Obama and the GOP Present Two Very Different Paths to Opportunity for All

Feb 3, 2014Richard Kirsch

Both the 2014 State of the Union and the Republican response emphasized the need for an opportunity society, but only the president called for collective action.

Both the 2014 State of the Union and the Republican response emphasized the need for an opportunity society, but only the president called for collective action.

Midway through listening to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ Republican response to the State of the Union address last week, a colleague of mine e-mailed, “they got & used the economic narrative talking points to write this.” My friend was referring to the progressive economic narrative (PEN), developed to provide progressives with a powerful, clear story about the economy and the role of people, government, and business.

In fact, there are powerful similarities in the story of the American Dream that both Obama and Republicans express, particularly as Republicans increasingly see that they must speak to Americans who are being pushed out of the middle class and struggling to stay out of poverty. That convergence is not by itself bad. It is an opportunity to draw attention to the huge chasm that exists between the two narratives, a Republican story based solely on the individual and a Democratic one that sees the individual in relation to collective action.

Perhaps this is the line by McMorris Rodgers that triggered my colleague’s ire: “Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind.” After all, one line from PEN is “Too many Americans can’t find a job and too many jobs pay wages that don’t support a family.”

It is not a surprise that Republicans have been embracing part of the progressive story – that the middle class is getting crushed – because that is how most Americans are feeling, and pollsters for both parties are emphasizing that politicians must speak to where people are now to have any credibility.

The similarities go beyond just relating to economic insecurity. Both Obama and McMorris Rodgers have the same vision of the American Dream, an opportunity society in which people are, as McMorris Rodgers said, “not defined by our limits, but by our potential.” Or, as the president put it, “our success should depend on… the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.”

The heroes in both stories are hardworking Americans. Obama: “the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility you get ahead.” McMorris Rodgers: “They taught me to work hard, help others, and always, always, dream for more.”

A job is how our hero achieves his or her dream. McMorris Rodgers says, “a job is so much more than a paycheck – it gives us purpose, dignity…” The president asks that “we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work…”

The underlying value in both stories is opportunity. McMorris Rodgers anticipates that Obama will focus his speech on inequality and tries to cut him off at the rhetorical pass: “The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality.”

But Obama was not, in fact, giving a speech about inequality. He too was focused on opportunity, as Benjamin Landy bemoaned. “Instead of inequality, the President talked about ‘opportunity,’ a poll-tested alternative Obama deployed 14 times during the 65 minute speech. ‘Inequality’ was mentioned three times.”

Saying that “opportunity for all” is “what unites the people of this nation,” Obama declared, “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”

It is on the question of how we achieve the quest for opportunity for all that the president and McMorris Rodgers profoundly differ, where opposite visions of how we achieve the American Dream are projected. And remember that McMorris Rodgers’s speech is entirely a representation of Republican messaging

According to McMorris Rodgers, you get there by yourself, with the help of your family. Her talk, as those of you who had the patience to listen through it will remember, was all about herself and her family: the work and savings ethics taught by her parents in a rural small town in Eastern Washington, her raising of her son born with Down syndrome.

And that, in her political narrative, is how we address the challenge facing the country, “one manufacturing job, nursing degree, and small business at a time.” Her talk barely bothers with policy directives, but those few that appear are based on the individual.

The most robust policy paragraph in her talk is, “We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school...so college is affordable...and skills training is modernized.” When it comes to health care, “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not government. [emphasis added]”

As far as how to get Americans those jobs, Republicans have “plans that focus on jobs first, without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.… We have solutions to help you take home more of your pay – through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs, and affordable health care.”

The villain is unmistakable in her story: “Government that decides for you.”

But while the president’s heroes are individual hard-working Americans, he makes it clear that we build the pathway to opportunity for all through collective action. The word “community” appears 13 times in Obama’s speech; not once in McMorris Rodgers. The president uses “us” referring to the nation, 17 times; McMorris Rodgers, four times.

The substance of Obama’s policy solutions are replete with concerted actions, and the entire premise that we do something together, through our government, is the exact opposite of the Republican story of getting the government out of the way.

The stories he tells unite the individual and the community. For example, a student who, “thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.”

Summing it all up – the heroes, the quest, the role of individual and the community, Obama says, “It’s the spirit of citizenship, the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.”

The narratives in President Obama and McMorris Rodgers’ responses are more than just a minor part of the evening’s political theater. They speak to the fundamental ideological divide in the nation and frame the political choices before the country now and over the coming decade. In the starkest terms, it is a contrast between “you are on your own” and “we are all in this together.” We want to tell our story in those terms, for when we do, progressives absolutely win that debate.  

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.

 

Images via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - January 31: Out of Economic Chaos Come Executive Orders

Jan 31, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The President and Inequality (All In with Chris Hayes)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The President and Inequality (All In with Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz discusses the place of inequality in this week's State of the Union address, and the deeper question of why we don't implement the economic policies that would absolutely make a difference.

A History of Executive Orders (All In with Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren talks about the similarities between President Obama's plans for executive orders, as announced in the State of the Union, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of the executive order, which also pushed for progressive labor policy.

Obama’s Toughest Job (NYRB)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative Jeff Madrick comments on the State of the Union, complimenting the president for making jobs a central focus despite the challenges of that issue.

The Post Office Should Just Become a Bank (TNR)

David Dayen argues that there's one policy the president could push through that would contribute to many of the goals he articulated in the State of the Union: postal banking, which would create jobs, help the poor, and could be accomplished through executive order.

