Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Protection Dreams Just Became a Reality

Jul 17, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

The two years it took to confirm Richard Cordray to direct the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were only part of an even longer fight.

The two years it took to confirm Richard Cordray to direct the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were only part of an even longer fight.

Following Harry Reid’s threat to eliminate the filibuster for executive appointments – the so-called “nuclear option” – the Senate finally confirmed Richard Cordray as Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, after a nearly two-year battle. According to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal, this delay had nothing to do with opposition to Cordray. The Republican Party acknowledged that President Obama had chosen a perfectly fine candidate; they just didn’t want anyone running the CFPB, because they aren’t into consumer protection.

It took two years to convince the Republicans to allow the installation of a CFPB Director, but the fight for consumer protection has been going on for much longer then that. The Roosevelt Institute’s Make Markets Be Markets report, published in March 2010, featured an earlier proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency by Elizabeth Warren. As the architect and early advocate of the Bureau, Warren was many progressives’ first pick for director, but she was passed over when it became clear that Republicans would not confirm her.

Luckily for us, the CFPB is now able to function as intended, and Warren’s work on consumer protection and banking regulation continues in the Senate. Her next step? She’s pushing for a 21st Century Glass-Steagal Act, co-sponsored with John McCain, to protect Americans from future banking crises. When CNBC anchor Joe Kernan tried to push back at Warren on this proposal, she pointed out that everyone told her the CFPB would never pass – and we saw how those predictions panned out.

Watch Senator Warren’s smackdown below:

Share This

Daily Digest - July 17: Wall Street's Election Day Fears

Jul 17, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Why Spitzer’s Return Terrifies Big Finance (Naked Capitalism)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Why Spitzer’s Return Terrifies Big Finance (Naked Capitalism)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson argues that Eliot Spitzer as New York City Comptroller would be a threat to the political power of Wall Street. With control of the public pension funds, Spitzer could change how the city does business with the financial industry.

The Consumer Watchdog’s Work Will Last–For Now (MSNBC)

Adam Serwer speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal on why the Senate GOP spent so long opposing Richard Cordray's nomination to direct the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Mike says they opposed any nominee, in an attempt to weaken the CFPB.

Reminder: Don’t Pay Attention to Wall Street’s Whines About Regulation (NY Mag)

Kevin Roose looks at Wall Street bank profits over the past ten years, and concludes that we should ignore their complaints about regulation. It turns out that the financial industry is resilient and will find a way to increase profits no matter the restrictions.

McJobs Are the Future: Why You Should Care What Fast Food Workers Earn (The Atlantic)

Jordan Weissmann refutes the claim that no one is making a career or supporting a family off a minimum wage fast food job. Most fast food jobs aren't minimum wage - but making another fifty cents per hour doesn't get a person above the poverty line.

OECD Doesn’t See Unemployment Falling Until Late 2014 (WSJ)

Paul Hannon reports that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that it will be some time before unemployment begins to drop. Like many others, it recommends avoiding austerity policies because they will slow growth.

Charles Koch on the Poor: Let Them Eat 'Economic Freedom' (The Nation)

Leslie Savan explains the problems with a new ad put out by Charles Koch that claims anyone making over $34,000 a year is part of the 1%. That's true on a global scale, but doesn't mean anything for people living in poverty in the U.S..

New on Next New Deal

Why Trayvon Is Inspiring America to Put Stand Your Ground Laws on Trial

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline DC chapter Director of Programming Naomi Ahsan argues that the Zimmerman verdict is a sign that Americans need to challenge Stand Your Ground laws. Beyond the collective anger at that decision, these laws contribute to systemic racism.

The Egyptian Coup Isn't the End of Democracy. It's a Demand for Justice.

Former Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Policy Director Reese Neader breaks down the current situation in Egypt. He explains why this is not the "death of democracy," but a push for better democracy than was achieved in 2011.

Share This

Daily Digest - July 10: Safety Nets Catch GOP Voters Too

Jul 10, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Whites and the Safety Net (NYT)

Paul Krugman builds on Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal's argument on libertarian populism, and further examines why that model should not appeal to working-class white voters who rely on safety net programs like unemployment and food stamps.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Whites and the Safety Net (NYT)

Paul Krugman builds on Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal's argument on libertarian populism, and further examines why that model should not appeal to working-class white voters who rely on safety net programs like unemployment and food stamps.

  • Roosevelt Take: You can read Mike's piece on why libertarian populism is more of the same from Republicans here.

