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

The Fork in the Road Already Facing Obama's Second-Term Agenda

Feb 25, 2013Bo Cutter

President Obama has a limited amount of time to accomplish his second-term goals, so there's no time like the present to go big.

Admittedly it is absurdly early to be suggesting that President Obama's second term is at a crucial fork in the road. But I think that's where we are and here's why.

President Obama has a limited amount of time to accomplish his second-term goals, so there's no time like the present to go big.

Admittedly it is absurdly early to be suggesting that President Obama's second term is at a crucial fork in the road. But I think that's where we are and here's why.

Second presidential terms are two years, not four years. Second terms have rarely been resounding successes. Sometimes the reason is too specific to be generalized. More often, the reasons have included scar tissue, fatigue, and a dwindling bench. The American people get sick of the same faces, the old players are exhausted and have spent whatever intellectual capital they came with, and the new players aren't as good as the old players. But, always, the underlying direction is declining political capital. Senior American politicians, regardless of party, are as a class or caste the most self-referential, self-reverential, and self-regarding group our species has known in its roughly 100,000 years on the planet. They have an uncanny capacity to sniff out the exact nano-second that power begins to ebb, no matter how slightly, and then act to accelerate that ebbing. 

So President Obama has two years, not four, to get anything big accomplished, and that means he has to say what it is -- now.

There are three obvious mega strategies. Whether the president's political advisors know it or not, the choice between these three is the big decision they are making right now.

1. Beat up the Republican party with the hope of fracturing it completely or simply clobbering it in the 2014 Congressional elections. This seems to be the preferred direction right now.

2. Accomplish a series of individual policy wins -- pick among immigration reform, preschool education, a small infrastructure plan, or even a carbon tax.

3. Change the political/policy game in America and give the country a new story.

That first goal is an emotionally satisfying choice and no group deserves clobbering more than this era's Republicans right wing. But it may not be possible and it may not help achieve real policy goals as much as one might think. The Democratic left is nowhere near as unpleasant as the Republican right, but it is just as mired in a 60-year-old, outdated ideology. And this strategy doesn't constitute much of a legacy for President Obama.

The second goal is highly worthwhile and may be all anyone can accomplish in today's dysfunctional Washington. If President Obama achieved significant legislation in each of the four areas I named above, he would have achieved more than any of the last three, maybe four, second-term presidents going back at least 50 years.

The third goal -- a new vision or story of America -- sounds so over-reaching as to be preposterous. But I believe we are at a moment when this is possible: a time of immense global change, an improving economy with better prospects than any other developed economy in the world, a gridlocked political environment locked into interminable debate over the wrong issues, a high level of American citizen dissatisfaction with our politics, and a popular second term president with room to maneuver. We are unlikely to see this confluence of circumstances again for another 50 years. 

Two points about these mega strategies: They are in part mutually exclusive and path dependent. And only a president can outline them and carry them out. Certainly strategy 1, on the one side, and strategies 2 or 3 are mutually exclusive. In terms of how politics and human beings work, the president cannot decide to beat the Republicans up for a time and then change gears and directions. But strategies 2 and 3 are not mutually exclusive. President Obama could present a new American story and then move to a set of specific policies. In fact, this might be the best course for accomplishing anything. 

I believe that right now, the president could do two big things that, if successful, would make his second term successful, have high odds of being successful, and would have low costs if they aren't successful. First, he could offer a real deal to stop sequestration and, second, he could define the next era.

Lets start with sequestration. This is a manufactured crisis -- a set of automatic budget cuts that will make our defense, international, and domestic programs worse (in fact, the set was designed to make everything worse) but on the other hand will do next to nothing about our long-run debt and deficit problem. It was a last-ditch, desperate effort 18 months ago to look as though something was being accomplished. Its big flaw -- other than being completely irresponsible -- was that if it were going to force a real resolution, it always depended on the president defining a deal. Congress is not capable of doing that. All Congress can ever really do is the short-term, kick it down the road for three months efforts being thrown out today. These are worthless.