Why Alt-Labor Groups Are Making Employers Mighty Nervous (TAP)

Lane Windham says that for all that anti-union groups want to tout low union membership numbers, labor isn't going anywhere. Alternative labor groups are growing and gaining power, as the growing discussion about raising the minimum wage makes clear.

GOTD: Inequality Is Not A Four Letter Word (Blog of the Century)

Benjamin Landy contrasts Tuesday's State of the Union with the president's December 4 speech at the Center for American Progress. His shift from "inequality" to "opportunity" is clearly a political one, since he still endorsed progressive policies, but why the centrist rhetoric?

New on Next New Deal

The Rise of 'Insourcing' Gives Internet Companies a New Way to Exploit Workers

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Operations Strategist Lydia Bowers cautions that while Internet-based service companies like Uber and Taskrabbit may make life easy for their customers, they don't give their workers any real protections.

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Republican Alternative to Obamacare: Pay More, Get Less, Put the Insurance Companies Back in Charge

Jan 28, 2014Richard Kirsch

Now that Republicans have put out an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should emphasize what a repeal would really mean for Americans' health.

Now that Republicans have put out an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should emphasize what a repeal would really mean for Americans' health.

Boy, can Democrats have fun with the new Republican alternative to Obamacare. It puts the health insurance companies back in charge and raises costs for almost all Americans. In particular, it substantially raises costs and threatens to cut coverage for the half of all Americans who get health insurance at work. Seniors, the group that Republicans have scared witless about Obamacare, would lose the real benefits they receive under Obamacare. The proposal from three Republican senators is a golden opportunity for Democrats to contrast the specific benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with what a repeal and replace agenda would really mean for Americans’ lives and health.

When it comes to the politics of health care reform, my first adage is “the solution is the problem.” That is because once you get past vague generalities, like lowering cost and making coverage available, to proposing specifics, people will look to see how the proposals impact them personally. This is why health reform is such a political nightmare. Unlike most public policy issues, the impact is very understandable and real.

With the ACA as the law of the land, in analyzing the Republican proposal we must compare its impact to the law it would repeal. The pre-ACA model of health insurance is irrelevant. Here is how the Republican plan would impact people, compared with the ACA:

People who get health insurance at workbottom line: pay more for worse coverage.

Almost half of all Americans (48 percent), or 148 million people, obtain health insurance at work. The Republican plan would tax 35 percent of the average cost of health insurance benefits at work. This is a big tax increase on working people and is extraordinarily unpopular, as the Obama campaign used to devastating impact on John McCain. And while people would pay more, they would get less coverage, as the GOP plan would allow insurance companies to once again limit the amount of benefits they will pay out in one year and return to the day when employers could offer bare-bones plans.

While taxing health benefits would apply to all employer-provided coverage, the Republicans would give the 30 percent of people who work for businesses who employ fewer than 100 workers a tax credit. That might balance out the increased taxes for some people. However, doing so would create a huge set of economic distortions, as employers might seek to keep firm size under the 100-employee threshold.

Individuals who buy coverage on their own or who are uninsured – bottom line: insurance companies could again deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and offer bare-bones coverage, while the cost of decent coverage would go up for most people.

This is the group that the ACA is most aimed at helping, including the 5 percent of Americans who buy private health insurance and the 15 percent who are uninsured, totaling 64 million people. The ACA offers income-based subsidies to these people when they earn between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) and enrolls people under 133 percent of FPL in Medicaid, when states agree.

The Republican plan is toughest, in comparison with the ACA, on the lowest income people and on the higher-income middle-class, compared with Obamacare. But many families in between will do worse too.

The Republican plan would wipe out the expansion of Medicaid to people earning less than 133 percent of FPL, a provision the Supreme Court has made optional. It would cut back on Medicaid, ending the federal government’s offer to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanded coverage and replacing that with the federal government paying what it has paid historically, which is between half and three-quarters of the cost of Medicaid, with poorer states getting a bigger share. Crucially, the funding would only be for pregnant women, children and parents with dependent children who earn under the poverty level, as opposed to the ACAs funding of all adults up to 133% of FPL. That means many fewer people covered and states getting less Medicaid money. Republican governors may not complain, but you can bet hospitals will. Adults without dependent children would not be covered by federal Medicaid, which means millions will stay uninsured or lose coverage they now have, unless states pay for coverage without federal support.

For individuals not covered by Medicaid or employees of firms with fewer than 100 workers, the Republican plan would replace the ACA’s sliding-scale subsidies, which now go to 400 percent of FPL, with a subsidy that is the same for everyone of the same age who is under 200 percent of FPL and lowersubsidies for people from 200 percent to 300 percent. In addition, the subsidies would be higher for older people than younger. The Republican plan also would take away the requirements that insurance plans offer decent benefits and free preventive care and charge women the same prices as men for coverage, along with every other consumer protection, with the exception of keeping in place no lifetime caps for covered benefits.

Comparing the value of the Republican plan subsidies vs. the ACA subsidies for the people who would still qualify depends on income, age, and family size. Generally, it appears that the Republican subsidies are much less than the ACA for people under 150 percent of the FPL ($35,000 for a family of four) and much less than the ACA for younger people, but more for older people. However, insurance rates for younger people would go down some at the expense of older people, who insurance companies could charge a lot more than under ACA. And families with incomes above $70,000 for a family of four would lose subsidies entirely.