GOP Moves Closer to Splitting Farm Bill (The Hill)

Erik Wasson says that the House Republicans are considering the option of splitting farms subsidies and SNAP into two separate bills. Supporters of farm subsidies are concerned the split could destroy them, while the Democrats just want a bill with fewer cuts to SNAP.

Senate Democrats Spar Over Wall Street Reform (MoJo)

Erika Eichelberger explains why two groups of Senate Democrats are arguing about how to implement a Commodity Futures Trading Commission rule on overseas derivatives trading that is scheduled to be finalized on Friday. Senator Warren leads the charge for a stronger rule than the current proposal.

Wal-Mart Says it Will Pull Out of D.C. Plans Should City Mandate ‘Living Wage’ (WaPo)

Mike DeBonis reports that with only one day before the D.C. City Council votes on their living wage mandate for large retailers, Wal-Mart is making threats. It claims that paying $12.50 an hour isn't possible, despite its booming profits.

The 2 Supreme Court Cases That Could Put a Dagger in Organized Labor (The Atlantic)

Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker worry that two cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear next year, one on recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the other on union-employer organizing agreements, could be the end of new private sector unions.

New on Next New Deal

HHS Ruling Helps Workers But Spells Trouble for Employer Mandate

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch applauds the decision to allow workers whose employers delay offering insurance access to the exchanges, but he thinks they won't want to switch to employer-sponsored insurance in 2015.

Comcast Profits from the Poor with Internet Essentials Deal

Roosevelt Institute's John Randall, Program Manager of the Telecommunications Equality Project, explains how Comcast is up to its usual profit-driven motives when it claims to be expanding high-speed internet access. It's also not doing too well at actually expanding access in areas that don't have it.

Share This

Daily Digest - July 9: Beyond Intro to Econ

Jul 9, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

How to Raise a Progressive Kid in Alabama (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowtiz writes on the costs - financial and otherwise - of raising a child in a place where you are member of the political minority who wants to pass on those values.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

How to Raise a Progressive Kid in Alabama (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowtiz writes on the costs - financial and otherwise - of raising a child in a place where you are member of the political minority who wants to pass on those values.

Econ 101 is Killing America (Salon)

Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind examine and debunk the myths of simplified neoclassical economics that are accepted as fact in Intro to Econ classes. Policymakers, they say, need to stop thinking this is the only economic model available.

Government–Not Business–Has Been the Source of Breakthrough Innovation (Working Economics)

Ross Eisenbrey uses Douglas C. Englebart's invention of the mouse as an example of government's great tech innovations. If every major piece of the iPhone had research support from the government and the military, why is Apple getting all the credit?

Spitzer is Dead Wrong on Public Financing (Policy Shop)

Mijin Cha argues in favor of public financing, which has increased the power of small donors in New York City. The candidates who take public financing will be spending taxpayer dollars, but they also have to listen to a much more diverse donor base.

Political Inflationistas (NYT)

Paul Krugman suggests that the economists who keep warning that the Fed's expansionary monetary policies will cause inflation are doing so because of severe partisanship. They're all Republicans, and he thinks they just won't support anything from the Obama administration.

After Outcry, McDonald’s Franchise Drops Compulsory ‘Payroll Debit Cards’ (In These Times)

Sarah Jaffe follows up on a recent story about the use of payroll cards in low-wage industries, where fees could bring real wages below the minimum. After general public outcry, a filed lawsuit, and a pending investigation, the outlook is sunnier.

The State of the Unions (TAP)

Harold Meyerson has a call to action for the labor movement because of new highs in union approval ratings. With that public support, unions are his first choice to push living wage ordinances and lobby for the needs of working-class Americans.

Is this the end of health insurers? (WaPo)

Sarah Kliff examines a new model in which health providers, such as hospitals, also provide insurance. The hospitals think they can provide care at a better price for patients, as long as the patients stay in the hospital network.

Share This

Daily Digest - July 8: Rebranding Doesn't Solve GOP Problems, or Workers'

Jul 8, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Can libertarian populism save the Republican Party? (WaPo)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Can libertarian populism save the Republican Party? (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal thinks that the libertarian populist agenda that some are suggesting for the GOP is just a rebranding and doesn't help the working class or unemployed. A platform that fails to address the jobs crisis won't help in 2014.

Why Republicans Want to Tax Students and Not Polluters (Robert Reich)

Robert Reich is frustrated that the GOP is following the Koch brothers' lead and blocking climate bills with revenue increases, even as they support raising student loan interest rates. We shouldn't put lowering the deficit on people paying back student loans.

