The Progressive Caucus Budget Makes the Right Decisions

Mar 12, 2014Jeff Madrick

The "Better Off Budget" is the only budget proposal in Congress that really places people's needs ahead of political compromise.

The "Better Off Budget" is the only budget proposal in Congress that really places people's needs ahead of political compromise.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has issued its annual budget and it is in different ways the antithesis of what both the Republicans and Democrats are offering. The Caucus calls it the “Better Off Budget," and it puts its money where its mouth is. Thank goodness they’ve issued it, because it puts in perspective how much is actually within our nation’s reach. It is aimed right where it should be: at creating jobs. The budget acknowledges that our jobs crisis is far from over (I’d call it the jobs emergency budget, of course). And it rightly says we can solve our problems.

The proposals errs slightly on the side of economic optimism, but that is as it should be. It stands in contrast to the modest improvements in social policy proposed by the Democrats, which won’t get unemployment down to 5 percent in the foreseeable future, and to the insensitive regression proposed by Paul Ryan and the Republicans. Those proposals are all politics, with little caring about the people’s thirst for jobs and opportunity. The progressives toss political compromise aside to do the right thing.

Their proposed budget does a lot of good in a lot of areas. It refuses to reduce entitlements; it provides a middle class tax break; it raises income tax rates on the wealthy; it provides a lot of money for infrastructure investment. I could go on.

But in this brief analysis I want to focus on the question of how much stimulus the economy can stand, which is really a question about how much slack there is in the economy. Conventional analyses say that slack—the potential to grow—has fallen. It’s mostly not because the economy is growing and catching up with its potential. The reason is that people are dropping out of the work force, maybe for good. They are losing skills. Some are retiring or getting close to retirement. Capital investment has been okay, but it has been far from stellar and therefore not likely to create exciting new products and industries that also increase productivity.

If the potential is not as high as typical economists, including the Congressional Budget Office, thought just a couple of years ago, we can’t push the economy up as fast as we might like, they argue.

The irony is that potential is down, as conventional economists measure it, because of the Great Recession and historically slow recovery, not because of a structural change in the economy. In particular, labor productivity growth is not very good. Total factor productivity, which (allegedly) measures the productivity of capital and labor combined, is somewhat stronger by historical comparison. I say allegedly because total factor productivity is a pretty flaky number.

Now, there is a pretty good relationship between how fast demand is growing and productivity growth, both labor and total factor productivity. In any case, if the potential of the economy is reduced because growth is slower, people can’t get jobs, and investment in research is far from hot—well, then potential would likely rise if we got the economy growing rapidly again. There is good theory, partly Keynesian but also something called Verdoorn’s Law, to suggest this could well be the case. 

So, in sum, that’s what this debate turns on. Will stimulus bump up against a genuine GDP ceiling and cause inflation, or is that ceiling only an artificial one based on recent data generated in a very slow economic recovery? I’d argue the CBO analysis and that of others is proposing an artificial ceiling. We can growth much faster, and we can get unemployment down to 5 percent. More demand can and often has led to faster productivity growth and more aggressive capital investment.

That’s what the Progressive Caucus Budget is all about. The nation can afford a decent social safety net and adequate investment in its future, and can get five to 10 million more people working again. If the progressives’ budget overstates the possibilities, it is not by much. 

Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.


Image via Thinkstock

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Prevention Over Punishment: The Push to Reduce Gun Violence in Chicago

Mar 4, 2014Janaè BonsuJohnaè Strong

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

It’s no secret that gun violence has long been a major problem in Chicago. An astronomical number of lives have been lost, the social fabric of communities has been compromised, and as a result, both morgues and prisons have continued to fill up. That gun violence is a problem is something on which everyone – liberals and conservatives alike – can agree. The grounds get muddy, however, in identifying and implementing an effective solution.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration have been pushing for a more “tough on crime” strategy to reduce gun violence in Chicago, with mandatory minimum sentencing for illegal gun possession. The original proposed Senate Bill 1342 (now House Bill 5672) included a minimum sentence of one to three years for any person caught with an illegal weapon. ‘Gang affiliation’ – which is determined at the discretion of a judge – would lead to an escalated minimum. In addition, there are currently five new bills (HB 3770 - 3774) that have been introduced by Rep. Michael J. Zalewski (D) to the Illinois General Assembly that may very well have been drafted and introduced with good intentions to deter gun violence and other crime, and keep those who engage in it off of the street. However, components of the House package are unduly punitive. For example, HB 3770 raises the Unlawful Use of a Weapon (UUW) charge to an Aggravated UUW for an individual who has committed a forcible felony as a juvenile. Thus, instead of facing a misdemeanor charge with up to one year of jail time, a defendant faces a class 4 felony that carries a sentence of up to three years of prison time, plus a fine of up to $25,000, because of a crime committed in their youth. Taken together, HB 5672 and similar legislation pose a mirrored threat that will disproportionately affect communities of color and further depress local and state budgets by funneling much needed resources into the city jails and state prisons.

