Daily Digest - September 13: Labor for Healthier Politics

Sep 13, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Joe Stiglitz: The People Who Break the Rules Have Raked in Huge Profits and Wealth and It's Sickening Our Politics (Alternet)

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Joe Stiglitz: The People Who Break the Rules Have Raked in Huge Profits and Wealth and It's Sickening Our Politics (Alternet)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz addressed the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles earlier this week. Alternet has the transcript, and the video is available on Youtube.

Trumka's Ploy (TAP)

Harold Meyerson argues that the AFL-CIO President was intentionally radical in his suggestions prior to the convention. That way, he got the reform he wanted: non-union workers' groups welcomed into labor, and more permanent partnerships with progressive allies.

The Rise of the New New Left (The Daily Beast)

Peter Beinart uses the NYC mayoral race as emblematic of a new political generation, one that sees progressive values as more than just ideals. The group coming of age under this economic crisis, he says, is shifting the political conversation to an anti-corporate, populist message.

  • Roosevelt Take: Many of Beinart's claims about the Millennial political generation line up with the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's findings in Government By and For Millennial America, which discusses what kind of government Millennials want.

Mayor Gray Vetoes ‘Living Wage’ Bill Aimed at Wal-Mart, Setting up Decisive Council Vote (WaPo)

Mike DeBonis reports on the Washington, DC mayor's veto of the Large Retailer Accountability Act. Mayor Gray called for a city-wide minimum wage increase instead, but didn't specify an amount he would support.

How Wal-Mart Keeps Wages Low (WaPo)

Josh Eidelson examines how Wal-Mart discourages workers from organizing so that they won't have to raise wages. With a model built on the lowest possible prices, higher wages would presumably cut into the all-important shareholder profits.

Can the Government Actually Do Anything About Inequality? (NYT)

Tom Edsall looks at a number of studies to question what, if anything, government could do to reduce economic inequality. He sees policy tied to the deepening and spreading of inequality, which presumably means policy could work in the other direction as well.

Congress Searches For A Shutdown-Free Future (NPR)

Frank James reports on the steps being taken in Congress to negotiate away from a potential government shutdown. The Republicans are finding themselves stymied by Tea Partiers, for whom a 42nd symbolic repeal of Obamacare isn't good enough.

New on Next New Deal

The 1 Percent Took Home the Largest Share of Income Since 1928 Last Year

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal points out that the 1 percent's share of all income has vastly exceeded pre-Recession levels. This trend makes it hard to say that everyone in the U.S. wants policy change to help strengthen the recovery.

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Three Graphs That Show Why Inequality Matters in the New York City Mayoral Race

Sep 11, 2013Nell Abernathy

The New York City primary results show that the issue of rising inequality is striking a chord with voters. Here's why.

The results are in and two (or three) candidates are one step closer to Gracie Mansion. What we know for certain is that along with winning international attention and prime seats at Yankee Stadium, New York’s next mayor will inherit a city that is more unequal in terms of income than any other major city in America.

The increasing polarization of wealth in New York has been a hot topic and served as the campaign centerpiece for one of yesterday’s big winners, Bill de Blasio. We are trying to resist pointing out that experts like our own Jeff Madrick were talking about this problem even before the drum circles of Zuccotti Park, but we’re happy that the city’s Sierra Leone-like inequality is at last making headlines.

Because we know that we can do better, and we hope our next mayor will at least try, the Roosevelt Institute’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative is taking a look back at some of the most compelling charts and graphs to surface on the long road to Election Day.

From James Parrott, at the Fiscal Policy Institute, who will be a panelist at our upcoming forum on inequality:

The top 1 percent are capturing a growing portion of the nation’s economy, and nowhere is that trend more pronounced than in New York.

The top 1 percent, in fact, pay less than their fair share of the tax burden:

Meanwhile, the poverty rate in New York City continues to rise: 

We will be back tomorrow with more infographics. To learn more about potential solutions to our growing wealth gap, join us for our panel discussion on Tuesday, September 24:

Inequality in New York: The Next Mayor’s Challenge

September 24, 2013

6:00 p.m. cocktail reception

6:30 – 8:00 p.m. panel discussion

Roosevelt House, Public Policy Institute at Hunter College

49 East 65th Street

New York, NY 10065

Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

The New York City primary results show that the issue of rising inequality is striking a chord with voters. Here's why.

The results are in and two (or three) candidates are one step closer to Gracie Mansion. What we know for certain is that along with winning international attention and prime seats at Yankee Stadium, New York’s next mayor will inherit a city that is more unequal in terms of income than any other major city in America.

The increasing polarization of wealth in New York has been a hot topic and served as the campaign centerpiece for one of yesterday’s big winners, Bill de Blasio. We are trying to resist pointing out that experts like our own Jeff Madrick were talking about this problem even before the drum circles of Zuccotti Park, but we’re happy that the city’s Sierra Leone-like inequality is at last making headlines.

Because we know that we can do better, and we hope our next mayor will at least try, the Roosevelt Institute’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative is taking a look back at some of the most compelling charts and graphs to surface on the long road to Election Day.

From James Parrott, at the Fiscal Policy Institute, who will be a panelist at our upcoming forum on inequality:

The top 1 percent are capturing a growing portion of the nation’s economy, and nowhere is that trend more pronounced than in New York.

