Ten Years: Students Moving the Country Forward

Dec 18, 2014Taylor Jo Isenberg

After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network how to continue pushing for a system that works for all of us.

In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network how to continue pushing for a system that works for all of us.

In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

Elections are a great time to shape the future of our country, but democracy is not something that happens every four years. We have a lot of work to do … we need to figure out how to explain what we care about in a coherent and convincing way, we need to develop a leadership network to match the conservatives of the next generation, and we need to keep public officials accountable to the issues that brought us all in.

In a follow-up email, he boiled it down to one simple statement: "I'm seeing a student-run think tank that will reinvigorate mainstream politics with a new generation's ideas."

In one of those rare occurrences that indicate that people might be on to something, others were incubating a similar concept. Two friends at Middlebury and Bates also felt compelled to respond to the political moment, and articulated their initial thoughts on a "think tank that unites college students across America under one political agenda aimed at taking back our democracy." Something similar was taking shape at Yale University.

The rest of the story is Roosevelt lore – the late nights, cross-country recruiting trips, the passionate debates about how best to position the organization to effectively elevate young people as a source for powerful ideas capable of policy change.

Yet what makes this particular story potent is that, ten years later, we celebrate not only that vision, but also today's reality. Thousands of students over the past ten years have worked tirelessly to actualize the initial vision that emerged from a bleak moment in our political history. We’ve published 600+ policy solutions that have been read over half a million times; trained thousands on how to challenge the fundamentals of our social, political, and economic systems; and catapulted young people as civic actors into key debates on the policy challenges of our day. Most importantly, the list of student and chapter successes on the ground is staggering in its breadth and depth of examples where young people have taken active ownership of their communities to bring about solutions with meaningful impact.

As a proud Roosevelter, I think we have much to celebrate. We took a few days last week to elevate our work in Washington, DC – a celebration that included a conversation with Representative Rosa DeLauro and members of Congress on how to look to best practices from Roosevelt’s model to effectively engage a new generation in policy and politics, a discussion on the Campus Network’s next ten years, and presentations at the White House featuring our student’s policy work. And of course, we hosted a party for 190+ alumni and supporters (a rockin’ one, according to keynote speaker Jared Bernstein).

Ten years is also a moment to look towards our future. It’s been a common refrain around our office and with our members that there are some unsettling parallels between the post-election reality ten years ago and the one we face today. Distrust of institutions is on the rise, policy priorities with high public support are thwarted by special interests, and our debate is seriously deprived (with a few exceptions) of a vision for what our country can build towards. We’re still in need of a shake up. The upside? Where things are happening, it’s often led or heavily supported by young people – from the ballot initiatives in the 2014 election to the sustained demand for accountability in our justice system.

It’s no secret that the political establishment is perplexed about young people. The media haphazardly jumps between two narratives, unable to decide if we’re self-absorbed, naïve and complacent in the face of our economic future, or the most civically minded quiet do-gooders since the Greatest Generation. Yet many of the major civic and political organizations are struggling with declining membership numbers. It’s not unheard of for organizations to develop “Millennial engagement strategies” to combat this problem.

We think the answer pretty simple: it’s about institutions and systems embracing the shifts instead of fearing them. From the moment they walk through the door, our members are asked to be a part of building something as equals. They’re given the tools to be the architects – and are instantly connected to a network of peers who support them. In a political system more interested in managing young people than tapping into their ingenuity and energy, Roosevelters come to us because they see the limitations of traditional pathways of engagement. As a result, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network has remained a network that evolves and shifts as our students lead the way.

We aren’t, of course, the only ones – there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations and movements that are also innovating and responding to the changing ways people of all ages are expressing their priorities. We could not be more proud of our alumni who have gone on to lead, participate in, and learn from these efforts.

Our successes also beg the question – what does this mean for the next ten years? How do we continue to amplify our strengths and evolve to reflect the moment, opportunities, and risks? That’s the conversation we’re having next – a conversation we want our alumni and supporters to be a part of. In 2015, the Roosevelt Institute will introduce our Alumni Network, which will focus on how to strengthen the Roosevelt community and its potential to influence social and economic priorities. If we are to respond to the call for an economic and democratic system that works for this century, it is going to take all of us.

It is now a Campus Network tradition to close any major convening or retreat with a passage from Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. It narrates President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the nomination at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. It’s a famous speech, most notably for his “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny” quote. We start reading a little earlier – Smith sets the stage, with the country emerging from the worst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt walks to the platform on the arm of his son James. Smith details a powerful moment, where the President sees the poet Edwin Markham, author of Man with a Hoe, reaches out to greet him, and stumbles and falls. People rush to snap his braces back into place. He then proceeds to give the speech, which puts forward uncompromising and substantive statements on political and economic equality. It’s resolute, forceful, and clear – there are wrongs we must right, power that needs to be rebalanced, problems to be solved by the people.

I hope that our members take two things away from the passage. First, that every individual can’t do it alone. Second, that it is possible to stand for something that upsets the current balance of power – and to see the country move forward as a result. It’s a valuable reminder today, when all seems hopeless in the face of stagnation and entrenchment.

As we look to the next ten years, that’s the question Roosevelters will continue to ask, and will eventually answer. What do we stand for, and how will we move this country forward?

Taylor Jo Isenberg is the Vice President of Networks at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Universities Can Prevent the Race to the Bottom for Labor Standards

Dec 1, 2014Alan SmithJulius Goldberg-Lewis

Some of the negative changes in the workplace brought on by new technologies can be countered by institutions like universities setting higher standards.

Some of the negative changes in the workplace brought on by new technologies can be countered by institutions like universities setting higher standards.

The past 30 years have seen a revolution in communication and analytic technology, one that has begun to shape the nature of firms and the types of work that exist in the labor market. Internet communication technology (ICT) allows firms to share information across the world at speeds that are nearly instantaneous and practically for free. With this explosion of information has been a concerted effort on the parts of firms, governments, and individuals to capture and analyze the torrent of information being produced every second.

