Making Telecom Central Again: Our Economic Future Depends on High-Speed Internet For All

Sep 20, 2012Susan Crawford

Expanding high-speeding Internet access to all Americans is as essential now as the Rural Electrification Act was in the 1930s.

Expanding high-speeding Internet access to all Americans is as essential now as the Rural Electrification Act was in the 1930s.

The basic facts are familiar: of a nation of 314 million Americans, 100 million of us lack high-speed access to the Internet. We're behind 15 other countries when it comes to that high-speed access; none of top city hubs for fast, affordable access are in the United States. Speeds are slow, prices are high, and a third of us are being left behind. Most people who make less than $20,000 a year don't have access; everyone who makes more than $75,000 a year does. Almost every part of life today, and every policy area you care about, depends on a reliable, affordable, high-speed connection. For everything from finding a job to accessing online classrooms, those without access are at a distinct disadvantage. And our country as a whole is at a disadvantage, as new developments that require working collaboratively with massive amounts of data will happen elsewhere.

Why did this happen, and why do I care?

It happened because of policy. We're being squeezed by a deregulated and enormously powerful industry that has no incentive to build a fast, affordable, level digital playing field for Americans.

This narrative is really just like the electricity story. In 1920 in America, unregulated private companies controlled electricity. The result? 90 percent of farmers didn't have it, at the same time that all rich people in New York City did. And it was wildly expensive in many places. Although it's now considered an essential input into everything we do, at the time electricity was seen as a luxury; the companies served the rich and big businesses, and left everyone else out. The electricity business, after all, involved very high up-front costs. If you could make that initial investment, it served as an extraordinarily effective barrier to entry -- who needed two electrical lines? -- and you could pick off the rich customers, making life difficult for any second comer, because they'd be stuck with serving people who were more spread out and not as wealthy. Then, once your lucrative business was in place, you could raise prices with impunity. You didn't have to expand. You could just harvest.

We did something about that problem at both the local and national level. It took tremendous leadership by Franklin Roosevelt, who went to swim in Warm Springs, Georgia and was horrified by the expense of the scarce electrification there. Although a rich and privileged man, he instinctively understood that the success of the entire nation depended on having a large marketplace for electricity -- both for people to thrive and for American industry to sell new goods to. And so he mounted enormous rural electrification efforts in the 1930s and regulated these companies, making sure that they received a fair profit for a world-class and universally provided service.

Today, the U.S. is falling far behind when it comes to the 21st century version of electrification: the country's upgrade to fiber connectivity, the global standard. Although our U.S. telephone system was the envy of the world when it was built, and served every American at a reasonable price, we're apparently unable to think of fiber as a utility. We've seen enormous consolidation and monopolization of both wired and wireless access in America by the companies to which we've entrusted our daily lives of information. This isn't good for any part of American society, and it is, or should be, a truly bipartisan issue.

It's also, like electricity, both a local and a national issue. There are bright spots across the country where communities are coming together to commission fast, cheap fiber networks. We need to make it possible for every community to make that choice. That will require federal legislation to block state laws that lock up localities and keep them in the incumbents' hands. We need to make sure that there are rules in place to protect competition and allow for oversight at the federal level as well.

Finally, it's an urgent issue. Right now, a tsunami of state-level deregulation is sweeping the country. Right now, Verizon is telling the D.C. Circuit that it is a First Amendment "speaker" and that therefore any regulation of its activities is unconstitutional. Right now, the regional cable monopolies are buying up former competing telecom companies, strengthening their grip on wired access across the country.

I care because I think we face a choice between two fundamentally different visions of the future. Today's free marketers seem to be content with a second-class network that only rich people can afford. They're pushing for even fewer regulations on the giant telecommunications companies who have the power to control everything we learn and create. Think about that: they want to give the richest and most powerful companies in our country even more riches and more power to serve as gatekeepers over everything we do. To harvest us. And at the same time, they want to make sure that basic high-speed infrastructure isn't a priority for the country. Their vision is simple: "Communicating is a luxury for the rich." I don't think that's right, and most of our peer nations don't either.