The top 1 percent, in fact, pay less than their fair share of the tax burden:

Meanwhile, the poverty rate in New York City continues to rise: 

We will be back tomorrow with more infographics. To learn more about potential solutions to our growing wealth gap, join us for our panel discussion on Tuesday, September 24:

Inequality in New York: The Next Mayor’s Challenge



September 24, 2013



6:00 p.m. cocktail reception



6:30 – 8:00 p.m. panel discussion



Roosevelt House, Public Policy Institute at Hunter College



49 East 65th Street



New York, NY 10065

Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

 

New York City skyline image via Shutterstock.com

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Millennials Don't Just Sit Back: Highlights from Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network 2013 Policy Expo

Jul 5, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Here’s a refreshing reminder: Public policy can include everything from health care and the economy to lobsters and bicycles. The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network doesn’t limit itself to certain spheres of debate. Its students look at the world around them and see potential for local policy change everywhere. At the Campus Network’s annual Policy Expo in Washington, D.C. on June 27 and 28, students presented the policy proposals that they have been developing over the past year.

Here’s a refreshing reminder: Public policy can include everything from health care and the economy to lobsters and bicycles. The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network doesn’t limit itself to certain spheres of debate. Its students look at the world around them and see potential for local policy change everywhere. At the Campus Network’s annual Policy Expo in Washington, D.C. on June 27 and 28, students presented the policy proposals that they have been developing over the past year. Friday’s keynote speaker, University of Maryland Professor of Political Economy Gar Alperovitz, asked the crowd, “If you don’t like corporate capitalism, and you don’t want state socialism, what do you want?” The Policy Expo proposals represented Millennial-driven answers to that question– some of which addressed questions I had never even considered before.

Following the 2004 election, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network was founded by students who were frustrated about being shut out from policy-making after working on campaigns. Since beginning in dorm rooms, the Campus Network has emphasized the importance of young people to creating policy change from the ground up. It provides spaces for motivated young progressives to develop campus connections and locate the resources they need to put their ideas into action. The Policy Expo is an important part of that work: the “reverse Q&A” built into each presentation gave students the opportunity to take their questions to an audience of peers, supporters, and stakeholders.

As one of the newest members of the Roosevelt Institute team, I hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss policy with any of the students, though I had spoken to members of the staff about what to expect, and had read some of the proposals in the 10 Ideas publication series. The concepts looked interesting, and some had a lot of potential. But when the first students took the podium, I realized that many of the projects are far past potential and are already making an impact.

Alex Schoemann and Nora Goebelbecker, students at Notre Dame, developed a concept for a non-profit micro-lending service to compete with predatory payday lending. Then they put it into action in South Bend, Indiana. The Jubilee Initiative for Financial Inclusion (JIFFI) has already made a round of loans, which were paid back in full. In the fall semester, they plan to make enough loans to hit the legal limit in the state of Indiana for a lender of their size. The state’s regulations are their next challenge, which they brought to the floor for the reverse Q&A. JIFFI is already talking to legislators who are willing to help change the law, but the audience had suggestions for other models to examine, and potential lobbying partners.

Other students presented equally innovative ideas. Rahul Rehki saw a lack of young people contributing to the health policy space and is working to get young people involved in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Federal Advisory Committees. John Tranfaglia worked on the challenges facing his home state of Maine’s most well known industry: lobster. Tranfaglia’s proposal suggested that Maine market lobster in the same way Idaho markets potatoes, but when the Reverse Q&A brought up other possible models, they weren’t limited to food: well-known state and local products from Maryland crab to Nashville’s country music scene were all suggested as possible comparisons.

The practice of making local change to advance a larger progressive goal is key to the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s model, and many of the projects had longer-term goals that could move even further. Friday afternoon’s workshops fit into that strategy, offering attendees an opportunity to develop their skills in partnering with government, connecting with people, and working within the system. In his workshop, Alex Torpey, the youngest mayor in New Jersey, dropped some wisdom about being a young person working policy: “It’s a great story,” he said, “let’s talk about young people being involved, but at a certain point that fades away… It’s not about being the young person in charge anymore, it’s just stepping up to the plate and just doing what you need to do.”

Click here for more information about all the projects presented at this year’s Policy Expo.

Next month, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network will bring together chapter leaders from across the country at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY for the Hyde Park Leadership Summit, the first step in the annual cycle towards the 2014 Policy Expo.

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Daily Digest - July 4: Holiday Edition

Jul 4, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Happy Fourth of July! Today's Daily Digest is an abridged holiday edition. We will return to the full-length Daily Digest tomorrow.

Paid Sick Leave Laws Generate More Concern Than Pain (NYT)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Happy Fourth of July! Today's Daily Digest is an abridged holiday edition. We will return to the full-length Daily Digest tomorrow.

Paid Sick Leave Laws Generate More Concern Than Pain (NYT)

Robb Mandelbaum reports that it turns out paid sick leave laws aren't such a big deal for small businesses after all. In municipalities that have already instituted such laws, more business owners are finding the costs minimal.

Progressives' Post-DOMA To-Do List (TAP)

In response to people questioning whether same-sex marriage has eclipsed everything else on the progressive agenda, Scott Lemieux has a list of projects to work on now that DOMA has been overturned.

Less-white and less male: Labor movement finds new support (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff reports on a survey that gives a new image of union supporters, full of women, people of color, and young people. Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren explains that the past picture of labor is due to exclusionary policies that have shifted in most unionized fields.

New on Next New Deal

Will Delaying the Employer Mandate Deny Health Coverage to Workers?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch questions whether the Obama administration's decision to push back the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act for a year is going to increase costs for employees who thought they would be insured in January.

