The Secret History of America's Pro-Tax Movement

Nov 9, 2012Elizabeth Pearson

Despite conservative anti-tax rhetoric, American voters have a history of supporting higher taxes to fund government-led progress.

Despite conservative anti-tax rhetoric, American voters have a history of supporting higher taxes to fund government-led progress.

How do Americans really feel about taxes? Anti-tax groups and limited-government activists are quick to invoke a long American tradition of tax revolt and resistance in making the case that aversion to taxes is as American as apple pie. But this simple narrative gets the story wrong. The most recent such indication came on Election Day, when voters rejected tax limitation measures and supermajority requirements in Florida and Michigan and Californians strongly endorsed increases in the sales tax and income taxes for high earners in order to fund public education. Though notable in a political environment dominated by anti-tax rhetoric, such support is actually not as exceptional as it seems. It’s worth remembering, now that the election is over and we turn to the looming fiscal problems that confront state and federal governments, that Americans also have a long history of embracing and defending higher taxes.

We don’t hear as much about this history, in part because it doesn’t fit the story that anti-tax groups want to tell. But this silence also stems from the fact that political fights to increase and defend higher taxes have frequently played out in the halls of state and local governments, rather than in the national spotlight.

Consider the postwar period in American history between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s. During these decades, state and local governments dramatically expanded investments in public infrastructure and services, particularly in the area of public education. Financing these investments required substantial increases in revenue, which states generated by adopting new taxes (namely, individual and corporate income taxes and the sales tax), increasing the rates or expanding the reach of existing taxes, and making other changes to improve the efficiency of revenue systems. According to the Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), a federal commission that tracked these changes, state and local revenue as a share of GDP more than doubled between 1945 and 1972, going from 4.4 percent to 10 percent.

Although a portion of revenue increases occurred naturally as inflation raised prices on taxed goods and pushed taxpayers into higher income brackets, the largest share was a consequence of specific interventions by state lawmakers. Between 1950 and 1967, the ACIR calculated that 53 percent of the increase in state tax collections resulted from political or legislative initiative rather than from automatic increases built into existing tax structures.

These actions by state policymakers were by no means uncontested. Vigorous debates took place over whether states needed new revenue and who should be required to chip in to provide it. But in state after state, tax reform aimed at modernizing revenue systems and funding new public services won out, championed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. To be sure, the two parties often had different ideas about what types of taxes should be adopted (Republicans tended to favor the sales tax or flat-rate income taxes while Democrats were more supportive of graduated income taxes and higher taxes on business). But policymakers in both parties recognized that their budgetary priorities depended on new sources of revenue; existing funds simply could not be stretched indefinitely in the face of growing populations and increased demands for public services. “Fiscal discipline” during this period actually meant adopting new taxes to fund the growing needs of states rather than relying on borrowing, accounting tricks, or stop-gap measures.

Crucially, voters also supported higher taxes during this period. By the late 1970s, a backlash against the property tax would be forcefully expressed through ballot initiatives that limited state taxes and expenditures. But during the 1960s and early 1970s in most states that authorized the initiative and referendum, voters repeatedly chose to retain new taxes that had been referred to the ballot by anti-tax groups, often endorsing these new taxes by large margins. For instance, in Nebraska, Maine, and Ohio, voters rejected ballot initiatives that would have overturned newly adopted income taxes, while the same result held in Massachusetts and Idaho for sales taxes.

How did policymakers build public support for higher taxes? Perhaps the most important lesson of postwar tax reform battles lies in the vocabulary that pro-tax coalitions developed to persuade citizens that higher revenues deserved their votes. In addition to warning about the fiscal chaos that would result if governments did not act quickly to reform their patchwork revenue systems, advocates argued that higher taxes would underwrite a modern, progress-oriented state. For instance, in 1966, the Republican governor of Idaho called the sales tax “the coronary artery of progress” for the state, arguing that “it will take money — not mothballs — in the state treasury to build the Idaho of which we all dream.” In his opening address to the 1967 legislature, Republican governor George Romney of Michigan pressed lawmakers to adopt an income tax so that Michigan might enter “a new generation of progress.”

