Leading from Behind is No Way to Lead: What a Second-Term Obama Can Learn from FDR

Jan 17, 2013David B. Woolner

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

My fellow countrymen. When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision—to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.

Our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization… To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

Just over three-quarters of a century ago, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt, reflecting on the accomplishments of the New Deal in mitigating the worst effects of the Great Depression, noted that “the greatest change we have witnessed [over the past four years] has been the change in the moral climate in America.” Among “men of goodwill,” he went on, “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

FDR based this assumption on the idea that what had transpired over the course of his first term—a first term which brought us, among other things, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining, the separation of commercial and investment banking, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the largest single drop in the unemployment rate in the nation’s history to date, and an average annual economic growth rate of 14 percent—was directly tied to a new understanding of the role of government. This new understanding, he noted, was based on the “fulfillment of a [collective] vision…to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.”

Equally important, however, was FDR’s assertion that in arriving at this new vision of government the people understood that it was critical to find “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” to recognize the “need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”

In essence, what FDR offered the American people was a new vision for the future. This new vision was based the fundamental idea that it was only the power of democratic government that could provide the means to counter “the blind economic forces” and “blindly selfish men” who had profaned democracy and brought the country to ruin in the dark days of the early 1930s.

There is much in this speech that still holds relevance for Americans today. In the massive loss of manufacturing jobs and the globalization of the world’s economy in the last few decades, we can see at work “the blind economic forces” of which FDR spoke. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the power of the “blindly selfish men” on Wall Street is all too familiar. So too—thanks to the onset of the Great Recession—is the anxiety, fear, and bewilderment that he noted plagued the American people on the eve of his first inaugural. What is missing, sadly, is the contravening narrative, the covenant that FDR made with the American people, the understanding that the reforms achieved in his first term had made the exercise of all power more democratic by bringing:

…private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.

President Obama has for the most part shied away from the idea that the real challenge to our democracy stems not from the dysfunctional nature of Congress, but rather from the forces of wealth and privilege who see themselves as “above and beyond the process of democracy.” Rather than take on these forces directly, he speaks instead of asking the wealthy to “pay their fair share in taxes,” of building a consensus, of taking a “balanced approach,” of striking a “grand bargain” that would make sure that middle-class folks aren’t bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges.” In taking this approach, the president argues that he is following the will of the American people, who made it clear through his re-election that they want compromise and action. These may be noble sentiments, but they fall far short of expressing what the American people truly want from their president, which above all else is leadership.

The sad fact is that we now live in a society where the income disparity between the rich and the rest of us now stands at its worst level since the late 1920s—just before the onset of the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, recently reported that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households doubled their share of pretax income while the bottom 80 percent of American households actually saw their share of income decline. In a similar study, a recent Census Bureau report notes that the average white male worker earns roughly the same hourly wage that he would have made in 1978, adjusted for inflation, while the average CEO’s pay has increased by roughly 600 percent.

As was the case in the 1920s, such a drastic mal-distribution of wealth is clearly not sustainable, as it makes it very hard for the average worker to sustain the level of purchases necessary to maintain our largely consumer-based economy. Hence, if we truly want to find a way to grow our economy—as the president insists he does—then we must find a way to address this critical structural imbalance in our economy. And this means real reform, the type of reforms we saw in the New Deal, reforms that brought about the birth of the post-1945 modern American middle class that now seems to be so rapidly disappearing.

So rather than beat about the bushes, President Obama might do well to recognize—as FDR did—that the forces of wealth and privilege weighted against him are not really interested in a compromise or a “grand bargain.” What they want is to maintain the economic and political status quo in what FDR once rightly called the “false belief” that happiness can only be achieved “in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

To overcome these entrenched forces, President Obama will need to provide the country with much more than his somewhat vague efforts to meet the other side halfway. He must learn to recognize that above all else it is his responsibility to give voice to the common aspiration of the people and provide them with a vision for the future -- a vision that recognizes government’s fundamental responsibility to fashion a more just and equitable society, a vision based on the truism, as FDR said in his second inaugural, that:

We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

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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We Could Use More Public Servants Like Jack Lew

Jan 16, 2013Bo Cutter

Despite criticism from the left, Jack Lew has a commitment to public service and a deep understanding of public finance.

I've already been fairly widely quoted in support of Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary. And for full disclosure, I supported his appointment as head of OMB and Chief of Staff of the White House, and he's been a longtime friend.

Despite criticism from the left, Jack Lew has a commitment to public service and a deep understanding of public finance.