New Texas Abortion Law Could Be Worst Yet for Poor Women

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn examines how the abortion law being debated in a second special session of the Texas legislature after its defeat by filibuster last week will harm poor women by destroying their access to clinics that provide low-cost reproductive health care.

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Daily Digest - July 1: New Pot Industry, New Pot Regulations

Jul 1, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Legalizing Marijuana is Hard. Regulating a Pot Industry is Even Harder. (WaPo)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Legalizing Marijuana is Hard. Regulating a Pot Industry is Even Harder. (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks at the questions surrounding the new legal marijuana market in Washington state, which is regulated by the Liquor Control Board. The challenges are numerous, and the state's priorities for regulation are still unclear.

Limits to Growth – of What? (TripleCrisis)

James K. Boyce sees growth of national income as a poor measure of national prosperity, because everything from the BP oil spill to the prison system contributes to growth. He thinks policy goals need to shift from pro-growth to growing the good and shrinking the bad.

Signed, Sealed, Deposited (Pacific Standard)

David Dayen suggests that we save the Postal Service by returning to postal banking, which would not only bring in new income but also offer simple inexpensive banking services to the millions of unbanked and underbanked Americans.

Paid via Card, Workers Feel Sting of Fees (NYT)

Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Stephanie Clifford reveal the hidden costs of being paid via payroll cards. The fees for withdrawls, statements, inactivity, and more can result in employees who functionally make less than minimum wage.

North Carolina Axes Benefits for Long-Term Unemployed (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff reports that because they cut their maximum benefit, North Carolina is ineligible for federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation. They've also cut the timeline, so where other Americans can collect unemployment for up to 99 weeks, North Carolinians will be limited to 19.

44% of Young College Grads Are Underemployed (and That's Good News) (The Atlantic)

Jordan Weissmann looks at 23 years of recent college graduate unemployment and underemployment, and it's clear that things haven't changed much: unemployment remains in step with all working adults, and underemployment hasn't changed much either.

It’s Not Just the Interest Rate: How Congress Can Help Students (The Nation)

Zoë Carpenter examines other changes Congress could make to the student loan system, even as they've failed to stop the interest rate increase. Her suggestions, such as better income based repayment options, would have far more effect on current debtors.

New from the Roosevelt Institute

Are Less Visible Taxes Really the Answer?

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Elizabeth Pearson makes the case that public opinion about taxation is malleable and that progressives should focus on raising awareness of the purpose of taxation and the benefits taxes will produce.

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Liberal Wonk Blogging Could Be Your Life

May 9, 2013Mike Konczal

As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

1.a What Creates Wonks?

We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

1.a What Creates Wonks?

We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

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Mapping Out the Arguments Against Chained CPI

Apr 9, 2013Mike Konczal

Reports started coming in late last week that President Obama’s budget, to be released early tomorrow, will include a change to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security. Specifically, it will adopt a “chained CPI” (consumer price index) measure.

Many people have been writing stories about why this is a bad idea. I want to generalize them into four major categories of critique of moving to a chained CPI (with one aside). As you read stories about the pros and cons of this change in the weeks ahead, hopefully this guide can provide some background.

Accuracy, or Lack Thereof

Economists like the idea of chained CPI because they think it’s more representative of how people behave when they substitute among goods. In this story, we have been over-correcting for inflation in the past decades.

However, as a letter from EPI, signed by 300 economists and social insurance experts, explains, it is just as likely as we are under-correcting. EPI notes "it is just as likely that the current COLA fails to keep up with rising costs confronting elderly and disabled beneficiaries." The current adjustment is based on an index of workers excluding retirees.

If you look into the data, the elderly spend a lot more of their limited money on housing, utilities, and medical care. Health care costs have been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and it is difficult to substitute on other necessary, fixed-price goods like utilities. With the notable exception of college costs, the things urban wage earners spend money on haven't increased in price as quickly as what the elderly purchase. As a result, the CPI-E (the index tailored to the elderly) has increased 3.3 percent a year from 1982 to 2007, while the CPI-W (tailored to wage earners) has only increased 3 percent a year. Definitionally, through the way it is calculated, chained CPI-W will always be lower than CPI-W. [Edit: This will almost certainly be lower, but it isn't definitionally true.]

As Dean Baker has noted, if accuracy were the only motive for changing COLA, it would be relatively easy to get a full, chained version of the index of prices faced by the elderly and use that. That has not been proposed.

Hedging Unexpected Longevity

Another argument is that this is a relatively small cut, or that a slower rate of growth shouldn’t really be thought of as a cut. But there’s a big problem with this.

There are many nice things about the design of Social Security, but one of them is that it is a form of insurance against the downsides of living longer than expected. Let’s say you retire at 65, believe you’ll live to 85, and save enough to make it to 88 just in case. And then you live to 92. Are those last five years absolutely miserable, with your savings completely depleted and an inability to earn market wages except through begging and charity? No, because my man Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Social Security got your back. Social Security helps hedge against two risks that are very difficult to manage: when you were born (and thus the years into which you’ll retire) and how long you’ll live.

Notice how chained CPI cuts, though. In the same way that compounding interest grows quickly over time because you get interest on what you’ve saved, a lower cost-of-living adjustment creates a lower baseline for future adjustments, so the cuts grow over time.

This means that the real cuts come from people who happen to live the longest. Which is precisely one of the risks Social Security is meant to combat. This is one reason why women, who live longer than men, are much more at risk from these chained CPI cuts.