Ultimately, the pro-tax coalitions that formed as Republicans and Democrats, labor unions and business interests, teachers and homeowners sided with higher taxes during the 1950s and 1960s would prove unsustainable by the late 1970s. But the anti-tax politics of this later era can by no means be attributed to an innate American dislike of taxes. Indeed, popular opinion about taxation is shaped by political debates, and history demonstrates that Americans are capable of much different debates about taxes than the ones that prevail today. This more complex history of Americans’ relationship to taxes is worth investigating — rather than overlooking — as we confront contemporary fiscal challenges.

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

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Hurricane Sandy Upends the Increasingly Strained Case Against Government

Nov 1, 2012Jeff Madrick

The arguments over FEMA in the wake of the hurricane expose just how empty anti-government rhetoric is.

The arguments over FEMA in the wake of the hurricane expose just how empty anti-government rhetoric is.

The chorus is now loud in defense of government. The New York Times even used that forbidden phrase, "big government," in its editorial earlier this week. Eduardo Porter, the economics writer for the Times, wrote a column about how the election is a choice between a limited-government candidate and a president who would use government to provide a safety net for the less advantaged. He seemed to side with pro-government philosophy. “Government matters,” wrote The New Republic this week.  

The Rediscovering Government Initiative has been dedicated to restoring faith in government through publicizing the best scholarship, clarifying the nation’s true history, and countering the prevailing and widely prevalent myths about government. So it is encouraging to see the growing chorus, even if there is a Johnny-come-lately feel to some of it. 

Hurricane Sandy is of course stimulating the latest such talk. Mitt Romney had suggested he’d cut back FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Has there ever been a stronger case for FEMA? Everyone has taken notice, it seems. Governor Christie of New Jersey was beside himself praising President Obama for his quick response. FEMA is Obama’s main conduit for rescue. The state, clobbered by Sandy, will not be able to handle its recovery alone—not even close.

Yet ideology runs so deep among the right that absurdist claims continue to be made, now about how we really don’t need all that FEMA. The New York Times ran a Room for Debate this week with the theme, “Do We Really Need FEMA?” An “entrepreneuriship” scholar, Russell S. Sobel of The Citadel, writes that “centuries of economics research suggests” that central planning is doomed. Centuries? Really? Adam Smith was well aware of the need for government (although did not do research in any modern sense).

A Cornell professor argues that the federal government should only fill in when states can’t do the job. Well, sure. And he goes on to say that hurricane damage is localized and requires a street-by-street response, which the federal government cannot assist in. Is experience helping dig out from other hurricanes useful to states? Is the money? The truth is, 9/11 was also localized. Does this man have any idea the extent—the sheer breadth—of the problems caused by Sandy, not to mention the cost? And further, mustn’t New York and New Jersey coordinate?   

The saddest, or sadly funniest, attack on FEMA was offered by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute. He compares FEMA’s poor performance to Wal-Mart’s ability to get back on its feet during Hurricane Katrina. Never mind how much smaller a task it is to get Wal-Mart working again. FEMA was overseen by George Bush, who put in a totally incompetent political crony to run it. Bush’s carelessness is now legendary.

Pethokoukis also cites what is now an old conservative cliché that these are local problems. On those terms, what isn’t local? Old people’s healthcare? Local unemployment? Do these people have any idea the extent of damage and the need to share costs, expertise, and responsibility?

One more word about criticizing FEMA under Bush. Ever since Ronald Reagan, the right has appointed regulators who don’t take their jobs seriously, want to cut back the powers of their agencies, and want a smaller government. There is no better way to make government ineffective than to appoint people who want to undermine it. This undermining of Washington has added fuel to the fire of anti-government ideology. Such ideologically-based incompetence swept across agencies from the FCC, FDA, and OSHA to most of the financial and anti-trust regulators. It led to the crisis of 2008. Under Obama, some of that has been corrected.

Government is hardly immune to criticism. But the anti-government campaign reaches ever-greater heights of sheer silliness, so determined are its proponents to make their blindly angry and highly ideological case.

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

 

Hurricane Sandy image via Shutterstock.com.

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What Do We Get Out of Government?

Oct 25, 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. 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.

"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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Live at Dissent Magazine with "From Master Plan To No Plan"

Oct 24, 2012Mike Konczal

I have an article in the latest Dissent Magazine, co-written with Aaron Bady, titled "From Master Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education." It's now live and kicking off their newly redesigned webpage. It starts with Ronald Reagan in California in the 1960s, does a history of the creation and strengths of the University of California's Master Plan system and its dissembly, and ends with what John Aubrey Douglass calls the the Brazilian Effect. It's full of riot cops, occupations, moderate Republicans, thoughts on elasticities of supply, for-profit schools and more.

