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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Signed, Sealed, Diminished: Postal Service Cuts Are Another Blow to the Public Good

Feb 11, 2013Tim Price

Policy choices drove the Postal Service into debt, but we can still choose to save it.

Policy choices drove the Postal Service into debt, but we can still choose to save it.

The news last week that the U.S. Postal Service plans to end Saturday delivery of regular mail provoked a wide range of reactions: anger from those who hope to prevent the cuts, praise from those who see it as a bold and necessary move, sadness from those mourning the end of an era, and denial from lawmakers who noted that it’s not entirely legal. Whatever their take, the fact that nearly everyone has an opinion on this policy shift shows how thoroughly the Postal Service has become woven into the fabric of American society. Many government agencies are facing cutbacks, but few have an influence as personal or as pervasive as the mailbox outside the front door. And when we check that mailbox by force of habit and remember why it’s empty, it may make us think twice about letting yet another pillar of public life in the U.S. be knocked down.

The blame for the Postal Service’s downward spiral is usually split between the Internet (you can’t include a funny video of a cat in a physical letter, so what good is it compared to e-mail?), private competition, and the most usual suspect of all, the United States Congress. The first two have some merit, but Congress, which has lately become the Kevin Bacon of looming disasters, never more than a few degrees removed from a crisis, is the biggest culprit here. In 2006, it imposed a wholly unique mandate that required the USPS to prefund health benefits for future retirees for 75 years, to the tune of about $5.5 billion a year. So far it’s placed $44 billion into that account while running losing about $30 billion. Now it’s planning service cuts that will save about $2 billion a year. You can work out the math on that one, even if our lawmakers can’t.

While contemplating the costs of the Postal Service, it’s also important to consider what we’re paying for. As of 2011, there were 35,119 postal facilities across the country processing 554 million pieces of mail every day. It may not be as polished as FedEx, but then again, FedEx couldn’t be as polished as FedEx without the help of the Postal Service, which delivers 30.4 percent of FedEx Ground shipments thanks to its presence in rural areas where private carriers fear to tread. To do all this, the Postal Service currently has 546,000 career employees, about 20 percent of whom are black. Further layoffs and service cuts will take a significant toll on communities that have already been disproportionately affected by the recession, from economically devastated towns that can’t sustain private carrier routes to minority groups suffering sky-high unemployment.

The USPS also has value beyond the daily churn of correspondence, commerce, and junk mail. Historian Gray Brechin notes that the New Deal’s public works projects included the construction of more than 1,100 post offices “designed…to elevate and inspire the public” and “distinguished by fine architecture, materials and detailing, as well as by a lavish programme of public art that, for the first time, reflected back to patrons and workers their regional identity.” FDR, himself an avid stamp collector, understood the value of public spaces and oversaw the construction of a vast network of facilities that would bind disparate communities together while serving as a vital supply line. It was also meant as a reminder of what Americans can achieve when united by common purpose. And now some people are ready to give up on it because the lines are too long.

In this light, attacks on the Postal Service look like another symptom of the general anti-government sentiment that has been undermining FDR’s legacy and the strength of our public institutions for decades. Like any service, public or private, the USPS should look to trim costs and adapt to customer demands if it can do so without compromising its quality of service or labor standards. But that’s a big “if,” and it’s hard to blame the agency for the fiscal hole it’s in when Congress has opted to micromanage it to death. Indeed, the prefunding mandate that’s driving the USPS into debt is a classic example of the conservative governing philosophy: come in, break stuff, then complain that it never worked in the first place. Some private firm must be able to do it better, even if it depends on publicly funded resources to get it done. And of course the object of their fixation would be postal workers’ future health benefits. As we’ve been taught from the endless attacks on Social Security and Medicare, the essence of greed in the modern workforce is the desire for a comfortable retirement.