ICT is driving transaction costs to zero, and with it comes a hollowing out of traditional corporate infrastructure. Tasks that were once cheaper to do in-house can now be outsourced to private contractors in the U.S. or around the world. The firms that are most heralded as ‘the next big thing’ are no longer producers of widgets, but platforms that connect individuals. Facebook and Twitter do not provide content, but provide access; Uber and Lyft are not taxi companies, but rather platforms that connect individual demanders and suppliers. On the other side, incumbent firms are using ICT to develop to-the-minute data on sales patterns, allowing them to track exactly when and where their workers are needed. Whether it’s in the form of surge pricing‘just-in-time’ scheduling, or contracting out nearly every function of a company, the use of ICT has profound and evolving implications for consumers and workers.

With the explosion of technology has come a scramble to achieve maximum efficiency and minimal cost. As production expands horizontally, as opposed to vertically, Millennials are discovering that a life-long career simply can’t exist in a market that’s trending towards more and more freelance and contract work. One result of all this is that Millennials have begun to look to the stories of retirement parties and 30-year Rolexes as anachronistic Mad Men-style stories of an age long gone. We don't think of ourselves as working for the same place for long periods of time, and any notion of a pension or a retirement plan is hard to imagine. 

The second troubling effect of this is a lack of accountability of the largest and most powerful corporations. The old economic model of in-house labor allowed labor disputes, liability, and accountability to be tracked to a single corporate entity. As firms increasingly turn to specialized contractors to build their websites, staff their calling centers and warehouses, drive their taxis, and run their cafeterias, corporate responsibility becomes similarly defuse. When workers lose overtime pay at an Amazon fulfillment center, should the contractor or the parent company be at fault? Should the private contractor hold all the accountability, or should Amazon accept some responsibility? There is no sense that this new wave of "sharing economy" businesses is doing anything other then creating structured marketplaces, and skimming money off the top. This leaves the people doing the work – as Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts – without anything to hold on to. As firms continue to contract, and subcontract, the economic befits to workers shrink dramatically, and there is an increased incentive to cut costs and corners. These cases are just coming to the surface, and no doubt will shape the labor landscape immensely.

It is precisely because of this complex and rapidly changing social situation that anchor institutions like colleges and universities need to take the lead in providing wages and careers that make sense. Anchor institutions, which are generating more attention in the post-recession economy, are those mission-driven institutions that are large sources of capital, purchasing, and employment, and which are tied to their communities. Unlike traditional firms, an anchor cannot move to another country for lower taxes, and they are often public or receive large amounts of public investment. Anchors hold a special place in our society: they are not corporations governed by a single-bottom line reality, and their missions are often directed toward and even mandate the promotion of the social good.

They also have real economic clout: One classic anchor type, universities, account for approximately 3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and they employ more than 3 million people. The hospital industry has an even larger impact with some 5 million employees. And these anchor institutions, tied as they are to location, are perfectly positioned to end the race to the bottom that is happening in other sectors. They will be able to reap the benefits from more money being injected in a local community, and they will grow as the social safety net continues to grow around them.

Anchors, working together, can do more than create a few hundred jobs at good wages with a real retirement plan. Anchors working together can set strong city-wide baselines for wages, and serve as a driving factor for economic development, public safety, local purchasing, and quality-of-life initiatives. Further, anchors actually have a values-based, mission-driven call to this work. As Millennials become a greater share of the workforce, it is on us to ensure that the economy of the future is one that promotes responsibility, accountability, growth, and equality. The technological strides of the past few decades have been enormous, and while they have allowed businesses to continue on a race to the bottom, they have also connected and mobilized a generation. In order to shift the national dialogue, the Campus Network has always believed that one must start at the local level. In order to ensure that the businesses of the future work for everyone, it must be shown that they can. The global brand of anchor institutions, from top tier universities to pioneering hospitals, have the soapbox, the moral imperative, and the means to drive this change, and a more democratic economy can begin to grow based on the successes of anchor reinvestment.

Alan Smith is the Associate Director of Networked Initiatives at the Roosevelt Institute.

Julius Goldberg-Lewis is the Midwestern Regional Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at the University of Michigan.

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Artisanal Millennials and the Resurrection of Free Labor Ideology

Nov 25, 2014Brit Byrd

Millennial's rising preferences for artisanal, local, and genuine products must not minimize the importance of wage labor in the economy.

In July, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight summarized the state of the minimum wage debate in one grand old super-cut of sound bytes. To top off repeated invocations of “class war!” Senator Marco Rubio croons that “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it and people who will make it.”

Millennial's rising preferences for artisanal, local, and genuine products must not minimize the importance of wage labor in the economy.

In July, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight summarized the state of the minimum wage debate in one grand old super-cut of sound bytes. To top off repeated invocations of “class war!” Senator Marco Rubio croons that “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it and people who will make it.”

Putting aside Oliver’s observation that this statement “makes no sense – economically, mathematically, or even grammatically,” it is nonetheless very informative of the ideology behind the resistance to raising the minimum wage.

Rubio’s rhetoric is an ideological descendent of “free labor ideology,” a defining tenet of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Made famous by historian Eric Foner in his seminal work, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, free labor ideology stood vigorously against the economic dependence of one individual on another.

Although this ideology admirably stood in opposition to slavery, it predated the industrial revolution and thus developed a strange relationship with the rise of the non-propertied, yet emancipated, wage-earning class. When the wage earner was introduced to the dichotomy between the slave and the propertied man, the ideal citizen of free labor ideology remained “a farmer or independent mechanic,” with wage labor on the outside looking in.

In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Foner observes that although the progenitor of capitalism, Adam Smith, had “seen intractable class divisions as an inevitable consequence of economic development,” across the ocean, thinkers and politicians held that “in America, wage labor was a temporary status, and 'laborers for hire do not exist as a class.'”

Eventually, after a grand period of nation building, the industrial revolution, and the progressive movement, wage labor was recognized beyond this transitory status.