I've already been fairly widely quoted in support of Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary. And for full disclosure, I supported his appointment as head of OMB and Chief of Staff of the White House, and he's been a longtime friend.

I don't much care what the hard right thinks about Jack Lew, but it is irritating to see the left instantly take up again its incessant twin rituals of circular firing squads and endogenous cannibalism -- dining on one's allies. Thus, Jack Lew is a dangerous budget hawk, responsible for Clinton administration financial regulatory mistakes, a "gofer" rather than an idea man, and nowhere near as good as the people on some other list someone can dredge up.

So just to restate the points, Jack Lew has spent essentially his entire career in public life -- on the Hill, in the executive branch, and with universities --  though he did spend about 18 months with Citigroup, which I suspect he'll never live down. He has succeeded in every role he has taken on. He is not spectacular -- from my fairly close observations, as they used to say in my high school, he brings his lunch and does an all-day job. He believes deeply in the value of the public sector, and as deeply in the importance of a high-quality public sector, in the importance of getting it right. 

He hasn't spent a lifetime in the financial private sector -- I'm personally delighted President Obama did not go that way -- but there is no one who knows and understands the complexities of our public finance better than Jack Lew. People always dismiss that as a green eye shade, low order kind of quality. Understanding budgets and public finance is for people who wear breast pocket pen protectors, not for the higher order idea men and women.  

But this is a very good nomination, and the odds are high that Jack Lew will be a very good Treasury Secretary. Much more importantly, Jack Lew is the kind of person we all would like to see in public life. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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Using the "Nuclear Option" for Filibuster Reform Endangers Cooperation

Jan 7, 2013Joe Swanson

Filibuster reform is increasingly important, but just as important is the way it's achieved.

Filibuster reform is increasingly important, but just as important is the way it's achieved.

In recent years, Congress has achieved several unprecedented failures. Since 2007, an estimated 391 filibusters forced cloture votes. Compare that to only 49 cloture votes between 1919 and 1970. In the 112th congress alone, members of Congress have accomplished the passage of a mere 219 bills, many of which were housekeeping measures such as naming post office buildings or extending existing laws. This output has set the record as the least productive Congress in record keeping history, including the 80th congress in 1947, infamously known as the “Do Nothing Congress.” In addition, they have won the reproach of the people with a 10 percent approval rating earlier in the year, the lowest approval rating Gallup has reported in its history. These statistics not only document the abuse of the filibuster and its consequences, but also demonstrate that the reasons behind our legislative gridlock reach beyond the filibuster or even Senate rules.

Our lawmakers have lost the ability to compromise. While the filibuster was once a tool designed to increase the space for debate, it now has the polar opposite effect. However, changing the rules may only exacerbate the inability to compromise. If done through fundamentally uncompromising partisan political tools, the very goal of reforming the filibuster to increase debate and the functionality of the Senate will both be at risk.

Filibuster reformers have so far offered three solutions. First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed eliminating the filibuster on the steps necessary to go to House-Senate conference and has given his support to Senator Tom Udall’s proposal to eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed. Senator Jeff Merkley has also authored the “talking filibuster” proposal, which requires senators seeking to filibuster to debate the issue they are blocking.

If our goal is to center the Senate’s focus on debate rather than mindless obstruction, the first two proposals are common sense and moderate changes that get us there. They neither seek the destruction of the filibuster nor obstructionism. Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University, notes that eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed would make it easier for the majority to set the legislative agenda and bring bills to the floor for debate. But it wouldn’t stop the minority from filibustering a bill’s final passage. Rather than eliminate obstructionism, “it might shift it and put focus elsewhere.” This change in focus would be a shift toward debate, thus cultivating the Senate’s true purpose.

Though the “talking filibuster” proposal’s attempts to return the filibuster to the days of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is intuitively appealing, it comes with several pitfalls that would need to be resolved in the final proposal. For example, one of the fundamental problems in the proposal is that it does not take into account the possibility of the existence of a minority greater than two or three senators. Today, our senate has become subject to such partisanship that most filibustering minorities carry around 40 votes, if not more. Therefore, under the current provisions of the “talking filibuster,” filibusters would, as Richard A. Arenberg puts it, “become merely a scheduling exercise.”

Though reforms are absolutely necessary given the unsupportable gridlock currently choking our legislative process, and the reforms suggested by Senators Reid and Udall are moderate and viable, the manner in which these reforms will be enacted should be the focus of any reform efforts.