I'm thrilled to be invited to be a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. One of the high points of this year for me was meeting members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network at their summit at Hyde Park. They are so smart, so focused, and so energetic. This generation understands how essential fast online access is, and how important it is for local communities to protect their ability to communicate at a reasonable cost. What's unique about Roosevelt is that it operates on both a local, decentralized level and on the national level -- just like the Internet itself. I'm looking forward to taking on this issue with the Roosevelt team. 

Susan Crawford is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Mitt Romney's 47% Remarks: Wrong on the Facts, Not Just the Rhetoric

Sep 18, 2012Jeff Madrick

Americans who rely on government programs aren't "takers." They're people who have been left behind by our economy.

Americans who rely on government programs aren't "takers." They're people who have been left behind by our economy.

Mitt Romney’s “off-the-cuff” remarks that nearly half of Americans are “dependent” on government and believe they are “victims” who are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to-you-name-it,”  were widely publicized. This is in fact old saw for a certain kind of anti-government conservative. I have given talks deep in conservative territory where courteous memebers of the audience would come up to me afterwards and say they agree we should pay taxes for infrastructure but not for giveaways “to those people.”

But coming from a presidential candidate of one of the major parties, such remarks are stunning. Moreover, Romney later claimed he stood by them. He insulted half the American people; at least the people who spoke to me were talking about perhaps only one quarter of them! Romney also used the once-ubiquitous claim by conservatives that only half of Americans pay income tax. 

There was widespread criticism of Romney's rhetoric, but the stronger case against his condescending and elitist remarks is to present the facts, of which he seems happily unaware. Fortunately, the Tax Policy Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have pointed out that the large majority of Americans pay federal taxes when payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare are included. The only Americans who don’t pay taxes are some of the elderly, the poor, and the young.
       
But it is the dependency issue that requires real information. Income for the lower half of American earners has been growing very slowly since the late 1970s -- more or less when Ronald Reagan took office. Compared to economies overseas, the wage performance has been just plain bad. 
        
Why? The declines of unions, the refusal to raise the minimum wage with inflation, and the increased pressure by Wall Street to minimize expenses in the short run -- typically labor expenses -- have all contributed. So have rapidly lost manufacturing jobs and globalization in general. Finally, on average economic growth was slow in the 1980s until the mid-1990s. Only in the late 1990s did growth push the unemployment rate down adequately to boost incomes for the lower half. In the 2000s, we had adequate growth but little job or wage growth. Without social programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the lower half would have hardly seen incomes grow at all.
      
Was dependency a cause of low incomes? This is easily refuted nonsense. Had social programs hurt rather than helped Americans, poverty rates would have been low in the 1950s. As Michael Harrington alerted America, the poverty rate was probably 30 percent in the 1950s. Finally, the U.S. government computed a poverty line -- a low one, mind you. It found the poverty rate at about 22 percent. 
      
Why? Couldn’t have been dependency. The War on Poverty had not yet begun. By the 1970s, however, the poverty rate was down to 11 percent. As Social Security expanded, elderly poverty rates fell from 50 percent to about 10 percent. And so on. These are the purposes of government, Mitt.
      
On our Rediscovering Government website you can find a set of charts and an important summary paper by Lane Kenworthy on this issue.
 

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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Should We Stop Referring to Student Loans as "Financial Aid"?

Sep 14, 2012Mike Konczal

Students who take out loans aren't receiving special favors. They're making financial transactions like any other.

Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of "financial aid"? Should that term be something to be resisted? Demos' Tamara Draut brought up this point in a conversation recently, and I think it needs to be explored further, because it frames how we speak about student loans.

Students who take out loans aren't receiving special favors. They're making financial transactions like any other.

Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of "financial aid"? Should that term be something to be resisted? Demos' Tamara Draut brought up this point in a conversation recently, and I think it needs to be explored further, because it frames how we speak about student loans.