But even the most casual observer of American politics knows of the continued ubiquity of the “self-made man” in the political lexicon. Although less blatant, the specific image of the homestead also remains inappropriately fixed in our collective political imagination – and not just with Marco Rubio, but also amongst Millennials who may consider themselves committed progressives.

Weighing in on what is and isn’t “Millennial” has been the media’s fetish for quite awhile now, but earlier this year the Pew Research Center threw some fresh meat into the otherwise overcooked discussion. Their report, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology” identified a “next generation left” that was six times more likely than traditional liberals to agree with the statement “blacks who can’t get ahead are responsible for their own condition.”

The headlines wrote themselves: Millennials are libertarians, Millennials have abandoned the state, seven gifs that show how Millennials are racist, and so on. Amongst the dreck, an exceptional column in The New York Times by Anand Giridharadas distinguishes this anti-institutional vogue as a personal reaction against impersonal big-box capitalism, not a political reaction. In his most potent example, “the locally foraged mushrooms on menus in Brooklyn … are a small-scale elite secession from the ways of ruthless global trade, not a political resistance of it.“

Giridharadas contrasts this urban farm-to-table fascination with the more familiar, anti-state views we see from the right, which are “anchored in rural life.” Yet his local-mushrooms example is his most potent because it hints effectively at an actual connection between this millennial angst and the very old image of bucolic self-sufficiency. It is not just the newfangled app-tech craze of Uber and Venmo driving this reaction, but also a very organic, homestead aesthetic.

In fact, this visual connection has already been made explicit. Look no further than Portlandia’s revised anthem for the city that so infamously exaggerates our generation: the “dream of the 1890s is alive [in Portland].” As front man Fred Armisen notes, remember when “everyone was pickling their own vegetables and brewing their own beer?”

Now obviously, Portlandia is an exaggeration of a particular trend. But this compulsion towards the “genuine” and “artisanal” does permeate our current moment. Not every child of the late 60s was at Woodstock or burning draft cards, but it would be specious to suggest that such cultural touchstones did not and do not affect the generational perspective.

Ultimately, Portlandia’s invocation of the 1890s is cruelly apropos, given that we are now living in what many refer to casually as a “New Gilded Age.” Giridhadaras’ take that, “though some [millennials] may fight it, they cannot, in the main, escape Amazon and its cutthroat brand of capitalism,” is similar to the dominance of industrial tycoons in the late 19th century that overshadowed even the state.

Farm-to-table fascination represents a welcome political-cultural rebellion against the big box, but it shares an aesthetic with the free labor ideology that lifts Senator Rubio’s rhetoric and head into the clouds.

To finish Portlandia’s anthem, front woman Carrie Brownstein notes of 2014 Portland, “it’s like President McKinley was never assassinated.” As a nation, we were lucky enough to have none other than President Theodore Roosevelt fill McKinley’s shoes and plant the seeds of the Progressive Movement that his fifth cousin would later go on to solidify in the New Deal.

Millennials must be careful to not let fascination with the artisan keep them rooted in an era before Roosevelt. This reevaluation of authenticity is, on the whole, a welcome development . But now, just as in the 1890s, the frontier has closed and wage labor is a pressing political, economic, and quotidian reality.

Brit Byrd is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Economic Development and a senior at Columbia University.

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A Dem Who Can Explain that Fairness is Prosperity Will Sweep in 2016

Nov 19, 2014Richard Kirsch

The policies that will deliver economic growth also center fairness, and that's what Democrats need to emphasize to keep the presidency in 2016.

The policies that will deliver economic growth also center fairness, and that's what Democrats need to emphasize to keep the presidency in 2016.

The familiar debate within the Democratic Party – move left or right – is on. In a memo to a “limited number of Democratic leaders,” Third Way, the leading organization for corporate Democrats, lays down the gauntlet: “Democrats are offering economic fairness, but voters want economic growth and prosperity.” And for good measure, Third Way declares, “And it has to be meaningful; Democrats can’t simply stick a 'growth' label on the old bottle of 'fairness' policies.”

The folks at Third Way are right about one thing; voters do want economic growth and prosperity. Where they are wrong is in their assumption that fairness can't be a part of that growth. The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.

Progressives and Democrats don’t always make that clear. Most of the time they talk about fairness as separate from broadly-shared prosperity. The Democrat who bases his or her campaign on that crucial link will sweep into the presidency in 2016.

Policies that increase fairness are key to driving the economy forward.

Raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy boosting jobs, not economy busting jobs. When wages are raised, workers have more money to spend, essential when 70 percent of the economy is made up of consumer spending.

An economy boosting job pays enough to cover the basics, which is why the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage mobilizes people to action. It is about working at that wage for enough hours, with predictable schedules, so that the wages add up to a decent paycheck. It is about getting paid when you are out sick and having paid family leave, so you can care for and support your family. It is about women getting paid as much as men. It is about being able to afford your health care, so you have money to spend on other essentials and don’t end up bankrupt because of a high-cost illness. It is about increasing Social Security benefits and bolstering retirement savings, so you can keep supporting yourself and keep the economy moving well into your retirement.

These measures reward people fairly for work and are essential to rebuilding the middle class engine of the economy, as shown by the evidence collected in the Center for American Progress’s middle-out economics project.

The flip side of creating economy boosting jobs is reversing the soaring concentration of wealth. It’s not just unfair that the rich are grabbing more and more of the wealth we all create, it’s a big reason that the economy remains sluggish. When the top 1 percent capture virtually all of the economic progress, it's impossible for them to spend much of it. When corporations sit on trillions of dollars of cash because there aren’t markets for their goods, that money doesn’t go to higher wages or investment in creating jobs or other things that would boost productivity throughout the economy.

Even Wall Street is beginning to get it. In a report that is stunning only for its source, Standard & Poor's found this summer that “Our review of the data, as well as a wealth of research on this matter, leads us to conclude that the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth, at a time when the world's biggest economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession and the government is in need of funds to support an aging population.”

A big goal of Third Way’s memo is to justify policies that they admit “may not be the most politically popular.” While some of the Third Way proposals are worthwhile, like millions of teachers for pre-K, much of their agenda is that of corporate America and in some cases would actually be bad for the economic growth they claim to seek.