Unfortunately, there is talk from the leadership in the reform movement of the use of the constitutional/nuclear option. The use of this option would eliminate the need to speak to, or compromise with, any senators in opposition to the reform, because the nuclear option would only need 51 votes to change the rules (as opposed to the two-thirds majority vote that would be needed to change Senate rules on any other day than the day the Senate opens in the new year). According to Udall, reformers already have the 51 votes needed to impose the nuclear option. Not only will the neglect of nearly half of the Senate further aggravate partisan tension, many in opposition fear where the nuclear option may lead the Senate.

If the nuclear option is used at the beginning of the 113th congress, it will stand as a dangerous new precedent. Many claim the move could fundamentally change the Senate, an institution designed to protect the rights of the minority, into a body annually altered to create the roads necessary for majorities to pass legislation while minimizing any need to compromise with minority parties, thus creating a tyranny of the majority.

If the nuclear option is not used, then reformers must find a 67-vote majority to change Senate rules. However, many would ask how they could possibly find the 67 votes if a majority often cannot even scrape together 60 votes to file cloture. The answer is simple: senators would learn to compromise as they have in the past.

In 2005, former President George W. Bush’s presidential nominations were subject to heavy filibustering and, just as today, obstructionism became so damaging it came to the point that Republicans were threatening to reform the filibuster via the nuclear option. To avoid setting this dangerous precedent, senators created the “Gang of 14,” seven Democrats and seven Republicans who came together to negotiate. They produced a signed agreement whereby the seven Democrats would no longer filibuster judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances.” In return, the seven Republicans would not vote to enact the “nuclear option.”

It is worth noting that in 2005, many of the statements surrounding the argument seemed to have flip-flopped as the minority in 2005 now stands as the majority in 2012 and vice versa. Therefore, reformers threatening to utilize the nuclear option should understand that they will be playing by the same precedent when they become the safeguards of minority rights.

The obstruction in 2005 may be the closest example we can cite of a debilitating gridlock that nearly resulted in the utilization of the nuclear option to reform the filibuster. However, the current state of uncompromising politics that has plagued our legislative branch is unprecedented. As David Waldman points out at Daily Kos, the entire argument surrounding filibuster reform in 2005 addresses an entirely different aspect. Moreover, in January 2011 an attempt to curb abuse of the filibuster and avoid the nuclear option through a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between Senate majority and minority leaders Reid and McConnell quickly fell apart. This all demonstrates that the chances of any compromise, and especially one that will amount to a 67-majority vote, are very slim. Nonetheless, the Senate must take that chance.

We must begin to reward senators belonging to the minority who maintain the ability to compromise, even if they are few. There are currently no proposals that suggest the complete elimination of the filibuster, so even if reform is enacted, Democrats are still going to have to work with Republicans, even if only to achieve a successful cloture vote. Therefore, reformers cannot burn bridges as they would with the nuclear option. Breaking a filibuster can be a matter of persuading only one or two senators. With Democrats on the brink of a 55-vote control of the 113th Senate, only five Republican votes are necessary. Perhaps refusing to use the nuclear option would lead to the political capital necessary to persuade these Republicans and set a precedent of compromise and cooperation.

Thankfully, talks have already begun between Senate reformers and opposition leaders to avoid the nuclear option. Senators from both sides, led by McCain and Levin, have recently offered a counter proposal that would last two years and give the majority leader two new methods to block a filibuster on starting debates, going to conference with the House, and some presidential nominations.

Though Senator Merkley is not satisfied with the counter proposal, claiming, “The heart of the current paralysis, the silent, secret filibuster, is not addressed by the Levin-McCain proposal,” the offer demonstrates the signs of bipartisan support and openness to reform needed to render the nuclear option unnecessary. In exchange for not going nuclear, both sides should agree to work together to make formal, reasonable, and viable rule changes that will curb filibuster abuse and reestablish our Senate’s paramount ability to compromise.

Joe Swanson is a junior at Wake Forest University where he is co-president of the Wake Forest Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a member of the chapter's Equal Justice Policy Center.

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New Inquiry's Drive; Twilight of the Bureaucratic Elite

Dec 3, 2012Mike Konczal

The New Inquiry is running a subscription drive for their $2/month pdf magazine and for keeping the site running and free. Given that their project is very different than this blog, I'm not sure how to recommend them. So here are some of my favorite 2012 items from them, which should give you a sense of whether or not you'd enjoy subscribing yourself.