The government records and documents student loans as a form of aid. Here's a list of the "amount of financial aid awarded to full-time, full-year undergraduates, by type and source of aid," and loans are listed right next to grants. When pundits say that "student aid" has exploded over the past decade, and argue that aid is driving increases in tuition, it disguises that the aid that has exploded is a signficant amount of debt for young people.

I've taken out loans and received gifts. When I've signed up for, say, a car loan, I never went "oh you shouldn't have" afterwards, like when I've received a really nice birthday gift. I understood that the creditor wanted to lend me a certain amount of money at a certain rate, and I wanted to borrow it. Full stop. Unless the interest rate charged is purposely manipulated for some reason [1], there's no reason to think of this as aid at all.

Student loans are an economic transaction, the same as if the government contracted out to build a bridge, or hired a person to serve in the military or police force or be a teacher. The money spent here isn't "aid." Hiring someone to build a bridge exchanges labor for cash. Student loans exchange cash now for cash later plus interest. Those student loans would be underprovided without the government, certainly, but in the same way that bridges and law enforcement and other goods would also be underprovided if they weren't done by government.

I think this clarifies some of the issues and responses I'm seeing in the discussion about whether or not higher education is driven by increases in so-called "aid." Megan McArdle wrote in Newsweek, "In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we’ve bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available." Let's leave aside the issue that the vision of education constrained by disposable income is Mitt Romney's vision that students should get "‘as much education as they can afford." There's a bigger issue.

I'm not sure what "normal market" means here, but many kinds of markets, perhaps even all of them, aren't constrainted by disposable income. Major, long-term debt fuels all kinds of important purchases, from houses to cars to health care to big-ticket durable goods. Events like retirement or having kids are dictated by longer-term savings decisions. Much of your monthly spending, like your rent or your cell phone, is in a contract that stipulates some future payments must be made regardless of your disposable income. There's a reason economists talk about spending as influenced by lifetime incomes.

Student loans are a way of mitigating a credit constraint, which is different than providing aid. Here it reflects not subsidized demand, but actual demand smoothed over a long time period. That's going to put a lot of demand into play. It shouldn't surprise us that demand is very high when credit constraints are removed. Higher education is one of the most important mechanisms of social and economic mobility we have, and it is also one of the primary ways we have for people to fully develop their talents and capabilities.

If actual demand overwhelms the supply of the system, that's a problem of supply, not demand. And the obvious solution is to increase the supply. Throughout our country's history we've done that in landmark bills that do it through public provisoning paid for by taxation, bills like the Morrill Act and California Master Plan. Now, as that system is left to crumble, we are looking to the private, for-profit sector to fill that gap. I fear that will only exacerbate the cost problems we've seen so far, and the data is looking that way too

But if not as a form of financial "aid," how should we refer to student loans?

[1] There's a narrow, though important, question about whether or not student loans are a "subsidy" because their interest rates are too low or too high. The Department of Education found that (R-10) for ”Direct Loans, the overall weighted average subsidy rate was estimated to be -13.91 percent in FY 2011; that is, the overall program on average was projected to earn about 13.91 percent on each dollar of loans made, thereby providing savings to the Federal Government.” What's a good word for the opposite of a subsidy? Whatever it is, student loans are that. Others argue that there needs to be a higher discount rate used to calculate this, and then you would see a subsidy. Let's assume for this post that the interest rate is seen to be fair by all parties.

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Two Issues with Megan McArdle's Piece on Higher Education

Sep 13, 2012Mike Konczal

Megan McArdle has a new cover story at Newsweek, "Is College a Lousy Investment?"  Is the benefit worth it with rising costs? Several people have addressed the benefit part, particularly Dylan Matthew here and Reihan Salam here.

Megan McArdle has a new cover story at Newsweek, "Is College a Lousy Investment?"  Is the benefit worth it with rising costs? Several people have addressed the benefit part, particularly Dylan Matthew here and Reihan Salam here.