A substantial body of research shows that mandatory minimums have little to no effect on crime, which even its proponents seem to accept: they expect these laws to reduce arrest rates for violent crime by only 0.6%. Aside from that, more incarceration could produce more problems than it actually solves. Many Chicago communities of color grapple with high unemployment and neighborhood instability. More incarceration would further exacerbate these issues at a steep price. In Illinois, if mandatory minimum legislation such as HB 5672 does pass, it will likely cost Illinois close to $2 billion over 10 years, and add to an overcrowded prison system. And more money for “corrections” leaves less for interventions that actually work.

In Chicago, community members and activist organizations that are no longer willing to watch the silent war against minority communities are contesting these bills through direct action campaigns and policy advocacy. These organizations include, but are not limited to the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Community Renewal Society, and Project Nia. Mirroring the progressive direction of the Obama Administration and other politicians including Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) by moving away from mandatory minimums, these organizations are advocating for funds allocated to subtractive policies to instead be used for empirically based preventative solutions to violence in Chicago communities. Two major initiatives in the works to prevent violence are 1) the expansion of youth employment in communities especially affected by violence as a preventive measure and 2) the implementation of restorative justice peace hubs as an alternative to incarceration.

BYP100 and Project Nia are working towards proposing a youth jobs bill that may look similar to the National Youth Administration (part of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal). The bill will focus on scaling up existing employment and training programs that have been proven effective such as One Summer Chicago Plus as well as dropout and violence prevention programs such as Becoming A Man (BAM). The bill will push for the reallocation of resources to help communities most impacted by violence implement various proven and promising employment and mentoring interventions across the entire state of Illinois. These programs reduce gun violence and strengthen communities economically and socially.

In addition to the push for youth employment, Community Renewal Society is currently spearheading the Reclaim Campaign, an initiative that urges the Cook County justice system to fund community based restorative justice hubs and mental health and drug rehabilitation programs through money saved from the release of Cook County nonviolent detainees. The campaign advocates alleviating jail overcrowding and reversing the trend of warehousing individuals who pose little threat to public safety by relying more on release with personal recognizance and electronic monitoring. Less bodies in the jails can free up dollars to fund the peace hubs, which are proposed to act as a coordinating referral center in the community where offenders, victims of crime, family members, and other impacted residents can appropriately handle conflict without further violence. The restorative justice approach offers a promising alternative to retributive justice that we have seen fail us for decades.

These solutions outline a need for economically just measures and attention to community healing and restoration over imprisonment. Most importantly, these solutions begin by looking within the community and empower people to change the policies governing their homes and neighborhoods, which is the best way to achieve real social change.

Janaè Bonsu is a Lead Coordinator for the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline and a Master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

Johnaè Strong is a Master’s student in the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) and Lead Facilitator of the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline. 

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Beyond Black History Month: A Roosevelt Institute Reading and Viewing Guide

Feb 28, 2014Roosevelt Institute

Black History Month is coming to a close, but the need for discussion and reflection on the impact of race in American life continues. We’ve asked people from across the Roosevelt Institute to provide their suggestions on books, films, poems, and articles to keep the conversation going into March and beyond.

Felicia Wong, President & CEO, Roosevelt Institute

Black History Month is coming to a close, but the need for discussion and reflection on the impact of race in American life continues. We’ve asked people from across the Roosevelt Institute to provide their suggestions on books, films, poems, and articles to keep the conversation going into March and beyond.

Felicia Wong, President & CEO, Roosevelt Institute

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, A lyrical, personal, heartfelt memoir of the Civil Rights Movement's origins, tensions, and triumphs, from John Lewis, one of its greatest heroes and a Roosevelt Institute Freedom of Speech laureate (1999).

The Men We Reaped. A recent memoir by National Book Award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward, The Men We Reaped tells Ward's own story, and the story of being young and black in the rural south, by recounting the lives and deaths of four young black men - Ward's brother, cousins, friends - in DeLisle, Mississippi. 