Aside: Can’t We Balance the Downside?

You’ll notice liberals who support moving to chained CPI have complicated “swallow a bird to catch the spider who’s catching the fly” policy proposals to go along with it. If we swallow Obama’s chained CPI proposal, we’ll need to swallow an age “bump” to catch chained CPI from falling heavily on the very old. But after we swallow the age bump, we’ll need to swallow some sort of exemption for Supplemental Security Income to catch the fact that the change would still fall heavily on the initial benefit level for the poorest elderly and disabled people. And so on.

Doing all these fixes, of course, eliminates much of the savings that people are hoping to get. And it is unlikely that these clever ways of balancing the worst effects of the change will get even a single Republican vote. And of course, in spite of all this effort, Republicans could still call out the president for proposing to cut Social Security.

Neither Grand nor a Bargain

You’ll hear arguments that a Grand Bargain is necessary, so it’s better to bring Social Security into long-term balance now, with Democrats at the helm, than in the future, when there will be less time and an uncertain governance coalition. You can get fewer cuts and more revenue than you would otherwise and take the issue off the table for the foreseeable future to concentrate on other priorities.

But if that’s your idea, then this is a terrible deal and sets a terrible precedent, because this deal would accomplish none of your goals. You'd cut Social Security without putting in any new revenue. And it wouldn't be sufficient to close the long-term gap, so the issue would stay on the table. Indeed, the deficit hawks would probably be emboldened, viewing this as a "downpayment" on future cuts, and require any future attempts to get more revenue for Social Security, say by raising the payroll tax cap, to involve significant additional cuts.

We Need to Expand Social Security

As Michael Lind, Joshua Freedman, and Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, along with Robert Hiltonsmith of Demos, expertly document, Social Security should be expanded in the years ahead, not cut.

Retirement security is meant to be a three-legged stool of Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions. The last two legs of that stool have been collapsing in the past few decades, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the near future. 401(k)s have been a boon for the rich to avoid taxes and save money that they’d be saving anyway, while it isn’t clear that average Americans have saved enough to offset declining pensions. Median wages have dropped in the recession and are likely to show little growth in the years ahead, which makes building private savings harder. There isn't a ton to cut - even the middle income quintile of retirees, making only around $20,000 a year, get 62 percent of their income from Social Security.

There are many ways to boost Social Security, and the New America paper introduces one. But as the authors note, “[a]ny strategy that expands the reliable and efficient public share of retirement security in America would be an improvement over today’s system, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings.” And the best way to do programs is to build out programs that already work well.

Any other stories out there that require a new category?

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Reports started coming in late last week that President Obama’s budget, to be released early tomorrow, will include a change to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security. Specifically, it will adopt a “chained CPI” (consumer price index) measure.

Many people have been writing stories about why this is a bad idea. I want to generalize them into four major categories of critique of moving to a chained CPI (with one aside). As you read stories about the pros and cons of this change in the weeks ahead, hopefully this guide can provide some background.

Accuracy, or Lack Thereof

Economists like the idea of chained CPI because they think it’s more representative of how people behave when they substitute among goods. In this story, we have been over-correcting for inflation in the past decades.

However, as a letter from EPI, signed by 300 economists and social insurance experts, explains, it is just as likely as we are under-correcting. EPI notes "it is just as likely that the current COLA fails to keep up with rising costs confronting elderly and disabled beneficiaries." The current adjustment is based on an index of workers excluding retirees.

If you look into the data, the elderly spend a lot more of their limited money on housing, utilities, and medical care. Health care costs have been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and it is difficult to substitute on other necessary, fixed-price goods like utilities. With the notable exception of college costs, the things urban wage earners spend money on haven't increased in price as quickly as what the elderly purchase. As a result, the CPI-E (the index tailored to the elderly) has increased 3.3 percent a year from 1982 to 2007, while the CPI-W (tailored to wage earners) has only increased 3 percent a year. Definitionally, through the way it is calculated, chained CPI-W will always be lower than CPI-W. [Edit: This will almost certainly be lower, but it isn't definitionally true.]

As Dean Baker has noted, if accuracy were the only motive for changing COLA, it would be relatively easy to get a full, chained version of the index of prices faced by the elderly and use that. That has not been proposed.

Hedging Unexpected Longevity

Another argument is that this is a relatively small cut, or that a slower rate of growth shouldn’t really be thought of as a cut. But there’s a big problem with this.

There are many nice things about the design of Social Security, but one of them is that it is a form of insurance against the downsides of living longer than expected. Let’s say you retire at 65, believe you’ll live to 85, and save enough to make it to 88 just in case. And then you live to 92. Are those last five years absolutely miserable, with your savings completely depleted and an inability to earn market wages except through begging and charity? No, because my man Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Social Security got your back. Social Security helps hedge against two risks that are very difficult to manage: when you were born (and thus the years into which you’ll retire) and how long you’ll live.

Notice how chained CPI cuts, though. In the same way that compounding interest grows quickly over time because you get interest on what you’ve saved, a lower cost-of-living adjustment creates a lower baseline for future adjustments, so the cuts grow over time.

This means that the real cuts come from people who happen to live the longest. Which is precisely one of the risks Social Security is meant to combat. This is one reason why women, who live longer than men, are much more at risk from these chained CPI cuts.

Aside: Can’t We Balance the Downside?

