Daily Digest - July 26: The Trouble with Summers's Silence

Jul 26, 2013Tim Price

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Should Obama pick Larry Summers to head the Fed? (Politico)

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Should Obama pick Larry Summers to head the Fed? (Politico)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal writes that while Ben Bernanke led the Fed through a crisis, his successor will need to build consensus and establish the central bank's new normal. That's a problem given that Summers hasn't said a word about the biggest debates he'll have to settle.

Even as economy rebounds, income inequality festers (MoneyWatch)

Charles Wilbanks notes that most American remain deeply dissatisfied with an economy in which workers at the bottom see their wages fall while those at the top are making money hand over fist. And to add insult to injury, taxpayers are forced to subsidize their bosses' raises.

The day the right lost the economic argument (Salon)

Michael Lind argues that President Obama's Knox College speech offered a strong and broadly appealing summary of progressive economic theory focused on manufacturing, innovation, infrastructure, and education, while the House Republicans' alternative plan offered nothing in particular.

Some Democrats Look to Push Party Away from Center (NYT)

Jonathan Martin writes that as Democrats contemplate their future post-Obama, many are advocating for a populist approach to economic policy, financial reform, and rising inequality rather than the murky middle ground that the party's leaders have settled for since the '90s.

White House hardens stance on budget cuts ahead of showdown with Republicans (WaPo)

Zachary Goldfarb and Paul Kane report that the Obama administration may force a government shutdown come September if Republicans in Congress refuse to undo sequestration and continue to demand deeper cuts to a budget they've already carved to the bone.

Congress to Fed: End Too-Big-to-Fail Already! (MoJo)

Erika Eichelberger notes that Dodd-Frank requires the Fed to implement rules to scale back its emergency lending powers, but three years since the law was passed, the central bank still just says it's working on it. Things like this don't happen overnight. Or even over 1,095 nights.

Why 17 liberal senators voted against the student loan "deal" (MSNBC)

Suzy Khimm writes that while the Senate finally passed legislation to address the doubling of federal student loan interest rates, progressives weren't willing to swallow a compromise that lowered students' rates now while guaranteeing they'll have to pay even more in the future.

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Why the Right Doesn’t Really Want Euro-Style Reproductive Health Care

Jul 24, 2013Andrea Flynn

U.S. conservatives want Europe's abortion restrictions, but they oppose the generous systems and legal exceptions that support women's health.

U.S. conservatives want Europe's abortion restrictions, but they oppose the generous systems and legal exceptions that support women's health.

Earlier this month, Texas lawmakers witnessed and participated in passionate debates about one of the nation's most sweeping pieces of anti-choice legislation. That legislation, known as SB1, was initially delayed by Wendy Davis's now-famous filibuster and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry last week during a second special legislative session. It bans abortions after 20 weeks, places cumbersome restrictions on abortion clinics and physicians, and threatens to close all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics. Throughout the many days of hearings anti-choice activists relied on religious, scientific, and political evidence to argue that the new Texas law is just and sensible.

Many of those arguments are tenuous at best, but it is the continued reference to European abortion laws that most represent a convenient cherry-picking of facts to support the rollback of women’s rights. Many European countries do indeed regulate abortion with gestational limits, but what SB1 supporters conveniently ignore is that those laws are entrenched in progressive public health systems that provide quality, affordable (sometimes free) health care to all individuals and prioritize the sexual and reproductive health of their citizens. Most SB1 advocates would scoff at the very programs and policies that are credited with Europe’s low unintended pregnancy and abortion rates.

Members of the media have also seized on European policies to argue that Texas lawmakers are acting in the best interest of women. Soon after the passage of SB1, Bill O’Reilly argued that “most countries in the world have a 20-week threshold,” and Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, wrote, “It’s not just that Wendy Davis is out of step in Texas; she would be out of step in Belgium and France, where abortion is banned after 12 weeks.”

It’s hard to imagine any other scenario in which O’Reilly and Lowry, and most conservative politicians and activists, would hold up European social policies as a beacon for U.S. policy. After all, the cornerstones of Europe’s women’s health programs are the very programs that conservatives have long threatened would destroy the moral fabric of American society. One cannot compare the abortion policies of Europe and the United States without looking at the broader social policies that shape women’s health.

