Predatory Finance Has Hurt Our Universities, But Students Can Fight Back

Apr 13, 2015Dominic RusselRyan Thornton

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

The last few decades have not been kind to America’s local public institutions. Cities that once built state-of-the-art infrastructure are now struggling to fix potholes in the street. Public schools that were once the best in the world are lagging behind. Even our universities, which used to be gateways to a shot at a better life, are increasingly becoming too expensive for much of the population.

There’s no shortage of explanations for these problems, ranging from globalization to government waste to an aging population. These answers, however, all overlook the role that a growing Wall Street has played in changing the picture for public institutions.

In 1950, the financial sector accounted for about 3 percent of U.S. GDP; it now accounts for more than 6.5 percent. This financialization has given the big banks on Wall Street immense wealth and power, allowing them to extract greater and greater earnings from public and private borrowers. While the financial industry is reaping huge profits, it is individuals, not corporations, who pay an increasingly large share of the taxes that are supposed to support our public institutions. Since 1950, corporate tax contributions have dropped from 32 percent to only 17 percent despite corporations claiming a growing share of GDP. In contrast, individuals now pay 63 percent of taxes, up from 45 percent in 1950.

Our cities and schools—and all public institutions that rely on taxes to provide essential services—have felt the impact of this change. Facing slashed budgets, they have been forced to turn to the financial industry for loans. Undoubtedly, borrowing is necessary for financing extensive long-term capital projects; however, public institutions are increasingly compelled to secure loans for their short-term spending as well. Big banks are more than happy to accept the business of cities and universities desperate for funding, especially when the banks get to write the terms of the deal.

Wall Street’s profits are no longer solely built on interest from traditional “vanilla” loans. Instead, its banks have turned to high-risk, high-cost, and unnecessarily complex deals to further inflate their profits. Take interest rate swaps, for example. Swaps are a financial instrument devised by banks that allows cities and universities—those issuing bonds to finance long-term projects—to “swap” a variable interest rate for an agreed-upon fixed interest rate.

These interest rate swaps were deceptive from the very start. They were sold as protection from changing interest rates, but because exorbitant termination fees made refinancing extremely costly, they were essentially dangerous bets that would have only worked out if interest rates rose. And the deck was stacked against the cities and universities making these bets.

Banks illegally manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which was tied to many deals, and helped precipitate a financial crisis that led to near-zero interest rates that continue today. Because banks had negotiated the swaps contracts so that they would be paying the variable market rates, cities and universities ultimately ended up locked into deals in which they were paying as much as 50 times what the banks were paying—all of which went to Wall Street as profit.

Both of the schools we attend—the University of Michigan and George Mason University—entered into swap deals that have costs them millions. One swap at Michigan even protected banks by allowing them to terminate the deal if variable rates hit just 7 percent, while offering no protection for the university when rates actually sank near zero.

The current imbalance in power need not be the case. Increased transparency surrounding the fees and terms of public finance deals would allow students and taxpayers to oversee the officials and banks who use their money and hold them accountable. When university regents, trustees, or other executives receive or have received compensation from the financial institutions their school does business with (as was the case in a series of University of California swaps), they should immediately recuse themselves from financial decision making to avoid conflicts of interest. Cities, states, and universities can work together to bargain with banks or create public options for bond underwriting and borrowing.

In situations in which our public entities have been targeted by banks, we can organize and pressure our public leaders to regain the money we lost. The city of Detroit was able to reduce its bank payments from $230 million to $85 million by exposing the invalidity of a swap.

Because swaps were often marketed to public institutions as a safe protection from variable interest rates—not as risky bets—it may be possible to pursue legal action to reclaim some of the losses. One avenue to reclaim public funds is the regulatory framework of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, which mandates that municipalities be made fully aware of the risks and possible costs of entering into financial deals.

As students, we feel the impact of Wall Street every time we pay tuition. We put ourselves in thousands of dollars of debt to pay for school, but because most university borrowing is backed by student tuition, this personal debt simply begets institutional debt. All this borrowing means huge profits for the banks that finance debt, much of it coming from hidden fees and inflated payments on long-term deals with our schools.

However, as students we also have the unique opportunity to band together and make our collective voice heard. For a few years our well-being is the primary focus of a massive anchor institution, and our dollars are often the main source of its funding. We can demand better than the status quo by pressuring our schools to reclaim that money from wealthy bankers and put it back into our institutions.

If borrowing from the big banks was on fair terms and intended for long-term capital projects, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, instead of using our nation’s wealth to pay for education, increase our human and physical capital, and build our long-run potential for growth, we are using it to increase incomes for the wealthiest bankers.