Using coded language in an attempt to dilute the political poison, Third Way pushes for cutting Social Security benefits, lowering corporate tax rates rather than stopping corporate tax evasion, and agreeing to new trade deals which would drive the race to the bottom and allow corporations to challenge environmental and health and safety laws, instead of bolstering American workers' already hard-pressed incomes.

Instead, what the country needs and what Democrats should push are bold policies which drive the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity: fairness.

We can start by putting Americans to work with a massive investment in core productive infrastructure in three areas: transportation, from roads and bridges to high speed rail; clean, renewable energy, which will simultaneously tackle climate disruption; and high-speed Internet for every home and business in America. Everyone who does this work should be paid enough, with good benefits, to support and care for their families, and be given the flexibility needed to care for those families.  In doing so, we doubly boost the economy: through the investment in infrastructure and through the good jobs.

It is both fair and essential for our economic future to ensure that every child has a quality education and the opportunity to succeed in school, career, and life. We need to modernize and replace dilapidated schools and assure that every child has a well-prepared and supported teacher in a small enough class to learn. We need to transform schools, particularly those that teach children in low-income neighborhoods, into community centers. We should make high-quality child care and pre-K universal, employing millions more providers and teachers.

We need to provide career training for the high-skilled jobs that don’t require traditional college. We need to make college affordable, by dramatically lowering the cost of public colleges and universities, providing much more tuition assistance, and tying the payment of student loans to earnings.

And as in infrastructure, all these jobs – from day-care providers to teachers to college professors (no more adjuncts) – should be good jobs, with good pay, benefits, and the flexibility to care and support families.

The only reason that Democrats would consider an agenda that Third Way admits is politically unpopular is to please corporate campaign donors and elites. But with President Obama pushing for new trade deals, advocating revenue-neutral corporate tax reform and having supported cuts in Social Security benefits, that agenda is as alive as the billions in campaign contributions that pour into both political parties.

Americans are right about two things. One, the system is rigged to favor the wealthy and powerful. Two, unless we change course, the future will not be better for our children. Those are the core reasons we saw historically low voter turn out this month and why minimum wage hikes passed at the same time voters decided to give Republicans their turn in the continuing roller-coaster of Congressional control over the past decade.

The Democrat who champions bold policies to build an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy, and policies that create broadly shared, sustainable prosperity, will triumph in 2016.

The key, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did (and as great organizers do), is to tap into anger and lift up hope. FDR railed against the “economic royalists” and experimented with bold policies that reigned in financial speculation and put Americans to work building the foundations for the 20th Century economy. 

The next FDR will name the villains who are rigging the system: Wall Street speculators and corporations that cut wages and benefits and ship jobs overseas. The next FDR will reveal the truth that “we all do better when we all do better.” That when we all earn enough to care and support our families, when we can shop in our neighborhoods, give our kids a great education, afford our health care, retire with security, we drive the economy forward.

Mamby-pamby won’t cut it. Americans are crying for bold leadership, a way out of a narrowing world towards a better world for our children.

The Democrat who leads a political party that stands up against the rich and powerful and stands up for working families and the middle class, who declares that Americans have done this before and that together we can do it again, will triumph in 2016. A Democratic party that relentlessly presses that agenda into action will meet the great challenge of our time. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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The UNC Coup and the Second Limit of Economic Liberalism

Nov 13, 2014Mike Konczal

There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, there’s been a significant amount of discussion over whether liberals have an economic agenda designed for the working and middle classes. This discussion has primarily been about wages in the middle of the income distribution, which are the first major limit of liberal thought; however, it is also tied to a second limit, which is the way that liberals want to provide public goods and services.

So what happened? The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.

This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. Iowa implemented a similar approach back in 2013. And as Kevin Kiley has reported for IHE, similar proposals have been floated in Arizona and Virginia. This trend is likely to gain strength as states continue to disinvest.

The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individuals, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.

First Limit: Middle-Class Wages

There’s been a wave of commentary about how the Democrats don’t have a middle-class wage agenda. David Leonhardt wrote the core essay, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” with its opening line: “How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?” Josh Marshall made the same argument as well. The Democrats have many smart ideas on the essential agenda of reducing poverty, most of which derive from pegging the low-end wage at a higher level and then adding cash or cash-like transfers to fill in the rest. But what about the middle class?

One obvious answer is “full employment.” Running the economy at full steam is the most straightforward way of boosting overall wages and perhaps reversing the growth in the capital-share of income. However, that approach hasn’t been adopted by the President, strategically or even rhetorically. Part of it might be that if the economy is terrible because of vague forces, technological changes and necessary pain following a financial crisis, then the Democrats can’t really be blamed for stagnation. That strategy will not work out for them.

The Democrats (and even many liberals in general) also haven’t developed a story about why inequality matters so much for the middle class. There are such stories, of course: the collapse of high progressive taxation creates incentives to rent seek, financialization makes the economy focused less on innovation and more on disgorging the cash, and new platform monopolies are deploying forms of market power that are increasingly worrisome.

Second Limit: Public Provisioning

A similar dynamic is in play with social goods. The liberal strategy is increasingly to leave the provisioning of social goods to the market, while providing coupons for the poorest to afford those goods. By definition, means-testing this way puts high implicit taxes on poorer people in a way that decommodification does not. But beyond that simple point, this leaves middle-class people in a bind, as the ability of the state to provide access and contain costs efficiently through its scale doesn’t benefit them, and stagnating incomes put even more pressure on them.

As noted, antagonisms between the middle class and the poor in higher education are entirely a function of public disinvestment. The moment higher education is designed to put massive costs onto individual students, suddenly individuals are forced to look out only for themselves. If college tuition was largely free, paid for by all people and income sources, then there’d be no need for a working-class or middle-class student to view poorer student as a direct threat to their economic stability. And there's no better way to prematurely destroy a broader liberal agenda by designing a system that creates these conflicts.