I have a piece about higher education that I'm really excited about coming out in the next few weeks with Aaron Bady for Dissent, so I don't want to spoil it. But for now, I think there are two important things to engage with in McArdle's piece. The costs part is important, because this will likely be the center-right argument going forward, and I think it has problems in an important way. McArdle:

Vedder adds, “I look at the data, and I see college costs rising faster than inflation up to the mid-1980s by 1 percent a year. Now I see them rising 3 to 4 percent a year over inflation. What has happened? The federal government has started dropping money out of airplanes.” Aid has increased, subsidized loans have become available, and “the universities have gotten the money.” Economist Bryan Caplan, who is writing a book about education, agrees: “It’s a giant waste of resources that will continue as long as the subsidies continue.” [...]

In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we’ve bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available. No, not only making them available: telling college students that those loans are “good debt” that will enable them to make much more money later.

This is based on something called the Bennett Hypothesis. In the 1980s Education Secretary William Bennett argued that increases in student aid largely just allowed colleges to raise their tuition, capturing all that money. If true, this would be the lowest hanging policy fruit imaginable: save money by not providing aid and lower tuition in the process.

Sadly, there's no evidence for this argument. And I mean "no evidence" not like "there's significant debate" or "reasonable people disagree," but like this has been extensively studied and the general consensus is that it is not true. I spent some time going through this research and couldn't find anything conclusive, and requests from others writing on this haven't been helpful. This could likely be true as it relates to for-profit schools -- there's a study somewhere that indicates this -- which shouldn't suprise us, as for-profits exist to suck up federal subsidies by business design. But it doesn't appear to be true for the vast majority of higher education, and to whatever extent it could be true it isn't a major driver.

 Here's a big post by David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, listing all the institutions that have investigated this. Among other studies and experts quoted, here's:

“Regarding the relation between financial aid and tuition, the regression models found no associations between most of the aid packaging variables (federal grants, state grants, and loans) and changes in tuition in either the public or private not-for-profit sectors.”
 
– U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, Dec. 2001, Study of College Costs and Prices 1988-89 to 1997-98, Vol. 1
 
“The Commission finds no evidence to suggest any relationship between the availability of Federal grants and the costs or prices in these institutions,” and “has found no conclusive evidence that loans have contributed to rising costs and prices.”
 
– National Comission on the Cost of Higher Education, February 1998, Straight Talk about College Costs & Prices
 
“After the change to the Stafford loan limits beginning in AY 2007-08, the price [of college] … increased at a rate generally consistent with prior years. [...] Overall, [previously conducted] analyses are descriptive and do not necessarily indicate a linkage between increases in the loan limits and changes in tuition or borrowing.”
 
– Government Accountability Office, May 2011, Federal Student Loans: Patterns in Tuition, Enrollment, and Federal Stafford Loan Borrowing Up to the 2007-08 Loan Limit Increase
This is important, because McArdle's argument allows her to make it seem like government action to provide for higher education is largely counterproductive. Rather than examining the decreasing support for higher education, the difficulty of finding "Baumol’s cost disease" in higher education, the growth of a "hybrid" design for our public education sector, the decrease in Pell grants relative to total college costs, the way that the for-profit industry is taking over for public institutions, or the issue of risk-shifting to the individuals and providing services out of fees instead of taxes - rather than it being a choice on how we provide the essential social good of higher education, and who benefits and who loses from those choices - McArdle can imply that if the government tried to make education more affordable it would backfire and just make the problem worse.
 
This becomes even more of a problem with the second issue, the likely transmission mechanism. Just because aid goes up doesn't mean that prices must go up - the increases in food stamps haven't caused an equivalent increase in food prices. In a follow-up post to her article, she alludes to the microeconomic issue at play: "Vedder’s theory is that, as he put it, universities are raising tuition 'because they can'."
 
In economics-speak, that means that the supply of higher education is inelastic relative to price. If that's the case, then the right course of action is for the government to provide more supply at a cheaper price; i.e., free higher education. JW Mason has argued that if supply is inelastic, "each dollar spent on grants to students reduces final tuition costs less than one for one, each dollar spent on subsidies to public institutions reduces tuition costs by more." Think of it as "the public option for higher education" argument, with the same motivations. This is not a new argument. in 1899, the president of Stanford argued that “if the State makes no provision for higher education there is no other agency on which we can depend to supply it.” That seems as relevant now, over 100 years later, as it did back then.
 