I have an article in the latest Dissent Magazine, co-written with Aaron Bady, titled "From Master Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education." It's now live and kicking off their newly redesigned webpage. It starts with Ronald Reagan in California in the 1960s, does a history of the creation and strengths of the University of California's Master Plan system and its dissembly, and ends with what John Aubrey Douglass calls the the Brazilian Effect. It's full of riot cops, occupations, moderate Republicans, thoughts on elasticities of supply, for-profit schools and more.

I hope this starts to move the conversation forward on higher education outside a specific focus on student debt, because that is likely to reach its limits outside a broader vision of what needs to be accomplished. Andy Kroll wrote a similar piece that went live earlier this month, so I think there's a lot of interest in this topic. In March, Catherine Rampell wrote about the Brazilian Effect in economix. Andrew Ross wrote a fantastic piece for Dissent's series on education on the aggressive expansion of NYU and other universities as part of a conscious urban planning framework, combining growth models based on the FIRE industires with those in the ICE (intellectual, cultural and educational) industries, which is an important part of the puzzle.

This may be my favorite written thing with my name on it and, as I've been given opportunities I wouldn't have had without public higher education, this political and economic battle means a lot to me. Hope you check it out.

 

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Mythbusters: The Rediscovering Government Edition

Oct 22, 2012

We all know the conservative talking points about government: Big government impedes growth. Social Security is going bankrupt. We need to balance the budget. We've had the idea that government is an economic albatross drilled into our heads through decades of repetition. The problem is, it's just not true.

We all know the conservative talking points about government: Big government impedes growth. Social Security is going bankrupt. We need to balance the budget. We've had the idea that government is an economic albatross drilled into our heads through decades of repetition. The problem is, it's just not true. Check out this new booklet from the Rediscovering Government Initiative to get the facts, plus an illustrated timeline of the government's role in shaping the economy and more information on how you can get involved in Rediscovering Government. Click here to view the booklet in magazine layout.

 

Capitol image via Shutterstock.com.

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A President Should Run the Country Like a Household, Not a Business

Oct 22, 2012Minjon Tholen

Romney and his conservative colleagues have made it clear that they care more about bottom lines than investing in people's lives.

Romney and his conservative colleagues have made it clear that they care more about bottom lines than investing in people's lives.

In last week’s presidential debate, Governor Romney said he will make a great president because he is a businessman and has run companies. He might know how to make a profit and possibly balance a budget like he promises. But running a country is not just about balancing the budget – which, by the way, he likely wouldn’t be able to do any better than President Obama – and it is definitely not about making a profit.

President Obama is not trying to run America like a company. He has a background in community organizing and is trying to run the country like a community, like a family, a household. A nation is not just a material system of capital, investment, and revenue. It directly affects the human lives of each and every American. Households are invested in every family member, as their shared living space, culture, history, and lineage binds them together for life. In companies, on the other hand, employers and employees are generally tied together by monetary relationships.

A few years ago, I met a member of the Pan-African Parliament at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. We had a conversation about how to encourage women to participate in politics. She said she talks to women living in the villages in her country, and they typically respond that politics is not for them, as they “only” know how to run a household. The member of Parliament then told them that if they can run a household, they can run a country. Think about it: you have to work together and negotiate with your spouse or partner to make decisions and get things done (bi-partisanship), understand and respond to the needs of the various family members (constituencies), and do so strategically with limited resources (budgeting, redistribution, long-term investments).

This is President Obama's strength. Sure, he hasn’t been a perfect president – if such a thing exists. But I trust him as a leader. I believe he truly cares about all constituencies, especially those who have traditionally been disenfranchised. He understands the strategic, long-term social and economic benefits of investing in quality education, efficient universal healthcare, healthy lifestyles, fair distribution of resources, and respect and equal rights for every individual. He understands that a country is only as strong as its weakest link and that leveling the playing field for everyone facilitates equal opportunity and empowerment for individuals as well as for the entire country. He understands that creativity, innovation, and progress are promoted by leveraging our rich diversity. His commitments and policies regarding healthcare, gender equality, poverty, education, and immigration, for instance, give us the feeling that he is everyone’s president.