We've reached a worst-case scenario, but it doesn't have to stay that way. By holding Wall Street accountable for how it plays with tuition and tax dollars, we can bring things back around so that public investment means improving society, not improving Wall Street's balances.

Dominic Russell is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Policy Impact Coordinator for the Midwest. Ryan Thornton is a junior and Campus Network chapter head at George Mason University.

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What Policies Do Young People Want? Let Them Tell You.

Apr 8, 2015Joelle Gamble

As another presidential campaign season heats up, and candidates scrambled to create messaging, structures, and even gimmicks and swag in an attempt to engage young people, I can’t help but think about why we do what we do here at Roosevelt.

As another presidential campaign season heats up, and candidates scrambled to create messaging, structures, and even gimmicks and swag in an attempt to engage young people, I can’t help but think about why we do what we do here at Roosevelt.

Young people on college campuses are often asked to make phone calls, knock on doors, and campaign for existing agendas, but they’re rarely asked about their own policy ideas. Since 2004, we have been working to change that norm. At its core, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network seeks to defy the public’s expectations of young people in politics today.

Over the past 10 years, we have built an engaged, community-driven network of students who are committed to using policy to transform their cities and states now and build the foundation for a sustainable future. We believe that broader participation in the policy process will not only improve representation but produce more creative ideas with the potential for real impact.

In this year’s 10 ideas journals, we present some of most promising and innovative ideas from students in our network. With chapters on 120 campuses in 38 states, from Los Angeles, California, to Conway, Arkansas, to New York City, we have the potential to effect policy ideas that transcend the parameters of our current national debate. Our student authors push for practical, community-focused solutions, from using pavement to improve sanitation in Louisville, Kentucky, to creating community benefit agreements for publicly funded stadiums in Lansing, Michigan, to building workforce development programs for agricultural literacy in Athens, Georgia. 

Policy matters most when we take it beyond the page and bring it to the communities and institutions that can turn it into reality. Many of the students in this year’s publication have committed to pressing for impact. They’re connecting with decision-makers in city halls and state capitols, armed with the power of their own ideas. 

The next generation of innovative minds and passionate advocates is here, and it’s changing this country one idea at a time.

Check 'em out!

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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While Congress Plays Politics, New York State Must Invest in Young People

Mar 26, 2015Kevin Stump

Last week, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate released budget proposals that include a slew of policy changes that would negatively impact young people’s ability to fully participate in the economy.  

Last week, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate released budget proposals that include a slew of policy changes that would negatively impact young people’s ability to fully participate in the economy.  

The proposals would, among many other bad ideas, freeze funding on Pell Grants for 10 years and eliminate mandatory funding for the program, leaving it vulnerable to the unstable political culture of Washington, D.C. Both budget proposals would charge students interest on all their loans while they’re still in school, costing the average borrower thousands of dollars more. Each budget also eliminates the Pay As You Earn student loan repayment program, which caps monthly payments based on borrower incomes to make payments more affordable for moderate- and low- income debt holders.

It’s concerning that Congress cares so little about an entire generation of young Americans — the very generation that will have to repair what today’s leaders have broken.

While Congress continues to play politics, states need to make investments so this generation isn’t subject to spiraling economic inequality and missed opportunities. As New York approaches its April 1 budget deadline, the governor and the state legislature need to prioritize policies that will help young people to fully realize their potential and participate in the economy.

As outlined in my critique of Governor Cuomo’s student loan program, New York State must: (1) inject resources into public higher education, (2) roll back tuition hikes, (3) reform the Tuition Assistance Program, and (4) require that economic develop initiatives include some type of student loan relief for employees.

But even those measures won’t be enough by themselves. In order for the state to forge ahead and truly invest in youth, it will also need to do the following:  

  1. Increase the minimum wage. With Millennials making up 71 percent of minimum wage workers, raising the wage would give young people a chance to pay down debt, invest in the economy, and start building their economic future. 
  2. Charge the governor’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils with developing a serious comprehensive plan to integrate paid apprenticeship and internship programs into the criteria for doing business with the state. To help combat the double-digit unemployment rate for 16–24-year-olds across the country, New York State should take advantage of its economic development projects, like START UP NY and NY SUNY 2020, to (1) provide young people with income and (2) impart the skills necessary to compete in today’s economy.
  3. Pass the NY DREAM Act to give thousands of New York’s undocumented youth access to state financial aid so they too can fully participate in the economy.
  4. Expand Governor Cuomo’s proposal to double the Urban Youth Jobs Program. This will help reward businesses that hire and train inner-city youth. In addition, this will help give New Yorkers ages 16–24 the opportunity to learn professional skills while also getting paid.