Given that the project emphasizes younger voices outside institutions currently circling their wagons, a lot of their writing is more interesting and closer to the issues at hand than what you'd normally read. Atossa Abrahamian's piece on Going Lebron and Malcolm Harris' review of Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty are two of the more interesting pieces on youth unemployment I've read, particularly since they approach it from a much different angle than the normal stories. David Noriega's piece on serving as a Civilian Complaint Review Board investigator for the NYPD is again another way of understanding NYPD abuses outside the regular critique of abuses. I found Kate Redburn's piece on the GLBTQ case against hate crimes laws convincing and well-argued. Molly Knefel's piece reflecting on teaching and her brother's arrest was a fascinating look into dealing with the realities of policing and privilege. Freddie DeBoer's review of Twilight of the Elites was an aggressive, left-wing review unlikely to be seen at other venues. This excerpt (and interview) from Kate Zambreno's Heroines on the role of madness, gender and genius is brilliant. And Lili Loofbourow's review of the movie Brave was the best read of it I've seen.

There's a blogging sabermetrics element to the site, either publishing writers who are up-and-coming, giving talented people in other fields a space to write with good editing, or providing a more prominent home for some of the Internet's better bloggers. Aaron Bady, who had the best take on the Mike Daisey flap, found a new home for his zunguzungu blog there, as did other blogs I enjoy like those of Rob Horning and Austerity Kitchen. If you find this or other articles by them interesting, and are looking for new places to read, consider subscribing.

====

While going through those New Inquiry articles, I re-read Freddie DeBoer's review of Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites. One of the challenges of the book is that Hayes doesn't actually want to tear down the meritocracy period or wage war against all institutions -- there's no "and good riddance" subtitle. I noticed that this is a postiive tension in my review of the book for Dissent, because it allows the book to come up with a model of how the meritocratic elite function in society and ways in which it fails, pointing to possible better ways.

But why the ambivalence? Freddie argues that mainstream liberals can't cope with the implications. They are used to proposing "a moderate, capitalism-sustaining set of policy proposals" because, either professionally or ideologically, "alternatives to capitalism are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion."

Maybe. Post-Dworkin, there's been a lot of energy in fleshing out a liberal project that is, to use the jargon, "ambition-sensitive and endowment-insensitive," so I don't think it is a complete blindspot. The book argues, following Robert Michels' arguments in Political Parties, that some level of stratification and power is inevitable to any sufficiently large and important enterprise. The important part is to have that stratification best embody democratic principles, particularly by resisting ossification, and keep the project as a search for and a process of democracy.

But I think the book gives a very clear and specific reason I haven't seen emphasized on why it thinks a meritocratic elite is necessary - we need it to combat global warming. From Twilight:

Certain political issues do not require elite mediation...that doesn't hold for global warming, which I would argue is the single most pressing challenge our civilization faces...Here, we need elites and experts to tell us it's happening and that we have to take steps to prevent it. Implementing corrective policy on the scale necessary requires, as a precondition, a robust and widely shared level of pubic trust that climate scientists and the political leaders who favor a carbon policy are telling us the truth. But the crisis of authority makes that impossible...

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life...without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges. I believe the most important of these is climate change.

Without functioning institutions, trustworthy because some ideal of merit is guiding credentials and access, we can't tackle global warming. We can't trust the scientists to diagnosis the problem, or the bureaucrats to carry out the policy solutions.

Abstracting away from the specifics of the book, I wonder how much a meritocratic elite is necessary for social democratic liberalism generally. If you are going to have a bureaucratic system determining access and pricing of health insurance, projecting the costs of old age pensions, determining what kinds of activities count as market-making for financial regulations, figuring out the costs of pollution, etc., you'll need some way of ensuring that this system is accountable and competent.

But, and here I think the book misses the opportunity to discuss this, does that require a meritocracy as we understand it? How does the need for good government policy carried out well square with, or contrast against, the winner-take-all form of meritocracy, where everything is collapsable into a combination of wealth and IQ? Competence, accountability, a spirit of public service, and dependability are missing from our elite, though they are values that are, or should be, prized in a bureaucracy.

I think I'm going to have to spend some time in 2013 coming up with a better working theory of the bureaucracy, especially how we want it to be. What features does it take from our meritocracy and, more importantly, in what ways can it serve as a corrective? Several people noted to me that the ethos of public service is one of the things missing from the paper I just wrote on the general case for public options, as a public service ethic is exactly what you don't get from private provisioning. What should I be reading?

 

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

The New Inquiry is running a subscription drive for their $2/month pdf magazine and for keeping the site running and free. Given that their project is very different than this blog, I'm not sure how to recommend them. So here are some of my favorite 2012 items from them, which should give you a sense of whether or not you'd enjoy subscribing yourself.