Both Belgium and France have mandatory sexuality education beginning in elementary school (in France parents are prohibited from removing their children from the program). France passed a bill earlier this year that allows women to be fully reimbursed for the cost of their abortion and guarantees girls ages 15 to 18 free birth control. Emergency contraception in both countries is easily accessible over the counter, and in Belgium the cost of the drug is reimbursed for young people and those with a prescription. Both countries limit abortion to the first trimester but also make exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment, to preserve woman’s physical or mental health, and for social or economic reasons. None of these exceptions are included in the new Texas law, and I’d guess it would be a cold day in hell before the likes of O’Reilly and Lowry advocate for more expansive health policies or for including such exceptions in abortion laws.  

But it would be wise if they did. This availability of preventative care contributes to the overall health and wellness of women in Europe and enables them to make free and fully informed decisions about their bodies over the course of their lifetimes. The demonization and lack of progressive sexual health policies in Texas, and in the United States more broadly, drives high rates of unintended pregnancy, teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, sexually transmitted infections, and abortion. 

Unfortunately, Texas couldn’t be further from France or Belgium when it comes to the care it provides to women and families before, during, and after delivery, as I’ve written about before. The Texas teen birth rate is nearly nine times higher than that of France and nearly 10 times higher than that of Belgium. Nearly 90 percent of all teens in France and Belgium reported using birth control at their last sexual intercourse, compared with only 53 percent in Texas. The infant mortality rate in Texas is twice that of Belgium and France. The poverty rate among women in Texas is a third higher than that of women in Belgium and France, and the poverty rate among Texas children is 1.5 times higher. Less than 60 percent of Texas women receive prenatal care, while quality care before, during, and after pregnancy is available to nearly all women throughout Europe.  

None of those hard facts were compelling enough to amend – let alone negate – the new law. It seems impossible these days to find a common ground between anti- and pro-choice individuals, but if conservatives wanted to have a conversation about enacting European-style sexual and reproductive health policies in the United States, that just might be something that could bring everyone to the same table. The more likely scenario is that once conservatives have plucked out the facts that help advance their anti-choice cause, they will promptly return to tarring and feathering Europe’s socialized health system.

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. She is on Twitter at @dreaflynn.

 

Woman and doctor banner image via Shutterstock.com

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Daily Digest - July 22: CEO Pay Problems Aren't Just in Dollars

Jul 21, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Fixing A Hole: How the Tax Code for Executive Pay Distorts Economic Incentives and Burdens Taxpayers (Roosevelt Institute)

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Fixing A Hole: How the Tax Code for Executive Pay Distorts Economic Incentives and Burdens Taxpayers (Roosevelt Institute)

Roosevelt Institute Director of Research Susan Holmberg and Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow in Economic Development Lydia Austin analyze the ways the performance pay loophole harms taxpayers, companies, and the economy.

If Dodd-Frank Doesn’t Work, Here are Four Things That Could (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal outlines some ideas that were rejected during the debates over Dodd-Frank. He suggests that if aspects of Dodd-Frank aren't working, we should remember these proposals, which favored strong lines over regulatory micromanagement.

Coming Home for the Recession (TAP)

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowitz continues her series on Millennials and the new economy, this time focusing on young women of color for whom the recession has enforced traditional living patterns, because living with family is cheaper.

Detroit, and the Bankruptcy of America’s Social Contract (Robert Reich)

Robert Reich suggests that Detroit's bankruptcy is an indication of the problems that come from increased class segregation. By fleeing to the suburbs, Detroit's middle and upper classes untied themselves from the needs of the city.

In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters (NYT)

David Leonhardt reports on a new study that looks at income mobility across regional lines. One of the most interesting findings is that mixed income neighborhoods, where many classes live together, are a strong indication of better income mobility for children.

Deception in Counting the Unemployed (The Atlantic)

Steve Clemons looks at the work of Leo Hindery, Jr., a former CEO who has fought for better deals for workers for many years. Hindery's focus is on "real unemployment," and he claims the government's use of the U-3 numbers obscures the facts facing workers.

Mapping the Sequester's Impact on Low-Income Housing (The Nation)

Greg Kaufmann discusses the ways that sequestration is affecting the people who rely on Section 8 housing vouchers. He maps out story after story of cuts that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says will lead to a rise in homelessness.

A Shuffle of Aluminum, but to Banks, Pure Gold (NYT)

David Kocieniewski explains how banks have started buying physical commodity trading assets, like aluminum, to gain market intelligence for that commodity. This translates to miniscule increases in the cost of products, and billions in profits to the banks.

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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:

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

Jul 17, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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

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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.

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

Jul 10, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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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.

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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.

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Daily Digest - July 9: Beyond Intro to Econ

Jul 9, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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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.

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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.

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

Jul 8, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Can libertarian populism save the Republican Party? (WaPo)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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