Conservatives and progressives are both trying to shift the political pendulum in their direction as they gear up for the 2016 election, which will consequently shape the fabric of our political system for the next decade. But Republicans in Congress, as evidenced by their budget proposals, continue to forget about young people. It is now up to President Obama to reject these failed principles and for states to get serious about enacting the real policy changes we need to give young people a fighting chance.

As Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble articulates so well, “the young people who are inheriting the effects of the decisions made at all levels of government today… want to see investments made in a more prosperous future.”

Kevin Stump is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Leadership Director.

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The Republican Budget Plan Looks to the Past, Not the Future

Mar 19, 2015Joelle Gamble

The Republican budget plans are causing quite a stir in the D.C. press and in Congress. However, the content of their proposals, if enacted, will ripple beyond the beltway and into states, cities, communities, and college campuses across the country – and the consequences should be of particular concern to young Americans.

The Republican budget plans are causing quite a stir in the D.C. press and in Congress. However, the content of their proposals, if enacted, will ripple beyond the beltway and into states, cities, communities, and college campuses across the country – and the consequences should be of particular concern to young Americans.

Rather than using their new platform in Congress to make investments in the future of this nation, Republicans have chosen to pack in a laundry list of complaints and repeals based in our past. Young organizers have already begun to push back against proposed slash in Pell grant funding.  Other backwards-looking choices, from repealing the Affordable Care Act to failing to invest in new energy technology, would also have a profound impact on young people.

The Campus Network believes in policy that is by and for people, not built at the expense of them. We’ve got a student-generated budget to prove it. As the young people who are inheriting the effects of the decisions made at all levels of government today, we want to see investments made in a more prosperous future. Investments in accessible and affordable education, critical infrastructure, green energy, and good jobs are what is going to help our generation succeed – not the renewal of old policies that have repeatedly proved ineffective.

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.


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The Sweet Briar Dilemma: Will Predatory Lending Take Down More Colleges?

Mar 16, 2015Alan Smith

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

There are plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to explain Sweet Briar's problems. Dr. James F. Jones, the school’s president, claims that there are simply not enough people who want to attend an all-women's rural liberal arts school (though application numbers and some pundits disagree); he blames the discount that the school was giving to low-income students for the institutional budget shortfall. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban says that Sweet Briar has fallen victim to the student loan bubble and that students are unwilling to commit the money to attend, which sounds a lot like the blame-the-homeowner narrative that came out of the 2008 financial crisis.  Others are wringing their hands that small colleges in general are doomed.   

These takes are varied and complex, but they are all missing an important point: that predatory banking practices and bad financial deals played an important and nearly invisible role in precipitating the school’s budget crisis.  

A quick look at Sweet Briar’s audited financial reports (easily available in public records) reveals enough confusing and obfuscating financial-speak to last a lifetime, but a few days of digging did manage to unearth a series of troubling things.  

A single swap on a bond issued in June 2008 cost Sweet Briar more then a million dollars in payments to Wachovia before the school exited the swap in September 2011. While it is unclear exactly why they chose 2011 to pay off the remainder of the bond early, they paid a $730,119 termination fee. For a school that was sorely strapped for cash, these fines and the fees that accrued around this deal (which are hard to definitively pick out from financial documents) couldn't have come at a worse time.  

Just how big a deal are these numbers? The school has a relatively small endowment even among small liberal arts colleges: currently valued at about $88 million, with less then a quarter of that total completely unrestricted and free to spend. But in 2014, the financial year that appears to have been the final straw for Sweet Briar, total operating revenues were $34.8 million and total operating expenditures were $35.4 million, which means that the deficit the school is running is actually smaller than the cost of any of the bad deals it’s gotten itself into with banks. 

All of this puts in a very stark light the fact that the early retirement of debt (in other words, the losses the school suffered on the overall value of the bonds it had taken out because it decided to pay them back early) cost the school over $9 million in 2011 and more than $13 million in 2012. Why did the school accrue these costs? We have no way of knowing if it was bad advice from bankers, negligent trustee members covering a mistake, or a well-intentioned plan that hit at the wrong time.  

What we can say, though, is that a million dollars here and a million dollars there adds up to real money that was desperately needed as Sweet Briar fought to stay afloat.  

We know that Wall Street collects higher fees on risky and complicated deals involving variable rate debt and hedging instruments, like the ones found in Sweet Briar's last few decades of financials, than from fixed rate debt deals. We know that they add on things like credit enhancements, further driving up the costs. We know that those higher fees mean that there is a clear financial incentive to sell schools, municipalities, and pension funds on these risky deals. And we know that it works in Wall Street's favor that someone like me can spend days digging into this stuff and still not be totally sure what the exact costs of these deals are.  

What we don't know is how all these things were allowed to happen at this particular school in this particular timeframe.  