Etana Jacobi, Training Strategist, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets, an excellent read that explores passing, racial identity, and familial ties through a well-written and entertaining story of the author's discovery of her father's secret black roots in her white Connecticut world.

David Palmer, VP and National Director, Four Freedoms Center, Roosevelt Institute

Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley. This book gave me a deep -- and valuable -- sense that so many black people in America today carry an incredible family history of survival in the face of unimaginable hardship, and that slavery wasn't so long ago.

Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable, for those who have read Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X and want more.

Joelle Gamble, National Field Strategist, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network

A Dream Deferred,” by Langston Hughes, and “On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In celebrating Black History Month, it is critical to not only celebrate our past struggles but also to reflect on them in the context of our current ones. Hughes comments on the difficult-to-obtain aspirations of oppressed people: aspirations of human dignity, fair treatment, genuine opportunity, and so on. Coates highlights poignantly in his piece just how far away from reality those aspirations still are. In U.S. society, there is still a gross undervaluation of black life.

Dante Barry, Engagement Editor, Roosevelt Institute

Obama Will Announce Initiative to Empower Young Black Men. This new initiative launched by the White House and President Obama critically looks at some of the social and economic systemic challenges affecting young men of color. The school to prison pipeline is a system in which contributes to the disproportionate rate of Blacks and Latinos incarcerated every year. This is an important new project but we must also recognize how the system also disproportionately affect women and trans* people of color.   

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964, by Bruce Watson. This is a thrilling story about a chapter in the 1960s civil rights movement where 700+ young people came to a segegrated Mississippi to register Black voters and educate Black children. On the very first night, three Freedom Summer volunteers disappeared and thought to have been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The Freedom Summer Project of 1964, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, still remains a defining moment in our history for the struggle against domination and oppression.

Winston Lofton, National Leadership Strategist, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network

Eyes on the Prize. The Civil Rights Movement is a formative period in the Black Freedom Struggle in the United States and has a lot to teach all of us about what it takes to strengthen democracy. Eyes on the Prize is a compelling and comprehensive look at the movement, and is a perfect entry point for anyone interested in the Black American experience in the mid-20th Century.

Black Power Mixtape. Black Power Mixtape provides a rousing portrait of another interesting period in Black history, the early post-Civil Rights period of 1967-1975.  It's a really fascinating amalgamation of perspectives, from those of the Swedish journalists who first shot the footage to the Black leaders whose speeches and interviews are featured in the film in their own words, to the current-day Black leaders from Erykah Badu to Danny Glover who helped bring about and shaped the film. 

Rachelle Olden, National Director, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline

The Mis-Education of the Negro“No man knows what he can do until he tries.” This book emphasizes the instruction, research and writing of Black History. Though published in 1933, it still has meaning and direct implications for today's consideration. 

Too Poor for Pop Culture. This article is a creative and real look into the lives of real people affected by poverty and broken systems. The story highlights how communities take care of each other and see passed each other hardships and flaws. Pop culture serves no purpose in their lives but is rather a privilege that others enjoy.

Taylor Jo Isenberg, Vice President of Networks, Roosevelt Institute

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Provides insightful and challenging perspectives on race in America from an "outsider" viewpoint along with a powerful and entertaining narrative on love, place, and identity. 

Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson. A deeply stirring and troubling story about a small town in 1970s North Carolina that experienced a belated Civil Rights Movement forged by murder, upheaval, and a painful history. 

Rachel Goldfarb, Communications Associate, Roosevelt Institute

"Whitewashing Reproductive Rights: How Black Activists Get Erased." Renee Bracy Sherman’s article calls out the ways that black support of abortion has been erased over the years, pointing out how reproductive freedom and reproductive justice have been key elements of revolutionary politics from slavery to today. 

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In Campus Network’s Summer Academy, Students Learn What Good Work Really Looks Like

Feb 20, 2014Jeffrey RainesJoe Swanson

Jeff Raines and Joe Swanson participated in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Summer Academy program in DC in 2011 and NYC in 2012 respectively. They reflect on why they chose Summer Academy, and how it’s helped to shape their college experiences and career goals.

Jeff Raines and Joe Swanson participated in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Summer Academy program in DC in 2011 and NYC in 2012 respectively. They reflect on why they chose Summer Academy, and how it’s helped to shape their college experiences and career goals.

Jeff: I wanted to spend my first summer internship doing something meaningful. And going to school in DC, I knew there were a lot of options, but not as many real opportunities. After all the hype I heard from older members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, I applied to the Summer Academy because I thought the program would give me more than coffee runs and copy machines all summer. And it did.