Seniors and the disabled on Medicare – bottom line: seniors would pay more for prescription drugs and preventive care.

By repealing the ACA, the Republican plan would take away its two concrete benefits for seniors. One is that preventive care services are now free under Medicare (as they are under all insurance). The other is that the ACA is lowering drug prices for seniors by slowly closing the “donut hole,” under which seniors must pay the full cost of prescription drugs even though they are paying premiums for drug coverage. In other words, the Republican plan is simply bad news for seniors, the constituency that they have scared the most about Obamacare groundlessly.

 

It is not surprising that Republicans have been reluctant to come up with a replacement for Obamacare. It’s much easier to throw darts – or bombs – at the ACA than to come up with a replacement that meets Republican ideological tenants of less regulation and less government. Any plan that meets the ideological test will be much worse for people in ways they can understand. It is our job to explain it to the public clearly: pay more, get less, put the insurance companies back in charge. This debate is not simply the political game Republicans want to make it. It is about our health and our lives. 

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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41 Years After Roe, Women's Rights Are Still at Risk

Jan 24, 2014Andrea Flynn

As we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we should acknowledge the right's battle to eliminate a woman's right to choose as well as the proactive measures coming from the pro-choice movement.

As we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we should acknowledge the right's battle to eliminate a woman's right to choose as well as the proactive measures coming from the pro-choice movement.

This week marks the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established women have a constitutional right to an abortion. While the status of American women has, by many counts, improved greatly in the years since, our ability to make choices about our bodies – a fundamental condition of our overall physical, social, and economic well-being – has recently eroded. For many women in the United States today, access to a safe and legal abortion is as far out of reach as it was 41 years ago.

During the past three years, conservative lawmakers in many states have imposed transformative restrictions on access to reproductive health care generally, and on abortion specifically. As the Guttmacher Institute recently reported, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted in the past three years, while 189 were passed during the entire previous decade (2001–2010). In 2013 alone, 70 anti-choice measures took effect in 22 states.

North Dakota and Texas banned abortions after 20 weeks. South Dakota passed a law that mandates a 72-hour waiting period, exempting holidays and weekends, forcing some women to wait up to six days before receiving the procedure (the 72 hours, plus a three-day holiday weekend). Iowa now requires the governor to personally approve each payment to a hospital or clinic that provides an abortion to a Medicaid patient. Arizona passed a ban on abortions after 12 weeks (which was recently overturned by the Supreme Court). In a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court, clinics in Massachusetts risk losing their ability to institute buffer zones necessary to protect the safety of their patients.

As NARAL Pro-Choice America recently detailed, laws in other states have restricted funding for Planned Parenthood, prohibited abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges, imposed mandatory and medically unnecessary ultrasounds, and required physicians to jump through countless – and often impossible – hoops in order to perform the procedure. Some of these laws have been overturned, but many remain in place and effectively prevent women, particularly poor women, from accessing care.

Republicans lost the votes of single women by a decisive 36 points – and women overall by 12 points – in the last presidential election. Losing a key voting block by such a wide margin would be reason for some politicians to consider changing course. Not the GOP. In their post-election autopsy, Republican strategists themselves sounded an alarm and advised their ranks to change course – to lighten up on matters of choice and instead remind voters of the “Republican Party’s historical role in advancing the women’s rights movement.” Instead of listening to women, Republican lawmakers remain intent on punishing them.

As my colleague Tara Culp-Ressler of Think Progress wrote, Republicans have seized on abortion with a renewed zeal and will continue to advance their anti-choice platform in the months and years to come. At the RNC annual meeting this week – which conveniently overlapped with the annual anti-abortion March for Life – party leaders introduced a resolution encouraging lawmakers to push for a host of additional abortion restrictions, including parental notification laws, late-term abortion bans, and mandatory waiting periods. As Zoe Carpenter of The Nation pointed out, Republicans will use re-invigorated anti-choice messaging – delivered by female candidates – to excite their conservative base in the mid-term elections. They remain confident that further restrictions are palatable to voters and will use them, in addition to stale (and weak) arguments about taxpayer funding for abortion, to attempt to sway undecided voters.

State legislatures and local governments are thus seen as fertile ground for waging assaults on women’s health. But contrary to Republican expectations, this year those same sites could be promising frontiers for advancing policies that protect and advance women’s health and rights instead of restricting them.

Even as heartland states delivered setbacks for women in 2013, important victories emerged out of progressive states. California enacted a law, for example, that allows nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, and physician assistants to provide early abortion services. Lawmakers in San Francisco, Austin, and Baltimore passed laws that hold Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) accountable for false and misleading practices and require them to clearly indicate the limited nature of their services. Portland, ME instituted a buffer zone policy around abortion providers, and Dane County, WI now requires all county contractors to provide comprehensive health care information, preventing CPCs from receiving funding if they mislead their patients. We must dedicate our energy and efforts to replicating these successes across the country.

Even as we celebrate gains in progressive states, we must continue to make our voices heard nationally. In November, a group of Democratic members of Congress introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would, if passed, keep states from further restricting access to abortion and preventing physicians from acting in the best interests of their patients. While the bill has little chance of being passed in a Republican-controlled House, it provides an important model for national legislation that could protect a woman’s right to choose if partisan alignments shift.

