Roosevelt Reacts: What Else Did We Need From the 2015 State of the Union?

Jan 23, 2015

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

In the face of strong Republican opposition, President Obama made his stance on many controversial topics quite clear. He outlined his views on topics such as the minimum wage, equal pay for women, LGBTQ+ rights, tax reform and more. These bold and somewhat ambitious goals for change in 2015 will require bipartisan compromise in Congress. It is likely, however, that there will be little correlation between President Obama’s bold vision for the future of the United States and Congress’ actions in the final two years of his presidency. No matter how wonderful or ambitious President Obama’s plans are for the country, the likelihood of any these issues being independently addressed by a Republican controlled Congress is very slim. Yet the president’s plans do not fall on deaf ears. President Obama’s speech gives Democrats in Congress and, more importantly, the American public, ammunition against the Republican’s inevitable inaction, which could potentially help set the stage for the 2016 election.

Chisolm Allenlundy, University of Alabama '16:

It was difficult to miss the amount of politics that happened on Tuesday at President Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address. What might have been easy to miss, however, was the meaning of it all.

President Obama knows that his days of passing game-changing progressive legislation are over. This is a common position for 4th-quarter presidents to find themselves in, and Obama did exactly what such presidents do when they can no longer effectively push for policy change: they push for culture change.

But most Americans don’t watch the political process so much as they hear about it from media sources, which put their own spin on material. According to consumer watch company Nielson, 31.7 million people tuned in for the SOTU, and even that figure is at a 15-year low. While the president has attempted to set the direction for progressive politics for the next year, policy change will be a struggle, and he needs to reach many more Americans to steer the course on our political culture. 

Tarsi Dunlop, Middlebury College '09:

Middle class economics played a key role in the President’s 2015 State of the Union. He explained that middle class economics is about the policies needed for average American families to get ahead. These policies aren’t handouts, but they make daily life better, easier, more fulfilling. For example, what if students could graduate from K-12 with good grades and know they had the option of going to community college without the staggering cost of debt? Granted, there are certain investments that must be made to make sure that community colleges are, as an institution, prepared for the role the President wants them to serve for our nation’s youth.

The President also touched on other elements of middle class economics: key policy proposals that will help young people, new families, and the elderly. He emphasized affordable day care (right now monthly costs can run higher than a mortgage payment), as well as paid family leave and sick leave. Families shouldn’t have to choose between time with new babies and paid work, nor between working and staying home with a sick child. We need a vision and a budget to help the middle class thrive and it was great to hear concrete proposals in the President’s speech.

Hayley Brundige, University of Tennessee, Knoxville '17:

Obama's State of the Union Address illustrated just how far we still have to go in the fight for gender equality. I was ecstatic when Obama asserted that the right to quality childcare and paid maternity and sick leave are not just “women's issues” — as they are often brushed aside as — but a “national economic priority.” But in the back of my mind, I was dismayed that this concept that is so obviously a human right is still so far from being obvious to our elected officials. 

Noticeably missing from the speech was any mention of preventing sexual assault, especially on college campuses. This was particularly surprising seeing as the administration has made this issue a point of focus recently, creating a White House task force on sexual assault and investigating colleges for Title IX violations. Obama even had a readily supplied anecdote, as campus activist and sexual assault survivor Emma Sulkowicz was literally in the audience. As a college student, I applaud Obama's efforts to make community college more accessible, but it's disheartening for him to not address the importance of keeping our campuses safe. No president on record has discussed sexual assault in a State of the Union address.

Zachary Agush, Wheaton College '12:

Over the years, President Obama has always integrated personal stories into his annual State of the Union addresses to paint a visual about the troubles individuals may be facing or to explain how a certain effort can help spark further growth and development for others. I have always considered that a major strength. This year’s speech focused in particular on young families. The President knows that the new generation is quickly becoming the majority of the nation's population and that the lingering inequalities and economic hardships will definitely make it increasingly difficult for them to have the quality of life they desire. This generation is also going to struggle to maintain Social Security and Medicare for those entering these safety net programs in the coming decade. I think those stories in particular hit some members of Congress, even those of the new Republican majority, that something needs to be done to at least give the next generation a chance at success. I am cautiously optimistic that something may happen - but it will only happen if this Congress can actually stop and think about how their gridlock is directly affecting the next generation. Maybe then, there can be progress.

Sarah Hilton, Wheaton College '16:

President Obama made huge strides for education policy on Tuesday night; even raising the issue of rising college tuition is a positive step forward. However, the President hardly mentioned the K-12 system. He praised rising graduation rates and higher test scores then ever before, but ignored the staggering inequality and lack of student performance when compared internationally. Obama’s two-year community college plan, while economically beneficial for the middle class, shows that our base expectations for education continue to require more time and expense.

The focus instead should be on improving the K-12 system we already have by creating more diverse programs that train students for a variety careers from academic to vocational. Today, about half of students begin community college in remedial classes. We should be making our high schools more effective at reaching students. Vocational training for profitable and interesting jobs can be done in high school, and academic programs should be strengthen to reduce the need for remedial classes in community colleges. Strengthening the underlying K-12 system and increasing vocational training would have an earlier impact on our students’ lives.

Jas Johl, University of California, Berkeley '08:

The main rhetorical touch point for the state of the union was 'middle class economics.' Throughout the address, Obama repeatedly turned to that concept, presenting policy ideas designed to bolster it.  Of paramount importance to the ongoing success of middle class, he argued, would be to make the first two years of community college free for all. This proposal does address some of the symptoms of growing economic inequality, namely rising student debt. Nonetheless, it overlooks the underlying, systemic issues at the core of the problem: the broken state of our current education system. 