Oregon Lawmakers Pioneer Tuition-Free 'Pay it Forward, Pay it Back' College Plan (ABC News)

Susanna Kim reports on Oregon's brand new plan for financing public higher education: students attend tuition-free, but pay the state a small percentage of their income for twenty years following graduation.

The Legacy of the Boomer Boss (NYT)

Gar Alperovitz thinks that as business owners prepare to retire, the morally and economically sound option is to sell their business to the workers. It's a better legacy, he argues, then handing over your hard work to a corporation.

Congress Is Squandering the Opportunity of a Lifetime (TAP)

Jamelle Bouie says that it is time to take advantage of low interest rates and solve our jobs and infrastructure problems simultaneously. There won't be a better moment — Fed interest rates are already starting to rise.

The Jobs Report was Pretty Good! The Market Response Isn’t. (WaPo)

Neil Irwin sees the financial markets making all-or-nothing responses to every piece of data available, from statements by the Fed to Friday's jobs numbers. The problem is that one datapoint on jobs isn't enough to make informed predictions about our economic future.

A Good Jobs Report, but a New Low-Wage Reality (MSNBC)

Suzy Khimm points out that while we created more jobs than expected in June, many were in low-wage fields, and the number of workers who work part-time because they can't find full-time work is still up. This is a problem that job creation alone won't solve.

Share This

One More Day for Women's Equality in New York

Jun 20, 2013Andrea Flynn

As the legislative session comes to a close, the New York State Senate is holding up one of the most comprehensive and progressive pieces of state legislation on abortion in this country.

The fate of Andrew Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act (WEA) will be decided in Albany in the next 24 hours.

As the legislative session comes to a close, the New York State Senate is holding up one of the most comprehensive and progressive pieces of state legislation on abortion in this country.

The fate of Andrew Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act (WEA) will be decided in Albany in the next 24 hours.

The WEA was originally framed as a 10-point omnibus bill addressing a broad range of issues impacting women’s lives. It aimed to protect reproductive health and abortion rights; prevent income, housing, pregnancy, and family status discrimination; reduce human trafficking; protect victims of domestic violence; stop workplace sexual harassment; and protect women from becoming victims of employment, credit, and lending discrimination.  Including abortion rights in this agenda affirms that it is not a fringe issue but is central to women’s ability to lead lives that are economically and socially secure. Advocates for women’s rights have long argued this, but having it legally recognized is actually quite significant.

At a time when Republicans at the national and state level are doubling down on efforts to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care and roll back abortion rights, the WEA stands out as one of the most – if not the most – progressive and comprehensive pieces of legislation being debated in the country. The bill guarantees the same rights to abortion that are provided for in Roe v. Wade, and while it will not actually expand abortion access in New York state, it is symbolically and legally important.

On Wednesday evening, when it appeared as though the abortion provision might bring down the entire WEA, Governor Cuomo broke the legislation into ten separate bills, each requiring their own vote in the State Senate (the Assembly passed the omnibus bill on Thursday afternoon). Nine of the ten appear likely to pass, while the fate of the abortion provision remains to be seen, but it is in peril – a disservice to the women of New York

The abortion provision in the WEA will not in any way expand abortion access in New York State. It will simply change how state law is codified and bring it into alignment with federal law. In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade was decided, New York was a leading state in guaranteeing a women’s right to choose. At that time, an exception was made to the penal code’s homicide and manslaughter laws. That exception allowed for abortions before 24 weeks or to protect the life of the mother. There was no exemption made for the mother’s health. Three years later, the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteed the right to abortion before viability or to ensure the life or health of the mother. To this day abortion in New York is governed by the penal code instead of public health law, where all other medical care is regulated.

While federal law actually supersedes state law, the difference between the two has been a source of great confusion and does have implications for women’s health. Hospitals and providers may look to the penal code before providing abortion services, and if they do not understand that federal law supersedes they may withhold services for fear that abortion would be considered homicide.

Some have argued that because Roe v. Wade is the prevailing law and has so far withstood challenges, the WEA’s abortion provision is unnecessary. But the tide of anti-choice legislation sweeping the country indicates the need for a WEA that includes guarantees for abortion rights. On Tuesday the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban abortion after 22 weeks. The basis for that vote varied from the scientifically disputed notion that fetal pain begins at that time to the suggestion that fetuses as young as 15 weeks can pleasure themselves. Logic is not the prevailing wind behind this storm.