On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, most especially, let’s remember the heavy toll women pay when abortion is unsafe and illegal. Let’s remember that many women will lose that right all together unless we step forward and take action. We must strengthen alliances of pro-choice lawmakers across the nation, provide them with case studies of what has worked in other cities and states, and muster up more financial resources and political will to proactively protect women’s right to choose. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

Photo via ThinkStock.

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The Right Takes Aim at Public Sector Unions in a New Supreme Court Case

Jan 23, 2014Richard Kirsch

A dispute over whether home care workers in Illinois can be required to pay union dues is part of a much larger strategy to undermine the progressive power base.

A dispute over whether home care workers in Illinois can be required to pay union dues is part of a much larger strategy to undermine the progressive power base.

You have to hand it to the right wing: it understands the importance of institutional power more than much of the liberal establishment. It took down ACORN, the organization that registered the most low-income voters of color in the nation, and Democrats in Congress and many big liberal foundations went along with it. Its relentless, decades-long campaign against the labor law that protects private sector organizing has slashed the share of unionized private sector workers to less than 7 percent, while a succession of Democrats in the White House and Congress have stood by.

Since 2010, the right has been focusing its attacks on public sector workers, one-fourth of whom are represented by unions with collective-bargaining rights. It has aimed to weaken bargaining rights in Midwestern states with long histories of union representation and has had (too) much success. This week, it brought that fight to the Supreme Court, in a case that could destroy the financial base of the biggest remaining source of support for government and vital domestic services.

The case is Harris v. Quinn, in which a group of home care workers in Illinois is challenging the state's requirement that the workers pay union dues. The workers are employed by individual patients but are funded by Medicaid. Having unions, in this case SEIU, represent home care workers is part of an admirable strategy of extending collective bargaining to workers who are publicly funded even if they do not work directly for the government. Since federal law does not provide collective bargaining rights to either public employees or domestic home care workers, using state law to organize these workers, who typically get low pay with no benefits, is vitally important to their own well-being and to building a middle-class driven economy.

However, the debate among the Supreme Court justices yesterday did not focus on the narrow question of whether Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich had the power to categorize the home care workers as public employees. Instead, the justices debated whether, because issues of wages and benefits for public employees are inevitably and intrinsically matters of public policy, compelling workers to pay union dues would be an infringement on free speech and association.

The Illinois workers are represented by the National Right to Work Foundation, whose attorney, William Messenger, was eager to expand the case, which suggests it was developed as a political weapon, not a true complaint by a handful of workers about paying dues. Messenger argued, as Lyle Denniston explains at SCOTUSblog, that “anything a public employee union does is an attempt to shape matters of ‘public concern,’ and it should not be able to compel support — even for part of the monthly dues — from workers who oppose the union’s public policy ambitions.”

Just so nobody missed the ideological stakes at the heart of this legal argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that workers who favor shrinking the size of government would have their First Amendment rights trampled if the union argued to expand the workforce. The same logic would apply to the union defending the current size of the workforce or how much workers get paid.

Logically, it is impossible for a public sector union to represent its members’ interest in keeping their jobs or in how much they get paid without affecting public policy. This point was made by SEIU’s attorney Paul Smith, who said, “Any outcome of a negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement involving public employees will involve the expenditure of public money in a variety of ways.”

Of course, public employee unions' interest in defending their members is why those unions support increased taxes and funding of government programs. The union positions are not always progressive. Unions sometimes support regressive tax increases. Sometimes AFSCME, which represents corrections officers, lobbies for stricter sentencing or against closing of prisons. But on the whole, in advocating for their members, public employee unions support maintaining and expanding public services, oppose privatization, and are a major source of organizing, funding, and lobbying for those policies and an absolutely vital part of the progressive infrastructure. Hence they are a big target for the right.

When these issues have been debated in the past, the Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of required union dues for public employees while insisting that political contributions be voluntary. As Adam Liptak explains in the New York Times, “In 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court said that teachers who declined to join a union could nevertheless be required to help pay for the union’s collective bargaining efforts to prevent freeloading and ensure ‘labor peace.’ But workers may not be forced to help pay for a union’s purely political activities, the court said.”

That argument may explain why Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. agreed that advocating for increased Medicaid reimbursement would not be by itself a permissible union activity, but argued that the state’s interest in designating a union to maintain labor peace was the determining factor in supporting the mandatory dues. Verilli’s argument may be a good one before this Court, but it defies logic and avoids the real issue of the interwoven nature of public policy and public worker bargaining. The Court should recognize that the effective right of association in public employee unions depends on the unions engaging in public policy to improve their members’ working conditions.

The Supreme Court reporters whom I read all agreed that the Court is unlikely to overturn Abood and outlaw mandatory dues by public employees, with one pointing out that the Court affirmed that position in 2007 in an opinion written by Justice Scalia. There is some reason to think that Chief Justice Roberts could avoid the issue by narrowing the ruling to the question of whether Illinois can designate the home care workers as public employees.

However, a decision to overturn mandatory dues collection by public employees would be a body blow to Americans who believe in establishing collective responsibility for common goods by raising taxes and spending public dollars on government. 

Public employee unions, and unions that are working to develop new ways to represent workers in the private sector who are paid with public dollars, are a leading force for creating opportunity and security in an America that works for all of us. They will continue to be a target of the right. Progressives at every level must support them and work to expand, not restrict, their reach.

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.