I worked in the DC office of the Roosevelt Institute in the summer of 2011 and spent my nine weeks doing work that directly contributed to the success of the organization’s efforts. I helped coordinate a 100+ leadership summit for Campus Network members and other progressive student leaders, ensuring that had a place to sleep, food to eat, and so on. Anyone familiar with conference planning knows this isn’t a walk in the park, but that’s the point. Whether interns were placed within the Roosevelt Institute or at another participating organization, there were always projects that required real work from the interns. Progressive organizations know that competency and ability don’t come with age. They give Summer Academy interns real responsibility because they want us to have something more solid to say about our experiences. They want us to be able to say we contributed: that we did something.

Jeff Raines, left, and Joe Swanson, right, at the Hyde Park Leadership Summit in August 2013And while there is nothing wrong with occasionally making a coffee run, I don’t think I was ever asked to do so. And I never did find out where that copy machine was. 

The Summer Academy was an environment for me to learn and shine, and the experience has taught me that I must continue to seek out comparable opportunities the rest of my college career. After Summer Academy, why would I accept anything less?

Joe: Like Jeff, I knew that I wanted to do good work and fight the good fight in my first summer internship. My imagination carried me to the inner hallways of the Capitol building, where I would be meeting with staffers and challenging senators. This dream quickly disappeared as I heard my friends recount their internship experiences of monotonous administrative tasks such as picking up phones and filing paperwork. I honestly believed that I would need to reel in my expectations – but then I heard about the Campus Network Summer Academy Fellowship. 

I was accepted to Roosevelt's program in New York City and succeeded Jeff's role in the Campus Network office. I had many of the same responsibilities in the office, including full ownership of the logistical coordination behind Roosevelt's national leadership summit. That was a crash-course in the necessary functions of non-profit organizations. However, the biggest impact the Summer Academy had on me was the day-to-day experiences I shared with other fellows and Roosevelt staff. 

Every Summer Academy Fellow was given the task of writing weekly op-eds and a final policy paper. That meant we spent all day talking about policy, and I was in an office environment that made the use of the word "office" seem wildly inaccurate. The place was basically Disneyland to me. I had to be told to "go home," because my brief question about our perception of citizenship would spark an electric conversation that would last until four in the morning. Roosevelt staff made me feel like a colleague rather than a bottom-rung employee and the Summer Academy Fellows felt like my brothers and sisters both in and out of the office. In the end, the Summer Academy changed my life. Not only do I keep in contact with the amazing people I met, but I have come to love the work we did together. The Fellowship set a foundation, which has fueled my desire to seek a permanent place among those who fight to build a more just world just as I did in New York.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is accepting applications for the 2014 Summer Academy Fellowship through Tuesday, February 25. For more information about the program and to apply, click here.

Jeff Raines is the Chair of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Student Board of Advisors and a senior at American University.

Joe Swanson is the Policy Coordinator for the Southern Region of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at Wake Forest University.

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Daily Digest - February 11: Raising Wages from Coast to Coast

Feb 11, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Minimum Wage Fight: From San Francisco to de Blasio’s New York (Reuters)

Mayor de Blasio and others should learn from San Francisco's example when it comes to lifting standards for low-wage workers, write Ken Jacobs and Michael Reich.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Minimum Wage Fight: From San Francisco to de Blasio’s New York (Reuters)

Mayor de Blasio and others should learn from San Francisco's example when it comes to lifting standards for low-wage workers, write Ken Jacobs and Michael Reich.

Horrible Bosses (TAP)

Paul Waldman writes that some employers are blaming the President and his health care policies for benefit cuts and stagnant wages. But workers should know: their bosses are lying.

Labor Battle at Kellogg Plant in Memphis Drags On (NYT)

As the lockout approaches four months, Steven Greenhouse says these workers are determined not to accept a contract that could replace them all with "casuals," or lower-paid temps.

New York AG To Put Heat On Banks for Foreclosed Properties (WSJ)

Eric Schneiderman wants to require banks to take better care of so-called "zombie properties" they've foreclosed on, reports Andrew R. Johnson, and his proposed bill would reduce neighborhood blight.

Obama's Partly to Blame for the Postal Service's Backward Ways (TNR)

Progressive reform, including postal banking, is in reach for the USPS, says David Dayen, if only the president would step up and fill the five empty seats on its Board of Governors.

Support the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights (Blog of the Century)

Jill Silos-Rooney says Senator Warren's proposal bets that college grads who have fewer struggles with debt will be better for the economy than government profits on student loans.