The House ban – which has no chance of being passed by the Senate – is buoyed by a flurry of state legislation that restricts women’s access to reproductive health care and abortion. As the Washington Post pointed out this week, this year 14 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah – have already passed 32 measures that impose new restrictions on abortions. Countless others have put forward measures that have either been overturned or are yet to be enacted.

Women in New York can rest at night knowing that our lawmakers are unlikely to propose the restrictions sailing through the legislatures of more conservative states. But we would rest more soundly knowing that our reproductive rights weren’t contingent on a federal law whose future is uncertain. Roe v. Wade may be secure today, but the lawmakers responsible for pushing forward anti-choice legislation across the country will not quit until they bring to the Supreme Court a case that could overturn it. That much is clear.

The WEA’s abortion provision deserves a vote and should be passed. Governor Cuomo has said that not voting for the provision is equivalent to voting no. Many members of the Senate identify as pro-choice and receive positive ratings from women’s organizations, but they have never had to vote on the issue. This is a time for lawmakers to show their constituents how far they are willing to go in supporting women’s equality. Their constituents are waiting and watching: sixty percent of New York voters support the changes brought forth by the abortion provision.

More than 40 years ago, New York led the nation in the fight for reproductive rights.  The WEA represents an opportunity for the state to continue leading that battle. By voting yes on the abortion provision, along with the other nine parts of the WEA, New York lawmakers can pave the way in making women’s equality achievable. Here’s hoping they do.  

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States and globally.

Share This

We Already Tried Libertarianism - It Was Called Feudalism

Jun 11, 2013Mike Konczal

Bob Dole recently said that neither he nor Ronald Reagan would count as conservatives these days. It’s worth noting that John Locke probably wouldn’t count as a libertarian these days, either.

Michael Lind had a column in Salon in which he asked, “[i]f libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?” EJ Dionne agrees. Several libertarians argue that the present is no guide, because the (seasteading?) future belongs to libertarians.

I’d actually go in a different direction and say the past belonged to libertarians. We tried libertarianism for a long time; it was called feudalism. That modern-day libertarianism of the Nozick-Rand-Rothbard variety resembles feudalism, rather than some variety of modern liberalism, is a great point made by Samuel Freeman in his paper "Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View." Let’s walk through it.

Freeman notes that there are several key institutional features of liberal political structures shared across a variety of theorists. First, there’s a set of basic rights each person equally shares (speech, association, thought, religion, conscience, voting and holding office, etc.) that are both fundamental and inalienable (more on those terms in a bit). Second, there’s a public political authority which is impartial, institutional, continuous, and held in trust to be acted on in a representative capacity. Third, positions should be open to talented individuals alongside some fairness in equality of opportunity. And last, there’s a role for governments in the market for providing public goods, checking market failure, and providing a social minimum.

The libertarian state, centered solely around ideas of private property, stands in contrast to all of these. I want to stick with the libertarian minimal state laid out by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), as it's a landmark in libertarian thought, and I just re-read it and wanted to write something about it. Let’s look at how it handles each of the political features laid out above.

Rights. Libertarians would say that of course they believe in basic rights, maybe even more than liberals! But there’s a subtle trick here.

For liberals, basic rights are fundamental, in the sense that they can’t be compromised or traded against other, non-basic rights. They are also inalienable; I can’t contractually transfer away or otherwise give up my basic rights. To the extent that I enter contracts that do this, I have an option of exit that restores those rights.

This is different from property rights in specific things. Picture yourself as a person with a basic right to association, who also owns a wooden stick. You can sell your stick, or break it, or set it on fire. Your rights over the stick are alienable - you don’t have the stick anymore once you’ve done those things. Your rights to the stick are also not fundamental. Given justification, the public could regulate its use (say if it were a big stick turned into a bridge, it may need to meet safety requirements), in a way that the liberal state couldn’t regulate freedom of association.

When libertarians say they are for basic rights, what they are really saying is that they are for treating what liberals consider basic rights as property rights. Basic rights receive no more, or less, protection than other property rights. You can easily give them up or bargain them away, and thus alienate yourself from them. (Meanwhile, all property rights are entirely fundamental - they can never be regulated.)

How is that possible? Let’s cut to the chase: Nozick argues you can sell yourself into slavery, a condition under which all basic liberties are extinguished. (“[Would] a free system... allow him to sell himself into slavery[?] I believe that it would.” ASU 331) The minimal libertarian state would be forced to acknowledge and enforce contracts that permanently alienate basic liberties, even if the person in question later wanted out, although the liberal state would not at any point acknowledge such a contract.