 

Image via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - January 3: Progressives Have a Lot to Celebrate – and Fight For

Jan 3, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The 25 Best Progressive Victories of 2013 (HuffPo)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The 25 Best Progressive Victories of 2013 (HuffPo)

Peter Dreier highlights real accomplishments from the progressive movement last year, ranging from momentum on the minimum wage to continued pressures on Wall Street. He plugs the Roosevelt Institute for its involvement in the fight to reduce student debt.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Field Strategist Joelle Gamble writes about student-led proposals for addressing the student loan crisis.

The great story (CJR)

Dean Starkman argues that a shift in journalism practices from investigative reporting to access reporting, which involves obtaining inside information from powerful people, caused mainstream financial journalism to miss the signs of the financial crisis in 2008.

Finally, Some Conservative Ideas to Solve the Jobs Crisis (The Daily Beast)

Jamelle Bouie praises Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute for putting forward a real plan for ending mass unemployment from a conservative perspective. Unfortunately, the GOP's brand of conservatism doesn't include these kinds of proposals.

The Strange Case of American Inequality (Project Syndicate)

J. Bradford DeLong argues that this economic crisis and its impact on America's productive capabilities is actually worse than the Great Depression. The lack of political reaction leads him to suggest that American democracy could be as damaged as the economy.

Low-wage workers’ movement looks to build on banner year (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff sees the new labor tactics of 2013 as a possible source of revival for unions. The question is whether alternative labor groups organizing one-day strikes at fast food restaurants and at Wal-Mart can maintain momentum.

Meet the Americans Who've Lost Their Unemployment Benefits: "I'm Thoroughly Petrified" (MoJo)

Dana Liebelson collects stories from people who have been out of work for more than six months, and therefore lost their unemployment benefits when Congress failed to extended emergency benefits. All of these workers have been job hunting; it just hasn't worked out yet.

Senate Democrats Plan Fast-Track Fix to Reinstate Lost Unemployment Benefits (The Guardian)

Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe explain the bill that the Senate hopes to vote on early next week, which would extend benefits through March. There's little question the bill will pass the Senate, but no one knows what will happen in the House.

New on Next New Deal

Looking to 2014: The Emerging Movement for the Next New Deal

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch is optimistic about what the progressive movement can accomplish this year. He sees growing support for the fight against economic inequality and smart strategies developing at the grassroots level.

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Looking to 2014: The Emerging Movement for the Next New Deal

Jan 2, 2014Richard Kirsch

The rise of a new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.

The rise of a new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.

Thomas Edsall, who now is capping off his long career writing insightfully about the relationship between economics and public opinion as a blogger for The New York Times, concluded a piece in late December by saying, “Progressives are now dependent on the fragile possibility that inequality and socioeconomic immobility will push the social order to the breaking point and force the political system to respond.”

Edsall’s bleak prognosis raises the biggest question facing not only progressives, but the future of our democracy: is the political system in the United States capable of responding to the escalating crisis of stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, dissolving economic opportunity, and disappearing hopes of living anything that resembles the American Dream?

It is a question I ask myself every day. But I reach a different conclusion than Edsall, because for all his powers of observation, he misses the role that people play in changing history. I see a growing movement of Americans organized by progressives who are not waiting for the social order to break, but are instead forcing the political system to respond.

Edsall reaches his conclusion by way of two commentators, my colleague Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute and Harvard economist Ben Friedman. Konczal’s analysis of the quandary is cogent, as he provided “a two part description of the liberal state” in a 2011 post:

#1 you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power, and #2 you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks… I think it is safe to say that liberals have abandoned #1 and doubled-down on #2… Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.

Friedman’s contribution is to point out, as Edsall summarizes, that “during hard times people become less altruistic and more inclined to see the poor as undeserving.” Friedman says that when people are squeezed economically, rather than identifying with those still worse off, they “enter a period of retreat and retrenchment.” That is certainly what we are seeing now, with the government cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a much larger swath of the safety net in a shrinking budget.

On the other hand, Friedman says times of broadly-shared prosperity encourage “greater generosity toward those who, through some combination of natural circumstance, market forces and sheer luck, have been left behind.”

When we look at the big periods of progressive change in the 20th century through this lens, we can ask, are we more similar to the soaring post-World War II middle class that led to the Great Society, or to the wrecked economy that led to the New Deal? After the Great Recession, that’s a no-brainer.

So is Edsall then correct in concluding that the only way to get to the next New Deal is waiting for another disintegration of the economy like we saw after the Great Depression? Or is even that a misreading of New Deal history, in which decades of building a movement of working people laid the groundwork for the New Deal laws that established the right to organize unions, fair labor standards like a minimum wage, and social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment compensation?

If we have to wait, we’re in big trouble, because as we saw in 2008, we are much less likely to see another collapse like the Great Depression thanks to the progressive accomplishments of the 20th century. The aggressive use of the Federal Reserve and banking regulations prevented a total collapse of the financial system. The safety net – food stamps, Medicaid, etc. – and the social insurance programs of unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare prevented widespread destitution. These measures allowed us to have a Great Recession rather than a second Great Depression.  

But the Great Recession also deepened the three-decade-long trend of families seeing their incomes and lifestyles squeezed by stagnant wages, eroding benefits, and the rising costs of gateways to opportunity. As a result, we are seeing an escalation of the path to the next New Deal: organizing people to demand that we create a 21st century economy of broadly-shared opportunity and prosperity.