Now is the moment for the president to put forward a real deal, with real entitlement reform. This means reductions in the long-term rate of growth in entitlement spending, some further defense cuts (I don't think we should cut normal regular domestic spending, but it should certainly be rearranged), income tax reform where possible (but not much is possible), and a new source of revenues -- a new tax. We cannot solve our debt/deficit problem and pay for the government we all know we are going to have without new revenues. I've always been a proponent of a highly defined, progressive value added tax (a VAT), and still am. But I think that a carbon tax would be the better choice right now. Why not raise $1 trillion over the next decade and simultaneously begin to solve our most pressing environmental problems?

But the president should define such a deal not as the be-all-and-end-all of his administration, but rather as a necessary step toward an era of safer, higher, more sustainable, more equitable growth. He could explain how achieving this growth is possible and why it requires both fiscal reform and investments in the future. He could demonstrate easily how the specific policies he stressed in his State of the Union fit into this long-run direction. He could show a deeper understanding of the real private sector. And he could emphasize that we have time to adjust to change if we start now. As an example, a real and credible 10-year debt/deficit plan is what we need, not an economy-breaking one or two year slash and burn plan.

I believe that a deal is there, waiting to be made. The adults in the Republican party know they are in a trap. Americans would support a deal (all the polls show that the American people are far less polarized on these issues than Washington is). Most Democrats would rather be talking about solutions and growth than waging these interminable budget wars. The president could get 1) a deal, 2) an agreement to stop the incessant budget warfare (by permanently canceling the sequestration and ending the constant debt ceiling threats), 3) the chance to create the coalitions necessary to accomplish his policies without constantly fighting the budget battles, and (4) an actual shot at defining the contours of America's next era. 

But the president has to decide and act. What strategy is he pursuing? What does the country need? What are second terms for? 

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

 

Obama image via mistydawnphoto / Shutterstock.com.

Share This

Roosevelt Reacts: How the State of the Union Could Be Even Stronger

Feb 13, 2013

President Obama laid out some strong progressive ideas, but there's lots more work to be done.

Richard Kirsch, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow:

Two years ago, progressive groups came together to develop the Progressive Economic Narrative. And last night, at the very beginning of his State of the Union address, the president began with our story, ending with our central metaphor:

President Obama laid out some strong progressive ideas, but there's lots more work to be done.

Richard Kirsch, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow:

Two years ago, progressive groups came together to develop the Progressive Economic Narrative. And last night, at the very beginning of his State of the Union address, the president began with our story, ending with our central metaphor:

Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

Then he said the way we build that middle-class economic engine is by following the same path we laid out: government investment in research, infrastructure, energy and education. And he added at least some substance on good jobs, with his minimum wage proposal. This is a battle of ideas and policies we should welcome. 

Dante Barry, Chapter Services Coordinator & Summer Academy Fellowship Coordinator at the Campus Network:

Last night, the president announced a new Presidential Voting Commission, an ambiguous and amorphous idea to address the "voter experience" on Election Day, chaired by lawyers from the Obama and Romney campaigns. I am pleased that he decided to tackle this problem, yet I am also disheartened to see the efforts to take bold action on voting reform do not include a large amount of input from the communities represented, suppressed, and deterred. This commission should provide forward-thinking recommendations and take bold action to support our most sacred right for any American: one voice, one vote. We have a responsibility to provide access and opportunity for every American to vote in a way that reflects this country's progress and values with 21st century innovation and technology. 

Thomas Ferguson, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts:

What you think of the president’s speech depends on what you think the real state of our union is. I think that we are five years into an economic crisis that is barely improving thanks to a huge deficiency in aggregate demand for goods and services. All over the globe, that crisis is toppling governments, fanning competitive depreciations, and, if you look closely, stimulating arms races, especially in Northeast Asia, where governments are pushing back more vigorously against the economic crisis than in our own country. Against this standard, the president’s proposals look pretty weak. Spending $50 or even $100 billion on infrastructure is a drop in the bucket. Raising the minimum wage is an excellent idea, but it won’t solve the aggregate demand problem. We’ll just have to see about climate change, but acknowledging the problem is just a first baby step. And the problem of medical costs is fundamentally a problem of monopolistic practices and limited information. If you don’t name that situation and deal with it, you have no real hope of delivering better care at lower cost. The president didn’t. To all of this, of course, there is a ready answer: If you don’t like these proposals, wait till you see those of the Republicans. And, this, alas, is equally true. Except when it comes to drones and killing Americans without due process.