We don’t have to let this narrative play out this way. With this and other public services on the chopping block, it’s time for Americans to have a serious debate about what we want from government and what it’s worth to us, in terms of both our budget and our national identity. Through its sheer omnipresence, the Postal Service and the cuts it’s facing may help Americans to grasp the full scope of what we stand to lose if we buy into the mantra that nothing that costs something is worth anything. It’s up to all of us to decide that the mail must go through.

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

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In New Report, Millennials Envision a Government That Works for Them

Feb 7, 2013

The last election proved that the Millennial movement that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 was no fluke, but it also highlighted the ways our system of government has grown outdated and unresponsive to the needs and values of young Americans. That's why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network brought together more than 1,000 young people and 40 student writers from across the country to envision what a 21st century democracy should look like.

The last election proved that the Millennial movement that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 was no fluke, but it also highlighted the ways our system of government has grown outdated and unresponsive to the needs and values of young Americans. That's why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network brought together more than 1,000 young people and 40 student writers from across the country to envision what a 21st century democracy should look like. The result, Government By and For Millennial America, builds on past Campus Network projects including the Blueprint for Millennial America and the Budget for Millennial America. It reflects the ideals of a generation that believes strongly in the potential of government as a force for good while laying out a clear plan for how that potential can be reached.

Watch a video introduction to #GBAF and read the full report below. And for more, check out this post at The Nation by Campus Network student Erik Lampmann.

Government by and for Millennial America

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No Pay, No Problem: Why Congress Doesn't Need Our Money

Jan 25, 2013Tim Price

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

This week, as part of a compromise to ward off a debt ceiling showdown and potential default, the House approved the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks starting April 15 unless they pass a budget. If you haven’t been keeping up with GOP talking points, this is the latest attempt to pressure Senate Democrats into producing a budget resolution, which they haven’t done in the last four years for various inane parliamentary reasons. But whatever you think of its intent, it’s an empty gesture and one that highlights the troubling disconnect between average Americans and their elected officials.

Despite its gimmicky origins, No Budget, No Pay has a certain intuitive appeal. As centrist commentator John Avlon writes, “If you don't get the job done at work, you won't get paid.” Sure, you or I would probably just get fired, but we don’t have gerrymandering to save us. Still, why should we reward Harry Reid and his crew for shirking their responsibilities while House Republicans have been keeping their noses to the grindstone and dutifully passing Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fan fiction?

For one thing, it’s unconstitutional. Not “unconstitutional” in the wingnut sense that cutting the crusts off your sandwich is unconstitutional if there’s a photo of Barack Obama doing it, but unconstitutional in the sense that the 27th Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from mucking around with its own pay unless there’s an intervening election. To get around this little detail, the act is designed so that the members’ checks get deposited into an escrow account until a) they pass a budget or b) the term ends in 2014, at which point they get paid in full either way. In other words, it’s less of a threat to their livelihood and more of an experiment in delayed gratification.

But a more significant problem is that most legislators probably couldn’t care less if their pay was withheld indefinitely. As of 2011, the average estimated wealth of members of Congress was $6.5 million in the House and $13.9 million in the Senate. And unlike many of their constituents, they haven’t exactly been struggling through lean times recently. While average American households saw their median net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, lawmakers’ rose 5 percent during the same period. That’s not to say that every member of Congress is set for life; some are deep in debt like true red-blooded Americans. But threats to withhold pay are ineffective when most of our representatives have enough money in their rainy day funds to last them through monsoon season. And if worst comes to worst, they can always exit through the revolving door and join a few corporate boards to replenish their bank accounts.

This points to a larger problem with our political system, which is just how far removed our policymakers are from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. In a 2005 study, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that:

[S]enators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.

Read that again: if you’re a low-income voter, you and your policy preferences might as well not exist as far as your senators are concerned. While Bartels doesn’t provide a definitive explanation for these findings, he notes that “the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant.” Being rich frames the way our elected officials see the world, shapes their social circles, and determines their legislative priorities. In that sense, wealth is the incubator that hatches Washington’s deficit hawks.

