianza”) as well as a right to health and full access to the sorts of “primary goods” that people need to be active and successful citizens (outcomes listed under “Rispetto per i diritti della persona”). There is something here, direct and definable, that speaks to a global generational identity. 

This sympathetic outlook makes sense: there are more and more shared experiences for people across borders and oceans. Not only could we jump on Skype to hear the results of the Pensa 2040 discussions, but many of the core issues facing Millennial Italians are the same issues facing American students in the Campus Network. Global climate change, economic uncertainty, and the challenges of a consistently volatile yet ever-more-interconnected world mean that the experience of being young often establishes a stronger bond than the experience of being “American” or “European.” While the 39 percent youth unemployment rate in Italy dwarfs the 17 percent unemployment rate for American youth, both countries are experiencing talk of a “lost generation,” and anyone trying to get a job out of college right now can tell you that unemployment is only a part of a bitter cocktail that includes low-wage jobs and student debt.  The economic example serves to highlight a greater truth: that a generational movement is real and important. 

Pensa 2040 has moved from the conversation stages to the building of a values-based blueprint for Italy. Students are working with other stakeholders now to write policy recommendations for Italy going forward, and to follow in the footsteps of the Campus Network by creating a crowd-sourced and collaborative budget for Italy that tackles their ongoing economic woes from a place of shared values. We’re excited that Italian students have taken on a part of our brand of collective discussions and are using it to build something equally as empowering and exciting for themselves. Look for a Blueprint for Millenario Italia entro il 2014! 

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Policy and Program Director.

 

"Made in Italy" image via Shutterstock.com

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What is the Crash Generation?

Apr 29, 2013Nona Willis Aronowitz

Down but not out, Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession could reshape the American economy and society.

The economy is personal. It colors our decisions about everything: when to have kids, what city to move to, who to vote for, who to sleep with. And nobody knows this better than the biggest generation in history: the Millennials. These 80 million Americans have come of age during the worst economic recession since the Depression, an experience that will have profound repercussions on our lives—and our political consciousness.

Down but not out, Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession could reshape the American economy and society.

The economy is personal. It colors our decisions about everything: when to have kids, what city to move to, who to vote for, who to sleep with. And nobody knows this better than the biggest generation in history: the Millennials. These 80 million Americans have come of age during the worst economic recession since the Depression, an experience that will have profound repercussions on our lives—and our political consciousness.

I call us the Crash Generation. For many of us in our twenties, 2008 was a period awash in exhilarating highs and terrifying lows. The words “depression,” “economic crisis,” “mass layoffs,” and “foreclosures,” along with “hope,” “change,” and “Obama,” all clogged the headlines and made their way into whiskey-fueled party conversations. Washington and the media had never been so frank about the cataclysmic proportions of a financial crash. And a candidate had never kicked young voters into such high gear like Barack Obama, who seemed to reflect the seismic demographic shift our generation was heralding. The mythic American dream-bubbles were bursting for young people at the exact moment we had begun to wield our political influence. That second half of 2008 was our JFK assassination. Our Vietnam. Our Great Depression. 

Study after study finds that Millennials are “materialistic” or obsessed with money. But really we're obsessed with the money we don’t have; put in political terms, we’re class-conscious. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and Mitt Romney’s slipups, the concept of income inequality is finally part of the public conversation. The economic patterns of the past few decades, with the financial crisis as their crescendo, have yielded an atmosphere ripe for a youth-led social movement that hinges on our bottom lines. Because of our sheer numbers, we have enormous potential to transform waves into tsunamis, and we have already flexed our political muscle in two elections. Those of us who came of age when the bubble burst, particularly the downwardly mobile “privileged poor,” have a tangible common experience, a renewed indignation.

But too often, this indignation often has nowhere to go, and is enveloped in our frenetic lives of multiple jobs, demoralizing underemployment, or joblessness—the constant physical and emotional stress of keeping our heads above water. Years later, the status quo has not budged. We haven’t done much to shrink the income gap or encourage upward mobility. We haven’t gotten our leaders to address anemic state budgets, deregulation, unions’ decline, freelancers’ precarity, shrinking wages, student debt, or the insane cost of living in major cities. All those economic pressures have primed this era for an economic shift. Yet those same pressures limit our freedom to protest or push for policy changes. In other words, we’re pissed—but we’re paralyzed by the very forces we’re pissed about.

Right now, most of the permanent underclass feels politically frozen: When one missed paycheck means descending into poverty without a safety net, unions and political activism seem like a low priority. Educated young people are frozen, too—caught in the privileged-poor paradox. Our meager (or nonexistent) paychecks incite righteous anger—especially when we think of our middle class parents’ luck at their age—but they also choke our very ability to organize, create, and take risks. As our wages fall, our degrees lose value, prices of food and rent rise, and workdays expand, we have less and less time to read a book, to join a rally in the next town over, to hop a bus to Washington, to even have a hours-long discussion about politics with our friends. Most Millennials aren’t starving, Great Depression-style, but they are starved for a low cost of living and a baseline of economic freedom.