Sweet Briar appears slated to close because it is a small organization without the resources to counter the huge information imbalance that has helped precipitate the financialization crisis. It is closing because it signed some terrible deals to get what must have felt like "needed" money at the time. You can see the reasons: a $14 million bond (with swaps) in 2001 for campus improvements. A $10 million bond in 2006 to pay off other bonds that had revealed their ugly side and were costing the school too much to be allowed to fully mature. But, as has so often been the case in everything from municipal finance to personal home loans, there was a problem in the small print. Like many other colleges, what appeared to be vital and even beneficial deals turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike many others, Sweet Briar was already close enough to the financial brink that these ongoing debts made the difference between staying open and closing its doors.  

There are, of course, other very real pressures on Sweet Briar. Lower enrollment numbers do really hurt a school, and there are real questions about how to keep small, rural liberal arts institutions competitive in a higher education economy. None of these issues, however, compare to the fees, fines, penalties, and other losses that are all over Sweet Briar’s books. 

Is Sweet Briar the canary in the coalmine? Banks are certainly making obscene profits on the backs of the swap deals in the UC system, at the University of Michigan, and at American University — and those are the places that we’ve found in our first month of looking. While those schools are solvent enough that these swaps are not pushing them to the brink of closing, they are exacerbating budget shortfalls and passing debt on to students through increased costs. These deals are also clearly making money for many school trustees whose day jobs happen to be with the giant banks. Here I find myself agreeing with Mark Cuban, at least in part: these trends are a part of a vicious cycle of borrowing that is wholly unsustainable, and will eventually lead to a crisis.  

This is why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is working to track the ways in which financial institutions are extracting wealth from our colleges and universities, and make a clear case for demanding our money back. I hope that the storied institution of Sweet Briar can find a way to keep its doors open in 2016, but even if it fails, that failure should wake us up to predatory practices at colleges and universities around the country.   

Questions? Concerns? Interested in my math? Drop me a line.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

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The Ferguson Probe Reveals Entrenched Racial Bias in Policing

Mar 9, 2015Aman Banerji

The Justice Department’s probe of Ferguson has revealed a troubling pattern of discrimination in traffic stops, but the problem doesn’t begin or end there.

The Justice Department’s probe of Ferguson has revealed a troubling pattern of discrimination in traffic stops, but the problem doesn’t begin or end there.

The initial findings from the Justice Department’s probe of the Ferguson, Missouri police department reveal a pattern of racial discrimination that is both broader than Ferguson and deeply rooted. Among the most shocking statistics disclosed last week is that African Americans accounted for 93 percent of all arrests in Ferguson in the 2012–14 period, although they accounted for only 67 percent of the city’s population.

Vehicle or traffic stops, a routine feature of citizen-police confrontations, appear to be a prime example of racial police bias in action. The initial findings reveal that 85 percent of all people stopped and 90 percent of citations in the area were conducted against African Americans. During the 2012–14 period, Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, although they remained 26 percent less likely to be in possession of contraband.

In spite of former Missouri state representative Jeff Roorda’s statements, it’s difficult to deny the startlingly obvious racial bias such evidence suggests. However, this initial set of 2012-14 findings has focused on Ferguson from 2012-14, ignoring longer-term trends in racial policing of traffic stops across the State of Missouri. 

The Missouri Attorney General’s analysis of vehicle stop rates from 2000–13 in Missouri and in the St. Louis County area reveals this long-term pattern. The stop rate in St. Louis County increased more than 300 percent during this period across all ethnicities, with a disproportionate increase in Black communities. There was a 522 percent increase in stop rates for Blacks, while the corresponding figure for white motorists in St. Louis County was 284 percent. Similarly, the ratio of stops that led to arrests has also shown a racially disproportionate increase, moving from 1.2 percent in 2000 to 7.5 percent in 2013 for African Americans, while corresponding figures for Whites were 1.1 percent and 4 percent. Clearly, not only have the police in St. Louis County been pursuing an increased number of stops, but an ever greater portion of these have targeted the African American community.

The disparity index compares a racial group’s proportion of traffic stops to its proportion of the population aged 18 or older. A value of 1 indicates that a group is neither over- nor underrepresented in traffic stops. In other words, the higher the disparity index, the greater the racial profiling at traffic stops. An examination of the disparity index for vehicle stops in St. Louis County provides an even clearer picture.

During the entire 13-year period of examination, the disparity index for Blacks in the region has remained between 1.34 and 1.50, peaking at 1.50 in the year 2013. Meanwhile, for whites the disparity index has remained between 0.88 and 0.96 in the same period, falling from 0.94 in 2000 to 0.88 in 2013. In fact, no other single ethnicity has ever risen above the disparity index of 1 in the entire period, demonstrating that African Americans were the only ethnicity to be the victims of disproportionate traffic stops in the 2000–13 period. 