These worries are real. The incomes of recent graduates are stagnating as well. The average length of time people are taking to pay off their student loans is up 80 percent, to over 13 years. Meanwhile, as Janet Yellen recently showed in the graphic below, student debt is rising as a percentage of income for everyone below the bottom 5 percent. It’s not surprising that studies find student debt impacting family formation and small business creation, and that people are increasingly looking out for just themselves.

You could imagine committing to lowering costs broadly across the system, say through the proposal by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall to make the first two years free. But Democrats aren't doing this. Instead, President Obama’s solution is to try and make students better consumers on the front-end with more disclosures and outcome surveys for schools, and to make the lowest-income graduates better debtors on the back-end with caps on how burdensome student debt can be. These solutions by the President are not designed to contain the costs of higher education in a substantial way and, crucially, they don’t increase the public buy-in and interest in public higher education.

The Relevance for the ACA

I brought up higher education because I think it’s relevant, but I think it also can help explain the lack of political payout for the Affordable Care Act. It’s here! The ACA is not only meeting expectations, it’s even exceeding them in major ways. Yet it still remains unpopular, even as millions of people are using the exchanges. There is no political payout for the Democrats.

Liberals chalk this up to the right-wing noise machine, and no doubt that hurts. But part of the problem is that middle-class individuals still end up facing an individual product they are purchasing in a market, except without any subsidies. Though the insurance is better regulated, serious cost controls so far have not been part of the discussion. Polling shows half of the users of the exchange are unsure if they can make their payments and are worried about being able to afford getting sick. This, in turn, blocks the formation of a broad-based coalition capable of defending, sustaining, and expanding the ACA in the same way those have formed for Social Security and Medicare.

Any serious populist agenda will have to have a broader agenda for wages, with full employment as the central idea. But it will also need to include social programs that are broader based and focused on cost controls; here, luckily, the public option is a perfect organizing metaphor.

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There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, there’s been a significant amount of discussion over whether liberals have an economic agenda designed for the working and middle classes. This discussion has primarily been about wages in the middle of the income distribution, which are the first major limit of liberal thought; however, it is also tied to a second limit, which is the way that liberals want to provide public goods and services.

So what happened? The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.

This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. Iowa implemented a similar approach back in 2013. And as Kevin Kiley has reported for IHE, similar proposals have been floated in Arizona and Virginia. This trend is likely to gain strength as states continue to disinvest.

The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individuals, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.

First Limit: Middle-Class Wages

There’s been a wave of commentary about how the Democrats don’t have a middle-class wage agenda. David Leonhardt wrote the core essay, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” with its opening line: “How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?” Josh Marshall made the same argument as well. The Democrats have many smart ideas on the essential agenda of reducing poverty, most of which derive from pegging the low-end wage at a higher level and then adding cash or cash-like transfers to fill in the rest. But what about the middle class?

One obvious answer is “full employment.” Running the economy at full steam is the most straightforward way of boosting overall wages and perhaps reversing the growth in the capital-share of income. However, that approach hasn’t been adopted by the President, strategically or even rhetorically. Part of it might be that if the economy is terrible because of vague forces, technological changes and necessary pain following a financial crisis, then the Democrats can’t really be blamed for stagnation. That strategy will not work out for them.

The Democrats (and even many liberals in general) also haven’t developed a story about why inequality matters so much for the middle class. There are such stories, of course: the collapse of high progressive taxation creates incentives to rent seek, financialization makes the economy focused less on innovation and more on disgorging the cash, and new platform monopolies are deploying forms of market power that are increasingly worrisome.

Second Limit: Public Provisioning

A similar dynamic is in play with social goods. The liberal strategy is increasingly to leave the provisioning of social goods to the market, while providing coupons for the poorest to afford those goods. By definition, means-testing this way puts high implicit taxes on poorer people in a way that decommodification does not. But beyond that simple point, this leaves middle-class people in a bind, as the ability of the state to provide access and contain costs efficiently through its scale doesn’t benefit them, and stagnating incomes put even more pressure on them.

As noted, antagonisms between the middle class and the poor in higher education are entirely a function of public disinvestment. The moment higher education is designed to put massive costs onto individual students, suddenly individuals are forced to look out only for themselves. If college tuition was largely free, paid for by all people and income sources, then there’d be no need for a working-class or middle-class student to view poorer student as a direct threat to their economic stability. And there's no better way to prematurely destroy a broader liberal agenda by designing a system that creates these conflicts.

These worries are real. The incomes of recent graduates are stagnating as well. The average length of time people are taking to pay off their student loans is up 80 percent, to over 13 years. Meanwhile, as Janet Yellen recently showed in the graphic below, student debt is rising as a percentage of income for everyone below the bottom 5 percent. It’s not surprising that studies find student debt impacting family formation and small business creation, and that people are increasingly looking out for just themselves.

You could imagine committing to lowering costs broadly across the system, say through the proposal by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall to make the first two years free. But Democrats aren't doing this. Instead, President Obama’s solution is to try and make students better consumers on the front-end with more disclosures and outcome surveys for schools, and to make the lowest-income graduates better debtors on the back-end with caps on how burdensome student debt can be. These solutions by the President are not designed to contain the costs of higher education in a substantial way and, crucially, they don’t increase the public buy-in and interest in public higher education.

The Relevance for the ACA

I brought up higher education because I think it’s relevant, but I think it also can help explain the lack of political payout for the Affordable Care Act. It’s here! The ACA is not only meeting expectations, it’s even exceeding them in major ways. Yet it still remains unpopular, even as millions of people are using the exchanges. There is no political payout for the Democrats.

Liberals chalk this up to the right-wing noise machine, and no doubt that hurts. But part of the problem is that middle-class individuals still end up facing an individual product they are purchasing in a market, except without any subsidies. Though the insurance is better regulated, serious cost controls so far have not been part of the discussion. Polling shows half of the users of the exchange are unsure if they can make their payments and are worried about being able to afford getting sick. This, in turn, blocks the formation of a broad-based coalition capable of defending, sustaining, and expanding the ACA in the same way those have formed for Social Security and Medicare.