Governor Romney, on the other hand, recently made it very clear that it is not his job to be concerned about 47 percent of Americans. He implied that almost half of the country does not take responsibility for itself and that he won’t be able to convince it otherwise. But most people want nothing more than to be economically independent, and the fact that some are not is more a reflection of social inequalities than of their characters. As most parents know, to raise your children to be self-sufficient and productive members of society, they need to develop skills and gain knowledge. They need to be invested in; they need opportunities for personal and professional development.

David Brooks argues, "People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation." Deprivation of opportunity -- an unleveled playing field -- does not create self-sufficiency and actually fosters dependency on others, including on the government. For all the conservative rhetoric about economic self-sufficiency and individual freedom, President Obama seems to get this logic better than his opponent, with a long-term plan to empower all Americans and with strategic budget decisions that will set us on the road to economic recovery, deficit reduction, and a more equitable society. Republicans say they so greatly value “the family as the cornerstone of society,” yet they disregard the factors that promote economically independent, educated, healthy, and thriving individuals and families.

By not raising taxes, cutting capital gains, and reducing the corporate income tax, Governor Romney is catering to big business and the wealthy and their interest in making a profit. Like companies, Republicans are focused on their own bottom line and the bottom lines of those they consider stakeholders in the conservative political ideology, rather than on the empowerment of all the American people. I’m sure Governor Romney is a wonderful husband and father. It just doesn’t seem like he would be a true family man when it comes to 100 percent of the American family.

Minjon Tholen is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and the Training & Development Specialist at Cook Ross Inc.

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Despite a Strong Debate, Obama Remains Vulnerable on the Economy

Oct 18, 2012Jeff Madrick

The president found his voice in the second debate, but he still needs to make a clearer case for the progress he's made.

There has been entirely too much celebrating about President Obama’s debate performance on Tuesday. He did very well, without a doubt. He won hands down. He didn’t get into the ring cold, and he showed that he knew his stuff—and that Romney really didn’t.

The president found his voice in the second debate, but he still needs to make a clearer case for the progress he's made.

There has been entirely too much celebrating about President Obama’s debate performance on Tuesday. He did very well, without a doubt. He won hands down. He didn’t get into the ring cold, and he showed that he knew his stuff—and that Romney really didn’t.

But the economy remains the ace in the hole for Romney and Ryan. We haven’t nearly recovered in terms of jobs, and that’s a tough fact to slide by. The unemployment rate rose rapidly in Bush’s last term to around 8 percent, then peaked in 2009 at 10 percent and slowly came down to its current level. So we are only back to the start of the Obama term. No one ever won the presidency with a 7.8 percent unemployment rate. And we know, as Romney keeps reminding us, that median family income is awful and that poverty is up.

Everyone knows this, and yet Obama did not have a good enough explanation of how much progress has been made. He sounded defensive. So Obama needs a strong, non-defensive explanation of his achievements, and one way to put it is what would have happened had Romney won the presidency in 2008. You’d have a 10 percent unemployment rate with Romney as president. Poverty would be way up. He’d be blaming Social Security and Medicare for all his problems, and he’s find economists to claim he was right. They might already be cutting these programs forever “in order to save them.” It’s triage -- throw the elderly out of the boat and let everyone else eat the rations. People would be poorer. They would get less health care. Those in poverty would have fewer benefits. Is that the kind of America you want?

Odds are that Romney, if he put the Romney-Ryan plan into effect, would create a bigger deficit, too. That’s actually what we need, but a deficit based on tax cuts will create few jobs. (EPI ran some numbers based on Mark Zandi's multipliers.) And if Romney did close the many tax holes he promises to, recession is almost guaranteed even as your taxes rise.

This concept is tough to communicate in a credible way. It just sounds like economists bickering. But there is a record out there: George W. Bush’s. His central economic policy was tax cuts for the rich, and he produced the slowest job growth of any president since the Depression. Romney will do that again. Promise.

Obama has to be clear: He stopped a depression. He is getting the housing market to come back after the worst devastation since the early 1930s. Employment stopped falling. But he shows hesitation in critical areas. Will he protect Social Security and Medicare? If so, then say so. The other guys will cut it, even gut it. But is he vacillating too much here. The talk about Dodd-Frank doesn’t win him many points because most of America thinks the banks got away with murder. He needs a better way of talking about that. As for Obamacare, he is talking about its good points, but he needs to be bolder still. List them all, and list them fast.