Given that the project emphasizes younger voices outside institutions currently circling their wagons, a lot of their writing is more interesting and closer to the issues at hand than what you'd normally read. Atossa Abrahamian's piece on Going Lebron and Malcolm Harris' review of Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty are two of the more interesting pieces on youth unemployment I've read, particularly since they approach it from a much different angle than the normal stories. David Noriega's piece on serving as a Civilian Complaint Review Board investigator for the NYPD is again another way of understanding NYPD abuses outside the regular critique of abuses. I found Kate Redburn's piece on the GLBTQ case against hate crimes laws convincing and well-argued. Molly Knefel's piece reflecting on teaching and her brother's arrest was a fascinating look into dealing with the realities of policing and privilege. Freddie DeBoer's review of Twilight of the Elites was an aggressive, left-wing review unlikely to be seen at other venues. This excerpt (and interview) from Kate Zambreno's Heroines on the role of madness, gender and genius is brilliant. And Lili Loofbourow's review of the movie Brave was the best read of it I've seen.

There's a blogging sabermetrics element to the site, either publishing writers who are up-and-coming, giving talented people in other fields a space to write with good editing, or providing a more prominent home for some of the Internet's better bloggers. Aaron Bady, who had the best take on the Mike Daisey flap, found a new home for his zunguzungu blog there, as did other blogs I enjoy like those of Rob Horning and Austerity Kitchen. If you find this or other articles by them interesting, and are looking for new places to read, consider subscribing.

====

While going through those New Inquiry articles, I re-read Freddie DeBoer's review of Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites. One of the challenges of the book is that Hayes doesn't actually want to tear down the meritocracy period or wage war against all institutions -- there's no "and good riddance" subtitle. I noticed that this is a postiive tension in my review of the book for Dissent, because it allows the book to come up with a model of how the meritocratic elite function in society and ways in which it fails, pointing to possible better ways.

But why the ambivalence? Freddie argues that mainstream liberals can't cope with the implications. They are used to proposing "a moderate, capitalism-sustaining set of policy proposals" because, either professionally or ideologically, "alternatives to capitalism are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion."

Maybe. Post-Dworkin, there's been a lot of energy in fleshing out a liberal project that is, to use the jargon, "ambition-sensitive and endowment-insensitive," so I don't think it is a complete blindspot. The book argues, following Robert Michels' arguments in Political Parties, that some level of stratification and power is inevitable to any sufficiently large and important enterprise. The important part is to have that stratification best embody democratic principles, particularly by resisting ossification, and keep the project as a search for and a process of democracy.

But I think the book gives a very clear and specific reason I haven't seen emphasized on why it thinks a meritocratic elite is necessary - we need it to combat global warming. From Twilight:

Certain political issues do not require elite mediation...that doesn't hold for global warming, which I would argue is the single most pressing challenge our civilization faces...Here, we need elites and experts to tell us it's happening and that we have to take steps to prevent it. Implementing corrective policy on the scale necessary requires, as a precondition, a robust and widely shared level of pubic trust that climate scientists and the political leaders who favor a carbon policy are telling us the truth. But the crisis of authority makes that impossible...

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life...without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges. I believe the most important of these is climate change.

Without functioning institutions, trustworthy because some ideal of merit is guiding credentials and access, we can't tackle global warming. We can't trust the scientists to diagnosis the problem, or the bureaucrats to carry out the policy solutions.

Abstracting away from the specifics of the book, I wonder how much a meritocratic elite is necessary for social democratic liberalism generally. If you are going to have a bureaucratic system determining access and pricing of health insurance, projecting the costs of old age pensions, determining what kinds of activities count as market-making for financial regulations, figuring out the costs of pollution, etc., you'll need some way of ensuring that this system is accountable and competent.

But, and here I think the book misses the opportunity to discuss this, does that require a meritocracy as we understand it? How does the need for good government policy carried out well square with, or contrast against, the winner-take-all form of meritocracy, where everything is collapsable into a combination of wealth and IQ? Competence, accountability, a spirit of public service, and dependability are missing from our elite, though they are values that are, or should be, prized in a bureaucracy.

I think I'm going to have to spend some time in 2013 coming up with a better working theory of the bureaucracy, especially how we want it to be. What features does it take from our meritocracy and, more importantly, in what ways can it serve as a corrective? Several people noted to me that the ethos of public service is one of the things missing from the paper I just wrote on the general case for public options, as a public service ethic is exactly what you don't get from private provisioning. What should I be reading?

 

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

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Mike Konczal: Is Occupy a Small Government Movement?