If the recession were so bad that millions of people started selling themselves into slavery, or entering contracts that required lifelong feudal oaths to employers and foregoing basic rights, in order to survive, this would raise no important liberty questions for the libertarian minimal state. If this new feudal order were set in such a way that it persisted across generations, again, no problem. As Freeman notes, “what is fundamentally important for libertarians is maintaining a system of historically generated property rights...no attention is given to maintaining the basic rights, liberties, and powers that (according to liberals) are needed to institutionally define a person’s freedom, independence, and status as an equal citizen.”

Government. Which brings us to feudalism. Feudalism, for Freeman, means “the elements of political authority are powers that are held personally by individuals, not by enduring political institutions... subjects’ political obligations and allegiances are voluntary and personal: They arise out of private contractual obligations and are owed to particular persons.”

What is the libertarian government? For Nozick, the minimal state is basically a protection racket (“protection services”) with a certain kind of returns to scale over an area and, after some mental cartwheels, a justification in forcing holdouts in their area to follow their rules.

As such, it is a network of private contracts, arising solely from protection and arbitration services, where political power also remains in private hands and privately exercised. The protection of rights is based on people’s ability to pay, bound through private authority and bilateral, individual contracts. “Protection and enforcement of people’s rights is treated as an economic good to be provided by the market,” (ASU 26) with governments as a for-profit corporate entities.

What doesn’t this have? There is no impartial, public power. There’s no legislative capacity that is answerable to the people in a non-market form. There’s no democracy and universal franchise with equal rights of participation. Political power isn’t to be acted on in a representative capacity toward public benefit, but instead toward private ends. Which is to say, it takes the features we associate with public, liberal government power and replaces them with feudal, private governance.

Opportunity. Liberals believe that positions should be open for all with talent, and that public power should be utilized to ensure disadvantaged groups have access to opportunities. Libertarianism believes that private, feudal systems of exclusion, hierarchy, and domination are perfectly fine, or at least that there is no legitimate public purpose in checking these private relationships. As mentioned above, private property rights are fundamental and cannot be balanced against other concerns like opportunity. Nozick is clear on this (“No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have right and entitlements over.” ASU 238).

Do we need more? How about Rand Paul, one of the leading advocates for libertarianism, explaining why he wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act: “I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”

Markets. The same goes for markets, where Nozick is pretty clear: no interference. “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.” (ASU, 169) Nozick thinks it is likely that his entitlement theory will lead to an efficient distribution of resources and avoid market problems, but he doesn’t particularly require it and contrasts himself with end-staters who assume it will. “Distribution according to benefits to others is a major patterned strand in a free capitalist society, as Hayek correctly points out, but it is only a strand and does not constitute the whole pattern of a system of entitlements.” (ASU 158)

I sometimes see arguments about how bringing “markets” into the provision of government services makes it more libertarian. Privatizing Social Security, bringing premium support to Medicare, or having vouchers for public education is more libertarian than the status quo. Again, it’s not clear to me why libertarians would think taxation for public, in-kind provisioning is a form of slavery and forced labor while running these services through private agents is not.

You could argue that introducing markets into government services respects economic liberty as a basic liberty, or does a better job of providing for the worst off, or leaves us all better off overall. But these aren’t libertarian arguments; they are the types of arguments Nozick spends Part II of ASU taunting, trolling, or otherwise bulldozing.

Three last thoughts. (1) Do read Atossa Abrahamian on actually existing seasteading. (2) It’s ironic that liberalism first arose to bury feudal systems of private political power, and now libertarians claim the future of liberalism is in bringing back those very same systems of feudalism. (3) Sometimes libertarians complain that the New Deal took the name liberal, which is something they want to claim for themselves. But looking at their preferred system as it is, I think people like me will be keeping the name “liberal.” We do a better job with it.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Bob Dole recently said that neither he nor Ronald Reagan would count as conservatives these days. It’s worth noting that John Locke probably wouldn’t count as a libertarian these days, either.

Michael Lind had a column in Salon in which he asked, “[i]f libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?” EJ Dionne agrees. Several libertarians argue that the present is no guide, because the (seasteading?) future belongs to libertarians.

I’d actually go in a different direction and say the past belonged to libertarians. We tried libertarianism for a long time; it was called feudalism. That modern-day libertarianism of the Nozick-Rand-Rothbard variety resembles feudalism, rather than some variety of modern liberalism, is a great point made by Samuel Freeman in his paper "Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View." Let’s walk through it.