And when he says Romney is lying, which is a deliberate motif of the Republican game plan, don’t say he lied with a smile. Say, "It makes me very sad and disheartened when the governor misleads the American people. It is unfair to you voters. And when challenged, my opponent will come back and tell you again, that’s not what his program is, or he never said that. Be proud of your claims, Governor Romney; don’t back off them to win over some in the middle of the pack. Tell them where you really stand."

Finally, it is critical to be constructive about the uses of government. Tell America the only way the country will succeed and the economy will remain prosperous is if we bring everyone with us. Every American must be able to contribute to the economy with a good education and good health. Every region must have good, dependable transportation. Every part of America must breathe clean air. Government can do that.

Unfortunately, there is no third debate about domestic matters since the next one is on international events. But I bet we get back to the economy in the third debate. I hope so. Democrats have to realize that every time Romney says "just look at the record," they are behind the eight ball. Obama needs a very clear, persuasive statement about how bad the economy was in 2009 and how much he did. He stopped the bleeding. The patient was in the hospital. Who put him there? The Republicans, with the same plan Romney is offering today. The patient is resuscitated. Jobs are coming back. The housing market has turned the corner. Everyone is still getting Social Security and Medicare. And now 30 million more will have health insurance. 

Oops, I've already said all this. Sorry, readers. But why do I have to keep repeating it?

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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“We’re All in This Together” vs. “You’re on Your Own” Government

Oct 15, 2012Elizabeth Stokes

As the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network begins work on building a Government By and For Millennial America, Elizabeth Stokes defends the idea of government as a steward of the common good.

As the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network begins work on building a Government By and For Millennial America, Elizabeth Stokes defends the idea of government as a steward of the common good.

Despite no specifics on how they will slash taxes and also balance budgets, it is clear that the Romney-Ryan budget plan follows an ideology we've seen before. Seeking to block grant Medicaid and voucherize Medicare, the Ryan budget, endorsed by Romney, fundamentally warps the meaning and purpose of the social safety net. This ideology views government as important not for guaranteeing the collective success of all, but for protecting the individual’s right to make his own success. It views government as important not for creating a framework that meets the needs of all citizens, but for supporting and responding to the needs of the market. And it sees government, if it must offer public provisions, as an entity that works best when its services are farmed out to the private sector.

But this view of government completely ignores its role as steward of the common good. To see why this role is so important, just take a look at the recent financial crisis. It has shown us that macroeconomics is more complex and more unpredictable than our economics textbooks would have us believe. Restricting government’s scope as the precondition of a “freely” functioning market is not enough to make the market provide effectively and justly for all. As the Census Bureau recently reported, even though GDP has grown, 2011 saw huge income gains for the top 5 percent of income distribution, declines for the middle, and stagnation at the bottom. Evidently, the market alone cannot allocate resources in a way that a just democracy demands, nor can it be relied upon to stably ensure the wellbeing of our most vulnerable.

But this is the problem with the Romney-Ryan ideology: it completely misunderstands what a just democracy demands. As Jeff Weintraub puts it, the democratic ideal requires active participation in collective decision-making, carried out within a framework of fundamental solidarity and equality. The Romney-Ryan ideology severely jeopardizes this ideal. How can democracy be fully realized if 47 percent of citizens are viewed exclusively as rapacious moochers and not as fundamental equals in a shared political community? How can self-governance be possible when we fail to guarantee a fundamental baseline for all and let market-generated inequalities distort political equality?

The fundamental equality democracy requires cannot be satisfied by a handful of political rights (not that these mean much anyway given voter suppression efforts). Rather, government must also guarantee what T.H. Marshall would refer to as the social elements of citizenship: equal access to basic essentials that relieve people from the constant struggle for survival and thus provide them with the time and energy to participate in political society as engaged citizens. These basic essentials are not simply an assortment of handouts for the destitute, but are universal and based on generally shared rights of citizenship (the 96 percent know what I’m talking about). Ensuring such a baseline enables us to do away with the artificial distinctions of makers or takers, and instead binds us in a community of mutual sacrifice and success. 

Guaranteeing these social elements of citizenship also entails containing the market and money’s influence so that a person’s life chances and engagement with democracy are not exclusively determined by market position. It is therefore important to have non-market institutions, such as government, direct the market in order to uphold the common good and redress market-generated inequalities. This does not simply mean redistribution policies that tax the rich and give to the poor – after the fact mop-ups via social spending are not enough to make up for the disempowering processes that lead to market-generated inequalities in the first place. Rather, we must also focus on predistribution, i.e. the way in which the market distributes its rewards to begin with (such as regulations that protect consumers and empower workers).