Here's the good news: For every 10 twentysomethings seized with frustration, there’s one pushing the conversation forward and coming up with compelling solutions, however flawed or nascent. This seething discontent signals the start of a major shift. The fizzling of Occupy Wall Street, for instance, shouldn’t depress us; Roosevelt Institute fellow Dorian Warren recently reminded me that if this is our civil rights movement, we’re only in 1957—a year after the Montgomery bus boycott. So far, our empty wallets and our denial have hindered our ability to meaningfully influence policy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen soon.

Some people think that entrepreneurship, not government policy, will save Millennials. The truth is, not everyone has the support and connections to launch their own business or score a job at a scrappy start-up. Besides, start-up culture and economic reform aren’t mutually exclusive. In a post-recession era, both social change and entrepreneurism stem from being able to live securely and cheaply. A 2008 study from the RAND Corporation found evidence of "entrepreneurship lock," where workers resist leaving firms offering health care due to the high premiums of the individual health insurance market. Compare this reticence to places like Norway: When journalist Max Chafkin visited the country in 2010, he reported on a spate of Norwegian entrepreneurs who not only were happy to pay high taxes, but attributed their penchant for risk-taking to a strong social safety net. (There are also more entrepreneurs per capita in Norway than in the United States. Same with Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland.)

Millennials are starting to realize that if their lives are going to improve, there needs to be policy that addresses unemployment, student debt, and income inequality. Young people like the ones striking outside McDonald’s in New York, or the students who won a minimum wage hike in San Jose, or the ones in Roosevelt’s Pipeline and Campus Network across the country—they’re all updating historic social movements (and the policies they’ve pushed) that have improved the lives of middle and working class Americans. 

The future movers and shakers of the Crash Generation have a modern sensibility. We’re Internet natives. We’re optimists. We believe in community and the “sharing economy.” We’ve all but settled the culture wars. But we also have faith in the idea of government, if not its current reality, and we’re not afraid to engage with successful historical models.

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow. Join her tomorrow night at the Roosevelt Institute for a Crash Generation salon on "Why Millennials Should Care About Family Policy," with guest speaker Sharon Lerner of Demos. She will also be moderating a panel on paving the path to good jobs at A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency on June 4th.

 

Woman looking for work image via Shutterstock.com

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Disillusioned with Congress? Participatory Budgeting is For You

Mar 27, 2013Emily Apple

Americans are getting fed up with government. It's time to get them directly involved.

It has been nearly a month since the sequester went into effect, yet little is being done to reverse the deep cuts. It is a sad fact that our new normal is the inability to come to a compromise in Washington.

Americans are getting fed up with government. It's time to get them directly involved.

It has been nearly a month since the sequester went into effect, yet little is being done to reverse the deep cuts. It is a sad fact that our new normal is the inability to come to a compromise in Washington.

Washington has failed the American people over and over again, and yet at each manufactured crisis we cross our fingers and hope that things will be different the next time. With such intense gridlock, it's no wonder that Americans have thrown up their hands. According to a 2011 CBS News poll, 80 percent of those surveyed believe that Congress is more interested in serving the needs of special interest groups than the constituents they purport to represent.

So why do Americans simply hope for the best? Why do we not stand up and demand a change? Perhaps it is because the idea of changing the culture of Washington is too daunting, too impossible. But Americans can start building a new system from the ground up that incorporates their voices into the political process.

New York City is entering its second year of a new democratic experiment called participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is exactly what it sounds like: the community is given a chunk of public money and gets to vote and decide how this money will be spent to better the community. The project began in four city council districts in 2011 and is expanding to four more in the upcoming cycle. The process engaged participants who had not previously participated in the political process, and many who were disillusioned with politics–two out of three participants felt that our political system needed a major overhaul, compared with one out of three in the general population. People of color also participated at higher rates than in general elections. The process is founded in the belief that community members know best how to help their community and their voices should be valued above all else in the political process.

The result? Over 7,000 citizens selected 27 projects, totaling $5.6 million. These projects included everything from playground improvements in neighborhood housing projects, vehicles for the local “Meals-on-Wheels” program, and new computers for the local public library. These were projects chosen by and developed by district residents. The number of participants and the amount spent might pale in comparison to New York City as a whole, a city of 8.2 million people with an operating budget of over $65 billion, but we still must value the process of citizen engagement and the lessons we can learn from it.