The Department of Justice’s findings and a slew of media coverage have focused on the Ferguson region and the county of St. Louis. Yet the trend of increasingly punitive and racially biased traffic stops demonstrated at the St. Louis County level is just as demonstrable for the state of Missouri as a whole.

At the state level, the Attorney General’s report reveals that stop rates have climbed 270 percent, rising 385 percent for African Americans and 252 percent for whites during the 2000–2013 period. The rate of arrest from such stops in 2013 also remains racially tinged: 7.7 percent and 4.2 percent for African Americans and whites respectively. Finally, while the statewide disparity index has remained between 0.98 and 0.95 for whites, it has steadily increased for African Americans, rising from 1.27 in 2000 to 1.59 in 2013 and reaching a peak of 1.63 in 2011. In fact, the disparity index for African Americans in Missouri was even higher than St. Louis County. Clearly, the county’s racially discriminatory vehicle stop practices are not an outlier in the state. Equally though, in a nation where both the regularity and nature of traffic stops bear marked racial disparities, the state of Missouri itself is far from an outlier in national police practices.

These findings represent the entrenched nature of racially biased police stops. The case for stronger and more regular federal oversight of St. Louis’s policing practices could not be stronger. This local effort, however, must be complemented by a broader state-level response. Strengthening police-community relations, building police departments that more closely match the ethnic demographics of their constituents, and developing a more holistic set of safety measures beyond policing are all vital steps toward charting a less punitive and biased form of policing in St. Louis, Missouri, and beyond. 

Aman Banerji is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Community Manager.

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Ending New York's Traffic Jam: Campus Network Testimony to NY City Council

Mar 6, 2015Brit Byrd

On March 5, 2015, Campus Network Senior Fellow Brit Byrd testified before the New York City Council on the topic of vehicular traffic congestion and potential policy solutions. His written testimony is reproduced below.

Good afternoon. My name is Brit Byrd. I am the Senior Fellow for Economic Development for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a student at Columbia University.

On March 5, 2015, Campus Network Senior Fellow Brit Byrd testified before the New York City Council on the topic of vehicular traffic congestion and potential policy solutions. His written testimony is reproduced below.

Good afternoon. My name is Brit Byrd. I am the Senior Fellow for Economic Development for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a student at Columbia University.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is the nation’s largest student-driven policy organization, with more than 120 university campuses in 38 states, involving thousands of young people nationwide. In my capacity as a Senior Fellow, I have examined the economics and urban planning implications of New York City’s on-street parking spaces. I appreciate this opportunity to share some of my research and policy suggestions, which I elaborate on in depth in the attached white paper. That paper was also presented to members of the National Economic Policy Council at the White House last December.

Vehicular traffic congestion presents a serious and ongoing challenge in the City of New York. Most recently, the city’s “Vision Zero” program has highlighted the tragic human cost of reckless and haphazard traffic. This is sadly only one facet of a diverse and widespread problem, spanning concerns about public health, environmental emissions, losses in economic productivity, and responsible urbanism. The economic cost alone is staggering. The Partnership for New York City estimated that as much as $1.9 billion is lost annually due to inventory, logistical, and personnel costs of traffic congestion, and up to $4.6 billion is lost as unrealized business revenue.

The city has not been blind to this problem, and has pursued solutions at the state level and to a more limited extent within its own departments. But the city hasn’t fully taken advantage of one of the largest tools at its disposal: the management of on-street parking spaces. De-incentivizing vehicular traffic within the dense, transit-rich parts of our city is a straightforward task in that raising the cost of a car trip results in fewer car trips. Efforts at enacting a congestion pricing plan in 2008 and the current Park SMART NYC program reflect an awareness of this policy tool. But parking policies that use the same mechanisms have been almost entirely overlooked, even though they represent an ideal opportunity for the city to raise the effective cost of driving while operating entirely within its own powers.

City-administered on-street parking spaces are currently highly undervalued. Current rates vary from $1–$5 across the city, while pricing for an hour of parking in a private off-street garage suggests the market rate is closer to $15–$30. As noted in my white paper, there is extensive research showing that parking prices in cities with transit alternatives, such as New York City, respond remarkably well to classic principles of supply and demand: raise the price of parking and demand will decrease. Conversely, lower prices encourage a higher demand. This is especially pertinent when on-street metered parking is so much less expensive than off-street parking. In one study of six different urban sites, roughly one-third of traffic congestion consisted of people avoiding off-street market prices by circling around an area searching for cheap on-street parking.[1]

Parking spaces represent an enormous quantity of public land that is in effect rented out by the city, but the current management scheme heavily subsidizes the use of this space for a relatively small portion of New Yorkers. Only 22.7 percent of New Yorkers commute to work alone in a vehicle, and only 46 percent of households own a vehicle.[2]

Today I am here to urge the City Council to pursue two policies that would help reduce traffic congestion, discontinue subsidizing car ownership, and raise revenue.