The concept of government as steward of the common good recasts its role in society, seeing it less as a third entity that runs alongside the market economy and the private household but more as a force in the service of the common good that is prior to both and directive of each. Government should act as the framework that both enables and is subject to democratic decision-making in society. It should ensure all people have the minimum they need to participate and engage as citizens and its fundamental direction should be shaped by public voice and societal goals that are collectively and consciously decided.  

Ryan lauds choice, competition, and self-sufficiency as the pillars of his social safety net, implying that marketization will enhance liberty as well as efficiency. However, these words are pure rhetoric and pretense. By putting the market in charge of the common good, he would fundamentally transform basic welfare goods, which are shared in common by all citizens, into commodities, which are bought by individual consumers in a volatile marketplace. While the ethos of social insurance is “we are all in this together, rain or shine,” marketization says to the citizen “here’s some money, you’re on your own.” The Romney-Ryan ideology not only severely undermines one of the most important pillars of government, but also bars those subsets of the population who are reliant on government benefits from the democratic community. 

Elizabeth Stokes is a Working Group Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's national initiative, Government by and for Millennial America, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Teamwork image via Shutterstock.com.

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Beyond Big or Small: Creating a Government That Fits Millennial America

Oct 5, 2012Taylor Jo Isenberg

Millennials are eager to work toward a more effective and inclusive public sector.

Two competing visions: it’s more than just the debate frame that the media chooses to use when describing how President Obama and Governor Romney see the role of government. Rarely has there been such a stark contrast between two candidates in how they view government’s broader purpose – and how that represents fundamental American values. Wednesday’s debate was no exception. The ‘role of government’ was a topic unto itself.

Millennials are eager to work toward a more effective and inclusive public sector.

Two competing visions: it’s more than just the debate frame that the media chooses to use when describing how President Obama and Governor Romney see the role of government. Rarely has there been such a stark contrast between two candidates in how they view government’s broader purpose – and how that represents fundamental American values. Wednesday’s debate was no exception. The ‘role of government’ was a topic unto itself.

In this clash of philosophies, the over-simplified yet vitriolic debate would seemingly have us pick from two options: big government or small government. No matter your political preferences, what our leaders and current national dialogue offer us when envisioning what our democracy can achieve leaves little room for imagination. And, little by little, as the core functions of our system are undermined through money in politics, voter suppression efforts, and crippling cuts to local and state budgets, it becomes more difficult to look to government as a force for positive change. 

Yet not everyone is ready to accept this paralysis. As the National Director for the largest student policy organization in the country, my team and I work with young people across the country who are deeply committed to solving some of our most pressing challenges in a time of uncertainty, gridlock, and a breakdown in a sense of common purpose among all Americans.

And even though the question of our government’s future is being described as the ‘fight of a generation,’ our voice is the one that is woefully absent from the conversation.  

Research by organizations such as the Pew Research Center and CIRCLE has highlighted that this generation is strongly progressive and believes in an activist government’s potential to drive bold social change. Yet they’re also not blind to the challenges the system faces. Less than 30 percent of young people believe their voice is represented in government today. But rather than surrender to that reality, Millennials are instead interested in how we can create a better system – one that is more inclusive, effective, and visionary.

Over the next few months, young people are convening across the country to examine the building blocks of our democratic experiment, identify the core values that drive our system, and then suggest how we can build an ideal government that empowers all to serve as active citizens. The initiative, Government by and for Millennial America, will include over a thousand young people articulating a blueprint and action plan for 21st century governance.

Government by and for Millennial America is a bold experiment to engage a generation in first envisioning and then working toward a participatory, democratic system that serves as a problem solving force. What is possible when we empower the public sector, as the representative of our collective voice, to achieve more? What can government do in the 21st century to rival President Teddy Roosevelt’s doubling of national park land, Eisenhower’s unprecedented highway system, and Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act, a revolutionary program that continues to keep millions of Americans out of poverty?