Freeman notes that there are several key institutional features of liberal political structures shared across a variety of theorists. First, there’s a set of basic rights each person equally shares (speech, association, thought, religion, conscience, voting and holding office, etc.) that are both fundamental and inalienable (more on those terms in a bit). Second, there’s a public political authority which is impartial, institutional, continuous, and held in trust to be acted on in a representative capacity. Third, positions should be open to talented individuals alongside some fairness in equality of opportunity. And last, there’s a role for governments in the market for providing public goods, checking market failure, and providing a social minimum.

The libertarian state, centered solely around ideas of private property, stands in contrast to all of these. I want to stick with the libertarian minimal state laid out by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), as it's a landmark in libertarian thought, and I just re-read it and wanted to write something about it. Let’s look at how it handles each of the political features laid out above.

Rights. Libertarians would say that of course they believe in basic rights, maybe even more than liberals! But there’s a subtle trick here.

For liberals, basic rights are fundamental, in the sense that they can’t be compromised or traded against other, non-basic rights. They are also inalienable; I can’t contractually transfer away or otherwise give up my basic rights. To the extent that I enter contracts that do this, I have an option of exit that restores those rights.

This is different from property rights in specific things. Picture yourself as a person with a basic right to association, who also owns a wooden stick. You can sell your stick, or break it, or set it on fire. Your rights over the stick are alienable - you don’t have the stick anymore once you’ve done those things. Your rights to the stick are also not fundamental. Given justification, the public could regulate its use (say if it were a big stick turned into a bridge, it may need to meet safety requirements), in a way that the liberal state couldn’t regulate freedom of association.

When libertarians say they are for basic rights, what they are really saying is that they are for treating what liberals consider basic rights as property rights. Basic rights receive no more, or less, protection than other property rights. You can easily give them up or bargain them away, and thus alienate yourself from them. (Meanwhile, all property rights are entirely fundamental - they can never be regulated.)

How is that possible? Let’s cut to the chase: Nozick argues you can sell yourself into slavery, a condition under which all basic liberties are extinguished. (“[Would] a free system... allow him to sell himself into slavery[?] I believe that it would.” ASU 331) The minimal libertarian state would be forced to acknowledge and enforce contracts that permanently alienate basic liberties, even if the person in question later wanted out, although the liberal state would not at any point acknowledge such a contract.

If the recession were so bad that millions of people started selling themselves into slavery, or entering contracts that required lifelong feudal oaths to employers and foregoing basic rights, in order to survive, this would raise no important liberty questions for the libertarian minimal state. If this new feudal order were set in such a way that it persisted across generations, again, no problem. As Freeman notes, “what is fundamentally important for libertarians is maintaining a system of historically generated property rights...no attention is given to maintaining the basic rights, liberties, and powers that (according to liberals) are needed to institutionally define a person’s freedom, independence, and status as an equal citizen.”

Government. Which brings us to feudalism. Feudalism, for Freeman, means “the elements of political authority are powers that are held personally by individuals, not by enduring political institutions... subjects’ political obligations and allegiances are voluntary and personal: They arise out of private contractual obligations and are owed to particular persons.”

What is the libertarian government? For Nozick, the minimal state is basically a protection racket (“protection services”) with a certain kind of returns to scale over an area and, after some mental cartwheels, a justification in forcing holdouts in their area to follow their rules.

As such, it is a network of private contracts, arising solely from protection and arbitration services, where political power also remains in private hands and privately exercised. The protection of rights is based on people’s ability to pay, bound through private authority and bilateral, individual contracts. “Protection and enforcement of people’s rights is treated as an economic good to be provided by the market,” (ASU 26) with governments as a for-profit corporate entities.

What doesn’t this have? There is no impartial, public power. There’s no legislative capacity that is answerable to the people in a non-market form. There’s no democracy and universal franchise with equal rights of participation. Political power isn’t to be acted on in a representative capacity toward public benefit, but instead toward private ends. Which is to say, it takes the features we associate with public, liberal government power and replaces them with feudal, private governance.

Opportunity. Liberals believe that positions should be open for all with talent, and that public power should be utilized to ensure disadvantaged groups have access to opportunities. Libertarianism believes that private, feudal systems of exclusion, hierarchy, and domination are perfectly fine, or at least that there is no legitimate public purpose in checking these private relationships. As mentioned above, private property rights are fundamental and cannot be balanced against other concerns like opportunity. Nozick is clear on this (“No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have right and entitlements over.” ASU 238).