  1. Introduce a residential parking permit system for on-street parking spaces on residential side streets.
  2. Devote a small number of on-street parking spaces for the exclusive use of car-sharing vehicles.

Both of these policies would raise additional revenue for the city, which I further advocate should be allocated to capital budgets for City Council districts that employ participatory budgeting.

Proposal #1 -- A Residential Parking Permit (RPP) System

The vast majority of on-street parking in the city is on residential side streets is completely free. In 2013, research found that “free and available on-street parking increased private car ownership by 8.8 percent for households with off-street parking in the New York City region.”[3] Simply put, this free parking represents an indirect subsidy of personal car ownership and induces additional traffic congestion. Moreover, the free use of residential on-street parking represents a complete concession of a valuable public resource to a small portion of citizens.

In place of free parking on these residential side streets, New York City should implement a residential parking permit (RPP) to set a more appropriate price for the public space being rented. This would also eliminate the existing informal subsidy for personal car ownership and reduce traffic congestion and other vehicle-related negative externalities. In contrast to metered parking, an RPP scheme operates by charging residents a monthly or yearly charge to park within a given zone.                                         

An RPP system benefits drivers by making it easier to find a parking spot available close to their front door and simplifying alternate-side parking. Perhaps for these reasons, there is evidence that New York City drivers are already prepared for RPP. Urban planning researchers Zhan Guo and Simon McDonnell found in 2013 that 52 percent of NYC drivers in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan were already willing to pay for a residential permit, with a median volunteered price of $408 a year.[4]

Proposal #2 -- On-street parking spaces for car-sharing vehicles

Car-sharing services are already known and popular to many New Yorkers. For a relatively small yearly subscription fee and an hourly usage rate, subscribers can rent a car for the occasional trip, such as moving, trips outside of the city, or trips to big box retailers. The service is an ideal complement to an RPP system, since many car owners in New York City use their cars largely for these kinds of trips. Additionally, the service offers an affordable alternative for those not willing to pay the high entry costs of purchasing, insuring, and fueling a car.

As it stands, car-sharing services mostly partner with private garages or other private institutions, limiting their coverage and public knowledge of the service. Devoting public on-street parking space to car-sharing infrastructure both complements the goals of RPP pricing and provides a distinct public service within itself. Research shows that car-sharing programs encourage similar policy goals as increasing parking rates, and can even encourage drivers to forgo personal ownership altogether in favor of car-sharing. Hoboken, New Jersey implemented a “Corner Cars” program, in which on-street parking spaces were rented to car-sharing services; 3,000 participants say they have given up their personal cars due to the sharing program,[5] and each car-sharing car is estimated to have replaced 17 private vehicles.[6]

Directing a Portion of Revenues toward Participatory Budgeting

In addition to helping to reduce congestion, both of these policies would also produce new revenues: RPP through the lease of permits, and car-sharing through yearly leases of individual spaces in responsible public-private contracts. The revenue raised by this rent has a more direct connection to the physical landscape and infrastructure than other municipal revenues, such as property or sales taxes.

As Councilmembers doubtlessly know from their commutes between City Hall and their district offices, transportation is more than just a line item in our budget, but rather a fundamental part of the daily quality of life for all New Yorkers. Smart transportation policy tackling traffic congestion could have a profound, rippling effect upon the way in which New Yorkers work, study, relax, and feel a connection to their communities. Directing a portion of these new revenues to Participatory Budgeting, a process in which citizens deliberate and vote on capital investments, will both strengthen our infrastructure and citizens’ connection to the processes that enable its funding and maintenance.

Introducing residential parking permits, and public car-sharing spaces represents a step toward a better New York City for all of its citizens. But here too there is also a policy byproduct that is greater than the sum of its parts. Connecting the ubiquitous public resource of parking spots with the more arcane and less accessible processes of municipal budgeting makes government less invisible to the citizen on the street.

Thank you and we look forward to working with you.


[1] Shoup, Donald C. The High Cost of Free Parking. Chicago: Planners Press, American Planning Association, (2005)

[2] U.S Bureau of the Census. 2008-2012 American Community Survey Estimates. Census Bureau. Available: http://

[3] Guo, Zhan. "Residential Street Parking and Car Ownership." Journal of the American Planning Association 79, no. 1 (2013): 32-48.

[4] Guo, Zhan, and Simon McDonnell. "Curb Parking Pricing for Local Residents: An Exploration in New York City Based on Willingness to Pay." Transport Policy, (2013), 186-98.