As The Institute for College Access & Success and the Brookings Institute have both argued, the majority of those attending community college are already getting their tuition covered through Pell Grants and other means of financial support. I’d argue the more pressing issue is the fact that many of the students who enroll in community colleges are ill-prepared for 4-year universities, and spend the first two years of college taking remedial college (read: high school) courses that they didn't do well in or even pass the first time. Free college doesn’t help a student who isn’t ready for it.

Obama makes the very valid point that making those colleges free would assuage the financial burden of a large number of young adults, and likely precipitate a better-prepared workforce. But a glaring absence in the president's speech was acknowledgement of the fundamental cracks in our institutions, namely, our already free K-12 educational system. Real middle class economics necessitate not just free education, but better education for all.

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Obama’s Middle Class Economics Has to be About Fairness and Prosperity

Jan 22, 2015Richard Kirsch

The more-fair "middle-class economics" described in the State of the Union are also the right policies to help the economy grow.

The more-fair "middle-class economics" described in the State of the Union are also the right policies to help the economy grow.

In coining the new term “middle-class economics” and linking it to raising wages and taxing the rich and Wall Street to put money in the pockets of working families, President Obama used his State of the Union address to ask the public that most potent of political questions: “Which side are you on?” And as Republicans say no to improving wages and making college more affordable in order to defend the super-rich, Americans will get a clear answer. That’s a sure win for Democrats.

But the President’s explanation of middle class economics downplayed an important part of the story: it’s not just about fairness, it’s about how we create prosperity.

With the term “middle class economics,” the President is creating a contrast between economic programs aimed at boosting the middle-class and the Republican agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes for corporations. But Obama’s use of the term missed an opportunity to drive home to the American public that middle class economics is not just about fairness, but also about moving the economy forward.

Obama defined middle class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” That is one of the President’s favorite phrases. But for all its appeal, it does not explain how middle-class economics drives economic progress and increases wealth. He fails to replace the Republican story that cutting government, taxes, and regulation are the keys to economic growth.

The President actually included such an explanation of what drives the economy in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he said: “It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class."

Democrats need to firmly claim both the grounds of fairness and prosperity. As I recently wrote, “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.”

This is an easy case to make, as it’s true for most of the policies in the President’s middle class economic agenda.

To take just one example, raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy-boosting jobs instead of 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.

The President’s tax proposals are also about more than just the unfairness of a tax code riddled, as he said, “with giveaways the superrich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.” His proposed taxes on risky bank speculation move that money to invest in vital infrastructure. When he proposes raising taxes on the rich, who already have more money than they can spend, and using those funds to make community colleges more affordable, he’s putting that money into the economy and investing in people’s skills to contribute to economic progress.

Fairness is a very powerful American value. That’s why the most successful Democratic candidates in 2014 made it clear that they were on the side of working families against Wall Street.

But the reason that fairness is so powerful is because of the contrast between the few with vast wealth and what Americans most want, to be able to care for and support their families. We value prosperity and security. That is why it is essential that Democrats can tell a clear story about how we move the economy forward. Middle-class economics is about more than fairness – it’s about how working families and the middle class drive the economy. 

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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Daily Digest - January 14: Advice From Mario Cuomo for Today's Democrats

Jan 14, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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

Mario Cuomo, the Speech and the Challenge to Democrats Today (In These Times)

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

Mario Cuomo, the Speech and the Challenge to Democrats Today (In These Times)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch and Dan Cantor point to Mario Cuomo's vision of mutuality laid out at the 1984 Democratic National Convention as an example today's Democrats should follow.

5 Books: Reading Race and Economics (The Nation)

Joelle Gamble, National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, recommends books on the intersection of race and economics to accompany an article on the economic dimension of #BlackLivesMatter.

Plunge In Wall Street Money Bolsters Populist Shift Among Democrats (HuffPo)

Paul Blumenthal says Wall Street's dramatic shift of campaign resources away from the Democrats isn't the cause of recent populist moves, but less campaign donations creates less industry pressure on the party.

  • Roosevelt Take: Blumenthal links to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson's work on where different industries make their political donations; read his most recent paper on that topic here.

Calls for 'A Living Wage' (Times Union)

Matthew Hamilton reports on a Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy forum, "New York's Cities: Confronting Income Inequality," which featured Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal.

Labor at a Crossroads: How We Know We Haven't Yet Found the Right Model for the Worker Organizations (TAP)

Sejal Parikh cites the recent closing of hundreds of Wet Seal clothing stores and subsequent brief worker outburst online as proof that with the right organization, these stories wouldn't fizzle out.

How Medicaid for Children Recoups Much of Its Cost in the Long Run (NYT)

Margot Sanger-Katz looks at a new study that shows a correlation between Medicaid eligibility and future earnings. Higher earnings means higher taxes, repaying the investment in childhood health.

Elizabeth Warren Is Taking Control of the Democratic Agenda (TNR)

David Dayen writes that Antonio Weiss's withdrawal from his Treasury nomination is proof that Senator Warren has quickly learned how to exert her power over all aspects of the Senate's work.

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On President Obama's Community College Plan and Public Options

Jan 9, 2015Mike Konczal

Looks like a smart plan he announced yesterday. I wrote about it, and public options more generally, here at The Nation. I hope you check it out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Looks like a smart plan he announced yesterday. I wrote about it, and public options more generally, here at The Nation. I hope you check it out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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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 continues to push 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 continues to push 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.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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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