You’ll notice liberals who support moving to chained CPI have complicated “swallow a bird to catch the spider who’s catching the fly” policy proposals to go along with it. If we swallow Obama’s chained CPI proposal, we’ll need to swallow an age “bump” to catch chained CPI from falling heavily on the very old. But after we swallow the age bump, we’ll need to swallow some sort of exemption for Supplemental Security Income to catch the fact that the change would still fall heavily on the initial benefit level for the poorest elderly and disabled people. And so on.

Doing all these fixes, of course, eliminates much of the savings that people are hoping to get. And it is unlikely that these clever ways of balancing the worst effects of the change will get even a single Republican vote. And of course, in spite of all this effort, Republicans could still call out the president for proposing to cut Social Security.

Neither Grand nor a Bargain

You’ll hear arguments that a Grand Bargain is necessary, so it’s better to bring Social Security into long-term balance now, with Democrats at the helm, than in the future, when there will be less time and an uncertain governance coalition. You can get fewer cuts and more revenue than you would otherwise and take the issue off the table for the foreseeable future to concentrate on other priorities.

But if that’s your idea, then this is a terrible deal and sets a terrible precedent, because this deal would accomplish none of your goals. You'd cut Social Security without putting in any new revenue. And it wouldn't be sufficient to close the long-term gap, so the issue would stay on the table. Indeed, the deficit hawks would probably be emboldened, viewing this as a "downpayment" on future cuts, and require any future attempts to get more revenue for Social Security, say by raising the payroll tax cap, to involve significant additional cuts.

We Need to Expand Social Security

As Michael Lind, Joshua Freedman, and Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, along with Robert Hiltonsmith of Demos, expertly document, Social Security should be expanded in the years ahead, not cut.

Retirement security is meant to be a three-legged stool of Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions. The last two legs of that stool have been collapsing in the past few decades, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the near future. 401(k)s have been a boon for the rich to avoid taxes and save money that they’d be saving anyway, while it isn’t clear that average Americans have saved enough to offset declining pensions. Median wages have dropped in the recession and are likely to show little growth in the years ahead, which makes building private savings harder. There isn't a ton to cut - even the middle income quintile of retirees, making only around $20,000 a year, get 62 percent of their income from Social Security.

There are many ways to boost Social Security, and the New America paper introduces one. But as the authors note, “[a]ny strategy that expands the reliable and efficient public share of retirement security in America would be an improvement over today’s system, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings.” And the best way to do programs is to build out programs that already work well.

Any other stories out there that require a new category?

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

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The Problem of Rents and the Wilt Chamberlain Example

Apr 4, 2013Mike Konczal

I wrote a piece at Wonkblog over the weekend about economic rents and the possibilities and limitations of conservatives and liberals coming together to tackle them. The issue of combating rents is interesting because it pushes against an argument that is taken to be a common sense and intuitive example of libertarian thought: the Wilt Chamberlain example. Looking at that example might help us understand some interesting issues about rent income. (This argument is taken from an excellent paper on the topic by Barbara Fried. If this blog does nothing but create a bigger audience for Fried's work, as well as Robert Hale's, I'll call it a huge win.)

Let’s take your favorite example of rent income. Perhaps it is excessive copyright, criminal sanctions for unlocking your phone, zoning regulations that protect incumbent interests, live-saving drugs that are rationed above a market-clearing price due to patents, utilities that go unregulated, or something else.

What’s the problem with these situations? At least some of the problem is distributional. People who collect income and wealth off of rents are collecting money that they don’t deserve. Nobody would think the problem of economic rents is that people are willing to pay them. In these situations, people are still buying and selling things. Slipping into a classically liberal mindframe, there's still exchange, and we can assume that both parties are better off by definition, otherwise they wouldn’t have made the trade. We don’t locate the problem of rents in the fact that people will pay too much for a phone, or for land, or for something with extensive copyright. And we also don’t think the fact that people are willing to pay a higher price is, by itself, sufficient justification for those rents. The problem is that one person -- the patent holder, the phone company, the land holder, etc. -- is collecting income that he or she shouldn’t.

To phrase that a different way, the fact that people are willing to pay rents doesn’t justify someone’s ability to collect rents. If you are willing to pay everything you have for a medical drug that costs 5 cents, but it is being priced at a high level due to patent law, your desire to pay doesn’t, by itself, justify the company's profit levels.

But one of the most famous examples of libertarian thought thinks your desire to pay does in fact justify the rents. Let’s look at the Wilt Chamberlain example from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

In this example, we start in a place called D1, where things are generally agreed upon to be just (whatever that definition may be). Then many people decide, voluntarily, to give Wilt Chamberlain their money to watch him play basketball, and he ends up with a lot of it. Can this state D2 be unjust? Nozick:

If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn’t D2 also just? If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn’t this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? Can anyone else complain on grounds of justice?

Wilt Chamberlain’s income is justified on the grounds that people are willing to give him their resources.

Thinking about rents forces us to break exchange into two steps. The first step is the right of someone to give away her resources however she sees fit. This doesn't raise any issues. We want people to have resources precisely because we want them to do what they want with them (“what was it for if not to do something with?”). However, that logic is snuck into doing the work of a second step, which is the right of someone to receive those resources. In the example, the right of someone to give something is doing the entirety of the work. It is presumed that someone giving something away builds in the right for the other to receive it.

But when it comes to rents, there’s no reason to believe this is true. One can turn the intuitive nature of the exercise upside down. Imagine if you are drowning, and Wilt Chamberlain is walking by and asks for $250,000 to throw you a life preserver (an easy act that would only cost $1 of his time). You agreeing to pay him to save your life, which is a sensible action on your part, doesn't presume that him receiving that money must keep the same level of distributional justice. This same issue will extend to a portion of what you will spend buying a cell phone and a plan in a market dominated by a few monopolistic players with extensive legal protections.