The potential is both endless and exciting. It’s also a monumental challenge. We have to identify the main barriers to achieving our ideal democracy, tackling everything from the filibuster’s stranglehold on deliberative democracy to the inherent inequities in the voting system. We already see that young people don’t accept these challenges as intractable – only affirming why it’s critical for their ideas and solutions to be a part of our national debate.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently put it, “let us never forgot that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” Government, as the manifestation of our democracy, is the only entity that has the power to represent all of our voices, no matter our background, orientation, socioeconomic status, or political leaning. So here is the question: what can happen if we build a system that empowers all of us to step up, take ownership over the direction of this country, and serve as active citizens and arbiters of our future? It’s the question we are asking in Government by and for Millennial America, and it’s the question we will put to our leaders in the debates, at the voting booth, and into the next four years.

Join us as we build a blueprint for 21st century governance

Taylor Jo Isenberg is National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Obama Failed to Defend Government from Romney's Bluster

Oct 4, 2012Jeff Madrick

Obama failed to defend his policies or the positive role of government. But next time he'll be ready.

President Obama lost the dabate. A night’s bad sleep did not change my mind about that. But let’s be clear that, if more relaxed and clear, Romney was the same as ever. There is no new Romney. He dissimulated, did not address details, and refused to answer what few charges Obama brought up.

Obama failed to defend his policies or the positive role of government. But next time he'll be ready.

President Obama lost the dabate. A night’s bad sleep did not change my mind about that. But let’s be clear that, if more relaxed and clear, Romney was the same as ever. There is no new Romney. He dissimulated, did not address details, and refused to answer what few charges Obama brought up.

He opened with a brilliant debating tactic—really a war tactic: open a second front and retreat on the first one. Romney tacked to the middle. No, he won’t cut any taxes he can’t pay for. No, it isn’t a $5 trillion plan. Obama wasn't ready and didn't seem able to adjust. But what is the Romney policy? He never said. More upsettingly, Obama noticed but never truly pressed him on it. 
 
In fact, Romney's is the same old George W. Bush policy, and it didn’t work then. Obama got to this point, too, but didn’t bring it home strongly enough. Job growth was the slowest under Bush of any other postwar president. Obama said it. Doesn’t anyone remember his saying it? But Romney dissimulated again, because he can’t pull this grand four or five point strategy off, just like he couldn't pay off his original tax cut program. Obama could have asked him how much he plans to cut tax rates. He would have dodged it, but in dodging it he would have looked more like the old Romney than the new, bold Romney. Obama could have pressed harder on the details of closing loopholes. He didn’t.
 
Romney ignored the facts time and again, a tried and true debating technique. Obama pointed out that in a Medicare voucher program with choice, the insurance companies will steal the elderly who are healthy and raise costs for Medicare, jeopardizing its future. Romney simply ignored the point and went on to say, as if Obama said nothing, that Medicare would still be there under his voucher program and if it worked better, it would stand. 
 
In his attacks on the role of government, he persistently said the private sector can do better. But private sector health care costs have risen faster than Medicare. Why is that? He pushed the old ideological sticking points. Government is bad, private enterprise good. No facts, mind you. Just shibboleths. Keep the federal government out of health care. Give it to the states. Should we keep the federal government out of Social Security and Medicare, too—both very popular programs?
 
But if Romney’s bluster was strong, Obama lost the debate more than Romney won it. He seemed incapable of defending Obamacare. He couldn’t even counter the alleged Medicare theft of $716 billion well. He didn’t defend his green investments. Ninety billion dollars is not much when you consider Japan will probably spend nearly $500 billion on renewables. He only passingly defended his stimulus bill, repeating the error of neglect he has made for most of his administration. In fact, he hardly defended his record at all, for fear it reminds people that unemployment is stil high, as is the deficit. The point is they'd both be higher under a Romney plan.  
 
And what of the policies for 2013? Where was talk of Obama's American Jobs Act? Why not say that Romney’s policies will bring you a recession, sure as you’re sitting there?
 
And what about bipartisanship, of which Romney bragged during his governorship in Massachusetts? Could Obama have pointed out that he couldn't deal with Republicans who proclaim their first priority is to stop his reelection? Did any prominent Massachusetts Democrats threaten Romney that way?
 
Now, the media will start analyzing the Romney promises, and therein will lie some justice. He won’t be able to defend them except in the same general, non-detailed ways. The Democrats have to counter-attack. There will be plenty of room to do so. 
 
And one other point: I think Obama will be ready next time. He went into the ring cold. Every boxer knows you have to warm up and break a sweat before the first bell. I think he learned. He almost got knocked out in the first round. Not again, I don't think. 
 

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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