[5] Shoup, Donald. "Informal Parking Markets: Turning Problems into Solutions." In The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks to Day Labor, 277-294. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, (2014).

[6] Osgood, Andrea. "On-Street Parking Spaces for Shared Cars." ACCESS Magazine 1, no. 36 (2010).


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Daily Digest - February 26: Where Is All the Corporate Cash Going?

Feb 26, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Why Companies are Rewarding Shareholders Instead of Investing in the Real Economy (WaPo)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Why Companies are Rewarding Shareholders Instead of Investing in the Real Economy (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis looks at Roosevelt Institute Fellow J.W. Mason's new white paper on how the shift towards increased shareholder payouts since the 1980s has decreased corporate investment.

  • Roosevelt Take: Read J.W. Mason's paper, "Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment," here.

Hewlett-Packard Shows How to Fatten Shareholders While Firing Workers (LA Times)

Referencing J.W. Mason's paper for context on the impact of shareholder payouts on the larger economy, Michael Hiltzik explains how H-P has managed to fire workers and increase payouts at once.

Don't Wait Until 2016 to Make Political Change (HuffPo)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble argues for the need for young people to participate in governance, not just elections.

The Push for Net Neutrality Arose From Lack of Choice (NYT)

Steve Lohr speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford, who agrees that the current approach to net neutrality makes sense while cable is most people's only option for high-speed Internet.

The Lawyer Who Went from Fighting for Guantánamo Bay Inmates to Going After Shady Banks (Vice)

David Dayen profiles Josh Denbeaux, a lawyer who is fighting back against foreclosure abuse in the courts and trying to develop class-action suits for homeowners facing illegal foreclosures.

New on Next New Deal

Launching Our Financialization Project with "Disgorge the Cash"

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal introduces our Financialization Project, which aims to define and explain the topic, as well as J.W. Mason's paper. Learn more about the project here.

Millennials Want More Than Obama’s Keystone Veto

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment Torre Lavelle says the veto isn't good enough, because Millennials are seeking a real commitment to transforming energy usage.

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Millennials Want More Than Obama’s Keystone Veto

Feb 25, 2015Torre Lavelle

The president's veto of Keystone XL was not the decisive step towards transforming the country's energy usage that Millennials are looking for.

The president's veto of Keystone XL was not the decisive step towards transforming the country's energy usage that Millennials are looking for.

In June 2013, President Obama revealed his carefully crafted litmus test for approving the Keystone XL pipeline, stating that the project’s effect on climate change would be the deciding factor in his decision. Upholding this ‘climate test’ in his 2015 State of the Union, he called on Americans to set their sights higher than a single pipeline. However, the president’s 104-word veto message to the Senate on Tuesday, which cites the necessary completion of the State Department’s administrative review procedure, fails to include more decisive language for a final decision even after six years.

The Millennials, born between 1984 and 2004, hold a unique role in the debate, as the proposed Keystone pipeline has surfaced as a larger symbol in energy, climate change, and economic policy wars. Young people across the country view this issue as a literal line in the sand – rejection of the pipeline would serve as the ultimate indication of moving away from dependence on fossil fuels towards clean energy technologies. Millennials not only believe that clean energy investment is vital to our economic future, but they also view this transformation as one of the defining features of our generation.

Young people have also been at the forefront of climate activism, organizing XL Dissent, the largest student-led protest at the White House in a generation. This strong millennial support was clear at my university last year, when Beyond Coal, a student group organized under the Sierra Club Student Coalition, pressured the University of Georgia to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the single largest source of pollution in the city. The key policy change was confirmed in September, after students put incredible amounts of pressure on the administration​.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been fond of noting that no energy bill has been passed in the last seven years, therefore articulating his vision for why Keystone is necessary. With arguments for jobs and oil independence falling flat, McConnell and others in Congress should instead push for an energy bill that supports the generational shift in our energy infrastructure. We need congressional leadership to advance policies in stronger energy efficiency standards, incentives for better fuels, and electric vehicle incentives to widen the market. Former Republican Treasury Secretary George Schultz has even proposed a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend system.

Most pressingly, the new Senate majority has vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon emissions standards for new and existing power plants, a policy that would allow the U.S. to honor its international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent. My home state of Georgia, home to some of the dirtiest coal plants in the nation, is required to reduce carbon emissions by 44 percent. These carbon emissions standards represent a potential milestone shift in job creation and alternative energy opportunities and must stay in place.

As the fastest growing workforce demographic, millennials can combine their strong support for clean energy with their foundation in activism and technological advancement, and lead the industry and its politics forward in ways that past generations could not. Indeed they can remind Congress that if you aren’t a climate denier, you shouldn’t be voting like one. It’s come time for a generational shift in the types of energy we use, and a generational shift in political engagement will make it happen.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.