So where do we draw the line on rents, and what are the appropriate responses? Is receiving a major inheritance a form of rent? Land? Genetic endowments? Perhaps it is best for long-term growth to keep value with the owner, at least for a period, as many argue for copyright and patent. Maybe, like those following Henry George would argue, taxes are the appropriate response. Or maybe there should be active work to try and ensure fewer rents accrue in the first place. But the key thing to remember is that the answers to these questions won't be answered through abstract ideals of liberty, or pointing to the market itself, but instead can only be answered through democratic accountability.

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I wrote a piece at Wonkblog over the weekend about economic rents and the possibilities and limitations of conservatives and liberals coming together to tackle them. The issue of combating rents is interesting because it pushes against an argument that is taken to be a common sense and intuitive example of libertarian thought: the Wilt Chamberlain example. Looking at that example might help us understand some interesting issues about rent income. (This argument is taken from an excellent paper on the topic by Barbara Fried. If this blog does nothing but create a bigger audience for Fried's work, as well as Robert Hale's, I'll call it a huge win.)

Let’s take your favorite example of rent income. Perhaps it is excessive copyright, criminal sanctions for unlocking your phone, zoning regulations that protect incumbent interests, live-saving drugs that are rationed above a market-clearing price due to patents, utilities that go unregulated, or something else.

What’s the problem with these situations? At least some of the problem is distributional. People who collect income and wealth off of rents are collecting money that they don’t deserve. Nobody would think the problem of economic rents is that people are willing to pay them. In these situations, people are still buying and selling things. Slipping into a classically liberal mindframe, there's still exchange, and we can assume that both parties are better off by definition, otherwise they wouldn’t have made the trade. We don’t locate the problem of rents in the fact that people will pay too much for a phone, or for land, or for something with extensive copyright. And we also don’t think the fact that people are willing to pay a higher price is, by itself, sufficient justification for those rents. The problem is that one person -- the patent holder, the phone company, the land holder, etc. -- is collecting income that he or she shouldn’t.

To phrase that a different way, the fact that people are willing to pay rents doesn’t justify someone’s ability to collect rents. If you are willing to pay everything you have for a medical drug that costs 5 cents, but it is being priced at a high level due to patent law, your desire to pay doesn’t, by itself, justify the company's profit levels.

But one of the most famous examples of libertarian thought thinks your desire to pay does in fact justify the rents. Let’s look at the Wilt Chamberlain example from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

In this example, we start in a place called D1, where things are generally agreed upon to be just (whatever that definition may be). Then many people decide, voluntarily, to give Wilt Chamberlain their money to watch him play basketball, and he ends up with a lot of it. Can this state D2 be unjust? Nozick:

If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn’t D2 also just? If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn’t this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? Can anyone else complain on grounds of justice?

Wilt Chamberlain’s income is justified on the grounds that people are willing to give him their resources.

Thinking about rents forces us to break exchange into two steps. The first step is the right of someone to give away her resources however she sees fit. This doesn't raise any issues. We want people to have resources precisely because we want them to do what they want with them (“what was it for if not to do something with?”). However, that logic is snuck into doing the work of a second step, which is the right of someone to receive those resources. In the example, the right of someone to give something is doing the entirety of the work. It is presumed that someone giving something away builds in the right for the other to receive it.

But when it comes to rents, there’s no reason to believe this is true. One can turn the intuitive nature of the exercise upside down. Imagine if you are drowning, and Wilt Chamberlain is walking by and asks for $250,000 to throw you a life preserver (an easy act that would only cost $1 of his time). You agreeing to pay him to save your life, which is a sensible action on your part, doesn't presume that him receiving that money must keep the same level of distributional justice. This same issue will extend to a portion of what you will spend buying a cell phone and a plan in a market dominated by a few monopolistic players with extensive legal protections.

So where do we draw the line on rents, and what are the appropriate responses? Is receiving a major inheritance a form of rent? Land? Genetic endowments? Perhaps it is best for long-term growth to keep value with the owner, at least for a period, as many argue for copyright and patent. Maybe, like those following Henry George would argue, taxes are the appropriate response. Or maybe there should be active work to try and ensure fewer rents accrue in the first place. But the key thing to remember is that the answers to these questions won't be answered through abstract ideals of liberty, or pointing to the market itself, but instead can only be answered through democratic accountability.

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Won't Somebody Please (Not) Think of the Children? On the Benefits of Pre-K for Parents.

Feb 15, 2013Mike Konczal

I wrote a piece I was pretty happy with in The American Prospect called "The Great Society's Next Frontier." Given that health care had passed and wasn't going to be overturned, the question was what would be the next battles for the liberal project. Rather than showing the exhaustion of the liberal project, I found the recent State of the Union a nice checklist of things that have been done, as well as new areas to take the project next, with some markers for a longer-term agenda.

At the Prospect I noted that a mix of "predistribution" and redistribution to expand opportunities while boosting wages were going to be an important part, and two of the ideas that addressed those issues were present in President Obama's State of the Union address: a higher minimum wage and pre-K. Pre-K is going to be a big topic, and this Boston Review symposium by James Heckman is a great place to read what experts are saying.