The past year saw the explosion of organized fast food workers, from a handful of community-supported walk-outs demanding higher wages a year ago to actions involving thousands of workers and supporters in some 130 cities in December. The growing movement earned national as well as local news coverage.

Less visible, but deeper, is the emergence of new forms of worker organizing, taking place largely outside of traditional unions and the national labor law, known generally as the workers’ center movement. Domestic workers, through the National Domestic Workers Union, have won passage of laws giving them new labor protections in California and New York. Tomato pickers in Florida, under the banner of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have won higher wages by building consumer pressure against the supermarkets and restaurant chains that buy the crops they pick. Immigrant and low-wage workers around the country, at workers’ centers that are part of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, have resisted wage theft and won basic protections in day labor and construction. The examples go on and are analogous to the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The long-simmering pressure for raising the minimum wage is now becoming a national political force, with Democrats embracing the issue. The passage of a $15 minimum wage in Sea-Tac, outside of Seattle, will be a harbinger of more local actions to define a minimum wage in ways that make sense for people’s lives, not some political calculation about what’s possible.

In New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s reluctance to support paid sick days, siding with the business community, destroyed her support among the progressive base, paving the way for the election of Bill de Blasio, who rose both on his progressive platform and as the result of a decades-long base-building project in the city. These contests will continue to escalate, as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, where a Democratic mayor has twice vetoed a paid sick day ordinance approved by the City Council. As they do, Democrats who take the Quinn route will find themselves on the sidelines with her.

Cultural and demographic trends are encouraging, too. While the progressive politics of the growing numbers of the young, single women, and Latinos have garnered notice, another hopeful trend is that among non-college-educated whites, one of the most conservative groups in the country, the young are much more progressive than their older counterparts. Pope Francis has become an instant hero not just by easing back on his church’s focus on sex, but by directly challenging trickle-down economics.

In all this, history will look at President Obama as a transitional figure. He has pledged to make income inequality the defining issue of the day, but he still chooses a low-wage Amazon warehouse as a venue to address the issue. He still seeks to reconcile the destruction of the middle class with the rise of Wall Street.

Wall Street and K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all greasing the system while stoking resentment of “the takers” and people of color, in a nation with a deep “it’s up to me and my family alone” streak, remain huge obstacles to building an America that works for all. The change we are making will take time.

What gives me hope is that, for all its flaws, we still live in a nation where popular will can make change. And we have a history of creating change from below and then electing leaders who, like FDR, drilled into the deep well of hope that has given life to the best of America, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, the Progressive era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society.

Earlier this week, on the last day of 2013, I called up Mike Konczal and asked him to reflect on Edsall’s dark conclusion. Here’s what he told me: “I’m more optimistic than I was when I wrote that piece two years ago. People are agitating, building new infrastructure. Issues like the minimum wage are gaining prominence. We’re seeing mobilizing among non-traditional workers like day-care workers.”

It is up to us to make history. Let’s get to work in 2014. 

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 banner image via Shutterstock.com

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Rortybomb's Best of 2013

Dec 31, 2013Mike Konczal

2013. The year we won the argument but lost the war. It’s better than losing both the arguments and the war, I suppose.

2013 brought us a fiscal deficit that closed far too fast, NGDP growth and inflation falling compared to previous years, and unemployment completely falling off the political radar at the same moment the argument that the deficit was a worry collapsed. Before there were elaborate arguments about how the unemployed were this or that, or uncertainty was causing the one thing and the other. Now it's just quiet out there, yet the economy remains below potential. The collapse of the counter-Keynesian position didn't revitalize a position of aggressive action; it just left a void.

But rortybomb enterprises still marches forward. Here are the top posts from this blog for 2013:

1-2) My initial writeup of the work of Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin's critical dismantling of the Reinhart and Rogoff argument for austerity crashed this website shortly after it went up. That, and the follow-up from Arin Dube arguing that the causation was certainly backwards, are two of the most read things I’ve been involved with, and I’m honored to have played a role in dismantling this argument. A nice reminder that these things matter and blogs matter too; perhaps some people in Europe aren't being pummeled into dust as a result of this place.

3) I wrote a piece taking apart what kind of problem the ACA botched roll-out is for (neo)liberalism, that got people aruging about what kinds of social insurance we want out there.

4) I discussed the minimum wage, which I'll be doing much more of in 2014, throwing down the argument that it forms an important complement to various tax-based income support measures like the EITC.

5) I also wrote about Samuel Freeman’s argument that We Already Tried Libertarianism - It Was Called Feudalism. The term feudalism was chosen to be provocative, but the real concept is that it is anti-liberal in the traditional sense, and feeds on something darker, more pre-modern, than most people give it credit for.

Wonkblog: This year I wanted to write more regular columns at other venues, and was pretty successful at that goal. I contributed a weekly column to the Washington Post's Wonkblog. My favorites, in case you missed them the first time around:

The arguments surrounding the Universal Basic Income. (I received several notes from people happy to see Gøsta Esping-Andersen name-dropped in the Washington Post.) Creating a theory of the state that went into the shutdown. What we get wrong when we describe the financial crisis. Bernanke versus austerity. The idea of public problems. Is a democratic surveillance state possible? Defending the 30 year mortgage and the Volcker Rule. We are teaching economics backwards. And an interview with Shelia Bair that was mentioned in the House by people trying, successfully, to rally House Democrats against dismantling Section 716 of Dodd-Frank.