Participatory budgeting echoes the core values identified in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's new blueprint, Government By and For Millennial America. To create the document, conversations were conducted with over 1,000 students across the country. From those conversations, the three chief values that Millennials identified as most important for government are transparency, equality, and fairness. All of these values are embodied in the participatory budgeting process and hopefully can serve as a model for how this country can continue to improve and engage its citizens.

It is naive to think that a such a small scale project will fundamentally change the way we approach democracy overnight. But projects like these sow the seeds of civic participation and greater engagement in the democratic process across the country. Thousands of projects like these can shift the way we approach democracy and maybe make our senators and representatives take notice. Civic engagement won’t completely solve the seemingingly impossible problem of congressional gridlock, but maybe it can be a much needed antidote. In order to improve the state of our democracy, we must invest in new mechanisms, like participatory budgeting, to engage citizens in the democratic process. It is only then that we can truly be a government by the people and for the people.

Emily Apple is a junior at CUNY-Hunter College and member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Defunding Political Science Research is the Wrong Kind of Big Government

Mar 26, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

In a vote last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research, except on topics “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment’s sponsor, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, frames the defunding of political science research as part of a broader deficit-reduction agenda, but in fact his approach to shrinking government only perpetuates the worst sort of big government: the kind that polices the ideas it doesn’t like.

Although the amendment’s passage came as somewhat of a surprise to observers — Republicans in Congress are long-time foes of political science, but previous efforts to limit NSF funding have been unsuccessful — scientists from a host of disciplines have been quick to condemn the dangerous implications of the vote.

The arguments against this assault on basic science research are many. The funding is a tiny portion of the federal budget but supports a huge portion of political science work. NSF-funded research in political science supports robust public debate by collecting comprehensive, high-quality data that is then accessible to the public and journalists. And, although some political scientists have expressed optimism that almost any piece of research could be framed to fall under the new mandate, Gregory Koger noted in a piece on The Monkey Cage the particular irony that “in order to receive support for careful scientific testing of causal claims one might have to make unsubstantiated claims about how one’s research is linked to U.S. economic or security interests.”

But the greatest harm done by the Senate’s approval of this amendment comes in the type of government that it promotes. The National Science Foundation represents exactly the type of “big government” worth embracing: a government that champions robust public investment in the advancement of knowledge while demanding that these knowledge claims be rigorously tested and peer-reviewed in order to deserve public dollars. NSF grants in political science clearly meet these standards, even funding the work of Nobel Prize laureates such as Elinor Ostrom. In an ironic testament to their democracy enhancing effects, NSF political science grants even helped produce some excellent research on congressional oversight cited by none other than Tom Coburn, who is apparently a fan of federally funded political science research when it serves his interests.

In fact, Coburn’s anti-science agenda represents the sort of big government actually worth fighting against. While cloaking their effort to starve political science research funding as a struggle against wasteful spending, Coburn and other Republicans who share his agenda promote a government that polices knowledge production and attacks ideas it finds threatening. (Coburn is particularly opposed to research on American’s attitudes toward the Senate, which he seems to think require no additional study, stating in his own press release on the amendment’s passage, “There is no reason to spend $251,000 studying Americans’ attitudes toward the U.S. Senate when citizens can figure that out for free.”)

Of course, Republicans attacking political science are quick to claim they support government investment in other types of science — the kind that can cure cancer and doesn’t criticize Congress in the process. This selectivity about which ideas should be supported and which are simply wasteful is short-sighted given the practical benefits of such research. But singling out specific types of research for divestment is more troubling for its ideological implications than for its practical flaws.

As a Nature editorial from last summer argued, when moves to cut off political science funding sponsored by Representative Jeff Flake were making their way through the House, “The fact that he [Flake] and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake's amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.”

There are debates worth having about the value of academic research in society, and even about the merits of publicly funding particular research agendas. Clearly policymakers have a responsibility to argue over how to invest public funds most effectively. But let’s be clear: politicians are not interested in engaging in such a debate. The amendment cutting off NSF political science funding was included in a continuing resolution passed to avoid a government shutdown and passed by a voice vote. The whole story would be comical — Congress using arcane procedure studied only by political scientists to defund political science research — if it weren’t so troubling.

Such a move isn’t part of Congress’s legitimate role overseeing federal spending. Rather, it speaks to a willingness on the part of politicians to let ideological opponents of important research strengthen the kind of government we should all be worried about: one that decides in advance what kinds of ideas are worth public investment.

Elizabeth Pearson is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.

 

Capitol dome image via Shutterstock.com.

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For Millennials, Reforming Government Means Reimagining Democracy

Mar 14, 2013Elizabeth StokesAlan Smith

Millennials don't want a government that just talks at them. They want to build it together.

Millennials don't want a government that just talks at them. They want to build it together.