Bryce Covert, Editor of Next New Deal:

Women were decisive in helping elect President Obama to a second term, and last night he began to start thanking them for their support. Perhaps the most important policy he proposed was his call for universal preschool, an enormous yet desperately needed program that would not only help children, but also help their working parents -- and let's be real, mothers still do the majority of work in caring for children -- go to their jobs knowing their children are taken care of. But he also put forward some other key policies that, if they were to be passed, would mean a lot to the country's women workers. He called for a raise in the minimum wage to $9 an hour and to have it indexed to inflation so that it doesn't continue to stagnate as it has for the past three years. Women absolutely need a raise in the minimum wage. They make up two-thirds of the workers who make such low pay. He unfortunately didn't call for a raise in the tipped minimum wage, which has been stuck at $2.13 for 20 years and would give a huge boost to the 64 percent of waiters who are women. But he did take aim at another problem affecting women's pay: salary secrecy. He called for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would build on the Lilly Ledbetter Act to get rid of the ban at half of all companies on discussing salary. Women first have to know what their coworkers are making before they can root out discrimination. All three of these policies would actually be huge steps forward in combatting the gender wage gap, as balancing children and work, making the minimum wage, and being forced into secrecy about paychecks are big factors.

Jordan Fraade, D.C. Pipeline member:

In terms of its delivery, the State of the Union felt like a victory lap: President Obama seems more confident and confrontational, a little bit feisty, and vindicated by the election. But despite this tone, the speech’s policy proposals seemed to focus on incremental change with a few major exceptions (universal Pre-K is a pretty big deal). The president kept coming back to the idea of making government “smarter,” not larger or smaller. His proposal for a “Fix-It-First” program for infrastructure is typical of this approach to policy, and in this case, it’s a good move. Putting people to work doing things like rebuilding deficient infrastructure and revitalizing abandoned urban neighborhoods is a far smarter way to plan for the future than building new highways to the suburbs and encouraging sprawl, which has been standard U.S. policy for over 60 years. However, along with his comments on mortgage relief and homeownership, I would have liked to see President Obama propose something to help renters as well, who are disproportionately urban, minority, and young and end up subsidizing homeowners through the tax code. Millennials, who graduated into a bad economy and a bottomed-out housing market, have largely had no choice but to pay the rent that’s asked of them, since tight credit and low salaries have made buying a home nearly impossible. The president, whose administration is filled with smart growth advocates, likely knows all of this already. His Millennial supporters would surely appreciate it if he acted on it during the next four years.

Mike Malloy, Campus Network member and student at Michigan State University:

In recent years, two Republican strategies to weaken the Democratic voting base have emerged at the state level: voter restriction and attacks on labor. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—President Obama neglected both in his speech last night. The president's eagerness to see bipartisan cooperation is commendable. But failing to expose partisan games undermines his bipartisan vision, enables the misleading of the public, and hurts targeted groups.

The president spoke about “improving the voting experience,” addressing logistical issues that caused long waits in November. Why not address attempts to supress voters by requiring special identification and limiting early voting, both intended to obstruct Democratic voters? The president could still champion convenient voting efforts and—in a perfect world—even call for both parties to end gerrymandering.

Likewise, despite emphasizing manufacturing and proposing a new minimum wage, the president did not mention organized labor, including the right-to-work laws and collective bargaining restrictions Republican state legislatures have passed to weaken unions' political influence. Acknowledging the problematic worker pension and benefit costs state and local governments face, President Obama might have called for a renegotiation of contracts while reaffirming the rights of workers, acknowledging the views of both parties. Instead, the president's silence continued a trend of staying quiet on labor issues. This likely stems from the unpopularity of unions, but it also reinforces that negative view.

The president's pursuit of bipartisanship cooperation is truly admirable. But in order to achieve it, he should call attention to egregious acts of partisan gamesmanship in addition to finding common goals.

Tim Price, Deputy Editor of Next New Deal

There were a lot of takeaways from last night's State of the Union, but the most striking to me is that after the last four years, President Obama still has the ability to surprise us. After what many viewed as an uncharacteristically progressive inauguration speech, there was potential for the president to retreat into his reflexively centrist comfort zone -- and there were hints of that, like his insistence that nothing he wants to do should add to the deficit, or the questionable decision to lead off the night by talking about entitlement reform. But for the most part, he exceeded expectations and behaved like post-2012 Obama, who seems much more comfortable pushing the boundaries of the debate now that he knows he won't be running for anything again. Who expected him to even mention the minimum wage or universal pre-K, let alone highlight them as major policy proposals, before the prepared text began to leak last night? We still have a long way to go before the solutions on the table measure up to the challenges we face, but at least we're having the conversation.