In Other News: I also started writing some columns for The New Republic and Al-Jazeera America at the end of the year, which I'll continue into 2014. I also wrote a review of Phillip Mirowski's latest book for the New Inquiry, meaning I've completed the hat-trick of writing for TNI, Jacobin and Dissent in the past year and a half. I also co-edited a big report on the future of financial reform which I’m very proud of, and will continue to build out next year. And Thomas Edsall wrote an excellent overview of the arguments we've built here at rortybomb for the New York Times.

Here’s to a good 2014. There's some exciting stuff already in the works.

Previous editions: 2012, 2011

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

2013. The year we won the argument but lost the war. It’s better than losing both the arguments and the war, I suppose.

2013 brought us a fiscal deficit that closed far too fast, NGDP growth and inflation falling compared to previous years, and unemployment completely falling off the political radar at the same moment the argument that the deficit was a worry collapsed. Before there were elaborate arguments about how the unemployed were this or that, or uncertainty was causing the one thing and the other. Now it's just quiet out there, yet the economy remains below potential. The collapse of the counter-Keynesian position didn't revitalize a position of aggressive action; it just left a void.

But rortybomb enterprises still marches forward. Here are the top posts from this blog for 2013:

1-2) My initial writeup of the work of Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin's critical dismantling of the Reinhart and Rogoff argument for austerity crashed this website shortly after it went up. That, and the follow-up from Arin Dube arguing that the causation was certainly backwards, are two of the most read things I’ve been involved with, and I’m honored to have played a role in dismantling this argument. A nice reminder that these things matter and blogs matter too; perhaps some people in Europe aren't being pummeled into dust as a result of this place.

3) I wrote a piece taking apart what kind of problem the ACA botched roll-out is for (neo)liberalism, that got people aruging about what kinds of social insurance we want out there.

4) I discussed the minimum wage, which I'll be doing much more of in 2014, throwing down the argument that it forms an important complement to various tax-based income support measures like the EITC.

5) I also wrote about Samuel Freeman’s argument that We Already Tried Libertarianism - It Was Called Feudalism. The term feudalism was chosen to be provocative, but the real concept is that it is anti-liberal in the traditional sense, and feeds on something darker, more pre-modern, than most people give it credit for.

Wonkblog: This year I wanted to write more regular columns at other venues, and was pretty successful at that goal. I contributed a weekly column to the Washington Post's Wonkblog. My favorites, in case you missed them the first time around:

The arguments surrounding the Universal Basic Income. (I received several notes from people happy to see Gøsta Esping-Andersen name-dropped in the Washington Post.) Creating a theory of the state that went into the shutdown. What we get wrong when we describe the financial crisis. Bernanke versus austerity. The idea of public problems. Is a democratic surveillance state possible? Defending the 30 year mortgage and the Volcker Rule. We are teaching economics backwards. And an interview with Shelia Bair that was mentioned in the House by people trying, successfully, to rally House Democrats against dismantling Section 716 of Dodd-Frank.

In Other News: I also started writing some columns for The New Republic and Al-Jazeera America at the end of the year, which I'll continue into 2014. I also wrote a review of Phillip Mirowski's latest book for the New Inquiry, meaning I've completed the hat-trick of writing for TNI, Jacobin and Dissent in the past year and a half. I also co-edited a big report on the future of financial reform which I’m very proud of, and will continue to build out next year. And Thomas Edsall wrote an excellent overview of the arguments we've built here at rortybomb for the New York Times.

Here’s to a good 2014. There's some exciting stuff already in the works.

Previous editions: 2012, 2011

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

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The Best from the Roosevelt Institute's Millennial Networks in 2013

Dec 27, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

The Roosevelt Institute's Daily Digest is taking a break for the holidays. We'll be back on January 2, but in the meantime, we're rounding up highlights from our blog in 2013. Today, we have some recommended reading from our Millennial networks. On Monday, December 30, we'll have highlights from the Fellows in the Four Freedoms Center.

The Roosevelt Institute's Daily Digest is taking a break for the holidays. We'll be back on January 2, but in the meantime, we're rounding up highlights from our blog in 2013. Today, we have some recommended reading from our Millennial networks. On Monday, December 30, we'll have highlights from the Fellows in the Four Freedoms Center.

Think Global, Act Hyper-Local: Campus Network Rates Colleges on Economic and Social Impact in Their Communities

Alan Smith, Associate Director of Network Initiatives at the Roosevelt Institute, introduces the Rethinking Communities project, an initiative examining how anchor institutions – like the colleges and universities attended by Campus Network students – affect their local economies. This project kicks off in 2014!

What is the Crash Generation?

Former Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowitz says that the Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession have the will and the desire to reshape the American economy into something that will provide better opportunity for all.

President Obama: Give Millennials a Seat at the Table on Climate Change

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment Melia Ungson argues that because Millennials have the largest stake in the long-term future of the planet, the White House should bring more young people into the policy-making process on this issue.

Corporate Education Reform Won’t Solve the Problems Caused by Poverty

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Education Raul Gardea points out that testing and test prep can’t solve the non-school factors that limit some students’ achievement, and if policymakers don’t acknowledge that fact, they won’t solve education inequality. 

Local Government is the Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Economic Inequality

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Field Strategist Joelle Gamble argues that new weapons are needed to push back against economic inequality. Cities and towns should provide innovative incentives to businesses that encourage the right kind of economic growth.