Of course, wealth alone doesn’t determine a person’s politics. FDR was no pauper, but he fought for the common good and was labeled a class traitor for his efforts. But noblesse oblige isn’t what it used to be, and today’s well-heeled lawmakers seem more interested in scoring political points than addressing mass unemployment and soaring inequality. No Budget, No Pay won’t do anything to change that, and any consensus budget that it did produce would undoubtedly be laden with more unnecessary cuts to domestic spending and the social safety net. It’s a fair point that lawmakers shouldn’t get paid for a job they’re not doing, but they’re so insulated from reality that no amount of negative reinforcement short of voting them out of office is likely to have a significant impact. And until that happens, we don’t need more gimmicks to make them fall in line and pass an austerity budget. What we could use is a lot more traitors.

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

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Obama's Other Message: Times Change and Government Changes With Them

Jan 23, 2013Jeff Madrick

The president didn't just make a case for big government; he argued that the government must adapt to meet its citizens' needs.

The president didn't just make a case for big government; he argued that the government must adapt to meet its citizens' needs.

Almost hidden in President Obama’s second inaugural address was a key idea that received little if any attention. The focus has been on the president's eloquent defense of collective government, and who couldn't be gratified by that? Time and again, he used the world “together” to describe the nation’s purpose. Government is about working together, and Obama very nicely made the case for it in the face of 40 years of pronouncements by those who disparage government and want to cut it down, if not out. Democrats, not just Republicans, have been leaders in this quest.

But for me, what was most interesting about Obama’s speech was the emphasis on how we must change with the times. I was interested because I wrote a book about this. I take no credit for Obama’s point, because my book was titled The Case for Big GovernmentI doubt he would be caught even in the privacy of his own bedroom reading a book with that title.

Seeing the title, many presumed I was writing about Keynesian policy. In fact, my argument was that the size of government is not the issue, the need for government is. I cited the work of economists who show that size and high taxes have not automatically deterred growth. But when I published this before the crash, Republicans in particular, but also some Democrats, kept talking about the original intentions of the Founders and were urging us not to go beyond the early purposes of government. That is where I focused my attention: the needs of government change as society, science, social thought,  technology, and expectations advance.

To say government must be small is nonsense. Government must be the size necessary to make a society and economy work, and that is not fixed -- nor could it possibly have been known by farmers in the late 1700s.

Here is what Obama said about change on Monday:

[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

Let me reemphasize that this has been said before but not often enough. Surely it is not part of the media discourse and it is not part of the thinking of those budget writers in Washington who claim the federal government should be a fixed proportion of GDP. I refer of course to the Bowles-Simpson budget balancing plan that so many think is the height of good sense. They’d like to limit federal spending to 21 percent of GDP -- no matter that our society ages, that health care is more costly, that we need to educate preschool children and better educate those in higher grades as the world gets more competitive, that our poverty rate is still high, that our ability to create jobs is under severe challenge, and so on.  

There are no fixed rules for what government should do because we can’t anticipate the future. The colonial writers of America’s Constitution did not know we’d need high schools or highways, electricity or polio vaccines, MRI machines or antibiotics, fertilizers or pollution restraints, gasoline or wind power, or computer chips. They didn’t even know we’d need railroads.

Our view of human rights also changes. Slavery is now abhorrent to almost all, women are equal, those with birth defects require help, and very young children, we have learned, benefit greatly from educationally nourishing environments.

Most of this requires government, and President Obama recognizes this. His agenda, what we must now do “together,” includes climate change, equal rights for women and gays, gun control, and a sensible international policy for the times. He goes on, “So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures.”

The means will indeed change, and the nation would do well to accept that truth, or it will not rise to the challenges of this new century. I originally titled my book The Purpose of Government. Maybe that would have been better. But the point remains the same. Shed ideology about government and fixed ideas and turn our attention to what must be done. Yes, my guess is it would mean bigger government. But so what?

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

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