Where Obama defied expectations, Republicans met them, to their detriment and ours. Whether the topic was jobs, immigration, voting rights, or protecting women from violence, John Boehner kept his hands at his sides and grimaced as if he were sitting on a tack -- except that would at least have motivated him to stand up. In his response, Republican rising star Marco Rubio rehashed every tired anti-government argument you've heard a thousand times before and offered bold ideas like... tax cuts. It's obvious that they have nothing new to offer and are hoping mindless obstruction will be a winning strategy like it was in 2010. But that was a different time and a different economy, and the president's message to them last night was clear and forceful: we're all tired of your shtick. What else have you got?

Tarsi Dunlop,  D.C. Pipeline leader:

President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of investment last night: in America, in the middle class, and in future generations. He also talked about the return on investment, which is particularly pertinent when it comes to expanding access to early childhood education. Access to high-quality Pre-K education is one of the most effective ways to ensure that all children are prepared for academic success in K-12 and then ultimately for college and careers. If children are not reading at grade level by third grade, they are at a higher risk of falling behind and dropping out by the time they reach high school. Early childhood education offers early exposure to vocabulary, numbers, and helps children learn how to socialize with others. An additional benefit for families is that access to Pre-K education allows both parents to earn an income while offering children a safe and engaging learning environment. Outside high-quality daycare is expensive, and many parents don't have several hundred dollars a week to pay for it, something that the president noted last night. While expanding early childhood education is not cheap, there is a significant lifelong return on investment over the course of a lifetime, as the president pointed out: boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy and violent crime, increasing the likelihood of students holding a job, and having more stable families of their own. Ideally, as this proposal gains traction, the president’s definition of "working with states" should not involve competitive grant funding. This implementation method puts resource-strapped districts and states at a disadvantage in applying for funding and creates winners and losers. Best practices already exist for statewide programs, with effective public-private partnerships, that can and should be replicated. In the spirit of progressive values and ideals, dollars and investment should reflect an equal and fair commitment to each child, regardless of external circumstances. 

Michelle Tham, Campus Network member and student at American University:

Obama's speech mentioned the success in natural gas and how further investments must be funneled into the renewable energy sector. However, by not mentioning intellectual property rights, Obama misses the target of the conversation on renewable energy. Alternative energy resources is one topic that all countries are willing to share information on, except the United States. Foreign firms from Europe invest in China and India because their IPR (intellectual property rights) are less stringent, which allows the flow of information and design to flourish. China is the leading producer in solar panels because its designs are more affordable than American-based solar panels. Wind technology is China's third largest energy source domestically -- after coal and natural gas. Therefore, in order to increase innovative ideas, Obama needs more open trade policies with different countries and needs to encourage cooperation, not only in diplomatic relations, but in commercial relations as well. Technology transfers are occurring in commercial levels and the government's role is to facilitate such transaction. 

Naomi Ahsan,  D.C. Pipeline leader:

In his inaugural address, the president broke with the rhetoric of politics as usual to lay out his philosophy for good government in a very genuine manner. He used this new voice again in his State of the Union address and listed several legislative priorities within the overarching objectives of addressing poverty and gender justice. The first was raising the federal minimum wage. His description of how a family fully employed with honest work at the minimum wage can still be living in poverty captures the rationale for supporting welfare programs. The president also noted that persistent poverty has emerged as a geographically-defined phenomenon within the U.S. and called for direct community development efforts as well as making high-quality preschool available to every child. This would help break the cycle of poverty, particularly in distressed neighborhoods. Children from low-income families are already less likely to graduate high school and they start kindergarten demonstrably behind better-off peers on developmental milestones leading up to literacy. Making quality preschool universal would show that we have learned from seeing programs like Head Start and Jumpstart dramatically improve underprivileged children's educational prospects by providing extra support at the pre-kindergarten level. It is also important to recognize the connection between gender inequality and poverty: women account for about 62 percent of those earning the minimum wage and often are taking financial responsibility for leading families. Fair pay for these women workers contributes to the health and opportunity of children and families as a whole. I was impressed that the President was offering informed and thoughtful solutions for the growing issue of poverty, which has great potential for benefiting the economy and is deserving of the national attention that too often goes to deficit reduction.