Sister Simone Campbell Shows Us Freedom of Worship is a Bipartisan Value

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Defense and Diplomacy Jacqueline Van de Velde looks at the work of Sister Simone Campbell, who was awarded the Freedom of Worship Medal at the 2013 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards, and considers the bipartisan nature of religious freedom.

McCutcheon v. FEC Could Give Rich Donors Even Greater Power Over Our Elections

Jeff Raines, Chair of the Student Board of Advisors for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, explains why this Supreme Court case isn’t about freedom of speech, but instead is about how much influence individuals should have over elections in the United States. The decision on this case is still pending.

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

Naomi Ahsan, Director of Programming for the DC network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline, sees the Zimmerman verdict as a potential catalyst for organizing against self-defense laws that enforce racism.

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Farewell to Health Care for America Now

Dec 19, 2013Richard Kirsch

The campaign that won passage of health care reform is closing up shop, but its grassroots organizing efforts will stand as a model of success for progressives.

The campaign that won passage of health care reform is closing up shop, but its grassroots organizing efforts will stand as a model of success for progressives.

Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the grassroots campaign that powered passage of the Affordable Care Act, is about to close its doors, as planned when the campaign started. But the images it generated of Americans passionately fighting to make health care a right will remain with us for years to come. The new movie Inequality For All includes dramatic footage of an HCAN supporter standing up to a Tea Partier. Another documentary released last year, Escape Fire, has stirring footage of an HCAN rally. Pictures of people holding up HCAN signs or wearing HCAN buttons still appear regularly in news magazines. 

Richard Kirsch at health care reform rallyIt makes great sense that HCAN’s actions have become iconic symbols of the fight for health justice in the United States. From its beginning, the heart of the HCAN campaign was outside the Beltway, its strategy grounded in the firm conviction that we could only win the fight for comprehensive reform if we based our campaign on grassroots organizing outside of Washington. We knew that inside the Beltway, the best we could do is provide a credible voice countering the army of thousands of lobbyists for the health care industry. But outside the Beltway, by organizing ordinary Americans, we could win.

Creating a powerful grassroots force is not easy. It took building a campaign that pushed against the culture of D.C., with the support of a funder that was committed to building progressive capacity, not just winning on an issue. Most national issue campaigns are D.C.-centric, run by campaign operatives, constrained by a narrow band of legislative concerns, with an idea of field work that is narrowly focused on generating earned media and e-mails and phone calls to members of Congress. After a lot of debate, the union and community organizing leaders who built HCAN agreed to spend almost all of its non-paid media resources on field contracts with state-based community organizations and community labor coalitions. These local organizations partnered with the local chapters of national labor unions and netroots groups.

The national strategy and tactics were relentlessly focused on empowering people at the local level to bring their personal passion, and often their personal stories, to their communities and members of Congress. Their work did generate lots of local media and calls to Congress, but it went much deeper than that, building the kind of relationships that are transformational. The campaign’s major funder, the Atlantic Philanthropies, was fully committed to the strategy, believing that even if the legislative effort fell short, their funds would leave in place a more sophisticated and robust capacity for progressive change at the local level. But because Atlantic had faith in the grassroots strategy, both of the foundation’s objectives – passing historic legislation and building capacity – were realized.

While HCAN was always envisioned as a campaign that would end with the passage of legislation, HCAN’s leadership decided to launch HCAN 2.0 to defend the new law after its passage. With many fewer resources, HCAN continued the fight, working on consumer regulations to control insurance premiums, taking part in the public battle around the Supreme Court’s hearing on the ACA’s constitutionality, defending Medicare from privatization, pushing for Medicaid expansion, and always reminding us that the opponents of the ACA are eager to return Americans to the day when insurance companies were fully able to deny them care and jack up their premiums because, indeed, we do get sick.

HCAN is now closing up shop. It may seem a funny time, with the current fracas over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but that is the point. The organization’s campaign mission was to win passage of a law, a mission extended to include “win and secure” the ACA. The debate over the shape of the ACA will continue for years to come – a struggle over how to fix, expand, roll back, or build upon the law. But as each of the millions of Americans who will enroll over the next few months sign up, another nail is hammered in the repeal coffin. Retiring HCAN, its mission accomplished, is another sign that the campaign is keeping its eyes on the prize.

HCAN affirmed my belief that people organizing together can shape history. Paul Starr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of health policy, told me that none of the failed attempts to pass comprehensive health reform had a major, grassroots field component. Earlier this year another noted historian of health reform, Theda Skocpol, published an analysis in which she credited the success of health care reform versus the failure of climate change legislation to HCAN’s deep grassroots strategy, compared with an elite, inside strategy of environmentalists.

It is good to see those lessons being fully embraced by new leadership in the climate change movement, as seen most sharply in the Keystone pipeline fight. The campaign for immigration reform too is powered by a national, grassroots movement led by local leaders who are putting their lives on the line for change. The most energetic new labor organizing is built on helping low-wage workers take local actions, supported by their communities, as part of a growing national effort.

Still, too many issue campaigns and too many funders fail to fully grasp the respectful partnerships and movement-building essential to defeat corporate power and right-wing politics. If we are to make the kind of transformational changes America and the world need, the politics HCAN pioneered, a sharply strategic national campaign built on empowering people through organizations around the country, points the way. 

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.

 

Photo: Fighting for Our Health

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