House GOP Rolls Dice on Debt Limit (Politico)

Jake Sherman and Ginger Gibson report on the GOP's plan to pass a debt ceiling increase by tying it to fixing military benefit cuts. That probably won't sway Democrats from a clean bill.

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Daily Digest - February 10: When the Personal Becomes Political

Feb 10, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Turning Personal Tragedy Into Activism (Melissa Harris-Perry)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Turning Personal Tragedy Into Activism (Melissa Harris-Perry)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren discusses how tragedies like the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have pushed so many to take part in activism. He uses the public pressure to cancel George Zimmerman's celebrity boxing match as a prime example.

Sex Workers' Rights are Just Workers Rights (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal considers the policy arguments on sex work presented in Melissa Gira Grant's new book, Playing the Whore. He sees the need to conceptualize sex work as labor as the most important takeaway, regardless of individual opinions on that labor.

Liberals Should Question Obama’s ‘Opportunity Agenda’ (AJAM)

Mike Konczal argues that shifting the discussion from inequality to opportunity could leave out key items on the progressive agenda. If opportunity isn't defined beyond legal equality of opportunity, or if acceptable policy outcomes aren't made clear, the progressive agenda won't advance.

The Case for a Higher Minimum Wage (NYT)

The New York Times editorial board calls for an increased minimum wage, emphasizing its purpose in reducing power imbalances between workers and employers. The accompanying interactive graphic from Jeremy Ashkenas and Bill Marsh shows the insufficiency of $7.25 per hour.

January Jobs Report: Hard to Read (MoJo)

Erika Eichelberger says that the jobs report released on Friday is hard to interpret. Unemployment is at its lowest point in five years, and the labor force participation rate increased slightly, but that could change without an extension of unemployment benefits from Congress.

The Spectacular Myth of Obama's Part-Time America—in 5 Graphs (The Atlantic)

Derek Thompson pulls data on part-time job growth, part-time workers as a share of the labor force, and part-time work for non-economic reasons to demonstrate just how wrong certain slices of the financial media are when they insist that the president is creating a part-time economy.

Obamacare: It's a Net Gain for the Economy (LA Times)

Jonathan Gruber writes that the Congressional Budget Office report shows that the Affordable Care Act in fact creates a more efficient job market in the U.S., by allowing people leave jobs when they want to and increasing job mobility.

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Daily Digest - February 7: Why America Keeps Falling Behind

Feb 7, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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When It Comes To High-Speed Internet, U.S. 'Falling Way Behind' (Fresh Air)

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When It Comes To High-Speed Internet, U.S. 'Falling Way Behind' (Fresh Air)

Dave Davies interviews Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford, who discusses why net neutrality is so important and how the FCC can preserve it. They also talk about the Internet infrastructure in the U.S., which needs improvements to compete globally.

Cities at Work: Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class (CAP)

Joel Rogers and Satya Rhodes-Conway introduce their new report on why local governments are best suited to strengthen the middle class. They point to cities' wealth, sustainability, and democratic values and organization as key reasons.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives Alan Smith discusses the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's "Rethinking Communities" initiative, which is similarly focused on local economic development.

Skating Close to the Edge, Again, on the Debt Ceiling (NYT)

Annie Lowrey writes about global fatigue over the U.S. debt ceiling stand-offs, with everyone from Democrats in Congress to international financial managers expressing exhaustion with the tactic. She says the damage to the country's financial reputation is done, no matter the outcome this time.

Obamacare Cures 'Job Lock' (USA Today)

Theda Skocpol and Katherine Swartz praise the end of 'job lock,' when workers are reluctant to leave jobs because they need the employer-sponsored health insurance. Freeing those workers is going to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Senate Still at Odds Over Whether to Extend Unemployment Benefits for Long-Term Jobless (WaPo)

Paul Kane reports that Senate Democrats again failed to pass an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, falling just one vote shy of the supermajority needed to break a filibuster. Of course, he notes, House Republicans have shown no interest in taking up this issue anyway.

The Shame of America's Long-Term Unemployment Crisis (The Atlantic)

Derek Thompson says that Washington is failing on long-term unemployment, which is a serious crisis for the U.S. job market. There could be ways to incentivize hiring the long-term unemployed, but that would require the GOP to care about this problem.

New on Next New Deal

A CBO Report Shows How Obamacare Will Help the Working Poor

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative Jeff Madrick writes that the money that low-income families won't have to spend on health insurance, thanks to Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies, will boost the economy when it's spent elsewhere.

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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 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)

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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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