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Building a Better Community: MacArthur-Winning Campus Network Looks to the Future

Feb 10, 2015Joelle Gamble

The Campus Network's incredible community is what earned a MacArthur Award, and that's what we'll continue to invest in.

The Campus Network's incredible community is what earned a MacArthur Award, and that's what we'll continue to invest in.

Last Thursday, our social media accounts exploded with the news that the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network had received the 2015 Award for Creative and Effective Institutions from the MacArthur Foundation. The flurry of tweets, revelry, and community from students in Conway, Arkansas, from alumni working in the White House and city governments, and from supporters at foundations and organizations all over this country is demonstrative of what makes the Campus Network such a unique organization: our people.

At our core, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network seeks to defy the expectations of young people in policy and politics. We are not apathetic. We are adaptive. We are not selfish. We are community-driven. We care about our people, their ideas, and their ability to be taken seriously. We believe there is power in a good idea connected to the right institutions, backed by a passionate community of civic actors.

With the right resources, the right model, and passion, we are capable of solving the complex problems plaguing our country today.

We’ve already seen the Campus Network’s impact on communities around the country:

  • Students designed, advocated for, and passed a Clean Air Act resolution in Ithaca, NY to cut greenhouse gas pollution.
  • They passed a Los Angeles Community College District amendment to mandate that community colleges accept food stamps on campuses, increasing access to healthy food for hundreds of students living below the poverty line.
  • They even collaborated with the director of emergency management in New Haven, CT and Alderman Salvatore E. DeCola to institute a Community Rating System that allowed residents in vulnerable neighborhoods to receive a discount on flood insurance premiums.

We’ve got a lot to be proud of. Our people have done phenomenal things. The way forward is to ramp up our investment in their success. Here’s what’s next:

Political engagement for our generation must be as creative and adaptive as we are.

The Campus Network is building a new standard for how civic and political engagement organizations connect with young people. Our generation’s engagement in politics must be as fluid, intuitive, and adaptive as the public sector’s. That is not to say that efficiency rules all but, instead, that the processes by which we take civic action must keep up with the creative, fast-paced, and customizable tendencies of young people. That’s why we are a networked organization. Now, we are updating our tools to match.

Our training and support system will utilize advances in technology, innovations in deliberative processes and design thinking, and a decentralized model. Meanwhile, our online training curriculum will be responsive to the diverse needs of our network of student chapters, molding to their campus and community needs while still tapping into the power we have as a collective.

Partnering toward greater collective impact

We believe that organizations cannot be everything to everyone. The sum of many different groups working well together creates the potential for broader impact. The most strategic partnerships we can build keep in mind our shared goals for building a more inclusive, equitable society, not just our own organizational goals.

With that, the Campus Network has the potential to partner to help amplify impact in the civic and political engagement space. We see ourselves as contributors to a wave of change, and we make the wave bigger. We do not try to surf a wave built by others. Whether it’s collaborating on child poverty policies with local doctors in Salem, North Carolina or contributing to an economic opportunity policy agenda with a Baltimore-based advocacy group, partnering for greater impact will be a centerpiece for how we connect our student chapters to the broader world.

We are investing in our alumni as they continue to pursue and lead policy change in their professional and civic lives. And we’re tapping into this powerful network of current students and alumni all across the country to help one another. With Roosevelters working in statehouses, city halls, and the upper echelons of the federal government, the Campus Network is multiplying its potential to change the role of young people in the policy process.

Policy + People = Power

Student policy thinkers have also been the doers in our network – passing city council resolutions, starting revolving loan funds, and lobbying in the halls of Congress. Now that our network is larger than ever before, we are systematizing our capacity to take policy action. Each year, our members produce hundreds of policy ideas, codified in memos and publications. By connecting these student ideas, through the students themselves, to decision makers and power-players, we are moving toward a greater amplification of the impact our chapters generate.

Through our growing organizational capacity, we are designing a robust support system for student projects throughout our network. In 2015, we will see even more student ideas in the halls of their state capitols and city halls and college President’s offices through an initiative called Policy By and For, launching on February 18. By directing intentional financial, communication, and strategic campaigning resources toward projects in the network, more young people will be situated to connect with decision-makers, armed with their own ideas. We are building toward better governance that is not just for our generation but shaped by our generation.

Fundamentally, we are a values-driven organization that is only as strong as the brilliant minds that run our chapters, research and produce policy ideas, start projects, and help strengthen our community of wonks. Through strategic investments in our chapters, tools, and partnerships, the Campus Network will continue to be a powerful leader for policy change for the next 10 years and beyond.

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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