Any serious populist agenda will have to have a broader agenda for wages, with full employment as the central idea. But it will also need to include social programs that are broader based and focused on cost controls; here, luckily, the public option is a perfect organizing metaphor.

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On Public and Profits at Boston Review

Nov 12, 2014Mike Konczal

Did you know that prosecutors were paid based on how many cases they tried in the 19th century? Or that Adam Smith argued for judges running on the profit motive in the Wealth of Nations? I have a new piece discussion the rise and fall of disinterested public service as a response to the abuses of the profit motive in government service, or how we got away from that system and how we are now going back to it, at Boston Review. It's called Selling Fast: Public Goods, Profits, and State Legitimacy.

It's a review of Against the Profit Motive: The Salary Revolution in American Government, 1780–1940 by Yale legal historian Nicholas R. Parrillo, The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, and Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. There's a lot of interesting threads through all three, and I really enjoyed working on this review. I hope you check it out.

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Did you know that prosecutors were paid based on how many cases they tried in the 19th century? Or that Adam Smith argued for judges running on the profit motive in the Wealth of Nations? I have a new piece discussion the rise and fall of disinterested public service as a response to the abuses of the profit motive in government service, or how we got away from that system and how we are now going back to it, at Boston Review. It's called Selling Fast: Public Goods, Profits, and State Legitimacy.

It's a review of Against the Profit Motive: The Salary Revolution in American Government, 1780–1940 by Yale legal historian Nicholas R. Parrillo, The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, and Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. There's a lot of interesting threads through all three, and I really enjoyed working on this review. I hope you check it out.

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News Flash: Progressives Have a Winning Economic Narrative -- and Democrats Who Used It Won

Nov 11, 2014Richard Kirsch

Democrats can connect with voters by telling a story about how they'll make the economy work for all of us.

The big post-election consensus is that Democrats believe, as The New York Times put it, they were missing “a broad economic message to enthuse supporters and convert some independents.”

Democrats can connect with voters by telling a story about how they'll make the economy work for all of us.

The big post-election consensus is that Democrats believe, as The New York Times put it, they were missing “a broad economic message to enthuse supporters and convert some independents.”

So what would that missing narrative be? The point of a narrative is to give people an explanation of what they are experiencing that includes what is wrong, who is responsible, and what we can do about it.

Take a look at two explanations of what’s happening that are very similar but different in important ways.

The first, from Republican message guru Frank Luntz, writing in The New York Times: “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.”

The second, from Democratic message advisors James Carville and Stan Greenberg, along with Page Gardner: “People believe that the rich are using their influence to rig the system so the economy works for them but not the middle class.”

The big difference here is how the common sentiment among Americans – that the rich call the shots – is framed to suggest a solution. By focusing on the government, Luntz sets up the Republican push for limited government. Or as successful Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst said in a debate, “When Washington is picking… winners and losers, it’s almost always our Iowa middle-class families that lose.”

For Carville, Greenberg, and Gardner, the focus is on the economy being rigged. Or as one ad for Oregon’s Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said, “It is Jeff leading the fight to hold Wall Street and big banks accountable when they prey on working families and small businesses. ”

Merkley won and so did Ernst. The explanation, according to progressive pundits, is that Democrats like Merkley who used a populist message – which means they connected people’s economic concerns to the rich and powerful who are responsible – were successful while Dems who ran away from that message lost. As someone who has been leading the Progressive Economic Narrative (PEN) project, I really wanted to believe that. But as it seemed too easy, I decided to look at some campaigns and see whether it was spin or the truth. It turns out to be the truth.

The first case I looked at was Minnesota Democrat Al Franken’s campaign. After eking out a victory in the great Democratic year of 2008, Franken won handily this year, even as Republicans took over the Minnesota House of Representatives. Imagine my smile when I quickly found Franken ads based on the key value statement in our Progressive Economic Narrative, “We all do better when we all do better.” This was also a key theme of Minnesota’s great progressive senator, Paul Wellstone.

Franken’s progressive populism makes a key distinction when he uses the key word in that values phrase, “all.” As he says in another ad,  “I work for all Minnesotans. Wall Street wasn’t happy about that. But I don’t work for Wall Street. I work for you.”

The name of our Progressive Economic Narrative is “An America that works for all of us,” which is central to the aspirational power of our story. However, what is needed for that message to win is to make it clear who is not included in “all of us” (i.e., the wealthy). A poll of voters last spring found that voters preferred “growing the economy” over “an economy that works for all of us” by 10 percentage points. By contrast, voters chose “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points!

Merkley was also sure to name the villains of the economic story throughout his campaign, as in the Wall Street ad mentioned above.

So what about those Democrats who lost in purple states? I would have thought Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who founded the populist caucus when he got to Congress in 2007, would have run a populist campaign. Instead, Braley ran on working across the aisle to get things done in Iowa and not “letting the extremists from either party get in the way.” Because voters are skeptical about anything getting done for them in Washington, his message fell flat.

Braley listed progressive issues, but without a narrative to link them together. His only villains were the “Koch brothers and their extreme agenda,” but he didn’t say what made their agenda extreme. Contrast that with how Merkley described “the billionaire Koch brothers,” who want to give “more tax breaks to millionaires and reward companies that ship jobs overseas.”

What about Mark Udall in Colorado, another Democrat who lost in a purple state that Obama carried? Udall built his campaign narrative around a war on women by his opponent Rep. Corey Gardner. He, like Braley, ticked off a list of progressive issues – from minimum wage to pay equity to protecting Social Security – without providing any framing story to link them together. He left out who the villains are in the story.

Udall also committed the ultimate narrative sin: delivering your opponent’s story. Here’s the closing line of a Udall ad: “I’m Mark Udall. No one – not government, not Washington – should have the power to take those rights and freedoms away.” Voters who wanted the anti-government candidate chose the real thing!