There is a paradox in the Millennial generation’s relationship with government. On the one hand, research shows that we firmly believe government can and should play a role in solving society’s most urgent and complex problems. We’re less interested in big government vs. small government than we are in better government -- making our democratic systems more inclusive and more responsive. On the other hand, despite seeing government as a theoretically important tool, this generation is opting out. We don’t see ourselves reflected in the decision-making process in our governments, in the values undergirding policies, or in the issues being debated by our representatives.

Still, opting out doesn’t mean this generation has checked out. We are engaged politically, just not in the ways and systems that previous generations have engaged. We don’t want to be courted for our votes and then kicked to the curb until the next big election. We want to build systems that meet us where we are, that is, in community-based service projects, where we see things directly change as a result of our voices, ideas, and action. In short, we need complementary systems that create the sort of direct connection not found in our representative democracy. But how?

The process of creating the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Government By and For Millennial America document suggests a series of answers. Over a period of six months, this student-designed, student-driven, and student-written project engaged more than 1,000 Millennial voices and resulted in a 56-page document. That document in turn framed a network-wide vision for how the Millennial generation wants its government to function. It also produced hundreds more pages of expanded research and writing and a series of conversations on campuses around the country that pushed students to think beyond the constraints of the current political milieu and articulate a blueprint for their ideal government.

This output alone is testimony to the dedication of our students, but how and why did we get their buy in to generate these results? Simply put: the integration and use of participatory democracy. The starting point of this whole project was the creation of democratic spaces that enabled students to collectively deliberate and decide what they thought were the main challenges and opportunities facing the realization of their ideal government. These initial conversations were intentionally stripped of any political jargon and instead focused on values: if you had a blank slate, what values would be embodied in your ideal system? By using values as our foundational building blocks, we made these democratic spaces accessible to anyone, regardless of their experience in policy, and enabled the gradual development of a shared language and understanding of what government can and should be.

Of course, as any political theorist will tell you, participatory democracy is not only about erecting accessible spaces for discussion. It is also about building up the capacities and orientations of citizenship so that those spaces can be effectively used. The vital question then becomes: how do we build such a citizenry? How do we push young people to look beyond their individual wants and needs and think and act in terms of the public? We attempted to answer these questions through political education and the collective exercise of power.

From the beginning, Government By and For Millennial America was an open-ended project. This was both its most exciting and maddening feature: a project with no predetermined outcomes, no predetermined framework, and no predetermined process for making decisions or conducting research beyond what had emerged from student discussions. While this setup had the very real potential for spectacular and rapid implosion, it also allowed students to see that their work was more than simply filling in the spaces on a test. We continuously practiced the collective exercise of power, and in so doing, vested the project with the kind of control that Millennials seek.

This was more than just a logistical challenge of figuring out our own timeline, peer-reviewed editing processes, voting procedures, and so on. Intellectually speaking, it also meant venturing far beyond our individual areas of expertise to learn with and from other students and experts on issues outside our comfort zones, being flexible in how we integrated the regular influx of ideas shaping our ever-evolving body of work, and tying together strands of thought that previously seemed so disparate into the unified framework we were building together.

Imagine, then, the implications of such a project for how we engage in the larger political sphere. There is no reason why this same dual process of building capacity and investing people with real responsibility can’t be expanded to the questions that bedevil local governments or be used to turn around a company that has run afoul of public opinion. Participatory budgeting, for example, gives local politicians a way to get their constituents invested in the budget process in a way that yields real growth, continued participation, and better decision-making.

Of course, this is not to say our process was always rosy – in fact, there were many times when it lagged or stalled. But when schedules freed up, the project was revitalized again: trans-state conference calls to discuss the newest idea, a flood of new interesting and innovative policy write-ups, or a wave of new students eager to be brought into the fold would get us back on track. The power of democracy does not lie in waiting for these sporadic highs, but in the intermediate “lows.” There is something incredibly precious in the messiness of the sometimes slow and arduous back-and-forth that characterizes all experiments in participatory democracy.

We are a team of people with diverse identities and diverse opinions. We were grappling with incredibly tough issues through a medium that demanded collective engagement, deliberation, and decision-making. We learned together, had revelations together, and were able to build a collective lens for how to understand the individual problems plaguing government and the ways in which they were connected. That potential for real change, to be really seen and heard, and to grow so much as an individual in a community -- that is powerful. That is why Government By and For Millennial America should be viewed as more than just a bunch of good ideas in print. It’s also an example of how to engage with a generation that is in danger of being written off as self-interested, but that we believe is looking for a different way forward.

Elizabeth Stokes is a Working Group Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's national initiative, Government By and For Millennial America, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Policy and Program Director.

 

Study group image via Shutterstock.com.

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Making Sense of a Deficit-Obsessed, Gridlocked Congress

Mar 4, 2013

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

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

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

Mar 4, 2013

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

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

Watch the full video of Mike's appearance below:




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