Florence Otaigbe, Campus Network member and student at Michigan State University:

As a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama, my first reaction was that I couldn’t agree more with his introductory remarks on how America is now stronger than ever before. There is no disagreement when it comes to the matter of progress. The disagreement comes in trying to push progress further. During his address, the president laid out various proposals for his next term. Ranging from education to gun control, the president hit the nail on the head. Yet in spite of these great ideas, it’s up to Congress and the people for any change to occur. That’s where my reaction turns less optimistic. I truly believe that there is a great divide in Washington D.C. that is starting to reach the point of no return. Both sides are polarized like never before, and it’s really hard to reach a consensus on anything. I just don’t see how the country can advance when there is so much tension among the people who enable that advancement. There’s much more room for change in America, but most of that rests with most of our leaders in D.C. Without their cohesion, it’s likely that America will remain stagnant, and that is not what we want for our country.

Share This

A Forecast for the 2013 State of the Union Speech

Feb 11, 2013Bo Cutter

This is not the moment to give the same economic speech, but to be bold and long-term.

This is not the moment to give the same economic speech, but to be bold and long-term.

Inaugural addresses are about poetry and vision; State of the Union speeches are about prose and governing. (I acknowledge the inaccurate theft from Governor Mario Cuomo.) But they can and should be about more than a simple listing of policy and budgetary goodies, which is more often what they have become, or the inevitable, and politically necessary, announcement that the state of the union is "good." President Obama should raise the level of the genre and his own game in Tuesday night's speech. Because second term presidencies are two real years rather than the constitutional four years, the president has a lot at stake in making this his best State of the Union.

The president's advisors have told the media that this speech will reflect a "pivot" back to the economy after the Inaugural Address's focus, largely, on inequality. That would be very welcome. But he still has a choice.

He can give the standard, dull, plain-vanilla generic presidential speech about the economy. This would have three major themes: (1) the economy is not in good enough shape, but it's getting better; (2) everything my administration has done to date is the reason why the economy is getting better; and (3) here is my list of actions we intend to take that will immediately make the economy even better. That last point invariably emphasizes job creation, immediate job creation, immediate American job creation, and immediate American good job creation. The generic speech always has a number of good things to say about infrastructure spending. This is all always said with the implicit assumption that the economy of tomorrow will be much the same as the economy of yesterday and today and that no one need worry too much about change. You have to remember that State of the Union speeches are drafted by political advisors and consultants who, across all political parties and all times, share two views about the American people: they go into catatonic states at the prospect of any change and their time horizon is at most a couple of weeks. This speech would disappear without a trace.

Or he could decide to give a far better economic speech. It would have the following themes:

First, a discussion of long-run economic growth, not the next six months - which matter, but not as much as the long term. 

Second, a focus on a particular kind of growth: long-term, equitable, and sustainable. I mention the "sustainable" point in particular because it is always part of any rhetorical flourish but mostly disregarded when the time comes to do anything. 

Third, a conversation about change. As is obvious to anyone, and as is detailed by the fascinating ebook by McAfee and Brynjolfsson, The Race Against the Machine, we are in the middle of a huge, long-term period of enormous dislocating technological change, and that's only one aspect of the change we are going to see. The American people need this president to tell them this and to say clearly this change will fundamentally alter many of the givens of jobs, work, companies, education, etc.

Fourth, an outline of a practical vision. The impending change is real, but so is America's immense capacity for innovation and reinvention. The president can show how down-to-earth, sensible policies will put the country on the right side of this change.

I haven't mentioned the omnipresent issues of budgets, deficits, and debt. These issues have to be resolved if we want to establish a strong basis for the economy of the future and if we want to make this economy safer. These issues should be put in this economic context. Resolving them will require movement from both Democrats and Republicans. There is no movement today. In this speech, President Obama should make a thoughtful and genuine proposal to break today's complete deadlock. 

The probability of this second speech being given is well below 10 percent. But the president would be better off if he gave it and if he established a different kind of context for that portion of his second term that really matters. This is a use-it-or lose it moment; this is what second terms are about.

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

Share This

Pages