Do we need more? How about Rand Paul, one of the leading advocates for libertarianism, explaining why he wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act: “I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”

Markets. The same goes for markets, where Nozick is pretty clear: no interference. “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.” (ASU, 169) Nozick thinks it is likely that his entitlement theory will lead to an efficient distribution of resources and avoid market problems, but he doesn’t particularly require it and contrasts himself with end-staters who assume it will. “Distribution according to benefits to others is a major patterned strand in a free capitalist society, as Hayek correctly points out, but it is only a strand and does not constitute the whole pattern of a system of entitlements.” (ASU 158)

I sometimes see arguments about how bringing “markets” into the provision of government services makes it more libertarian. Privatizing Social Security, bringing premium support to Medicare, or having vouchers for public education is more libertarian than the status quo. Again, it’s not clear to me why libertarians would think taxation for public, in-kind provisioning is a form of slavery and forced labor while running these services through private agents is not.

You could argue that introducing markets into government services respects economic liberty as a basic liberty, or does a better job of providing for the worst off, or leaves us all better off overall. But these aren’t libertarian arguments; they are the types of arguments Nozick spends Part II of ASU taunting, trolling, or otherwise bulldozing.

Three last thoughts. (1) Do read Atossa Abrahamian on actually existing seasteading. (2) It’s ironic that liberalism first arose to bury feudal systems of private political power, and now libertarians claim the future of liberalism is in bringing back those very same systems of feudalism. (3) Sometimes libertarians complain that the New Deal took the name liberal, which is something they want to claim for themselves. But looking at their preferred system as it is, I think people like me will be keeping the name “liberal.” We do a better job with it.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Jousting knights image via Shutterstock.com

Share This

Daily Digest - June 11: Selling You Cracker Jack For Peanuts

Jun 11, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game — But Pay Me a Living Wage (Bill Moyers)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game — But Pay Me a Living Wage (Bill Moyers)

Michael Winship writes on the side of America's pastime that isn't making the big bucks: concession workers. The company contracted by the San Francisco Giants pays their staff only $11,000 per year and puts impossible limits on obtaining benefits.

Why a Romney economic adviser wants the government to just hire people (WaPo)

Dylan Matthews spoke to Kevin Hassett, economic advisor to Republican candidates in the past four presidential elections, who has come to realize that unless the government intervenes, the long term unemployed are going to stay that way.

America Just Loves Firing Government Workers (The Atlantic)

Jordan Weissman is tired of watching Washington sabotage the economy by laying off federal employees. For every ten jobs we've added in the last three months, the government has shed one.

No, Public Sector Jobs Do Not Crowd Out Private Sector Ones (On The Economy)

Jared Bernstein has run the numbers, and there's no proof that creating more government jobs would reduce growth in the private sector. That raises the question: why aren't we creating more government jobs so that more people are employed?

Unemployment Benefits and Actual Unemployment: An Analogy (NYT)

Paul Krugman makes an excellent analogy between unemployment benefits and speed limits. We would not expect less rush hour traffic if the speed limit were raised from 55 to 65, so why do people think cutting benefits will reduce unemployment?

I Would Desire That You Pay the Ladies (TAP)

E.J. Graff wonders how we are still dealing with the wage gap, fifty years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act. One option she suggests is that our real societal taboo is money, and perhaps by not discussing it women don't notice that it's missing.

The Quiet Closing of Washington (Robert Reich)

Robert Reich argues that as partisan conflict halts Congress, partisan control in the states is creating a deepening policy divide between red states and blue states. He's worried that this split will make it hard to see "one nation."

Share This

Liberal Wonk Blogging Could Be Your Life

May 9, 2013Mike Konczal

As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

1.a What Creates Wonks?

We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

1.a What Creates Wonks?

We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Share This

After the Senate’s Gun Control Failure, FDR Points the Way Forward

Apr 19, 2013David B. Woolner

The gun lobby may have won the latest legislative battle, but that doesn't mean the American people should stop fighting for change.

[W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships—how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.

The gun lobby may have won the latest legislative battle, but that doesn't mean the American people should stop fighting for change.

[W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships—how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.

Democracy looks to the day when these virtues will be required and expected of those who serve the public officially and unofficially. -FDR, Rochester, MN, August 18, 1934

In the wake of the Senate’s refusal to advance legislation that would have expanded background checks for gun purchasers, President Obama gave a brief but impassioned speech in which he promised “to speak plainly and honestly” to the American people about how a bill that had the support of 90 percent of the public could not make it through the U.S. Congress. After all, the president continued, the legislation was bipartisan and designed merely “to extend the same background check rules that already apply to guns purchased from a dealer to guns purchased at shows or over the internet.” The bill, he said, showed “respect for gun owners” and “respect for the victims of gun violence”; it represented “moderation and common sense.” Moreover, a majority of United States senators voted in favor of the measure, and yet it still went down to defeat, blocked by a minority “who caved to the pressure” of the well-financed gun lobby and “started looking for an excuse—any excuse—to vote ‘no.’”