Udall would have had a much broader audience for his “war on women” message if he framed it as part of a broader war on American families by the rich and powerful. It is easy to make opposition to pay equity or a woman’s right to make her own decisions part of this broader story, which speaks to Americans’ deep concerns about their families.

One part of the story I didn’t see in the candidate ads was how Democrats should address Luntz’s “blame government” narrative. The answer, as Hart Research pollster Guy Molyneaux explains in The New York Times, quoting almost verbatim from the Progressive Economic Narrative, is that “the important question facing America today is not how big government should be so much as who government should work for: corporations and the wealthy, or all Americans?”

As Molyneaux points out, “That is a debate Democrats can and will win.”

What even progressive Democrats need to do better is tell a story about how to create that economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. This is a matter of both clear narrative and bold policy.

The core of our economic theory is, as we say in the Progressive Economic Narrative, “working people and the middle class are the engines of the economy.” Another version of this, popularized by the Center for American Progress, is “we build the economy from the middle-out, not trickle-down.”

The story we are telling is that people are the job creators, not businesses. That raising the minimum wage is not just about fairness, but about creating economy-boosting jobs that put money in people’s pockets to spend in their communities. “We all do better when we all do better” is not just a statement of values; it’s the progressive belief about how the economy works.

Our narrative connects to policy with the phrase “we build a strong middle class by decisions we make together.” Democrats need to step up with bold policies, many of which are already out there, waiting to be championed. Here are just three:

1.     A massive public investment to dramatically increase the use of clean energy  – which would at the same time tackle the challenge of climate disruption – with a requirement that all the jobs created pay wages that can support a family.

2.     A $15/hr minimum wage that grows with productivity, so that workers get their fare share of the wealth they create. 

3.     A robust system of public financing that would allow candidates to win office without taking big campaign contributions from anyone, addressing the public’s belief that the rich call the shots.

One thing Democrats had better not say is “Oh, what’s the narrative? What do we say about the economy?” Progressives have a powerful narrative and bold solutions to create an America and an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy. Candidates who run on this have won and will win. And an America that runs on these policies will do to what too many Americans no longer believe is possible: provide a better life for our children. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

2014 election results map courtesy of Politico.

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With This Political Scene, Millennial Turnout Isn't a Surprise

Nov 6, 2014Alan Smith

Millennials aren't engaged in the current model of partisan politics, but true networks of engagement would bring far more young people into the political fold.

Millennials aren't engaged in the current model of partisan politics, but true networks of engagement would bring far more young people into the political fold.

As pundits predicted (Nate Silver really has taken the drama out of election returns) the Republicans swept to a classic 6th year victory, winning senate and gubernatorial majorities on the backs of disillusionment with Obama and low turnout across the board. Also as predicted, young voters’ share of the electorate dropped: from 19 percent in 2012 to 13 percent this year. This pretty much mirrors the turnout in the last two midterm elections, and we can safely call this a trend in Millennial political engagement.

I'm not going to spend time trying to debunk the notion of Millennials as lazy or disengaged. I don't buy those narratives, either anecdotally or statistically, but what's important today is that we've seen the confirmation of a very dangerous trend: this moment of low turnout is perfectly in line with an all-time low in people's faith in our institutions of government.  If what we want from voting is for people to engage more with the rules that govern their lives, we need to make the process of engaging much more meaningful that what currently passes as voting.

I can't blame us, either. The connection between voting and positive change has never been so tenuous. The elimination of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has opened the door for disenfranchisement movements around the country, and there will be more felons prevented from voting in Georgia then the entire Alaskan electorate (who, by the way, still got to pick a senator). Money, as the Daily Show observed, pretty roundly trumped ideas in this election. Even worse, zooming further out reveals a federal government that seems pathologically incapable of doing anything at all. Why should we care that the senate swung red, or a congressional seat remained blue? We have passionate debates about global warming, about immigration, and about how to fix a healthcare system and an economy that both leave out large numbers of Americans, but when we get to the ballot box those debates seem very removed. How do you know if your vote is a vote for a carbon cap-and-trade program, or against gun control? You don't, and you can't, because the systems that govern our democracy are simply not that responsive.

While I've heard plenty of arguments that yes, this is how representative democracy is supposed to work, it seems to me that we risk a generation of voters systemically having their worst fears and cynicism (and thus disengagement) re-enforced by real results.

It's a real problem. So what? 

My title at the Roosevelt Institute is “Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.” I often end up trying to explain to people what, exactly, that means. Sometimes I'm not sure myself. But if we know that traditional institutions - from Beltway politics to social structures - are crumbling, then how can we take that knowledge and make something positive from it?  So the challenge of my position at Roosevelt is to figure out how organizations that already exist, and those that are starting every day, can work independently while being a part of a network.

In this, there is a vision for how we think about political parties. Not as top down institutions, but as networks of people who support and push each other toward social change, and then are moved to vote as a part of the process they are already engaged in.  

We know that Millennials are civically minded from extensive polling. We are interested in starting our own organizations, and are passionate about many issues. This is not, simply put, a generation that has checked out on change. We're running divestment campaigns, we're starting non-profits, and we're throwing ourselves into the breach as teachers. But with so much re-inventing of the wheel, the Millennial generation's activism is not reaching the scale that we need.

For our Federal government to work at all, we need people to buy in as voters. We need people to show up, to use voting as a starting point, and to assist on projects for the greater good. What if, instead of looking for people to joining the organizations that already exist to build to federal levels of power, we were looking instead for an affiliation of organizations? We are, at this point in our technological history, capable of communications structures and consensus building that is far more complex and more nuanced than it has ever been. And we're also at a point where simply repeating the same tired political process is not just not working, it's actively driving people away.

I am not suggesting creating a loose coalition of organizations, where people sign off on national legislation, or add their votes to other people's petitions. Roosevelt is a network in the sense of communicating between different nodes: active sharing of ideas and information and resources, as well as shared problem solving, to go along with the combined sense of purpose, and shared values. Imagine with me, a party that recruited organizations that already existed, without trying to change their mission. Education organizations, environmental groups, crowdfunding platforms, and better business bureaus with a shared set of values, sharing their work and collaborating with each other. Imagine a network, in the truest sense, that takes what is the same about local problems and elevates the core issues to a national platform, while giving each local group the agency to tackle things the way they need to be tackled. Instead of making voting the core part of how we engage as active citizens, let's make it an end product for engaged people who realize that they've reached the logical end of what they can do locally, and thus need to pass some power up the chain to a Federal government that is ready and waiting. 