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New Article: On Paul Ryan's World of Welfare Capitalism

Sep 13, 2012Mike Konczal

I have a new article at The Nation with Bryce Covert titled How Paul Ryan Would Decimate the New Deal. "Ryan’s vision for reforming the social safety net can be explained in three verbs: he wants to block grant Medicaid, voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security.

I have a new article at The Nation with Bryce Covert titled How Paul Ryan Would Decimate the New Deal. "Ryan’s vision for reforming the social safety net can be explained in three verbs: he wants to block grant Medicaid, voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security. Yes, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would likely still exist, but those changes would mean a profound difference for the average person who receives government benefits over his or her lifetime."

We walk through how a specific person would encounter these programs as they are administered currently and under Ryan's vision. We then talk about Gøsta Esping-Andersen's idea of "Worlds of Welfare Capitalism" and try to understand what a social-democratic welfare state would look like versus a classically liberal (read: libertarian) welfare state. We use that to formalize Ryan's vision as shredding the remaining social democratic parts of the New Deal and Great Society's welfare state and replacing them with a new, libertarian framework.

I just had my mind blown from encountering Gøsta Esping-Andersen's work about six months ago. So even if you are tired of debates about Paul Ryan's budget from the blogosphere, this might be a helpful way to approach the topic from a new angle. Hope you check check out the new article!

 

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What Does Obama Really Stand For: Community or Small Government?

Sep 10, 2012Jeff Madrick

The president's convention speech focused on the power of community, but the details of his future policies remain sketchy at best.

The president’s acceptance speech in Charlotte last week emphasized his new theme of community and "being in this together." For all its mushy sentiment, this is a major victory for those like us at Rediscovering Government who have been talking about the need to revitalize the discourse about government for quite some time.

The president's convention speech focused on the power of community, but the details of his future policies remain sketchy at best.

The president’s acceptance speech in Charlotte last week emphasized his new theme of community and "being in this together." For all its mushy sentiment, this is a major victory for those like us at Rediscovering Government who have been talking about the need to revitalize the discourse about government for quite some time.

Obama hesitated to sound such a theme in the past. He seemed to run from potential charges of class warfare or favoring big government. He failed to boast about his stimulus plan and some of his investment programs. He hardly talked about his health care program. The conversation in America has changed, of course, partly because of the vice presidential nomination of an extremist, Paul Ryan, who wants to cut government spending to 16 percent of GDP. That’s about the 1950s level. 

But Obama has been moving in this direction for quite a while now. He still avoids the word "government," preferring "community." But he also nicely introduced the word "citizenship." Among Ronald Reagan’s most damaging legacies was, I think, that he undermined the meaning of being a citizen in America. To him, we did not belong to a nation. We belonged only to ourselves. It would be nice to bring the concept of citizen back.

I can’t overemphasize how useful it was for Obama to lay out this old but now new vision. Bill Clinton, who had proudly proclaimed the end of big government in 1996, also said similar things. There is now a distinct us versus them as the election season begins. “Us” is those who want to work together. "Them” is those who treat community as a drug we'll become dependent on. It is probably no accident that the Republican ticket is composed of men descended from rich parents. Lots of rich kids become effective leaders, but many don’t understand how tough it can be to have no one to lean on, to borrow from (as Mitt now famously suggested), or even to be taught by.

But having listened closely to the Obama speech, I am still hungry for more candor. Even a few days later, I have no idea what Obama plans to do over the next four years. We know he will care, and we know he will not take a pound of flesh from the poor or strivers to the middle class if he can help it, but what do we know about his future programs?