There's a big debate starting about how good pre-K would be for the kids involved. Would it make them smarter, more capable adults, less likely to have pathological behaviors later in life and more likely to develop a rich range of capabilities and opportunities? There is also the conversation on what that will mean for the economy as a whole. Will an additional year of schooling make us an economically richer country? Will it be a better investment than the stock market?

But there's a very interested party missing from this conversation, and that is parents themselves, particularly mothers who are working or would like to be. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes, pre-K "would also be hugely important in helping parents of all incomes go to work and know that their children are in good hands."

I'm not sure what research has or has not been done on this topic, but here are some fascinating things. A 2011 report from UC Berkeley's Labor Center on the "Economic Impacts of Early Care and Education in California" highlighted some important points. Having access to a dedicated, high-quality preschool can reduce absenteeism and turnover for working parents. Child care arrangements often break down, usually on short notice, which causes work absences as well as other problems. Headaches over child care issues can reduce productivity.

This is a fascinating experiment, from the Labor Center report:

A study of public employees in New York City who were provided with child care subsidies found that the employees had a 17.8 percent decrease in disciplinary action compared to a control group that did not receive the subsidy. Overwhelmingly, those in the subsidy group reported leaving work less often, concentrating better at work, being more productive at work, and using fewer sick days to deal with child care issues.

Fathers can and do stay home with young children, but women are more likely to do this. And this will impact women's existence in the labor market. The OECD shows that the wage gap is significantly higher for women with children and notes that the United States' public investment in child care (ages 0-5) is 0.4 percent of GDP, compared the average OECD of 0.7 percent. Lack of child care access also impacts whether women start businesses and whether they have career arcs that take full advantage of their talents.
 
This strikes me as a politically volatile point to make, if only because few people make it. Why is that? Patrick Caldwell had a piece recently in The American Prospect about the Right's obsession with an Obama re-election campaign tool called "The Life of Julia." The online infographic showed how government structures and counterbalances the risks and opportunities we face over the course of our lives. The Right, correctly, understands this as a challenge to its vision of the primacy of the (patriarchal) family and the market as having complete dominion over those risks. Using the state to give parents, and especially women, more opportunities to inhabit other roles, either in the market or not, is going to run straight into the Right's worldview.
 
I noticed a bit of this on the Left as well, specifically the parts of the Left that are distrustful of public education. In the debate over "unschooling" (lefty homeschooling, usually as a critique of the conformity of public education), Dana Goldstein pointed out the class bias in this critique. She noted "more than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce. One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to 'self-educate' its kids." Having an additional year of school is a major boon for parents when you understand the stresses they face.
 
But again, I'm outside the policy topics I hang outside my wonk door. What's your take?
 
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I wrote a piece I was pretty happy with in The American Prospect called "The Great Society's Next Frontier." Given that health care had passed and wasn't going to be overturned, the question was what would be the next battles for the liberal project. Rather than showing the exhaustion of the liberal project, I found the recent State of the Union a nice checklist of things that have been done, as well as new areas to take the project next, with some markers for a longer-term agenda.

At the Prospect I noted that a mix of "predistribution" and redistribution to expand opportunities while boosting wages were going to be an important part, and two of the ideas that addressed those issues were present in President Obama's State of the Union address: a higher minimum wage and pre-K. Pre-K is going to be a big topic, and this Boston Review symposium by James Heckman is a great place to read what experts are saying.

There's a big debate starting about how good pre-K would be for the kids involved. Would it make them smarter, more capable adults, less likely to have pathological behaviors later in life and more likely to develop a rich range of capabilities and opportunities? There is also the conversation on what that will mean for the economy as a whole. Will an additional year of schooling make us an economically richer country? Will it be a better investment than the stock market?

But there's a very interested party missing from this conversation, and that is parents themselves, particularly mothers who are working or would like to be. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes, pre-K "would also be hugely important in helping parents of all incomes go to work and know that their children are in good hands."

I'm not sure what research has or has not been done on this topic, but here are some fascinating things. A 2011 report from UC Berkeley's Labor Center on the "Economic Impacts of Early Care and Education in California" highlighted some important points. Having access to a dedicated, high-quality preschool can reduce absenteeism and turnover for working parents. Child care arrangements often break down, usually on short notice, which causes work absences as well as other problems. Headaches over child care issues can reduce productivity.

This is a fascinating experiment, from the Labor Center report:

A study of public employees in New York City who were provided with child care subsidies found that the employees had a 17.8 percent decrease in disciplinary action compared to a control group that did not receive the subsidy. Overwhelmingly, those in the subsidy group reported leaving work less often, concentrating better at work, being more productive at work, and using fewer sick days to deal with child care issues.

Fathers can and do stay home with young children, but women are more likely to do this. And this will impact women's existence in the labor market. The OECD shows that the wage gap is significantly higher for women with children and notes that the United States' public investment in child care (ages 0-5) is 0.4 percent of GDP, compared the average OECD of 0.7 percent. Lack of child care access also impacts whether women start businesses and whether they have career arcs that take full advantage of their talents.
 
This strikes me as a politically volatile point to make, if only because few people make it. Why is that? Patrick Caldwell had a piece recently in The American Prospect about the Right's obsession with an Obama re-election campaign tool called "The Life of Julia." The online infographic showed how government structures and counterbalances the risks and opportunities we face over the course of our lives. The Right, correctly, understands this as a challenge to its vision of the primacy of the (patriarchal) family and the market as having complete dominion over those risks. Using the state to give parents, and especially women, more opportunities to inhabit other roles, either in the market or not, is going to run straight into the Right's worldview.
 
