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

Mar 1, 2013Melia Ungson

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

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

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

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

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 In the immediate aftermath of the storm, there were calls to address climate change and outdated infrastructure, but that sense of urgency has largely subsided.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

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

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

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

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

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The Real State of the Union Requires a Stronger Government

Feb 15, 2013David B. Woolner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Did the State of the Union Say to Women?

Feb 14, 2013Ellen CheslerAndrea Flynn

The president didn't just lay out specific policies that will benefit women. He also shifted the theory of how government can help them.

The State of the Union address is inherently a political exercise, intended to chart a course for governing but also to let important constituencies know that they are heard and valued. On Tuesday night, President Obama seemed intent on sounding down-to-earth, sensible, unthreatening, and easy to understand. He presented a long list of concrete proposals as if there couldn’t be any disagreement over their merits.

The president didn't just lay out specific policies that will benefit women. He also shifted the theory of how government can help them.

The State of the Union address is inherently a political exercise, intended to chart a course for governing but also to let important constituencies know that they are heard and valued. On Tuesday night, President Obama seemed intent on sounding down-to-earth, sensible, unthreatening, and easy to understand. He presented a long list of concrete proposals as if there couldn’t be any disagreement over their merits.

For women, a critical voting bloc who helped deliver his second term, the president checked off many important boxes. He spoke about ending violence against women, guaranteeing them equal pay, preventing teen pregnancy, providing working families with more daycare and early child education, and promoting military women in combat roles. He also acknowledged that women around the world are drivers of prosperity and must be empowered if we hope to reduce global poverty and secure emerging democracies.

Hearing this litany of familiar issues was reassuring, but the overall theme of the speech provided an even more important takeaway. Without much fanfare, the president put forward a reshaped agenda for government programs that are, as he put it, not “bigger” but “smarter.” This is vital for women because it would have the government target policies and marshal resources for women and families, which, in turn, prevent larger and costlier social and economic problems. It’s a welcome departure from forgetting about women and children and waiting around to address the unfortunate consequences after the fact.

No grand principles were enunciated. But the president craftily put forward a theory of change that emphasizes strategic and comprehensive investments and interventions to establish a floor of well being for at-risk women and families.

  • He called on the House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, not just as a moral imperative but because studies since its passage demonstrate the effectiveness of the social services and criminal justice reforms this pioneering legislation funds. Over two decades, rates of intimate partner violence and homicides have decreased dramatically, as the White House recently reported.
  • He called for expanding mandatory and free early childhood education – currently available to only three in ten American children – not just because it’s the right thing to do for hard-pressed parents, but because the data shows that it also boosts graduation rates, decreases teen pregnancy, and even correlates with palpable reductions in violent crime in communities across the country.
  • He promised to fight to increase the minimum wage and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. This would close a real gender earnings gap. It would also benefit the nearly two-thirds of all minimum wage workers who are female, many of them single heads of households who can’t possibly lift their families out of poverty without this critical and long overdue intervention. Small businesses have long opposed a raise, despite studies that demonstrate a return to employers through increased productivity.
  • He mentioned the Affordable Care Act only in passing, but it too provides many additional preventive policies, which, as he noted, are already improving services while driving down health care costs overall. For example, the ACA has already brought comprehensive, affordable family planning and reproductive health care to more than 1 million women. By 2016, it could extend those services to as many as 13 million additional uninsured women if the many state challenges to contraceptive coverage and the Medicaid expansion do not undermine its potential reach and impact. And here again, as we have written previously, data demonstrates incontrovertibly that these services will dramatically reduce rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion.
  • While the focus of the president’s speech was primarily domestic, he also mentioned America’s responsibilities in the world and obliquely referenced the signature efforts of his administration to mainstream gender considerations into our diplomatic, defense, and development policies. Under the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States has joined 30 other countries in adopting a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, facilitated by the United Nations, which applies gender considerations and disaggregates spending across all agencies to require focused investment to improve the status of women. The government recognizes that this is not just the right thing to do, but also the smarter course if our aim is to meet the security and development challenges of our foreign policy. This shift in thinking lies behind the decision to promote military women to combat rank, for example, because in conflicts that involve civilian populations, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, women officers on the frontlines have played critical roles in connecting with local populations. And local women empowered by the U.S. presence have in turn become important agents in post-conflict resolution and peace processes and in relief and reconstruction efforts.