He was about as careful as Romney and Ryan were in Tampa to avoid any specifics. Will he propose a new stimulus if the economy teeters, or will he remain dedicated to a narrow deficit-cutting plan even during a weak economy? Does he think there is anything truly commendable about the Simpson-Bowles deficit-cutting plan he had sponsored (if then mostly ignored)? The plan disastrously aims to limit federal spending to 21 percent of GDP, its 40 year- average, even as the population ages, health costs rise, and we know pre-K education is urgently needed. It would cut Social Security sharply. But Obama mentioned it in his speech, and it has become the widely cited “bipartisan” model for fiscal responsibility. The public relations program in its favor is a stunner. It is not really bipartisan at all, of course. Both the Democrat Bowles and the Republican Simpson are devoted and extreme deficit hawks.

What line will Obama hold on Social Security? Will he significantly upgrade his proposals to invest in infrastructure? How about a higher minimum wage? Better labor laws? Is there a potential jobs program in the works? Serious education reform? Will he encourage a lower dollar to help manufacturing and propose ways to create a more level playing field in global trade? Will he propose a serious tax increase to pay for needed public investment and buttress entitlements programs once the economy is righted?

I can’t say it’s bad politics to ignore the details for now. The best case for Obama is that as his health reform law helps more people, he will build American confidence in government. Mitt Romney has already conceded as much, saying he will retain some of Obamacare. With some proof that governmnet helps under his belt, perhaps Obama can move forward. He can add to his health care program with a true public option and perhaps expansion of Medicaid reimbursements to providers, which are too low. He can also adopt more rigid cost controls, drug negotiating procedures, and firmer preventive medicine incentives. A more positive attitude toward government might awaken fresh ideas about educational reform. Perhaps we can put art and music programs back into schools and tackle universal access to the web. Maybe we can even build a universal pre-K system that is cheap and good, one of our most important needs.

I know Romney has only one major idea in his head: tax cuts. If at first they don’t succeed, try again. But of course, tax cuts did succeed for the wealthy, just not for the “community” of America.

What’s really in Obama’s head? Is he a limited government man at bottom, just another Third Way New Democrat? Or is he really a community government man? I don’t know, and that bugs me. Moreover, I am not sure we will find out before Election Day.

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

 

Barack Obama image via Shutterstock.com.

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The New New Deal and the Little-Known Transformation of American Government

Aug 31, 2012Mark Schmitt

The New New Deal isn't just another book about the White House or Congress. It tells the story of what happens when laws are passed and governing begins.

The New New Deal isn't just another book about the White House or Congress. It tells the story of what happens when laws are passed and governing begins.

What's the best book about the Obama administration, particularly on domestic policy? A few months ago, I would have recommended Noam Scheiber's The Escape Artists, but The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald of Time, is not only the best book about the administration and its immediate challenges, but perhaps the only one that will (and should) continue to be read long after 2016. This post isn't a full review of the book (for that, I recommend Michael Cohen in The Guardian, but others are forthcoming) – rather, I want to highlight two aspects of the book that both made me feel a little guilty and got me thinking.

The narrative takes place in three locations: at the White House, in Congress as it interacts with the White House over the stimulus, and deep in the executive branch of government. Grunwald is very good on the drama in the White House, as economic advisors including Larry Summers, Christina Romer, and Jared Bernstein struggled to find a formula to contain the economic disaster that was also politically viable in an environment where neither politicians nor the public fully appreciated the depth of the crisis or the logic of Keynesian stimulus. If his book has none of the contrived Oval Office melodrama of Ron Suskind's Confidence Men, it's because Grunwald understands the subject, and thus knows that the range of options – and the range of real disagreement -- was not that wide.

He amply demonstrates that the great alternative-universe fantasy -- in which the stimulus could have been much, much larger and only political malpractice held it back – is exactly that, a fantasy. The miracle is that the economic stimulus, even if inadequate to fully restore the economy's lost output, was as large as it was, and managed to contain such a multitude of new ideas. Nonetheless, Grunwald acknowledges and digs deeply into the errors that the White House made, such as asking Romer and Bernstein to put forth a projection of unemployment rates with and without the stimulus – which may have been accurate in estimating the difference between the two, but not the overall employment picture.