There was a glimmer of this process in last night, with organizations that were able to move important issues like minimum wage hikes in Nebraska and South Dakota and soda taxes in Berkeley. A network of organizations that supports local groups, finds candidates that share similar values, and passes on best practices? That sounds like a network that Millennials are already engaged in.

Today, America is angry at Millennials for not voting. Instead, I would suggest that we should be angry at an American government that has passed on actual democratic principles in exchange for the consolidation of power. I think Millennials are smart enough to see this, and that we're building different civic infrastructures, some of which will eventually grow to scale. 

Could political parties be one of these things? Maybe. But they would need to embrace the grassroots, and stop worrying so much if that means getting some grass stains on their message. 

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

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Rortybomb on the March: Special Washington Monthly Inequality Issue and The Nation

Nov 4, 2014Mike Konczal

Hey everyone, I have two new pieces out there I hope you check out.

The first is a piece about the financialization of the economy in the latest Washington Monthly. I'm heading up a new project at Roosevelt, more details to come soon, about the financialization of the economy, and this essay is the first product. And I'm happy to have it as part of a special issue on inequality and the economy headed up by the fine people at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. There's a ton of great stuff in there, including an intro by Heather Boushey, Ann O'Leary on early childhood programs, Alan Blinder on boosting wages, and a conclusion by Joe Stiglitz. It's all really great stuff, and I hope it shows a deeper and wider understanding of an inequality agenda.

The second is the latest The Score column at The Nation, which is a focus on the effect of high tax rates on inequality and structuring markets. It's a writeup of the excellent Saez, Piketty, and Stantcheva Three Elasticies paper, and a continuation of a post here at this blog.

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Hey everyone, I have two new pieces out there I hope you check out.

The first is a piece about the financialization of the economy in the latest Washington Monthly. I'm heading up a new project at Roosevelt, more details to come soon, about the financialization of the economy, and this essay is the first product. And I'm happy to have it as part of a special issue on inequality and the economy headed up by the fine people at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. There's a ton of great stuff in there, including an intro by Heather Boushey, Ann O'Leary on early childhood programs, Alan Blinder on boosting wages, and a conclusion by Joe Stiglitz. It's all really great stuff, and I hope it shows a deeper and wider understanding of an inequality agenda.

The second is the latest The Score column at The Nation, which is a focus on the effect of high tax rates on inequality and structuring markets. It's a writeup of the excellent Saez, Piketty, and Stantcheva Three Elasticies paper, and a continuation of a post here at this blog.

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The Federal Reserve Won't Save the Economy for All

Oct 9, 2014Joelle Gamble

Deepening political participation in and beyond voting is key to achieving policies that raise outcomes for the working class.

Deepening political participation in and beyond voting is key to achieving policies that raise outcomes for the working class.

Inflation hawks have been the talk of the town in elite economic circles in recent weeks. More liberal-leaning minds critique their (frankly) unsubstantiated concerns that the Federal Reserve is driving the U.S. economy toward high levels of inflation. Hawks are concerned that high levels of inflation due to expansionary monetary policy will lead to negative economic outcomes for major firms and, in turn, the rest of the American public.

Instead of worrying about inflation, which has remained at or below 1.5 percent for a year and a half, many prominent economists argue that we should focus on wage growth and jobs. We have seen profits for corporations rise to nearly pre-recession rates, while the poverty rate is not declining as fast as it should be. It’s clear there are some big policies that need changing: the minimum wage, the corporate tax structure, federal budget priorities, and regulations ranging across industries. So why is there so much focus on the Fed and the inflation hawks that circle it? Is there some policy lever we can pull here that would raise outcomes for the working class?

Let’s lay it out on the table: Current economic debates have focused on U.S. and global monetary policy because our fiscal policy problems appear to be inoperable. A Congressional stagnation, of sorts, has led to a fixation on a different institution, the Federal Reserve. But, overall, can this fixation actually translate into outcomes for the middle class?

With a gridlocked federal system, where can we push for substantial changes in wages and investment infrastructure that support the working class? Executive orders have their limits, of course. Advancements in cities like Seattle and New York City or states like Maryland have started to take effect. But at some point, a deeper, sustainable change must take place. This is a change in who leads in governance and who leads on policy change.

Elections are our general go-to on these matters. If political representation fails, we can just vote them out! Elections matter, but, there are some facts to consider. Currently, the average U.S. voter has an income higher than the median. This is due to lack of access, as well as the privilege of being able to make time to vote. Thus, we should open up opportunities, such as early voting, to more people. But even still, with faith in government falling, access reforms only go so far.

Beyond the act of voting itself, we have to question the responsiveness of the federal government, in particular, to voters. The growing influence of interest groups and coalitions of the wealthy make the ability to change political outcomes from the ballot box less and less secure.

We need to grow the bench. Deepening political participation in and beyond voting is key to achieving policies that raise outcomes for the working class. It is not enough to vote; government must be responsive. As Roosevelt Institute Fellow Sabeel Rahman notes, historic movements of substantial political reform have popular sovereignty and grassroots movements at their core.

Sabeel's words ring especially true in our current political climate. With congressional ineptitude and an unwillingness of the elites to take responsibility for the current state of our democracy, we must return to local movements and communities to build the foundations needed to create tangible economic change. That’s why members of the Campus Network are piloting the Rethinking Communities initiative. We recognize that democracy starts not in Washington but at home, in our own classrooms, our own cities, and our own communities.

There is no silver bullet or hero in this fight for economic justice. Not one public official, nor one economist, nor one President will solve our mess. A return to democratic principles and a deepening of participatory process is what it will take to uplift the working class.

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

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