The president called this “shameful” and noted that thanks to the “willful lies” of the NRA and its allies and the “continuing distortion of Senate rules,” a minority was able to block the majority from passing a common-sense measure that would “make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun.” Such obstructionist tactics were far less common during the New Deal era, but FDR’s appeals to the American people to never stop fighting for progress may be the key to breaking the Senate’s current logjam.

This is not the first time President Obama has made reference to the frustration he and many other Americans feel about the relentless tendency of a minority of senators to block action by the Senate as a whole. In an equally passionate section of his recent State of the Union Address, the president pleaded again and again with Congress, not necessarily to pass the gun legislation he favored, but simply to bring the measures he outlined on gun violence to a vote because the people of Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Blacksburg, and “the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence” deserved it.

Although he did not refer to it by name, what the president is referencing here is the ever-increasing use of the filibuster by the minority party in the Senate—in this case the Republican Party—to thwart the will of the majority. Filibusters used to be a rarity. During Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure as president, for example, the filibuster was used a total of six times, including twice in the 1930s to block anti-lynching legislation. But thanks to rule changes that took place in 1975, it is now much easier for senators to use the filibuster or even the threat of a filibuster to stop legislation from coming before the Senate for an actual up or down vote.

Ironically, the changes that were instituted by the Senate leadership at that time—including a reduction in the number of votes needed to close off debate from 67 to 60 and the removal of the need for the senators involved to actually be on the floor of the Senate—were expected to make it easier—not harder—to bring legislation forward. But the effect has been just the opposite. This is especially true with respect to the removal of the need to be present in the Senate chamber, since this change has meant that virtually every piece of legislation (with the exception of budget legislation) requires a 60-vote supermajority to move forward in the Senate. 

Prior to the 1990s, the historical association of the filibuster as an exceptional measure kept the number of uses relatively low. But since the 1990s the use of the filibuster by both parties has increased dramatically, averaging 34 per year. And in the past six years, the Republican minority has used the filibuster to block or stall the Senate’s business, including the ratification of federal judges and other top government officials, over 170 times.

As President Obama noted in his remarks in the Rose Garden on the Senate’s failure to move the gun control provisions forward, a number of senators have characterized their blocking move as a “victory.” But given the Constitution’s unequivocal language about majority rule in the Senate (not to mention the fact that there is no mention of the filibuster) and polling data that shows 9 out of 10 Americans support expanding background checks for gun purchases, the president is right to ask, “a victory for who? A victory for what? ...It begs the question, who are we here to represent?”

He is also right to urge the American people to act on their frustration in the one place where they can truly make a difference—in the voting booth. The president’s insistence that we can still bring about meaningful change to reduce gun violence so long as we “don’t give up on it,” demand action from our representatives, and when action is not forthcoming, “send the right people to Washington,” is not unlike the advice that FDR gave the American people in the dark days of the mid-1930s. We should remember that FDR’s efforts to use government to affect such meaningful reforms as Social Security, unemployment insurance, or the regulation of the stock market also elicited fierce opposition from a small but vocal minority that claimed these measures were an affront to the American people’s basic liberties.

But in response to these shrill efforts to stifle reform by attacking government, FDR had a simple answer. As he told an audience gathered in Marietta, Ohio in 1938:

Let us not be afraid to help each other—let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials but the voters of this country.

I believe that the American people, not afraid of their own capacity to choose forward-looking representatives to run their government, want the same cooperative security and have the same courage to achieve it, in 1938, as in 1788. I am sure they know that we shall always have a frontier—of social and economic problems—and that we must always move in to bring law and order to it. In that confidence I am pushing on. I am sure that the people of the Nation will push on with me.

President Obama is right. The effort to bring about meaningful reform of the nation’s gun laws is not over, and if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people, then the voters have every right to send new representatives to Washington who will. But given the power and wealth of such anti-government special interest groups as the NRA, President Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, will need to keep reminding the American people that government is indeed “ourselves,” and if we do not want it to become “an alien power over us,” each of us will need to take our responsibility to vote seriously. As things stand right now, the very essence of our democracy may depend on it. 

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Share This

Pages