The New New Deal also shines in its accounting of the legislative response, particularly the Republican opposition to the stimulus -- or, more correctly, to Obama. Grunwald offers a good model for journalists that it's possible to do more than just transcribe something like, “Senator X said he opposed the stimulus because it didn't contain enough tax cuts and infrastructure spending.” When a politician's stated positions make no sense and are glaringly inconsistent, a real journalist can say just that. His parsing of Senator Judd Gregg's shifting logic on the stimulus as he flirted with becoming Obama's Secretary of Commerce is masterful, as is his interview with former Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a moderate Republican whose amiable rationales make even less sense than those of conservatives.

But The New New Deal made me feel guilty in two big ways. First, I've on occasion made the argument that progressives don't really have an adequate set of new ideas, especially about the future of the economy. But as Grunwald shows, not only are there ideas, but many of them are being put into place as we speak, from the Race to the Top education reforms to the birth of an American solar energy and battery industries to the mundane work of weatherization of millions of homes and businesses to save energy. I didn't fully appreciate the scope of the changes to the Unemployment Insurance system, for example. It's far from sufficient to offset the lost potential from the recession; there's a lot more to be done to rebuild the foundations of a broad and secure middle class, and some of it can't be done by government. But the germ of the ideas that will build the future are there.

Why has it been so easy to overlook that? That's the second point on which I feel guilty. Like most writers about public affairs, I tend to focus somewhat on electoral politics and on legislative politics and policy. Most media coverage is grossly overweighted toward electoral politics – that's why there are 15,000 reporters in Tampa to cover a fully scripted non-event. But even those of us who try to focus more on policy and legislation often overlook the big third dimension, which is government. Virtually nothing is written about the actual implementation of policy in the executive branch or in the states. Newspaper coverage is limited to a watchdog role that seeks out stories like the failed loan to Solyndra, which is how that one failure (which Grunwald shows was already underway in the last days of the Bush administration, under an existing loan program) could become the proxy for the entire stimulus, or as they call it in Tampa, the “failed stimulus.” Most federal agencies have no journalists at all covering them on a daily basis, other than reporters for specialized publications and industry newsletters.

While there are books comparable to Grunwald's about legislation (The Bill, by Steve Waldman, about the early Clinton public service and education initiatives, Showdown at Gucci Gulch, about the 1986 tax reform, and the classroom classic, The Dance of Legislation, by Eric Redman, which is about the 1970s), very few continue to look at what happened in government after the legislation passed. The richest sections of Grunwald's book open up the internal politics of government: one great set piece tells the story of the Department of Energy's office responsible for administering weatherization assistance for low-income families, one that had been a “turkey farm” (a term commonly used in public administration to refer to an unimportant office to which useless employees are assigned) and couldn't even get funds out the door. Given an impossible assignment in the stimulus – to weatherize 600,000 homes – an entepreneurial young leader, Claire Broido Johnson, turned the office around and exceeded the goal.

Such stories, along with accounts of the ARPA-E clean-energy research program and the Race to the Top education program, show that the Obama administration is changing government in ways that go much further than the “Reinventing Government” initiatives of the Clinton-Gore era, which focused mainly on government's relation to citizens, who would be treated more like customers. Creative, ambitious leadership is encouraged, and real competitions, like Race to the Top, are replacing the formula- or earmark-funded programs of the past. It took a while to get started (which is why some of it was ineffective as short-term Keynesian stimulus), but its long-term effects on both government and the economy are likely to be profound.

To restore confidence in government, it is necessary to do all these things – to make government more responsive, imaginative, tough on failure but supportive of promising ideas. But it won't do any good if people don't know about it, and the phrase “failed stimulus” goes unchallenged. The New New Deal is not only one of the two best books ever written about government (the other is Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner), but an acute reminder to every journalist, political writer and political analyst to pay more attention to real stuff of government, which doesn't happen at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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

Aug 30, 2012Jeff Madrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paul Ryan image via Shutterstock.com.

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

Aug 28, 2012Jordan FraadeSarah Pfeifer VandekerckhoveJeff Madrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Pfeifer is Manager of Programs for the Roosevelt Institute.

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

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

Aug 28, 2012Alan Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Finance law image via Shutterstock.com.

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