I noticed a bit of this on the Left as well, specifically the parts of the Left that are distrustful of public education. In the debate over "unschooling" (lefty homeschooling, usually as a critique of the conformity of public education), Dana Goldstein pointed out the class bias in this critique. She noted "more than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce. One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to 'self-educate' its kids." Having an additional year of school is a major boon for parents when you understand the stresses they face.
 
But again, I'm outside the policy topics I hang outside my wonk door. What's your take?
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

Mother and child image via Shutterstock.com.

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The Inaugural Address and a Vision of America

Jan 28, 2013Bo Cutter

President Obama's second inaugural had soaring language but fell short of a transformational vision of the future.

President Obama's second inaugural had soaring language but fell short of a transformational vision of the future.

Inaugural addresses are poetry and vision. They are not about governing and programs. Judged this way, President Obama's second inaugural speech was wonderful poetry. The president excels at these big set pieces and he delivers them magnificently. In these moments he is magnetic, and it would take a very crabbed spirit not to acknowledge this. To quote Newt Gingrich, it was a good speech. But the vision of America in the speech is disappointing -- not because it is wrong, but because it isn't sufficiently penetrating and insightful. It is far too incomplete. It does not rise to the quality of his mind or of his poetry.

Some thoughts about the president's speech itself before expanding on my concerns about the president's vision:

The headline instant analysis of the speech all said this was a defiantly progressive statement. Maybe history will see it that way, but I doubt it. This was a very, very conventional restatement of progressive thought and values. It can only be thought of as some sort of signature statement because of how far toward the right debate in Washington shifted after the arrival of the Tea Party.  

I'm not a "progressive" in today's terms, but nevertheless I'd argue that the values the president emphasized have become conventional because they are right. And after a completely unedifying and at times ugly presidential campaign, and then a really dispiriting congressional lame duck session, some of these values needed to be reasserted. We do face problems requiring government and collective action, as the president discussed. The nation is not divided neatly into givers and takers as Governor Romney believes. Equal opportunity for every American ought not to be a question we debate. And even in the middle of a bitter immigration dispute about who are or can become Americans, we have to act decently. We ought to be able to resolve our immigration problem without seemingly taking delight in making good and decent men and women miserable, even if they are here "illegally."

I even found the president's statement of support for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security completely traditional and unexceptional. The statement that "The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us" is hardly a call to the barricades. Who out there expected the president, after winning a second term, to say anything differently? Who put the odds very high above zero that the president would suddenly acknowledge that Paul Ryan was right after all?

And I'm delighted that the president finally returned to climate change -- although it is very, very late. I'll acknowledge a high degree of self-interest here. I chair Resources for the Future, a 65-year-old economic think tank that is one of the world's leading centers of thought on climate, energy, and the environment. I believe there are more and less effective ways to approach climate and environmental issues, but I think the problems are real and have to be addressed. It is depressing that much of the Republican Party -- once again never missing a chance to miss a chance -- has decided, immediately after the president's speech, that the whole climate issue is a ruse, part of a deviously clever plot by the president to expand the regulatory state. I guess I'm glad for the human species that there are climate deniers like Holman Jenkins and George Will who are so awesomely smart that with 1,000 words and a few anecdotes they can disprove a quarter century of climate science. But I don't take a word of any of this as serious commentary. Since we are, right now, trashing the planet, I hope forging a long-term creative approach to this central question is how the president chooses to be transformational.

But this brings me to the incompleteness of the president's vision. America is a great deal more -- and is entering times more challenging -- than today's conventional progressive vision suggests or the president said in his speech. I'd underline three subjects the president left out: change, business and economic growth, and our decentralized society.

To start with, we are facing immense simultaneous changes in our economy, the world economy, technology, the diversity of our population, the nature of work, and our environment. Any vision you choose to have about America has to be put in the context of these changes.

But we are experiencing a very low rate of economic growth, and we cannot cope with these big changes unless our economic growth rate rises. The only way that can really happen is through business and the private sector. We have the most dynamic and innovative private sector in the world. Unless it stays that way, as a nation we won't be able to afford all of that collective action the president wants. However, the president never mentions the private sector and it seems conspicuously excluded from his insistence that we have to work together. To have the only mention of the private sector focus exclusively on rules and regulations just isn't remotely appropriate.

More broadly, we have the richest and most diverse civil society in the world, strong state and local governments, and an ethos that is insistently individualistic and decentralized. These are mostly strengths. Big government and big companies really do have a strong tendency to take all of the air out of the room, to homogenize everything, and to relentlessly oppose innovation and change. It is our decentralization and diversity that makes us a uniquely dynamic nation.

We are a very complicated mosaic and much more of it should be celebrated than the president chose to in his speech. I wish he had put his insistence on the timeless quality of the values he underlined in the context both of the need to retain the dynamism of American society and the American economy and in the context of the immense changes we are facing. How to keep these values fresh in the midst of the changes we have to navigate -- that's a topic made for a second inaugural.

Finally, a brief specific point. The president said, "[W]e reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future." Great. But that's exactly the choice we are making now, and there is no sign we are changing. Our national government is already mostly about defense, transfer payments to the elderly, and the cost of our (growing) debt. On current trends we will spend all of our tax revenues on those three functions in the year 2020. And the president's speech was decidedly lukewarm about resolving the state of our fiscal health. If I were in the generation that "will build America's future," I'd be gratified by the sentiment and all, but I'd worry a lot more about the numbers.

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

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