Nov 29, 2012

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Yale JD/PhD candidate Jeremy Kessler about the intersection of the law and the left and about

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Yale JD/PhD candidate Jeremy Kessler about the intersection of the law and the left and about leftists who dissent from mainstream progressivism. In the clip below, they discuss whether the Occupy movement, which Mike says has "made a comeback recently" with Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy, represents a libertarian rejection of the state rather than a progressive revolution.

Mike notes that despite Occupy's renewed vigor, some progressives continue to write "quasi-obituaries" that paint it as an aimless anarchist movement. Critics argue that "when you think of them creating a whole new world in Zuccotti Park" it sounds like "the gulches of Ayn Rand novels," and that "a lot of this focus on mutual aid essentially fills in for a rapidly receding government presence under neoliberalism." Mike says this can be seen with Occupy Sandy, which essentially serves as a replacement for FEMA, or the push for homeschooling, which is "just amplifying the way the state is privatizing and dismantling public education." But while Jeremy admits "there is a lot of allergy to the idea of centralized power" in the movement, he and Mike agree that it advances the left's cause by highlighting the failure of the neoliberal state and the "zones of privation" that the shrinking of government has created.

For more, including their discussion of the changing politics of the Supreme Court and the conservative police state, check out the full video below:

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Mike Konczal: Is Occupy a Small Government Movement?

Nov 29, 2012

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Yale JD/PhD candidate Jeremy Kessler about the intersection of the law and the left and about leftists who dissent from mainstream progressivism. In the clip below, they discuss whether the Occupy movement, which Mike says has "made a comeback recently" with Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy, represents a libertarian rejection of the state rather than a progressive revolution.

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Yale JD/PhD candidate Jeremy Kessler about the intersection of the law and the left and about leftists who dissent from mainstream progressivism. In the clip below, they discuss whether the Occupy movement, which Mike says has "made a comeback recently" with Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy, represents a libertarian rejection of the state rather than a progressive revolution.

Mike notes that despite Occupy's renewed vigor, some progressives continue to write "quasi-obituaries" that paint it as an aimless anarchist movement. Critics argue that "when you think of them creating a whole new world in Zuccotti Park" it sounds like "the gulches of Ayn Rand novels," and that "a lot of this focus on mutual aid essentially fills in for a rapidly receding government presence under neoliberalism." Mike says this can be seen with Occupy Sandy, which essentially serves as a replacement for FEMA, or the push for homeschooling, which is "just amplifying the way the state is privatizing and dismantling public education." But while Jeremy admits "there is a lot of allergy to the idea of centralized power" in the movement, he and Mike agree that it advances the left's cause by highlighting the failure of the neoliberal state and the "zones of privation" that the shrinking of government has created.

For more, including their discussion of the changing politics of the Supreme Court and the conservative police state, check out the full video below:

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What Do We Get Out of Government?

Nov 19, 2012

"Let us not be afraid to help each other -- let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us." FDR said those words in Marietta, Ohio in July 1938, but it's just as relevant today.

"Let us not be afraid to help each other -- let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us." FDR said those words in Marietta, Ohio in July 1938, but it's just as relevant today. As conservatives continue to deride every attempt to create progressive change through government as an oppressive socialist takeover, we need to remember that government is nothing more or less than an expression of common initative -- a forum through which we come together to build the things we need to make our country stronger. In the video below, the Roosevelt Institute's Rediscovering Government Initiative looks at the government's vital role in every facet of society, from encouraging innovation to defending our shores, and at what we can still achieve if we're willing to dream big.

Click here to find out how you can get involved in the Rediscovering Government Roadshow.

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An Agenda for Revitalizing Our Democracy

Nov 19, 2012Richard Kirsch

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," important steps that can get us back to a truly representative form of government.

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," important steps that can get us back to a truly representative form of government.

This election was ample reminder of the myriad ways we urgently need to fix our democracy. As Justice Brandeis wrote a century ago, "We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." The greatest barrier to achieving the next Rooseveltian agenda proposed in these posts is the deep flaws in our democracy. To move forward on our aspirations, we need to integrate a democracy agenda into all of our battles for a fair economy and sustainable environment. Here is a short list of crucial reforms to revitalize our democracy:

1. Bolster voting rights. President Obama can make good on his impromptu remark that "we should fix that" when he addressed Election Day voting problems in his victory speech by pushing for passage of the Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by New York Senator Kirstin Gillibrand and Georgia Representative John Lewis. The act's two major provisions would automate voter registration whenever people interact with the government and allow for same day voter registration nationally. Other provisions address barriers to voting such as using mail to purge voters, partisan voter administration, and felony disenfranchisement. Nationwide early voting should be added to this agenda.