The president’s State of the Union provided a blueprint for a strong, positive government obligation to secure the wellbeing of women and families at home and abroad. Not a lot of detail was offered, nor was there any fancy philosophical framework for what would represent a palpable shift in U.S. priorities and our traditional ways of governing. He spoke as if this was all pretty much just common sense – the better part of wisdom.

But certainly if Senator Marco Rubio’s response is any indication, the president’s intentions, however masked in straightforward, anodyne rhetoric, face innumerable obstacles to their realization. That should not, however, stop us from applauding and getting behind the potential for meaningful policy change.

Ellen Chesler and Andrea Flynn are Fellows at the Roosevelt Institute.

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This Year's State of the Union Was a Speech About Democracy

Feb 13, 2013Mark Schmitt

President Obama's message was a challenge to Congress to reengage in the democratic process.

President Obama's message was a challenge to Congress to reengage in the democratic process.

For anyone interested in revitalizing American democracy, the State of the Union didn't offer much in traditional terms. There was nothing comparable to President Obama's daring call-out of the Supreme Court in 2010 for its error in Citizens United. The closest we got to a specific democracy-related proposal was Obama’s announcement of a commission on voting to be chaired by his campaign lawyer, Bob Bauer, and the top Republican election lawyer, Ben Ginsberg, which will identify obstacles to voting and recommend “commonsense steps that state and local election officials can take,” according to the White House fact sheet.

Election reform commissions don’t have a great history, but it’s refreshing to see one chaired by working election lawyers, who presumably know the score, rather than eminences grises such as Jimmy Carter and James Baker. Further, as Rick Hasen points out, Ginsberg’s name attached to any recommendations the commission produces gives it a real chance of gaining some Republican support. But the tone of the president’s proposals suggested that election problems like long lines are just some sort of natural phenomenon or sad accident rather than the result of partisan warfare over who can vote. And the commission is not charged with recommending national standards for voting and vote-counting, just recommendations to state and local officials.

Still, much of the speech had a subtle subtext of reopening American democracy, from the presence of 102-year-old Desiline Victor of Florida, who stood in long lines twice last November before she was able to vote, to the insistence that the victims of gun violence and their families “deserve a vote” on his gun safety proposals. “Deserve a vote” is different from an insistence that Congress “pass this bill,” as Obama demanded when he introduced his job creation bill in 2011. It is a demand that the system simply work the way it’s supposed to – take up legislation and pass it, amend it, or reject it. Given that more than a few Democrats and Republicans would rather bottle up controversial legislation like a gun safety bill than cast recorded votes to be scored by the NRA, this is a significant challenge to the system.

Similarly, in talking about the budget, Obama declared, “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.” This can be seen as a throwaway line, but the “manufactured crises” of the recent budget deals, much like filibusters, have the effect of closing off democracy. There’s no debate or open deliberation, just a closed room where one side tries to force the hand of the other. And the result can be policies, like the budget sequester, that are not compromises, but actually deeply unpopular and unwise, because their only purpose is to win the next closed-door fight. Budget showdown politics create states of exception where democratic processes are set aside.

Obama was implicitly calling for a return to a kind of normal order in the American democratic process. It will still be messy, and the results won’t be ideal, but it won’t be all about preventing people from voting, preventing votes on legislation, and creating crises to force showdowns. Obama presented even his broad economic agenda as an opening bid in a democratic process. He’s unlikely to get all of what he’s proposed, but if congressional Republicans take it up as minority parties have in the past – proposing amendments, voting against the parts they don’t like, and making the case against some or all of it – we’ll likely see some of it passed. This vision doesn’t require the Republican fever to break, as some have suggested. They will remain a deeply conservative party with an even more reactionary core demanding attention. But it will require them to rejoin the democratic process in the same spirit in which they sat mostly calmly and respectfully last night.

Obama’s agenda has always had a strong dimension that was about democracy and the political process itself, in part because those are his instincts and in part because he desperately needs to reopen and reform the process before he can fully achieve the rest of his vision. To really change the process, though, Obama will have to be more explicit and fight harder for some specifics: not just a commission on electoral reform, but a push for national clarity about who can vote and how votes are counted. Not just a shot at the Supreme Court, but a sustained commitment to reduce the role of money in politics, from little changes, such as making the IRS enforce the law on 501(c)(4) non-profits, to a national effort to enact the kind of small-donor public financing that is effective in New York City and may soon be enacted at the state level. He may do more harm than good by meddling in congressional business, but his agenda – and any hope for progress in meeting our challenges – also requires a more open Senate, in which 41 Senators can’t decide what gets a chance to be heard.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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