2. Change the Electoral College. After another election in which the presidential candidates ignored the electorate in 40 states -- with fewer people in those states bothering to vote -- federal and state representatives from the outcast states should be eager for change. While it would be wonderful if that led two-thirds of Congress to amend the Constitution, an easier and more feasible path is offered by National Popular Vote. NPV is a compact between states representing more than half of the Electoral College to cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote. The movement is halfway to its goal with legislation passed in 12 states that together hold 132 Electoral College votes, including California, Illinois, and New Jersey. Republican Governor Jan Brewer added her support after this year's election. Imagine an election in which presidential candidates had to focus on issues and voter turnout in every state! The result would impact not just the presidency, but down-ballot races across the country.

3. Increase public financing. While Super PACs may not have gotten all their money's worth, the public agenda remains captive to the upper-income contributors and corporations who finance the lion's share of elections. We won't get a bumper crop of candidates who represent the interests of ordinary people until we have a campaign finance system that allows candidates to compete successfully by rejecting large contributions in return for small contributions matched by public funds. Getting there is impossible in this Congress, but that shouldn't stop reformers from constantly raising the flag while looking for opportunities to move forward in states. New York has a real shot of passing a good public financing bill in 2013. And when President Obama has the opportunity to appoint new Supreme Court justices, reformers should make both Citizen's United and the 1976 Buckley v. Vallejo decision that equates money with speech major issues in the confirmation hearings.

4. Fix the filibuster. It's bad enough having a fundamentally undemocratic body like the U.S. Senate as a co-equal legislative body, but that institution's rules also thwart the constitutional provision that Senate decisions on legislation are to be made by majority vote. Democrats should not settle for making senators actually filibuster; they should put in place the proposal by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, which would reduce the votes needed to stop a filibuster from 60 to 51 over the course of debate.

5. Institute non-partisan redistricting. Partisan redistricting increasingly makes the congressional body designed by the Constitution to provide equal representation fall far short of that goal. While Democrats narrowly won the popular vote for members of the House this year, partisan drawing of congressional lines will result in Republicans having at least 30 more representatives. The path to change here is arduous: state by state. But a Supreme Court committed to the Constitution's vision of the lower body as a people's house could take a fresh look at permissible gerrymandering.

Cast by themselves, democracy reforms too often cause the public's eyes to glaze over, not seeing the connection between process and the pressing issues in their daily lives. Champions of creating a vital democracy can turn that around by connecting people's topmost concerns -- good jobs, a secure retirement, affordable quality education, and, increasingly, climate disruption -- to creating a government that works for all of us, not just the wealthy and CEO campaign contributors. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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President Obama's Three Necessary Tasks: Cut the Debt, Goose Growth, and Prepare for the Future

Nov 15, 2012Bo Cutter

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a way forward if Obama wants to really get things done.

I'm writing this under the following key assumptions: that President Obama actually wants to accomplish something and that he doesn't want simply to play small ball. If these assumptions hold, then President Obama must (1) clear away the underbrush, (2) shore up short-run growth, and (3) acknowledge and prepare the country for the on-going economic transformation.

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a way forward if Obama wants to really get things done.

I'm writing this under the following key assumptions: that President Obama actually wants to accomplish something and that he doesn't want simply to play small ball. If these assumptions hold, then President Obama must (1) clear away the underbrush, (2) shore up short-run growth, and (3) acknowledge and prepare the country for the on-going economic transformation.

Clearing away the underbrush means confronting and solving the nation's slow moving debt and deficit crisis. We do not have to turn ourselves inside out to solve this problem tomorrow, but we do have to put in place plausible, real policies to solve it over the next 10 years. Progressives insist on ignoring the problem but it is real and will not go away. Therefore, as his first step the president should immediately endorse Simpson-Bowles and ask, as I've written elsewhere, Simpson, Bowles, Rivlin, and Domenici to lead the effort to pass legislation by June 2013.

Shoring up short-run growth means putting in place a two-year modest stimulus program - roughly 2 percent of GDP each year - calculated to raise the growth rate of our economy to around 3 percent. This stimulus should consist roughly of 50 percent tax cuts and 50 percent budget support to states and cities. The right regards any stimulus as anathema; the left wants a reprise, but bigger, of the 2009 stimulus. Both of these alternatives would do more harm than good, and in any case, a presidential commitment to a very large stimulus would guarantee no stimulus after a protracted, enervating battle.

Preparing for our on-going economic transformation means first restructuring our tax system so that we invest more in the private sector and consume less. A swing of two or three percentage points would do wonders for our economy in the long run. To do this we should replace a part of our existing tax structure with a small value added tax, and substitute part of the payroll tax with a carbon tax. Next it means putting in place a 10-year public infrastructure investment program of about 1 percent of GDP annually. And finally, it means defining and starting the next revolution in American education.

Many Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. The president's popularity has consistently hovered at barely 50 percent. And both presidential campaigns were almost unremittingly negative.

Just scraping by this way should occasion some soul searching. The president must see that the White House and the presidency were not managed tightly or strategically well enough in the first term. In particular, the president's overall strategy was neither focused sufficiently or explained well (if at all) or advocated consistently. To accomplish anything at all, the president will have to provide a clear, simple, short plan to the American people, explain over and over why it matters, and design his White House so he can get this done. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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To Solve the Jobs Emergency, Put Government to Work for Us

Nov 14, 2012Jeff Madrick

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a reminder that creating more good jobs must be the president's top priority.

The presidential victory of Barack Obama was an important vindication for the uses of government. The small-government ideologues were defeated, but now the nation must go farther and recognize government is indeed a job creator.

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a reminder that creating more good jobs must be the president's top priority.

The presidential victory of Barack Obama was an important vindication for the uses of government. The small-government ideologues were defeated, but now the nation must go farther and recognize government is indeed a job creator.

Let’s begin with the harsh facts: Neither policymakers nor the media fully understand or communicate that America has a jobs emergency. In his victory speech last Tuesday, President Obama did not even cite job creation as one of his four main goals for the new term. Not only is unemployment high, but wages are stagnant and poverty is rising in an economic recovery. The evidence on the creation of low-wage jobs rather than high-wage jobs is almost frightening; the Roosevelt Institute’s own Annette Bernhardt has been a leader on this.

Our mainstream economists are not of much help. Many, though not all, are loathe to blame globalization for low wages in America. We hear almost nothing from them regarding Wall Street’s role in wage suppression, although American business was obsessed with creating rising short-term profits to appease Wall Street, which rewarded such consistency with high stock prices. Add to this the pressures of LBOs, privatizations, and hostile takeover threats. Little is discussed of the role of the Federal Reserve in maintaining a tight monetary policy until the late 1990s, in my view suppressing wages as an objective. Finally, almost nothing is heard of the benefits of adequate demand, except in the current crisis, in creating productivity growth over the long run, even as China and Japan have clearly suffered secularly from a lack of demand.

All of these mainstream economists warmly support the view that skill-biased technology is the main cause of stagnating wages. But such technologies cannot explain the runaway of incomes at the top. Nor can they explain the lesser inequality in Europe, which is also subject to technological change.

In my view, we need a very aggressive, jobs-related agenda. This includes aggressive fiscal stimulus over the next two years amounting to as much as $500 billion and focused on infrastructure, aid to the states, and extending unemployment insurance. These will meet dire needs and also will have the most GDP bang for the buck.

The minimum wage should be raised to end poverty for all those who work full-time, and a living wage, or something close to it, should be demanded for all federal contracts.  

Industrial policies to target critical new technologies should be aggressively pursued, which might require infant industry protection.

Policies to help our trading partners develop a progressive revolution, including higher wages, the right to labor organizing, and decent labor conditions should be emphasized. As reflected in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the opposite is occurring. All emphasis is on protecting investors, very little on workers. This would also go some way to creating a more level playing field in trade.

A federal jobs-creating program, similar to those in the New Deal, should be undertaken, emphasizing construction jobs in public works, teaching, and care workers. Tax rates should be raised sharply on the well-off to ameliorate the temporary increase in the federal deficit. Such taxes will not reduce the GDP multiplier very much.

Wall Street pressure to cut wages must be softened. Business executive compensation must be more closely aligned to long-term results. The tax deduction on borrowing for LBOs, privatizations, and corporate takeovers should be sharply reduced or eliminated.

In addition to these immediate needs, there are three longer-term policies we must pursue. First, in three years or so, America will need a sharp tax increase. Its average tax rate, including federal, state, and local, is 10 percentage points below the OECD average. If that is reduced to five percentage points, it would raise nearly $1 billion more a year. There is little evidence such an increase would impede economic growth.

Second, any such tax increase should only partly be used to pay down the debt. It should be used to shore up major entitlements programs, develop a public option for health care, and increase infrastructure and education spending.

Finally, although educational deficiency is not the primary cause of the current wage problem, it will be in the long run. A major educational equalization campaign is necessary, which includes pre-K for all.

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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